1-4. Abimelech induces the Shechemites to join in a conspiracy. Judges 9:5-6. The murder of his brethren. Judges 9:7-15. Jotham’s parable of the trees seeking to anoint a king. Judges 9:16-20. Application of the parable. Judges 9:21. Escape of Jotham. Judges 9:22-25. Disaffection of the Shechemites, (Judges 9:26-29) fostered by Gaal. Judges 9:30-33. Abimelech is informed of the conspiracy by Zebul. Judges 9:34-40. Defeat of Gaal. Judges 9:41-45. His assault on Shechem, which he captures and destroys. Judges 9:46-49. Burning of the temple and fortress of Baal-berith. Judges 9:50-52. Siege of Thebez. Judges 9:53-55. Death of Abimelech. Judges 9:56-57. The moral of the episode.
Unto his mother’s brethren.—His Canaanite kith and kin, who doubtless had great influence over the still powerful aboriginal element of the Shechemite population.
That all the sons of Jerubbaal . . . reign over you.—It seems to have been the merest calumny to suggest that they ever dreamt of making their father’s influence hereditary in this sense. Gideon had expressly repudiated all wish and claim to exercise “rule” (meshol, Judges 8:23) of this kind. The remark of Abimelech is quite in the ancient spirit—
οὐκ άγαθὸν πολυκοίρανίη, εἶς κοιρανὸς ε̄̌στω.
(Comp. Eur. Suppl. 410.)
Your bone and your flesh.—The same phrase is found in Genesis 2:23; Genesis 29:14; 2 Samuel 5:1; 2 Samuel 19:12. He was akin to both the elements of the population: to the Ephraimites, from the place of his birth, or at any rate of his mother’s residence; and to the Canaanites (as the whole narrative implies), from her blood. The plea was “like that of our Henry II., the first Norman son of a Saxon mother” (Stanley).
Out of the house of Baal-berith.—Like most temples in ancient days (e.g., that of Venus on Mount Eryx, the Parthenon, and that of Jupiter Latiaris), this served at once as a sanctuary, a fortress, and a bank. Similarly the treasures amassed at Delphi enabled the three Phocian brothers, Phayllus, Phalaekus, and Onomarchus, to support the whole burden of the sacred war (Diodor. xvi. 30; comp. Thuc. i. 121, 2:13). (Comp. also 1 Kings 15:18.)
Vain and light persons.—These are exactly analogous to the doruphoroi—a body-guard of spear-bearers, which an ambitious Greek always hired as the first step to setting up a tyranny (Diog. Laert. 1:49). We find Jephthah (Judges 11:3), and David (1 Samuel 22:2), and Absalom (2 Samuel 15:1), and Rezon (1 Kings 11:24), and Adonijah (1 Kings 1:5), and Jeroboam (2 Chronicles 13:7) doing exactly the same thing. Who these “vain” persons were is best defined in 1 Samuel 22:2. They were like the condottieri, or free-lances. The word vain (rikîm) is from the same root as Raca; it means vauriens. The word for “light persons” (pochazîm) occurs in Genesis 49:4 (applied to Reuben) and Zephaniah 3:4. It is from a root which means to boil over.
Slew his brethren . . .—This is the first mention in Scripture of the hideous custom, which is so common among all Oriental despots, of anticipating conspiracies by destroying all their brothers and near kinsmen. (Comp. Pope, Epistle to Arbuthnot: “Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne.”) There is little affection and much jealousy in polygamous households. Abimelech by this vile wickedness set a fatal precedent, which was followed again and again in the kingdom of Israel by Baasha (1 Kings 15:29), Zimri (1 Kings 16:11), Jehu (2 Kings 10:7), and probably by other kings (2 Kings 15); and by Athaliah (2 Kings 11:1) in the kingdom of Judah. Herod also put to death most of his kinsmen, and some of his sons (see Life of Christ, i. 43). Seneca says, “Nec regna socium ferre, nec taedae sciunt”—nor realms nor weddings admit a sharer (Agam. 259).
Threescore and ten persons.—Jotham is counted in this number.
