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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Judges 9

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 9. Abimelech.

Abimelech Becomes Sole Prince of The Gideon Tribes - His Rise and Fall.

This chapter contains an account of the craft and cruelty of Abimelech, by which he had himself made a prince of Israel and king of the Shechemites; of the parable of Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon, concerning the trees, in which he exposes their folly in making Abimelech king, and foretells the ruin of them both; of the contentions which arose between Abimelech, and the men of Shechem, which were increased by Gaal the son of Ebed, who was drawn into a battle with Abimelech, and defeated and forced to flee. But the quarrel between Abimelech and the men of Shechem still continued, which resulted in the entire ruin of the city and its inhabitants, and in the death of Abimelech himself, in accordance with Jotham's curse.

Shechem was an ancient city situated in the hill country of Ephraim. It was mentioned in the 19th century BC Egyptian execration texts, and excavations show it to have been strongly fortified, covering fourteen acres. It was very prosperous in the Hyksos period (1700-1550 BC) during which a massive fortress-temple was built. This may well have been ‘the house of Baal-berith’. In the Amarna letters (including correspondence between the Pharaohs and their vassals in Canaan in the 15th century BC) its king Labayu is said by an enemy (Abdi Heba) to have given Shechem to the Habiru (‘Should we do as Lab'aya, who gave Shechem to the enemy (Habiru)?’)? Labayu and his sons were spasmodically rebel leaders against Egypt with influence as far as Gezer and Taanach and they even threatened Megiddo, who wanted a hundred troops to assist in defending against them (‘ Let the king give a hundred garrison men to protect the city. Truly Lab'aya has no other intention. To take Megiddo is that which he seeks!’). Thus Shechem contained a non-Canaaanite section of population at this time. Later there is evidence of specific Israelite occupation, from 11th century BC.

There is no record of Joshua ever having had to take the city and yet it was there that he held a ceremony for the renewing of the covenant (Joshua 8; Joshua 24). It may well be that, when ‘Simeon and Levi’ destroyed the inhabitants of the city in Genesis 34, some from their households were allowed to settle there as a reward for assisting in the attack, and in order to look after Jacob’s land rights (Genesis 33:19; Genesis 37:12 compare Joshua 24:32), marrying the bereaved women to obtain their land rights and introducing the worship of Yahweh. They may well have been seen elsewhere as ‘Habiru’. This was possibly when the idea of Baal-berith, ‘the lord of the covenant’, originated as genuine worship of Yahweh, or there may have been a gradual compromise and amalgamating of ideas. Habiru (stateless, non-Canaanite peoples) appear to have been settled there in the time of Labayu (see above). Thus when Joshua arrived and was welcomed and found non-Canaanites willing to submit to the covenant he was probably satisfied to incorporate them into the covenant rather than treating them as Canaanites (consider Joshua 24:23).


Verse 1

Chapter 9. Abimelech.

Abimelech Becomes Sole Prince of The Gideon Tribes - His Rise and Fall.

This chapter contains an account of the craft and cruelty of Abimelech, by which he had himself made a prince of Israel and king of the Shechemites; of the parable of Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon, concerning the trees, in which he exposes their folly in making Abimelech king, and foretells the ruin of them both; of the contentions which arose between Abimelech, and the men of Shechem, which were increased by Gaal the son of Ebed, who was drawn into a battle with Abimelech, and defeated and forced to flee. But the quarrel between Abimelech and the men of Shechem still continued, which resulted in the entire ruin of the city and its inhabitants, and in the death of Abimelech himself, in accordance with Jotham's curse.

Shechem was an ancient city situated in the hill country of Ephraim. It was mentioned in the 19th century BC Egyptian execration texts, and excavations show it to have been strongly fortified, covering fourteen acres. It was very prosperous in the Hyksos period (1700-1550 BC) during which a massive fortress-temple was built. This may well have been ‘the house of Baal-berith’. In the Amarna letters (including correspondence between the Pharaohs and their vassals in Canaan in the 15th century BC) its king Labayu is said by an enemy (Abdi Heba) to have given Shechem to the Habiru (‘Should we do as Lab'aya, who gave Shechem to the enemy (Habiru)?’)? Labayu and his sons were spasmodically rebel leaders against Egypt with influence as far as Gezer and Taanach and they even threatened Megiddo, who wanted a hundred troops to assist in defending against them (‘ Let the king give a hundred garrison men to protect the city. Truly Lab'aya has no other intention. To take Megiddo is that which he seeks!’). Thus Shechem contained a non-Canaaanite section of population at this time. Later there is evidence of specific Israelite occupation, from 11th century BC.

