INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND: The tale of Abimelech justifies the observation of the author at the end of the book: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The book communicates that God’s people must follow him with faithfulness. When God’s people and his leaders are not faithful, tragedy comes as a result. Even in the midst of ungodliness and rebellion, however, God is gracious. He still raised up leaders, as imperfect as they were, to alleviate Israel’s suffering and remind them that Baal is not lord, Yahweh is. Gideon was such a leader, and unlike some of his predecessors, Gideon did a little more than bring military victory and alleviate suffering. He made at least some small effort to restore Israel to faithfulness by tearing down the altar to Baal in his hometown.
However, the aftermath of Israel’s victory shows signs that not much had changed. After Gideon’s death, a tremendous bloodletting occurred in his family, and the narrative of chapter nine relates one tragic event after another. Abimelech, the abusive and tyrannical son of Gideon’s concubine, certainly did what was right in his own eyes rather than God’s, and many people died as a result. But the seeds of this tragedy were sown in Gideon’s lifetime. In order to properly understand what occurred at the hands of Abimelech, God’s people should pay close attention to what occurred after Gideon’s victory in chapter 8. We will examine the choices Gideon made that set the stage for the tragedy that resulted from Abimelech’s leadership. The tale of Abimelech teaches us that following the leadership of the ungodly will lead to destruction.
THE SINS OF GIDEON
After Gideon’s victory, his people were eager to establish him as ruler. By paying close attention to the text, the reader should assume that this was a localized movement. Gideon was not being offered the kingship of all twelve tribes. Remember that only the tribes of Manessah, Asher, Zebulon, and Naphtali were summoned to the battle in the first place. Most likely, only the tribal leaders of Manessah (the western half—Gideon’s own tribe) had made this overture to Gideon. After Gideon’s death, as Abimelech appealed for power, he procured not a tribe or a collection of tribes, but only one prominent city not far from his family’s hometown of Ophrah. The movement to crown Gideon was a localized movement within the tribe of Manasseh, not a unified movement of the people of God. Gideon’s response to this overture and the choices that followed reveal ungodliness that set the stage for the abuse and tragedy of Abimelech’s reign of terror. Note at the outset that Gideon replied with the right answer. “I will not rule over you and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.” Right answer. However, Gideon’s subsequent activities reveal that his actions were not consistent with his words about following God’s rule.
He took tribute from the plunder of the warriors just as a king would (8:24-26). He asked for this and the people willingly gave it, since they wanted to treat him as a king anyway. Gideon said he would not rule over the people. What was he doing taking plunder? If Gideon was not king, he would not have had need of such a large amount of gold for running the government (by today’s gold prices, 1700 shekels would amount to over 1 million dollars worth of gold). And even if he had chosen to rule, this desire for gold is certainly not consistent with God’s principles for leadership. In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, Moses outlines principles for the King of Israel to live by, and among those principles he states that the king should not acquire excessive amounts of silver or gold. God’s leaders should not be greedy for gain (Titus 1:7). Gideon was grossly inconsistent here. Such ungodliness is costly.
Gideon engaged in the old family enterprise of building an idolatrous shrine. Remember that Gideon himself destroyed the idol shrine that his father had built on the family property. In 8:27 we find that he made an “ephod” out of the plunder he received and put it in his hometown. In the Pentateuch, an “ephod” is a garment, like a vest, which the priests wore. However, no one “installs” a vest in their hometown, nor do people worship it. The word probably refers to a garment placed over a statue used in worship, as a related Akkadian word did. Gideon built a shrine and the Israelites worshiped at it. In many countries around Israel, the political leaders were responsible for promoting the local cult, and Gideon seems to have taken that upon himself. To his greed, he added idolatry and the promotion of idolatry.
Gideon acquired many wives (8:30). This is typical for an Ancient Near Eastern ruler, and though he claimed not to be one, he certainly acted like it. Once again, this is contrary to Moses instructions for a king in Deuteronomy 17:17.
