Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Disaster that is Abimelech


Judges 9 is one of those chapters that show some really disturbing things happening, which makes it one of those cautionary tales that reveals the selfishness and corruption of fallen man.  It implies important lessons about government and legitimacy of rulers and campaigning and appropriate measures of taking power, just about all of which are taught by negative example through the moral failings of the characters.  It also shows an instance of how God uses the law of the harvest to avenge the innocent when no earthly judicial power is available to bring the evildoer to justice.

We start with Abimelech, a son of Gideon.  He’s the son of Gideon’s concubine, but Gideon has a bunch of other wives who bore him 70 sons.  Abimelech’s mother was a woman of Shechem, possibly a Canaanite.   The chapter starts with Abimelech going to his mother’s family in Shechem and making an argument to them that they should campaign for him to be made king.  His argument deserves some attention.

1 And Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem unto his mother’s brethren, and communed with them, and with all the family of the house of his mother’s father, saying,
2 Speak, I pray you, in the ears of all the men of Shechem, Whether is better for you, either that all the sons of Jerubbaal, which are threescore and ten persons, reign over you, or that one reign over you? remember also that I am your bone and your flesh. (Judges 9:1-2)

For a long time the notion of 70 sons of Gideon ruling over Shechem didn’t make sense to me, and I thought Abimelech was suggesting that in the future 70 sons might all be crowned king at once.  Recently, I realized that the 70 sons referred to could have been a council like Moses’s quorum of 70 who helped judge Israel, and they could have already been ruling that way.  (Gideon may have helped set this up, considering the people wanted him to be king and wanted his son after him to rule over them.  Remember, he refused to be king on the grounds that the Lord should rule over them, see Judges 8:23.  But he may have thought that a council made up of all his sons would make everyone happy because no single one of them would have total power and yet the people could get behind them because they were Gideon’s sons.)  A council of sons would help the land stay free of a king while still maintaining order and allowing good decisions to be made.  I’ll bet the decisions they came to with all that input were much better than one person could make alone.

And yet, Abimelech argues it is better for one man to rule than 70, and he appeals to his family’s self-interest and the self-interest of Shechem, implying that if he is made king, he will favor his family in his decisions and by extension, the inhabitants of Shechem.  (Is Abimelech the kind of man you would trust to judge fairly?  With the above argument, not on your life.)


3 And his mother’s brethren spake of him in the ears of all the men of Shechem all these words: and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech; for they said, He is our brother.
4 And they gave him threescore and ten pieces of silver out of the house of Baal-berith, wherewith Abimelech hired vain and light persons, which followed him.
5 And he went unto his father’s house at Ophrah, and slew his brethren the sons of Jerubbaal, being threescore and ten persons, upon one stone: notwithstanding yet Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left; for he hid himself.
6 And all the men of Shechem gathered together, and all the house of Millo, and went, and made Abimelech king, by the plain of the pillar that was in Shechem.

Well, Abimelech’s campaign promises sound pretty good to his family and to the men of Shechem, so they decide to support him.  And to do that, they gave him 70 pieces of silver from the treasury of the idolatrous god Baal-Berith.  Maybe this is their way of implying the god’s support.  Or perhaps it is a statement that Baal is fighting the sons of Jerubbaal (Baal-fighter).   How do you think Jehovah feels about this?

The way this is shaping up, we have the wrong man with the wrong ideas getting the help of the wrong people and support from the wrong god, and you see he will take power in the wrong way.

Abimelech takes this money and hires “vain and light persons to follow him,” and with their help, goes to his 70 brothers and has them all killed, except for the youngest one, Jotham, who hides and escapes the massacre.   It is possible that killing them all on “one stone” was meant to signify a human sacrifice to the god Baal-Berith.

Yikes!  This makes it look like Baal has won, doesn’t it?  Not good!

The men of Shechem then make Abimelech king and they think everything is going to get better for them from here.  They have greater influence now, right?

Here’s where Jotham comes and lets them know what they are in for because of their wickedness.  He begins with a parable that illuminates the type of government they’ve instituted by crowning Abimelech.

7 ¶And when they told it to Jotham, he went and stood in the top of mount Gerizim, and lifted up his voice, and cried, and said unto them, Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you.
8 The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us.
9 But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?
10 And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us.
11 But the fig tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?
12 Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us.
13 And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?
14 Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us.
15 And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.