There is no record of Joshua ever having had to take the city and yet it was there that he held a ceremony for the renewing of the covenant (Joshua 8; Joshua 24). It may well be that, when ‘Simeon and Levi’ destroyed the inhabitants of the city in Genesis 34, some from their households were allowed to settle there as a reward for assisting in the attack, and in order to look after Jacob’s land rights (Genesis 33:19; Genesis 37:12 compare Joshua 24:32), marrying the bereaved women to obtain their land rights and introducing the worship of Yahweh. They may well have been seen elsewhere as ‘Habiru’. This was possibly when the idea of Baal-berith, ‘the lord of the covenant’, originated as genuine worship of Yahweh, or there may have been a gradual compromise and amalgamating of ideas. Habiru (stateless, non-Canaanite peoples) appear to have been settled there in the time of Labayu (see above). Thus when Joshua arrived and was welcomed and found non-Canaanites willing to submit to the covenant he was probably satisfied to incorporate them into the covenant rather than treating them as Canaanites (consider Joshua 24:23).

Abimelech Usurps The Princeship of Israel and the Throne of Shechem (Judges 9:1-6).

Judges 9:1

And Abimelech, the son of Jerubbaal, went to Shechem, to his mother's brothers, and spoke with them, and with all the family of the house of his mother's father.’

One problem with kingship was that on the death of the king there was usually unrest while the claimants to the throne settled their differences. The fact that this happened here supports the idea that Gideon had been made the equivalent of a ‘king’. Abimelech certainly saw it that way. It would appear that Abimelech had been brought up with his brothers. But he was always aware of his inferior status and when his father died he seized his opportunity. He went to Shechem to seek the assistance of his mother’s side of the family to gain the throne for himself.


Verse 2

Saying, “Speak, I pray you, in the ears of all the chief men (‘lords’) of Shechem, and consider which is best for you, that all the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy persons, reign over you, or that one reign over you? Remember also that I am your bone and flesh.” ’

He suggested to his grandfather, together with his wider family, that they discuss with all the leading men of Shechem what the position was, and use their influence on his behalf to their mutual benefit.

His reference to seventy persons ruling was not so much to suggest plural rule as to indicate the problems that could arise for all as these sons sought to establish themselves in positions of authority. Surely it would be better if they were all got rid of leaving only one ruler to rule. And then he reminded them that it would be to their benefit, for he was their blood relation.

So had begun the battle to replace the dead ‘king’. The main reason for giving this story in such detail, one which is so in contrast to the remainder in the book, must surely be as a warning against kingship.


Verse 3

And his mother's brothers spoke of him in the ears of the chief men of Shechem all these words, and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, he is our brother.’

His uncles pressed his claims on the leading men of Shechem and they were persuaded that the idea that Abimelech receive the kingship was a good one. As king-makers they could look for many benefits in the future. But had they not recognised the potential right to ‘princeship’ of Gideon’s sons, and the probability that the rest of the people would accept his claim, they would simply have rejected him as deluded. His kingship of Shechem rested on his right to princeship of Israel.


Verse 4

And they gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the house of Baalberith, with which Abimelech hired vain and light persons who followed him.’

The house of Baal-berith may well be the Temple fortress of which the remains have been discovered. This would have a treasure house of gifts given to the Temple and to the god. The ‘seventy’ pieces of silver probably denote a divinely perfect amount (seven intensified), to deal with the seventy sons. Thus he hired ruffians for his purpose. These may well have been Habiru mercenaries.

It is nowhere suggested that the people of Shechem were Canaanites, although like all in the land they were mixed up with Canaanite religion. They appear to have been a mixed population including many ex-Habiru. While they may genuinely have intended to equate Baal-berith with Yahweh and be faithful to His covenant, it was asking too much of them when even true Israelites engaged in such syncretism.


Verse 5

And he went to his father's house at Ophrah, and slew his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, being seventy persons, on one stone. But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, was left. For he hid himself ’

Abimelech and his band presumably came on the brothers by surprise and took them captive, then they took them to a large stone and used it as an execution block. It may have been an official execution site. This may have been done officially on some pretext of treason, while the men of the town were in the fields, arriving back too late to protest.

Or it may even have been done as a human sacrifice to Melech, supposedly on behalf of his dead father (compare for such a stone for killing, 1 Samuel 14:33). After all his name was Abi-melech (Melech is my father). But normally such sacrifices would ‘pass through the fire’, and there is no mention of fire here.

Similar activities to ensure accession by sons of dead kings were elsewhere an expected part of life, which would partly explain why there was so little furore. It was seen as an internal royal matter, and who was to argue with a son of the king with a strong band of mercenaries? All this is the more easily explicable if Gideon had officially been seen as their prince.

“But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, was left. For he hid himself.” One, however, of the sons survived, seeing what was happening and managing to hide.


Verse 6

‘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.’

The rivals now being satisfactorily removed, the instigators of the activity, the chief men of Shechem, assembled for a coronation at a sacred place.

“All the house of Millo”. Beth-millo means ‘the filled-up place’ (compare a similar place in Jerusalem - 2 Samuel 5:9; 1 Kings 11:27; 2 Kings 12:20). This was probably the fortified tower and temple (verse 46), built on top of a previously levelled building or a filled in indentation. Thus the priests of Baal-berith were involved in the ceremony (Judges 8:33). They made Abimelech ‘king’ in their own fashion, but note that even here, as regards the section of Israel over whom he ruled he was ‘made prince’ (Judges 9:22). What the Shechemites saw as a king Israel saw as a prince.

