Home » Various Sermons » Horrible Deeds and Fables: Judges 9.1-21

Horrible Deeds and Fables: Judges 9.1-21

“Now Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother’s relatives and said to them and to the whole clan of his mother’s family, “Say in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?’ Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.”

And his mother’s relatives spoke all these words on his behalf in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, “He is our brother.”  And they gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the house of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him.  And he went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone.  But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, for he hid himself.  And all the leaders of Shechem came together, and all Beth-millo, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar at Shechem.

When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on top of Mount Gerizim and cried aloud and said to them, “Listen to me, you leaders of Shechem, that God may listen to you.  The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’  But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?’  And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’  But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?’  And the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’  But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?’  Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’  And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’

“Now therefore, if you acted in good faith and integrity when you made Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house and have done to him as his deeds deserved— for my father fought for you and risked his life and delivered you from the hand of Midian, and you have risen up against my father’s house this day and have killed his sons, seventy men on one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his female servant, king over the leaders of Shechem, because he is your relative— if you then have acted in good faith and integrity with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you.  But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech and devour the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the leaders of Shechem and from Beth-millo and devour Abimelech.”  And Jotham ran away and fled and went to Beer and lived there, because of Abimelech his brother.

Gideon has died and the land is no longer at rest.  The people have turned away from Yahweh already, indeed even before Gideon had died they had turned away from Yahweh.  Now in the midst of all of that, Abimelech comes onto the scene and performs one of the most gruesome acts within the book, as he slaughters all of his brothers save one.  As we move into this portion of Gideon’s narrative, as our main character has changed so too has the darkness which engulfs Israel.

“Now Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother’s relatives and said to them and to the whole clan of his mother’s family, “Say in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?’ Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.”

And his mother’s relatives spoke all these words on his behalf in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, “He is our brother.”  And they gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the house of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him.  And he went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone.  But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, for he hid himself.  And all the leaders of Shechem came together, and all Beth-millo, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar at Shechem.” – Judges 9.1-6

It should be readily noted that Abimelech is not to be called a Judge, moreover it should be noted that Yahweh is no where mentioned in this passage[1].  Yet the Abimelech narrative seems to be the center of the book of Judges, for it certainly helps to show what the narrator thought[2].  Though an important section, this tale should not be taken as a separate from the Gideon account, they are a part of the same tale[3].  Though Abimelech aspires to be king, it should be noted that the book purposefully never once calls him a King of Israel[4].

It should be striking that the city of Shechem is not a normal Israelite city and its exact relationship with Israel is uncertain[5].  Moreover whatever the relationship that Shechem did have with Israel it seemed to “separate itself” when it choose to make a king, and in essence remover Yahweh from his throne[6].  The other town mentioned in this section is “Beth-millo,” or House of the Mound was most likely some sort of fortress near Shechem[7].

Instead of going to his father’s relatives, Abimelech goes to his mother’s, something quite unique, but considering  that his mother is of a secondary wife statues, perhaps his mother’s relatives would listen more than his father’s[8].  The use of “brother,” by the Shechemites is probably not literal, instead meaning that he was a part of the larger family group, a kinsman[9].

Gideon’s sons murdered is something which is done in full view of the public and seems to have a ceremony to it, above all it shows the change of power from Gideon to Abimelech[10].  The phrase, “on one stone,” seems to indicate that the assassination of his brothers was one mass execution[11].  “One stone” also appears in 1 Samuel 14.33ff where is connected to animal sacrifice, again highlighting Abimelech’s actions as ritualistic[12]. As well as at the same time corrupting a form of worship toward Yahweh[13].

“Then they told Saul, “Behold, the people are sinning against the Lord by eating with the blood.” And he said, “You have dealt treacherously; roll a great stone to me here.”   And Saul said, “Disperse yourselves among the people and say to them, ‘Let every man bring his ox or his sheep and slaughter them here and eat, and do not sin against the Lord by eating with the blood.'” So every one of the people brought his ox with him that night and they slaughtered them there. 35 And Saul built an altar to the Lord; it was the first altar that he built to the Lord.” (1 Sam. 14.33-35)

It is thought that perhaps the seventy coins which the elders gave to Abimelech was their idea of trying gaining loyalty, but also a sort of control over Abimelech, something which they miscalculate[14].  After all Gideon goes out and hires some men.  The men whom Abimelech hired are as O’Conner puts it “were doubtless young, strong, and innocent of ideological concerns[15].”

Abimelech’s introduction into the book of Judge is a gruesome one.  It shows how dark the land had become, how far away they had turned for Yahweh.  Although Gideon might have been a tragically flawed man, he is nothing compared to his son.  Abimelech aspired to be that which had not right to, a king.  Though his kingship will be short live it is something which the writer of the book of Judges looks quite darkly upon.  As Abimelech should have noted we need to note that Yahweh is king.  We shouldn’t try to push him out for our own desires and try and be our own kings, it is Yahweh who is king not ourselves.

“When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on top of Mount Gerizim and cried aloud and said to them, “Listen to me, you leaders of Shechem, that God may listen to you.  The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’  But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?’  And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’  But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?’  And the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’  But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?’  Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’  And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’” – Judges 9.7-15

There are other parables of this sort in Ancient Near Eastern texts, but Jotham’s Fable is unique in that it does not see the monarchy as an organization divinely given by the gods, and only worthless fellows obtain it[16].  Parables in themselves are a rare event in the Old Testament, but it they were quite common in the Wisdom literature of cultures around Israel[17].  By recording the Jotham’s fable here, the narrative makes his theological drive as Hoppe says “painfully clear[18].”  The parable seems to hint at the fact that those who are best suited for Kingship do not have the time, while those who are ill suited are the ones to be made king[19].

Mount Gerizim was south of Shechem[20].  Jotham’s parable and following curse are on a very important site for Israel and thus it gives in a way Jotham’s words greater authority than he might otherwise have had[21].

The parable is filled with kingly imagery.  For example in verse nine, the swaying, or “waving,” is as O’Conner puts common “ceremonial pomp of kings, but also of vagabonds[22].”  And in verse eight the “crown a king,” or rather to “anoint a king,” which speaks of the sacred oil used in many of the coronation ceremonies in the Old Testament[23].

There is irony in the bramble saying to take shelter in its shade, for bramble has no shade[24].  As The “bramble,” is unable to even provide shade which would be quite needed indeed in the arid world of Israel, moreover it is apt to catch on fire and “burn rapidly[25].”   The bramble due to ability to grow where no other plan is able was often a symbol of the wilderness, and readily reflects Abimelech as both are untamed and chaotic creatures[26].

Thus in choosing a king one gets either a useless king, or a dangerous king[27].  As Matthews points out “while there is no direct condemnation of the choice of the bramble as king, it is left o the reader to decide based upon Abimelech’s subsequent actions[28].”  The only true way for Israel to be secure is not through a king, but through following the Torah[29].

Jotham’s fable is a hard look at kingship in the times prior to the days of the Davidic kingdom.  Moreover it highlights that man’s choice in things is inheritably flawed.  As Abimelech failed so too will the first king of Israel, Saul, who though chosen by Yahweh is also noted as being a man who fit the standard of what people thought a king should be.  Good looks, military prowess, and the list could go on.  While David who comes next breaks that mold and who Yahweh chooses not because of the outer appearance, but inner.  Yahweh knows what he’s doing not man.  Something perhaps which should be taken to heart in this world which is filled with what seems more and more chaos.

God knows what he is doing, it may not seem like it, but he does.  And though man messes it up and will continue to, God is more powerful than man and nothing escapes his sight.  Therefore though the world may be seem out of control, have heart, God is in control.

““Now therefore, if you acted in good faith and integrity when you made Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house and have done to him as his deeds deserved— for my father fought for you and risked his life and delivered you from the hand of Midian, and you have risen up against my father’s house this day and have killed his sons, seventy men on one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his female servant, king over the leaders of Shechem, because he is your relative— if you then have acted in good faith and integrity with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you.  But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech and devour the leaders of Shechem and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the leaders of Shechem and from Beth-millo and devour Abimelech.”  And Jotham ran away and fled and went to Beer and lived there, because of Abimelech his brother.” – Judges 9.6-21

Here Jotham brings up his key criticism of his hearers, namely that they had not “acted in good faith and integrity” toward Jerubbaal,” who had done great deeds for them [30].  This phrase of “acted in good faith and integrity,” are words which indicate the correct manner one should have in an alliance[31].

Jotham calls to attention to fact that Shechem didn’t even elect for their king a more legitimate son of Gideon, instead one of his “female servant,” or more correctly “female slave.”  As noted already, Abimelech was indeed the son of second class wife, but being a Gideon’s slave and Pilege is differing, it seems Jotham is partly hinting a deliberate insult here[32].

After his parable Jotham flees to Beer (perhaps El Bireh) which his outside the territory of Manasseh[33].  It should be noted that Beer means “well,” for example another town Beersheba, “well of seven,” and thus Beer was a rather generic town name, so this is uncertain[34].

The way in which the Shechemites should have reacted to Gideon and his family they failed at.  Moreover they choose a poor leader to lead them.  One that in Ancient Middle Eastern Culture didn’t make sense, he was the son of some second class wife, not the correct primary wife.  Jotham here gives a blessing and a curse, but seeing as they have already taken their action they are left with the curse.  Sometimes there is no escaping the mistakes which we make.  It is a part of life.  But out of the trial of our own making, God at times uses it as a learning tool.

In Conclusion

This portion of Gideon’s narrative is the darkest yet to come, and it is the darkest for the book of Judges.  Sadly the book of Judges isn’t over yet, as later chapter reveal there are darker events to come.  Abimelech desire to be king is one thing, but his actions taken to become one is all the more heinous.  Yet as Jotham notes, Abimelech was a poor choice, and his end will come.  As one thinks upon this part of the history of Israel perhaps it would be best to remember as mentioned Yahweh’s controlling hand in all of this.  Moreover while at times trials were brought about because of his desire to his people learn and turn from other Gods, here they have created to own trial.  To learn that Yahweh is the only true king of the land and who they should turn to in their trouble time.


[1] O’Conner, 139.

[2] Hoppe, 156.

[3] Matthews, 100.

[4] Hoppe, 159.

[5] O’Conner, 139.

[6] Hoppe, 157.

[7] Webb, 275.

[8] Matthews, 101.

[9] Soggin, 167.

[10] Crossan, 136.

[11] Webb, 275.

[12] Soggin, 168.

[13] Boiling, 171.

[14] Matthews, 102.

[15] O’Conner, 139.

[16] Hoppe, 160.

[17] Matthews, 104.

[18] Hoppe, 160.

[19] Crossan, 136.

[20] Webb, 275.

[21] Matthews, 105.

[22] O’Conner, 140.

[23] Soggin, 172.

[24] Hoppe, 160.

[25] Crossan, 136.

[26] Matthews, 107.

[27] Crossan, 136.

[28] Matthews, 105.

[29] Hoppe, 160.

[30] Webb, 275.

[31] Soggin, 172.

[32] Soggin, 173.

[33] Crossan, 136.

[34] Webb, 275.

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