God versus Injustice: Abimelech (Judges 9)
“God and Injustice”
Bees fly thousands of miles to gather enough nectar to make a pound of honey. Then, someone comes along and steals it from them! No wonder bees have such lousy dispositions!
How do you handle conflict in your life? How do you react when someone does something mean or rude to you? Do you try to set straight the scales of justice? Is seeking revenge a part of your response?
Three burly fellows on huge motorcycles pulled up to a highway cafe where a truck driver, just a little guy, was perched on a stool quietly eating his lunch. As the three fellows came in, they spotted him, grabbed his food away from him and laughed in his face. The truck driver said nothing. He got up, paid for his food, and walked out.
One of the cyclists, unhappy that they could not draw the man into a fight, commented to the waitress, “Boy, he sure wasn’t much of a man, was he?” The waitress replied, “Well, I guess not.” Then she looked out the window and said, “I guess he’s not much of a truck driver either because he just ran over three motorcycles.”
How do you respond when someone provokes you to anger, or to sin? Do you try to get even, to balance the scales of justice because - here is how we think - “If I don’t do it, nobody will!”
But the apostle Paul teaches us in Romans 12:19: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, (here, Paul quotes Deut. 32:35), ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
This morning, we are going to spend a long time just reviewing an event from the book of Judges - Judges 9. Judges 9 is, by far, the longest chapter in the whole book of Judges. There is a reason why God put that chapter in the Bible; there’s a reason why God dedicated the longest chapter in Judges to this man named Abimelech. So, we’re going to spend time going through the details of this event, only to let the author summarize it for us in the last two verses of the chapter.
SHECHEM MAKES ABIMELECH KING - 9:1-6:
First, let me give you some history of the city of Shechem. Abraham had built an altar there to worship Jehovah God back in Genesis 12:6. That’s the first time Shechem shows up in Bible history. Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, lived in Shechem. Jacob had a lot of members of his family which had worshiped false gods and Jacob got them to repent of their idolatry and he buried all their idols under a tree in Shechem (35:2-4). Joseph, the son of Jacob, was sold into slavery by his brothers who were watching their sheep in Shechem.
Under the law of Moses, God made Shechem a city of refuge where people could find safety if they accidentally killed someone. Right before Joshua died, he gathered the tribes of Israel together at Shechem and he made them promise that they would stay faithful to God after Joshua died. Since Shechem belonged to the tribe of Manasseh, the bones of Joseph, who had died in Egypt, were buried in Shechem. You can see that Shechem had a long and rich history among the nation of Israel much like Boston, MA or Philadelphia, PA has for Americans.
The next time Shechem is mentioned in the Bible is at Judges 8:31, where Gideon had a concubine from Shechem and she gave birth to a boy and they named him Abimelech. But by the name Abimelech is born, the city of Shechem is a haven for idol worshipers, especially worshippers of Baal. So, from the time when Jacob buried his family’s idols underneath a tree in Shechem until the days of Abimelech, the people have made a full circle, in about 400 years.
We remember the story of Gideon, how God called him to fight against the Midianites to lead Israel to freedom and Gideon had 32,000 soldiers but God told him that was too many and God narrowed down that army to only 300 soldiers. God gave Gideon the victory with only 300 soldiers. That story was told in Judges 7-8. Now, before God called Gideon to do that, God told Gideon to tear down the altars to Baal which Gideon’s own father had set up in their village of Ophrah and Gideon had the courage to do that. After that, Gideon’s dad gave Gideon another name, Jerubbaal, which translated means, “He fights with Baal.” Keep that in mind because the author of the book of Judges calls Gideon by that name - Jerubbaal as he tells this story about Gideon’s son, Abimelech.
So, Abimelech goes back to Shechem, the hot-bed of Baal worship and he talks to his mom’s family. He asks them, “Do you want 70 men to be your leaders or just one, one of your own?” In Judges 8:30, Gideon had 70 sons of his own through many wives but he also had Abimelech through this concubine in the city of Shechem. So, basically, Abimelech is asking them, “Do you want 70 outsiders to rule over you or one of your own?” He reminds them, “I am your bone and your flesh.”