“By the oak of the pillar that was in Shechem.” Compare Joshua 24:26-27. This was the place where they had originally entered into the tribal covenant. They did not want this to be seen as an attempt to break from the covenant but as in their own way a confirmation of it. Ironically this ‘standing stone’ was originally intended to be the witness to them lest they denied Yahweh (Joshua 24:27 with Joshua 24:24) which was precisely what they were doing, although they may not have thought so.

It should be noted that Abimelech is not rated as a judge and that throughout the whole narrative Yahweh is not mentioned. The few references, and they are sparse, are to ‘God’. It is the disastrous tale of failed kingship, displeasing to God, a warning of what kingship involves.

There is a great indirect stress on Baalism in this section, although no direct reference to the worship of Baal (however see Judges 8:33 - but the people may well have seen themselves as worshipping Yahweh under the name of Baal-berith. God saw them as worshipping Baal). For example, the chief men are called ‘baals’, those from the ‘the house of Millo’, the Baal-berith temple, are involved in the coronation, Gideon is only referred to as ‘Jerubbaal’, the sons are probably seen as offered as human sacrifices, bought as it were, with money from the house of Baal-berith.

But the coronation actually took place at a site seen as sacred to Yahweh. The whole incident brings out the dangers of syncretism, begun when Gideon made the ephod, and continued by his behaving like a king with multiple marriages. It was a tragedy waiting to happen.


Verse 7

The Curse of Jotham (Judges 9:7-21).

Judges 9:7

And when they told it to Jotham, he went and stood in the top of Mount Gerizim, and he lifted up his voice, and cried and said to them, “Listen to me, you men of Shechem, that God may listen to you.” ’

Once Jotham heard of the coronation he went to Shechem to utter a curse on Abimelech and on Shechem (Judges 9:57). He climbed on to a spur on Mount Gerizim from where he could be observed in the city, and pronounced his curse.

“Listen to me -- that God may listen to you.” By this he indicated that his words were intended as a warning to them. If they listened and responded perhaps God would then listen to their prayers once again. But if they would not listen then God would listen in another way, He would observe their words and actions (compare Numbers 12:2; Deuteronomy 1:34). Mount Gerizim was previously the mountain from which blessings were to be pronounced. Thus Jotham reversed the process. From it he pronounced a curse. They had forfeited their blessings by their actions. (Deuteronomy 11:29; Deuteronomy 27:12; Joshua 8:33-34)


Verse 8-9

“The trees went forth at one time to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘You reign over us.’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Should I leave my fatness, with which by me they honour God and man, and go to wave to and fro over the trees?’ ”

These words were a direct mockery of kingship. They revealed it to be a useless exercise taking men away from more important things. The efforts of the olive were far better spent in producing oil than waving uselessly over the trees. Its oil honoured both God and men. By it the light continually shone in the Tabernacle honouring God (Exodus 27:20; Leviticus 24:2). By it priests were anointed to the service of God honouring men (Exodus 30:24-25; Exodus 30:30-31). Why then should it leave this important duty simply in order to wave over the trees?


Verse 10-11

“And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the fig tree said to them, ‘Should I forsake my sweetness and my good fruit and go to wave to and fro over the trees?’ ”

The fig tree’s reply was the same. It fed men and gave them pleasure. Figs were one indication of the pleasantness of the promised land (Numbers 13:23; Deuteronomy 8:8). It must fulfil its function and could not contemplate wasting its time acting as king, ‘waving to and fro’, lording it over the trees.


Verse 12-13

“Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the vine said to them, ‘Should I leave my wine, which cheers God and man, and go to wave to and fro over the trees?’ ”

Wine was offered as a drink offering to Yahweh (Leviticus 23:13; Numbers 15:5-10) and gave men great joy and pleasure (see Psalms 104:15). Thus the vine also would not leave its useful function to futilely and uselessly lord it over the trees

So Jotham took three examples of trees which were fruitful, which comprised part of the blessings of the promised land (Deuteronomy 8:8), and stressing their usefulness both to God and man, compared them with the uselessness of kingship. They were self-giving and provided blessing, in contrast with kingship which was a useless exercise and self-grasping while making a great parade of itself. Thus they would not leave their useful function to become mere parasites.

While we must not overpress the points, for good management is not a useless exercise, his words clearly revealed a poor view of kingship. In his eyes kingship should be left to God and all men’s efforts to be king were like branches waving to and fro, lording it over the trees, and accomplishing nothing. There is the hint here that, like their father before them, the sons of Gideon would not have ruled in a way that was autocratic, they would have followed the customs of their fathers, and have done so under the tribal covenant and in league with the tribal confederacy. It would be very different with Abimelech.


Verse 14

Then all the trees said to the boxthorn, ‘You come and reign over us.’ ”

Now the trees were getting desperate. They are pictured as foolishly longing for a king over them, come what may. They went to the lowest tree of all, the boxthorn which could not be used for timber, bore no edible fruit and hurt men with its thorns. It was renowned for its thorniness (Psalms 58:9).

So Jotham pictures Abimelech as a boxthorn, useless and prickly, who was only offered the position because no one better would take it, for none other wanted full kingship.