I remember one of my religion teachers at BYU said this illustrates what he calls “the bramble principle of leadership” – the most worthless of men push into power because they aren’t doing anything better with their lives.  Everyone else has more productive things to do and would have to give that up to rule because ruling takes time and energy.

Notice the bramble is everyone’s last choice because better trees have refused.  Also, the bramble has an inflated idea of what it can do for the other trees. It tells them to put their trust in its shadow, but the bramble is a very low bush, so its shadow isn’t really big.  This corresponds to how Abimelech had an inflated idea of his ability to protect those he ruled (and we will see he is not good at it).  Also, the bramble said that those who did not anoint him king (meaning those who opposed him) would be burnt up with fire.  The cedars of Lebanon were very tall and would therefore have much bigger shadows.  They corresponded to people who were much better able to protect Israel and who would be able to see how inadequate Abimelech was and would come to oppose him.  Abimelech wouldn’t be able to handle this and would destroy these people, arguing they were rebels. 

Jotham’s parable is essentially about 1) the sacrifices that good men would have to make to take up ruling authority—they have to give up their productive work for all the time it takes to rule, and 2) the troubles caused by the wrong kind of man in office—the wrong man gains more than a productive man would, yet would not have the character to protect his constituents from evils, and would have extra intolerance for anyone that opposed him to the point of destroying them, even if their opposition was completely justified.

Then Jotham gives his verdict:

16 Now therefore, if ye have done truly and sincerely, in that ye have made Abimelech king, and if ye have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done unto him according to the deserving of his hands;
17 (For my father fought for you, and adventured his life far, and delivered you out of the hand of Midian:
18 And ye are risen up against my father’s house this day, and have slain his sons, threescore and ten persons, upon one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his maidservant, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother;)
19 If ye then have dealt truly and sincerely with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice ye in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you:
20 But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the men of Shechem, and the house of Millo; and let fire come out from the men of Shechem, and from the house of Millo, and devour Abimelech.

If they’ve dealt truly with Jerubbal and his family, great!  But if not, trouble is to come, and they all know that they haven’t dealt justly.

Jotham calls for divine judgment to be rendered upon Abimelech and the men of Shechem.  He doesn’t have any power to enforce anything but he knows what should happen and he leaves it all to God.  It will be God who renders them a reward for their deeds through the pain of natural consequences and a withdrawal of protection and favor.  It will be by their own faults and evil inclinations that they punish each other.

I think Jotham was very wise to see all of this coming.  If he was the youngest of Gideon’s 70 sons, and his older brothers had been wiser than he with their experience, think what good men had been killed by Abimelech!  Think what Israel had lost in their deaths!

Not only this, but Jotham was also incredibly wise to leave the judgment of Abimelech and the men of Shechem to God instead of destroying himself seeking vengeance.  He had so much to be bitter about – the murder of 69 great men, his brothers – and yet he left it in the hands of God.  He also was a better man than his father Gideon, who killed Zebah and Zalmunna who had killed Gideon’s brothers (see Judges 8:18-19).

21 And Jotham ran away, and fled, and went to Beer, and dwelt there, for fear of Abimelech his brother.
22 ¶When Abimelech had reigned three years over Israel,

It is unknown how Jotham’s speech was received, but he fled to Beer, which is possibly in Moab, and lived there for fear of Abimelech.  He may have been afraid of retribution from Abimelech, or he may have decided he didn’t want to live anywhere Abimelech ruled, anticipating the injustices and evils that would occur during Abimelech’s administration.

So Abimelech rules 3 years in Israel.  That’s a relatively short time, but when you’re in it, it can feel like forever.

23 Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech:
24 That the cruelty done to the threescore and ten sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood be laid upon Abimelech their brother, which slew them; and upon the men of Shechem, which aided him in the killing of his brethren.

Of course, God does not send evil spirits.  However, God does withdraw protection and favor when people make bad choices, and He allows them to suffer from the natural consequences of their actions.  And when God withdraws, the natural man dominates, yielding to the evil suggestions from Satan.  Where the spiritual man would turn the other cheek and refrain from taking offense, the natural man seeks occasion to be offended and holds grudges and even betrays friends when it seems like friends are not doing as wished.  And such was the case here.  We will see that the very same bad reasons and bad methods that brought Abimelech and Shechem together will be what tears them apart and causes them to destroy each other.

25 And the men of Shechem set liers in wait for him in the top of the mountains, and they robbed all that came along that way by them: and it was told Abimelech.

