Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Judgment upon the House of Gideon, or Abimelech's Sins and End - Judges 9
After the death of Gideon, Abimelech, his bastard son, opened a way for himself to reign as king over Israel, by murdering his brethren with the help of the Shechemites (Jdg 9:1-6). For this grievous wrong Jotham, the only one of Gideon's seventy sons who escaped the massacre, reproached the citizens of Shechem in a parable, in which he threatened them with punishment from God (Jdg 9:7-21), which first of all fell upon Shechem within a very short time (vv. 22-49), and eventually reached Abimelech himself (Jdg 9:50-57).
Having gone to Shechem, the home of his mother (Jdg 8:31), Abimelech applied to his mother's brothers and the whole family (all the relations) of the father's house of his mother, and addressed them thus: "Speak, I pray you, in the ears of all the lords of Shechem," i.e., speak to them publicly and solemnly. שׁכם בּעלי, the lords, i.e., the possessors or citizens of Shechem (compare Jdg 9:46 with Jdg 9:49, where מגדּל בּעלי is interchangeable with אנשׁי a; also Jdg 20:5, and Jos 24:11): they are not merely Canaanitish citizens, of whom there were some still living in Shechem according to Jdg 9:28, but all the citizens of the town; therefore chiefly Israelites. "What is better for you, that seventy men rule over you, all the sons of Jerubbaal, or (only) one man (i.e., Abimelech)? and remember that I am your flesh and bone" (blood relation, Gen 29:14). The name "sons of Jerubbaal," i.e., of the man who had destroyed the altar of Baal, was just as little adapted to commend the sons of Gideon to the Shechemites, who were devoted to the worship of Baal, as the remark that seventy men were to rule over them. No such rule ever existed, or was even aspired to by the seventy sons of Gideon. But Abimelech assumed that his brothers possessed the same thirst for ruling as he did himself; and the citizens of Shechem might be all the more ready to put faith in his assertions, since the distinction which Gideon had enjoyed was thoroughly adapted to secure a prominent place in the nation for his sons.
When his mother's brethren spake to the citizens of Shechem concerning him, i.e., respecting him and his proposal, their heart turned to Abimelech.
They gave him seventy shekels of silver from the house of Baal-berith, i.e., from the treasury of the temple that was dedicated to the covenant Baal at Shechem, as temple treasures were frequently applied to political purposes (see Kg1 15:18). With this money Abimelech easily hired light and desperate men, who followed him (attached themselves to him); and with their help he murdered his brethren at Ophrah, seventy men, with the exception of Jotham the youngest, who had hidden himself. The number seventy, the total number of his brethren, is reduced by the exception mentioned immediately afterwards to sixty-nine who were really put to death. ריק, empty, i.e., without moral restraint. פּחז lit. gurgling up, boiling over; figuratively, hot, desperate men. "Upon (against) one stone," that is to say, by a formal execution: a bloody omen of the kingdom of ten tribes, which was afterwards founded at Shechem by the Ephraimite Jeroboam, in which one dynasty overthrew another, and generally sought to establish its power by exterminating the whole family of the dynasty that had been overthrown (see Kg1 15:27., Kg2 10:1.). Even in Judah, Athaliah the worshipper of Baal sought to usurp the government by exterminating the whole of the descendants of her son (2 Kings 11). Such fratricides have also occurred in quite recent times in the Mohammedan countries of the East.
"Then all the citizens of Shechem assembled together, and all the house of Millo, and made Abimelech king at the memorial terebinth at Shechem." Millo is unquestionably the name of the castle or citadel of the town of Shechem, which is called the tower of Shechem in Jdg 9:46-49. The word Millo (Chaldee מלּיתא) signifies primarily a rampart, inasmuch as it consisted of two walls, with the space between them filled with rubbish. There was also a Millo at Jerusalem (Sa2 5:9; Kg1 9:15). "All the house of Millo" are all the inhabitants of the castle, the same persons who are described in Jdg 9:46 as "all the men (baale) of the tower." The meaning of מצּב אלון is doubtful. מצּב, the thing set up, is a military post in Isa 29:3; but it may also mean a monument of memorial, and here it probably denotes the large stone set up as a memorial at Shechem under the oak or terebinth (see Gen 35:4). The inhabitants of Shechem, the worshippers of Baal-berith, carried out the election of Abimelech as king in the very same place in which Joshua had held the last national assembly, and had renewed the covenant of Israel with Jehovah the true covenant God (Jos 24:1, Jos 24:25-26). It was there in all probability that the temple of Baal-berith was to be found, namely, according to Jdg 9:46, near the tower of Shechem or the citadel of Millo.
