SynopsisThis is a pretty action-packed passage, so we’ll just get right to it.
One of Gideon’s seventy sons is a man named Abimelech. He approaches his brothers, and convinces them to convince the people of Shechem that Abimelech should be their ruler. Which they do, and the people go into the temple of one of their gods to get Abimelech some money.
Unfortunately, Abimelech’s first action as the ruler of Shechem is to take that money, and hire some “reckless adventurers” (verse 4), to become his followers. And his next action is to go home and slaughter all of his brothers, I assume to eliminate his competition. It says that he murdered all of his brothers “on one stone” (verse 5), which makes the event even more gruesome, in my mind—they had to capture all of the brothers, and then have them wait their turn, to be killed, one by one. The citizens of Shechem then gather together to crown Abimilech as their king.
However, unbeknownst to Abimilech, his youngest brother, Jotham, escaped the slaughter. When he hears that Abimilech is being crowned king…
When Jotham was told about this, he climbed up on the top of Mount Gerizim and shouted to them, “Listen to me, citizens of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’
“But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and men are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’
“Next, the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come and be our king.’
“But the fig tree replied, ‘Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’
“Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come and be our king.’
“But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and men, to hold sway over the trees?’
“Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘Come and be our king.’
“The thornbush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’
“Now if you have acted honorably and in good faith when you made Abimelech king, and if you have been fair to Jerub-Baal and his family, and if you have treated him as he deserves—and to think that my father fought for you, risked his life to rescue you from the hand of Midian (but today you have revolted against my father’s family, murdered his seventy sons on a single stone, and made Abimelech, the son of his slave girl, king over the citizens of Shechem because he is your brother)—if then you have acted honorably and in good faith toward Jerub-Baal and his family today, may Abimelech be your joy, and may you be his, too! But if you have not, let fire come out from Abimelech and consume you, citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and let fire come out from you, citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and consume Abimelech!”
Jotham then flees, and goes and lives in Beer for fear of Abimilech. (Beer comes up a bit in the Old Testament, but I’m not sure if it’s a country, a town, a region, or something else.)
For three years, Abimilech rules over Israel, until God sends an “evil spirit,” which causes the people of Shechem to act “treacherously” against Abimilech (verse 23). Verse 24 tells us that God does this in order to avenge the blood of Abimilech’s brothers—both on Abimilech, and on the people of Shechem, who helped Abimilech with this crime.
So the men of Shechem decide to send men up into the hilltops, and start ambushing and robbing everyone who passes by. Meanwhile, a man named Gaal moves into Shechem, along with his brothers, and the people of Shechem “put their confidence in him” (verse 26). At a particular festival, while the people are eating and drinking (and cursing Abimilech), Gaal decides to start talking big. Why should the people follow Abimilech? Who is this Abimilech guy, anyway? If the people would follow Gaal, he’d get rid of Abimilech.
But the governor of the city, a man named Zebul, is loyal to Abimilech, and hears about what Gaal has said. So he sends word to Abimilech that there is a troublemaker, who is stirring up the city against him. He advises Abimilech to take his men and hide in the fields outside the city; when Gaal and his people come out, Abimilech can attack them. Abimilech takes Zebul’s advice, and does so.
The next morning, Gaal and Zebul are standing by the city gate, just as Abimilech’s men start to advance.
When Gaal saw them, he said to Zebul, “Look, people are coming down from the tops of the mountains!”
Zebul replied, “You mistake the shadows of the mountains for men.”
But Gaal spoke up again: “Look, people are coming down from the center of the land, and a company is coming from the direction of the soothsayers’ tree.”
Then Zebul said to him, “Where is your big talk now, you who said, ‘Who is Abimelech that we should be subject to him?’ Aren’t these the men you ridiculed? Go out and fight them!”
So Gaal leads the people of Shechem against Abimilech’s men, but Abimilech wins. He basically chases the people right back into their city, many of whom fall wounded on the way. Zebul then chases Gaal and his brothers out of the city.
The next day, the people of Shechem go out to their fields, and when Abimilech hears about it, he attacks them again. He and his men kill the people in the fields, and then attack the city, and kill everyone in it. Once he has destroyed the city, he goes through and scatters salt on its ruins.
But not everyone from the city is dead. Some people had gathered in the tower, and now get together to hide in their temple. But when Abimilech hears, he goes and cuts some tree branches, throws them over his shoulders, and commands his men to do the same. They then pile all of the wood alongside the temple, and burn alive the people inside—about a thousand men and women.
After this, for some reason, Abimilech goes after a town called Thebez, and besieges it. (No reason is given for this.) The people in the city flee to their tower, lock themselves in, and climb to the roof. Abimilech is about to storm the tower, but as he approaches it, a woman drops an upper millstone on his head, cracking his skull. Abimilech knows that he’s going to die, but he doesn’t want people to say that he was killed by a woman, so he has his armour bearer kill him.
The chapter ends thus:
Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. God also made the men of Shechem pay for all their wickedness. The curse of Jotham son of Jerub-Baal came on them. (verses 56–57)
ThoughtsI didn’t mention it above, but any time this passage is talking about any kind of a “temple,” it’s not a temple of the LORD. These are temples to Baals.
I’m confused as to whether Abimilech is the king of Shechem, the king of Israel, or if he initially became the king of Shechem, and then became the king of all of Israel. In any event, although Israel isn’t suppose to have a king, he definitely considered himself to be a “real” king, since he eliminated all of his brothers, preventing them from trying to overthrow him.
I find it interesting that the passage says that the LORD sent “an evil spirit between Abimilech and the citizens of Shechem” (verse 23). It doesn’t just say, for example, that He “caused strife between them,” it says that He sent a spirit. I’m not sure what that entailed.
When the Bible says that God was punishing both Abimilech and Shechem, I wonder if it was just the crime of killing Abimilech’s brothers, or if He is also punishing them for the crime of setting up a king. It doesn’t explicitly say, but we know that He was supposed to be Israel’s king, so it might be the case.