Bible Commentary: Judges 9

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Judges 9

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King Abimelech 

As stated in yesterday's reading, when Gideon died, the Israelites went right back to their old ways, fornicating with the gods of the Canaanites. How quickly do men turn when the restraining influence of a righteous man is removed!

Although Gideon did not become an actual king, he did have a heavy influence on all aspects of public life. In fact, the large number of sons born to him after his victory—70!—indicates that Gideon amassed a rather large harem (Judges 8:30), something usually reserved for kings. So although he did not become a king de jure, he was apparently the de facto king in Israel. This is also indicated by the name of one of his sons, whom he actually gave the royal title of Abimelech (verse 31), which means "My Father Is King"—and Abimelech's remarks indicate that Gideon's 70 sons were placed in important positions of leadership (compare Judges 9:1-2).

While Gideon earlier realized that he should not be crowned king, it is possible that he later didn't see things so clearly, particularly when we consider what happened with the ephod and his having many wives. (The multiplying of wives to oneself was forbidden to the kings of Israel in Deuteronomy 17:17 because it carried the danger of turning the one doing so away from God—and this principle was certainly applicable to anyone.) Furthermore, Gideon's strong leadership, the deference of the people of Israel toward him, his personal lifestyle and the role of his sons in governing Israel probably did little to dispel the notion among the people that, even if he was not an actual king, he might as well have been.

Nevertheless, it is nowhere stated that Gideon ever actually assumed the title of king—and, with what is made of this issue in chapters 8 and 9, we would certainly expect the account to say so if he had. Thus, it is most likely that he never did. Naming his son Abimelech was perhaps a recognition of what he effectively was—not what he truly was. And perhaps he was even hopeful of being blessed with some kind of dynastic succession of leadership, as presumptuous as that seems to be.

Whatever the case, it is clear that Gideon's son Abimelech did want to be acknowledged as king. Upon his father's death, Abimelech realized that if he did not move immediately, he would forever lose his opportunity for that honor. His first action was to gain the support of his mother's influential Shechemite family, who saw that if Abimelech reigned in Israel, they would likely obtain high posts in the new government and all the benefits that went with them. This led the men of Shechem to throw their support, and money from the temple of Baal-Berith there, behind Abimelech. With the new money, Abimelech hired an entourage to accompany him—putting on the airs of a king, a public relations move. With the support of a significant city, and a personal entourage, Abimelech next eliminated any potential competition by murdering all his brothers, Gideon's sons. Immediately, the men of Shechem and Beth Millo crowned Abimelech king. Pathetically, this occurred at the terebinth tree at Shechem, where Jacob, so many years before, had commanded those of his household to put away the foreign gods that were among them (Genesis 35:4).

Jotham, the youngest of Gideon's sons, was the only survivor of the massacre. His long parable of the trees who sought a king charged the men of Shechem and Beth Millo with the grossest foolishness and the most treacherous dealings against Gideon, and he called forth a destruction upon them in repayment. Being the only blood descendant of Gideon, he knew Abimelech would do all he could to take his life, so he fled and hid.

The pact between Abimelech and his Shechemite supporters lasted for three years. Thereafter, "God sent a spirit of ill will between Abimelech and the men of Shechem" (verse 23). What caused the breach is not stated, but the disaffection caused the men of Shechem to support one Gaal, son of Ebed, in his bid for the throne. The rebellion was brought to a quick end—Abimelech killed Gaal and destroyed the city, including its pagan temple—and thus the treachery of the Shechemites against Gideon was repaid.

On the heels of this victory, Abimelech attacked another city, Thebez. But during the attack, a woman dropped a grinding stone down onto Abimelech's head. Dying, he ordered his armor-bearer to kill him, lest it be said that he was killed by a woman. And so Abimelech's treachery against his father Gideon was repaid.

God watches over His people. When the righteous cry out to him for deliverance from their enemies, God will act, although the unfolding of the events may, to all outward appearances, seem to have little to do with God. In the case of Abimelech, all God had to do was break the league between the Shechemites and Abimelech. The natural wickedness of the players involved would serve to bring things to a conclusion. And, true to His word, those who seek to exalt themselves will be abased.