The city Shechem has provided hatchet men and assassins before, so they do it again.  They set people to lie in wait for Abimelech, hoping to kill him if he comes their way.  But the men they hire do not confine themselves solely to this mission and rob everyone who falls into their hands.  We can see why this would happen.  Imagine them spotting a traveling group, thinking, “Oh!  That could be Abimelech!” and swarming down from their hiding places.  They inspect the fearful travelers and discover Abimelech is not among them.  Disappointed, they console themselves for their trouble, risk, and lost time by robbing the travelers.  After all, if they are lying in wait, they can’t carry out the work of earning their livelihoods, can they?

Naturally the news gets back to Abimelech that people are getting waylaid.  What does he do?  Nothing!  So much for his ability to protect the people.  He just lets it happen, when he should have gone there with an army to clean it up.

26 And Gaal the son of Ebed came with his brethren, and went over to Shechem: and the men of Shechem put their confidence in him.
27 And they went out into the fields, and gathered their vineyards, and trode the grapes, and made merry, and went into the house of their god, and did eat and drink, and cursed Abimelech.
28 And Gaal the son of Ebed said, Who is Abimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should serve him? is not he the son of Jerubbaal? and Zebul his officer? serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem: for why should we serve him?
29 And would to God this people were under my hand! then would I remove Abimelech. And he said to Abimelech, Increase thine army, and come out.

Next we get this man Gaal and his people who move in to Shechem, and he starts gathering the trust of parts of the city.  In the middle of a drunken episode he starts cursing Abimelech and arguing that Abimelech is not the person to rule over Shechem.

It is fascinating to see his arguments in his own favor because they are very similar to the ones Abimelech used, and Gaal presents the negative side of Abimelech’s ancestry. “[I]s not [Abimelech] the son of Jerubbaal?” (v28) Where Abimelech had argued parentage through his mother tied him to Shechem, Gaal argues that Abimelech’s parentage through his Israelite father Gideon-Jerubbaal alienates him from Shechem.

“And [is not] Zabul his officer?” – Gaal argues Abimelech did not live in Shechem and had an administrator named Zabul in charge of it.  Clearly Gaal thinks it would be better to have the ruler live in Shechem and uses Abimelech’s absence to show Abimelech doesn’t have Shechem’s interests at heart.

“serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem: for why should we serve him?” – Hamor was the man back in the time of Jacob who ruled Shechem.  We can assume Gaal argued an older ruling family would be more appropriate to rule Shechem, and we can assume Gaal was part of this family.  The argument of family ties to the city is the same one Abimelech used to gain favor, and the Shechemites are again persuaded by it, this time against Abimelech, although they should have been more leery of it, considering the track record it has had thus far.

Incidently, the argument of association with an ancient ruling family sounds like a good argument, but at this point I suspect we are to start looking askance at it.  It says nothing about good leadership ability.  Leadership ability can be learned in families, but so can ruthlessness, power-grabbing, and patterns of unrighteous dominion.

Gaal goes so far as to issue an arrogant challenge to Abimelech to meet him with the biggest army he can get.  He boasts that he can remove Abimelech if the city will let him rule.

30 ¶And when Zebul the ruler of the city heard the words of Gaal the son of Ebed, his anger was kindled.
31 And he sent messengers unto Abimelech privily, saying, Behold, Gaal the son of Ebed and his brethren be come to Shechem; and, behold, they fortify the city against thee.
32 Now therefore up by night, thou and the people that is with thee, and lie in wait in the field:
33 And it shall be, that in the morning, as soon as the sun is up, thou shalt rise early, and set upon the city: and, behold, when he and the people that is with him come out against thee, then mayest thou do to them as thou shalt find occasion.
34 ¶And Abimelech rose up, and all the people that were with him, by night, and they laid wait against Shechem in four companies.

Zabul, Abimelech’s officer in Shechem got mad at Gaal’s boasting and messaged Abimelech, asking him to come and put Gaal in his place.  He also recommended a strategy—lying in wait in the fields.  Abimelech listened and brought up his armies, dividing them into four companies to prevent his army from looking so big that Gaal wouldn’t come out to fight.

