Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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.
And Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem unto his mother's brethren, and communed with them, and with all the family of the house of his mother's father, saying,(1) And Abimelech.—This narrative of the rise and fall of Abimelech, “the bramble king,” is singularly vivid in many of its details, while at the same time material facts are so briefly touched upon that parts of the story must remain obscure. The general bearing of this graphic episode is to illustrate the slow, but certain, working of Divine retribution. The two main faults of the last phase of Gideon’s career had been his polygamy and his dangerous tampering with unauthorised, if not idolatrous, worship. The retribution for both errors falls on his house. The agents of their overthrow are the kinsmen of his base-born son by a Canaanite mother. Abimelech seems to have taken his first steps very soon after Gideon’s death. Doubtless he had long been secretly maturing his plans. The narrative bears on its surface inimitable marks of truthfulness. We can trace in the character of Abimelech a reflection of his father’s courage and promptitude, overshadowed by elements which he must have drawn from his maternal origin.
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.
Speak, I pray you, in the ears of all the men of Shechem, Whether is better for you, either that all the sons of Jerubbaal, which are threescore and ten persons, reign over you, or that one reign over you? remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.(2) All the men of Shechem.—Rather, the lords (Baali) of Shechem. These seem to be the same as “the men” (anoshi), or “lords (Baali) of the tower of Shechem,” in Judges 9:46; Judges 9:49. It is by no means impossible that the Canaanites may have still held possession of the fortress, though the Israelites were nominally predominant in the town. At any rate, this particular title of “lords,” as applied to the chief people of a town, seems to have been Canaanite rather than Hebrew: the “lords” of Jericho (Joshua 24:11), the “lords” of Gibeah (Judges 21:5), of Keilah (1Samuel 23:11). The term is applied also to the Hittite Uriah (2Samuel 11:20). What is clear is that, as in so many other towns of Palestine at this epoch (see Judges 1:32, &c), there was a mixed population living side by side in a sort of armed neutrality, though with a mutual dislike, which might at any time break out in tumults. The Israelites held much the same position in many towns as the Normans among the English during the years after the conquest. The Israelites had the upper hand, but they were fewer in numbers, and might easily be overborne at any particular point. It must be borne in mind also that Abimelech, as a Shechemite, would more easily win the adherence of the proud and jealous Ephraimites, who disliked the hegemony (see on Judges 8:1, and comp. 2Samuel 20:1, 1Kings 12:16) which Manasseh had acquired from the victories of Gideon. The plans of Abimelech were deep-laid. In counsel no less than in courage—though both were so grievously misdirected—he shows himself his father’s son.
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; 2Samuel 5:1; 2Samuel 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).
And they gave him threescore and ten pieces of silver out of the house of Baalberith, wherewith Abimelech hired vain and light persons, which followed him.(4) Pieces.—Rather, shekels, which is the word normally understood in similar phrases (Judges 8:26). “Neither the citizens of Shechem nor the ignobly-ambitious bastard understood what true monarchy was, and still less what it ought to be in the commonwealth of Jehovah” (Ewald, ii. 389).
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 1Kings 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 (1Samuel 22:2), and Absalom (2Samuel 15:1), and Rezon (1Kings 11:24), and Adonijah (1Kings 1:5), and Jeroboam (2Chronicles 13:7) doing exactly the same thing. Who these “vain” persons were is best defined in 1Samuel 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.
And he went unto his father's house at Ophrah, and slew his brethren the sons of Jerubbaal, being threescore and ten persons, upon one stone: notwithstanding yet Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left; for he hid himself.(5) And he went unto his father’s house at Ophrah.—Probably, like Absalom, he seized the opportunity of some local or family feast at which all his brethren would be assembled (2Samuel 13:23); it may even have been the anniversary of Gideon’s vision.
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 (1Kings 15:29), Zimri (1Kings 16:11), Jehu (2Kings 10:7), and probably by other kings (2 Kings 15); and by Athaliah (2Kings 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 2Kings 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.
And all the men of Shechem gathered together, and all the house of Millo, and went, and made Abimelech king, by the plain of the pillar that was in Shechem.(6) The house of Millo.—It cannot be determined whether Beth Millo is here a proper name, or whether Beth means the family or inhabitants of Millo. The Chaldee renders Millo by “a rampart;” and if this be correct, the “house of the rampart” was perhaps the same as the “tower of Shechem” (Judges 9:46-49). There was a Millo on Mount Zion (2Samuel 5:9), which was also called a Beth Millo (2Kings 12:21).
