Judges 9 – The Rise and Fall of Abimelech
A. Abimelech’s rise to power.
1. (1-3) Abimelech forces his brothers to submit to him.
Then 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, saying, “Please speak in the hearing of all the men of Shechem: ‘Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal reign over you, or that one reign over you?’ Remember that I am your own flesh and bone.” And his mother’s brothers spoke all these words concerning him in the hearing of all the men of Shechem; and their heart was inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, “He is our brother.”
a. Then Abimelech the Son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem: Abimelech was the son of Jerubbaal (another name for Gideon given in Judges 8:35), but he was not the clear successor to his father’s place of leadership. This was for two reasons: God had not established a hereditary monarchy in Israel, and there were sixty-nine other sons of Gideon (Judges 8:30) who might also want to succeed their father.
b. Their heart was inclined to follow Abimelech: At the city of Shechem, Abimelech convinced his brothers on his mother’s side to support him as king over his brothers on his father’s (Gideon’s) side. So, the men of Shechem agreed to accept Abimelech as the new leader – perhaps even the king – of Israel.
i. “The reference to the men of Shechem (Judges 9:2) is literally ‘the baals of Shechem’, the word having here its original meaning of ‘lord’ or ‘owner’.” (Cundall)
2. (4-5) Abimelech murders his brothers.
So they gave him seventy shekels of silver from the temple of Baal-Berith, with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless men; and they followed him. Then he went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubbaal, on one stone. But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, because he hid himself.
a. So they gave him seventy shekels of silver from the temple of Baal-Berith: The relatives of Abimelech on his mother’s side gave him some “start-up money” to establish his leadership. He did this, but in a way that they never imagined – he hired worthless and reckless men to kill all his brothers, making certain there would never be a challenger to his leadership.
i. From the temple of Baal-Berith: Abimelech received his pay from the temple dedicated to Baal. “A work begun under the name and influence of the devil is not likely to end to the glory of God, or to the welfare of man.” (Clarke)
b. Killed his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubbaal: Therefore, Abimelech killed his brothers with the support of his relatives on his mother’s side. The men of Shechem (Judges 9:2-3) supported the plan because it was good for them, not because it was morally good or right.
3. (6) The men of Shechem make Abimelech their king.
And all the men of Shechem gathered together, all of Beth Millo, and they went and made Abimelech king beside the terebinth tree at the pillar that was in Shechem.
a. They went and made Abimelech king: It is almost hard to tell who was worse; Abimelech who did the murdering, or the men of Shechem who approved of it. This was an ungodly leader given to an ungodly people, who first rejected God’s leadership over the nation and then embraced a cruel and brutal man.
i. Beth Millo: “The word millo derives from a verb meaning ‘to be filled’, and originally referred to a rampart or earthwork; but its association with fortifications may have developed into a reference to fortresses generally. Thus Beth-millo may be identical with the tower of Shechem.” (Cundall)
b. Beside the terebinth tree at the pillar that was in Shechem: Ironically, Abimelech’s coronation took place at the same tree where Joshua had solemnly placed a copy of the law of God (Joshua 24:26). The law was right there, but Israel refused to read or heed it.
i. “Nevetheless, Abimelech became the first person ever to be crowned king in Israel. His abortive rule, however, ran roughshod over the divine requirements for that office.” (Wolf)
ii. “The associations of such sites were very tenacious and it is of interest to note that Rehoboam went to Shechem, following the death of Solomon, to secure the acclimation of the Israelites although the city itself was in ruins at the time (1 Kings 12:1, 25).” (Cundall)
B. Jotham’s warning.
1. (7-15) The parable of the trees.
Now when they told Jotham, he went and stood on top of Mount Gerizim, and lifted his voice and cried out. And he said to them:
“Listen to me, you men of Shechem,
That God may listen to you!
The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them.
And they said to the olive tree,
‘Reign over us!’
But the olive tree said to them,
‘Should I cease giving my oil,
With which they honor God and men,
And go to sway over trees?’
Then the trees said to the fig tree,
‘You come and reign over us!’
But the fig tree said to them,
‘Should I cease my sweetness and my good fruit,
And go to sway over trees?’
Then the trees said to the vine,
‘You come and reign over us!’
But the vine said to them,
‘Should I cease my new wine,
Which cheers both God and men,
And go to sway over trees?’
Then all the trees said to the bramble,
‘You come and reign over us!’
