Open your Bibles to the 8th chapter of the book of Judges.
We’re going to be talking about Abimelech today. And if I were to take a poll here today I imagine that most of us don’t know very much about this character – Abimelech – or his story.
When we study Bible stories you and I might struggle with finding the significance of a particular story. You generally understand what is being said. But you might not understand why.
This story today is a little different, though. Determining the significance is just as difficult as it is anywhere else in the Bible. But the story about Abimelech is even difficult to figure out what’s going on and who’s doing what and where. Forget about struggling with the significance – we just need to know what’s actually going. So, hopefully we’ll figure out what’s going on this morning as we study this story.
In order to get to the story of Abimelech though, we need to put it in context. At the beginning of the book of Judges, Joshua passes off the scene and so do the elders who outlived him. Then there arises a new generation that doesn’t know the Lord personally. And as a result they don’t conquer the land that God had given them. That’s chapter 1.
Well, why did they not conquer the land? Chapter 2 tells us – well, actually the Lord himself tells Israel – that he’s not delivering the Canaanites into their hands anymore. Why? Because they had forsaken him by marrying pagans and worshiping their new spouses’ false deities. And so from chapter 3 onward we’ve seen several judges – some major like Othniel, Ehud, Barak, and Gideon and some minor like Shamgar. These judges are charged with saving or delivering God’s people from their enemies.
Well, where do these enemies come from anyway? Why are they around? Remember – it’s actually the Lord himself who sends the enemies to his people. Israel sins. And so God chastens them by sending enemies to oppress them. Why? – Because he’s mean and unloving? No – just the opposite. God wants his people to turn back to him with all their heart. Israel won’t turn to God when times are good and it looks like their idols are serving them well. So God needs to shake them up so that they’d see that these gods of theirs can’t deliver them. Only the Lord can. And the Lord does deliver Israel through these saviors – these deliverers – these judges.
And these judges start off pretty good. We have Othniel who was related to Caleb the faithful man of Judah. Then we had Ehud. And as we read through the stories of these two judges it was hard to find fault with them.
But then we got to the next judge – Deborah. Oh wait, no, I mean Barak. It was hard to tell which of them was the judge, wasn’t it? That’s because Barak didn’t seem real excited about being a judge. Deborah – on God’s behalf – called him to save God’s people. But Barak refused to go unless a lady went with him. That was kind of embarrassing for him.
And then our last two lessons have focused on this judge called Gideon. He’s not emboldened to judge Israel by the presence of a woman. He’s not even emboldened by God promises to be with him. Gideon wasn’t even encouraged by the fleece incident. He needed to overhear the dream of a pagan Midianite in order to go into battle.
So Gideon was a fearful man. Hebrews 11 tells us he had faith – and, my, how small was that faith. And yet it was faith – Gideon went into battle facing overwhelming opposition – 300 men to 135,000 Midianites. But the Lord delivered Israel through Gideon and his 300 men.
And you wish that was the whole story. But it isn’t. Gideon showed his tendency to deliver Israel only when it was in his interest – especially when personal vengeance was involved. So, he doubted and feared whenever God told him to do something. But when Gideon had the opportunity to avenge himself for wrongs done to his own person then he was bold as a lion. But even in his boldness he showed weakness and fear.
Nevertheless, Gideon did deliver Israel from the massive army of Midian. And the Israelites understandably wanted to make him their king. They said they wanted him, his son, and his son’s son to rule over them. But Gideon refused. Instead – astoundingly – he made an ephod which all Israel worshipped. And then he did something equally as bizarre. Let’s read about it in chapter 8 verses 30 through 32.
KJV Judges 8:30 And Gideon had threescore and ten sons of his body begotten: for he had many wives. 31 And his concubine that was in Shechem, she also bare him a son, whose name he called Abimelech. 32 And Gideon the son of Joash died in a good old age, and was buried in the sepulchre of Joash his father, in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.
Well, having 70 sons is a little bizarre. So is having so many wives. But that’s not what I was thinking. What’s strangest to me is the name that Gideon gave to the son of his concubine. Gideon named that son Abimelech. Abi means “my father”. OK – so the name of Gideon’s boy is going to say something about the boy’s father – Gideon. And catch this – melech means “king”. “My father the king” or “my father is the king”. But I thought Gideon didn’t want to be a king. Why would he give his boy a name like that? Maybe Gideon thought that by having this ephod with all Israel coming to it he could sort of be like a king without actually having the troublesome responsibility of leading God’s people and bearing with their troubles.
Whatever the case, Gideon eventually dies. And when that happens, things go from not too bad to worse in verses 33 through 35.
33 ¶ And it came to pass, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel turned again, and went a whoring after Baalim, and made Baalberith their god. 34 And the children of Israel remembered not the LORD their God, who had delivered them out of the hands of all their enemies on every side: 35 Neither shewed they kindness to the house of Jerubbaal, namely, Gideon, according to all the goodness which he had shewed unto Israel.
So, Gideon dies and the people go right back to the Baals. They choose one of them – Baal-Berith – to be their god. And the Israelites are accused of two great evils in this passage.
