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ABIMELECH AND JOTHAM
Judges 8:29-35; Judges 9:1-57
THE history we are tracing moves from man to man; the personal influence of the hero is everything while it lasts and confusion follows on his death. Gideon appears as one of the most successful Hebrew judges in maintaining order. While he was there in Ophrah religion and government had a centre "and the country was in quietness forty years." A man far from perfect but capable of mastery held the reins and gave forth judgment with an authority none could challenge. His burial in the family sepulchre in Ophrah is specially recorded, as if it had been a great national tribute to his heroic power and skilful administration.
The funeral over, discord began. A rightful ruler there was not. Among the claimants of power there was no man of power. Gideon left many sons, but not one of them could take his place. The confederation of cities half Hebrew, half Canaanite, with Shechem at their head, of which we have already heard, held in check while Gideon lived, now began to control the politics of the tribes. By using the influence of this league a usurper who had no title whatever to the confidence of the people succeeded in exalting himself.
The old town of Shechem situated in the beautiful valley between Ebal and Gerizim had long been. a centre of Baal worship and of Canaanite intrigue, though nominally one of the cities of refuge and therefore specially sacred. Very likely the mixed population of this important town, jealous of the position gained by the hill village of Ophrah, were ready to receive with favour any proposals that seemed to offer them distinction. And when Abimelech, son of Gideon by a slave woman of their town, went among them with ambitious and crafty suggestions they were easily persuaded to help him. The desire for a king which Gideon had promptly set aside lingered in the minds of the people, and by means of it Abimelech was able to compass his personal ends. First, however, he had to discredit others who stood in his way. There at Ophrah were the sons and grandsons of Gideon, threescore and ten of them according to the tradition, who were supposed to be bent on lording it over the tribes. Was it a thing to be thought of that the land should have seventy kings? Surely one would be better, less of an incubus at least, more likely to do the ruling well. Men of Shechem too would not be governed from Ophrah if they had any spirit. He, Abimelech, was their townsman, their bone and flesh. He confidently looked for their support.
We cannot tell how far there was reason for saying that the family of Gideon were aiming at an aristocracy. They may have had some vague purpose of the kind. The suggestion, at all events, was cunning and had its effect. The people of Shechem had stored considerable treasure in the sanctuary of Baal, and by public vote seventy pieces of silver were paid out of it to Abimelech. The money was at once used by him in hiring a band of men like himself, unscrupulous, ready for any desperate or bloody deed. With these he marched on Ophrah, and surprising his brothers in the house or palace of Jerub-baal speedily put out of his way their dangerous rivalry. With the exception of Jotham, who had observed the band approaching and concealed himself, the whole house of Gideon was dragged to execution. On one stone, perhaps the very rock on which the altar of Baal once stood, the threescore and nine were barbarously slain.
A villainous coup d’etat this. From Gideon overthrowing Baal and proclaiming Jehovah to Abimelech bringing up Baal again with hideous fratricide-it is a wretched turn of things. Gideon had to some extent prepared the way for a man far inferior to himself, as all do who are not utterly faithful to their light and calling; but he never imagined there could be so quick and shocking a revival of barbarism. Yet the ephod dealing, the polygamy, the immorality into which he lapsed were bound to come to fruit. The man who once was a pure Hebrew patriot begat a half-heathen son to undo his own work. As for the Shechemites, they knew quite well to what end they had voted those seventy pieces of silver; and the general opinion seems to have been that the town had its money’s worth, a life for each piece and, to boot, a king reeking with blood and shame. Surely it was a well spent grant. Their confederation, their god had triumphed. They made Abimelech king by the oak of the pillar that was in Shechem.
It is the success of the adventurer we have here, that common event. Abimelech is the Oriental adventurer and uses the methods of another age than ours; yet we have our examples, and if they are less scandalous in some ways, if they are apart from bloodshed and savagery, they are still sufficiently trying to those who cherish the faith of divine justice and providence. How many have to see with amazement the adventurer triumph by means of seventy pieces of silver from the house of Baal or even from a holier treasury. He in a selfish and cruel game seems to have speedy and complete success denied to the best and purest cause. Fighting for his own hand in wicked or contemptuous hardness and arrogant conceit, he finds support, applause, an open way. Being no prophet he has honour in his own town. He knows the art o! the stealthy insinuation, the lying promise and the flattering murmur; he has skill to make the favour of one leading person a step to securing another. When a few important people have been hoodwinked, he too becomes important and "success" is assured.
The Bible, most entirely honest of books, frankly sets before us this adventurer, Abimelech, in the midst of the judges of Israel, as low a specimen of "success" as need be looked for; and we trace the well known means by which such a person is promoted. "His mother’s brethren spake of him in the ears of all the men of Shechem." That there was little to say, that he was a man of no character mattered not the least. The thing was to create an impression so that Abimelech’s scheme might be introduced and forced. So far he could intrigue and then, the first steps gained, he could mount. But there was in him none of the mental power that afterwards marked Jehu, none of the charm that survives with the name of Absalom. It was on jealousy, pride, ambition he played as the most jealous, proud, and ambitious; yet for three years the Hebrews of the league, blinded by the desire to have their nation like others, suffered him to bear the name of king.
And by this sovereignty the Israelites who acknowledged it were doubly and trebly compromised. Not only did they accept a man without a record, they believed in one who was an enemy to his country’s religion, one therefore quite ready to trample upon its liberty. This is really the beginning of a worse oppression than that of Midian or of Jabin. It shows on the part of Hebrews generally as well as those who tamely submitted to Abimelech’s lordship a most abject state of mind. After the bloody work at Ophrah the tribes should have rejected the fratricide with loathing and risen like one man to suppress him. If the Baal worshippers of Shechem would make him king there ought to have been a cause of war against them in which every good man and true should have taken the field. We look in vain for any such opposition to the usurper. Now that he is crowned, Manasseh, Ephraim, and the North regard him complacently. It is the world all over. How can we wonder at this when we know with what acclamations kings scarcely more reputable than he have been greeted in modern times? Crowds gather and shout, fires of welcome blaze; there is joy as if the millennium had come. It is a king crowned, restored, his country’s head, defender of the faith. Vain is the hope, pathetic the joy.
There is no man of spirit to oppose Abimelech in the field. The duped nation must drink its cup of misrule and blood. But one appears of keen wit, apt and trenchant in speech. At least the tribes shall hear what one sound mind thinks of this coronation. Jotham, as we saw, escaped the slaughter at Ophrah. In the rear of the murderer he has crossed the hills and he will now utter his warning, whether men hear or whether they forbear. There is a crowd assembled for worship or deliberation at the oak of the pillar. Suddenly a voice is heard ringing clearly out between hill and hill, and the people looking up recognise Jotham, who from a spur of rock on the side of Gerizim demands their audience. "Hearken unto me," he cries, "ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you." Then in his parable of the olive, the fig tree, the vine, and the bramble, he pronounces judgment and prophecy. The bramble is exalted to be king, but on these terms, that the trees come and put their trust under its shadow; "but if not, then let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon."
It is a piece of satire of the first order, brief, stinging, true. The craving for a king is lashed and then the wonderful choice of a ruler. Jotham speaks as an anarchist, one might say, but with God understood as the centre of law and order. It is a vision of the Theocracy, taking shape from a keen and original mind. He figures men as trees growing independently, dutifully. And do trees need a king? Are they not set in their natural freedom, each to yield fruit as best it can after its kind? Men of Shechem, Hebrews all, if they will only attend to their proper duties and do quiet work as God wills, appear to Jotham to need a king no more than the trees. Under the benign course of nature, sunshine and rain, wind and dew, the trees have all the restraint they need, all the liberty that is good for them. So men under the providence of God, adoring and obeying Him, have the best control, the only needful control, and with it liberty. Are they not fools then to go about seeking a tyrant to rule them, they who should be as cedars of Lebanon, willows by the watercourses, they who are made for simple freedom and spontaneous duty? It is something new in Israel, this keen intellectualising; but the fable, pointed as it is, teaches nothing for the occasion. Jotham is a man full of wit and of intelligence, but he has no practicable scheme of government, nothing definite to oppose to the mistake of the horn’. He is all for the ideal, but the time and the people are unripe for the ideal. We see the same contrast in our own day; both in politics and the church the incisive critic discrediting subordination altogether fails to secure his age.
