Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Judges 9 – Abimelech, a king who was not

The way to read this article is that the orange underlined texts are the verses of the Bible (NIV, unless otherwise stated). The black texts following the Bible verses (and enclosed by square brackets) are my commentaries. At the end of these Bible texts and commentaries, I have inserted a section on "Points to take note/What we have learnt/can learn".
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1 Abimelech son of Jerub-Baal {Gideon} went to his mother's brothers in Shechem and said to them and to all his mother's clan, 2 "Ask all the citizens of Shechem, 'Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal's sons rule over you, or just one man?' Remember, I am your flesh and blood." [Towards the end of the episode on Gideon in Judges 8, Abimelech was mentioned as the son of Gideon, from a Shechem concubine. The early inhabitants of Shechem are descendants of Hamor (probably the city name took after Hamor’s son name, Shechem), and Hamor was the descendants of Hivites, and Hivites descended from Ham, one of the 3 sons of Noah (Ham, Shem and Japheth). (Israelites descended from Abraham who descended from Shem, son of Noah). In this sense, Abimelech was a mixed-blood between an Israelite from the tribe of Manasseh (one of the two tribes of the house of Joseph, who was one of the son of Israel {aka Jacob}), circumcised, and a descendant from another line from Noah, uncircumcised. From the manner that it was recorded in Judges 8:29-31, it would appear that the other sons of Gideon were from the Israelites’ blood line; not mixed-bloods. Actually way back in Genesis 34, there was already a feud between Hamor (and his son Shechem) and Abraham (and his sons). Abimelech saw himself as different from the other sons of Gideon, He saw himself more a Shechemite than an Israelite. So after Gideon’s death, he went to Shechem to rally support particularly from his maternal uncles.]
3 When the brothers {of Abimelech’s mother} repeated all this to the citizens of Shechem, they were inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, "He is our brother." 4 They gave him seventy shekels of silver from the temple of Baal-Berith, and Abimelech used it to hire reckless adventurers, who became his followers. 5 He went to his father's home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers, the sons of Jerub-Baal. But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerub-Baal, escaped by hiding. 6 Then all the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo gathered beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem to crown Abimelech king. [When Abimelech’s maternal uncles got for him the support of the Shechemites, he (Abimelech) got some reckless followers and went back to Ophrah, his father’s town and sought the lives of all his brothers. All the brothers got killed except the youngest by the name of Jotham. Then Abimelech went back to Shechem to be crowned as King Abimelech by the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo (probably a satellite town of Shechem, chief activity there being worship of gods, complete with citadels (temples)). We see later that Jotham spoke against the coronation by way of a parable. There was no mention of fellow Israelites’ reactions to the coronation, of whether they would recognize Abimelech as King. I suspect they did not recognize Abimelech as King, although we read in verse 22 below that Abimelech governed Israel for 3 years. Bible scholars generally consider the “Kings” period as having started only with the installation of King Saul (this happened much later). This period is still being referred to as the “Judges” period.]
7 When Jotham was told about this, he climbed up on the top of Mount Gerizim and shouted to them, "Listen to me, citizens of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. 8 One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, 'Be our king.' [Jotham’s Parable of Reproach on Mount Gerizim. There is very little by way of commentary on this parable. This is what came to my mind as the exposition for this parable: You will remember in Judges 8, we read that the Israelites wanted to make Gideon the King after he had killed the kings of Midian. Trees in the Bible sometimes referred to men. Men are like trees planted of the Lord. The olive tree, I believe, was referring to Gideon. Olive is a symbol of peace. Gideon was a symbol of peace – he brought peace to the people after 7 years of severe oppression under the Midianites. Also how he handled the conflict between the Ephraim and Manasseh (Judges 8:1-3) reflected this.]
9 "But the olive tree answered, 'Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and men are honored, to hold sway over the trees?' [Gideon, we have read in Judges 8 refused. Jotham said the answer for the refusal was that the candidate was of the view that he would lose fruitfulness if he were to be made King. This, you see later, is the same answer for all other potential candidates, until Jotham reached the thornbush. The understanding, I believe, up to that time was that the Lord was the King. In fact the people of God knew very well that their heritage, as was practiced by Moses, demanded that they just have representatives to go before God for major directions - the Lord was the King. Moses, in his days, always went before the Tabernacle (in which God dwelt), which followed the movements of the Israelites; even Moses was not known like a King. Men are like trees planted of the Lord to bear fruits, olive tree to give oil, fig trees to bear fig fruits, vine to bear grapes for wine, etc. – that, I believe, was the understanding. The understanding was that to take up kingship which was not in the vocabulary of God for the people, so to speak, would cause one to lose one’s fruitfulness.]
10 "Next, the trees said to the fig tree, 'Come and be our king.' [The fig tree here, I believe, was referring to the children, excluding Abimelech, the mix-blood, of Gideon. The fig is a many-in-one fruit. I believe fig tree has the connotation of children.] 11 "But the fig tree replied, 'Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?' [Those children of Gideon also declined to be king.]