When Jotham, who had escaped after the murder, was told of the election which had taken place, he went to the top of Mount Gerizim, which rises as a steep wall of rock to the height of about 800 feet above the valley of Shechem on the south side of the city (Rob. iii. p. 96), and cried with a loud voice, "Hearken to me, ye lords of Shechem, and God will also hearken to you." After this appeal, which calls to mind the language of the prophets, he uttered aloud a fable of the trees which wanted to anoint a king over them-a fable of true prophetic significance, and the earliest with which we are acquainted (Jdg 9:8-15). To the appeal which is made to them in succession to become king over the trees, the olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine all reply: Shall we give up our calling, to bear valuable fruits for the good and enjoyment of God and men, and soar above the other trees? The briar, however, to which the trees turn last of all, is delighted at the unexpected honour that is offered it, and says, "Will ye in truth anoint me king over you? Then come and trust in my shadow; but if not, let fire go out of the briar and consume the cedars of Lebanon." The rare form מלוכה (Chethib, Jdg 9:8, Jdg 9:12) also occurs in Sa1 28:8; Isa 32:11; Psa 26:2 : see Ewald, 228, b.). מלכי (Jdg 9:10) is also rare (see Ewald, 226, b). The form החדלתּי (Jdg 9:9, Jdg 9:11, Jdg 9:13), which is quite unique, is not "Hophal or Hiphil, compounded of ההחד or ההחד" (Ewald, 51, c), for neither the Hophal nor the Hiphil of חדל occurs anywhere else; but it is a simple Kal, and the obscure o sound is chosen instead of the a sound for the sake of euphony, i.e., to assist the pronunciation of the guttural syllables which follow one after another. The meaning of the fable is very easy to understand. The olive tree, fig tree, and vine do not represent different historical persons, such as the judges Othniel, Deborah, and Gideon, as the Rabbins affirm, but in a perfectly general way the nobler families or persons who bring forth fruit and blessing in the calling appointed them by God, and promote the prosperity of the people and kingdom in a manner that is well-pleasing to God and men. Oil, figs, and wine were the most valuable productions of the land of Canaan, whereas the briar was good for nothing but to burn. The noble fruit-trees would not tear themselves from the soil in which they had been planted and had borne fruit, to soar (נוּע, float about) above the trees, i.e., not merely to rule over the trees, but obire et circumagi in rebus eorum curandis. נוּע includes the idea of restlessness and insecurity of existence. The explanation given in the Berleb. Bible, "We have here what it is to be a king, to reign or be lord over many others, namely, very frequently to do nothing else than float about in such restlessness and distraction of thoughts, feelings, and desires, that very little good or sweet fruit ever falls to the ground," if not a truth without exception so far as royalty is concerned, is at all events perfectly true in relation to what Abimelech aimed at and attained, to be a king by the will of the people and not by the grace of God. Wherever the Lord does not found the monarchy, or the king himself does not lay the foundations of his government in God and the grace of God, he is never anything but a tree, moving about above other trees without a firm root in a fruitful soil, utterly unable to bear fruit to the glory of God and the good of men. The expression "all the trees" is to be carefully noticed in Jdg 9:14. "All the trees" say to the briar, Be king over us, whereas in the previous verse only "the trees" are mentioned. This implies that of all the trees not one was willing to be king himself, but that they were unanimous in transferring the honour to the briar. The briar, which has nothing but thorns upon it, and does not even cast sufficient shadow for any one to lie down in its shadow and protect himself from the burning heat of the sun, is an admirable simile for a worthless man, who can do nothing but harm. The words of the briar, "Trust in my shadow," seek refuge there, contain a deep irony, the truth of which the Shechemites were very soon to discover. "And if not," i.e., if ye do not find the protection you expect, fire will go out of the briar and consume the cedars of Lebanon, the largest and noblest trees. Thorns easily catch fire (see Exo 22:5). The most insignificant and most worthless man can be the cause of harm to the mightiest and most distinguished.
In Jdg 9:16-20 Jotham gives the application of his fable, for there was no necessity for any special explanation of it, since it was perfectly clear and intelligible in itself. These verses form a long period, the first half of which is so extended by the insertion of parentheses introduced as explanations (Jdg 9:17, Jdg 9:18), that the commencement of it (Jdg 9:16) is taken up again in Jdg 9:19 for the purpose of attaching the apodosis. "If ye have acted in truth and sincerity, and (i.e., when he) made Abimelech king; if ye have done well to Jerubbaal and his house, and if ye have done to him according to the doing of his hands ... as my father fought for you ... but ye have risen up to-day against my father's house, and have slain ... if (I say) ye have acted in truth and sincerity to Jerubbaal and his house this day: then rejoice in Abimelech ...." נפשׁו השׁליך, to throw away his life, i.e., expose to death. מנּגד, "from before him," serves to strengthen the השׁליך. Jotham imputes the slaying of his brothers to the citizens of Shechem, as a crime which they themselves had committed (Jdg 9:18), because they had given Abimelech money out of their temple of Baal to carry out his designs against the sons of Jerubbaal (Jdg 9:4). In this reproach he had, strictly speaking, already pronounced sentence upon their doings. When, therefore, he proceeds still further in Jdg 9:19, "If ye have acted in truth towards Jerubbaal ... then rejoice," etc., this turn contains the bitterest scorn at the faithlessness manifested towards Jerubbaal. In that case nothing could follow but the fulfilment of the threat and the bursting forth of the fire. In carrying out this point the application goes beyond the actual meaning of the parable itself. Not only will fire go forth from Abimelech and consume the lords of Shechem and the inhabitants of Millo, but fire will also go forth from them and devour Abimelech himself. The fulfilment of this threat was not long delayed, as the following history shows (Jdg 9:23.).
But Jotham fled to Beer, after charging the Shechemites with their iniquity, and dwelt there before his brother Abimelech ("before," i.e., "for fear of." - Jerome). Beer in all probability is not the same place as Beeroth in the tribe of Benjamin (Jos 9:17), but, according to the Onom. (s. v. Βηρά), a place eight Roman miles to the north of Eleutheropolis, situated in the plain; at present a desolate village called el Breh, near the mouth of Wady es Surr, not far from the former Beth-shemesh (Rob. Pal. ii. p. 132).
Abimelech's reign lasted three years. ויּשׂר, from שׂוּר to govern, is used intentionally, as it appears, in the place of ויּמלך, because Abimelech's government was not a monarchical reign, but simply a tyrannical despotism. "Over Israel," that is to say, not over the whole of the twelve tribes of Israel, but only over a portion of the nation, possibly the tribes of Ephraim and half Manasseh, which acknowledged his sway.
Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem, so that they became treacherous towards him. "An evil spirit" is not merely "an evil disposition," but an evil demon, which produced discord and strife, just as an evil spirit came upon Saul (Sa1 16:14-15; Sa1 18:10); not Satan himself, but a supernatural spiritual power which was under his influence. This evil spirit God sent to punish the wickedness of Abimelech and the Shechemites. Elohim, not Jehovah, because the working of the divine justice is referred to here. "That the wickedness to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood (the blood of these sons that had been shed), to lay it upon Abimelech. " "And their blood" is only a more precise definition of "the wickedness to the seventy sons;" and "to lay it" is an explanation of the expression "might come." The introduction of לשׂוּם, however, brings an anakolouthon into the construction, since the transitive שׂוּם presupposes Elohim as the subject and דּמם as the object, whereas the parallel חמס is the subject to the intransitive לבוא: that the wickedness might come, and that God might lay the blood not only upon Abimelech, the author of the crime, but also upon the lords of Shechem, who had strengthened his hands to slay his brethren; had supported him by money, that he might be able to hire worthless fellows to execute his crime (Jdg 9:4, Jdg 9:5).
The faithlessness of the Shechemites towards Abimelech commenced by their placing liers in wait for him (לו, dat. incomm., to his disadvantage) upon the tops of the mountains (Ebal and Gerizim, between which Shechem was situated), who plundered every one who passed by them on the road. In what way they did harm to Abimelech by sending out liers in wait to plunder the passers-by, is not very clear from the brevity of the narrative. The general effect may have been, that they brought his government into discredit with the people by organizing a system of robbery and plunder, and thus aroused a spirit of discontent and rebellion. Possibly, however, these highway robbers were to watch for Abimelech himself, if he should come to Shechem, not only to plunder him, but, if possible, to despatch him altogether. This was made known to Abimelech. But before he had put down the brigandage, the treachery broke out into open rebellion.
Gaal, the son of Ebed, came to Shechem with his brethren. עבר with בּ, to pass over into a place. Who Gaal was, and whence he came, we are not informed. Many of the MSS and early editions, e.g., the Syriac and Arabic, read "son of Eber," instead of "son of Ebed." Judging from his appearance in Shechem, he was a knight-errant, who went about the country with his brethren, i.e., as captain of a company of freebooters, and was welcomed in Shechem, because the Shechemites, who were dissatisfied with the rule of Abimelech, hoped to find in him a man who would be able to render them good service in their revolt from Abimelech. This may be gathered from the words "and the lords of Shechem trusted in him."
At the vintage they prepared הלּוּלים, "praise-offerings," with the grapes which they had gathered and pressed, eating and drinking in the house of their god, i.e., the temple of Baal-berith, and cursing Abimelech at these sacrificial meals, probably when they were excited with wine. הלּוּלים signifies, according to Lev 19:24, praise-offerings of the fruits which newly-planted orchards or vineyards bore in the fourth years. The presentation of these fruits, by which the vineyard or orchard was sanctified to the Lord, was associated, as we may learn from the passage before us, with sacrificial meals. The Shechemites held a similar festival in the temple of their covenant Baal, and in his honour, to that which the law prescribes for the Israelites in Lev 19:23-25.
At this feast Gaal called upon the Shechemites to revolt from Abimelech. "Who is Abimelech," he exclaimed, "and who Shechem, that we serve him? Is he not the son of Jerubbaal, and Zebul his officer? Serve the men of Hamor, the father of Shechem! and why should we, we serve him (Abimelech)?" The meaning of these words, which have been misinterpreted in several different ways, is very easily seen, if we bear in mind (1) that מי (who is?) in this double question cannot possibly be used in two different and altogether opposite senses, such as "how insignificant or contemptible is Abimelech," and "how great and mighty is Shechem," but that in both instances it must be expressive of disparagement and contempt, as in Sa1 25:10; and (2) that Gaal answers his own questions. Abimelech was regarded by him as contemptible, not because he was the son of a maid-servant or of very low birth, nor because he was ambitious and cruel, a patricide and the murderer of his brethren (Rosenmller), but because he was a son of Jerubbaal, a son of the man who destroyed the altar of Baal at Shechem and restored the worship of Jehovah, for which the Shechemites themselves had endeavoured to slay him (Jdg 6:27.). So also the meaning of the question, Who is Shechem? may be gathered from the answer, "and Zebul his officer." The use of the personal מי (how) in relation to Shechem may be explained on the ground that Gaal is speaking not so much of the city as of its inhabitants. The might and greatness of Shechem did not consist in the might and authority of its prefect, Zebul, who had been appointed by Abimelech, and whom the Shechemites had no need to serve. Accordingly there is no necessity either for the arbitrary paraphrase of Shechem, given in the Sept., viz., υἱὸς Συχέμ (son of Shechem); or for the perfectly arbitrary assumption of Bertheau, that Shechem is only a second name for Abimelech, who was a descendant of Shechem; or even for the solution proposed by Rosenmller, that Zebul was "a man of low birth and obscure origin," which is quite incapable of proof. To Zebul, that one man whom Abimelech had appointed prefect of the city, Gaal opposes "the men of Hamor, the father of Shechem," as those whom the Shechemites should serve (i.e., whose followers they should be). Hamor was the name of the Hivite prince who had founded the city of Shechem (Gen 33:19; Gen 34:2; compare Jos 24:32). The "men of Hamor" were the patricians of the city, who "derived their origin from the noblest and most ancient stock of Hamor" (Rosenmller). Gaal opposes them to Abimelech and his representative Zebul.
(Note: Bertheau maintains, though quite erroneously, that serving the men of Hamor is synonymous with serving Abimelech. But the very opposite of this is so clearly implied in the words, that there cannot be any doubt on the question. All that can be gathered from the words is that there were remnants of the Hivite (or Canaanitish) population still living in Shechem, and therefore that the Canaanites had not been entirely exterminated-a fact which would sufficiently explain the revival of the worship of Baal there.)
In the last clause, "why should we serve him" (Abimelech or his officer Zebul)? Gall identifies himself with the inhabitants of Shechem, that he may gain them fully over to his plans.
"O that this people," continued Gaal, "were in my hand," i.e., could I but rule over the inhabitants of Shechem, "then would I remove (drive away) Abimelech. " He then exclaimed with regard to Abimelech (ל אמר, as in Jdg 9:54, Gen 20:13, etc.), "Increase thine army and come out!" Heated as he was with wine, Gaal was so certain of victory that he challenged Abimelech boldly to make war upon Shechem. תּבּה, imper. Piel with Seghol. צאה, imperative, with ה of motion or emphasis.
This rebellious speech of Gaal was reported to Abimelech by the town-prefect Zebul, who sent messengers to him בּתרמה, either with deceit (תּרמה from רמה), i.e., employing deceit, inasmuch as he had listened to the speech quietly and with apparent assent, or "in Tormah," the name of a place, תּרמה being a misspelling for ארמה = ארוּמה (Jdg 9:41). The Sept. and Chaldee take the word as an appellative = ἐν κρυφῇ, secretly; so also do Rashi and most of the earlier commentators, whilst R. Kimchi the elder has decided in favour of the second rendering as a proper name. As the word only occurs here, it is impossible to decide with certainty in favour of either view. צרים הנּם, behold they stir up the city against thee (צרים from צוּר in the sense of צרר).
At the same time he called upon Abimelech to draw near, with the people that he had with him, during the night, and to lie in wait in the field (ארב, to place one's self in ambush), and the next morning to spread out with his army against the town; and when Gaal went out with his followers, he was to do to him "as his hand should find," i.e., to deal with him as he best could and would under the circumstances. (On this formula, see at Sa1 10:7; Sa1 25:8.)
On receiving this intelligence, Abimelech rose up during the night with the people that were with him, i.e., with such troops as he had, and placed four companies ("heads" as in Jdg 7:16) in ambush against Shechem.
When Gaal went out in the morning with his retinue upon some enterprise, which is not more clearly defined, and stood before the city gate, Abimelech rose up with his army out of the ambush. On seeing this people, Gaal said to Zebul (who must therefore have come out of the city with him): "Behold, people come down from the tops of the mountains." Zebul replied, for the purpose of deceiving him and making him feel quite secure, "Thou lookest upon the shadow of the mountains as men."
But Gaal said again, "Behold, people come down from the navel of the land," i.e., from the highest point of the surrounding country, "and a crowd comes by the way of the wizard's terebinths," - a place in the neighbourhood of Shechem that is not mentioned anywhere else, and therefore is not more precisely known.
Then Zebul declared openly against Gaal, and reproached him with his foolhardy speech, whilst Abimelech was drawing nearer with his troops: "Where is thy mouth now with which thou saidst, Who is Abimelech? Is not this the people that thou hast despised? Go out now and fight with him!"
Then Gaal went out "before the citizens of Shechem;" i.e., not at their head as their leaders, which is the meaning of לפני in Gen 33:3; Exo 13:21; Num 10:35, etc., - for, according to Jdg 9:33-35, Gaal had only gone out of the town with his own retinue, and, according to Jdg 9:42, Jdg 9:43, the people of Shechem did not go out till the next day, - but "in the sight of the lords of Shechem," so that they looked upon the battle. But the battle ended unfortunately for him. Abimelech put him to flight (רדף as in Lev 26:36), and there fell many slain up to the gate of the city, into which Gaal had fled with his followers.