So, the men with whom Abimelech talks goes to the rest of the men of Shechem and encourages them to follow Abimelech because he is blood-kin. Now, verse 4 helps us understand the religious context of the city of Shechem. The men went to the “house of Baal-berith” to get 70 pieces of silver, one piece for each of Abimelech’s half-brothers. This “house” was a temple and “Baal-berith” was a designation of the false god, Baal, and “berith” is the Hebrew word for “covenant.” The name itself translates “Baal of the Covenant.” We do not know what this title meant for Baal. Had these men made a covenant with Baal or was “covenant” a mixing of worship to Jehovah God with worship of Baal? Either way, these men were worshippers of Baal and the author describes them as “worthless and reckless.” This phrase is literally “empty and insolent.” Abimelech’s rise to power, then, is financed by donations to a false god.
These men, scoundrels without values or scruples, went with Abimelech to his dad’s home village of Ophrah and slaughtered his 70 half-brothers. Or almost all of them - one little whipper-snapper escaped, named Jotham. He was the youngest and he escaped. So, with that victory, these men of Shechem get together and they make Abimelech king by the oak of the pillar which was in Shechem. That oak tree was probably a place of worship for the false god Baal and his female counterpart, Ashtorah. So, this coronation ceremony probably had mixed with it rituals to these false gods.
You might remember that after Gideon won his battle with the Midianites, that the people of Israel wanted to make Gideon their king. But Gideon told them in Judges 8:23, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.” However, I do not know if Abimelech’s mom or Gideon had that idea when they named Abimelech but his name literally means, “My father is king!” I’m guessing it was the mom who named him that. So, about 300 years before King Saul is named king over all Israel, the Israelites in Shechem, at least, name Abimelech their king and according to verse 22, Abimelech will rule as king for three years.
Gideon was a strong believer in God and was widely respected by Israel. But, Abimelech kills almost all the legitimate heirs to that mantle of leadership and he assumes that leadership with the help of pagans.
JOTHAM REBUKES SHECHEM AND ABIMELECH - 9:7-21:
Some people tell that youngest brother, Jotham, what Abimelech has done, so Jotham goes to Mount Gerizim, which was close to Shechem, to have an audience with the men of Shechem. In the Law of Moses, the Israelites were to periodically assemble on Mount Gerizim and read out the blessings of the Law that would come to those who were faithful to God. Then, Jotham tells a fable.
Both a parable and a fable use objects from nature to teach a lesson. The difference between a parable and a fable is that the things that happen in a parable are true and can happen in real life. But not necessarily in a fable. In Aesop’s fable, a tortoise will not really enter into a race against a rabbit. Animals do not really talk. Here, in Jotham’s fable, plants do not really talk and they do not reign as kings.
In Jotham’s fable, the trees wanted a king to reign over them. They asked the olive tree, but the olive tree refused. The trees asked a fig tree to reign over them. The fig tree refused. Third, the trees ask the grape vine to reign over them. The vine refused. Finally, the trees ask the bramble bush, the thorns, the weeds, to reign over them. The bramble bush replied, “If you really want me to reign over you, if in truth you want me to reign, seek refuge in my shade. But if you’re just blowing smoke, then I will set you on fire and consume all of you!”
Really, you would not seek for shade in a bunch of thorn bushes, would you? You would probably rather risk staying out in the sun than deal with thorns. Plus, they grow much closer to the ground than trees and it would not be comfortable from that perspective either.
The basic message of Jotham’s fable is that the men of Shechem have chosen a bramble bush to be their king and he will eventually bring about their downfall, their ruin, their destruction. While Jotham is not identified as a prophet, we will see at the end of the story that God makes Jotham’s prediction come true.