And the bramble said to the trees,
‘If in truth you anoint me as king over you,
Then come and take shelter in my shade;
But if not, let fire come out of the bramble
And devour the cedars of Lebanon!’”
a. Now when they told Jotham: Jotham was the only son of Gideon to escape the massacre at the stone (Judges 9:5). Here he told a parable to rebuke the men of Shechem for their choice of Abimelech as a king.
i. He made this speech from the top of Mount Gerizim, the mountain from which Israel heard the blessings of God pronounced upon the obedient (Deuteronomy 11:29 and 27:12; Joshua 8:33) about 150 years before.
b. The trees once went forth to anoint a king over them: In the parable told by Jotham, the worthy trees (such as the olive, the fig, and the vine) didn’t want to be king; but the unworthy bramble agreed to be king.
i. The promise of the bramble, “take shelter in my shade,” was intended as ironic and ridiculous. The bramble was a low, thorny bush and offered shade to no one, especially to trees.
c. Let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon: The bramble warned that he would be an oppressive ruler and destroy anyone who disagreed with him.
i. One test of the character of a man is to see how he treats those who disagree with him. If his only desire is to destroy those who disagree, then he is much like the bramble – plenty of good points, but no real substance for good.
ii. “Finally, the position was offered to the bramble, which not only produced nothing of value and was quite worthless as timber, but was a positive menace to the farmer who had to wage continual war against its encroachments.” (Cundall)
iii. “The condensed moral of the whole fable is this: Weak, worthless, and wicked men, will ever be foremost to thrust themselves into power; and, in the end, to bring ruin upon themselves, and on the unhappy people over whom they preside.” (Clarke)
2. (16-21) Jotham applies the parable: the city of Shechem will be repaid for choosing such a worthless man.
“Now therefore, if you have acted in truth and sincerity in making Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done to him as he deserves; for my father fought for you, risked his life, and delivered you out of the hand of Midian; but you have risen up against my father’s house this day, and killed his seventy sons on one stone, and made Abimelech, the son of his maidservant, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother; if then you have acted in truth and sincerity with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you. But if not, let fire come from Abimelech and devour the men of Shechem and Beth Millo; and let fire come from the men of Shechem and from Beth Millo and devour Abimelech!” And Jotham ran away and fled; and he went to Beer and dwelt there, for fear of Abimelech his brother.
a. If you have acted in truth and sincerity: Jotham raised this just for the sake of argument. He didn’t believe that 68 of his brothers were murdered for the sake of truth and sincerity.
b. Because he is your brother: The real reason the men of Shechem supported Abimelech was because he was their brother. Abimelech’s mother, though only a maidservant to Gideon, was from Shechem. Abimelech probably grew up in Shechem (Judges 8:31).
i. Abimelech, the son of his maidservant: “Abimelech’s mother is called a ‘slave girl’, a term usually referring to a wife’s servant who is also a concubine, such as Hagar or Bilhah.” (Wolf)
c. Let fire come from Abimelech and devour the men of Shechem: Jotham’s warning to the men of Shechem was that their unwise choice would come back to hurt them. He predicted that “fire” would come forth from Abimelech and devour them. After this bold warning he ran away and fled for fear of his life.
i. “The prophecy of Jotham was not to be immediately fulfilled. The fire smoldered for three years but at last manifested itself.” (Morgan)
C. Jotham’s warning fulfilled.
1. (22-25) A spirit of ill will between Abimelech and Shechem.
After Abimelech had reigned over Israel three years, God sent a spirit of ill will between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech, that the crime done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might be settled and their blood be laid on Abimelech their brother, who killed them, and on the men of Shechem, who aided him in the killing of his brothers. And the men of Shechem set men in ambush against him on the tops of the mountains, and they robbed all who passed by them along that way; and it was told Abimelech.
a. God sent a spirit of ill will between Abimelech and the men of Shechem: Everything seemed fine between the men of Shechem and Abimelech for three years. Then, in judgment, God removed the peace that was between them and sent this spirit of ill will.
i. The writer of Judges used an interesting word to say that Abimelech had reigned over Israel. This word “is unique to the book and is perhaps chosen to distinguish Abimelech’s ill-fated rule from that of the true judges. Abimelech was more like a tyrant than a king.” (Wolf)
ii. “The extent of Abimelech’s kingdom was very limited; only Shechem, Beth-millo, Arumah (Judges 9:41) and Thebez (Judges 9:50) are mentioned as under his jurisdiction and it is unlikely that it extended beyond a portion of western Manasseh.” (Cundall)
iii. “God gave the devil commission to enter into or work upon their minds and hearts; knowing that he of himself, and by his own inclinations, would fill them with mistakes, and jealousies, and dissensions, and heart-burnings, which would end in civil wars and mutual ruin.” (Poole)
b. Set men in ambush… they robbed all who passed by: Prompted by the spirit of ill will, the men of Shechem set ambushes on the mountain roads, hoping to disrupt the trade routes that profited Abimelech.
i. “This would have the effect of reducing the number of travelers and caravans in such a troubled area, thus emptying the pockets of Abimelech as well as hitting as his pride, for he could not guarantee the safety of travel in his domain.” (Cundall)
2. (26-29) The men of Shechem choose a new leader.
