March 21 Reading: Judges 8-9 Commentary
“But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.” (Judges 8:23)
“Then he [Abimelech] went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubbaal [Gideon], on one stone. But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left, because he hid himself.” (Judges 9:5)
Judges 8 – Gideon’s Obedience or Revenge?
The aftermath from the defeat of the Midianites is not pretty. In fact, Judges 8 does not cast a favorable light on Gideon. God is not mentioned in the account of his second military campaign. So it’s difficult to know if Gideon is completing God’s mission or acting out his own ambition.
After the battle in Judges 7, Gideon and his 300 men pursued the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna (v. 4). In their pursuit, they came to the town of Succoth. There, Gideon asked the men of the city to give his men bread to eat because they were exhausted (v. 5).
For some reason, the men say “No” (v. 6). Gideon is furious at their refusal to help and vows to “…tear your flesh with the thorns of the wilderness and with briers!” (v. 7) after he catches the Midianite kings. That doesn’t sound like the fearful and timid Gideon of Judges 6-7.
Next, he made the same request for assistance at the nearby town of Penuel. He received the same response at that location. Gideon’s reaction to them mirrors his reaction to the men of Succoth: “When I come back in peace, I will tear down this tower!” (v. 8).
Gideon pursued Zebah and Zalmunna and found them held up with what is left of their army (15,000 of the 120,000 Gideon initially fought – Judges 7:12, 22). He is able to capture the two kings, bring them back to the cities of Succoth and Penuel, and confront the men of those cities who did not help him. The text says Gideon, followed through on his promises from verses 7-8, adding that he also killed the men of Penuel (vv. 16-17).
Finally, in wrapping up the battle sequence, Gideon kills Zebah and Zalmunna (v. 21).
After this, the men of Israel made an unusual request. They asked Gideon to “…Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian” (v. 22). What is sad about their request is that it’s all focused on Gideon. There is no mention of God’s role in the victory.
To his credit, Gideon refused. Here at least, he did point the men to God saying, “The Lord will rule over you” (v. 23). God should be your leader.
However, his actions didn’t reflect his words. He asked for gold from the plunder they gathered, which the men gladly gave him. He melted it down and made an ephod, a ceremonial garment worn by a priest (vv. 25-27)(see Exodus 28 for a description of Aaron’s ephod). He placed it somewhere in Ophrah, the city in which he lived.
There is no indication that Gideon intended for this to be an idol. However, we read that Israel “…played the harlot with it there…” (presumably worshipped it) and that “it became a snare (trouble) to Gideon and his house” (v. 28). Perhaps this is what led to the fateful and wickedly gruesome story of Abimelech (one of Gideon’s sons) who conspired to take over leading Israel in Judges 9 after Gideon died.
But the land did have rest for forty years (v. 28). There is no wording though, that describes Gideon as “judging” Israel while he was alive as we’ve seen before. And immediately following his death, Israel reverted into sinful behavior once again (vv. 33-35).
Judges 9 – Abimelech’s Treachery
Judges 8:30 tells us that Gideon had “seventy sons of his own, for he had many wives.” One of those sons, Abimelech, he bore with his concubine. Coincidentally, the name Abimelech means “My Father is King.” This has prompted some scholars to think that Gideon did indeed set himself up as king at some point, if not officially, then at least by implication by giving this name to one of his sons.
Abimelech wanted to reign and be in control. It makes sense that the son of a leader would fill this role. But Gideon had 69 other sons who could also lay claim to that role if they wanted.
So how does Abimelech manage through this? He travels to Shechem and asks the men of the city, “Which is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal reign over you, or that one reign over you?’ Remember that I am your own flesh and bone” (v. 2). It’s his way of persuaded the people to follow him. And the people are inclined to follow him because “he is our brother” (v. 3).
But again there is the matter of the other sons of Gideon. So what does Abimelech do? He hires “worthless and reckless men” to follow him. And with those men’s assistance, Abimelech does the unthinkable – he kills all his brothers (v. 5).
That is all except for one. The youngest brother Jotham hides and escapes (v. 5). Then the men of Shechem make Gideon their king (v. 6). The coronation took place “…beside the terebinth tree at the pillar that was in Shechem”, the same place Jacob had put away his foreign gods (Gen. 35:4) and the place where Joshua remembered his covenant with God (Josh. 24:26).
Jotham’s Rebuke and Warning
Jotham headed to Mt. Gerizim to condemn the actions of Abimelech. He tells a parable that indicts the people of Shechem for choosing such a wicked man to lead them.
He then issues a warning that, if they have acted dishonorably in selecting Abimelech to lead and dishonoring Jotham’s father Gideon (which they had), then “…let fire come from Abimelech and devour the men of Shechem and Beth Millo; and let fire come from the men of Shechem and from Beth Millo and devour Abimelech!” (v. 20).
Jotham then ran away in fear of his brother Abimelech.
Fighting with Shechem
Turns out Abimelech reigned for three years in Israel. But God sent a “spirit of ill between Abimelech and the men of Shechem” (v. 23). Evidently, the crime done by Abimelech against his brothers weighed heavy on the minds of the men of Shechem. They did not want that blood to be held on their account (v. 24).
The dissension leads to a man named Gaal the son of Ebed rising up in opposition to Abimelech (v. 26). Verses 27-49 detail the back and forth fighting between Abimelech and Gaal and the people Shechem.
Many die on both sides, with Abimelech seemingly having the upper hand. At one point, he killed all the people in Shechem, demolished it and sowed it with salt, thus making the land barren and uninhabitable (v. 45). Additionally, he lit the stronghold of the town on fire (v. 49), which was a fulfillment of Jotham’s warning in Judges 9:20.
Continuing to fight, Abimelech went to another city, Thebez, and took it (v. 50). When he was told that some men and women had fled to and were hiding in “a strong tower in the city“, the came against it, determined to set it on fire (vv. 51-52).
But when he drew near the door to burn it, “…a certain woman dropped an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull” (v. 53). Not fully dead, Abimelech instructed his armorbearer to kill him so that it could not be said, “A woman killed him” (v. 54). His armor bearer obliged, running him through with a sword.
The events of Abimelech’s life are disturbing. It appears like God is not in control and that He is letting sin run rampant. However, God will not let evil go unpunished. The last two verses of Judges 9 make this point clear:
“Thus God repaid the wickedness of Abimelech, which he had done to his father by killing his seventy brothers. And all the evil of the men of Shechem God returned on their own heads, and on them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.”
Questions to Consider:
Be alert to what you let into your life, no matter how small it may seem. Even small things can grow into a bigger issue and become a barrier to your relationship with God.
Gideon wanted to the people to serve the Lord. Yet, at the same time in Judges 8, he built in his city what essential amounted to an idol the people worshipped. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time but it led the people away from God. What “idols” in your life do you need to tear down?
A lust for power or control can lead people to do the unthinkable. Abimelech’s actions prove that. Have you ever acted out of character for selfish reasons?
What other points would you want to know about in our Judges 8-9 commentary? Email us here with questions or comments.