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TRAGIC TALE OF GIDEON'S SON BY A CONCUBINE
At first glance, it might appear that this pitiful tale of the scoundrel Abimelech is unimportant. However, the events of this chapter came very near to being the end of the nation of Israel. "Shechem, along with a scattering of Israelites, here reverted to the Bronze-age monarchical form of government; it was nearly the end of Israel." If Abimelech had been able to succeed in any extensive sense, all Israel might have renounced their covenant relationship with Jehovah. This reversion to Canaanite Baalism involved the official recognition of Baal as the covenant god.
Three other measures of the importance of this chapter may also be noted:
(1) "Here is revealed the doctrine that wickedness is never allowed to go unpunished."
(2) There is no clearer lesson in the history of mankind exhibiting the consummate wickedness of polygamy and concubinage than is to be found in this extended story of the posterity of Gideon. Hervey stated that, "It was polygamy that produced family discord, destroyed filial affection, resulted in strife, wholesale murder, and produced an ignoble and contemptible herd of helpless princes."
(3) Also, there is a perfect example here of what government by "a king" would inevitably mean for Israel. Yes, David, and a very few others, were exceptions to the rule, but the long, wretched story of the kings of Israel followed perfectly the pattern of that type of government which God allowed His chosen people to see in the atrocious behavior of the scoundrel of Shechem, Abimelech.
ABIMELECH'S RUTHLESS MURDER OF HIS BROTHERS (Judges 9:1-6)
"And Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went unto his mother's brethren, and spake with them, and with all the family of the house of his mother's father, saying, Speak, I pray you, in the ears of all the men of Shechem, Whether is better for you, that all the sons of Jerubbaal, who are threescore and ten persons, rule over you, or that one rule over you? remember also that I am your bone and your flesh. And his mother's brethren spake of him in the ears of all the men of Shechem all these words: and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech; for they said, He is our brother. And they gave him threescore and ten pieces of silver out of the house of Baal-berith, wherewith Abimelech hired vain and light fellows who followed him. And he went unto his father's house at Ophrah, and slew his brethren the sons of Jerubbaal, being threescore and ten persons, upon one stone: but Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, for he hid himself. And all the men of Shechem assembled themselves together, and all the house of Millo, and went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar that was in Shechem."
"Speak ... in the ears of all the men of Shechem" (Judges 9:2-3). The meaning here is that the conspiracy was to be carried on quietly, that is, whispered in the ears of the conspirators.
This place figured prominently in the early history of Israel.
(1) When Abraham came from Haran, it was at the oak of Moreh in the vicinity of Shechem that he erected his first altar (Genesis 12:6f).
(2) It was probably by this oak that Jacob, upon his return from Paddan-aram, compelled his family to bury their false gods (Genesis 35:4).
(3) Jacob here bought a parcel of ground east of the city from the sons of Hamor upon which he pitched his tent and erected an altar which he called "El-Elohe-Israel," "God, the God of Israel." (Genesis 33:18-20).
(4) It was here that Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi brutally and treacherously avenged the date-rape of their sister Dinah (Genesis 34).
(5) Here the bones of Joseph were buried by Joshua on that piece of ground that Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor (Joshua 24:32).
(6) Although the capture of Shechem is not mentioned in Joshua, it was nevertheless possessed by Israel, because it was at those twin mountains of Shechem, Gerizim and Ebal just south of the city (Mount Ephraim was on the north), that Joshua gave his farewell address to Israel. And it was there that the Law was read, and the people were pledged to obey Jehovah (Joshua 8:33).
This chapter relates the crowning of Abimelech, probably at that same oak where Jacob's family had buried the false gods, and the speech of Jotham from that pulpit-like rock projecting from Mount Gerizim, the narrow valley between Ebal and Gerizim forming a natural amphitheater with very remarkable acoustics. It seems strange that in this chapter, the citizens of Shechem seem to be almost totally Canaanite.