Verse 15

And the boxthorn said to the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow, and if not let fire come out of the boxthorn and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’ ”

The picture was deliberately ridiculous. Large trees coming and putting themselves under the shadow of the lowly boxthorn. Yet how else could he wave to and fro over the trees? Thus they would have to demean themselves and become stunted. And the boxthorn was capable of only one thing, bursting into flame and causing a forest fire.

The final phrase was Jotham’s judgment. The boxthorn was good for one thing. It would burn easily. Thus it could easily be ignited in hot weather causing a forest fire, and in that fire the mightiest of the trees, the cedars of Leabanon, would be devoured. So Jotham pictured Abimelech’s kingship as one that would demean them and eventually result in conflagration and destroy them all.


Verses 16-18

“Now therefore, if you have dealt truly and uprightly, in that you have made Abimelech king, if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal, and his house, and have done to him according to the deserving of his hands, for my father fought for you and ventured his life (‘cast his life before him’) and delivered you out of the hand of Midian, but you are risen up against my father’s house this day, and have slain his sons, all seventy, on one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his bondwoman, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother;”

Jotham now outlined the position that they had taken and challenged them to justify it. They were of those who had requested that Gideon, and his sons after him, might reign over them. And they had not meant the ‘son of a bondwoman’ (Jotham’s aristocratic scorn is palpable). They had meant his full sons who had the right to inherit. Let them now consider whether they were dealing fairly and uprightly. Were they even doing what they themselves had requested? They did it originally because they knew such sons would be worthy, because they would be sons like Gideon. And yet now they were accepting, not an olive tree or a fig tree or a vine, all of which had been on offer to them, but a boxthorn.

Furthermore let them consider that Gideon hazarded his life for their sakes, and delivered them from a most terrible situation, for Shechem had suffered from the Midianite incursions along with the rest. And what reward were they now giving him? Have they done what their hero deserved, in rising up and destroying his full sons, and doing it in the most heinous way? And then finishing up by giving his inheritance to one who had no right to it? And they were doing it for purely selfish reasons. There was no honour in it, no high feelings. They were doing it for what they could get out of it. They were doing it simply because Abimelech was related to them, and they thought they could control him.

Note the constant use of seventy. It was not the exact number that mattered, (if the seventy had been originally exact then only sixty nine had been slain) it was what the number signified, it signified those who were within the sphere of the divine perfection. Their sin was thus against Yahweh.


Verse 19-20

“If you then have dealt truly and sincerely with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice all of you in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you. But if not let fire come out from Abimelech and devour the chief men of Shechem and the house of Millo, and let fire come out from the chief men of Shechem and the house of Millo and devour Abimelech.”

Finally he delivered his curse. Let it be according to their deserts. If they have done rightly let them fully enjoy the fruits of what they have done. And if not let them perish in mutual conflagration, the chief men of Shechem, the house of Millo (of Baal-berith) and Abimelech himself.


Verse 21

And Jotham ran away, and fled, and went to Beer, and dwelt there for fear of Abimelech his brother.’

Having delivered his curse Jotham fled for his life. He journeyed to Beer, which means ‘a well’ and there he lived for fear of Abimelech ‘his brother’. The last words are sardonic. A brother indeed! But he found refreshment, while finally his brother would receive none. The place is unknown and was probably intended to remain unknown. (‘Beer’ would normally have another name attached e.g Beer-sheba). What mattered was that he had found refuge.

We are intended to see in this curse the hand of Yahweh. He was not pleased with the course that events had taken and would act accordingly. He was not powerless to act like Baal (Judges 6:31-32). But the writer does not want to mention His name in such a passage. He wants us to recognise that Abimelech was God-forsaken.


Verse 22

The Fulfilment of the Curse on Abimelech and Shechem (Judges 9:22-57).

Judges 9:22

And Abimelech was prince over Israel for three years.’

Three is the number of completeness. His full reign was short. ‘Three years’ could mean one and a half years upwards. By ancient reckoning a part of a year was counted as a year.

Note that he was ‘made prince’ over Israel and not king. Only Shechem accepted him as ‘king’. But seemingly his accession after the death of Gideon was now accepted by those over whom Gideon had been prince, and his power was such that they did not wish to dispute it. ‘Over Israel’ indicates being prince over some part of Israel. It meant he was prince over some of God’s people who were an essential part of the whole.

The whole narratives make clear to anyone of any intelligence that he was not appointed king over Judah, the independent tribe to the south who were rarely called to arms, or over the prickly and jealous Ephraim, so concerned for their own position, or over Transjordan who would not even supply food to Israel’s army. Even a so-called naive writer would have been aware of that. But in fact they were not naive, they simply counted a part as the whole as the whole book demonstrates. To rule over a part was to rule over ‘Israel’. For a part of Israel to be subjected was for the whole to be subjected. How else were three or four combined tribes to be briefly described?


Verse 23

And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem, and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech.’