12 "Then the trees said to the vine, 'Come and be our king.' [Trees referred to men, in general. Vine also referred to men but it has a more specific meaning. I believe vine was used for God’s people, which in the Judges period was referring to the Israelites, and in our modern days is referring to Christians. Joseph was said to a fruitful vine (Gen 49:22), and Jesus talked about Himself as the true vine (John 15:1). Men are likened as trees, and when they have become Christians, they are likened as vines (John 15:5).] 13 "But the vine answered, 'Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and men, to hold sway over the trees?' [The “more eligible” Israelites also declined to be king for the same reason – The Lord was the King, everyone was only to do his part, be fruitful at his station, and not to set himself up as the King or Lord, because God did not indicate the installation of a king was called for.].
14 "Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, 'Come and be our king.'[The thornbush here, I believe, was referring to Abimelech. Finally the people asked Abimelech to be king.] 15 "The thornbush said to the trees, 'If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!' [By this, Jotham was prophesying what would happen if Abimelech became king. Everyone must be subject to him and if they did not, he would destroy them, even the eminent people (cedars of Lebanon).] 16 "Now if you have acted honorably and in good faith when you made Abimelech king, and if you have been fair to Jerub-Baal and his family, and if you have treated him as he deserves- 17 and to think that my father fought for you, risked his life to rescue you from the hand of Midian 18 (but today you have revolted against my father's family, murdered his seventy sons on a single stone, and made Abimelech, the son of his slave girl, king over the citizens of Shechem because he is your brother)- 19 if then you have acted honorably and in good faith toward Jerub-Baal and his family today, may Abimelech be your joy, and may you be his, too! 20 But if you have not, let fire come out from Abimelech and consume you, citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and let fire come out from you, citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and consume Abimelech!" [Jotham continued to prophesise that there would be mutual destructions for the people who installed Abimelech as king and Abimelech himself, at the hands of each other. It was obvious that the people did not act honorably and in good faith, and was not fair to Gideon and his family despite Gideon’s deliverance of people from the hands of cruelty of the Midianites.] 21 Then Jotham fled, escaping to Beer, and he lived there because he was afraid of his brother Abimelech. [Jotham exhibited courage despite being afraid. Remember what I said about the difference between being afraid and courage. One can be afraid and yet be of courage (You may want to re-read my commentary on Judges 7:9-12). I believe that God honored that courage and remembered his favor for Gideon, and extended that favor unto Jotham and brought Jotham’s prophesy to pass, which you would read, in the subsequent verses.]
22 After Abimelech had governed Israel three years, 23 God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem, who acted treacherously against Abimelech. 24 God did this in order that the crime against Jerub-Baal's seventy sons, the shedding of their blood, might be avenged on their brother Abimelech and on the citizens of Shechem, who had helped him murder his brothers. 25 In opposition to him these citizens of Shechem set men on the hilltops to ambush and rob everyone who passed by, and this was reported to Abimelech. [The Lord was bringing to pass the prophesy of Jotham. God sent an evil spirit. In a number of places in the Bible, we read of God sending evil spirits against people/individuals. Here is one example, and another example was what happened with King Saul – God sent a tormenting spirit against Saul. (The “Kings” period is after the “Judges” period in the Bible). It is my belief that the most fundamental attribute of God is holiness. (Many people put love as number one. In my opinion, that would be inadequate to explain some of the events in the Bible). In short, holiness necessitates punishment, and the sending of the evil spirit was a punishment. I do not see any evil in God meting out punishment. In verse 25, we read that the citizens of Shechem started to disregard Abimelech.] 26 Now Gaal son of Ebed moved with his brothers into Shechem, and its citizens put their confidence in him. 27 After they had gone out into the fields and gathered the grapes and trodden them, they held a festival in the temple of their god. While they were eating and drinking, they cursed Abimelech. 28 Then Gaal son of Ebed said, "Who is Abimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should be subject to him? Isn't he Jerub-Baal's son, and isn't Zebul his deputy? Serve the men of Hamor, Shechem's father! Why should we serve Abimelech? 29 If only this people were under my command! Then I would get rid of him. I would say to Abimelech, 'Call out your whole army!' " [These verses gave us a clue to the blood line of the Shechem citizens, and so the maternal blood line of Abimelech, like I explained in the beginning of this chapter. There was an individual called Shechem and his father was Hamor. The city was probably named after Shechem. Hamor was an Hivite, and Hivites are descendants of Ham, one of the 3 sons of Noah, the other two being Shem (from whom descendants of Abraham, and therefore Israel{Jacob},came from), and Jepheth. So here, we read that this fellow called Gaal, instigating a revolt by reminding the citizens of Shechem their blood line, and said that Abimelech was in fact not a true Shechemite because his father, Gideon, was an Israelite, a descendant from Abraham, from Shem (son of Noah), and not from Hamor (although Abimelech’s mother was), and not from Ham, son of Noah. Isn’t it ironical that Abimelech before his installation, was arguing that he was different from the other children of Gideon, that he was brother to the Shechemites! Genesis 34 recorded that there was a feud between Abraham and Hamor. Abraham’s sons killed Hamor and Shechem (Hamor’s son) over Shechem’s affair with Dinah, daughter of Abraham. Gaal was capitalizing on the past feud between the descendants of the two bloodlines.] 