The unexplainable tale of Abimelech
More obscurities, witticisms, ironies, mistakes, and a remarkable parable
Gideon’s son Abimelech’s story is like a kaleidoscope with multiple forms and colors. Twist the handle one way and a picture appears, turn some more and another view emerges.
Gideon dies leaving seventy sons. His son by his concubine, Abimelech, craves to be king. He persuades the people of Shechem, where his mother lived, to make him their king rather than be ruled by Gideon’s seventy sons. He kills every brother with their aid, except the youngest, Jotham, who escapes, and Abimelech is crowned.
Jotham interrupts the ceremony. Standing on a mountain he berates the Shechemites with a parable that portrays Abimelech as a good for nothing person, a poor king, and disastrous for the people of Shechem and himself.
Within three years the Shechemites regret their decision and revolt. Abimelech wages war against them, and dies in one of the battles.
As in the Gideon trilogy and numerous other biblical descriptions, chapter 9 is filled with obscure statements and episodes requiring readers to imagine what occurred. The different conclusions yield contradictory ideas of what transpired. Some obscurities are:
- Did Abimelech behave properly when he killed his seventy siblings? Did he fail to act according to modern standards of morality, but followed the ancient practice of removing competition to avoid being assassinated, and assure a quiet reign? Did he follow that advice that King David gave his successor Solomon just before his death to kill his opposition? Was David acting well? Was Abimelech a righteous judge with human faults?
- How much territory did Abimelech rule: only Shechem and its environs, cities he attacked when they revolted against him?
- Was Shechem a Canaanite or Israelite city or a mixture of Canaanites and Israelites? Does the chapter show, as some scholars claim, how Canaanites and Israelites lived together.
- The chapter mentions that the Shechemites worshipped Baal and their temple was called the temple of Baal. Was this Baal an idol, its frequent meaning, or as lord or Lord, the literal meaning? If the latter it could refer to the Israelite God. Were the Israelites of this period and sometime later, or at least the Shechem inhabitants, worshippers of both the Israelite God and idols?
- The chapter does not reveal Abimelech’s argument why Gideon’s seventy sons should not rule. Nor does it indicate whether the seventy were ruling at that time and, if so, how?
- Was Abimelech’s mother, Gideon’s concubine, a Canaanite? Was Abimelech a half Israelite? If so, what does this mean? Were Gaal and Zebul non-Israelites?
- Did the people of Shechem agree to have Abimelech as their king and kill his seventy brothers because he was partially their kin, a half Canaanite? Did the people of Shechem feel uncomfortable with this reasoning later when they said he was the son of Gideon, at which time they felt that only a pure Canaanite should rule over them?
- Some scholars insist that when Abimelech heard that Shechem and surrounding cities were revolting against him and waged war against them, the author of chapter 9 mixed stories of two battles together. One is the tale of Gaal who led a revolt, who Abimelech defeated, and who was tossed out of Shechem by the city administrator Zebul. It is in verses 26-41. The second tale tells about an uprising by all the inhabitants of Shechem that Abimelech confronts, a tale in which Gaal is not involved, but it is led by Zebul. The second story book-ends the one about Gaal in verses 22-25 and in 42 to the end of the chapter. There are scholars on both sides.
- Why doesn’t the book of Judges identify Gideon and Abimelech as judges? The only other person who some scholars consider a judge that the book does not call a judge is Shamgar, who some say was a Canaanite. Isn’t it possible that the book is named Judges not because every person in it judged Israelites, but the name means “This is the period when judges judged the tribes”? And the book describes some events during this period including people who were not judges.
- Why does the book not say that Gideon and Abimelech “saved” Israelites? It also fails to say this about Jair, Ibsan, Elon, Abdon, Samson, and Eli, and the description of Samuel is unclear. Was this done purposely, to distinguish these people? Why?
- How should we interpret Jotham’s tale? Should we look for meaning in every detail? Is it a fable, parable, or allegory? What is the difference?
- Is Jotham’s tale a critique against monarchy?
- Jotham delivered his tale, his rebuke of the people of Shechem with derogatory remarks about Abimelech, from a mountain, presumably far enough away so that the people could not rush him, take him captive, and kill him as they did his brothers. How is it possible that the people of Shechem could hear him?
- The leaders of the Shechem community are called Baalei Shechem, the first word meaning “Baals of.” Why is Baal used? It is an unusual appellation. Is it an ironic derogatory witticism that associates them with the idol, or does it simply mean “lords of Shechem,” city leaders?
- The author uses vayashar, “And Abimelech ruled over Israel three years,” instead of malakh to downplay his role, as a disparagement and mockery.
- The names in the Gideon and Abimelech stories seem to be descriptions of the individual’s personality or activities or, in chapter 9, an insult. Jotham’s name means “mourner”; he was the sole survivor of Abimelech’s butchery of his seventy brothers. Gaal ben Ebed, who rebelled against Abimelech after he for three years and who led the people of Shechem in a revolt until Abimelech defeated him, means “loathsome son of a slave.” Zebul, the administer Abimelech placed over Shechem while he lived elsewhere, who also rebelled against him, was called “manure.”
Continued in Part two
 I Kings 2.
 Although verse 22 states that Abimelech ruled over Israel, this is most likely hyperbole.
 Y. Elitzur suggests that Shechem was a Canaanite city that did not fight against Joshua. It is not mentioned in Judges 1 as a conquered city. The Shechemites usually humbled themselves before the Israelites, but did not forget their prior exulted origin in the days of the patriarch Jacob. Moore states: “Chapter 9 gives a glimpse of the relations between the two people [Canaanites and Israelites] thus brought side by side.” He adds: “Many scholars see the story a kind of prelude to the history of the kingdom of Saul,” both failed beginnings. The Interpreter’s Bible agrees. In contras and the Interpreter’s Bible t, Kaufman contends the city was primarily Israelite and the chapter reflects an internal Israelite conflict, a civil war, a situation that almost flared up in the past and will do so in the future. If the city was Israelite, then Abimelech’s mother was most likely an Israelite.
 Perhaps he said that it is better to be ruled by a single person rather than have the confusion that would be result if seventy people did so. If this was his argument, there is an ironic element here, for Abimelech created confusion.
 Rashi writes that Gaal was a non-Israelite.
 Such as J. D. Martin.
 In verse 41, Zebul drives out Gaal from Shechem. Scholars who see 26-41 as a distinct tale of Gaal’s revolt say this is the end of the story, Abimelech defeated Gaal in battle, he escaped to the city, and Zebul who was in this tale on Abimelech’s side, ejects him from Shechem. But then in verse 42 to the end of the chapter, Abimelech is fighting against Shechem as he did in 22-25. This, they say, makes no sense. Zebul had shown allegiance to Abimelech in verse 41 by ousting Gaal. Gersonides, who insists the chapter is relating one episode, maintains that Zebul was trying to deceive Abimelech by banishing Gaal to make Abimelech think that he was on his side, but Abimelech saw through the hoax and attacked.
 He is mentioned in two verses: 3:31 and 5:6. Although not called a judge, 3:31 states “he also saved Israel.”
 This is the language of Ruth 1:1.
 Most likely the speech being delivered from a mountain is a literary device which should not be taken literally. The significance of mountains will be discussed below.
 As I pointed out frequently, Scripture uses the numbers three and seven, including their variants when zeros are added, such as seventy. Seven and its variants suggest “many,” while three and its variants denote almost a lot.
 Rashi, Radak, A. Cohen, and others.
 Verse 22.