Chapter 9

JUDGES CHAPTER 9

Abimelech

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “The reign of Abimelech was the turning point between the comparative rest of the early period of the judges (3:7-8:35) and the decline of the later years (10:1-16:31).”

Abimelech Becomes King

        • Abimelech, Jerub-Baal’s son, went to Shechem to speak to his uncles- his mother’s brothers- and said to them and all of his mother’s family, “Ask the leaders of Shechem: ‘Would it be better for you to be ruled by all seventy of Jerub-Baal’s sons, or to be ruled by just one man? Remember that I am your own flesh and blood.’”

          • Guzik writes, “Abimelech was the son of Jerubbaal (another name for Gideon given in Judges 8:35), but he was not the clear successor to his father’s place of leadership. This was for two reasons: God had not established a hereditary monarchy in Israel, and there were sixty-nine other sons of Gideon (Judges 8:30) who might also want to succeed their father.”

        • Abimelech’s relatives gave his message to the leaders of Shechem on his behalf and they were inclined to follow him because, they said, “He is our relative.” So, they gave him seventy pieces of silver from the temple of Baal-berith. Abimelech used the money to hire worthless, reckless men who followed him.

        • Guzik adds, “The relatives of Abimelech on his mother’s side gave him some ‘start-up money’ to establish his leadership. He did this, but in a way that they never imagined – he hired worthless and reckless men to kill all his brothers, making certain there would never be a challenger to his leadership…Abimelech received his pay from the temple dedicated to Baal.”

        • Then he went to his father’s house in Ophrah and they killed his seventy brothers, Jerub-Baal’s sons, on one stone. But Jerub-Baal’s youngest son, Jotham, survived because he hid. Then all the leaders of Shechem and Beth-Millo gathered together under the oak at the pillar in Shechem and made Abimelech king.

        • There appears to be a contradiction in the number of Gideon’s sons listed here and the number in 8:30. 8:30 says Gideon had 70 sons, but 9:5 says that Abimelech (who is Gideon’s son by a concubine) killed his 70 brothers, yet one escaped. So, that would mean Gideon had 72 sons in all. In searching for a resolution, I found that discussion of this issue is very scarce. I suppose that’s not surprising since it is such a tiny issue. In any case, I’ll document the few attempts at reconciliation that I found:

          • HCSB says, “…Here the author used a common literary device of his day, the one-number-more or one-number-less style, or exception clause. This is similar to “everybody had a good time at the party, except so and so” (Nm 26:64-65; 1 Sm 30:17; Pr 30:15, 18). This device emphasizes the completeness of the destruction while recording what, in fact, occurred: all 70 were killed except Jotham, who escaped death.”

          • Matthew Poole’s Commentary designates this as an example of another type of literary device, “Threescore and ten persons; wanting one, who is here expressed; and these synecdochical expressions are frequent in Scripture: see Genesis 35:26 42:13 Numbers 14:32,33Jo 20:24 1 Corinthians 15:5.”

            • Synecdoche is, “literary device in which a part of something represents the whole, or it may use a whole to represent a part.”

          • Another explanation offered by some is that 8:30 refers to the total number of sons Gideon had before Abimelech, and since Jotham is younger than Abimelech, he was not included in this total.

        • ESV Archaeology Study Bible notes, “Beth-millo means ‘house of millo,’ which could perhaps refer to ‘filling,’…such as in a foundation of a city or acropolis. The city of David had an area designated as the Millo. Alternatively, the word could originate from an Egyptian word designating part of the king’s court. Either meaning describes a place within Shechem possibly part of an administrative center or district.”

        • Guzik cites Cundall on this point, “The word millo derives from a verb meaning ‘to be filled’, and originally referred to a rampart or earthwork; but its association with fortifications may have developed into a reference to fortresses generally. Thus Beth-millo may be identical with the tower of Shechem.”

Jotham’s Parable

        • When Jotham heard about this he climbed to the top of Mount Gerizim and shouted to them, “Listen to me leaders of Shechem, so that God may listen to you:

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible reminds us, “Mount Gerizim was the mountain of blessing opposite Mount Ebal, the mountain of cursing (Deut 11:29). Gerizim, situated immediately south of Shechem, was a natural stage for Jotham’s speech and also allowed him to escape when he was finished…”

          • One day the trees went out to anoint a king over themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ But the olive tree said, ‘Should I stop producing my oil that honors both gods and men, and go wave back and forth over the trees?”