Now Gaal the son of Ebed came with his brothers and went over to Shechem; and the men of Shechem put their confidence in him. So they went out into the fields, and gathered grapes from their vineyards and trod them, and made merry. And they went into the house of their god, and ate and drank, and cursed Abimelech. Then 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? If only this people were under my authority! Then I would remove Abimelech.” So he said to Abimelech, “Increase your army and come out!”
a. The men of Shechem put their confidence in him: The men of Shechem lost their confidence in Abimelech, so they chose a new leader named Gaal, the son of Ebed.
b. They went into the house of their god, and ate and drank, and cursed Abimelech: The men of Shechem were so confident that their new leader Gaal could protect them against Abimelech that they started throwing drunken parties and openly cursing Abimelech and challenging him to a fight (“Increase your army and come out!”).
3. (30-33) The role of Zebul, the ruler of the city.
When Zebul, the ruler of the city, heard the words of Gaal the son of Ebed, his anger was aroused. And he sent messengers to Abimelech secretly, saying, “Take note! Gaal the son of Ebed and his brothers have come to Shechem; and here they are, fortifying the city against you. Now therefore, get up by night, you and the people who are with you, and lie in wait in the field. And it shall be, as soon as the sun is up in the morning, that you shall rise early and rush upon the city; and when he and the people who are with him come out against you, you may then do to them as you find opportunity.”
a. When Zebul, the ruler of the city, heard the words of Gaal the son of Ebed, his anger was aroused: Zebul, the “city manager” on behalf of Abimelech, told Abimelech all about Gaal and this rebellion. Zebul advised Abimelech to come and attack the city.
b. You shall rise early and rush upon the city: Zebul advised Abimelech to organize a surprise attack against the rebels of Shechem.
4. (34-41) Abimelech defeats the rebellion of the men of Shechem, organized by Gaal.
So Abimelech and all the people who were with him rose by night, and lay in wait against Shechem in four companies. When Gaal the son of Ebed went out and stood in the entrance to the city gate, Abimelech and the people who were with him rose from lying in wait. And when Gaal saw the people, he said to Zebul, “Look, people are coming down from the tops of the mountains!” But Zebul said to him, “You see the shadows of the mountains as if they were men.” So Gaal spoke again and said, “See, people are coming down from the center of the land, and another company is coming from the Diviners’ Terebinth Tree.” Then Zebul said to him, “Where indeed is your mouth now, with which you said, ‘Who is Abimelech, that we should serve him?’ Are not these the people whom you despised? Go out, if you will, and fight with them now.” So Gaal went out, leading the men of Shechem, and fought with Abimelech. And Abimelech chased him, and he fled from him; and many fell wounded, to the very entrance of the gate. Then Abimelech dwelt at Arumah, and Zebul drove out Gaal and his brothers, so that they would not dwell in Shechem.
a. So Abimelech and all the people who were with him rose by night, and lay in wait: Abimelech agreed with and followed the plan suggested by Zebul.
b. Zebul said to him, “You see the shadows of the mountains as if they were men”: Zebul deceived Gaal, allowing Abimelech’s troops to take position. With the advantage of their superior position, Abimelech and his soldiers drove out Gaal and his men.
c. Where indeed is your mouth now: When Zebul knew that Gaal was at a disadvantage, he could not resist rebuking him for his proud, arrogant words against Abimelech, an enemy he could not defeat.
i. “Gaal probably was not prepared for a siege; so he had little choice but to leave the city walls behind and confront Abimelech out in the open.” (Wolf)
5. (42-45) Abimelech attacks the citizens of Shechem and conquers the city.
And it came about on the next day that the people went out into the field, and they told Abimelech. So he took his people, divided them into three companies, and lay in wait in the field. And he looked, and there were the people, coming out of the city; and he rose against them and attacked them. Then Abimelech and the company that was with him rushed forward and stood at the entrance of the gate of the city; and the other two companies rushed upon all who were in the fields and killed them. So Abimelech fought against the city all that day; he took the city and killed the people who were in it; and he demolished the city and sowed it with salt.
a. It came about on the next day: With the resistance of Gaal defeated, Abimelech would find it easy to establish his control over the city of Shechem again. Both outside and inside the city, they effectively attacked and killed the people of Shechem (even those not directly involved in the rebellion).
i. “The people, apparently confident that the matter was concluded, went out into the fields as usual to engage in their daily occupations.” (Cundall)
b. He took the city and killed the people who were in it; and he demolished the city and sowed it with salt: Abimelech then turned his fury against the people of Shechem, and killed as many of them as he could, and he demolished their city.
i. “Indeed, Shechem was not rebuilt until the reign of Jeroboam I, almost two centuries later (1 Kings 12:25).” (Wolf)
ii. This shows the problem of following a man who comes to power through violence. Commonly, it is only a matter of time until the same violence is turned against those who helped him come to power.