Satan and his minions are ever at work, active in the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 2:2), but the former prophets had no difficulty in asserting that they were under Yahweh’s control, for they believed rightly that all things were finally under His control. Such activity of an evil spirit produced animosity and enmity between Abimelech and the chief men of Shechem (compare 1 Samuel 16:14). Indeed here Yahweh is seen as active in the process. He can influence evil spirits as He influences wicked men. And it was His purpose to punish both Abimelech and the chief men.


Verse 24

That the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and that their blood might be laid, on Abimelech their brother, who slew them, and on the men of Shechem who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers.’

The reason the evil spirit’s activity was allowed and even encouraged was so that vengeance might be gained on Abimelech in accordance with the curse of Jotham and of Yahweh.

“Seventy sons”. A round number indicating all the slain and stressing their acceptance with Yahweh (seven intensified). ‘Jerubbaal’ is now used constantly to indicate that Abimelech was mixed up with and followed Baal. All were guilty, both the murderers and those who encouraged it.


Verse 25

And the chief men of Shechem set liers in wait against him on spurs of the mountains, and they robbed all that came along that way by them and it was told Abimelech.’

The form of rebellion that occurred was due to their greed for gold. We must remember that many of them were former Habiru. These ‘chief men of Shechem’, the majority of the ruling class, arranged ambushes against passing travellers to seize their wealth. This was not thus an illicit band of thieves but a public policy encouraged by some of the authorities.

It is unlikely that it was a new venture. They had probably been doing it in secret through the years. But now they did it openly. It was ‘against him’ because as prince of Israel it would interfere with his collection of tolls, and because it was his responsibility to ensure that his people could travel in safety. It would also interfere with trade. If the routes to Shechem between the mountains were unsafe traders would avoid Shechem. The information soon reached Abimelech, no doubt indignantly reported by the travellers. This was their first treacherous dealing.


Verse 26

And Gaal, the son of Ebed, came with his brothers, and went over to Shechem, and the men of Shechem put their confidence in him.’

Many of the chief men of Shechem were now aware that Abimelech was planning to interfere with their secret activities, and information concerning this seems to have been carried to a man called Gael, who was the son of Ebed (‘servant’), who possibly carried on similar activities further down the trail. He was also possibly a Habiru. So he came over to Shechem with ‘his brothers’ to discuss this new state of affairs and in discussions won the confidence of the chief men of Shechem. Gaal was possibly descended from the family of Hamor, the father of Shechem, in whose day disaster came on Shechem through Simeon and Levi (Judges 9:28 compare Genesis 34). If he was he would thus have another reason for wanting to be in Shechem


Verse 27

And they went out into the field, and gathered their vineyards, and trod the grapes, and held a festival, and went into the house of their god, and ate and drank and cursed Abimelech.’

Gaal stayed until the time for gathering the grape harvest came, and when the harvest was gathered they all held a festival, as would occur yearly at that time, and began to enjoy the fruits of the vine. In process of it they went into the house of their god, Baal-berith, eating heartily and getting drunk, and in the course of this, their tongues running freely, they cursed Abimelech. They had become disillusioned with him. This probably includes the idea that they discussed ways of getting rid of him. He was getting in the way of their profitable highway robbery. Gaal would have listened to this with interest.

Of course at this time they should have been gathering at the central sanctuary to worship Yahweh at the feast of Tabernacles. That may well have been where Abimelech, as a prince of Israel, was. But their support of that covenant was now non-existent.


Verse 28

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 is not Zebul his officer? Serve the men of Hamor, the father of Shechem. But why should we serve him?” ’

Gaal challenged them about their loyalty to Abimelech. He cleverly used the same argument that Abimelech had used against his brothers. He accused him of not being related to the true ancient occupants of Shechem. Note that he now included himself as one of them - ‘we’.

“Who is Abimelech? And who is Shechem, that we should serve him?” He contrasted Abimelech with the people of Shechem. Who was Abimelech to be served by them? Was he not the son of an Israelite prince who destroyed the altar of Baal and the Asherah, and had he not placed there his officer Zebul to keep watch over them? He was an outsider. And who were the Shechemites (spoken of as ‘Shechem’) that they should serve him? Should they really be serving an Israelite? Should they not be serving the true rulers of Shechem, the descendants of Hamor?

“Is not Zebul his officer?” Zebul means ‘exalted one, prince’. Zebul may thus have been a title demonstrating his position. This foreigner Zebul was there as Abimelech’s officer to keep an eye on them as his appointee. He may even have been sent to discover who was responsible for the highway robbery. That is at least probably what Gaal wanted them to suspect. Possibly at this stage he revealed that in fact, by coincidence, he himself was such an ancestor of Hamor and Shechem.


Verse 29

Judges 9:29 a

“And would to God this people were under my hand. Then would I remove Abimelech.”

Now Gaal made his appeal to the chief men of Shechem, whether as a Habiru leader or as a descendant of Hamor. If only he was appointed chief he would soon get rid of Abimelech.

Judges 9:29 b

‘And he said to Abimelech, “Increase your army, and come out.” ’

We may see this as said to an absent adversary, spoken by a drunken leader from a distance into the air in the midst of the feast with a wave of the hand, but intended for Abimelech even though he could not hear it. It was a piece of impressive bravado. Its aim was to show that he was not afraid of Abimelech, even if he were to gather an even larger army. We must remember that they were all drunk.