Palestinian Olive Tree
        • There is a little variation in the renderings of verse 9 on two counts: (1) God or gods; and (2) rule, hold sway, sway, or to be promoted, etc over the trees. The following commentaries offer discussion:

          • On the first count:

            • Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers gives the alternative rendering followed by the explanation of the rendering I opted for, “Wherewith by me they honour God and man.—The words may also mean, which gods and men honour in me…and so some MSS. of the LXX.). In either case the mention of gods or God (Elohim) refers to the use of oil in sacrifices, offerings, consecrations…”

            • Benson Commentary on how oil honors man, “…and man — For oil was used in constituting kings, and priests, and prophets, and for a present to great men, and to anoint the head and face…”

          • On the second count:

          • Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, “…but the verb in the original is much finer and more picturesque, for it expresses the utter scorn of the olive for the proffered honour. The margin renders it, go up and down for other trees, but it means rather ‘float about’ (LXX., kineisthai; Vulg., agitari)…”

            • Benson Commentary, “Hebrew… lanuang, to shake and move hither and thither, to wander to and fro, to exchange my sweet tranquillity and peace for incessant cares and travels. To undertake ‘the government of others,’ says Henry, ‘involves a man in a great deal of both toil and care. He that is promoted over the trees must go up and down for them, and make himself a perfect drudge to business. Those that are preferred to places of public trust and power, must resolve to forego all their private interests and advantages, and sacrifice them to the good of the community.’”

          • Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You reign over us.” But the fig tree said, ‘Should I stop producing my good, sweet fruit to go wave back and forth over the trees?’”

Fig
        • Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come reign over us.’ But the vine said, ‘Should I stop producing my wine that cheers both gods and men to go wave back and forth over the trees?’”

Grapevine
        • Finally, the trees said to the thornbush, ‘You come reign over us.’ The thornbush said, ‘If you are anointing me king over you in good faith, then come and take shelter in my shade. But, if not, may fire come out from me and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’”

          • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible has this to say about Jotham’s parable, “Judges 9:8-15 contains one of the finest examples of fables from the ancient world. By definition, a fable typically involves a short narrative in poetry or prose that teaches a moral lesson and involves creatures, plants, and/or inanimate objects speaking or behaving like human characters. The best-known examples of ancient fables are found in the Greek collection associated with Aesop, but the ancient Semitic world has also produced several examples. The text bearing the closest resemblance to Jotham’s fable is an ancient Babyonian text called ‘The Dispute Between the Tamarisk and the Date Palm,’ in which these two trees debate who is greater.”

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “Olives, figs, and grapes were fundamental to the agriculture of Canaan, yielding important produce and adding to the beauty of the landscape…The trees, preferring an evil king to none at all (cp 1 Sam 8:18-19), called on the thornbush, who, though neither useful or pleasing to the eye, accepted the job. The person who had agreed to be king did not have more profitable work to do.”

        • Have you acted in good faith and in sincerity when you made Abimelech your king? Have you done right by Jerub-Baal and his family, treating them as his accomplishments deserved? My father risked his life fighting for you and rescued you from Midian. Now, you have risen up against my father’s family and killed his seventy sons on one stone. You have chosen Abimelech, his son by his slave, as king over the leaders of Shechem, because he is your relative. If you have acted in good faith and sincerity with Jerub-Baal and his family today, then may you rejoice in Abimelech and may he rejoice in you also. But, if you have not, may a fire come out from Abimelech and devour the leaders of Shechem and Beth-Millo; and may fire come out from the leaders of Shechem and Beth-Millo and devour Abimelech.

          • On Abimelech’s mother, Guzik cites Wolf, “Abimelech’s mother is called a ‘slave girl’, a term usually referring to a wife’s servant who is also a concubine, such as Hagar or Bilhah.”

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible says, “The people of Shechem had chosen to follow an unworthy man; they had also acted in bad faith by conspiring with Abimelech against Gideon’s family…The Shechemites were invited to decide whether their actions merited blessing or cursing. The implication was that they had acted in bad faith, so they and Abimelech would destroy each other. The Lord is a devouring fire (Heb 12:29), and those who act unfaithfully prove his justice.”

        • Then Jotham ran away, escaping to live in Beer because of his brother, Abimelech.

The Downfall of Abimelech

        • After Abimelech had ruled over Israel for 3 years, God sent an evil spirit between him and the leaders of Shechem. The leaders acted treacherously with Abimelech so that the violence he had done to his brothers, Jerub-Baal’s seventy sons, would be avenged on him- the one who killed them- and on the leaders of Shechem, who had helped him.

          • Some people find the idea that God would send an evil spirit to do something to be troubling. Apparently, some Bible translating teams do as well since some opt to render “God sent an evil spirit” (the majority of translations) as “God stirred up animosity” (NIV) instead.

