Few people would argue that fathers have a great effect on their sons, whether for good or bad. It is a truth in any culture, any society and any age. Of course, there are exceptions. There are children who have very caring and godly fathers who go astray. And there are other children who are raised by selfish, uninvolved fathers who end up becoming good men. But the fact of the matter is a father’s example – both good and bad, has a profound influence on his children. And in no case do we see this illustrated more than the example of Gideon’s son Abimelech.
God used Gideon to bring about a great military victory. With only 300 men he overpowered an army 100 times their size. The Israelites now want to make him king. Gideon refused saying that God was their king, but in his heart that is what he secretly craved. Soon he is amassing large amounts of money, wives and mistresses – the very thing (selfish) kings do. One of his mistresses lived in a Canaanite city called Shechem. She bears him a son whom Gideon names Abimelech, which means “the son of the king” (Judges 8:31).
When your dad names you “son of the king,” your career path is pretty well marked out. But Abimelech receives the cold shoulder from his half-brothers who are now rulers in the region. So he begins to fuel a rebellion against them (Judges 9:1-3). He goes to his half-brothers in Shechem, in a dodgy backroom deal, he obtains their support for his leadership, which probably went a bit like this:
“Hey guys, I don’t want to scare you or anything, but you don’t really want seventy men – all of Jerubbaal’s sons, ruling over you do you? Wouldn’t it be far better to deal with just one guy… namely ME? By the way, we are related you know…”
The Shechemites buy into his evil scheme and give him money to take out his half-brothers in Ophrah. It’s treacherous stuff. His brothers by his mother pay him to kill his brothers by his father – 70 pieces of silver, one for each head. Now that Gideon’s sons are all dead, the residents of Shechem can have the leader they want and Abimelech becomes the first king of Israel… kind of.
The mafia obviously didn’t do a very good body count because one of Gideon’s sons – the youngest, Jotham – had given them the slip. He turns up at Abimelech’s coronation service and proceeds in Jesus fashion, to tell them a parable. Here’s a summary: the trees decide to have a king. They approach four different plants and each is offered kingship. The first three all decline: the olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine. Finally the trees make an offer to a bramble (or thornbush), which responds by saying,
“If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade” (9:15a).
In case you hadn’t picked it up, this is a physical absurdity. Thornbushes don’t supply very good shade for trees. And even if they tried, they are liked to get pricked by its thorns.
“But if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.” (9:15b)
This is also absurd: how can fire come out from a thornbush and burn an entire forest? Here’s the meaning: since the trees (i.e. the citizens of Shechem) have done something so stupid as to make a thornbush (i.e. Abimelech) king, they deserve to be consumed by its fire. This isn’t just a fable. This is prophetic. Thus Jotham follows it with a curse in verses 16-21: Abimelech will consume Shechem, and Shechem will consume Abimelech. Each party will suffer at the hands of the other.
In the second half of chapter 9 the chickens come home to roost.
“Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech” (9:22–23)
The evil spirit here is likely a demon. God sends a demon to do what demons do best – create hatred and distrust and division between people and cause a rift between Abimelech and the people he looked to in order to maintain his rule.
It all starts with the gang of cutthroats that Abimelech hired to murder his brothers. They’ve grown tired of Abimelech lording himself over them and they set up their own little kingdom in the hills, robbing everyone who passes by. Then Gaal and co. turn up in town. He’s a rather generous fellow; he brings the grapes in from his vines, tramples out a good label and invites everyone in for happy hour. Then he holds up a toast: “Abimelech is a dirty swine.” The glasses clink and a few bottles later it’s “and so say all of us.”
When Zebul, Abimelech’s loyal lieutenant hears about this he sends word to his boss that Gaal and his relatives are stirring up a rebellion and that he needs to bring his army, surround the city by night and attack at dawn. By early morning, Abimelech has four companies of troops waiting in ambush. Dawn arrives and Gaal is up early and he thinks he sees troop movements in the hills above the town. Zebul says, “I think you need glasses Gaal – those are just shadows.” Gaal isn’t convinced and keeps peering into the distance and suddenly exclaims, “Those aren’t shadows – those are men!” By the time Gaal realizes his eyes have not been deceiving him, it is too late. “Where’s your mouth now?” jeers Zebul, pushing him out of the town and shutting the gates on him.