To Gideon’s mistakes, we should add two sins of the people which contributed to the problem:
They sought a ruler without seeking the Lord first or concerning themselves about what qualities might be best for a ruler. Gideon brought victory, so he could make an effective ruler. This seems to have been their thought process. Gideon was right that the people should follow God’s leadership instead of his, and then he undermined that advice by acting just like a godless ruler would.
They vigorously pursued idolatry. People throughout Israel, and especially Gideon’s family, were corrupted by the shrine he built (8:27).
The people of Israel followed the ungodly patterns of life typical of the Canaanites from whom the Lord took the land. They did not seek the Lord, did not follow his commands, did not exclusively follow him, and instead followed a man who was disobedient to God’s word. The fruit of this disobedience is seen in chapter 9.
THE TYRANNY OF ABIMELECH
Chapter nine is a tragic tale of abuse, corruption, and suffering. It may seem a bit out of place in Judges. Heretofore, the main characters have been men and women who have led Israel by delivering them from enemies, but chapter nine focuses on a horrible man who meets a much deserved, horrible end. Is he supposed to be some kind of hero? A deliverer? No. Remember the two main themes of the book of Judges: the people were doing what was right in their own eyes, while God continued to be amazingly gracious. Abimelech was a man who did what was right in his own eyes, and he lived among people who did what was right in their own eyes. The end result is predictably bad. Following ungodly leadership is destructive. Note the rotten fruit of Abimelech’s leadership:
He divided the people by winning control of Shechem (9:1-6). Up to this point, the territory of Manasseh had enjoyed some measure of unity it would seem. But Abimelech appealed to the baser motives of the men of Shechem and won control of the city. His lust for power brought division to the people, a division that would cost many lives.
He murdered his brothers. Seventy brothers were put to death. Such a bloodletting is not unique in the Old Testament. Other rulers (like Jehu—2 Kings 10) committed similar atrocities, but Abimelech’s ungodly ambition and callousness brought unspeakable tragedy on the family of a man who (though he had significant faults) had done some good in Israel.
He wrought destruction on Shechem when the city fathers turned on him (9:26-45). The ungodliness of Abimelech had no loyalty except to selfish ambition. The city that had given Abimelech an opportunity to rule became a heap of rubble. Truly the parable of Abimelech’s half-brother Jotham (who survived the purge) proved wise. Jotham’s brilliant tale (9:8-15) says this: though you could have called upon noble, qualified men to rule over you (represented by the olive tree, fig tree, and grape vine), they would not associate with you. So you call upon a worthless cur (the bramble—Abimelech). Men like this will rule with tyranny and bring destruction. This is exactly what happened.
He met an ignoble end (9:53-55). Obviously people cannot control the way in which they die, but when someone’s death comes at the hands of a woman who throws a millstone upon him, and it is viewed as just retribution, he must have done some rotten things. Abimelech’s death comes as a sigh of relief. If one were to compile a list of the worst leaders in Israel’s history, he’d have quite a bit of work to do to narrow down the list (unfortunately). Abimelech would easily make any top ten, however.
Obviously Gideon cannot be held responsible for the tyranny of his son. However, Gideon helped create an environment in which Abimelech’s leadership was welcome. Gideon inappropriately took power for himself and ruled in an ungodly way—multiplying wives and gold, and promoting an ungodly cult. The people, for their part, vigorously embraced Gideon’s ungodly leadership. As a result, a culture existed in which Abimelech’s underhanded, divisive, and ambitious methods were accepted. If God’s people had chosen not to be satisfied with a bramble, they would not have been consumed by the fire it produced. Abimelech is responsible for the destruction he produced, but Gideon and the people are responsible for pursuing an ungodly course that made such unthinkable abuse possible.
Consider the principles learned from Abimelech’s story. God’s people must be passionate about following his revealed will. If we compromise for the sake of convenience, quick results, selfish ambition, or pleasure, the consequences will be tragic. Consider how we create an ungodly atmosphere by our compromise, and how we might promote godliness and support godly leadership instead.