6. (46-49) The massacre at the tower of Shechem.
Now when all the men of the tower of Shechem had heard that, they entered the stronghold of the temple of the god Berith. And it was told Abimelech that all the men of the tower of Shechem were gathered together. Then Abimelech went up to Mount Zalmon, he and all the people who were with him. And Abimelech took an ax in his hand and cut down a bough from the trees, and took it and laid it on his shoulder; then he said to the people who were with him, “What you have seen me do, make haste and do as I have done.” So each of the people likewise cut down his own bough and followed Abimelech, put them against the stronghold, and set the stronghold on fire above them, so that all the people of the tower of Shechem died, about a thousand men and women.
a. Abimelech took an ax in his hand and cut down a bough…”What you have seen me do, make haste and do as I have done”: Though Abimelech was an ungodly and violent man, he did understand some basic principles of leadership. He understood the importance of leading through the example of one’s own actions. He could tell his troops to do as I have done, and they did.
b. All the people of the tower of Shechem died, about a thousand men and women: With this, Abimelech massacred the last survivors of the city of Shechem, killing about a thousand men and women. This graphically fulfilled the warning of Jotham earlier in the chapter (Judges 9:19-20).
i. “This was as if a man should run into a stack of straw or barrel of gunpowder, to secure himself from a raging fire. Their covenant with Baal, that image of jealousy (Ezekiel 8:3), was the cause of their ruin. They looked upon this hold as both a fort and a sanctuary; but it saved them not.” (Trapp)
ii. For the people of Shechem, even a secure tower could not protect them. Yet there is a more secure tower than the tower of Shechem. The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe (Proverbs 18:10). For You have been a shelter for me, a strong tower from the enemy. (Psalm 61:3).
7. (50-55) God’s judgment on Abimelech.
Then Abimelech went to Thebez, and he encamped against Thebez and took it. But there was a strong tower in the city, and all the men and women; all the people of the city; fled there and shut themselves in; then they went up to the top of the tower. So Abimelech came as far as the tower and fought against it; and he drew near the door of the tower to burn it with fire. But a certain woman dropped an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. Then he called quickly to the young man, his armorbearer, and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, lest men say of me, ‘A woman killed him.’” So his young man thrust him through, and he died. And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, they departed, every man to his place.
a. Abimelech came as far as the tower and fought against it: After his brutal victory at the tower of Shechem, Abimelech probably thought he was an expert at attacking towers. He went to Thebez and attacked the city and the tower there.
b. A certain woman dropped an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull: At Thebez, a woman dropped a millstone on Abimelech’s head and mortally wounded him.
i. This was probably a stone used to grind grain by hand. “Such hand-stones averaged ten to fourteen inches long and weighed five pounds or more.” (Wood)
c. Draw your sword and kill me, lest men say of me, “A woman killed him.”: Abimelech considered it manlier to be killed by his own armor bearer; but he was still dead afterward. Proud even in death, he then had to answer to God for his wicked actions.
i. “Yet long after his death, the credit continued to be given to the woman (cf. 2 Samuel 11:21).” (Wolf)
ii. “But commentators observe it for a just hand of God upon Abimelech, that upon one stone he had slain his seventy brethren, and now a stone slayeth him: his head had stolen the crown of Israel, and now his head is smitten.” (Trapp)
8. (56-57) Summation: The certainty of God’s judgments.
Thus God repaid the wickedness of Abimelech, which he had done to his father by killing his seventy brothers. And all the evil of the men of Shechem God returned on their own heads, and on them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.
a. Thus God repaid the wickedness of Abimelech: We can be certain that God will repay wickedness, either in this life or the life to come. Often God finds a way to do it both in this life and the life to come.
b. On them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal: God had warned the men of Shechem through Jotham. Yet they rejected the warning of God, and therefore came to ruin.
i. We should each consider if God is warning us about something in the present time. The story of Abimelech, the men of Shechem, and Jotham shows us that there is a real and terrible price to pay for rejecting God’s warnings.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission