Today we return to our series on the Book of Judges by turning to Judges 9:1-15;42-57 Abimelech: The Thornbush. Abimelech is Gideon’s son through a concubine and so he murders all his half brothers in order to rule over the people. His half-brother, Jotham, escapes and then curses Abimelech. Israel is looking and acting more and more like the nations around them instead of the people God wants them to be - shaped by his laws and festivals. God allows Abimelech to rule for a few years but turns the people against him. God allows us to suffer the consequences of our choices, but when we cry out to him, he responds and will bring order into the chaos we create through our own choices.
Judges 9:1-15; 42-57
We’re back into the book of Judges and we’re now in the second half of the time Israel spent under the judges, Gideon is a turning point in Israel’s history at this time. As we journey further into the book of Judges, Israel is beginning to look more, and act more and more like the nations around her. The account of Abimelek hi-lights this is a particularly ugly story of power, greed, and revenge; it’s a brutal story of blood lust. Gideon dies after 40 years of being a judge. Israel had offered him the throne as a king, but he turned them down, telling them that the Lord will rule over you. But we do see how Gideon is influenced by his times and used gold given to him in gratitude for his service, and Gideon uses this gold to create a gold ephod, an object often used in pagan temples. This ephod becomes an idol to Gideon and his family, and even Israel as they all begin to worship it. Gideon has created something new to worship alongside the Lord, a common temptation for all of us to this day.
Gideon has 70 sons through his wives, and 1 son through a concubine from Shechem. After his death, Israel returns to worshipping idols alongside the Lord, but they also forget Gideon’s family and fail to show them any kindness after their father’s service to Israel and the Lord. This encourages Abimelek, Gideon’s son through the concubine, a disgraced son, to go to the leaders of Shechem and make a plan to put him on the throne instead of one of Gideon’s legitimate sons; after-all, he’s from Shechem, not an outsider. They agree and give him silver from the temple of Baal-Berith to make it happen. Abimelek uses the money to hire reckless scoundrels to follow him and they murder 69 of his brothers on a stone at his father’s home in Ophrah, adding insult to injury. Only the youngest son, Jotham, escapes Abimelek’s murderous spree. Abimelek is crowned king and Israel is looking like, and acting more and more like the nations around them instead of the people God wants them to be, shaped by his laws and festivals.
Jotham now comes out of hiding to challenge the people of Shechem on their odious choice to help Abimelek become king through murdering 69 of Gideon’s sons. Rev. Dave Warnock writes, “Verses 7-15 are a parable told by Jotham to highlight the worthlessness of King Abimelech. In the parable, the trees are looking for a king and start by asking the most valuable, most productive, most important tree, which in that culture was the olive. Each tree that is asked refuses to become king because what they produce is too valuable to be abandoned for kingship. After the olive, fig and vine have all refused the kingship they go to the thornbush…. The thornbush offers shade, just as a king ought to offer protection to his subjects, but then concludes with the threat of destruction by fire.”
I wonder if Isaiah in 9:18 had Jotham’s parable in mind when he wrote, “For wickedness burned like a fire, consuming briers and thorns; it kindled the thickets of the forest, and they swirled upwards in a column of smoke.” Jotham offers a curse, if they have not treated Gideon and his family honourably and in good faith, “may fire come out from Abimelek and consume you… and let fire come out of you… and consume Abimelek.” Jotham then flees, knowing that there’s no place left for him among the people his father had fought and risked his life for.
Abimelek rules like a middle eastern despot, using power and force to make the people obey him. Life is all about satisfying the king’s lust for power, about treating him like a demi-god. Abimelek creates a ton of hatred between himself and the people of Shechem, stirred up by God because of Abimelek’s murderous spree to gain the throne and because of Shechem’s part in helping him; God is avenging the crime against Gideon’s sons. Both Abimelek and the people of Shechem are going to suffer the consequences of their horrendous actions.
The people of Shechem begin fighting back against Abimelek and Abimelek responds by taking his men, the reckless scoundrels, and goes to war against Shechem, destroying the city and scattering salt over the land to make it worthless. He then goes up against the citizens who have taken refuge in the temple of El-Berith and murders them by burning them out, about a 1,000 people die this way. More brutality from a brutal king. How can these be God’s people? Jotham’s curse against the people of Shechem has come true, how is the curse against Abimelek going to play out?
Abimelek isn’t satisfied with destroying the people of Shechem, he now moves against the city of Thebez, besieges it, and captures it. Inside the city is a strong tower where the people of Thebez have now barricaded themselves in. Burning the people of Shechem to death worked well for Abimelek, so he uses the same approach here, approaching the tower to set it on fire. As Abimelek approached the tower, a woman drops an upper millstone on his head and cracks his skull. Abimelek, worried about his reputation even in death, calls his armourbearer to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him.’” We hear an echo here back to the foreign general Sisera and how Jael killed him with a tent peg.
Abimelek is dead, Jotham’s curse is fulfilled, and Israel learns that you don’t mess with God. God’s judgement comes unseen through the consequences of the various people’s actions. The judgement doesn’t come right away, God allows the evil to fester long enough to become so bad that the only outcome is to eradicate the festering sore in Israel through horrendous acts of vengeance, greed, and pride. As we read though and reflect on this story, it’s hard to see anything positive in such an horrific bloody story of betrayal and vengeance.
I am thankful for a couple of theologians and a rabbi who gave me some insight into where to find some hope in this account of Abimelek. We see God’s wrath towards evil in the destruction of Shechem and the death of Abimelek, but it’s what comes afterwards where we see God’s grace at work. The writer of Judges tells us about the two judges that come after Abimelek, very short accounts of Tola and Jair. We learn very little about them except for how long they led Israel, Tola led Israel 23 years and Jair followed after Tola and led Israel 22 years. After the chaotic and horrific time of Abimelek, God brings Israel 45 years of order and peace under these two judges; a time when Israel returns to following the Lord again.
Abimelek brings evil and chaos into Israel, this what the people of Shechem enabled. Those who are filled with broken pride and ambition bring brokenness and chaos into our lives. Abimelek, son of a prostitute, an outsider in his own family, brings his broken family bitterness, combined with pride and arrogance and ambition into the leadership vacuum in Israel after Gideon’s death. He’s a broken king who creates an evil environment that brings horror and brokenness. It was a hard during the time of Abimelek.
It can be hard for many people today. Chaos can so often and quickly come into our lives due to the effects of sin. The brokenness it brings is always hard. We don’t even always know here to look for healing, hope, or peace in the middle of it because we’re simply trying to get through each day as best we can. Jesus comes as a king, as we are reminded in this time of Epiphany when we remember the Magi’s journey to see the king that the heavens themselves revealed to those wise enough to understand God’s heavenly message. Jesus comes as the King of kings, the Prince of Peace, the Messiah who has come to save his people. Jesus comes to a world of chaos and darkness, to people shaped by sin, to a world where evil exists, even within our own communities to bring order out of chaos, to bring light into the darkness, to show is the grace and peace our hearts are yearning for.
Jesus came with the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is a kingdom of shalom, a kingdom where creation flourishes and reconciliation between God and humanity and between people brings healing and hope. In the kingdom of heaven, Jesus summarizes the law, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and the second is like it, love your neighbour as yourself.” This is followed up with one more law that because we love God and our neighbour, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Our king is with us, never abandons us and has brought us salvation from the chaos created by sin, and he invites you to come to him and experience his rest and peace.