From Bad to Worse

Morning Meditation – John Cline

Judges 9

The bible events of the Midianites causing terror in Israel always reminds me of how, in the Middle Ages, the Vikings from the north would raid the villages of France each year, bringing terror to those helpless French people. In a similar manner, the Midianites – also known as Ishmaelites – were a Canaanite people group living to the south of Israel who would raid the land of Israel each spring. They did this for seven years, striking fear into the hearts of the Israelites as they plundered their crops and ravished their land, forcing the Israelites to flee for their lives by hiding in caves. It was a time of sheer terror but it was only once the situation became truly unbearable then the Israelites finally called on YHWH God for help.

YHWH saved the Israelites and helped defeat the Midianites by raising up for the Israelites a leader who became known as a “judge”, the man named Gideon. Unfortunately, Gideon had no self-confidence and a terrible impression of himself. But, God identified as a “mighty warrior” and renamed “Jerub-Baal”, a name that means “let Baal contend”. In other words, God knew that Baal had no chance against His mighty warrior, Gideon/Jerub-Baal. Once Gideon finally realized who he truly was in God’s eyes – a mighty warrior who could contend with, and defeat, the Baal gods of the Canaanites – then he stepped up and led the Israelites to defeat the Baals and the Midianite people who worshipped them. And, so during Gideon’s time as a judge, there was peace in the land for forty years. The Israelites were thankful and so,

The Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” (Ju. 8:22,23)

Such a wise statement by Gideon! He would not be their king, nor would his son, or his grandson. Only God would. Things were looking good, but then, due to the enjoyment he found in his fame and power, Gideon committed a sinful act of pride that destroyed Israel.

And he said, “I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.” (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.) They answered, “We’ll be glad to give them.” So, they spread out a garment, and each of them threw a ring from his plunder onto it…Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family. (Judges 8:24,25,27)

An ephod – a kind of jeweled vest or chest piece – was the most elaborate of the garments word by the Chief Priest Aaron and then by his descendants who later became the priests overseeing the sacrificial and offering system of the Tabernacle. Those priests had garments that they would put on daily and the most important of those was the ephod, the centre piece of the outfit. An ephod came to be believed to be the object through which God communicated to His people. Thus, the Israelites held in high esteem the ephod at the Tabernacle. So, Gideon decided to create for himself a replicate ephod. That was an unwise decision as it led to idolatry. Just as Aaron’s earlier use of gold earrings to make the golden calf which became an idol for the Israelites to worship, instead of YHWH God, this ephod of Gideon’s similarly became an object of idolatry and false worship. The sin of Gideon was bad, but it was just one of many sins by him, as we will come to recognize.

Jerub-Baal (Gideon) son of Joash went back home to live. He had seventy sons of his own, for he had many wives. His concubine, who lived in Shechem, also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelek. Gideon son of Joash died at a good old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites. No sooner had Gideon died than the Israelites again prostituted themselves to the Baals. They set up Baal-Berith as their god and did not remember the Lord their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side. They also failed to show any loyalty to the family of Jerub-Baal (that is, Gideon) in spite of all the good things he had done for them. (Judges 8:28-35)

Because of Gideon’s sinful legacy of sinning of pride, of having many wives and a concubine who all had sons, and then of creating an ephod which became an object of idolatry, things were about to go from bad to worse for the Israelites. In the Ten Commandments, God had said that while He would bless for one thousand generations those who love Him and keep His commands, for those who turn away from Him and worship idols, their acts would have negative consequences upon their descendants for up to the fourth generation. This principle would be seen in the life of Abimelek, the son of Gideon’s concubine. Gideon had sinned by having multiple wives, but then having a child with a prostitute was one sin too many. Gideon had 70 sons through his many wives and they were considered “legitimate” sons but concubines were not considered as legitimate wives in Israel and their sons not legitimate, thus Abimelek was not considered to be one of Gideon’s recognized sons.