The city was located in the territory of the tribe of Ephraim. And upon the division of the kingdom, Jeroboam I rebuilt Shechem, fortified it and made it his capital. It continued as a very important city until the establishment of Samaria as the capital of the Northern Kingdom, after which Shechem declined. Shechem was located on the principal natural roadway between the East and the Mediterranean Sea, and the ruler of Shechem was able to impose taxes or a tariff on the caravans using that route.
Today, "Just southwest of Shechem is a tiny chapel, constructed upon the place where Jacob is said to have mourned over the blood-stained coat of Joseph."
"Abimelech hired vain and light fellows" (Judges 9:4). This terminology was applied to false prophets in Zephaniah 3:4; and, "In German, this is rendered `sprudelkopf,' meaning, `a hot-headed hasty man.'" Those evil men who followed Abimelech were unscrupulous scoundrels willing to do absolutely anything for a piece of silver.
"Silver out of the house of Baal-berith" (Judges 9:4). The principal establishment in Shechem at this time was this stronghold including a tower and temple of Baal-berith, indicating that, "Shechem was a Canaanite city and that the mother and family of Abimelech were Canaanites." What a fatal mistake it had been for Gideon to father a son by a concubine who, under the rules for certain classes of concubines, reared him in a pagan environment with no knowledge whatever of God. In our own times, parents who rear their children without true spiritual and religious education are committing the same disastrous mistake.
"Upon one stone" (Judges 9:5). This means that all of Gideon's sons, except Jotham who escaped, were executed upon that one rock, used as a block. This type of wholesale murder was often practiced in antiquity, as in the cases of the seventy sons of Ahab (2 Kings 10:7), the seed royal of Judah (2 Kings 11:1), the whole house of Jeroboam (1 Kings 15:29), and the whole house of Zimri (1 Kings 16:11,12). Atrocious as such deeds were, they were no more evil than the wholesale murders inflicted upon mankind by the vicious lords of Communism such as Stalin and Castro in this present century, whose murderous "liquidation" of helpless victims reached a total of millions. No less gargantuan wickedness was that of Adolph Hitler in Nazi Germany.
A group of archaeologists sponsored by Harvard University "discovered that the three buildings mentioned in this chapter, namely, `the Tower of Shechem,' `the house of Baal-berith' and the `House of Millo' were one and the same, and that it was the largest temple-fortress in Palestine." Furthermore, the same group established that Shechem was destroyed about 1150 B.C.
"The men of Shechem ... made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar that was in Shechem" (Judges 9:6). By thus engineering his coronation to take place at that famous oak tree which had figured so prominently in previous Israelite history, he contrived, "The defilement of a great covenant sanctuary," thus indicating his contempt for all the sacred traditions of Israel. This so-called "kingdom" of Abimelech, however, was a very limited thing. "It hardly extended beyond western Manasseh. Nowhere in the Bible is it stated that Abimelech "ruled over all Israel."
JOTHAM CURSES THE SHECHEMITES (Judges 9:7-21)
"And when they told it to Jotham, he went and stood on the top of mount Gerizim, and lifted up his voice, and cried, and said unto them, Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you. The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive-tree, Reign over us. But the olive-tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and man, and go to wave to and fro over the trees? And the trees said to the fig-tree, Come thou, and reign over us. But the fig-tree said unto them, Should I leave my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to wave to and fro over the trees? And the trees said unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us. And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my new wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to wave to and fro over the trees? Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us. And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth you anoint me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; and if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon. Now therefore, if ye have dealt truly and uprightly, in that ye have made Abimelech king and if ye have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done unto him according to the deserving of his hands (for my father fought for you, and adventured his life, and delivered you out of the hand of Midian: and ye are risen up against my father's house this day, and have slain his sons, threescore and ten persons, and have made Abimelech, the son of his maid-servant, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother); if ye then have dealt truly and uprightly with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice ye in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you: but if not, let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the men of Shechem, and from the house of Millo, and devour Abimelech. And Jotham ran away, and fled, and went to Beer, and dwelt there, for fear of Abimelech his brother."
(Regarding the setting for this confrontation, see the article on `Shechem.')
