Judges 9:1-57 – Abimelech
SummaryAbimelech, Gideon's son, tries to become king of Shechem, but fails. Jotham's fable (9:8-15) illustrates the ambiguity concerning kings in the book of Judges.
The story starts in a familiar fashion with the apostasy of Israel worshiping the god Baal-berith, "Lord of the Covenant." But instead of following the usual cycle, the story turns the cycle on its head with Abimelech functioning as oppressor, not judge/deliverer of Shechem (not of Israel). Even his name, which means "my father is king," is an inversion, since Gideon, Abimelech's father, had denied any pretensions to the throne (8:23).
This central narrative in Judges narrates how Abimelech, a disinherited son of Jerubbaal (Gideon), managed to seize the leadership that Gideon had refused by eliminating all seventy of Jerubbaal's sons, his half-brothers, with the help of his mother's family. Only the youngest, Jotham, escaped the slaughter by hiding (9:1-6).
In the "Parable of the Trees" (9:8-15) Jotham relates a fable that satirizes the institution of monarchy based upon theft and murder as a viable alternative to the charismatic leadership of the judges. Those "trees" that serve a beneficial purpose (the olive tree, the fig tree, and the grape vine) reject kingship because ruling would interfere with their useful endeavors. Only the utterly useless bramble agrees to serve as king. Apparently Jotham sees his father Gideon's refusal to take the throne (8:23) paralleled in the actions of the useful trees and Abimelech's seeking the throne portrayed in those of the bramble. In closing, Jotham rebukes the Shechemites for their neglect of Gideon and correctly predicts that Abimelech will become a curse to them all (9:16-55). Following Abimelech's destruction of Shechem and humiliating death while seeking to curb revolt, the editor reports that God fulfilled Jotham's curse upon Abimelech (v. 20) and avenged the murder of Jerubbaal's seventy sons (vv. 56-57).
Abimelech's reign foreshadows that of Saul's in several ways: Abimelech is Israel's first self-proclaimed king and Saul is Israel's first divinely proclaimed king (1 Samuel 10); Abimelech practiced idolatry as did Saul (1 Samuel 15); both died in disgrace, asking to be dispatched by their armor-bearer (1 Samuel 31).
Together, Gideon and Abimelech mark a turning point in the narrative. From now on, Judges will relate the continuing decline of Israel's fortunes.