Now, the name, Abimelek, actually means “my father is king”, and so it is believed by scholars that the name Abimelek was given to him by his mother – and agreed to by Gideon – as a way of legitimizing, building up and affirming the son that no one else considered to be legitimate. That Gideon was embarrassed by Abimelek can be seen in that his 70 legitimate sons lived in Gideon’s hometown of Ophrah while Abimelek, alone of all Gideon’s sons, was not welcome to live in Ophrah. Instead, he lived in his mother’s hometown of Shechem. But, Abimelek had a plan. Instead of losing everything after the death of his father Gideon, Abimelek decided to take matters into his own hands and murder his 70 brothers, who were all living in Ophrah, after which he would declare himself “king”.

Contrary to Gideon’s stated intention that he not become king, nor his son, nor his grandson but only God over Israel, Abimelek went for the crown. He achieved his goal of becoming king through the help of his mother’s uncles in Shechem. His uncles helped him kill his brothers, but the youngest brother, Jotham, avoided death by escaping. Abimelek was considered outside of Shechem and his mother’s relatives to be the proper king of Israel (and he is certainly not remembered as one of the kings of Israel). Certainly, he was not considered to be a “judge”, judges being the acknowledged leaders in Israel at that time. He was not anointed by God and filled with the Spirit to lead the Israelites to victory over their enemies. Now, the Shechemites may have proclaimed with their lips that Abimelek was king but they knew in their hearts that he was not a judge appointed by God to bring down enemies. In fact, he was an “anti-judge” who brought about civil war amongst the Israelites. Let’s hear his story.

Abimelek son of Jerub-Baal went to his mother’s brothers in Shechem and said to them and to all his mother’s clan, “Ask all the citizens of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal’s sons rule over you, or just one man?’ Remember, I am your flesh and blood.” When the brothers repeated all this to the citizens of Shechem, they were inclined to follow Abimelek, for they said, “He is related to us.” They gave him seventy shekels of silver from the temple of Baal-Berith, and Abimelek used it to hire reckless scoundrels, who became his followers. He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers, the sons of Jerub-Baal. But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerub-Baal, escaped by hiding. Then all the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo gathered beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem to crown Abimelek king. (Judges 9:1-6)

Now Jotham, that youngest of Gideon’s 70 legitimate sons, who had escaped death, courageously went to Mount Gerizim, that famous mountain in which blessings had been declared upon the Israelites back in the time of Joshua, and there on that mountain overlooking Shechem, the city of Abimelek, his concubine mother, and his uncles, Jotham pronounced a curse upon the people for agreeing to Abimelek’s claim of kingship. Jotham proclaimed his curse in the form of a parable, the first recorded parable in the bible, a parable in which trees decided to make one of their own their king. The events happened this way:

When Jotham was told about this, he climbed up on the top of Mount Gerizim and shouted to them, “Listen to me, citizens of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’ “But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’ Next, the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come and be our king.’ But the fig tree replied, ‘Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come and be our king.’ But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?’ Finally, all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘Come and be our king.’ The thornbush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’ Have you acted honorably and in good faith by making Abimelek king? Have you been fair to Jerub-Baal and his family? Have you treated him as he deserves? Remember that my father fought for you and risked his life to rescue you from the hand of Midian. But today you have revolted against my father’s family. You have murdered his seventy sons on a single stone and have made Abimelek, the son of his female slave, king over the citizens of Shechem because he is related to you. So have you acted honorably and in good faith toward Jerub-Baal and his family today? If you have, may Abimelek be your joy, and may you be his, too! But if you have not, let fire come out from Abimelek and consume you, the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and let fire come out from you, the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and consume Abimelek!” Then Jotham fled, escaping to Beer, and he lived there because he was afraid of his brother Abimelek. (Ju. 9:7-21)

Parables convey a message and Jotham’s message was “be careful of what you ask for”. The trees went to best of their trees, the olive tree, asking it to be their king. When the olive tree turned them down, they then went to the fig tree, another valued tree, who also turned them down. Next, they went to the grapevine, something also valued in Israel, who similarly turned them down. With no other tree left to ask to be their king, they went to a thorny bramble bush, the most despised of all the trees in Israel, who told them, “Sure, I’ll be your king but I forewarn you that you choosing me as your king will end poorly because fire will come out from me, consuming and destroying you and all the good that is in the land, right up the mightiest of the trees, ‘the cedars of Lebanon’. By settling for a thorny bramble bush as your king, you will get what you asked for but you will live to regret it.” This parable was about Abimelek’s reign and the destruction it would bring to the Shechemites who chose him to be their king. This parable of Jotham’s would turn out to be prophetic, as we will hear.