"The top of mount Gerizim" (Judges 9:7). This was not the summit, but that pulpit-like projection from Gerizim overlooking the acoustically perfect valley, where, in all probability, some kind of a public festival was being conducted. From such an eminence, Jotham was able to make himself heard by a great multitude.
THE FABLE OF THE TREES
The difference between a fable and a parable is that a parable teaches a lesson by mentioning occurrences that actually happened, or at least, could have happened, whereas, the "dramatis personnae" in a fable are animals, trees, etc. This fable and the brief one in 2 Kings 14:9 are the only two fables in the Old Testament.
There are tremendous lessons in this fable. The general worthlessness of kings appears in this. "This contempt for the monarchy reflects a very early date for Judges. In this fable, the briar, which is good for nothing else, has the leisure to become king, but it cannot provide shelter for the trees, and is more likely to catch fire and involve them all in its ruin."
However, Campbell's opinion differed from this. "Jotham was not condemning the monarchy itself, but was rather pointing out that Abimelech was a worthless person." (Inasmuch as the anointing of a king over Israel was contrary to the will of God and, in fact, was an outright rejection of divine rule, according to 1 Samuel 8:7, this writer favors the opinion of Bruce in New Bible Commentry Revised, as given above.)
"Abimelech, the son of his maid-servant" (Judges 9:18). Armerding interpreted this as a slur upon Abimelech, but Boling was of the opinion that, "The words here do not impute to Abimelech's mother either high or low social status." Nevertheless, there was some difference between a concubine and a slave-girl, and therefore we are inclined to view this reference to Abimelech's mother as derogatory.
"Rejoice ye in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you" (Judges 9:19). Moore noted the irony in this passage, paraphrasing it, "Much happiness may you have in this bramble-king of yours." It is as though he had said, "You treacherous criminals certainly deserve one another"!
Having laid the foundation for the curse which he was about to utter, Jotham announced it in Judges 9:20.
"Let fire come out from Abimelech and devour the men of Shechem; and let fire come out from the men of Shechem and devour Abimelech" (Judges 9:20). This was the curse of Jotham, and it was exactly fulfilled within the space of about three years. See the last verse of this chapter for its fulfillment.
That the tower of Shechem, or Millo House, was destroyed about 1150, (as noted above), drew this comment from Boling: "This means that we are dealing with authentic early tradition." My own view is that we are dealing with early inspired writings, probably by Samuel himself, at a time well ahead of the anointing of Saul, and that such inspired writing is far more authentic than any tradition.
"And Jotham ... went to Beer, and dwelt there" (Judges 9:21). "`Beer' simply means `well'; and there were many places in Israel that could have been indicated by this."
THE TREACHERY OF THE SHECHEMITES (Judges 9:22-25)
"And Abimelech was prince over Israel three years. And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech: that the violence done to the threescore and ten sons of Jerubbaal might come, and that their blood might be laid upon Abimelech their brother, who slew them, and upon the men of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to slay his brethren. And the men of Shechem set liers-in-wait for him on the tops of the mountains, and they robbed all that came along that way by them, and it was told Abimelech."
The pagan priests of Baal who ran Shechem, its tower, and the House of Millo were a coveteous and greedy gang of criminals. This first appears in their paltry donation of seventy pieces of silver to `finance' Abimelech's campaign for the kingship; and here is another outcropping of their inordinate greed in that they instituted a system of highway robbery along the great caravan route that came through Shechem. They also hoped that an opportunity might come for killing Abimelech, as indicated by their `liers-in-wait.'
This could have resulted in Abimelech's transfer of his residence to Arumah (Judges 9:41), from which `capital' he appointed Zebul as his deputy governor of Shechem.
"Abimelech was prince over Israel three years" (Judges 9:22). It is not said here that he was "king," nor that he was over "all Israel." His `kingship' was a very limited affair. This in no way contradicts Judges 8:23; because, as Barnes said, "The Shechemites alone made him king, and the rest of Israel submitted to his dominion, without allowing him the title of king."