The LXX changes to ‘I would say to Abimelech.’ This means the same but without the dramatic touch.


Verse 30

And when Zebul, the prince of the city, heard the words of Gaal the son of Ebed, his anger was kindled.’

Zebul, Abimelech’s deputy, learned of what Gaal had said and grew angry. If he was in the city representing Abimelech we would expect him to be. What it means is that he heard what was being said, possibly through a spy, and reacted accordingly.


Verse 31

And he sent messengers to Abimelech secretly, saying, “Gaal the son of Ebal, and his brothers have come to Shechem, and behold they are constraining the city against you.” ’

Gaal and his brothers were probably well known as troublemakers, possibly as Habiru, always seeking to stir up trouble and obtain rich pickings for themselves. So Zebul let Abimelech know that they were there and what they were doing. The word translated ‘constrain’ usually means ‘besiege’ but here it is used metaphorically to describe the besieging of the mind.


Verse 32

Now therefore up by night, you and the people who are with you, and lie in wait in the field.”

Abimelech was to come that night after sunset, bringing the men who were with him, and they were to lie hidden in the open country and in the hills outside the city. No one would be expecting them, and the men in the city would be recovering from their hangovers.


Verse 33

And it shall be, that, in the morning, as soon as the sun is up, you will rise early, and set upon the city, and, behold, when he and the people who are with him come out against you, then you may do to them as your hand will find.”

Then when morning came they were to attack the city, and when Gaal and his supporters came out to meet them they could do to them whatever was necessary. He had outlined the primary strategy. At that point it would be up to Abimelech.


Verse 34

And Abimelech rose up, and all the people who were with him, by night, and they laid wait against Shechem in four companies.’

As Zebul had advised, Abimelech came up at night with four companies of men and took up their hidden positions outside the city.


Verse 35

And Gaal, the son of Ebed, went out, and stood in the entering of the gate of the city, and Abimelech rose up, and the people who were with him from the ambush.’

When the gates of the city were opened next morning Gaal went out to survey the position, not expecting that his enemy was already near. He had his men at the ready within the city (Judges 9:39). But the opening of the gates was the signal for the attack, so Abimelech and his men rose from their ambush to approach the city quickly before the gates could be closed against them.


Verse 36

And when Gaal saw the people, he said to Zebul, “Look, there are people coming down from the mountain heights.” And Zebul said to him, “You are seeing the shadow of the mountains, as if they were men.” ’ ’

Gaal was accompanied by Zebul, probably not suspecting that he knew of the proposed insurrection, (he had not been at the feast), and as he looked towards the mountains he thought he spotted a company of men coming down towards the city. So he pointed them out to Zebul to ask him what he thought it was. Shechem was situated between two mountains, Ebal and Gerizim, which towered over it.

“And Zebul said to him, “You are seeing the shadow of the mountains, as if they were men.” ” Zebul had his wits about him and replied calmly that Gaal was deceiving himself. What he was actually seeing was moving shadows on the mountains which simply gave the appearance of being men. All this gave Abimelech time to get nearer.


Verse 37

And Gaal spoke again, and said, “Look, people are coming down along the middle of the land, and one company comes by way of the Diviner’s oak.” ’

Gaal looked again and now he knew he was right. He saw two more companies, one coming through the middle between the two mountains and one coming by way of the Diviner’s oak, a tree where soothsayers practised their arts, which were forbidden in Israel (Deuteronomy 18:10; Leviticus 19:26), another sign of the disobedience of the land.


Verse 38

Then Zebul said to him, “Where is now your mouth, that you said, ‘Who is Abimelech, that we should serve him?’ Is not this the people that you have despised? Go out now I pray you, and fight with them.” ’

The approaching forces were now so visible, and their purpose so obvious, that Zebul knew that he could keep up the pretence no longer. So now he challenged Gaal to live up to his boasting. Let him consider what he had said so arrogantly. He had spoken disparagingly of this people. So now let him prove his words and go out and fight them.


Verse 39

And Gaal went out before the men of Shechem, and fought with Abimelech.’

Possibly stirred by the taunts of Zebul, instead of shutting the gates of the city, which could anyway only be a holding device for a time, Gaal called the Shechemites who were supporting him and went out to meet Abimelech in battle. And there the battle was fought.


Verse 40

And Abimelech chased him, and he fled before him, and there fell many wounded, even to the entering of the gate.’

Defeated, Gaal and his troops retreated towards the gates, but in their retreat many fell wounded, until at last they reached the gates where men held them partly open until they were inside and obtained refuge. And then the gates were closed to keep out Abimelech and his men.


Verse 41

And Abimelech waited at Arumah, and Zebul thrust out Gaal and his brothers, that they should not dwell in Shechem.’

Having gained his first victory Abimelech now withdrew to Arumah to await events until he had heard from Zebul. And meanwhile Zebul was rallying those who were loyal to Abimelech (probably increased since the battle) and fought with Gaal and his brothers, their supporters having deserted them, and managed to drive them out of the city.


