Thursday, July 23, 2020

Family Feud Pt. 2 Judges 9:22-57

Last week we began looking at a family feud that has already become pretty ugly. We learned that those who assume roles that are not designed for them can create problems both for themselves and for others. This week we are going to continue to investigate this unfolding feud in Judges 9 and learn what is really to blame for much of the chaos and destruction that we see in our world. This we will learn by looking at four stages of the feud that occurs in Judges 9:22-57.

1) The Feud Begins-9:22-25

Just to remind everyone of where we are in this story. Abimelech (the son of Gideon and one of his concubines) illegitimately rose to power following Gideon’s death after raising money from his mom’s family and killing off 70 of Gideon’s sons. Following this blood bath, Gideon was made king by the Shechemites (family on his mom’s side) and, according to verse 22 “ruled over Israel three years” (9:22). Again, everything about Abimelech is illegitimate—including his rule. One surviving son of Gideon (Jotham) knew this and prayed a curse on Abimelech earlier in chapter 9 which asked that one day Abimelech and his own people—the Shechemites—would destroy each other.

Judges 9:20-“let fire come out from Abimelech and consume the men of Shechem and Beth-millo; 
and let fire come out from the men of Shechem and from Beth-millo, and consume Abimelech.”

As we continue reading, God answers this request.  

“Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech, so that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood might be laid on Abimelech their brother, who killed them, and the men of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers…” (9:23-24). So while at first the family feud was between an illegitimate son (Abimelech) and natural born sons of Gideon (the 70 sons of Gideon) in 9:1-21, here, a feud is instigated between Abimelech and the very people who fundraised his campaign and nominated him to be their leader. God instigates this feud and sends a spirit of treachery to begin causing strife between these related parties. God is perfectly within his rights to do this given that the whole situation, once again, is totally illegitimate to begin with. The purpose of this strife that God sends Abimelech and the Shechemites is simple, the Lord, like Jotham, wants this regime to be destroyed. They are not worthy or fitting to rule God’s people.

As a direct result of God’s influence, “the men of Shechem set men in ambush against him on the tops of the mountains, and they robbed all who might pass by them along the road; and it was told to Abimelech…” (9:25). This is where the feud really begins for all to see. Things are not well between these people and their newly appointed king.

2) The Feud Finds a Sponsor-9:26-41

Abimelech’s young tenure as king is being undermined by the very people who put him in power and this paves the way for others to try and take control. The feud that was instigated in verse 25 finds a sponsor in verses 26-29. “Now Gaal the son of Ebed came with his relatives, and crossed over into Shechem; and the men of Shechem put their trust in him. They went out into the field and gathered the grapes of their vineyards and trod them, and held a festival; and they went into the house of their god, and ate and drank and cursed Abimelech. Then Gaal the son of Ebed said, ‘Who is Abimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should serve him? Is he not the son of Jerubbaal, and is Zebul not his lieutenant? Serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem; but why should we serve him? Would, therefore, that this people were under my authority! Then I would remove Abimelech.’ And he said to Abimelech, ‘Increase your army and come out’” (9:26-29). With Abimelech on the run, the Shechemites meet this new guy (Gaal) and appoint him as their ruler (even quicker than they did Abimelech just three years earlier!). They even throw him a big party. Comfort in his new role breeds confidence which gives way to cockiness. Gaal knows that Abimelech is still out there and despite this he taunts him and challenges him to a battle—“increase your army and come out” (9:29).

However, what Gaal fails to realize is that not everyone at the party and in his new entourage is sympathetic to his kingship. Some, in fact, are still loyal to Abimelech. “When Zebul the ruler of the city heard the words of Gaal the son of Ebed, his anger burned. He sent messengers to Abimelech deceitfully, saying, ‘Behold, Gaal the son of Ebed and his relatives have come to Shechem; and behold, they are stirring up the city against you. Now therefore, arise by night, you and the people who are with you, and lie in wait in the field. In the morning, as soon as the sun is up, you shall rise early and rush upon the city; and behold, when he and the people who are with him come out against you, you shall do to them whatever you can’” (9:30-33). Zebul, a leftover from Abimelech’s regime, cannot stand the new doubly-illegitimate king Gaal and prefers the less-illegitimate king Abimelech instead (Yes, things are that precarious). Therefore, Zebul hatches a plan. He runs to Abimelech who is in hiding and encourages him to gather at night and to then, early in the morning, rise up and take the city from where Gaal is ruling. The surprise attack could overwhelm Gaal and reassert Abimelech’s power.