First, they forgot God. It’s obvious that they didn’t forgot the name Yahweh. They didn’t forget the names of all the enemies that the Lord delivered them from in times past. They acted in such a way that – if you didn’t know better – would make you think that they truly didn’t know a thing about the God of Israel.
That’s a problem. But it’s not Israel’s only problem. They’re also accused of not showing kindness to Gideon. By the way – don’t let Gideon’s other name throw you — Jerubbaal. It’s the name his father gave him after Gideon pulled down Baal’s altar.
Alright, so Israel is accused of not showing kindness to Gideon. But what do you think about that? I mean the fact that Israel went a whoring after Baal-Berith doesn’t really indicate to me that they had done wrong to Gideon’s memory.
So, here’s the secret – the end of chapter 8 here shows us how Israel did wrong to God. And it’s then in chapter 9 where we see the evil that Israel does to Gideon’s household.
Now, I’ll say one last thing about this section that we just read. Gideon – the judge – is dead. And now the people again do evil in the sight of the Lord. This pattern sounds familiar, doesn’t it? What would we expect next? Judge dies. People rebel against God. Then God does what? God would send an oppressor. And he does that in this story, too! But what were oppressors like up to this point? They were foreigners. They were external to Israel and brought in by the Lord. But now, the oppressor is internal. The oppressor is an Israelite. The oppressor is… Gideon’s son. Let’s read about him in chapter 9 verses 1 and 2.
9:1 ¶ 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.
So, Abimelech goes to Shechem. Shechem is a city in Manasseh – fairly close to Ophrah, the city of Gideon. Abimelech goes to Shechem and starts campaigning to be a king. The people had wanted to make his father, Gideon, a king. Instead Gideon opted for something like the role of a priest. But his son now is actively pursuing being a king.
He talks to his mother’s kinfolk. Remember, Abimelech’s mother is from Shechem. She was the concubine of Gideon.
And Abimelech puts out this warning to the men of Shechem. First, if they don’t make him king then they’ll be ruled by 70 men. That’s a stretch, by the way. Who’s to say that Gideon’s 70 sons would want to be king and rule over Israel? Well, that’s what Abimelech insists will happen. And in that case, they would do well to have just one man to rule over them rather than 70. And by the way – Abimelech points out – I am your relative. So, go tell the men of Shechem this message, Abimelech insists.
And so they do in verse 3 —
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 Baalberith, wherewith Abimelech hired vain and light persons, which followed him.
So, you and I are still trying to figure Abimelech out. He wants to be king. Maybe that’s OK. And the people of Shechem start following him. Maybe that’s alright. Then the men of Shechem give him money. OK. But the money is from the temple of this Baal-Berith – Israel’s new god. Not OK. And with that money, Abimelech hires vicious scoundrels to follow him. Again, not good.
And the picture we have of Abimelech doesn’t get any better from here on out. Read verse 5.
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.
So, Abimelech kills 70 of his brothers on a single stone. Imagine the blood. Imagine the anguish these men – some young men no doubt – experienced. Imagine the screams and cries. And for what? What had these men done? Not a thing. Abimelech is an unfeeling self-seeking man. He’ll stop at nothing to get his way. Even if it means murdering scores of his own brothers to get it. He has truly been Canaanized.
You might think that this kind of unbridled brutality and cruelty might make the men of Shechem rethink their decision to make Abimelech their king. But it doesn’t. They go ahead with the proceedings in verse 6 —
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.
So, it looks like evil has won. Abimelech is king. The 70 sons of Gideon are dead. Might made right and that’s all there is to it… Or is it? Remember Jotham? He’s the youngest of Gideon’s sons. He escaped. And he’s got a message for the men of Shechem.
Let’s read the start of it in verse 7.
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.
Now, Mount Gerizim is to the south of Shechem. It’s ironically the place from which half the tribes of Israel issued the blessings for keeping the Law of Moses back in Joshua’s day. And isn’t it interesting that Jotham is now about to issue – not a blessing – but a curse. A curse for these men who are not keeping the Law of Moses.
But Jotham is going to introduce this curse with a fable in verses 8 through 15. He says…
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.
So, what is this fable saying? The trees – fictitiously, of course, this didn’t actually happen – but the trees go out looking for a king. Sounds like the men of Israel. So, they go to the olive tree, but he’s too busy producing fatness. The fig tree – a little smaller than the olive – can’t do it either. He’s busy making fruit. Then the trees kind of lower their sights. They go to the vine. He’s not actually a tree – but hey, the trees really want a king. But not even the vine will rule over them. He’s busy producing wine.
Let’s notice a pattern in these royal candidates so far. Olives, figs, grapes. These are the things produced by these three trees. But the next candidate doesn’t produce anything. He’s a bramble. Good enough only to be burned.
OK… so what does this mean? Listen to Jotham’s explanation in verses 16 through 21.