Jotham’s application is in the next paragraph, verses 16-21. If the men of Shechem have dealt “in truth and integrity” - and these two words were often associated with making a covenant with Jehovah God - by making Abimelech king and killing Gideon’s sons (Jotham’s brothers), then (verse 19), Jotham says, rejoice in Abimelech and may Abimelech rejoice in you! In the middle of that sentence, Jotham reminds the men of Shechem what his dad did for them: “my father fought for you, he risked his life for you, he delivered you from the hand of the Midianites!”
However, Jotham says in verse 20, if they are not acting in truth and in integrity, he suggests fire will come out from Abimelech and destroy them - the men of Shechem! And, fire will come from the men of Shechem and consume Abimelech! So, mutually assured destruction!
After giving his fable and its application, Jotham fled to Beer and remained hidden from his half-brother. We don’t hear from Jotham ever again.
GAAL BEGINS A CONSPIRACY - 9:22-49:
Verse 22 tells us that Abimelelch got away with his evil for three years. But, the problem is, that God never forgets. Sin is never forgotten unless it is wiped clean by the actions of God. For us on this side of the cross, sin is not forgotten unless it is wiped clean by the blood of Jesus Christ. Vengeance is God’s and He will repay and God works events around now to accomplish His vengeance on this wicked man named Abimelech.
God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem. In some way, God caused bitterness to spring up between these two. Verse 24 tells us that God did this so He could bring vengeance back around on the head of Abimelech.
How does God do that?
Well, He first uses the greediness of the men of Shechem to start robbing Abimelech’s “subjects” as they passed through the mountains (vs 25). Abimelech got word of what they were doing. This may have been motivated by Abimelech not paying the men what they thought they deserved or, perhaps not giving them the respect that they thought they earned or deserved. We don’t know the exact motivation, but they did want more money.
The scene shifts in verse 26 as we are introduced to a new man, named Gaal, which sounds suspiciously like Baal. He is identified as the “son of Ebed” (NASV) but “Ebed” is the word for slave so the historian might simply be calling him the “son of a slave,” which suggests the lowest of all men is now challenging the self-appointed king for his authority! Notice at the end of verse 26, “the men of Shechem put their trust in him.” Uh oh. Now we have a rival to the throne, at least the affections in the hearts, of the men of Shechem! Abimelech versus Gaal. Under Gaal’s leadership, the men of Shechem made some wine, went to the temple of Baal, and cursed Abimelech (vs 27)!
Iin verse 28, Gaal mocks Abimelech: “Who is Abimelech, who is Shechem, that we should serve him? He’s simply the son of Jerubbaal and Zebul is Abimelech’s ‘flunky’ or ‘minion’!” Zebul was the ruler of the city of Shechem (vs 30) and a follower of Abimelech. Then Gaal boasts in verse 29 that if the men of Shechem gave him authority, he would remove Abimelech. He would give the men of Shechem what they ask! You know, we have this expression: “There’s no honor among thieves!” So Gaal challenges Abimelech to battle (vs 29).
Zebul hears about Gaal’s boast (vss 30-33) and he secretly informs Abimelech and suggests plans so that Abimelech can ambush Gaal and his men, the men of Shechem who have switched sides, and Abimelech can nip this rebellion in the bud.
Abimelech divides his forces into four groups. Gaal is standing at the city gate and he apparently sees some movements and tells Zebul that there are people streaming down from the mountains. Zebul buys some time by saying, “Nah, it’s just shadows you are seeing.” Gaal is smarter than that. In verse 37, he says, “Nope - those are people and I see at least two groups.”
Then, in verse 38, Zebul says, “Ah, where is your boasting now!? Aren’t those the people you despised!? Go fight now, you arrogant knucklehead!” So, Gaal fights against Abimelech and Abimelech wins and Zebul is able to bring the city of Shechem back under Abimelech’s control. So, at this particular point, some of the men of Shechem have been killed. God’s prophecy through Jotham is partly fulfilled. But the story is not over because the prophecy is not completely fulfilled.