Abimelech does just that—“Abimelech and all the people who were with him arose by night and lay in wait against Shechem in four companies” (9:34). I love this next part! By the time of the attack, Zebul (the Abimelech sympathizer in Gaal’s court who has helped hatch this plan) has made it back to Gaal’s side (knowing full well what is about to take place). We pick up the story early that morning as Gaal is strolling in the city, perhaps feeling confident in his new digs and invincible in his new role. “Now Gaal the son of Ebed went out and stood in the entrance of the city gate; and Abimelech and the people who were with him arose from the ambush. When Gaal saw the people, he said to Zebul, ‘Look, people are coming down from the tops of the mountains.’ But Zebul said to him, “You are seeing the shadow of the mountains as if they were men.” Gaal spoke again and said, ‘Behold, people are coming down from the highest part of the land, and one company comes by the way of the diviners’ oak.’”” (9:35-37). As Abimelech and his men advance upon the city, Zebul has the king convinced it is a shadow. This allows plenty of time for the attack to advance. Zebul’s plan is this: if Abimelech can get close enough before Gaal responds, it will eventually be too late for a successful response to be lodged.

Once this threshold is reached and Abimelech is barking at the door “Zebul said to [Gaal] ‘Where is your boasting now with which you said, “Who is Abimelech that we should serve him?” Is this not the people whom you despised? Go out now and fight with them!’ So Gaal went out before the leaders of Shechem and fought with Abimelech. Abimelech chased him, and he fled before him; and many fell wounded up to the entrance of the gate. Then Abimelech remained at Arumah, but Zebul drove out Gaal and his relatives so that they could not remain in Shechem…” (9:38-41). The plan works and by the end of verse 41 it is Gaal, not Abimelech that is on the run (mind you, neither of these guys has any business in charge of anything to begin with). Reading through this is a bit like watching two worthless sports teams play each other. It may not get good ratings or matter much in the scheme of things, but it can still be instructive for those who are willing to watch and learn from what is going on.

3) The Feud Boils Over- 9:42-49

Abimelech could have stopped there, but once he has a taste of revenge, he cannot satiate himself. Like a shark with blood in the water, Abimelech goes on a rampage as the feud boils over in verses 42-45—"Now it came about the next day, that the people went out to the field, and it was told to Abimelech. So he took his people and divided them into three companies, and lay in wait in the field; when he looked and saw the people coming out from the city, he arose against them and slew them. Then Abimelech and the company who was with him dashed forward and stood in the entrance of the city gate; the other two companies then dashed against all who were in the field and slew them. 
Abimelech fought against the city all that day, and he captured the city and killed the people who were in it; then he razed the city and sowed it with salt…”. This last detail is a bit curious. Since salt rendered a land infertile, spreading salt on a city may have been Abimelech’s attempt to ensure that this place would never rise again. However, salt was also used in the ancient world in a ritual that would have been conducted in the removal of a curse on a particular site (Block, Judges, Ruth, 330). Either way, superstition and pagan ideology is driving this practice and fueling Abimelech’s rage.  
The people of Shechem (again, the same people who at one point in time appointed Abimelech but then just as quickly drove him out and replaced him) see what is going on and head for refuge—“When all the leaders of the tower of Shechem heard of it, they entered the inner chamber of the temple of El-berith. It was told Abimelech that all the leaders of the tower of Shechem were gathered together” (9:46-47).

After learning of their retreat, Abimelech comes up with an idea to level these leaders in one fail swoop. The text reads as follows: “ So Abimelech went up to Mount Zalmon, he and all the people who were with him; and Abimelech took an axe in his hand and cut down a branch from the trees, and lifted it and laid it on his shoulder. Then he said to the people who were with him, ‘What you have seen me do, hurry and do likewise.’…” (9:48). While this looks like a really strange way overwhelm an enemy, as we learn more, the methodology behind this madness is revealed.

