Adam Clarke Commentary
Abimelech is made king; and, to secure himself in the kingdom, slays his brethren; Jotham, the youngest only escapes, Judges 9:1-4. Jotham reproves him and the Shechemites by a curious and instructive parable, Judges 9:7-21. Abimelech having reigned three years, the Shechemites, headed by Gaal the son of Ebed, conspire against him, Judges 9:22-29. Zebul, governor of the city, apprises Abimelech of the insurrection, who comes with his forces, and discomfits Gaal, Judges 9:30-40. Abimelech assaults the city, takes, beats it down, and sows it with salt, Judges 9:41-45. Several of the Shechemites take refuge in the temple of Baal-berith; Abimelech sets fire to it, and destroys in it about one thousand men and women, Judges 9:46-50. He afterwards besieges and takes Thebez; but while he is assaulting the citadel, a woman threw a piece of millstone upon his head, and killed him. Thus God requited him and the men of Shechem for their wickedness, and their ingratitude to the family of Gideon, Judges 9:51-57.
Abimelech - went to Shechem - We have already seen that Abimelech was the son of Gideon, by his concubine at Shechem. His going thither immediately after his father‘s death was to induce his townsmen to proclaim him governor in the place of his father. Shechem was the residence of his mother, and of all her relatives.
Whether is better for you, either that all the sons - This was a powerful argument: Whether will you have seventy tyrants or only one? For, as he had no right to the government, and God alone was king at that time in Israel; so he must support his usurped rule by whatever means were most likely to effect it: a usurped government is generally supported by oppression and the sword.
He is our brother - We shall be raised to places of trust under him, and our city will be the capital of the kingdom.
Threescore and ten pieces of silver - Probably shekels; and this was the whole of his exchequer. As he was now usurping the government of God, he begins with a contribution from the idol temple. A work begun under the name and influence of the devil is not likely to end to the glory of God, or to the welfare of man.
Hired vain and light persons - אנשים ריקים ופחזים (anashim reykim uphochazim), worthless and dissolute men; persons who were living on the public, and had nothing to lose. Such was the foundation of his Babel government. By a cunning management of such rascals most revolutions have been brought about.
Slew his brethren - His brothers by the father‘s side, Judges 8:30. This was a usual way of securing an ill-gotten throne; the person who had no right destroying all those that had right, that he might have no competitors.
Yet Jotham - was left - That is, all the seventy were killed except Jotham, if there were not seventy besides Jotham. All the histories of all the nations of the earth are full of cruelties similar to those of Abimelech: cousins, uncles, brothers, husbands, and fathers have been murdered by their cousins, nephews, brothers, wives, and children, in order that they might have the undisturbed possession of an ill-gotten throne. Europe, Asia, and Africa, can witness all this. Even now, some of these horribly obtained governments exist.
And all the house of Millo - If Millo be the name of a place, it is nowhere else mentioned in the sacred writings. But it is probably the name of a person of note and influence in the city of Shechem - the men of Shechem and the family of Millo.
Stood in the top of Mount Gerizim - Gerizim and Ebal were mounts very near to each other; the former lying to the north, the latter to the south, and at the foot of them Shechem. But see some remarks on the extent of the human voice in some hilly countries in the following extract from a late traveler in the East: -
That God may hearken unto you - It appears that Jotham received this message from God, and that he spoke on this occasion by Divine inspiration.
The trees went forth on a time - This is the oldest, and without exception the best fable or apologue in the world. See the observations at the end of this chapter, Judges 9:56 (note). It is not to be supposed that a fable, if well formed, requires much illustration; every part of this, a few expressions excepted, illustrates itself, and tells its own meaning.
To anoint a king - Hence it appears that anointing was usual in the installation of kings, long before there was any king in Israel; for there is much evidence that the book of Judges was written before the days of Saul and David.
The olive tree - The olive was the most useful of all the trees in the field or forest, as the bramble was the meanest and the most worthless.
Wherewith - they honor God and man - I believe the word אלהים (elohim) here should be translated gods, for the parable seems to be accommodated to the idolatrous state of the Shechemites. Thus it was understood by the Vulgate, Arabic, and others. It is true that olive oil was often used in the service of God: the priests were anointed with it; the lamps in the tabernacle lighted with it; almost all the offerings of fine flour, cakes prepared in the pan, etc., had oil mingled with them; therefore Jotham might say that with it they honor God; and as priests, prophets, and kings were anointed, and their office was the most honorable, he might with propriety say, therewith they honor man. But I am persuaded he used the term in the first sense. See on Judges 9:13 (note).