30 When Zebul the governor of the city heard what Gaal son of Ebed said, he was very angry. 31 Under cover he sent messengers to Abimelech, saying, "Gaal son of Ebed and his brothers have come to Shechem and are stirring up the city against you. 32 Now then, during the night you and your men should come and lie in wait in the fields. 33 In the morning at sunrise, advance against the city. When Gaal and his men come out against you, do whatever your hand finds to do." 34 So Abimelech and all his troops set out by night and took up concealed positions near Shechem in four companies. 35 Now Gaal son of Ebed had gone out and was standing at the entrance to the city gate just as Abimelech and his soldiers came out from their hiding place. 36 When Gaal saw them, he said to Zebul, "Look, people are coming down from the tops of the mountains!" Zebul replied, "You mistake the shadows of the mountains for men." 37 But Gaal spoke up again: "Look, people are coming down from the center of the land, and a company is coming from the direction of the soothsayers' tree." 38 Then Zebul said to him, "Where is your big talk now, you who said, 'Who is Abimelech that we should be subject to him?' Aren't these the men you ridiculed? Go out and fight them!" 39 So Gaal led out the citizens of Shechem and fought Abimelech. 40 Abimelech chased him, and many fell wounded in the flight—all the way to the entrance to the gate. 41 Abimelech stayed in Arumah, and Zebul drove Gaal and his brothers out of Shechem. [The above recorded the clash between citizens of Shechem led by Gaal, and Abimelech, led by Zebul. Zebul won and drove Gaal out of Shechem. The part about Abimelech was asked to come to Shechem in the night to position men was because I believe Abimelech was perhaps residenced at his father’s hometown, and ruled from there (verse 22).] 42 The next day the people of Shechem went out to the fields, and this was reported to Abimelech. 43 So he took his men, divided them into three companies and set an ambush in the fields. When he saw the people coming out of the city, he rose to attack them. 44 Abimelech and the companies with him rushed forward to a position at the entrance to the city gate. Then two companies rushed upon those in the fields and struck them down. 45 All that day Abimelech pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed its people. Then he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it. [We read in verse 22, Abimelech governed Israel for three years, whether or not he was recognized as King over the Israelites was another matter. So, Abimelech’s seat of power was not just Shechem, otherwise he would be destroying himself. Here we read he operated from outside the city of Shechem, captured it and destroyed the city.] 46 On hearing this, the citizens in the tower of Shechem went into the stronghold of the temple of El-Berith. 47 When Abimelech heard that they had assembled there, 48 he and all his men went up Mount Zalmon. He took an ax and cut off some branches, which he lifted to his shoulders. He ordered the men with him, "Quick! Do what you have seen me do!" 49 So all the men cut branches and followed Abimelech. They piled them against the stronghold and set it on fire over the people inside. So all the people in the tower of Shechem, about a thousand men and women, also died. [In those days, it was not uncommon for cities to build towers, in and outside the cities. Some were more elaborate, equipped with temple (citadel), the belief being that gods would protect their cities; some were less. What was said of, here, was probably one such towers, fully equipped with a temple stronghold, and this tower was probably outside the city, since the city of Shechem was already destroyed (verse 45). Basically, Abimelech led the troops to set fire and burnt down the whole tower, killing all the people inside, about 1,000 people. Abimelech was probably very pleased with what he had done, especially the last bit of being the first to light the fire to burn the tower (he copied his father’s act; Gideon was first to blow the trumpet and smashed the jar to let out the fire from the torch within, in the major battle against the Midianites). The first part of the prophesy of Jotham came to pass – the destruction of citizens of Shechem by the hands of Abimelech.] 50 Next Abimelech went to Thebez and besieged it and captured it. 51 Inside the city, however, was a strong tower, to which all the men and women—all the people of the city—fled. They locked themselves in and climbed up on the tower roof. 52 Abimelech went to the tower and stormed it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, 53 a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull. 54 Hurriedly he called to his armor-bearer, "Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can't say, 'A woman killed him.' " So his servant ran him through, and he died. 55 When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead, they went home. [After his success at burning the tower of Shechem, Abimelech went on to Thebez, a nearby city, about 15km away. Some commentators said that Thebez was attacked because they refused to accept Abimelech when he was installed as king, others said that the people there conspired with the Shechemites to revolt against him. I believe it could be that some of the Shechemites fled to the nearby city, and Abimelech just wanted to completely destroy the rebels (and those who helped the rebels) – the prophesy of Jotham said that citizens of Shemchem and Beth Millo (not just Beth Millo) would “do him in”. When the remaining people in the town fled into the town’s tower, Abimelech thought he could just do the same thing he did for the tower of Shechem, torch it. Little did he know that a woman would drop a millstone on his head and cracked his skull.] 56 Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. 57 God also made the men of Shechem pay for all their wickedness. The curse of Jotham son of Jerub-Baal came on them. [The mutual destructions of the parties, citizens of Shechem and Abimelech had come to pass, just as prophesised by Jotham.]