“All the people also cut down each one his branch and followed Abimelech, and put them on the inner chamber and set the inner chamber on fire over those inside, so that all the men of the tower of Shechem also died, about a thousand men and women…” (9:49). Yikes! Abimelech and his men roast their enemies in a huge bonfire fueled by these branches. Such savagery is rarely seen, even among pagans.

Let us catch our collective breaths and just recap what has transpired. Gideon leads God’s people to victory over Midian but gets proud, postures as a king, and fathers many children (legitimate and illegitimate). Abimelech, one illegitimate son, kills all the legitimate sons in an effort to be made king. He is driven out by those who once supported him and is replaced by Gaal. Gaal gets too cocky and Abimelech returns to kill him and all his followers and, along with them, his own people. It is violence, chaos, anarchy, lawlessness, and, ultimately, godlessness in its natural state.

4) The Feud Ends-9:50-57

However, it does not stop there. For no good reason other than he felt like doing it, Abimelech continues to terrorize surrounding areas –“Then Abimelech went to Thebez, and he camped against Thebez and captured it. But there was a strong tower in the center of the city, and all the men and women with all the leaders of the city fled there and shut themselves in; and they went up on the roof of the tower…” (9:50-51). While towers were viewed by ancients as places of refuge, we have already learned that not just any tower will do.

Rather than reinvent the wheel or change tactics, Abimelech plans to set fire to this tower as he did before. However, something stops him in his tracks. “So Abimelech came to the tower and fought against it, and approached the entrance of the tower to burn it with fire. But a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull…” (9:52-53). How is that for a surprise ending? Just when we thought we were going to see another deathly bonfire, a woman drops a huge stone right on top of Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull. However, what is this? Abimelech is somehow still breathing and conscious. The text continues, “Then he called quickly to the young man, his armor bearer, and said to him, ‘Draw your sword and kill me, so that it will not be said of me, “A woman slew him.”’…” (9:54). Thousands of years ago, it was more disgraceful to be killed by a woman than it was an uncircumcised Philistine. Being the proud man that he was, Abimelech wanted his servant to save him the embarrassment of dying in this “unmanly way.” However, the irony is not lost on the reader, especially the ancient audience. “The many who had (illegitimately) accomplished so much so quickly—gaining the kingship of a significant city of Shechem, murdering dozens of his sibling rivals, staving off a revolt and destroying all the rebels, conquering the city of Thebez, falls victim to a most humiliating death” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 333). He sought power in the beginning by appealing to mommy and now shamefully falls victim to a woman in the end.

This humiliating death does more than anything else to put an end to this madness--“When the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, each departed to his home,…” (9:55). Good grief! If we had only known it would take a woman crushing his skull with a millstone, we might have tried this long ago! Though the means of his death is quite unexpected, the death of Abimelech successfully concludes this family feud.

Makes you wonder what God was up to as all of this is transpiring down below. Let’s just keep reading—“Thus God repaid the wickedness of Abimelech, which he had done to his father in killing his seventy brothers. God returned all the wickedness of the men of Shechem on their heads, and the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal came upon them…” (9:56-57). God is pulling all of these strings from above and, in so doing, God provides an illustration of what life is like in the world when people do not live under his authority and according to his ways.

So What?

Chaos, violence, hatred, anarchy, and destruction follow the godless in this world. In this passage, whether it was under Abimelech’s regime or in the short tenure of Gaal, disaster and lawlessness abound. This is the residue of those who do not place themselves under the authority of the Lord and, instead, act as their own authority on the world’s stage. This goes a long way in helping us define much of what we are seeing around our country and around our world today. Though we might be dismayed by reports of destruction and violence both near and far, we ought not be surprised that it exists in a context that growing further away from the Lord and his precepts. Those unwilling to submit to the Lord and his plan bring destruction upon themselves and others.

We as God’s people must not entertain these tendencies. Rather than seek to build our kingdoms or make ourselves king as the rest of the world does with great regularity, we must submit ourselves to the King of kings and Lord of Lords and be invested in his kingdom. When we do this, we shine a bright light of order in the midst of the chaos, truth in the midst of deception, purpose in the midst of relativity, and hope in the midst of despair.

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