The following day the townsfolk assume it’s all over and head back out into the fields. But they won’t see the light of another day. Abimelech wastes no time in capturing the city, killing the people and sowing the fields with salt so they will no longer produce a harvest. When the leaders of Shechem hear this, they flee with their families and lock themselves in the tower in the centre of the city. Abimelech has his men cut down bundles of brushwood, they pile it up at the base of the tower and set fire to it, incinerating everyone inside.
His next stop is Thebez. Again the men barricade themselves inside a tower with their families and again Abimelech sets about smoking them out or burning them up with fire. All is going according to plan except for “a certain woman” we are told about in verse 53. This “certain woman” drags a millstone up to the top of the tower, where she then takes aim and drops it unceremoniously on Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull. He’s still alive so he calls on his young armor bearer to finish the job, which he does.
So ends the evil rule of Abimelech. His followers seem to awake from a bad dream. The spell is broken; the evil spirit departs. God’s work of retribution is done. And lest we miss the point of the story the author makes it very plain for us:
“Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech, which he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers. And God also made all the evil of the men of Shechem return on their heads, and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.” (9:56–57)
So what can we take away from this story? Why has God put this here in the Bible? There are at least 3 important lessons to be learned:
1. What you sow will later be reaped – either by you or someone else
Abimelech wanted to be king and was willing to do whatever it took to get it and the citizens of Shechem helped him do it. But they did it by evil means. And God brought it all back on their own heads.
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7)
Don’t be deceived about what? Thinking that you can get away with things when you know they are wrong. Thinking that your life and actions are somehow exempt from this rule. Thinking that you can forget God, take him lightly or not even take him into consideration when you make your plans.
Ask yourself: what am I harvesting today? It is likely what you planted the day before or the week before or the year before. Ask yourself: what am I sowing today? That is what you will harvest tomorrow, next week and next year. What did Abimelech sow? Rebellion, division and murder. What did he reap? Rebellion, division and murder. What did the citizens of Shechem sow? Disloyalty and murder. What did they reap? Disloyalty and murder. Whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.
A lot of what happens to us can be the result of our past choices – both good and bad. There are very few negative things that happen to me for which I am not at least partially responsible. And there are few positive things that I didn’t have some hand in.
Now I know what some of you are thinking: If the quality of my life depends upon the choices I make, then unless I’m consistently making good choices, there’s not a lot of hope for me. Actually there is, through repentance and faith. If Abimelech and the people of Shechem had repented for what they had done, confessed their sins and asked God for His forgiveness, He would have redeemed them and the situation. When you come to Jesus in repentance – true repentance, and ask him to save you from your stupid and self-destructive choices, he will. Because he bore the brunt of those foolish choices on the cross. He reaped what you sowed. Furthermore, he will give you the desire and power to make right choices, and your life will improve and you will experience joy and peace that you have never experienced before.
2. We are all Abimelech’s at heart – we all crave kingship
Abimelech craved power, dominance and control. And we crave exactly the same thing. We all want to be our own kings. We want to control our lives and the lives of others around us. And when we can’t control it we get angry and annoyed. It pops out all over the place. You see Abimelech isn’t the only one who craves to be king. We all want it. We all want to be in control. But we can’t. There’s only one true king in this world. And that brings me to the last point:
3. We need a better king. We need Jesus.
Abimelech made a poor king. But so did very other king after him. Human kings make poor saviours. They achieve great things one minute and do stupid things the next. We need a better king, and God knew that. That’s why he sent Jesus. Jesus resisted the temptation to selfishly rule, to dominate, and try to manipulate and control people around him. He did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45) He used his power and authority to save and redeem, not rule and dominate.
Jesus is the true and only King. He is the only one who is worthy of our complete allegiance, our total devotion and utmost loyalty. I don’t mind bowing to king Jesus. I don’t mind giving him the reigns of my life. For his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt 11:30). My life is far better in the hands of King Jesus than my own hands. He’ll keep me from doing stupid and foolish things and reaping what I have sown.
And most importantly, he’ll keep me from having millstones dropped on my head.