What have we learnt in this episode of Abimelech?
1. Don’t plot evil; don’t do evil; don’t join evil.

2. Don’t “touch” the favored ones of God, not even their families.

3. God is holy, He will punish where punishment is due.

4. From that concerning Jotham, we learnt these:

a. Courage is important, and needed, to serve God, and God honors that

b. We are olive tree (the body of believers liken as a huge olive tree; we are a part thereof).

i. Olive represented peace, we are to seek and guard peace, be peace-makers, bring peace.

ii. Olive tree produces olive fruits from which we get oil. Oil represented fruitfulness.

iii. So, as olive trees, we are to produce olive oil, be peaceful, peace for self and others, and be fruitful. Accordingly if we violate peace and go about things that are inconsistent with God’s word or wishes (that definitely isn’t fruitfulness), we are either a "bad” olive tree or we are no longer one because the test of an olive tree is that it produces olive oil. In the story above, becoming the King was not consistent with God’s word/wishes, so the wise candidates said they would not give up their oil, in other words, fruitfulness.

c. We are vine (and we are to abide in the true vine, Jesus Christ).

i. As in the metaphor of the olive tree, peace and fruitfulness are the same things stressed by Jesus in his teaching. Jesus himself, being the Prince of Peace. If we want peace, we must abide in true vine, Jesus. If we abide in Him, we will have peace, and just as He is Peace, we will be peace.

ii. The fruit of the vine is grapes, from which we get wine. Similarly put, wine represented fruitfulness, like the oil, for the olive tree. Again, Jesus in his teachings, stressed fruitfulness. What will happen to a vine that bears no fruit? Jesus basically said it was useless and its fate would be into the fire to be burnt (The vine and the branches {John 15:1-8}). It is important what we go about doing in this life are not inconsistent with God’s word or wishes. Despite the various interpretations of the Parable of the withering of the fig tree (Matt 21:18-19), I believe one of the point Jesus was trying to put across was that fruitfulness is what God wants, not what we think God should want or what we want.

iii. Abide in Jesus, and we can be both peaceful, peace for self and peace for others, and be fruitful. Some of us have a measure of the first part, peace but lack the second. I believe it is because we have not embraced the Holy Spirit fully. Do you know that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, and also the Spirit of Christ Jesus? Yes, we have the written word of God, the Bible, but it is the Holy Spirit who makes the word alive to us, and in real time, in actual setting, gives us the prompting for us to do what God wants done in real time and actual situation. Scripture said that it is the Holy Spirit who knows the mind of God. So if we want to know what God’s wills are, from, or in addition to the written word, we have to embrace the Holy Spirit. Do you know that oil is used to symbolize the Holy Spirit? In other words, like what the olive oil represented (fruitfulness), the Holy Spirit is critical to fruitfulness; which is not surprising since we have just said the Holy Spirit is the one who knows the mind of God, and fruitfulness gets to do with what God wants, not what we think God should want or what we want.

Anthony Chia – This is what is said in Proverbs 3:33 – The LORD's curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the home of the righteous.

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