But the fig tree said - Should I forsake my sweetness - The fruit of the fig tree is the sweetest or most luscious of all fruits. A full-ripe fig, in its own climate, has an indescribable sweetness; so much so that it is almost impossible to eat it, till a considerable time after it is gathered from the trees, and has gone through an artificial preparation. This I have often noticed.
Which cheereth God and man - I believe אלהים (elohim) here is to be taken in the same sense proposed on Judges 9:9. Vast libations of wine, as well as much oil, were used in heathenish sacrifices and offerings; and it was their opinion that the gods actually partook of, and were delighted with, both the wine and oil. The pagan mythology furnishes the most exquisite wines to its gods in heaven, and hence the nectar and ambrosia so much talked of and praised by the ancients. It is not reasonable to suppose that Jotham makes any reference here to the sacrifices, oblations, and perfumes offered to the true God. This language the idolatrous Shechemites could scarcely understand. What could the worshippers of Baal-berith know of the worship of the God who gave his law to Moses? And it is not very likely that Jotham himself was well acquainted with the sacred rites of the Mosaic religion, as they had been little preached in his time.
Then said all the trees unto the bramble - The word אטד (atad), which we translate bramble, is supposed to mean the rhamnus, which is the largest of thorns, producing dreadful spikes, similar to darts. See Theodoret on Psalm 58:10. There is much of the moral of this fable contained in the different kinds of trees mentioned.
1.The olive; the most profitable tree to its owner, having few equals either for food or medicine.
2.The fig tree; one of the most fruitful of trees, and yielding one of the most delicious fruits, and superior to all others for sweetness.
4.The bramble or thorn, which, however useful as a hedge, is dangerous to come near; and is here the emblem of an impious, cruel, and oppressive king.
As the olive, fig, and vine, are said in this fable to refuse the royalty, because in consequence, they intimate, they should lose their own privileges, we learn that to be invested with power for the public good can be no privilege to the sovereign. If he discharge the office faithfully, it will plant his pillow with thorns, fill his soul with anxious cares, rob him of rest and quiet, and, in a word, will be to him a source of distress and misery. All this is represented here under the emblem of the trees losing their fatness, their sweetness and good fruits, and their cheering influence. In short, we see from this most sensible fable that the beneficent, benevolent, and highly illuminated mind, is ever averse from the love of power; and that those who do seek it are the thoughtless, the vain, the ambitious, and those who wish for power merely for the purpose of self-gratification; persons who have neither the disposition nor the knowledge to use power for the advantage of the community; and who, while they boast great things, and make great pretensions and promises, are the tyrants of the people, and often through their ambition, like the bramble in the fable kindle a flame of foreign or domestic war, in which their subjects are consumed. The sleepless nights and corroding cares of sovereignty, are most forcibly described by a poet of our own, whose equal in describing the inward workings of the human heart, in all varieties of character and circumstances, has never appeared either in ancient or modern times. Hear what he puts in the mouth of two of his care-worn kings: -
“O hard condition! twin-born with greatness,
“‹Tis not the balm, the scepter, and the ball,
This is precisely the sentiment expressed in the denial of the olive, fig tree, and vine.
Come and put your trust in any shadow - The vain boast of the would-be sovereign; and of the man who is seeking to be put into power by the suffrages of the people. All promise, no performance.
Let fire come out of the bramble - A strong catachresis. The bramble was too low to give shelter to any tree; and so far from being able to consume others, that the smallest fire will reduce it to ashes, and that in the shortest time. Hence the very transitory mirth of fools is said to be like the cracking of thorns under a pot. Abimelech was the bramble; and the cedars of Lebanon, all the nobles and people of Israel. Could they therefore suppose that such a low-born, uneducated, cruel, and murderous man, could be a proper protector, or a humane governor? He who could imbrue his hands in the blood of his brethren in order to get into power, was not likely to stop at any means to retain that power when possessed. If, therefore, they took him for their king, they might rest assured that desolation and blood would mark the whole of his reign. The condensed moral of the whole fable is this: Weak, worthless, and wicked men, will ever be foremost to thrust themselves into power; and, in the end, to bring ruin upon themselves, and on the unhappy people over whom they preside.
