Christian Churches of God
Abimelech the False King
(Edition 1.0 20060506-20060506)
Abimelech, son of Gideon by his maid-servant was made king of Shechem by the people of his mother’s house. Abimelech killed seventy of his own brothers in order to seize rulership. He reigned over Israel for three years. This paper has been adapted from Chapters 64-66 of The Bible Story Volume III by Basil Wolverton, published by Ambassador College Press.
After Gideon was dead and Israel had again started slipping into idolatry, one of Gideon's many sons schemed to become king of Israel. He was Abimelech, an overly ambitious young man who went to violent extremes to push himself into power.
He started his ambitious scheme by going to his mother's family in Shechem to persuade them that one of Gideon's sons should reign over the nation.
"Someone has to determine which of my father's sons should rule," he told his relatives. "Now would you prefer about seventy of them to reign over you, or would you choose just one? I am of your flesh and bone, so why should you prefer anyone except me?" (Jdg. 9:1-2).
Abimelech's relatives quickly perceived the advantages of having a king from their family. They launched a campaign in and around Shechem to promote the idea of how worthwhile it would be to have a leader of Israel from Shechem, so that their city might be established as the capital of the nation.
Shechem had lately become one of the cities where the worship of Baal was most active. Some of the contributions to Baal were turned over to Abimelech. He used the seventy shekels of silver to hire a band of reckless, evil men who became his followers (vv. 3-4).
Appalling treachery afoot
Abimelech's next move was shockingly cold-blooded proving that he would stop at nothing to gain what he wanted. He went to his father's home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered seventy of his brothers. But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal (Gideon), escaped by hiding (v. 5).
Abimelech went ahead with his plans to become ruler of Israel by obtaining the backing of influential men, families and priests of Baal in Shechem, which resulted in a few days in a celebration and a ceremony in which Abimelech was declared king of Israel (v. 6).
When Jotham learned of this he was quite angry. Even though a son of Gideon, who had been Israel's leader, he didn't yearn to become Israel's king. But he wanted to expose his half-brother for the murderous, power-seeking politician he was, and to help promote in Israel the conduct his father had enforced and practised against pagan worship.
By night Jotham went up Mt. Gerizim, which towered close above Shechem. Next morning, when the people were up and about, he appeared on the top to call down to them. This wasn't such a tremendous feat as one might imagine, inasmuch as Joshua had successfully addressed hundreds of thousands of people in that same area. Mt. Ebal was close by to the north, and between the two peaks a strong voice could clearly be heard over an unusually large expanse (Josh. 8:30-35).
"Listen to me, men of Shechem so that God may listen to you!" Jotham shouted down to them.
"There was a time when all the trees decided that they should have some kind of tree rule over them. They agreed that the olive tree was best fitted as a leader, so they asked the olive tree to be king. The olive tree refused, saying, 'I honour God and man by the oil I produce. Why should I forsake my outstanding service even to be king?'
"Then the trees said to the fig tree, 'Be our king.' But the fig tree answered, 'Why should I give up producing my special sweetness and flavour just to be promoted over all other trees?'
"The trees next asked the grape vine to rule over them. The grape vine replied, 'I cannot be your king. It would mean that I would have to stop yielding the juice from which comes the wine to cheer both gods and man.'
"The trees finally turned to the bramble to ask it to be their king. The thorny bush answered quite differently. 'If you really want me to be your king,' it said, 'then leave all matters entirely up to me. If you fail to put your trust in me or disagree with what I want to do, I shall spew out fire to burn up everything, even the cedars on the snow-clad peaks of mount Lebanon!'" (Jdg. 9:6-15.)
People below who listened to Jotham realised that when he spoke of the bramble he was referring to Abimelech, and that when he mentioned the cedars of Lebanon he was referring to the elders and chiefs of Israel.
"If you people think you have done the best thing for Israel in making Abimelech your leader," Jotham continued, "and you really believe that your murder of my seventy brothers was a fitting tribute to Gideon my father, who risked his life for you, then be happy with Abimelech and let Abimelech be happy with you!
"On the other hand, if you have allowed a scoundrel and a murderer to become your king, Abimelech will soon have his differences with you people who have helped him into power. You will eventually destroy him. But he will also destroy you!" (vv. 16-20).
God's warning to them was finished. They had no more excuse for remaining on Abimelech's side.
Then Jotham fled, escaping to Beer, and he lived there because he was afraid of his brother Abimelech (v. 21).
How God's Law operates
Perhaps Jotham's efforts to remind the local Israelites that they were headed for trouble weren't entirely wasted. Abimelech was leader of the northern Israelites around Shechem and Arumah for three years, but at the end of that time a feeling of dislike and suspicion developed between him and many Israelites, especially those in the Shechem area. Former partners in murder now became enemies.