Men are not trees. They are made to obey and trust. A hero or one who seems a hero is ever welcome, and he who skilfully imitates the roar of the lion may easily have a following, while Jotham, intensely sincere, highly gifted, a true-sighted man, finds none to mind him.
Again the fable is directed against Abimelech. What was this man to whom Shechem had sworn fealty? An olive, a fig tree, fruitful and therefore to be sought after? Was he a vine capable of rising on popular support to useful and honourable service? Not he. It was the bramble they had chosen, the poor grovelling jagged thorn bush that tears the flesh, whose end is to feed the fire of the oven. Who ever heard of a good or heroic deed Abimelech had done? He was simply a contemptible upstart, without moral principle, as ready to wound as to flatter, and they who chose him for king would too soon find their error. Now that he had done something, what was it? There were Israelites among the crowd that shouted in his honour. Had they already forgotten the services of Gideon so completely as to fall down before a wretch red handed from the murder of their hero’s sons? Such a beginning showed the character of the man they trusted, and the same fire which had issued from the bramble at Ophrah would flame out upon themselves. This was but the beginning; soon there would be war to the knife between Abimelech and Shechem.
We find instruction in the parable by regarding the answers put into the mouth of this tree and that, when they are invited to wave to and fro over the others. There are honours which are dearly purchased, high positions which cannot be assumed without renouncing the true end and fruition of life. One, for example, who is quietly and with increasing efficiency doing his part in a sphere to which he is adapted must set aside the gains of long discipline if he is to become a social leader. He can do good where he is. Not so certain is it that he will be able to serve his fellows well in public office. It is one thing to enjoy the deference paid to a leader while the first enthusiasm on his behalf continues, but it is quite another thing to satisfy all the demands made as years go on and new needs arise. When anyone is invited to take a position of authority he is bound to consider carefully his own aptitudes. He needs also to consider those who are to be subjects or constituents and make sure that they are of the kind his rule will fit. The olive looks at the cedar and the terebinth and the palm. Will they admit his sovereignty by and by though now they vote for it? Men are taken with the candidate who makes a good impression by emphasising what will please and suppressing opinions that may provoke dissent. When they know him, how will it be? When criticism begins, will the olive not be despised for its gnarled stem, its crooked branches and dusky foliage?
The fable does not make the refusal of olive and fig tree and vine rest on the comfort they enjoy in the humbler place. That would be a mean and dishonourable reason for refusing to serve. Men who decline public office because they love an easy life find here no countenance. It is for the sake of its fatness, the oil it yields, grateful to God and man in sacrifice and anointing, that the olive tree declines. The fig tree has its sweetness and the vine its grapes to yield. And so men despising self-indulgence and comfort may be justified in putting aside a call to office. The fruit of personal character developed in humble unobtrusive natural life is seen to be better than the more showy clusters forced by public demands. Yet, on the other hand, if one will not leave his books, another his scientific hobbies, a third his fireside, a fourth his manufactory, in order to take his place among the magistrates of a city or the legislators of a land the danger of bramble supremacy is near. Next a wretched Abimelech will appear; and what can be done but set him on high and put the reins in his hand? Unquestionably the claims of church or country deserve most careful weighing, and even if there is a risk that character may lose its tender bloom the sacrifice must be made in obedience to an urgent call. For a time, at least, the need of society at large must rule the loyal life.
The fable of Jotham, in so far as it flings sarcasm at the persons who desire eminence for the sake of it and not for the good they will be able to do, is an example of that wisdom which is as unpopular now as ever it has been in human history, and the moral needs every day to be kept full in view. It is desire for distinction and power, the opportunity of waving to and fro over the trees, the right to use this handle and that to their names that will be found to make many eager, not the distinct wish to accomplish something which the times and the country need. Those who solicit public office are far too often selfish, not self-denying, and even in the church there is much vain ambition. But people will have it so. The crowd follows him who is eager for the suffrages of the crowd and showers flattery and promises as he goes. Men are lifted into places they cannot fill, and after keeping their seats unsteadily for a time they have to disappear into ignominy.
We pass here, however, beyond the meaning Jotham desired to convey, for, as we have seen, he would have justified every one in refusing to reign. And certainly if society could be held together and guided without the exaltation of one over another, by the fidelity of each to his own task and brotherly feeling between man and man, there would be a far better state of things. But while the fable expounds a God-impelled anarchy, the ideal state of mankind, our modern schemes, omitting God, repudiating the least notion of a supernatural fount of life, turn upon themselves in hopeless confusion. When the divine law rules every life we shall not need organised governments; until then entire freedom in the world is but a name for unchaining every lust that degrades and darkens the life of man. Far away, as a hope of the redeemed and Christ-led race, there shines the ideal Theocracy revealed to the greater minds of the Hebrew people, often restated, never realised. But at present men need a visible centre of authority. There must be administrators and executors of law, there must be government and legislation till Christ reigns in every heart. The movement which resulted in Abimelech’s sovereignty was the blundering start in a series of experiments the Hebrew tribes were bound to make, as other nations had to make them. We are still engaged in the search for a right system of social order, and while rearers of God acknowledge the ideal towards which they labour, they must endeavour to secure by personal toil and devotion, by unwearying interest in affairs the most effective form of liberal yet firm government.
Abimelech maintained himself in power for three years, no doubt amid growing dissatisfaction. Then came the outburst which Jotham had predicted. An evil spirit, really present from the first, rose between Abimelech and the men of Shechem. The bramble began to tear themselves, a thing they were not prepared to endure. Once rooted, however, it was not easily got rid of. One who knows the evil arts of betrayal is quick to suspect treachery, the false person knows the ways of the false and how to fight them with their own weapons. A man of high character may be made powerless by the disclosure of some true words he has spoken; but when Shechem would be rid of Abimelech it has to employ brigands and organise robbery. "They set liers in wait for him in the mountains who robbed all that came along that way," the merchants no doubt to whom Abimelech had given a safe conduct. Shechem in fact became the headquarters of a band of highwaymen, whose crimes were condoned or even approved in the hope that one day the despot would be taken and an end put to his misrule.
It may appear strange that our attention is directed to these vulgar incidents, as they may be called, which were taking place in and about Shechem. Why has the historian not chosen to tell us of other regions where some fear of God survived and guided the lives of men, instead of giving in detail the intrigues and treacheries of Abimelech and his rebellious subjects? Would we not much rather hear of the sanctuary and the worship, of the tribe of Judah and its development, of men and women who in the obscurity of private life were maintaining the true faith and serving God in sincerity? The answer must be partly that the contents of the history are determined by the traditions which survived when it was compiled. Doings like these at Shechem keep their place in the memory of men not because they are important but because they impress themselves on popular feeling. This was the beginning of the experiments which finally in Samuel’s time issued in the kingship of Saul, and although Abimelech was, properly speaking, not a Hebrew and certainly was no worshipper of Jehovah, yet the fact that he was king for a time gave importance to everything about him. Hence we have the full account of his rise and fall.