Verse 42

And so it happened on the next day, that the people went out into the field, and they told Abimelech.’

The next day some of the people who were with Abimelech went from Arumah into the countryside, probably to survey the situation, and returned to tell him of the expulsion of Gaal and his brothers, something they may have learned from a messenger sent by Zebul. This interpretation is supported by the re-mention of ‘the people’ in Judges 9:43.

Alternately it may be that some of the people in the city, thinking that Abimelech had withdrawn, themselves went out to their fields to prepare them for the next stage of ploughing, before Abimelech could attack again. Whatever else happened the supply of food had to be maintained. (This may have been Abimelech’s hope when he withdrew). Then this news reached Abimelech, either from scouts or by means of a messenger from the city, from faithful Zebul.


Verse 43

And he took the people, and divided them into three companies, and laid wait in the field, and he looked, and, behold, the people were come forth out of the city, and he rose up against them, and smote them.’

Gathering that now that Gaal and his brothers had been expelled, the population of Shechem would feel able to move more freely, Abimelech divided his forces into three companies and waited in the countryside outside the city, and when many of the people in the city came out to work in their fields he arose with his men and smote them.

Alternately if we assume that Judges 9:42 speaks of some people who had already left the city, this tells us that more now left the city, and it was they who were first attacked.


Verse 44

‘And Abimelech, and the companies that were with him, rushed forward, and stood in the entering of the gate of the city, and the two other companies ran on all the people that were in the field and smote them.’

This now explains the attack in more detail, as commonly happens in ancient writings. Before attacking the people, now out in the countryside, they seized the gates to prevent them being closed against them, and then two of the companies smote the people outside, while the third held the gate.


Verse 45

And Abimelech fought against the city all that day, and he took the city and slew the people that were in it, and he beat down the city, and sowed it with salt.’

Having dealt with the people outside, and no doubt having joined up with Zebul and his supporters, Abimelech now took the attack to the city itself.

Resistance was fierce and the battle continued all day. But eventually after much slaughter he took the city itself, apart from the fortified Temple, showing little mercy on the inhabitants and killing them, apart of course from those who had remained faithful to him. He was in no mood for compromise. Then he destroyed much of the city and spread salt in it.

This may be as a symbol of its destruction as salt fell on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:26 with Genesis 19:24), or to indicate that he was making it a sacrifice to God (compare Ezekiel 43:24), or to indicate that it would ever be a wilderness (Job 39:6; Psalms 107:34). Whichever is so it would make the cleaning up of the city more difficult and unpleasant. Tiglath Pileser I (1115-1077 BC) (probably, the word is uncertain) claimed in his annals that he did the same to Hunusa around this time. ‘The whole of the city I laid waste, I destroyed, I turned into heaps and ruins, and on it I sowed salt (?).’


Verse 46

And when all the men of the tower of Shechem heard about it, they entered into the hold of the house of El-berith.’

Meanwhile the priests of Baal-berith and their attendants saw and learned what was happening and themselves took shelter in the fortified Temple, the house of the covenant with El and Baal. Thus all the men with the responsibility for the worship of El and Baal, the father and main son of the pantheon of Canaanite gods, were gathered together in one place. Possibly they hoped that he would not destroy the Temple or harm the priests of Baal-berith.


Verse 47

And it was told Abimelech, that all the men of the tower of Shechem were gathered together.’

The news reached Abimelech that all the priests of Baal-berith were there in the fortified tower, together with their attendants and priestesses, the cult prostitutes. These were men who had participated in his coronation. But instead of respect for them there was only hatred.


Verse 48

And Abimelech took himself up to Mount Zalmon, he and all the people who were with him, and Abimelech took an axe in his hand, and cut down a bough from the trees, and took it, and laid it on his shoulder, and said to the people who were with him, “What you have seen me do, be quick, and do as I have done.” ’

Taking his people with him Abimelech climbed Mount Zalmon which was tree-covered, and was so fired up that he himself took an axe and cut a bough from the tree. Then he bid all his followers to do the same as quickly as they could. Mount Zalmon is unknown but may have been a part of either Ebal or Gerizim.


Verse 49

And all the people likewise cut down every man his bough, and followed Abimelech, and put them to the hold, and set the hold on fire on them, so that all the men of the tower of Shechem died also, about a thousand men and women.’

The people obeyed his command and returned to the tower with their branches, and then they were piled up outside the fortified tower and set on fire, burning the tower with the people in it, who would no doubt be mercifully suffocated by the smoke. Thus all the priests and attendants of Baal died as well, together with the priestesses of Baal, the sacred prostitutes. Altogether ‘about a thousand’. Thus some hundreds. So was Jotham’s curse fulfilled (Judges 9:20).


Verse 50

Then Abimelech went to Thebez, and encamped against Thebez, and took it.’