This was the natural result of building a government on murderous plots, evil schemes and unholy religious propositions. Even so, God stepped in to cause differences to develop more quickly in order that Abimelech and his hired murderers and fellow conspirators might come to faster justice. Abimelech probably was aware of God's Laws, but he wasn't convinced that the dreadful penalty for breaking them was certain to fall on him (Rom. 15:4; 2Tim. 3:16.)
Some of the same men who had helped Abimelech become a ruler, hired other men to watch for him and his friends as they travelled about in the more wild, mountainous regions around Arumah and Shechem in upper Canaan. They hoped to assassinate him in some out-of-the-way spot, but their attempts were unsuccessful because he had been told of the plan.
All that was accomplished was the injuring and robbing of many other people who were moving through lonely areas (Jdg. 9:22-25.
Meanwhile, a Canaanite named Gaal, who wished to see the Israelite driven out, organized a band of soldiers and went to Shechem to suggest to Abimelech's enemies that they band together against their leader. Gaal volunteered to head the movement.
Abimelech wasn't in Shechem at the time, so many of the men of Shechem felt free to join Gaal. There was a great celebration in the temple of Baal. There, inflamed by much drinking of wine, Gaal loudly announced that the Israelites should turn to the Canaanite leaders if they wished to be free of Abimelech, an Israelite, and that he, Gaal, would remove Abimelech from power if only the people would back him up with fighting men.
Political confusion worsens
Many men in Shechem rallied to join Gaal. He was so encouraged that he became certain he could lead a revolution without any danger of failure. He went so far as to send messengers to challenge Abimelech to return to Shechem and fight for the right to be ruler (Jdg. 9:26-29).
This development troubled Zebul, governor of Shechem and one of Abimelech's right-handmen. He knew where Abimelech was, and sent a swift messenger to him to warn that Gaal had taken over the city and was fortifying it. He suggested that Abimelech quietly bring in an army by night, hide in nearby fields and then wait to see what Gaal would do.
That night Abimelech quietly moved his army into the vicinity of Shechem, concealing it in four companies in gullies and behind hills and rocks.
Next morning Gaal strode out through the city's main gate with some of his men. Zebul accompanied them.
"The mighty Abimelech must have heard of my challenge long before this, but I don't see any sign of him," Gaal loudly remarked in a sneering tone. "Perhaps he decided to lead the Israelites back into Egypt!"
Gaal's men laughed at this comment. Zebul smiled, too, but not because of the remark. He was aware that Abimelech's troops were all around. Suddenly Gaal squinted his eyes as though trying to make out something in the distance.
"Look!" he barked, pointing. "Do I see people moving down from the tops of those hills?"
"People?" Zebul echoed. "Aren't you looking at just the shadows of the mountains?" (Jdg. 9:30-36).
"Those are people," he exclaimed. "They're coming toward us through the valley and across the plain! We're surrounded!"
"How true!" Zebul remarked with a grim smile. "Now let's see how you'll go about destroying Abimelech as you boasted you would do! Go and fight them!
So Gaal led out the citizens of Shechem and fought Abimelech.
Abimelech chased him, and many fell wounded in the fight – all the way to the entrance to the gate. Abimelech stayed in Arumah, and Zebul drove Gaal and his brothers out of Shechem (Jdg. 9:37-41).
Regardless of the threat of attack by Abimelech, who now regarded Shechem as an enemy stronghold, hundreds of people went out next morning to the surrounding fields and this was reported to Abimelech. So he took his men, divided them into three companies and set an ambush in the fields. When he saw the people coming out of the city he rose to attack them. Abimelech and the companies with him rushed forward to a position at the entrance to the city gate. Then two companies rushed upon those in the fields and struck them down.
All that day Abimelech pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed all its people. Then he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it (vv. 42-45). There is no record of what happened to Zebul, governor of the city.
It was a custom at that time that a home, city or village should be strewn with salt if for any reason it was considered a disgraceful or abominable place. To show his contempt for Shechem, Abimelech ordered his men to scatter salt all about the city.
While this was going on, fugitives of the Shechem area were fearfully gathering not far away at a tower-like structure built on a mountainside. It was the place of worship of one of the Canaanite gods, and was considered a strong refuge. More than a thousand people swarmed into it. They hoped that Abimelech, who had shown a strong leaning toward pagan gods would spare the place in the event he found them hiding there.
Again Abimelech's spies informed him what was going on. Abimelech took his men into a nearby region where there was a heavy growth of trees and brush. There each man cut down as large a branch as he could comfortably carry, and took his load to where the people were hiding.
The branches were piled around the base of the structure then they set them on fire. The tremendous fire that followed speedily destroyed the tower. The people inside, unable to escape, died for having helped Abimelech murder Jerubbaal's sons, just as Jotham had prophesied (Jdg. 9:19-20; Jdg. 9:46-49).