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 that were with him, from lying in wait.
36 And when Gaal saw the people, he said to Zebul, Behold, there come people down from the top of the mountains. And Zebul said unto him, Thou seest the shadow of the mountains as if they were men.
37 And Gaal spake again and said, See there come people down by the middle of the land, and another company come along by the plain of Meonenim.
38 Then said Zebul unto him, Where is now thy mouth, wherewith thou saidst, Who is Abimelech, that we should serve him? is not this the people that thou hast despised? go out, I pray now, and fight with them.
39 And Gaal went out before the men of Shechem, and fought with Abimelech.
40 And Abimelech chased him, and he fled before him, and many were overthrown and wounded, even unto the entering of the gate.

Here we see Zabul deliberately giving Gaal bad advice to get him into a position where he will lose to Abimelech.  First he denies there is an army coming down from the mountains, and when two more armies are spotted heading their way, he taunts Gaal into going out to fight when it would have been safer to stay in the fortified city.

We understand Zabul is Abimelech’s servant, but for a man who is supposed to manage and protect the city, he seems to not care much who dies in this struggle for power between Abimelech and Gaal.  In fact, he seems to want as many as possible to die with Gaal in charge because it will be more likely to turn the city against Gaal.  The citizens are becoming expendable pawns in the power struggle.

In the battle, Gaal loses and many were overthrown and wounded before they could get to the gate to reach the city’s protection. 

You’d think that’s be the end of it, right?  You’d be wrong.

41 And Abimelech dwelt at Arumah: and Zebul thrust out Gaal and his brethren, that they should not dwell in Shechem.
42 And it came to pass on the morrow, that the people went out into the field; and they told Abimelech.
43 And he took the people, and divided them into three companies, and laid wait in the field, and looked, and, behold, the people were come forth out of the city; and he rose up against them, and smote them.
44 And Abimelech, and the company that was with him, rushed forward, and stood in the entering of the gate of the city: and the two other companies ran upon all the people that were in the fields, and slew them.
45 And Abimelech fought against the city all that day; and he took the city, and slew the people that was therein, and beat down the city, and sowed it with salt.
46 ¶And when all the men of the tower of Shechem heard that, they entered into an hold of the house of the god Berith.
47 And it was told Abimelech, that all the men of the tower of Shechem were gathered together.
48 And Abimelech gat him up to mount Zalmon, he and all the people that 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 unto the people that were with him, What ye have seen me do, make haste, and do as I have done.
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 upon them; so that all the men of the tower of Shechem died also, about a thousand men and women.

Now, what happened here?

Why, after Gaal and his people were thrown out of the city, did Abimelech come and destroy Shechem?

It is likely there was a lack of communication between Zabul and Abimelech that caused this.  After Gaal was defeated, Abimelech took his army to Arumah, and Zabul was able to muster enough anger against Gaal and his supporters that they were kicked out of the city.  So the city was free of opposition to Abimelech, but Abimelech didn’t know that.  He thought the place was still a hive of rebellion.

At this point the Shechemites thought all the trouble was over, and they went back to business as usual, going out to work their farms in the field, but Abimelech must have had spies out there to tell him when they should attack again, so this was a clear opportunity.  He brought three armies, and with one he blocked the way into the city, and with the other two he massacred the people in the fields.  Then he took the city and massacred it.  And when the rulers of Shechem resorted to a fortified tower that just happened to be the temple of Baal-Berith, he had the place burned down and killed everyone there.  (This is where all worshippers of Jehovah are vindicated as we see that Baal-Berith could not save his worshippers.)

All this is pretty brutal, and remember, Abimelech is just consolidating power in the way he knows how, using the same method that worked for him before to get rid of his 69 brothers, only this time he has an army to help him.  You see, when someone takes power this way, they aren’t going to give up a method that worked for them.  This shows us clearly what kind of man we want to avoid putting into power.

He also found a few more methods that work for him—using multiple armies and burning people out of their fortifications, so naturally we should expect to see him use these methods again too.  And Abimelech still isn’t finished.

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

Next Abimelech lay siege to Thebez.  We have no idea why.  It seems unprovoked.  He’s taking things too far.  Possibly he is worried Thebez has rebels as well?

51 But there was a strong tower within the city, and thither fled all the men and women, and all they of the city, and shut it to them, and gat them up to the top of the tower.
52 And Abimelech came unto the tower, and fought against it, and went hard unto the door of the tower to burn it with fire.
53 And a certain woman cast a piece of a millstone upon Abimelech’s head, and all to brake his skull.
54 Then he called hastily unto the young man his armourbearer, and said unto him, Draw thy sword, and slay me, that men say not of me, A woman slew him. And his young man thrust him through, and he died.