"And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem" (Judges 9:23). "All preternatural and inexplicable phenomena in the Sacred Scriptures are ascribed to Yahweh, whether of weal or of woe, yet never in such a way as to exculpate the guilty or to impute moral evil to Yahweh." There is no dualism in the Bible. Satan does not share control of the universe with God. Nothing is capable of happening in the entire universe unless it is in harmony with the permissive will or the direct purpose of Almighty God.
The earthly reason for God's permission for the evil spirit to enter the men of Shechem is here clearly stated to be the achievement of the heavenly vengeance upon the murderer and all of his accomplices in their killing of the sons of Gideon.
"They set liers-in-wait for him" (Judges 9:25). In our comment above, we supposed that these were for the purpose of murdering Abimelech if the opportunity arose, but Boling might be correct in his view that their purpose was to prevent Abimelech's discovery of their campaign of highway robbery of the caravans. "These lookouts were to warn of the approach of Abimelech, but someone turned informer, thanks to that `evil spirit,'"
GAAL STIRS UP REBELLION (Judges 9:26-29)
"And Gaal the son of Ebed came with his brethren and went over to Shechem; and the men of Shechem put their trust in him. And they went out into the field, and gathered their vineyards, and trod the grapes, and held festival, and went into the house of their god, and did eat and drink, and cursed Abimelech. And Gaal the son of Ebed said, Who is Abimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should serve him? is he not the son of Jerubbaal? and Zebul his officer? serve ye the men of Hamor the father of Shechem: but why should we serve him? And would that this people were under my hand! then would I remove Abimelech. And he said to Abimelech, Increase thine army, and come out."
"Gaal the son of Ebed" (Judges 9:26). Nothing is known of this freebooter who suddenly appeared in Shechem. "He was evidently a Canaanite leader of a band of roving relatives."
"And the men of Shechem put their trust in him" (Judges 9:26). This is an amazing reflection upon foolishness of the men of Shechem. What an incredible lapse of ordinary intelligence it was which prompted the lords of Shechem to trust this itinerant marauder whose only purpose was to exploit other people in the interests of himself and his accompanying relatives. Perhaps that `evil spirit' had blinded them for the purpose of their destruction.
"They ... held a festival ... went into the house of their god, and did eat and drink, and cursed Abimelech" (Judges 9:27). Gaal chose that drunken orgy in the House of Baal as the occasion to announce his insurrection. "Such celebrations could easily degenerate into a carousal with excessive drinking, when inhibitions previously effective, would have been replaced by boisterous deeds."
Gaal's appeal to the Shechemites was quite logical. Hamor was a powerful figure in Shechem when Jacob bought that piece of ground from him, but whether or not he was the "father of Shechem," as alleged by Gaal is not known. The rabble-rouser's argument was, "Why should we serve these Jews? They were once inferior to the great founders of our city!"
"Would this people were under my hand, then would I remove Abimelech" (Judges 9:29). The fatal flaw in this insurrection was that Zebal, Abimelech's deputy governor of Shechem, was present and reported the whole affair to Abimelech.
"And he said to Abimelech, Increase thine army, and come out (Judges 9:29). The marginal reading here substitutes "of Abimelech," for "to Abimelech." However, it appears that Gaal's words were actually shouted to Abimelech as if he were present.
ZEBAL INFORMS ABIMELECH OF THE INSURRECTION (Judges 9:30-33)
"And when Zebal the ruler of the city heard the words of Gaal the son of Ebed, his anger was kindled. And he sent messengers unto Abimelech craftily, Behold, Gaal the son of Ebed and his brethren are come to Shechem; and, behold, they constrain the city to take part against thee. Now therefore, up by night, and the people that are with thee, and lie in wait in the field: and it shall be, that in the morning; as soon as the sun is up, thou shalt rise early, and rush upon the city; and, behold, when he and the people that are with him come out against thee, then mayest thou do to them as thou shalt find occasion."
"And he sent messengers craftily" (Judges 9:31). That is, he sent the messengers privately, not allowing anyone to know that he sent them.
Zebal also no doubt realized that the drunken carousal would probably result in Gaal's men being in no good condition to fight early the next morning.