Upon one stone.—Perhaps on the rock on which was built Gideon’s altar; at any rate, by some formal execution. How ruthlessly these murders were carried out we see from 2 Kings 10:7, and from many events in Eastern history. On one occasion, at a banquet in Damascus. Abdallah-Ebn-Ali murdered no less than ninety of the rival dynasty of the Ommiades.
Made Abimelech king.—He was the first Israelite who ever bore that name. It does not appear that this royalty was recognised beyond the limits of Ephraim. Gideon had not only refused the title of king (melek), but even the title of ruler (Judges 8:23).
By the plain of the pillar that was in Shechem.—Rather, near the terebinth of the monument which is in Shechem. The word rendered “by” is im, which properly means with, but may mean “near,” as in Genesis 25:11. The word rendered “the pillar” is mutsabh, which the Syriac and Arabic versions take for a proper name, and the Chaldee renders “the corn-field” or “statue.” Luther renders it the “lofty oak,” and the Vulg. follows another reading. The LXX. take it to mean “a garrison” (LXX., stasis), which is the meaning it has in Isaiah 29:3; but as the terebinth is doubtless that under which Joshua had raised his “stone of witness” (Joshua 24:26), the mutsabh is perhaps a name for this stone. If so, the neighbourhood of that pledge of faithfulness would add audacity to his acts. There can be little doubt that the terebinth was the celebrated tree under which Jacob had made his family bury their idolatrous earrings and amulets (Genesis 35:4), and the terebinth (E.V., plain) of Moreh, near Shechem, under which Abraham had spread his tent and where he had built an altar (Genesis 12:6). Possibly, too, it may be the “terebinth of the enchanters” mentioned in Judges 9:37. The veneration attached to old trees lasted from generation to generation in Palestine, and the terebinth of Mamre was celebrated for a thousand years.
And cried.—It may be asked how Jotham ventured to risk his life by thus upbraiding the Shechemites. No certain answer, but many probable ones, may be offered. At the summit of a precipitous crag far above the city, and on a hillside abounding with caverns and hiding-places, he would have sufficient start to have at least a chance of safety from any pursuit; or he may not have been without some followers and kindly partisans, who, now that the massacre of his brethren was over, would not be too willing to allow him to be hunted down. Indeed, the pathos of his opening appeal may have secured for him a favourable hearing. Josephus says that he seized an opportunity when there was a public feast at Shechem, and the whole multitude were gathered there. “He spoke like the bard of the English ode, and before the startled assembly below could reach the rocky pinnacle where he stood, he was gone” (Stanley, p. 352).
To anoint a king over them.—Evidently the thought of royalty was, so to speak, “in the air.” It is interesting to find from this passing allusion that the custom of “anointing” a king must have prevailed among the neighbouring nations.
Unto the olive tree.—This venerable and fruitful tree, with its silvery leaves and its grey cloud-like appearance at a distance, and its peculiar value and fruitfulness, would naturally first occur to the trees.
Go to be promoted over the trees.—The English Version here follows the Vulg. (ut inter ligna promovear); but the verb in the original is much finer and more picturesque, for it expresses the utter scorn of the olive for the proffered honour. The margin renders it, go up and down for other trees, but it means rather “float about” (LXX., kineisthai; Vulg., agitari); as Luther admirably renders it, dass ich uber den Baümen Schwebe. (Comp. Isaiah 19:1 (be moved), Isaiah 29:9 (stagger); Lamentations 4:14 (wander), &c.) When, in 1868, the crown of Spain was offered to Ferdinand of Portugal, he is reported to have answered, Pour moi pas si imbécile.
“Or they led the vine
To wed her elm; she round about him flings
Her marriageable arms,” &c.—Milton.
Judges 9:13And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?(13) My wine.—The Hebrew word is tirôsh which sometimes means merely “grape-cluster.”
Which cheereth God and man.—For explanation, see Exodus 29:40; Numbers 15:7; Numbers 15:10, &c. If Elohim be here understood of God, the expression is, of course, of that simply anthropomorphic character which marks very ancient literature.