            • The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible gives this explanation for the alternative reading, “The NIV’s translation carries a strong sense of God’s activity here. Other translations such as the KJV render this as God sending an ‘evil spirit’ in this situation. To understand the meaning of this phrase, two considerations must be borne in mind. First, the Hebrew word, translated ‘evil’ (KJV), can refer to either moral malignancy or experiential misfortune, analogous to English ‘ill,’ as in ‘ill will’ (NKJV), ‘ill repute,’ ‘ill feelings toward someone.’ In this and other similar contexts, the word is not to be interpreted in a moral sense, but in the profane sense of ‘bad, unfavorable’ as opposed to ‘good, favorable.’…”

            • HCSB commentary agrees with the NIV commentators saying, “…God indeed oversees the actions of all beings and can control the activities of evil spirits (ie fallen angels). But in this instance He caused a hostile attitude to develop between Abimelech and the men of Shechem so they would turn against each other.”

          • Personally, I see an issue with the NIV/HCSB line of thinking for these reasons:

          • This word study reveals that the same word used for “evil spirit” here is used in the following passages: 1 Samuel 16:14-16, 23; 18:10; 19:9; Acts 19:15-16. The scenario in Samuel is the instance of God sending Saul an evil spirit. The instance in Acts is particularly relevant because this evil spirit actually speaks to Jesus.

            • I also believe Job 2:1-6 is relevant, in which God literally gives Satan permission to do what he will with Job and all connected to him with only one exception- Satan may not kill Job.

          • I understand that this is uncomfortable because it has the potential to alter an individual’s understanding of what actions align with God’s good and compassionate nature. So, clearly, it’s a touchy subject. Some would say God sending an evil spirit is incompatible with His nature. I believe we have to consider the witness of all Scripture in answering that question and alter our perception accordingly. In light of this, I find the following discussion included in the Apologetics Press article, “Did God Send an Evil Spirit Upon Saul,” to be interesting as well as applicable to our passage in Judges even though the context is Saul rather than Abimelech:

            • A…clarification regarding the sending of an evil spirit upon Saul is the question of, in what sense the spirit was ‘from the Lord.’ To be honest and fair, the biblical interpreter must be willing to allow the peculiar linguistic features of ancient languages to be clarified and understood in accordance with the way those languages functioned. Specifically, ancient Hebrew (like most all other languages, then and now) was literally loaded with figurative language—i.e., figures of speech, Semitisms, colloquialisms, and idioms. It frequently was the case that ‘[a]ctive verbs were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do’ (Bullinger, 1898, p. 823, emp. in orig.; cf. MacKnight, 1954, p. 29). Similarly, the figure of speech known as ‘metonymy of the subject’ occurs ‘[w]here the action is put for the declaration concerning it: or where what is said to be done is put for what is declared, or permitted, or foretold as to be done: or where an action, said to be done, is put for the giving occasion for such action’ (Bullinger, p. 570, italics in orig., emp. added). Hence, when the Bible says that the ‘distressing spirit’ that troubled Saul was ‘from the Lord,’ the writer was using an idiom to indicate that the Lord allowed or permitted the distressing spirit to come upon Saul. George Williams commented: ‘What God permits He is stated in the Bible to perform’ (1960, p. 127).”

            • …God did not directly send upon Saul an evil spirit; rather He allowed it to happen in view of Saul’s own propensity for stubborn disobedience. Gleason Archer commented on this point: ‘By these successive acts of rebellion against the will and law of God, King Saul left himself wide open to satanic influence—just as Judas Iscariot did after he had determined to betray the Lord Jesus’ (1982, p. 179). One need not necessarily suppose that this demonic influence overwhelmed Saul’s free will. Satan can have power over us only insofar as we encourage or invite him to do so—’for what God fills not, the devil will’ (Clarke, n.d., 2:259).”

        • The leaders of Shechem stationed men on mountaintops to ambush Abimelech, and they robbed everyone who passed that way. This was reported to Abimelech.

        • Ebed’s son, Gaal, and his relatives moved into Shechem and gained the leaders’ confidence. At harvest time, they went out into their vineyards and gathered grapes, trod them, and held a festival in the temple of their god. As they ate and drank, they cursed Abimelech. Ebed’s son Gaal said, “Who is Abimelech and why should we of Shechem serve him? Isn’t he Jerub-Baal’s son, and isn’t Zebul his chief officer? Serve the family of Hamor, the father of Shechem. Why should we serve Abimelech? If I were in authority, I would remove Abimelech. I would say to him: Gather your army and come out!”