From revenge to conquest!
Abimelech's God-given victory made him so conceited and greedy he wanted to conquer innocent cities. Next morning he started on a march to the city of Thebez about ten miles to the northeast. He had received reports that most of the people there were not in favour of his leadership. His vengeful desire was simply to wipe them out, just as he had done to others who had stood in the path of his political aims. Abimelech didn't realise that God had allowed him to wipe out Shechem only because of its part in his treacherous murders.
When he reached Thebez, the people there were so frightened that they fled to a high, walled stronghold within the city. Abimelech's army closed in on the city, converging on the high fortress within. As he approached the tower to set it on fire, a woman dropped a heavy chunk from a broken millstone on his head and cracked his skull (Jdg. 9:50-53).
Abimelech called to his armour-bearer, "don't let it be said that a woman sent me to my death! Thrust your sword through me! Now!"
So his servant ran him through, and he died. When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead they went home (vv. 54-55).
Abimelech had refused to profit from the sad experiences of others who had rebelled against God's Laws. Only those who want to obey God can learn from such tragic events (Rom.15:4; 2Tim. 3:16).
The reign of Abimelech represents the first attempt at usurping the authority of the Sanhedrin (governing council) to the kingship. Gideon had seventy sons, which symbolised the council of the elders. We saw where Abimelech killed his own brothers, the seventy, in order to seize rulership. He was not one of the twelve judges but a false king.
In a spiritual sense the woman who killed Abimelech is symbolic of the Church that overcomes Satan who makes war on the seventy of the celestial Host.
Jotham's prediction of grief in Israel wasn't an empty one. God had brought destruction upon the destroyers (vv. 56-57). All the trouble and misery could have been avoided if the people had shunned pagan gods and had been willing to learn the right and happy way to live by obeying God's Laws. God had promised that all would go well with those who obey (Deut. 6:3). But Satan has suggested that it would be better to choose any way of life that seems easiest and most pleasant and wait to see what develops (Gen. 3:4-6).
Unfortunately, almost every generation of Israel preferred to go along with the latter way and learn life's principles in the most difficult and miserable manner. Most of mankind continues to believe that delusive old adage that experience is the best teacher. Experience is really the worst teacher because of the wretchedness and grief that accompany it.
After the death of Abimelech, the next man to become a judge in northern Canaan was Tola son of Puah. He was from the tribe of Issachar.
Tola led northern Israel twenty-three years. During that time there was peace in that part of the land because the worship of pagan gods and idols was almost completely stopped (Jdg. 10:1-2).
After Tola died, a man by the name of Jair came into power in eastern Israel. He had thirty grown sons who helped him maintain control as the mayors or rulers of thirty towns in northern Canaan. Jair and his sons chose to rule by God's Laws, and for twenty-two more years matters went well for the Israelites in that region (vv. 3-5).
Jair's death triggered the return of the Israelites of northern Canaan to idolatry. Gradually they fell into worshipping foreign gods and forgot the many wonderful blessings that obeying their God brings, such as peace, health and prosperity.
Because of the disobedience of the Israelites, God became increasingly angry. He allowed two nearby warlike nations to send soldiers into the land. They were the Amorites and the Philistines who oppressed all the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead for eighteen years. The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah Benjamin and Ephraim; and Israel was in great distress (Jdg. 10:6-9).
It was then that the people began to cry out to God. They admitted their sin of bowing down to other gods, and begged for forgiveness and help.
The Lord replied, “Did I not save you previously from the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Zidonians, the Amalekites and the Midianites? You pleaded for help when you were in danger, and I delivered you from all these enemies. Then you turned around and forsook me! Why should I save you again? Cry to your pagan gods to save you!" (vv. 10-14).
The Israelites knew better than to waste their prayers on heathen gods in a time of trouble. They were aware that only the God of Israel could help them, and they continued their pleas for deliverance.
And finally -- repentance!
"Do whatever you will to us!" they pleaded. "But for now, we beg you to spare us from our enemies!"
Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the Lord and he felt sorry for Israel.
Again, after eighteen years of oppression, the ever-merciful Creator moved to deliver His chosen people (Jdg. 10:8). He made it known to them that as many as possible should gather to meet the enemy in the land east of the Jordan, and that He would help them.
The Israelites were disorganized, but this wonderful news spurred them to action.
It wasn't long before the news of this great gathering reached the Ammonites, who were about ready for a last attack on the half tribe of Manasseh and the tribes of Reuben and Gad in eastern Canaan. Israel's move stepped up the action of the Ammonites, who hadn't expected any mass resistance.
But the fact was that the quickly-organized army of Israel as yet had no leader or captain! The leaders of the people of Gilead said to each other, “Whoever will launch the attack against the Ammonites will be the head of those living in Gilead (vv. 17-18).