The unexplainable tale of Abimelech
Part two is a continuation of part one
The author of chapter 9 shows more humor with his irony, such as:
- Abimelech kills his seventy brothers claiming they were unfit to rule, but he was aided by “thoughtless and rash men” hired with seventy pieces of gold obtained from the treasury of the house of Baal.
- Shechem the site of the rebellion against Abimelech was a sacred place in earlier and later Israelite history. There are 48 references to Shechem in the Bible involving Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua who buried Joseph in the area, and Rehobaom, who rebelled against the Davidic dynasty, established his capital there, and called his country Israel. Shechem is named Nablus today and is an Arab town.
- The people of Shechem crowned Abimelech their king but rebelled against him after a short three-year period.
- Chapter 9 starts by mentioning women who bore Gideon 70 children and a son from a concubine; and it ends with his son Abimelech being killed by a woman.
- The Shechemites did not select Abimelech because his father was the hero Gideon, but because they identified with a woman, Gideon’s concubine who lived in Shechem.
- Abimelech is struck on the head by a millstone thrown of dropped by a woman. He tells his armor-bearer that he doesn’t want people to say he was killed by a woman; this is dishonorable. He plan fails because the book of Judges portrays the true event for posterity. The episode is even mentioned later in II Samuel 11:21. Not only was he killed by a woman, she used a millstone, which was part of women’s work in ancient time.
- In chapter 8, Gideon tells his “oldest” son to kill the two captured Midianite kings, but the boy can’t do it. Gideon apparently wanted this son to succeed him. After Abimelech kills all but one of Gideon’s sons, his “youngest” son Jotham confronts Abimelech with a fable delivered from a mountain.
- Jotham says that the Shechemites and Abimelech will die by fire. He meant it metaphorically, but Abimelech burnt Shechem and was killed when he tried to burn another city.
- Mount Gerizim from which Jotham narrated his fable is the same mountain upon which Joshua blessed the Israelite people.
- Trees play a repeated role in this story. Abimelech’s crowning is by a sacred tree. Jotham’s parable focuses on trees. Abimelech cuts trees to use as firewood to burn towns. And while he begins his reign by the sacred tree, he dies while trying to incinerate a town with trees he cut.
There are many fables is the Torah that include animals and trees, such as II Kings 14:9 about a thistle and a cedar and Nathan’s fable about a rich man a lamb in II Samuel 12. I kings 5:13 states that King Solomon composed many fables.
Some scholars insist that Jotham’s fable wasn’t composed to castigate his half brother Abimelech since every detail in the fable does not fit the event. For example the fable speaks about the trees seeking a king and making the request first of the olive tree, second the fig tree, third the vine, and then settling on the thorn bush, but this does not agree with what happened; the people of Shechem only requested one person to rule them, Abimelech. Other scholars recognize that it is characteristic for fables to have details that add spice to the story but nothing to its message.
Other scholars seek to find meaning in the three trees. Rashi says the olive tree represents the judge Othniel, figs Deborah, and vine Gideon. Gersonides is similar: oil symbolizes the oil used in the temple, wine an ingredient in sacrifices; he does not mention figs. Abarbanel criticizes this type of interpretation saying, “What does this have to do with the episode!”
But Abarbanel also sees meaning in the three trees. He suggests that Jotham tells the Shechemites that they should have first tried to find a king, similar to olives, from the best families in the country. If this fails find a man who is rich, like figs, because a rich person shows skill in handling the economy. If he is unavailable, seek a man with a warm personality who treats others well, like the vine.
Kaufman calls Jotham’s story an allegory that suggests Israelite history, contains moral and political chastisement, and teaches about a proper monarchy.
Mountains play a role in the Jotham tale, in other Jewish stories, and classical literature. Olam Hatanach explains that the ancients considered mountains higher than the earth, close to heaven, a site for gods, such as Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. Mountains had sacredness and were appropriate places for burial of significant men, such as Aaron and Moses, revelation of God’s word, and the site for blessings and curses.
Interpretations by Arnold Ehrlich
- The donation of money to Abimelech by the Baal temple suggests that the priests supported him. Once the people saw that this, they joined the priests in the revolt.
- These priests were pagans.
- Jotham mentioned olives first in his fable because olive oil was used in anointing kings.
- Jotham was prompted to deliver a fable about trees because he saw the Shechemites assembled at the sacred tree.
- The Israelites generally divided their armed forces into three units for battle, as in 7:16, 9:13, I Samuel 11:11, 13:17, and Job 1:17. Thus verse 44, which uses the word v’harashim, “and units,” suggesting that Abimelech had two units with him in addition to the two he sent forward toward the city, is most likely an error. Olam Hatanach agrees that our text is wrong and that the Septuagint word, based on a reading v’haanashim, “the men,” is correct.
- Why did Abimelech kill his seventy half brothers on a rock? The ancients believed the blood of a murdered person cries to heaven for revenge. The divine punishment can be avoided by covering the blood with earth. By shedding his brothers’ blood on a stone, where the earth would not absorb it, Abimelech showed arrogant disregard of God who avenges crimes.
There is no way we can assess Abimelech’s origin, personality, behavior, or success with any certainty. He may have been a righteous judge who aided Israelites in many ways during his tenure as king, perhaps even controlling Canaanites in Shechem. Or, he may have been an egotistical unfeeling butcher who could persuade some of his coreligionists or Canaanites for a short time to accept his rule, until they rebelled; and he died a shameful death egotistically bewailing the possibility that history will mock him for being killed by a woman.
 The use of the temple of Baal here could mean a sanctuary of an idol or one dedicated to the Israelite God. The story of killing seventy sons parallels somewhat the tale of the killing of the seventy sons of the evil king Ahab in II Kings 10:1-11. Each event depicts the end of an era, and much more.
 Joshua 24:32.
 While the kingdom under David’s family was called Judea. I Kings 12:1.
 This is similar to the statement by the two kings in chapter 8 who don’t want to be killed by a young boy because it is dishonorable, and beg Gideon to kill them instead. It is also similar to King Saul in I Samuel 31:4 where he is dying of a wound inflicted during his final battle; he tells his armor-bearer to kill him so that people would not say that non-Israelites did him in.
 Olam Hatanach. Abarbanel writes that Abimelech’s desire to avoid being known as a man killed by a woman is “foolish.” The embarrassment, he writes, only comes when a person is killed in a field of battle when a woman is able to overcome him in combat, but being killed by a bolder thrown or dropped from a height by a woman is not shameful; “what difference does it make if thrown by a man or woman!”
 Deuteronomy 27:12 and Joshua 8:33.
 Numbers 20.
 Deuteronomy 34.
 Exodus 19 and 20.
 For example, Numbers 21:20; 23:14 – 15; Deuteronomy 27:11-13, 33:15; and Joshua 8:33.
 As in Genesis 4:10.
 Genesis 37:26 and Job 16:18.