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 when they told it to Jotham, he went and stood in the top of mount Gerizim, and lifted up his voice, and cried, and said unto them, Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you.(7) In the top of mount Gerizim.—Unless Shechem is not to be identified with Neapolis (Nablous), and was rather, as De Saulcy decides, on Mount Gerizim itself, at a spot still marked by extensive ruins, it would have been entirely impossible for Jotham to be heard at Shechem from the actual summit of Gerizim. But over the town of Nablous is a precipitous rock, to the summit of which the name Gerizim might be loosely given. Here Jotham might well have stood; and it seems certain that in the still clear air of Palestine the rhythmical chant adopted by Orientals might be heard at a great distance. A traveller mentions that standing on Gerizim he heard the voice of a muleteer who was driving his mules down Mount Ebal; and on the very summit of Mount Gerizim I heard a shepherd holding a musical colloquy with another, who was out of sight on a distant hill. “The people in these mountainous countries are able from long practice to pitch their voices so as to be heard at distances almost incredible” (Thomson, Land and Book, p. 473).
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).
The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us.(8) The trees went forth.—As in this chapter we have the first Israelite “king” and the first massacre of brethren, so here we have the first fable. Fables are extremely popular in the East, where they are often current, under the name of the slave-philosopher Lokman, the counterpart of the Greek Æsop. But though there are many apologues and parables in Scripture (e.g., in the Old Testament, “the ewe lamb,” 2Samuel 12:1-4; Psalms 80; Isaiah 5:1-6, &c), there is only one other “fable,” and that is one closely akin to this (2Kings 14:9). St. Paul, however, in 1Corinthians 12:14-19, evidently refers to the ancient fable of Menenius Agrippa, about the belly and the members (Liv. 2:30). A “fable” is a fanciful story, to inculcate prudential morality. In the Bible “trees” seem to be more favourite dramatis personœ than the talking birds and beasts of other nations. “Went forth” is the emphatic phrase “going, they went.” The scenery immediately around Jotham would furnish the most striking illustration of his words, for it is more umbrageous than any other in Palestine, and Shechem seems to rise out of a sea of living verdure. The aptitude for keen and proverbial speech seems to have been hereditary in his family (Joash, Judges 6:31; Gideon, Judges 8:2).
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.
But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?(9) Wherewith by me they honour God and man.—The words may also mean, which gods and men honour in me (Vulg., quâ et dii utuntur et homines; Luther, meine Fettigheit, die beide Götter und menschen an mir preisen; and so some MSS. of the LXX.). In either case the mention of gods or God (Elohim) refers to the use of oil in sacrifices, offerings, consecrations, &c. (Genesis 28:18; Exodus 30:24; Leviticus 3:1-16). Oil is used in the East as one of the greatest luxuries, and also as possessing valuable medicinal properties (James 5:15; Luke 10:34).
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.
And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us.(10) The fig tree.—The luscious fruit and broad green shade of the ancient fig would naturally make it the next choice; but it returns the same scornful answer.
Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us.(12) Unto the vine.—We might have felt surprise that the vine was not the first choice, but the low-growing, trellised vine, which needs support for its own tendrils, might seem less suitable. Indeed, ancient nations talked of the female vine—
“Or they led the vine
To wed her elm; she round about him flings
Her marriageable arms,” &c.—Milton.
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.
Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us.(14) Unto the bramble.—Despairing of their best, they avail themselves of the unscrupulous ambition of their worst. The bramble—atad—is rather the rhamnus, or buckthorn, which Dioscorides calls the Cartha ginian atadin. There seems to be an echo of this fable in Æsop’s fable of the fox and the thorn, where the fox is dreadfully rent by taking hold of the thorn to save himself from a fall, and the thorn asks him what else he could expect.
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!
And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.(15) If in truth—i.e., with serious purpose. The bramble can hardly believe in the infatuation of the trees.
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.”
Now therefore, if ye have done truly and sincerely, in that ye have made Abimelech king, and if ye have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done unto him according to the deserving of his hands;(16) Now therefore.—Here follows the epimuthion. or application of the fable. Judges 9:16-18 are the protasis of the sentence, which is a long and parenthetic series of premisses; the conclusion, or apodosis, follows in Judges 9:19.
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).
(For my father fought for you, and adventured his life far, and delivered you out of the hand of Midian:(17) Adventured his life.—Literally, as in the margin, cast his life (LXX., εῤῥιψε), like the Latin projicere vitam (Lucan, Phars. iv. 516). Comp. the reading paraboleusamenos in Philippians 2:30 and Isaiah 53:12 : “He hath poured out his soul unto death.”