The insurrection in Shechem had spread. Abimelech had not been reigning as a prince of Israel long and already there was general dissatisfaction. It was not only his kingship at Shechem, with their syncretistic beliefs, that was in question, but his princeship over his part of Israel. Thebez was a fortified city in the hill country of Ephraim. It is modern Tubas about ten miles (sixteen kilometres) north of Nablus and twelve miles (nineteen kilometres) north east of Shechem on the road to Beth-shan. But Abimelech was an able general, and besieged it and took it.

It is possible that the city had sheltered refugees from Shechem and had refused to give them up. Or that they had refused Abimelech entrance when he had demanded it in order to search for refugees. Or even that they had withheld taxes levied by him. This was the problem with having a prince. He expected some financial gain from it. But in some way they had indicated their unwillingness now to accept him as prince.


Verse 51

But there was a strong tower within the city, and to it fled all the men and women, and all they of the city, and shut themselves in, and made their way to the roof of the tower.’

As with many larger cities there was a fortified citadel within, and the people of the city, together with their servants and bondservants, secured themselves inside it. Then those able to help in the defence went to the roof of the tower to continue their defence by throwing from the tower on the besiegers anything available which could do them harm. They would have a pile of such things kept available at times like this.


Verse 52

And Abimelech came to the tower, and fought against it, and went hard to the door of the tower to burn it with fire.’

Whatever Abimelech was he was not a coward and he took a full part in the attack. The door of the tower, as always, appears to have been its weak point and was made of wood, and it was thus inflammable. So he began, with his men, to prepare to burn it down and himself approached close to the door. This would be where the largest number of missiles would rain down, for it was the expected point of attack, but despite this he was in the forefront of the attack directing operations by example as he had at Shechem.


Verse 53

And a certain woman cast an upper-millstone on Abimelech’s head and broke his skull.’

An unknown woman on the tower, seeing Abimelech not far below her, (the tower would not be very high), took her missile, which was a substantial upper-millstone, one used in her mill to grind the corn, roughly about 18 inches (half a metre) in diameter, and 3 inches (8 centimetres) thick, and hurled it down with all her strength on Abimelech. And her aim was good, and it smashed into his head and broke his skull. The tower was fairly low, and the upper-millstone would be fairly prominent, so that Abimelech knew who had thrown it and even in his agony his pride was such that he could not bear the shame of being killed by a woman, even such a redoubtable woman as this.


Verse 54

Then he called hastily to the young man his armourbearer, and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that men may not say of me, a woman slew him.” And his young man thrust him through and he died.’

Recognising that his end was near he ordered his own armourbearer, a young man, to draw his sword and kill him. The sword would be sheathed because he was helping build up wood by the door of the tower. And the young man, recognising his predicament, for he knew that for a soldier to die at a woman’s hand would be to be disgraced, did as he was bid. But the disgrace has come down in history. The young armourbearer would carry Abimelech’s weapons, spears and shield, prior to a fight and would fight by his master’s side.

There is possibly some kind of justice recognised by the writer in what happened to Abimelech. He who had slain his brothers on a stone, was slain by a mill-stone. And stoning was the sentence exacted on those in Israel on whom the death penalty was passed.


Verse 55

And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, they departed every man to his place.’

Once Abimelech was dead there was little point in fighting on. The point at issue was decided. It would be up to Abimelech’s heirs whether they wished to press claims to princehood in Israel and the kingship of Shechem.


Verse 56

Thus God requited the wickedness of Abimelech which he did to his father, in killing his seventy brothers.’

God had avenged the hurt done to His servant Gideon by the killing of his sons, for He takes note of what is done to those who serve Him faithfully, and what Abimelech had done had removed Gideon’s heirs and had been an attempt to prevent the carrying on of his true line.


Verse 57

And all the wickedness of the chief men of Shechem, did God requite upon their heads, and on them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.’

“On them”, that is on both Abimelech and the men of Shechem. Thus was the curse of Jotham, Gideon’s representative, fulfilled. Those who had plotted and had their part in the killing of Gideon’s sons now found that their deed had come on their own heads.

It is very significant that from Gideon onwards it is said of all the judges that they died, and the place of their burial is described. But of Abimelech nothing is said about his burial. He was as it were left where he was (Judges 9:55). He was not considered acceptable.

But what were the lessons of this very full account? One was certainly to show God’s faithfulness to Gideon and His abhorrence of what Abimelech had done to his heirs. But that could have been dealt with in a sentence or two. The fact is that the total lack of mention of the name Yahweh and the fact that God is only mentioned in respect of vengeance, except by Jotham, demonstrates more than this. It demonstrates the total failure of kingship, which now fades out and is not heard of again. God was not in it.

In some ways Gideon had brought what happened on his own head. He had multiplied wives; he had had a concubine, thus producing a son who was not a son, and was outside his direct control and was connected with another city and another class of society and a syncretised religion; he had localised, at first unintentionally, the means of obtaining Yahweh’s guidance; and this that followed was the result. It revealed to Israel something of what kingship involved, and that what that was, God rejected - multiple wives, problems of accession, civil war resulting from discontent with the king, dictatorial attitudes, and the upholding of one man’s honour and position, all resulting from one man’s princedom or kingship. And to us it is a reminder that what a man sows, so shall he also reap.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Judges 9:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/judges-9.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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