And yet the narrative before us has its value from the religious point of view. It shows the disastrous result of that coalition with idolaters into which the Hebrews about Shechem entered, it illustrates the danger of co-partnery with the worldly on worldly terms. The confederacy of which Shechem was the centre is a type of many in which people who should be guided always by religion bind themselves for business or political ends with those who have no fear of God before their eyes. Constantly it happens in such cases that the interests of the commercial enterprise or of the party are considered before the law of righteousness. The business affair must be made to succeed at all hazards. Christian people as partners of companies are committed to schemes which imply Sabbath work, sharp practices in buying and selling, hollow promises in prospectuses and advertisements, grinding of the faces of the poor, miserable squabbles about wages that should never occur. In politics the like is frequently seen. Things are done against the true instincts of many members of a party; but they, for the sake of the party, must be silent or even take their places on platforms and write in periodicals defending what in their souls and consciences they know to be wrong. The modern Baal-Berith is a tyrannical god, ruins the morals of many a worshipper and destroys the peace of many a circle. Perhaps Christian people will by and by become careful in regard to the schemes they join and the zeal with which they fling themselves into party strife. It is high time they did. Even distinguished and pious leaders are unsafe guides when popular cries have to be gratified; and if the principles of Christianity are set aside by a government every Christian church and every Christian voice should protest, come of parties what may. Or rather, the party of Christ, which is always in the van, ought to have our complete allegiance. Conservatism is sometimes right.
Liberalism is sometimes right. But to bow down to any Baal of the League is a shameful thing for a professed servant of the King of kings.
Against Abimelech the adventurer there arose another of the same stamp, Gaul son of Ebed, that is the Abhorred, son of a slave. In him the men of Shechem put their confidence, such as it was. At the festival of vintage there was a demonstration of a truly barbarous sort. High carousal was held in the temple of Baal. There were loud curses of Abimelech and Gaal made a speech. His argument was that this Abimelech, though his mother belonged to Shechem, was yet also the son of Baal’s adversary, far too much of a Hebrew to govern Canaanites and good servants of Baal. Shechemites should have a true Shechemite to rule them. Would to Baal, he cried, this people were under my hand, then would I remove Abimelech. His speech, no doubt, was received with great applause, and there and then he challenged the absent king.
Zebul, prefect of the city, who was present, heard all this with anger. He was of Abimelech’s party still and immediately informed his chief, who lost no time in marching on Shechem to suppress the revolt. According to a common plan of warfare he divided his troops into four companies and in the early morning these crept towards the city, one by a track across the mountains, another down the valley from the west, the third by way of the Diviners’ Oak, the fourth perhaps marching from the plain of Mamre by way of Jacob’s well. The first engagement drove the Shechemites into their city, and on the following day the place was taken, sacked, and destroyed. Some distance from Shechem, probably up the valley to the west, stood a tower or sanctuary of Baal around which a considerable village had gathered. The people there seeing the fate of the lower town, betook themselves to the tower and shut themselves up within it. But Abimelech ordered his men to provide themselves with branches of trees, which were piled against the door of the temple and set on fire, and all within were smothered or burned to the number of a thousand.
At Thebez, another of the confederate cities, the pretender met his death. In the siege of the tower which stood within the walls of Thebez the horrible expedient of burning was again attempted. Abimelech, directing the operations, had pressed close to the door when a woman cast an upper millstone from the parapet with so true an aim as to break his skull. So ended the first experiment in the direction of monarchy; so also God requited the wickedness of Abimelech.
One turns from these scenes of bloodshed and cruelty with loathing. Yet they show what human nature is, and how human history would shape itself apart from the faith and obedience of God. We are met by obvious warnings; but so often does the evidence of divine judgment seem to fail, so often do the wicked prosper, that it is from another source than observation of the order of things in this world we must obtain the necessary impulse to higher life. It is only as we wait on the guidance and obey the impulses of the Spirit of God that we shall move towards the justice and brotherhood of a better age. And those who have received the light and found the will of the Spirit must not slacken their efforts on behalf of religion. Gideon did good service in his day, yet failing in faithfulness he left the nation scarcely more earnest, his own family scarcely instructed. Let us not think that religion can take care of itself. Heavenly justice and truth are committed to us. The Christ life, generous, pure, holy, must be commended by us if it is to rule the world. The persuasion that mankind is to be saved in and by the earthly survives, and against that most obstinate of all delusions we are to stand in constant resolute protest, counting every needful sacrifice our simple duty, our highest glory. The task of the faithful is no easier today than it was a thousand years ago. Men and women cart be treacherous still with heathen cruelty and falseness; they can be vile still with heathen vileness, though wearing the air of the highest civilisation. If ever the people of God had a work to do in the world they have it now.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Judges 9". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19