THE DEFEAT OF GAAL AND THE SHECHEMITES (Judges 9:34-40)
"And Abimelech rose up, and all the people that were with him, by night, and they laid wait against Shechem, in four companies. And Gaal the son of Ebel went out, and stood in the entrance of the gate of the city: and Abimelech rose up, and the people that were with him, from the ambushment. And when Gaal saw the people, he said to Zebal, Behold, there come people down from the tops of the mountains. And Zebal said unto him, Thou seest the shadow of the mountains as if they were men. And Gaal spake again and said, See, there come people down by the middle of the land, and one company cometh by the way of the oak of Meonenim, Then said Zebal unto him, Where is now thy mouth, that thou saidst, Who is Abimelech, that we should serve him? Is not this the people that thou hast despised? go out now, I pray, and fight with them. And Gaal went out before the men of Shechem, and fought with Abimelech. And Abimelech chased him, and he fled before him, and there fell many wounded, even unto the entrance of the gate."
"The oak of the Meonenim." "Translate, `The oak of the soothsayers,' a well-known landmark, but not mentioned elsewhere."
There is nothing surprising about what is related here. The drunken celebration of the previous night had left Gaal and his men both mentally and physically unprepared for any kind of effective military activity; and Abimelech and his army easily defeated them. Nothing further is said of Gaal who fled, presumably with all of his relatives; and, as nothing is said of his being captured or killed, we may suppose that he and his company went to some other city, still seeking their personal fortunes like other pirates.
THE FIRE FROM THE BRAMBLE BURNS SHECHEM (Judges 9:41-45)
"And Abimelech dwelt at Arumah: and Zebal drove out Gaal and his brethren that they should not dwell in Shechem. And it came to pass on the morrow, that the people went out into the field; and they told Abimelech. And he took the people, and divided them into three companies, and laid wait in the field; and he looked, and, behold, the people came forth out of the city; and he rose up against them, and smote them. And Abimelech and the companies that were with him, rushed forward, and stood in the entrance of the gate of the city: and the two companies rushed upon all that were in the field, and smote them. And Abimelech fought against the city all that day; and he took the city and slew the people that were therein: and he beat down the city and sowed it with salt."
The mention in Judges 9:41 that Gaal and his brethren were forbidden to live in Shechem is probably an indication that they were not involved in the slaughter of the whole city mentioned in the same paragraph. It appears likely that if Gaal indeed had been killed, that some mention of it would have been found here.
The curse of Jotham that fire would come out of the bramble and burn Shechem surely was fulfilled with this brutal slaughter and destruction of the whole city of Shechem. One wonders about the mother of Abimelech and all of her people. We do not know whether or not they had moved to Arumah where they might have escaped this massacre.
The citizens of Shechem, believing that the insurrection was over, were apparently in their fields for the purpose of tending their crops, and very probably without weapons of any kind. Abimelech's brutal slaughter of those helpless peoples was part and parcel of his brutality toward his half-brothers in Ophrah. The Sacred Scriptures leave no doubt of the diabolical wickedness of this evil offspring of Gideon's concubine. He was one of the most detestable creatures who ever disgraced the earth.
FIRE FROM THE BRAMBLE BURNS THE LORDS OF SHECHEM (Judges 9:46-49)
Scriptural narratives are not always presented in chronological sequence, and it is not clear whether this destruction of the Tower of Shechem, the House of Millo, and the House of Baal-berith (three names for the same stronghold) took place before or after Abimelech sowed the city with salt, but it appears to this writer that the sowing of Shechem with salt would have occurred AFTER the events mentioned in this paragraph.
"And when all the men of the tower of Shechem heard thereof, they entered into the stronghold of El-Berith. And it was told Abimelech that all the men of the tower of Shechem were gathered together. And Abimelech gat him up to mount Zalmon, he and all the people that were with him; and Abimelech took an axe in his hand, and cut down a bough from the trees, and took it up and laid it on his shoulder: and he said unto the people that were with him, What ye have seen me do, make haste, and do as I have done. And all the people likewise cut down every man his bough, and followed Abimelech, and put them to the stronghold, and set the stronghold on fire upon them; so that all the men of the tower of Shechem died also, about a thousand men and women."