And ye are risen up against my father's house this day, and have slain his sons, threescore and ten persons, upon one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his maidservant, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother;)(18) Threescore and ten persons.—See Note on. Judges 9:5.
If ye then have dealt truly and sincerely with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice ye in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you:(19) If ye then have dealt truly.—If your conduct be just and right, I wish you all joy in it.
But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the men of Shechem, and the house of Millo; and let fire come out from the men of Shechem, and from the house of Millo, and devour Abimelech.(20) Let fire come out.—The malediction is that they may perish by mutual destruction. It was exactly fulfilled (Judges 9:45-49). So when (Œetes is crucified as he had crucified Polykrates, Herodotus notices the similarity of the Nemesis (3:128).
And Jotham ran away, and fled, and went to Beer, and dwelt there, for fear of Abimelech his brother.(21) Went to Beer.—Since Beer means a “well,” it. was naturally a very common name in Palestine. There is nothing to show with certainty whether this Beer is Beeroth in Benjamin (Joshua 9:17), now el Bireh, about. six miles north of Jerusalem (see my Life of Christ, i. 73), or the el Bireh which lies on the road from Shechem to Askalon, or the el Bireh near Endor. Probably Jotham would be safe anywhere in the territories of Judah or Benjamin, without going, as Ewald supposes, to the Beer of Numbers 21:16, on the frontiers of Moab, an ancient sanctuary on the other side of the Jordan, possibly the Beer-elim (palm-well) of Isaiah 15:8.
For fear of Abimelech.—Literally, from the face of Abimelech.
When Abimelech had reigned three years over Israel,(22) Had reigned.—The verb is here sûr, not malak, as in Judges 9:6; but whether the change of word is meant to be significant we cannot say.
Over Israel—i.e., over all the Israelites who would accept his authority—mainly the central tribes.
Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech:(23) An evil spirit.—Whether the word used for spirit (ruach) is here meant to be personal or not we cannot say. Sometimes it seems to mean an evil being (1Samuel 16:14), sometimes only an evil temper (Numbers 14:24). The later Jews would have made little or no difference between the two, since they attributed almost every evil to the direct agency of demons.
Dealt treacherously.—The word is used for the beginning of a defection.
That the cruelty done to the threescore and ten sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood be laid upon Abimelech their brother, which slew them; and upon the men of Shechem, which aided him in the killing of his brethren.(24) That the cruelty . . . might come . . . upon Abimelech.—Scripture is always most emphatic in the recognition of the Divine Nemesis upon wickedness, especially upon bloodshed.
And the men of Shechem set liers in wait for him in the top of the mountains, and they robbed all that came along that way by them: and it was told Abimelech.(25) Set liers in wait for him.—The “for him” does not necessarily mean “to seize him,” but to his disadvantage. The disaffection began to show itself, as has so often been the case in Palestine from the days of Saul to those of Herod, by the rise of brigandage, rendering all government precarious, and providing a refuge tor all dangerous and discontented spirits. Josephus says that Abimelech was expelled from Shechem, and even from the tribe of Ephraim (Antt. v. 1, § 3).
In the top of the mountains.—Especially Ebal and Gerizim.
And Gaal the son of Ebed came with his brethren, and went over to Shechem: and the men of Shechem put their confidence in him.(26) Gaal the son of Ebed.—We are not told any further who he was; but the context leads us to infer that he was one of these freebooters, and probably belonged to the Canaanite population. His “brethren” may have formed the nucleus of a marauding band. Josephus says he was “a certain chief, with his soldiers and kinsmen.” For Ebed some MSS. and versions read Eber, and some Jobel. “Gaal Ben-Ebed” (“loathing son of a slave “) sounds like some contemptuous distortion of his real name.
Went over to Shechem.—Possibly he had been practising brigandage on the other side of the Jordan.
And they went out into the fields, and gathered their vineyards, and trode the grapes, and made merry, and went into the house of their god, and did eat and drink, and cursed Abimelech.(27) And made merry.—The vintage was the most joyous festival of the year (Isaiah 16:9-10; Jeremiah 25:30). The word rendered “merry” is hillûlim, and occurs only here and in Leviticus 19:24, where it is rendered “praise.” Some render it “offered thank-offerings.” The Chaldee renders it “dances,” and the Vulg. “choirs of singers.” The word evidently involves the notion of triumphant songs (LXX., elloulim and chorous).
Of their god.—Baal-berith.
Did eat and drink.—In some public feast, such as often took place in idol temples (Judges 16:23; 2Kings 19:37; 1Corinthians 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.
And Gaal the son of Ebed said, Who is Abimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should serve him? is not he the son of Jerubbaal? and Zebul his officer? serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem: for why should we serve him?(28) Who is Abimelech?—This is obviously contemptuous, like “Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse?” in 1Samuel 25:10.
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 would to God this people were under my hand! then would I remove Abimelech. And he said to Abimelech, Increase thine army, and come out.(29) Would to God this people were under my hand !—Comp. 2Samuel 15:4.
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.
And when Zebul the ruler of the city heard the words of Gaal the son of Ebed, his anger was kindled.(30) The ruler of the city.—The word sar seems to imply that he was the military commandant.
And he sent messengers unto Abimelech privily, saying, Behold, Gaal the son of Ebed and his brethren be come to Shechem; and, behold, they fortify the city against thee.(31) Privily.—The Hebrew is betormah, which may mean “to Tormah,” or Arumah, where Abimelech was living (Judges 9:41). The word occurs nowhere else, and the versions differ (LXX., in secret; Cod. B, with gifts; Cod. A reading batherumah). Whether “craftily” be the right rendering or not, it is clear that the message was a secret one, for Zebul dissembled his anger until he was strong enough to throw off the mask.
They fortify.—Rather, perhaps, they tyrannise over the city because of thee.
Now therefore up by night, thou and the people that is with thee, and lie in wait in the field:(32) Lie in wait in the field.—To surprise the Shechemites when they went out to finish their vintage operations, which they would do securely under the protection of Gaal’s forces.
And it shall be, that in the morning, as soon as the sun is up, thou shalt rise early, and set upon the city: and, behold, when he and the people that is with him come out against thee, then mayest thou do to them as thou shalt find occasion.(33) As thou shalt find occasion.—Literally, as in the margin, as thine hand shall find, as in 1Samuel 10:7; 1Samuel 25:8.
And Abimelech rose up, and all the people that were with him, by night, and they laid wait against Shechem in four companies.(34) Four companies.—Literally, four heads. (Comp. Judges 7:16.)
And Gaal the son of Ebed went out, and stood in the entering of the gate of the city: and Abimelech rose up, and the people that were with him, from lying in wait.(35) Stood in the entering of the gate of the city.—This was the ordinary station of kings, judges, &c.; but Gaal only seems to have gone there in order to keep a look-out (Joshua 20:4).
And when Gaal saw the people, he said to Zebul, Behold, there come people down from the top of the mountains. And Zebul said unto him, Thou seest the shadow of the mountains as if they were men.(36) He said to Zebul.—The narrative is too brief to enable us to understand clearly the somewhat anomalous position of Zebul. He seems to have been deposed from his office, and yet to have retained the confidence of Gaal and the Shechemites.
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.
And Gaal spake again and said, See there come people down by the middle of the land, and another company come along by the plain of Meonenim.(37) By the middle of the land.—Literally, by the navel of the land. Probably the expression means some gently-swelling hill, but it perplexed the translators. The Chaldee renders it “the strength,” and the Svriac “the fortification of the land.” In Ezekiel 38:12 it is rendered “in the midst of the land.” The LXX. here have the strangely blundering addition, “by sea.”
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).
Then said Zebul unto him, Where is now thy mouth, wherewith thou saidst, Who is Abimelech, that we should serve him? is not this the people that thou hast despised? go out, I pray now, and fight with them.(38) Where is now thy mouth . . .?—“Mouth” here means boastfulness. This is usually taken as a bitter taunt, as though Zebul could now safely throw off his deceitful acquiescence in Gaal’s plans. It may be so, for the narrative gives us no further details; but unless Zebul was in some way secured by his own adherents from Gaal’s immediate vengeance, it seems better to take it as a sort of expostulation against Gaal’s past rashness.
And Gaal went out before the men of Shechem, and fought with Abimelech.(39) Before the men of Shechem.—Not merely “in the presence of the Shechemites,” as some of the versions understand it, but as leader of the “lords” of Shechem. (Comp. Judges 9:23.)
And Abimelech chased him, and he fled before him, and many were overthrown and wounded, even unto the entering of the gate.(40) Abimelech chased him . . .—He won a complete victory; but Gaal and his forces were able to secure themselves in Shechem. They succeeded in closing the gates against Abimelech, but only at the cost of many lives.
And Abimelech dwelt at Arumah: and Zebul thrust out Gaal and his brethren, that they should not dwell in Shechem.(41) Dwelt at Arumah.—Eusebius and Jerome identify Arumah with Remphis or Arimathea, near Lydda, which is most improbable on every ground. It is clearly some place at no great distance from Shechem which he was still determined to punish.
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.