After Abimelek had governed Israel three years, God stirred up animosity between Abimelek and the citizens of Shechem so that they acted treacherously against Abimelek. God did this in order that the crime against Jerub-Baal’s seventy sons, the shedding of their blood, might be avenged on their brother Abimelek and on the citizens of Shechem, who had helped him murder his brothers. In opposition to him these citizens of Shechem set men on the hilltops to ambush and rob everyone who passed by, and this was reported to Abimelek. (Judges 9:22-25)

What happened next – which we won’t take the time to read here – was a type of civil war amongst the people of Shechem in which opponents of Abimelek fought against his supporters. Abimelek was not pleased with the insubordinate Shechemites.

The next day the people of Shechem went out to the fields, and this was reported to Abimelek. So, he took his men, divided them into three companies and set an ambush in the fields. When he saw the people coming out of the city, he rose to attack them. Abimelek and the companies with him rushed forward to a position at the entrance of the city gate. Then two companies attacked those in the fields and struck them down. All that day Abimelek pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed its people. Then he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it. On hearing this, the citizens in the tower of Shechem went into the stronghold of the temple of El-Berith. When Abimelek heard that they had assembled there, he and all his men went up Mount Zalmon. He took an ax and cut off some branches, which he lifted to his shoulders. He ordered the men with him, “Quick! Do what you have seen me do!” So all the men cut branches and followed Abimelek. They piled them against the stronghold and set it on fire with the people still inside. So, all the people in the tower of Shechem, about a thousand men and women, also died. (Judges 9:42-49)

Remember Jotham’s prophetic parable that the people of Shechem would have fire coming out from Abimelek, which would consume and destroy them? You just heard read its prophesied fulfillment in this horrific scene of Abimelek burning alive the people who had chosen him to be their king. Please remember that in reading through the Book of Judges the horrific acts described therein in no way mean that God approved of them. They are not recorded for us to admire or replicate. The author of Judges was a historian who recorded in a straight-forward manner, the events of the day, without commenting on them.

Next, Abimelek went to Thebez and besieged it and captured it. Inside the city, however, was a strong tower, to which all the men and women—all the people of the city—had fled. They had locked themselves in and climbed up on the tower roof. Abimelek went to the tower and attacked it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull. Hurriedly, he called to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him.’” So, his servant ran him through, and he died. When the Israelites saw that Abimelek was dead, they went home. Thus, God repaid the wickedness that Abimelek had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. God also made the people of Shechem pay for all their wickedness. The curse of Jotham son of Jerub-Baal came on them. (9:50-57)

Commentator Matthew Henry said about Abimelek that, ‘He came in like a fox, ruled like a lion and died like a dog.’ That is the truth of it. So, what lessons can we learn from these terrible stories about Gideon and Abimelek? As the apostle Paul would later explain for us:

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)

So, again, what lessons can we learn from these events? Certainly, one would be that if a society turns its back on God, things may go fine for a while, but in the end will be disaster. Plus, while God may allow for a person to get into power, God will remove that person if they sin. On a positive note, let’s have Daniel Ofosu repeat the five lessons he offered for us in his Lenten Devotional. These are positive lessons. Let’s learn them.

Lesson 1: God knows our potential and He can use us despite our limitations and failures.

Lesson 2: God equips those He calls.

Lesson 3: God wants us to get rid of everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.

Lesson 4: God’s plan is the best plan even though it may seem impossible.

Lesson 5: Victory/Success comes from God.

To conclude, again, here were the concluding words from Daniel’s Lenten Devotional: “What is it God wants you to do? Do you find it impossible to believe? When you obey Him and trust Him each step of the way, it will make sense what He wants you to do. God is still accomplishing His purposes on earth through ordinary men and women today. It is a great thing to be obedient to God and be part of His plan.”


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