"All the men of the tower of Shechem" (Judges 9:46,47,49). These are here distinguished from the ordinary citizens who had perished in the fields. These persons included the priests of Baal, the lords of Shechem, the "de facto" rulers of the city, people who might be called today, "The Establishment." These were they who "financed" Abimelech's efforts to become king, and who also were behind the insurrection led by Gaal. They, far more than the helpless workers in the fields, deserved the awful fate that befell their city.
"The stronghold" (Judges 9:46). "This stronghold appears to have been a vault-like structure beneath the temple of Baal-berith ... It is ironic that the words of Jotham's fable and the threat of fire coming out of the bramble (Abimelech) and devouring the Shechemites should have had such a literal fulfillment as that which is depicted here."
"Mount Zalman" (Judges 9:48). "The exact location of this mount is unknown, but it was probably one of the foothills of Gerizim."
"All ... died, about a thousand men and women" (Judges 9:49). The mention of women here is significant. They were most likely the wives of the lords of Shechem. and the women attending the priests of Baal.
FIRE FROM THE MEN OF SHECHEM DEVOURS ABIMELECH (Judges 9:50-57)
The curse of Jotham had another line, namely, that fire would come out of the House of Millo, and the men of Shechem, and devour Abimelech. This paragraph tells how that happened.
"Then went Abimelech to Thebez, and encamped against Thebez, and took it. But there was a strong tower within the city, and thither fled all the men and women, and all they of the city, and shut themselves in, and gat them to the roof of the tower. And Abimelech came unto the tower, and fought against it, and drew near unto the door of the tower to burn it with fire. And a certain woman cast an upper millstone upon Abimelech's head, and brake his skull. Then he called hastily unto the young man his armor-bearer, and said unto him, Draw thy sword, and kill me, that men say not of me, A woman slew him. And his young man thrust him through, and he died. An when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, they departed every man unto his place. Thus God requited the wickedness of Abimelech, which he did unto his father, in slaying his seventy brethren; and all the wickedness of the men of Shechem did God requite upon their heads: and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal."
"Thebez" (Judges 9:50). "This place was about six miles northeast of Shechem. It had a late Bronze-Age Canaanite stronghold in the area."
"A ... woman cast an upper millstone" (Judges 9:53). Armerding called this: "A massive stone carried to the roof for that purpose." However, he and other commentators who insist that the woman could not have "thrown" so large a stone and therefore must have "dropped it" upon Abimelech, have evidently overlooked the fact that there were two types of millstones: (1) There was the large one, called, "the millstone drawn by an ass" (Matthew 18:6); and (2) there was the "upper stone" held in the hands of the women grinders who milled the corn in those ordinary hand mills like those used by the North American Indians. For years, this writer had one of these in his office, and that "upper millstone" weighed only four or five pounds and might easily have been cast by any strong woman from the top of a tower.
Therefore we must reject the efforts of Boling to "correct" God's Word in this place, insisting that, "This is hyperbole. She must have `dropped it,' and probably had help, as a single individual could hardly manage to throw one (an `upper millstone')."
Campbell had a more accurate understanding of what is said here: "This upper millstone was probably a handstone averaging ten to fourteen inches in length and weighing approximately five pounds."
"Upon their heads ... came the curse of Jotham" (Judges 9:57). Very well, how is it that the woman's casting a stone off the roof of the tower upon Abimelech near the door of the tower in Thebez - how can this be interpreted as, `the fire coming out of Shechem and devouring Abimelech?'? It was the very behavior that Abimelech had exhibited at Shechem where he burned the tower, and which routine he was in the process of repeating at Thebez, that resulted in his own death. Besides that, Thebez was obviously an ally of Shechem and was virtually a part of it, being only six miles away from it. This prophecy of Jotham, uttered in the form of a curse, was most circumstantially fulfilled.
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Judges 9". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany