Israels idolatry was both persistent (8.33) and flagrant, for Shechem, now a centre of Baal worship (v.4), was only 12 miles north of the tabernacle at Shiloh (Josh 18.1). Such idolatry precipitated Gods punishment, not now through external invaders but through internal strife three years later He used an evil spirit to cause division (vv.22,23).
Gideons past failures of polygamy (8.30) and integration with Canaanites (his Shechemite concubine was a pagan - 8.31; Deut.7.3,4) opened the door for this disastrous incident, for "one false step of a good man leads multitudes astray".1 "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor 10.12).
Abimelechs extreme example of ambition should alert all Christians to the dangers of political involvement and worldly aspirations. As Abimelech means "whose father is king", perhaps his mother who so named her son nurtured this appetite. He initially gained significant following from "his mothers brethren" (vv.1,3) by appealing to the following human propensities:
Political campaigns fail without adequate resources, so financial backing was sought from "the house of Baal-berith" (v.4). Contrariwise, Christians should be selective regarding financial sources (3 Jn v.7). Abimelech hired "vain" (empty of moral principles1), and "light" ("literally boiling up"1) men (v.4) to do his bidding. In contrast, Christian servants should be "of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom" (Acts 6.3). Just as many families have been sacrificed on the altar of worldly success, in his lust for power Abimelech slew his brethren. Possibly as "expiatory victims to Baal for the sacrilege done to him by Jerubbaal their father".1 Scripture, on the other hand, emphasises the importance of the home as the place of Biblical instruction (Deut 6.6-9; Acts 18.26), mutual respect and love (Eph 5.22-33), and child rearing (Eph 6.4; 1 Tim 5.14). The "plain" (v.6) is in actual fact the "oak" of Joshua 4.26 as "the pillar" is the memorial stone witnessing to Gods law. Ironically Abimelech was anointed king at a site that held historical spiritual significance for Israel (v.6). Do not be deceived, the worldly ambitious willingly ride roughshod over holy things (Mt 7.6).
Jotham "lifted up his voice, and cried" (v.7) audibly on mount Gerizim, a natural amphitheatre with excellent acoustics.2 So, too, the preaching of the Word must be audible and clear. Sadly, Mount Gerizim, associated with previous blessings (Deut 27.12), had become a place of cursing. Jothams courage to act alone (v.7), though fearful (v.21), should encourage Christians to stand up for the truth.
The curse utilised allegory (vv.8-15):
a) The olive would have to "leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man" (v.9). Godward, olive oil was burnt in the lampstand (Ex 25.6), incorporated into the meal offering (Lev 2.1), used to anoint prophets (1 Kings 19.16; Is 61.1), priests (Ex 30.30; 40.13), and kings (1 Sam 10.1; 15.1; 1 Kings 19.15-16). Manward, it was used in diet (1 Chr 12.40; Ezek 16.13,19), and medicine by mollifying skin (Ps 104.15) and healing injuries (Is 1.6; Lk 10.34).
b) The fig tree would have to "forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit" (v.11). Again, the fig was used in both diet (1 Sam 25.18; 30.12) and medicine (2 Kings 20.7).
c) The vine (v.13) would have to "leave my wine, which cheereth God (drink offerings, Ex 29.40) and man" (medicine, Lk 10.34; 1 Tim 5.23).
Two invaluable lessons for believers are found here. First, as each tree had specific roles in nature so do individual saints in the assembly. Just as the produce of these trees was for God and man, Christians in a local church should engage in worship and encouraging others. Second, as removal from their sphere of fruitfulness was necessary for promotion, so too important worldly positions can impair our spiritual fruit bearing. This truth should powerfully influence all young believers considering potential employment. Will the job allow me to fulfil my role in the assembly?
The parable was thoroughly appropriate for the Shechemites had forgotten Gideons bravery (v.17) and were clearly culpable in the atrocious murder of his children (v.18). Ultimately, Abimelech and the Shechemites would mutually destroy each another (v.20), for "companions in sin are doomed to be companions in judgement".4
Popularity is short-lived, and the Shechemites allegiance soon changed (vv.22-29). The house that financed the initial massacre (v.4) was where they cursed Abimelech (v.27) and where they finally died (vv.46-49), for idolatry always ends in death. They hid in the tower vainly expecting Baal to protect them. Jehovah, however, is a reliable refuge for His people (Pr 18.10). The association of drunkenness with idolatry should be a warning to all saints (v.27).
Gaal promoted himself by despising godly Gideon, appealing to ancestral purity (v.28)5 and promising to get rid of Abimelech, for men often make promises they cannot keep to gain power (v.29; 2 Sam 15.1-6).
Like his father, Abimelech was an outstanding military leader. He had good information sources (vv.25,31,42,47), took wise counsel (vv.30-33), and swiftly squashed uprisings (v.34ff). His battle strategy was tactically brilliant; he sprung unexpectedly on the people going to work in the fields (vv.42,43); by guarding the gate he prevented their retreat (v.44); dividing his men into three companies (v.43) he facilitated flanking manoeuvres. His ruthlessness led him to fight "against the city all that day" and then waste it (v.45) and burn those in the tower, thus fulfilling Jothams curse (vv.20,49). He inspired his men by example (v.48). His rules of engagement, however, had no respect for Gods Word; he disobediently cut down trees to assault the tower (vv.48,49; Deut 20.19,20). Nevertheless we can learn positive lessons for Christian service:
Abimelechs end vividly exemplified the proverb "pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov 16.18). His attack on Thebez displayed pride in at least three ways:
Just as sheep are scattered without a shepherd (Mt 9.36), having no leader Israel returned home (v.55). Gods sovereign over-ruling (vv.56,57) in this story teaches that men reap what they sow (Ps 7.16; Pr 1.31; 5.22; Gal 6.7), sinful joy is short lived (Job 20.5; Heb 11.25), violent men often die violent deaths (Mt 26.52), and Gods Word always comes to pass (2 Pet 3.9). To be continued.
1 Fausset AR. Geneva Series of Commentaries Judges.
2 Schultz SJ. Deuteronomy.
3 Edersheim A. Bible History - Old Testament.
4 Feinberg CL. Minor Prophets.
5 "Shechem seems to have retained among its inhabitants the lineal representations of Hamor, the original prince, founder of Shechem in the days of Jacob (Gen 33.19; 34.2; comp Josh 24.32)" (Edersheim, op cit).