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; [and then Jotham has enough with pretending as if the men of Shechem acted out of sincerity and truth] 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 [catch that – Abimelech isn’t even the son of a wife. he’s the sons of a concubine – a woman who was a slave but could have sexual relations with her master], king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother;) [that’s the only reason – he’s your brother – your relative] 19 If ye then have dealt truly and sincerely with Jerubbaal and with his house this day [which we now know is not the case], then rejoice ye in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you: 20 But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech [the bramble in the fable], 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. 21 And Jotham ran away, and fled, and went to Beer, and dwelt there, for fear of Abimelech his brother.
And that’s Jotham’s curse on Abimelech and the men of Shechem and this place called Beth-Millo or the House of Millo – which I imagine was a fortress within or close by Shechem.
And now what we’re going to see for the rest of the chapter is this curse working itself out. We’ll also see more and more of Abimelech’s brutality and vengeful spirit. So, we’ll read with comments here and there. There’s a lot of action and details. It can be confusing. So hold on and we’ll figure this out. Let’s start reading verse 22.
22 ¶ When Abimelech had reigned three years over Israel, 23 Then [after those three years] God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech: [Here’s why God made this happen] 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. [So, there’s no question as to how God felt about Abimelech’s actions. He hated it.] 25 And the men of Shechem set liers in wait for him [Abimelech] in the top of the mountains, and they robbed all that came along that way by them: and it was told Abimelech.
OK, next we see a new guy come to town right as Shechem has pretty much cut ties with Abimelech.
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. [Now, we don’t know this guy, but it seems like he’s a descendant of Hamor, the father of Shechem. We’ll see that later on.] 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 [Who is now probably filled with wine…] 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.
Let me just explain a little. As I mentioned I believe Gaal is a descendant of Hamor, Shechem’s father. Remember? Shechem is the one who loved Jacob’s daughter. But to confuse matters, there’s a son of Manasseh whose name was Shechem. And he settled in Shechem. So apparently Abimelech descends from this Israelite Shechem – not the son of Hamor. So, Gaal is saying – let’s serve the real Shechem, not these Jewish occupiers.
30 ¶ And when Zebul the ruler of the city heard the words of Gaal the son of Ebed, his anger was kindled. [That’s because Gaal in his apparent drunkenness belittled Zebul. And Zebul was on Abimelech’s side.] 31 And he [Zebul] 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. 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. [He acts like nothing’s wrong.] 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. [And Zebul can’t hold his secret any longer.] 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. 41 And Abimelech dwelt at Arumah: and Zebul thrust out Gaal and his brethren, that they should not dwell in Shechem.
OK, Abimelech faced Gaal and chased him away. Gaal and his people are out of Shechem now. So you might think Abimelech might relent concerning fighting the city. But that’s not what we see next…
42 ¶ And it came to pass on the morrow, that the people [of Shechem] went out into the field; and they told Abimelech. 43 And he took the people [His people, that is], 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 [So as to cut off the men of Shechem from retreating into 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.
[Now, perhaps while this was happening or just afterwards…] 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. [Remember? The god whom Israel had chosen.] 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. [They burned alive. Men and women. Abimelech is a vicious man.]
And with Shechem destroyed you might think Abimelech’s vengeance would be satisfied. But it’s not. He stays on his rampage…
50 ¶ Then went Abimelech to Thebez [which was a city less than 10 miles from Shechem], and encamped against Thebez, and took it. 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. [Hey – if it worked in Shechem it’ll work in Thebez, too!] 53 And a certain woman [Just some nameless woman] cast a piece of a millstone upon Abimelech’s head, and all to brake his skull. [So, lying on the ground with a fractured cranium…] 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. 55 And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, they departed every man unto his place. [No mourning. No concern. Was there even a burial? We don’t know.]
But here’s the point of the whole story that we just read…
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.
And isn’t that what we just saw? Abimelech did wickedly in slaying his 70 brothers. One of those brothers escaped and issued a curse on Abimelech and the men of Shechem who strengthened him to commit these murders. And for most of this chapter we’ve seen this curse unfold. Fire – metaphorically speaking – has come out from Abimelech and consumed the men of Shechem and vice versa.
Now, what does this story teach us? Several things. I’ll mention a few.
1) Abimelech takes the bad elements that we saw in Gideon – like personal vengeance and brutality – and he raises it to the Nth degree. Fathers and Mothers here – may the Lord help us to walk in the Spirit and not produce the deeds of the flesh. You and I both know that our children will only magnify those sins.
2) God sees and knows everything. Isn’t it funny that Abimelech asks the young man to slay him so that no one knows that a woman actually killed him? Well, anyone who knows this story knows the facts. We weren’t fooled by Abimelech. We know what happened because God reported it. And he alone knows and sees all.
3) Things are getting worse and worse in Israel. Gideon definitely had his faults. But he did have some faith and God used him to deliver his people. Gideon’s son wasn’t even a judge and he didn’t deliver God’s people – he oppressed them. The people are still serving false gods. Things are getting worse, not better. And next time we’ll continue on this downward spiral with the story of Jephthah, the son of a prostitute who may have actually sacrificed his own daughter. We’ll see next time.