Reign over us.—They seem to address the thorn in a less ceremonious imperative—not mālekah, as to the olive, or mūlekî, as to the fig-tree and vine, but a mere blunt melāk!
Put your trust in my shadow.—The mean leaves and bristling thorns of the rhamnus could afford no shadow to speak of, and even such as they could afford would be dangerous; but the fable is full of fine and biting irony.
If not.—The bramble is not only eager to be king, but has spiteful and dangerous threats—the counterpart of those, doubtless, which had been used by Abimelech—to discourage any withdrawal of the offer.
Let fire come out of the bramble.—Some suppose that there is a reference to the ancient notions of the spontaneous ignition of the boughs of the bramble when rubbed together by the wind. The allusion is far more probably to the use of thorns for fuel: Exodus 22:6, “If fire break out, and catch in thorns, so that the stacks of corn . . . be consumed;” Psalm 58:9, “Or ever your pots be made hot with thorns;” Ecclesiastes 7:6, “the crackling of thorns under a pot.”
If ye have done truly and sincerely.—A bitterly ironical supposition with a side glance at the phrase used by the bramble (see Judges 9:15).
The son of his maidservant.—The term is intentionally contemptuous. It seems clear from Judges 8:31; Judges 9:1, that she was not a slave, but even of high birth among the Canaanites.
For fear of Abimelech.—Literally, from the face of Abimelech.
Over Israel—i.e., over all the Israelites who would accept his authority—mainly the central tribes.
Dealt treacherously.—The word is used for the beginning of a defection.
Their blood be laid upon Abimelech.—Comp. 1 Kings 2:5, Matthew 23:35, and the cry of the Jews in Matthew 27:25.
In the top of the mountains.—Especially Ebal and Gerizim.
Went over to Shechem.—Possibly he had been practising brigandage on the other side of the Jordan.
Of their god.—Baal-berith.
Did eat and drink.—In some public feast, such as often took place in idol temples (Judges 16:23; 2 Kings 19:37; 1 Corinthians 8:10). It is evident that this was a sort of heathen analogue of the Feast of Ingathering. The apostasy would be facilitated by a transference of customs of worship from Elohim to Baal.
Cursed Abimelech.—Rather, abused. This seems to have been the first outburst of rebellion among the general population, and Gaal took advantage of it.
Who is Shechem?—The meaning of this clause is very obscure. It can hardly be a contrast between the insignificance of Abimelech and the grandeur of Shechem (Vulg., quœ est Shechem?). Some say that “Shechem” means “Abimelech;” but there is no trace of kings assuming the name of the place over which they rule, nor does the LXX. mend matters much by interpolating the words, “who is the son of Shechem?”
The son of Jerubbaal?—And, therefore, on the father’s side, disconnected both with Ephraimites and Canaanites; and the Baal-fighter’s son has no claim on Baal-worshippers.
And Zebul his officer?—We are not even under the rule of Abimelech, but of his underling.
Serve the men of Hamor.—Here the LXX., Vulg., and other versions adopt a different punctuation and a different reading. But there is no reason to alter the text. The Canaanites were powerful; the Ephraimites had apostatised to their religion; even Abimelech bears a Canaanite name (Genesis 26:1), and owed his power to his Hivite blood. Gaal says in effect. “Why should we serve this son of an upstart alien when we might return to the allegiance of the descendants of our old native prince Hamor, whose son Shechem was the hero eponymos of the city?” (Genesis 33:19; Joshua 24:32).
And he said to Abimelech.—The “he said” may be the impersonal idiom (comp. Joshua 7:26, &c.), meaning “it was told” (Vulg., Dictum est). It is less likely that “he” means Zebul, or that it is Gaal’s drunken vaunt to the absent Abimelech. Another reading is, “And I would say to Abimelech,” &c.
They fortify.—Rather, perhaps, they tyrannise over the city because of thee.
Thou seest the shadow of the mountains.—The shadow advancing as the sun rose. It was, of course, Zebul’s object to keep Gaal deceived as long as possible. But it is evident that Gaal’s suspicions were by no means lulled. Zebul treats him almost as if he were still suffering from the intoxication of his vaunting feast.
Another company.—Literally, one head (Vulg., cuneus unus).
