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Sefer Shoftim Chapter 9
Avimelech's Doomed Kingship

Chapter 8 ended with the death of the Shofet (Judge) Gidon. Gidon had 70 sons! Among these sons was Avimelech, who convinced the people of Shechem, his mother’s city, to anoint him alone as their king, rather than having all 70 sons ruling. The inhabitants of Shechem agree and pay him 70 pieces of silver, which Gidon then uses to hire men to kill all his brothers. The only survivor was the youngest son, Yotam, who survived, and he publicly criticises both Avimelech and Shechem for their actions, cursing them that they will be punished.

 

Avimelech ruled over Israel for three years. However, under the leadersihip of Ga’al son of Eved, the people of Shechem rebelled against him. Avimelech’s loyal supporters warned him that this was happening and a war followed. Avimelech’s opponents were pushed back and sought refuge in a tower. As Avimelech closed in, he ordered his troops to set the tower on fire. 1000 men and women died in the flames. However, when approaching another city under siege, a woman dropped a stone from the city walls striking Avimelech on the head. He begged his armour bearer to stab him “lest they say of me ‘a woman killed him.’” (9:54). Concerned for his ego in his dying moments, Avimelech achieved the opposite. It has been recorded for posterity in Tanach, not only that a woman injured him severely, but that his vanity was his focus in his last breaths. This is how he is remembered: a vain, self-centred and failed leader.

Failed kingship

In our last article we saw the beginnings of the great king debate. Here we see a failed attempt to create a monarchy. Avimelech started his kingship for all the wrong reasons. Clearly it was doomed to fail from the outset. The first mention of Avimelech already indicates his self-centred focus. “Avimelech” means “my father is king”, although we know that Gidon never accepted the position that he was offered. This makes it highly unlikely that Gidon would have named his son thus. The text uses the strange phrasing “he made his name Avimelech” (8:31) instead of the more commonly used phrase “he called him”. It is possible that the “he” was not his father, rather Avimelech assigning himself this moniker due to his personal and illegitimate aspirations.

 

Yotam, his one surviving brother, provided a parable in his criticism of the people for anointing Avimelech as king. He describes the trees trying to anoint a king over themselves. They turn to the olive tree, fig tree and grapevine one at a time. All refuse, wanting to focus only on their own produce. Finally, the trees turn to the “atad”, most commonly identified with a thorn bush, who accepts the position. Rashi (11th century French biblical commentator) explains that the olive, fig and grape trees are representing Othniel, Devorah and Gidon: good rulers who refused the honour of titles (Rashi to 9:8-12). In contrast to these productive fruit yielding trees, Avimelech is likened to a thorn bush which has no produce and inflicts pain and damage. This once again highlights the failings of Avimelech from the outset.

 

Undoubtedly, this first attempt at kingship is a failure. It is not surprising that the concept of monarchy is not discussed again for several generations to come.

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