Let fire come out from Abimelech - As the thorn or bramble may be the means of kindling other wood, because it may be easily ignited; so shall Abimelech be the cause of kindling a fire of civil discord among you, that shall consume the rulers and great men of your country. A prophetic declaration of what would take place.
Went to Beer - Mr. Maundrell, in his journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem, p. 64, 5th edit., mentions a place of this name, which he thinks to be that to which Jotham fled, and supposed to be the same as Mishmash, 1 Samuel 14:5, 1 Samuel 14:31. It is situated, he says, towards the south, on an easy declivity; and has a fountain of excellent water at the bottom of the hill from which it has taken its name.
God sent an evil spirit - He permitted jealousies to take place which produced factions; and these factions produced insurrections, civil contentions, and slaughter.
The men of Shechem set liers in wait - It pleased God to punish this bad man by the very persons who had contributed to his iniquitous elevation. So God often makes the instruments of men‘s sins the means of their punishment. It is likely that although Abimelech had his chief residence at Shechem, yet he frequently went to Ophrah, the city of his father; his claim to which there was none to oppose, as he had slain all his brethren. It was probably in his passage between those two places that the Shechemites had posted cut-throats, in order to assassinate him; as such men had no moral principle, they robbed and plundered all who came that way.
Gaal the son of Ebed - Of this person we know no more than is here told. He was probably one of the descendants of the Canaanites, who hoped from the state of the public mind, and their disaffection to Abimelech, to cause a revolution, and thus to restore the ancient government as it was under Hamor, the father of Shechem.
Zebul his officer - פקידו (pekido), his overseer; probably governor of Shechem in his absence.
Would to God this people were under my hand - The very words and conduct of a sly, hypocritical demagogue.
Increase thine army, and come out - When he found his party strong, and the public feeling warped to his side, then he appears to have sent a challenge to Abimelech, to come out and fight him.
They fortify the city against thee - Under pretense of repairing the walls and towers, they were actually putting the place in a state of defense, intending to seize on the government as soon as they should find Abimelech coming against them. Fortifying the city may mean seducing the inhabitants from their loyalty to Abimelech.
Stood in the entering of the gate - Having probably got some intimation of the designs of Zebul and Abimelech.
By the plain of Meonenim - Some translate, by the way of the oaks, or oaken groves; others, by the way of the magicians, or regarders of the times, as in our margin. Probably it was a place in which augurs and soothsayers dwelt.
And sowed it with salt - Intending that the destruction of this city should be a perpetual memorial of his achievements. The salt was not designed to render it barren, as some have imagined; for who would think of cultivating a city? but as salt is an emblem of incorruption and perpetuity, it was no doubt designed to perpetuate the memorial of this transaction, and as a token that he wished this desolation to be eternal. This sowing a place with salt was a custom in different nations to express permanent desolation and abhorrence. Sigonius observes that when the city of Milan was taken, in a.d. 1162, the walls were razed, and it was sown with salt. And Brantome informs us that it was ancient custom in France to sow the house of a man with salt, who had been declared a traitor to his king. Charles IX., king of France, the most base and perfidious of human beings, caused the house of the Admiral Coligni (whom he and the Duke of Guise caused to be murdered, with thousands more of Protestants, on the eve of St. Bartholomew, 1572) to be sown with salt! How many houses have been since sown with salt in France by the just judgments of God, in revenge for the massacre of the Protestants on the eve of St. Bartholomew! Yet for all this God‘s wrath is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.
A hold of the house of the god Berith - This must mean the precincts of the temple, as we find there were a thousand men and women together in that place.
A piece of a millstone - פלח רכב (pelach recheb), a piece of a chariot wheel; but the word is used in other places for upper millstones, and is so understood here by the Vulgate, Septuagint, Syriac, and Arabic.
And all to break his skull - A most nonsensical version of ותרץ את גלגלתו (vattarits eth gulgolto), which is literally, And she brake, or fractured, his skull. Plutarch, in his life of Pyrrhus, observes that this king was killed at the siege of Thebes, by a piece of a tile, which a woman threw upon his head.
Draw thy sword, and slay me - It was a disgrace to be killed by a woman; on this account, Seneca the tragedian deplores the death of Hercules: -
Abimelech was also afraid that if he fell thus mortally wounded into the hands of his enemies they might treat him with cruelty and insult.
Thus God rendered, etc. - Both the fratricide Abimelech, and the unprincipled men of Shechem, had the iniquity visited upon them of which they had been guilty. Man‘s judgment may be avoided; but there is no escape from the judgments of God.
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