By the plain of Meonenim.—Rather, from the way to the Enchanters’ Terebinth (LXX., “of the oak of those that look away;” Vulg., “which looks toward the oak;” Luther, more correctly, “zur Zaubereiche”). Meonen in Leviticus 19:28 is rendered “enchantment,” and means especially the kind of “enchantment” which affects the eye (the “evil eye,” &c.), and therefore implies the use of amulets, &c. Hence, though the terebinth is nowhere else mentioned by this particular name, it is at least a probable conjecture that it may be the ancient tree under which Jacob’s family had buried their idolatrous amulets (Genesis 35:4).
Zebul thrust out Gaal and his brethren.—Josephus seems here to supply us with the proper clue, for he says that Zebul accused Gaal to the Shechemites of military cowardice and mismanagement. He seems to have been a deep dissembler. Gaal, however, escaped the fate of the Shechemites by their expulsion of him.
Into the field—“The wide corn-fields at the opening of the Valley of Shechem” (Stanley).
(42) Set the hold on fire.—The words of Jotham (Judges 9:20) had proved prophetic. (For a similar incident see 1 Kings 16:18—Zimri burnt in the palace at Tirzah.)
Died.—The Vulgate renders it, Were killed with the smoke and fire.
He rose up against them, and smote them.—He was evidently a man of ruthlessly vindictive temperament, for these people whom he slew were mere husbandmen, not an armed host.
Sowed it with salt.—Nothing can better show his deadly execration against the populace to whom he owed his elevation, and who had been the instrument of his crimes. By this symbolic act he devoted the city to barrenness and desolation. (See Psalm 107:34; Deuteronomy 29:23; Job 39:6, and marg.) “When Milan was taken, in A.D. 1162, it was sown with salt, and the house of Admiral Coligny, A.D. 1572, was sown with salt by the command of Charles IX., king of France” (Wordsworth).
Entered into an hold.—The word for “hold” occurs in 1 Samuel 13:6 (“high place”). The LXX. render it “a fortress” (ochuroma); Luther, “Festung.” In the Æthiopic Version of Mark 16:15 a similar word is used for “upper room.” The Vulg. has, “They entered the fane of their god Berith, where they had made their league with him, and from this the place had received its name, and it was strongly fortified.”
Of the house of the god Berith.—Similarly. Arcesilas burnt the Cyrenæns in a tower (Herod. iv. 164), and in 1 Maccabees 5:43 the defeated enemy fly for refuge to the temple of Ashtaroth in Karnaim, which Judas takes and burns.
An axe.—Literally, the axes—i.e., he took axes for himself and his army.
Cut down a bough.—The word for “a bough” is socath, which does not mean “a bundle of logs,” as the LXX. render it. Every one will recall the scene in Macbeth where Malcolm says:—
“Let every soldier hew him down a bough,
And bear’t before him; thereby shall we shadow
The numbers of our host, and make discovery
Err in report of us.”—Acts 5, sc. 4.
But Abimelech merely wanted combustible materials.
What ye have seen me do.—Comp. what Gideon says in Judges 7:17.
To the top of the tower.—“Standing about the battlements upon the roof of the tower” (Vulg.).
To burn it with fire.—He naturally anticipated another hideous success like that at Millo.
And all to brake his skull.—This is a mere printer’s error for all-to or al-to, i.e., utterly, and it has led to the further misreading of “brake.” Others think that it should be printed “all to-brake,” where the to is intensive like the German ge—as in Chaucer’s “All is to-broken thilke regioun” (Knight’s Tale, 2,579). But in Latimer we find “they love, and all-to love him” (see Bible Word-book, § 5). The meaning of the verb is “smashed” or “shattered” (LXX., suneklase; Vulg., confregit; Luther, zerbrach). The death of Pyrrhus by a tile flung down by a woman as he rode into the town of Argos is an historic parallel (Pausan. 1:13). The ringleader of an attack on the Jews, who had taken refuge in York Castle in 1190, was similarly killed.
His armour.—Celîm, literally, implements. (Comp. Judges 18:11; Genesis 27:3.)