Abimelech did not force his way into the city, but remained (ישׁב, lit. sat down) with his army in Arumah, a place not mentioned again, which was situated, according to Jdg 9:42, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Shechem. It cannot possibly have been the place called Ῥουμὰ ἡ καὶ Ἄριμα in the Onom. of Eusebius, which was named Ῥέμφις in his day, and was situated in the neighbourhood of Diospolis (or Lydda). Zebul, however, drove Gaal and his brethren (i.e., his retinue) out of Shechem.
The next day the people of Shechem went into the field, apparently not to make war upon Abimelech, but to work in the field, possibly to continue the vintage. But when Abimelech was informed of it, he divided the people, i.e., his own men, into three companies, which he placed in ambush in the field, and then fell upon the Shechemites when they had come out of the city, and slew them.
That is to say, Abimelech and the companies with him spread themselves out and took their station by the city gate to cut off the retreat of the Shechemites into the city, whilst the other two companies fell upon all who were in the field, and slew them.
Thus Abimelech fought all that day against the city and took it; and having slain all the people therein, he destroyed the city and strewed salt upon it. Strewing the ruined city with salt, which only occurs here, was a symbolical act, signifying that the city was to be turned for ever into a barren salt desert. Salt ground is a barren desert (see Job 39:6; Psa 107:34).
When the inhabitants of the castle of Shechem ("lords of the tower of Shechem" = "all the house of Millo," Jdg 9:6) heard of the fate of the town of Shechem, they betook themselves to the hold of the house (temple) of the covenant god (Baal-berith), evidently not for the purpose of defending themselves there, but to seek safety at the sanctuary of their god from fear of the vengeance of Abimelech, towards whom they also had probably acted treacherously. The meaning of the word צריח, which answers to an Arabic word signifying arx, palatium, omnis structura elatior, cannot be exactly determined, as it only occurs again in Sa1 13:6 in connection with caves and clefts of the rock. According to v. 49, it had a roof which could be set on fire. The meaning "tower" is only a conjecture founded upon the context, and does not suit, as צריח is distinguished from מגדּל.
As soon as this was announced to Abimelech, he went with all his men to Mount Zalmon, took hatchets in his hand, cut down branches from the trees, and laid them upon his shoulders, and commanded his people to do the same. These branches they laid upon the hold, and set the hold on fire over them (the inhabitants of the tower who had taken refuge there), so that all the people of the tower of Shechem (about one thousand persons) perished, both men and women. Mount Zalmon, which is mentioned again in Psa 68:15, was a dark, thickly-wooded mountain near Shechem, - a kind of "Black Forest," as Luther has rendered the name. The plural kardumoth, "axes," may be explained on the ground that Abimelech took axes not only for himself but for his people also. מה in a relative sense, as in Num 23:3 (see Ewald, 331, b.).
At length the fate predicted by Jotham (Jdg 9:20) overtook Abimelech.
He went from Shechem to Thebez, besieged the town, and took it. Thebez, according to the Onom. thirteen miles from Neapolis (Shechem) on the road to Scythopolis (Beisan), has been preserved in the large village of Tubs on the north of Shechem (see Rob. Pal. iii. p. 156, and Bibl. Res. p. 305). This town possessed a strong tower, in which men and women and all the inhabitants of the town took refuge and shut themselves in. But when Abimelech advanced to the tower and drew near to the door to set it on fire, a woman threw a millstone down upon him from the roof of the tower and smashed his skull, whereupon he called hastily to the attendant who carried his weapons to give him his death-blow with his sword, that men might not say of him "a woman slew him." רכב פּלח, the upper millstone which was turned round, lapis vector (see Deu 24:6). תּריץ: from רצץ, with a toneless i, possibly to distinguish it from ותּרץ (from רוּץ). גּלגּלתּו, an unusual form for גּלגּלתּו, which is found in the edition of Norzi (Mantua, 1742).
After the death of Abimelech his army was dissolved. ישׂראל אישׁ are the Israelites who formed Abimelech's army. In Jdg 9:56, Jdg 9:57, the historian closes this account with the remark, that in this manner God recompensed Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem, who had supported him in the murder of his brothers (Jdg 9:2), according to their doings. After the word "rendered" in Jdg 9:56 we must supply "upon his head," as in Jdg 9:57. Thus Jotham's curse was fulfilled upon Abimelech and upon the Shechemites, who had made him king.