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Bible Commentaries
Judges 9

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-6

The King of Shechem (9:1-6)

The story of Abimelech, in chapter 9, is significant in many ways. It demonstrates that the Canaanites still abode in the land and had not been wiped out. Such Canaanites appear to have retained many of the large cities, but here we are shown how one such city, Shechem, came under Israelite control. The story shows how the inhabitants of the land and the Hebrew invaders became fused together.

The history of Shechem is of interest. It was a city in the midst of the tribal area of Ephraim between Mount Gerizim to the south and Mount Ebal on the north. It had strategic importance, since it formed an easy pass between the coastal plain of the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Valley. It appears to have figured in pre-Israelite history and to have been connected with the historical vicissitudes of the patriarchs. Both Abraham (Genesis 12:6) and Jacob (Genesis 33:18) had connections with it, while the tragic story of the rape of Dinah by the young prince of Shechem carries some memory of tribal history in which the group of Israelites descended from Dinah disappeared and disaster befell the Canaanites at Shechem (Genesis 34). When the Israelite invaders entered central Canaan they seem early to have formed some association with the Shechemites. Joseph was buried there in a piece of ground purchased from the inhabitants by Jacob; it was the scene of Joshua’s farewell address; and there the Covenant of Sinai was renewed by the tribal confederation which was soon to be victorious over the land (Joshua 24). Yet Shechem remained in Canaanite hands. The fact that its god was named Baal-berith, "Lord of a covenant," suggests that there may have been some affinity between its religion and the Covenant faith of Israel. This would account for the fact that the ceremony of Covenant renewal took place there. Gideon intermarried with a Shechemite woman, and his victory over the marauding Midianites certainly benefited the Canaanite inhabitants of that city as much as it did the Israelites.

Abimelech’s mother is described as an inhabitant of Shechem and as Gideon’s "concubine." The latter term covers a type of marriage in which the wife remained in her own clan and was occasionally visited by her husband. The children of such a marriage belonged to the wife’s clan. This partly accounts for the fact that the Shechemites were prepared to make Abimelech king. Another reason was a long tradition of Canaanite kingship in general and at Shechem in particular, where the line of rule went back to the Hamor with whom Abraham had dealings. We can therefore understand why the men of Shechem fell in so readily with Abimelech’s plans. Indeed, it may be that Abimelech’s Canaanite mother was of the influential family of Hamor. Her kinsmen evidently were men of influence and could make use of the temple treasury. Making capital out of his father’s reputation and appealing to the Shechemites on the ground of common blood, Abimelech secured help at the expense of the funds appropriated to the worship of Baal-berith. He gathered a band around him and slew all his rival brothers except Jotham, who managed to escape. The reference to the brothers’ being all slain at one stone might suggest that this was a sacrificial slaying.

We note how the fusion between Canaanites and Israelites was already taking place through intermarriage and how separate traditions were being interwoven, so that before long the two groups were indistinguishable. The worship of the Lord was celebrated often at once-pagan shrines; the forms of pagan ritual and ceremony were taken over and adapted by the religion of the God of Israel; and the traditions of Moses, the Exodus and the desert wanderings, the patriarchs and the promise, became a part of the common stock of an increasingly homogeneous people.

Verses 7-21

Jotham’s Fable (9:7-21)

Jotham, the one brother who had escaped from the slaughter, climbed to the height of Mount Gerizim above Shechem, and harangued the populace with a fable. The trees offer a kingship in turn to their various members. The olive refuses it because of its distinctive service of supplying the oil of anointing for kings, religious leaders, and sacrificial feasts. The fig tree declines it because of its important function in providing men with necessary food. The vine rejects it because it must go on producing its wine. At last the trees turn to the lowly and useless bramble, little better than a weed. The bramble greedily and arrogantly accepts, even threatening those who had offered it an honor which it does not deserve, for it may harbor a fire which could bring low even the cedars of Lebanon. Obviously the refusal of the nobler trees represents Gideon’s rejection of the kingship, while the valueless bramble in its arrogance stands for Abimelech, who had neither the wisdom nor the capacity for kingship.

Jotham’s interpretation follows. As we have seen, the implication of the fable is that Abimelech is not a man of integrity and leadership to whom men can give their confidence. In the interpretation, Jotham turned on the lords of Shechem themselves, arraigning them for the treatment of Gideon’s sons in return for his victorious leadership, and for installing the unworthy Abimelech. If they had done this in good faith, they would soon be disillusioned. That good faith was understandable in the case of Gideon, but not in the case of Abimelech. The result would be disaster for both of them. Having invoked his curse, Jotham fled from the lofty eminence, which he had chosen because it made possible an easy escape. He went to Beer, an unidentified location.

