When the Judges Ruled (5): Abimelech—The Tyrannical Judge

Nobody likes a tyrant. They make people miserable and alienate friends to yield personal benefits. They come first – not exactly a good recipe for life. Such was the life of Abimelech.

His Background

Abimelech’s father was Gideon, a great leader. But Gideon left a mess behind when he died. He told the leaders of Israel that he refused to be the ruler over them, and that his sons would not rule over them either. Instead, the Lord would rule over them (8:23). But Gideon never backed up that statement. He made a golden ephod, which Israel eventually used for idolatry. During Abimelech’s formative years, the anchor of the Lord’s presence in the home was losing its hold. As Christian parents, we need to make sure the Lord anchors our homes. Future generations will thank us.

Another key point is that Abimelech was an illegitimate child (8:31). This act of his father paved the way for psychological damage, as he would have been isolated from the rest of his family. The young man with no spiritual anchor also dealt with isolation. So, too, will these two deficiencies lead to spiritual harm within the family of God.

His Rise to Power

Gideon’s death left a power vacuum, and Abimelech sought to fill it. He and his mother were from Shechem, a crown jewel in Israel for the many financial, agricultural and climatological benefits gleaned there. Also, it was a city packed with rich history in the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Joshua. Ruling over Shechem was a big deal. An idea formed in his mind, and he pounced – a tyrant was born.

He approached his family in Shechem, and told them to put in a good word for him among the men of Shechem. They needed a leader; he offered them his services, or they could choose all 70 of Gideon’s sons to rule over them. The family naturally favored Abimelech as the ideal candidate, saying, “He is our brother” (9:3). The men of Shechem approved and gave him 70 pieces of silver, which he used to hire “worthless and reckless fellows” (9:4). These men killed 68 of his 69 brothers, with only the youngest one escaping. This is what happens when reckless people are given power and wealth with no accountability. I’m sure he chose these worthless fellows carefully to ensure they would not disagree with him. Choose your close friends wisely. If they’re not willing to hold us accountable for the wrongs we suggest, then they aren’t friends at all.

They followed his direction to the letter, no matter how violent and evil it was. It’s an example of what can happen when disunity plagues us. One brother separated himself from the rest, and it led to ruin. Division and disunity have been, and will always be, fodder for Satan to worm his way into assemblies and wreak havoc.

One brother survived – Jotham. He was incensed when he heard the men of Shechem were crowning his awful half-brother as their leader! He went to the top of Mount Gerizim (noted as the mountain of blessing – Deuteronomy 11:29) and proceeded to curse him and the men of Shechem. He condemned everyone involved for their complicity in killing his brothers, and the Lord noted his speech. It took time for the Lord to act, but He responded in His time and in His way. When we see the wicked prosper, we can take heart in knowing the Lord will avenge His enemies in His time and in His way.

His Downfall and Death

While his rule was expanding from Shechem further into Israel (9:22), the Lord had had enough. The curse of Jotham took shape as God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem. He did not sit idly by as the wicked appeared to “get away with murder.” Their evil partnership led to doom. They were all accountable; just because the men of Shechem did not actively shed blood did not erase their accountability. God held them responsible.

God does not look kindly on ungodly partnerships. In business, greedy gains and shady deals should not characterize us. In life partners, unequal yokes with unbelievers are prohibited by Paul for good reason. Often, we take these decisions lightly, leaving carnage in our wake. It happened here, as the men of Shechem robbed Abimelech’s men when they passed their ambush nests (v25). Abimelech’s error caused harm beyond the four walls of his house, and our sin often does the same.

Abimelech’s tyranny continued, though, as his hatred for the men of Shechem intensified. The men who were once his friends turned on him. Soon, we are introduced to the one thing a tyrant fears the most – a coup attempt. Gaal arrived, bragging about how well he would rule Shechem if given the job. He brazenly asked, “Who is Abimelech?” One of Abimelech’s officers, Zebul, got word to Abimelech, and an ambush was set against Gaal. Abimelech successfully stamped out the coup attempt and wounded many of Gaal’s men. But it was not enough. Seeing the allegiance of the men of Shechem, Abimelech snapped. He captured Shechem, killed the inhabitants, razed the city and sowed it with salt. The leaders of Shechem heard of his rampage and hid in a stronghold, which is what Abimelech wanted – all his enemies in one place! He barred the doors to prevent escape, and set the stronghold on fire. Trapped inside, the men of Shechem were killed, alongside 1,000 men and women. They weren’t his target, but a tyrant doesn’t care about collateral damage.

Feeling invincible, he tried the same trick against nearby Thebez, as everyone was shut into the stronghold there. While approaching the door of the tower to ignite the fire, an unnamed woman dropped a millstone on his head. He was gravely wounded and asked his armor bearer to finish him off so that no one could say a woman had killed him. Thousands of years later, it’s still known – a woman killed him. And just like that, his evil reign was over. With no leader, his men departed from Thebez and headed home. Abimelech and all the men of Shechem paid for their sin with their lives (v57).

We learn three important things from Abimelech. First, potential is only potential. It must be tapped to benefit the Lord and His people. He was the son of mighty Gideon, but his life was a total wreck. Second, lording it over people will never end well. A kind, loving hand will serve the people of God far better. Third, the Lord will not allow evil to flourish forever. All is in His hands: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom 12:19).