We have seen many times that there are consequences for our actions and the story of Abimelech in today’s reading proves that. Abimelech was Gideon’s son by a concubine who lived in Shechem. After Gideon won the war against the Midianites the people wanted to make him king and he refused. He maintained God was their king. However, it appears Abimelech thought his father made a mistake and he should have become king. After Gideon died Abimelech moved back to Shechem and began his campaign to become king. He managed to recruit enough people to stand with him that he declared himself king. In reality what Abimelech did was break several of God’s laws and bring destruction to himself and to the people. In those days both Israelites and Canaanites lived in Shechem. Abimelech’s father was an Israelite and his mother a Shechemite. If he became king, Abimelech could represent everybody!
In all of this Abimelech managed to break several of the commandments. He coveted the leadership and kingship of the people. He worshiped idols such as Baal. He had his half brothers murdered, 69 out of 70 of them at one time. And if he took an oath of office using the Lord’s name it would have been taken in vain since he did not worship the Lord. One half brother hid and so survived the massacre. His name was Jotham. As Abimelech’s coronation was occurring, Jotham took the opportunity to stand atop Mount Gerizim which was adjacent to Shechem. It was from Mount Gerizim that the blessings were to be read (Deuteronomy 27:12,28) but Jotham’s speaking was anything but a blessing. It is worth mentioning that the tribe of Joseph…Ephraim and Manasseh…was to stand on the mount of blessings. Abimelech had brought no blessings to Gideon’s tribe of Manasseh.
Jotham’s speech is the first parable recorded in scripture. He pictured the trees, looking for a king. They approached the olive tree with its valuable oil, the fig tree with its sweet fruit and the vine with clusters of grapes that could be made into wine. All refused to accept the honor. They would each have to sacrifice something in order to reign and they were not willing to do that. All that remained was the useless thornbush that was a nuisance in the land. It was good only for fuel for the fire. This was the symbol for Abimelech, the newly crowned king. Jotham’s point? Abimelech the thornbush king would be unable to protect his people, but he would cause judgement that would destroy those who trusted in him. And we read that eventually both Abimelech and his followers would destroy one another. Abimelech saw himself as a stately tree but Jotham said he was nothing but a useless weed.
Abimelech was not only covetous of power, but he was also vindictive. He would stop at nothing to gain revenge against those who were not willing to follow him. We will see this same thing later when we read about King David’s son Absalom. As time wore on the residents of Shechem were turned against Abimelech and he returned to his hometown to settle the score. He managed to destroy the city and all her inhabitants. He then sowed salt over the city. This was a symbolic action that condemned the city to desolation so no one would want to live there. Salt rendered the soil infertile, and nothing would grow.
However, God takes the shedding of innocent blood seriously. Abimelech paid for the murders he committed, and it happened as he was trying to protect his throne. The city of Thebez was about ten miles from Shechem and the residents had joined in the rebellion against Abimelech. He went there to do to them what he had done to Shechem. Abimelech made the mistake of getting too close to the tower the residents were hiding in. While he was standing there a woman dropped the upper millstone for grinding grain on his head and severely injured him. Abimelech experienced a triple disgrace. He was killed but not really in battle. He was killed by a woman which was a disgrace to a soldier. And he was killed by a millstone and not a sword. The fact that he was fatally injured by the millstone and his armor bearer had to finish the job didn’t change anything. He is known as the man who was killed by a woman.
The other judge we see in today’s reading is Jephthah. He is a Gileadite and a mighty warrior. His wife bore him sons, who drove him away when they were grown up. He fled to a different place and began life there but when the Ammonites made war on Israel the elders of Gilead came to ask Jephthah to fight for them. One of the things we see in today’s reading is that the people of Israel had many years of peace when the judges ruled. In that time many put away their foreign gods and idols, but nowhere do we see the people trying to develop a closer relationship with the Lord. As soon as a judge died the people went right back to their old way of life, worshiping idols.
The Ammonites were distant relatives of the Israelites, the descendants of Lot and one of his daughter’s incestuous union. In Judges 10:11-12 we see that the Lord had given Israel victory over seven different nations but now, Israel was worshiping seven different sets of pagan gods. No wonder God’s anger was hot against Israel. But look at God’s mercy. He was ready to wash His hands of His chosen people. He was ready to leave them on their own. The people abandoning God was one thing but God abandoning the people was something else. And then we read the Israelites acknowledge their sin to the Lord and they are willing to take whatever punishment is due them. But they are crying for the Lord to rescue them. They got rid of the foreign gods and served the Lord. “And He could bear Israel’s misery no more.” Moses told the Israelites that God was slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And here we see it. There are consequences but Israel is willing to endure those to be delivered from their oppressors.
Jephthah is a faithful man. He tried making peace first with the Ammonites and they ignored him. So, he turned to the Lord. He promised if the Lord gave him victory over the Ammonites he would offer up as a sacrifice to the Lord whatever came out of his front door first when he got back home. God was faithful to Jephthah and he defeated the Ammonites. With the Lord’s help Israel subdued the Ammonites. But the story takes a painful turn when Jephthah gets home. He has only one child, a daughter, and she is the first thing out the door when he returns home. Jephthah is anguished. Maybe he is angry with her for coming to meet him. Perhaps he is angry with himself for making such an outlandish promise. He may have even been angry with God. But Jephthah is a man of his word and we see his daughter’s faithfulness as well.
This a bit like Abraham and Isaac except after the daughter’s two months of mourning, she submits herself to her father and he does what he has promised the Lord. This is a difficult story. Making vows were completely voluntary but once one was made God expected people to keep the vows. Perhaps we look at what Jephthah said to the Lord. Some see a bargain, not a vow. Others say it makes no difference. And some look at the original Hebrew and say the word meanings are somewhat murky. This was a spiritually dark time for Israel, but it seems Jephthah had some knowledge of the Lord. He would have known about Abraham and Isaac and the commandments of the Law. And he probably also knew that the Lord didn’t approve of or accept human sacrifices. If he were in fact a man of true faith, he would have had to travel to Shiloh to offer his daughter there and even the worst priest wouldn’t have been willing to offer that sacrifice. Jephthah was a national hero, and it would have been difficult for him to hide what he was doing. Some believe he redeemed her with money, and she was to live a life as a virgin until she died, perhaps even serving at the tabernacle. One last thought on this. It seems unlikely that the Israelites would have instituted a national celebration for a young virgin who was sacrificed. It is more probable that they celebrate her helping her father fulfill his vow to the Lord by living as a virgin her whole life.
And a final comment on Ephraim. The Ephraimites treated Jephthah with the same contempt as they did Gideon. They were angry they weren’t included in the battle so they could savor the victory. But they did not want to fight to gain the victory. Gideon pacified them with flattery, but Jephthah took a more direct approach. He reminded them his first concern was defeating the Ammonites, not pleasing the neighbors. And Jephthah reminded the Ephraimites he had called for help and they had not answered. The men of Ephraim turned to name calling, calling the Gileadites renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh. But the truth was, Moses had given the people east of the Jordan that land when Israel first settled there. This was an insult to both the Lord and His servants. The price the Ephraimites paid was steep and 42,000 of them died…all because they could not pronounce the word Shibboleth.
Shibboleth has become part of the English vocabulary meaning a test given to outsiders to see whether or not they really belong. Yikes! Through all this the Israelites had had peace for 31 years. It would not last. Tomorrow we meet the last of the judges God gave the people of Israel.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W