Verses 22-41

The Rebellion Under Gaal (9:22-41)

Abimelech ruled three years amid increasing discord. The reference to all Israel must not be taken literally. Abimelech ruled only over the area around Shechem, and there is no indication of a widely extended kingship. We learn that he resided at Amman (Judges 9:41), that he governed Shechem through a governor Zebul, and also that he lost his life in an expedition to Thebez (Judges 9:50). Although the site of Arumah is unknown, Thebez was only about twelve miles northeast of Shechem. This was a localized kingship and as yet there was no national solidarity.

After three years the Shechemites rose in revolt. We are told that God sent an evil spirit between them and Abimelech. This is a Hebrew way of describing the advent of a demonic element in any situation. In like manner Saul’s madness is later ascribed to an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:14). Behind the phrase, however, there are psychological and theological implications. Hebrew psychology was built on the idea that human personality could be invaded by windlike spirit forces, and that abnormal characteristics, good or evil, were due to such possession. Hebrew theology saw God as the ground of all life and its manifold experiences. It tended to ignore secondary causes and lead everything back directly to God, a somewhat natural tendency in all religious faith that is conscious of absolute dependence upon a creator. As the revelation to Israel became richer and the emphasis on man’s sin and freedom became central, light was shed in the midst of the mystery. The Cross and the Empty Tomb penetrate the heart of the mystery and remind us that God accepts responsibly the presence of evil in his world and deals with it. We may even say that God permits evil and overrules it for his purpose, but in saying that he permits it, are we not simply repeating in a more sophisticated and less challenging way what the author of Judges meant by the phrase "God sent an evil spirit"? In the last resort, all things, even misused freedom, lie within God’s will, and the Cross is the measure of his gracious acceptance of this and of his dealing with it.

The story sees the evil spirit as God’s judgment on Abimelech for his treachery. The men of Shechem acted treacherously toward Abimelech. They ambushed caravans passing along the caravan route and thus made life in the area insecure. It has been suggested that Abimelech had levied a toll as the price of safe transit and that the acts of the Shechemites threatened his source of revenue. Before long the discontent grew as opponents of Abimelech found their way to Shechem, especially Gaal the son of Ebed and his kinsfolk. Soon an organized conspiracy was on foot, and open revolt flared up. At the close of the grape harvest, Gaal harangued the lords of Shechem and gained their support for revolt. At this point we learn that Abimelech did not rule from Shechem but had put in a governor, Zebul. The skillful speaker emphasized the fact that once Abimelech and Gideon had served the sons of Hamor, and raised the question, "Why then should we serve him?" Gaal openly challenged Abimelech and implied that he himself ought to have authority.

Zebul, the governor, sent notification of the revolt to Abimelech and suggested a way of dealing with it. Abimelech and his men were to surround the city at night and launch a surprise attack at sunrise. This Abimelech did, dividing his force into four companies. Meanwhile Zebul simulated friendship for Gaal and arranged for him to attack Abimelech under the least favorable conditions. He lured Gaal to the gate and, when the rebel leader saw the forces of Abimelech descending upon the city from the mountain fastnesses, persuaded him to go out from the city and join battle. The strategy seems to have been to get Gaal outside the protection of the city defenses. The rebels were routed by Abimelech, and those who escaped were dealt with by Zebul. Abimelech returned to Arumah and left Zebul in charge.

Verses 42-49

The Destruction of Shechem (9:42-49)

It is not clear whether this is a different version of the preceding narrative or an account of a later incident. Some of the details in this story, such as the battle in the fields and the mention of the gate, may suggest that it is another version of the same events. On the other hand, the narrative may well describe a final campaign against the city, the cause of which has been lost in the obscurity of history. The story is so linked to the preceding one that immediate proximity in time is suggested by the phrase "on the following day," but this must be accepted with caution. Whatever happened, and when, the story records the total destruction of Shechem — the wiping out of its inhabitants and the razing of its buildings. The statement that Abimelech "razed the city and sowed it with salt" has a parallel in the Annals of Tiglath-pileser I, who reports of a city which he razed: "and salt thereon I sowed." The idea is that the perpetual desolation of the city is thereby assured. The Tower of Shechem appears to have been situated apart from the city itself. It, too, was razed, and the Shechemites who had sought refuge in the temple of the "Lord of a covenant" found that this did not avail them. The whole was burned by fire and the people were destroyed.

Verses 50-57

The Death of Abimelech (9:50-57)

The revolt against Abimelech still persisted at Thebez, twelve miles northeast of Shechem. The king marched against it and met his doom. As he besieged the stronghold in the city, a woman on top of the tower cast down a millstone that crushed him. His arrogance was manifested to the end in his command to his armor-bearer to kill him, lest it be remembered that he was killed by a woman.

So Jotham’s curse was fulfilled, and the first Israelite effort at kingship proved abortive. The editor of Judges sees the story as a manifestation of divine judgment on Abimelech for his treachery to his brethren and on the Shechemites for their weakness in co-operating with Abimelech in his sin.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Judges 9". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/judges-9.html.
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