And it came to pass on the morrow, that the people went out into the field; and they told Abimelech.(42) On the morrow.—This is surprising. Possibly, however, there were important agricultural labours to be finished, and Abimelech had lulled them into security by ostentatiously withdrawing his forces.
Into the field—“The wide corn-fields at the opening of the Valley of Shechem” (Stanley).
Died.—The Vulgate renders it, Were killed with the smoke and fire.
And he took the people, and divided them into three companies, and laid wait in the field, and looked, and, behold, the people were come forth out of the city; and he rose up against them, and smote them.(43) Into three companies.—Why he only made three companies this time can only be matter of conjecture.
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.
And Abimelech, and the company that was with him, rushed forward, and stood in the entering of the gate of the city: and the two other companies ran upon all the people that were in the fields, and slew them.(44) In the entering of the gate of the city.—This time he was able to intercept the people before they could get back, and he had reserved the post of honour and peril for himself.
And Abimelech fought against the city all that day; and he took the city, and slew the people that was therein, and beat down the city, and sowed it with salt.(45) Beat down the city.—Comp. 2Samuel 17:13; Micah 3:12.
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).
And when all the men of the tower of Shechem heard that, they entered into an hold of the house of the god Berith.(46) The men of the tower of Shechem.—Evidently the garrison of the house of Millo (Judges 9:6).
Entered into an hold.—The word for “hold” occurs in 1Samuel 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.
And Abimelech gat him up to mount Zalmon, he and all the people that were with him; and Abimelech took an axe in his hand, and cut down a bough from the trees, and took it, and laid it on his shoulder, and said unto the people that were with him, What ye have seen me do, make haste, and do as I have done.(48) To mount Zalmon.—Evidently the nearest spot where he could get wood for his hideous design. Zalmon means shady. In Psalm 68:14 we find “as white as snow in Zalmon,” but whether the same mountain is referred to we cannot tell. It may be any of the hills near Gerizim.
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.
Then went Abimelech to Thebez, and encamped against Thebez, and took it.(50) Thebez.—One of the cities in the league of “Baal of the Covenant,” perhaps, Tubas, ten miles north-east of Shechem, on a mound among the hills.
But there was a strong tower within the city, and thither fled all the men and women, and all they of the city, and shut it to them, and gat them up to the top of the tower.(51) There was a strong tower within the city.—This constant mention of towers and strongholds (Judges 8:9, &c.) shows the disturbed state of the country, which probably resembled the state of England in the days of King Stephen.
To the top of the tower.—“Standing about the battlements upon the roof of the tower” (Vulg.).
And Abimelech came unto the tower, and fought against it, and went hard unto the door of the tower to burn it with fire.(52) Went hard unto the door.—Hard, i.e., close. Like other bad men, Abimelech was not lacking in physical courage. He had all his father’s impetuous energy. The peril of such rashness served the Israelites as a perpetual warning (2Samuel 11:21).
To burn it with fire.—He naturally anticipated another hideous success like that at Millo.
And a certain woman cast a piece of a millstone upon Abimelech's head, and all to brake his skull.(53) A piece of a millstone.—The word for millstone is receb, literally, runner, i.e., the upper millstone, or lapis vector, which is whirled round and round over the stationary lower one, sheceb (Deuteronomy 24:6).
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.
Then he called hastily unto the young man his armourbearer, and said unto him, Draw thy sword, and slay me, that men say not of me, A woman slew him. And his young man thrust him through, and he died.(54) A woman slew him.—He did not, however, escape the taunt (2Samuel 11:21). We see also from the narrative of the death of Saul in 2Samuel 1:9, 1Samuel 31:4, how sensitive the ancients were about the manner of their death. The same feeling finds ample illustration in Homer and classic writers (Soph. Trach., 1,064). It was a similar feeling which made Deborah exult in the death of Sisera by the hand of a woman, and the Jews in the murder of Holofernes by Judith. It is remarkable that both of the first two Israelite kings die by suicide to avoid a death of greater shame.
And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, they departed every man unto his place.(55) They departed.—The death of a leader was generally sufficient to break up an ancient army (1Samuel 17:51). “With Abimelech expired this first abortive attempt at monarchy. . . . The true King of Israel is still far in the distance” (Stanley).
Thus God rendered the wickedness of Abimelech, which he did unto his father, in slaying his seventy brethren:(56, 57) Thus.—These impressive verses give the explanation of the whole narrative. They are inserted to show that God punishes both individual and national crimes, and that men’s pleasant vices are made the instruments to scourge them. The murderer of his brothers “on one stone” is slain by a stone flung on his head, and the treacherous idolaters are treacherously burnt in the temple of their idol.