Verse 42… There were more men in Shechem who followed Gaal and Abimelech’s forces have been whittled down to only three companies (vs 43). But, Abimelech slaughtered this group of men from Shechem as well. After a full day of fighting (vs 45), Abimelech was able to subdue the city of Shechem; then he burned the city to the ground and sowed their fields with salt to make them infertile for many years to come. Get the picture now, the very city that chose to make Abimelech king is now burned to the ground by their king!
One of my professors at Faulkner, Wendell Winkler, cautioned us preacher boys in school, thirty years ago. He said when we move to a new congregation, there might be some underlying disagreements or divisions in the congregation. And, he said, someone might take the initiative to become your friend, your buddy, but eventually you notice that he is only doing that to pull you over to his side. Brother Winkler cautioned us not to get into squabbles between Christians in the church unless it has to do with the Truth and then, he said, just teach the truth, lovingly and firmly but stay out of power plays. Eventually, the man who first became your friend will realize that he can’t manipulate you and he’ll drop the facade. I have found that to be true. Abimelech and the men of Shechem are learning the truth the hard way. There is no honor among thieves.
Well, many of the leaders of a defense tower on the outskirts of Shechem have, somehow, escaped the blood bath so far. So, these men of Shechem find refuge in the temple of their god who is now called “El-berith,” the “God of the Covenant,” which is another reference to Baal. They think their idol is going to save them! Abimelech is too smart for them - he and his soldiers go to the woods and cut some very large branches and they lay them against the wooden frame of the temple of El-berith - the “inner chamber” might be a tunnel - and set the branches on fire (vss 46-49). In that way, Abimelech kills most, if not all the rest, of the men of Shechem, numbering around 1,000 men and women! The place where these people sought refuge - the house of their idol - turns out to be their coffin.
So, half of Jotham’s prophecy has been fulfilled. What about the other half? What about Abimelech himself? Well, God sees to it that he dies a very dishonorable death…!
ABIMELECH IS KILLED - 9:50-57:
In verse 50, Abimelech goes to Thebez, a village which has not shown up in the story just yet. This is the only place where Thebez is mentioned, along with a latter report in 2 Samuel 11:21 which is referring to this very story.
Apparently there were a lot of the men and women of Shechem, followers of Gaal, who fled to Thebez and sought refuge in a defense tower there. They went up to the roof.
Abimelech decides he is going to do the same thing to Thebez that he did to the temple in Shechem: set it on fire. But, in verse 53, a woman, a random, nameless woman, gets a huge stone used to crush wheat, an upper millstone, and throws it over the wall, crushing Abimelech’s skull.
On the verge of death, knowing he is dying, in pain and agony, Abimelech calls on his young armor-bearer to pull out his sword and kill Abimelech so that no one will know Abimelech was killed by a woman! So, the young man pulled his sword, ran Abimelech through with his steel, and nobody to this day has ever heard that Abimelech was killed by a woman! (Tongue in cheek!)
In verse 55, the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead and said, “Well, that’s that. Let’s go home!” And there’s not talk of having a king in Israel again for another 300 years!
The whole purpose of the story, the reason God put it into the Bible for the sake of the Israelites and the reason why God left the story in the Bible for the sake of Christians is given in verses 56-57. Here’s the point to my whole sermon this morning:
God repaid the wickedness of Abimelech (vs 56).
God returned all the wickedness of the men of Shechem (vs 57).
And God fulfilled the prophecy of Jotham.
It doesn’t matter how you say it: “Be sure your sins will find you out” (Num. 32:23).
“Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days” (Ecc. 11:1).
“Whatever a man shows, this he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7) - sin ends in punishment. And we don’t need to try to take vengeance into our own hands. That’s a good way to get burned.
Take home message: Leave vengeance to God. He does not forget sin and He will repay sin and punishment on those who deserve it.