Naturally, Abimelech decides to try what worked before, so he works on burning down the door to the tower where everyone has taken refuge, but he’s too close and some woman drops a millstone on him.  (He has his servant finish him off, but everyone remembers he was killed by a woman anyway.)

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

Once Abimelech dies, his army just leaves the city and goes home, which implies they all knew an attack on Thebez wasn’t justified.  This shows another way Abimelech was a bad leader—he created pretexts for fighting and everyone else was forced to go along with it.

56 ¶Thus God rendered the wickedness of Abimelech, which he did unto his father, in slaying his seventy brethren:
57 And all the evil of the men of Shechem did God render upon their heads: and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.

So, overall we see that the things that got Abimelech into power were instrumental in his destruction, and the man the Shechemites were so sure would serve their self-interest turned out to be the one to destroy them.  If that isn’t poetic justice, I don’t know what is.

We see what great wickedness one man can cause, and what great destruction can come to a city so driven by self-interest.  We see how people are pulled into wars against their will when a leader has personal grudges.  We see how much trouble a king can cause.  Really, this story would be quite at home near the end of Ether in the Book of Mormon.

One lesson that I think is very helpful to us today from this story is that bad leaders will have bad reasoning and bad methods, and that is a way that we can recognize them. 

Once I checked out from the library a book that had famous speeches by a variety of famous historical figures, both good and bad.  Speeches by Hitler and Mussolini were next to speeches by Lincoln, Ghandi, Roosevelt, Churchill, and others.  I read all of them with great interest, and I noticed that the reasoning used by the dictators and tyrants was weaker than reasoning given by the great statesmen.  The great statesmen built strong cases with strong evidence and reasoned things out better.

I’ve said we can recognize bad methods and how they are reused.  If we see bad methods, we can extrapolate how the end will play out, even if we don’t see it.  Consider the American Civil War and the southern states seceding from the Union over slavery.  Suppose just for a moment that they had succeeded in staying separate.  What do you think would have been the ultimate result?  The South probably would have torn itself apart with secession and war.  And wouldn’t it be ironic if it was over something like.. slavery?  (Of course, this is a debatable conclusion since it never came to that, but the principle is still helpful for other things.)

Now, just to end on a positive note, let’s see what happens after this stuff with Abimelech blows over, and read Judges 10:1-5..

1 And after Abimelech there arose to defend Israel Tola the son of Puah, the son of Dodo, a man of Issachar; and he dwelt in Shamir in mount Ephraim.
2 And he judged Israel twenty and three years, and died, and was buried in Shamir.
3 ¶And after him arose Jair, a Gileadite, and judged Israel twenty and two years.
4 And he had thirty sons that rode on thirty ass colts, and they had thirty cities, which are called Havoth-jair unto this day, which are in the land of Gilead.
5 And Jair died, and was buried in Camon.

Israel needs someone to defend it from all the lawlessness that grew during Abimelech’s reign and Tola seems to have taken it upon himself to do that.  This sounds like a long 23 years of little skirmishes with no one incident memorable enough to record, but with consistency enough that the man was appreciated.

After him came Jair. 

This detail about Jair’s 30 sons and 30 cities tells us that Jair worked to recreate another ruling family council over Israel, but it seems he didn’t have enough sons to recreate Gideon’s 70.  But he does his best.

We can probably surmise that each son had a city to look after, but why tells us about the donkeys?  Donkeys imply wealth and status.  It also implies lots of travel.  It is possible that Jair decided it would be best not to have the 30 sons rule all from one place, but he had them travel back and forth between the city they managed and a central meeting place where they could make decisions that would require coordination and cooperation.  They would need the donkeys for that travel back and forth.  

I suppose Jair hoped this would give the best of both systems of council and kingship, with the council enabling wise decisions, the family connection building unity and loyalty, and the city-manager responsibility maintaining closer connection to the people so that they feel they have someone looking out for their interests.  It is almost a representative-type of government, but elections may or may not have been involved.

If only it had lasted longer than Jair’s lifetime.  Still, it seems that it helped enough that the pattern is also mentioned later in Judges with Abdon setting up something similar:
13 ¶And after [Elon] Abdon the son of Hillel, a Pirathonite, judged Israel.
14 And he had forty sons and thirty nephews, that rode on threescore and ten ass colts: and he judged Israel eight years. (Judges 12:13-15)
 It's nice to see people learned from the bad things that happened.  Hopefully we can do the same today.