Abimelech was the son of Gideon (aka Jerubbaal), by a concubine (Judg. 6:28-32; 7:1; 8:31). Gideon had been chosen by the Lord to judge Israel (Judg. 6:11-14), and of whom “The angel of the Lord…said…The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior” (Judg. 6:12). Gideon is listed among those who “by faith conquered kingdoms,” etc. (Heb. 11:32-33). Abimelech was not chosen by God and has a completely contrasting history. The background to his appointment is seen in Judges chapter 8.
Judges 8:28b reads, “And the land was undisturbed for forty years in the days of Gideon.” In verse 33 we learn, “…as soon as Gideon was dead, the sons of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-berith their god.” This last statement is critical in understanding the tyrannical events that unfold, not only with Abimelech but also the subsequent years of Israel’s infidelity to the Lord.
Abimelech’s Conspiracy and Rise to Power
The Judges 9 narrative shows that God did not choose Abimelech, as He had done with some prior judges. The text reveals that:
1) Abimelech used the influence of family ties to secure a following.
2) He set up a false dilemma by comparing himself to seventy of his half-brothers as being a bad choice for leadership. (The false dilemma limited choices.)
3) He used seventy pieces of silver donated from the house of Baal-berith, “…the seat of Canaanite idolatry” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia), to hire thugs as mercenaries to murder seventy of his own half-brothers, thus diminishing the potential of opposition. This tactic would also have instilled psychological fear in any who would oppose him.
4) He was then made king (v. 6).
The youngest son of Jerubbaal, Jotham, had hidden himself and thus survived the slaughter (v. 5). Upon learning of Abimelech’s appointment, he challenged him and the people from the top of Mount Gerizim with a practical and spiritual approach to the situation, and so that God would listen to them. The practical approach was a fable about four trees. We cannot be sure about who all of these specifically represent, but we do know that Gideon refused to be made king and declared that “the Lord shall rule over you” (Judg. 8:23). We can also be sure that the “bramble [or thorn] bush” was Abimelech. It is unique that others in the fable had been offered the position of king, yet not by the Lord. They all had refused because God had blessed them, and because God not called them to that position.
Not Abimelech. The fable implies that he would force himself to the throne. Standing in a position on the mountain where he could be heard, and keeping himself at a safe distance, Jotham made it clear to the people of Shechem that he was on to his and their evil scheming.
In the conclusion of his speech, Jotham set a moral dilemma before the men of Shechem concerning the violence and injustice done by Abimelech to the sons of a good man of God, a man who had fought for them, risked his life, and delivered them from the hand if Midian (vs. 16-20).
The biblical record states: “Now Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech, so that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood might be laid on Abimelech their brother, who killed them, and on the men of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers” (Judg. 9:22-24). These verses seem to be a preface for what happened afterward.
Some see the “evil spirit” here as a demon and others as a disposition (which seems to fit here) or a specific person. God does not do evil (cf. James. 1:13), but He certainly allows it and therefore indirectly and providentially caused a conflict between Abimelech and the men of Shechem. God took vengeance for Jerubbaal’s seventy sons (vs. 56-57).
Abimelech’s battle skills are seen when he defeated Gaal and his army in Shechem (vs. 26-49). However, he would meet his match in a woman no less, when he attacked the people of Thebez. As he sought to burn the tower which was in the city’s center, she threw an upper millstone down on him, crushing his skull. To avoid having his legacy tarnished by a woman taking his life, he had his armor bearer pierce him through with his sword (vs. 50-54).
What Can We Learn From Abimelech?
- As a self-centered servant of one of the Baals, Baal-berith, he had no regard for the true and living God or His authority, nor for his father’s godly deeds.
- The whole nation was serving Baal-berith, so he used this to his advantage.
- As a power-hungry mass murderer (cf. Prov. 17:19), he sought the throne that his noble father had refused (Judg. 8:22-23).
- Serving idols and other acts of disobedience shuts God off from hearing prayers (Judg. 9:7; cf. Is. 59:1-2)!
- If we gain allies from among evil people, even our own “trusted” relatives, they may turn on us!
- A faithful leader must meet the qualifications God has established, and true success comes when the leader continues in God’s directives (cf. Josh. 1:1-9).
- Tragedy will inevitably result when unqualified leaders are appointed. The whole nation suffered (cf. Prov. 29:2).
- The “snare” principle of Joshua 23:11-13 came true, as well as the maxims “Live by the sword, die by the sword” and “one reaps what one sows” (Matt. 26:52; Gal. 6:7).
- Finally, the Lord will avenge His people (cf. Judg. 9:57; Deut. 32:43)!