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “Gaal focused on Abimelech’s pedigree through his father, Gideon (a non-Shechemite) rather than through his mother…Gaal’s pedigree apparently went back to Hamor, the founder of Shechem (Gen 33:18-34:31).”

        • When Zebul, the leader of the city, heard what Gaal had said he was angry. He secretly sent messengers to Abimelech saying, “Look, Ebed’s son Gaal and his relatives have come to Shechem and they’re stirring the city up against you. So, tonight, you and your army set up an ambush in the field. In the morning, at sunrise, attack the city. When Gaal and his men come out against you, do whatever you can to them.”

          • Guzik says, “Zebul, the ‘city manager’ on behalf of Abimelech, told Abimelech all about Gaal and this rebellion. Zebul advised Abimelech to come and attack the city.”

        • So Abimelech divided the men he had with him into four groups and they set up an ambush against Shechem at night. When Gaal went out to stand at the city gate, Abimelech and his men got up from ambush. When Gaal saw them, he told Zebul, “Look, there are people coming down from the mountaintops!” Zebul replied, “You’re mistaking the shadows of the mountains for men.” But Gaal said, “Look, people are coming down from the center of the land, and another group is coming from the direction of the Diviner’s Oak.” Then Zebul said, “Where is your mouth now? Didn’t you say, ‘Who is Abimelech and why should we serve him?’ Aren’t these the people you ridiculed? Go out and fight them!”

        • So, Gaal led the leaders of Shechem to fight against Abimelech. But, Abimelech chased him and Gaal fled. Many were wounded and fell, all the way to the city gate. Abimelech stayed in Arumah, and Zebul drove Gaal and his relatives out of Shechem.

        • The next day, it was reported to Abimelech that the people of Shechem went out into the field. Abimelech divided his men up into three groups and set up an ambush in the fields. When he saw the people coming out of the city, he rose up against them and killed them. Abimelech and the group that was with him rushed forward and took their stand at the city gate. The other two groups of men rushed against all those who were in the field and killed them. Abimelech fought against the city all day. He captured it, killed everyone in it, tore it down, and scattered salt over it.

        • When the leaders of the Tower Shechem heard about this, they went into the inner chamber of the temple of El-Berith. This was reported to Abimelech and he and all those who were with him went up to Mount Zalmon.

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible adds, “Mount Zalmon is probably another name for Mount Ebal, the mountain opposite Gerizim and next to Shechem.”

        • Abimelech cut down a bundle of brushwood with his ax, put it on his shoulder, and told those that were with him to hurry and do the same. Each person cut his own bundle of brushwood and followed Abimelech. They placed them against the inner chamber and set them on fire so that all the people in the Tower of Shechem died- about 1,000 men and women.

          • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes possible archaeological confirmation of this event, “Excavations at Shechem may have yielded the foundations of what was probably the temple fortress referred to here. This two story structure was huge by Canaanite standards, measuring 70 feet wide and 86 feet long, easily large enough for 1,000 people to huddle inside. It is evident from the ruins that the temple was destroyed by a massive fire.”

        • Then Abimelech went to Thebez, camped against it, and captured it. There was a strong tower inside the city and all the men, women, and leaders of the city ran to it. They shut themselves in and went up to the roof of the tower. Abimelech came to the tower to attack it, but as he approached the entrance to set it on fire, a certain woman threw the upper portion of a millstone on his head and crushed his skull.

          • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible adds, “It is doubtful this refers to the large upper millstone of a rotary quern at the mill, which came into general use in the Iron Age. Rather, we should imagine the smaller round muller used to grind grain spread out on a larger slightly concaved bottom stone. It would have been basalt and weighed four or five pounds.”

        • Abimelech quickly called to the young man who was his armor bearer and said, “Draw your sword and kill me so that they won’t say, ‘A woman killed him.’” So, his armor-bearer thrust his sword through him and he died. When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead, they all went home.

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “To die at the hands of a woman or a child was shameful.”

        • In this way, God returned the evil that Abimelech had committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers, back to him. God also returned the evil of the men of Shechem back to them so that Jotham’s curse came upon them.

          • Guzik ends his commentary on this chapter with the following, “We can be certain that God will repay wickedness, either in this life or the life to come. Often God finds a way to do it both in this life and the life to come…God had warned the men of Shechem through Jotham. Yet they rejected the warning of God, and therefore came to ruin…We should each consider if God is warning us about something in the present time. The story of Abimelech, the men of Shechem, and Jotham shows us that there is a real and terrible price to pay for rejecting God’s warnings.”