Cautionary tale of an arrogant leader

We know Gideon as the military strategist who startled and defeated an invading army of Midianites with a mere three hundred soldiers by sounding trumpets and smashing jars (Judges 7). But what happened after Gideon’s victory is a cautionary tale for all who would self-promote and gain power by trampling others.

Abimelech was crowned king by relatives and friends between Mt. Gerizim (left) and Mt. Ebal (right) at the city of Shechem (modern Nablus).

Gideon (also called Jerubbaal) gave temporary leadership among the tribes of Israel in an era before there were kings, when “judges” governed as needed. These were regional religious/military leaders who rose to unite and defend the scattered tribes or to restore faithfulness at times of crisis.

Some Israelites wanted to make Gideon king after he defeated the Midianites, but he refused. “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you,” he declared (Judges 8:23). When Gideon died, however, a son named Abimelech thought otherwise. He hired “worthless and reckless fellows,” who followed him (9:4). To eliminate competition, he slaughtered seventy other sons of Gideon–all his half-brothers. Only the youngest, Jotham, survived.

Abimelech was crowned king at Shechem (modern Nablus), a city between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal that was home to Abimelech’s concubine mother. Soon his sole surviving brother Jotham appeared at the top of Mt. Gerizim and cried aloud, “Listen to me, you lords of Shechem, so that God may listen to you!” (9:7). Jotham then told a fable (9:8-15) that is a timeless take-down of abuse in power:

The trees of the forest decide to choose a king, and one by one they approach possible candidates. They start with the noble olive, but it refuses. “Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?” The fig tree likewise says, “Shall I stop producing my sweetness, my delicious fruit” to function as king?

Approaching progressively less worthy candidates, the trees ask the vine to become king. “Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals?” the vine responds. Finally they invite the bramble. Perhaps not understanding how many noble trees have refused the honor, the bramble accepts. But the prickly nature of the bramble immediately becomes evident: “If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”

Brambles are a nuisance that still flourish today in politics and in the hills of central Palestine.

The idea of a bramble providing shade is laughable, and things did not go well when Abimelech reigned. Supporters soon turned against him, and in the end a woman threw a millstone upon his head. Aware he was dying, Abimelech’s last words to his armor bearer were, “Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him’” (9:54).

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill ****************************************IMG_0425

Come with my wife Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour accessible even to non-athletes like myself. Dates are May 14-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum. Details are still pending but we likely also will hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route, and more. Interested? See

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