The Parable of the Thornbush – Judges 9

Even though Gideon refused to be made king of the Israelites, he nevertheless lived like one, as his lifestyle of having many wives and concubines produced many heirs to his throne. One of those sons, who was born to him through his concubine, was named Abimelek and how apropos as the name roughly translates to my father is the king in Hebrew. Abimelek longed for the throne of his father and brazenly went about securing the seat of power for himself. During one of their religious events, he put his case forward before his own brothers in Shechem that he being their own flesh and blood would put their interests first, to garner their support.

They gave him seventy shekels of silver from the temple of Baal-Berith, and Abimelek used it to hire reckless scoundrels, who became his followers. He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers, the sons of Jerub-Baal.

Judges 9:4-5 (NIV)

Shechem was the land across the Jordan River, where the Israelites pledged their devotion to Yahweh after forgoing their idols. It was later allotted as a Levitical city to the Kohathites. This same city gave birth to the anarchist movement spearheaded by Gideon’s son, Abimelek. By giving him the name Abimelek (my father is the king) we can understand the mentality of Gideon and how he perceived his leadership over Israel.

Even if Gideon had no part to play in the naming of his son, he was still responsible for creating such an atmosphere by the way he ruled over the people. It is not unreasonable to assume that his sons would have had the same ambition as their father and wanted to rule the land as kings. But like all dynasties, the transition of power is seldom peaceful, especially when there exist so many claims to the throne. Especially in the case of Abimelek, who being the son of a concubine, did not have a legitimate claim to the throne of Gideon and had to take it by force.

Sermon on the Mount

The youngest of Gideon’s sons, Jotham, escaped from the clutches of Abimelek and his men, as he went into hiding. When Jotham got to know about the coronation of Abimelek at Shechem, he climbed up to the top of Mount Gerizim to knock some sense into the people. He narrates an analogy of trees choosing a king from one among them to bring the absurdity of the choice that the people had made in Abimelek and to speak out against the evil that had been perpetrated against him and his family.

One day, the trees decided to have one of their own ruler over them. They went to the most productive tree amongst them, the tree of olives but the olive tree refused, as it found the work of producing oil more fruitful. Next, they barked up the fig tree and it too refused their offer in lieu of continuing to produce its good and sweet fruit. Then the trees tried to entice the vine to become their king but it too refused, saying that its wine brought cheer to everyone. Exhausting all their options, finally, the trees went to the thornbush (which anyways did not produce anything of value) to make it king over them.

“The thornbush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’

Judges 9:15 (NIV)

Jotham wants to bring out the fact that while Gideon’s sons were qualified to rule the land, they all refused to take that honour and responsibility. However, Abimelek, who was the son of Gideon’s slave girl, did not even have the birthright to succeed Gideon but still, was chosen by the people of Shechem to rule over them. In his first act as king over the Shechemites, Abimelek hires a gang of scoundrels and brutally murders his father’s sons. Everyone involved in this evil transaction, betrayed Gideon’s family by revolting in such an outlandish manner. Jotham flees to Beer after narrating this parable and giving his verdict on the dastardly proceedings.

..let fire come out from Abimelek and consume you, the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and let fire come out from you, the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo, and consume Abimelek!

Judges 9:20 (NIV)

The Honeymoon is Over

Abimelek governed Israel (probably the northern tribes) for about three years but just like the parable of the thornbush, animosity started brewing in the hearts of the Shechemites towards Abimelek. They acted treacherously towards Abimelek, setting up ambush points on the desolate roads on hilltops and thereby undermining his reign. Things went from bad to worse when Gaal moved into the region and won over the hearts of the Shechemites. After one of the festivals of their gods, when the men had been drunk, Gaal started poisoning their minds saying,

“Who is Abimelek, and why should we Shechemites be subject to him? Isn’t he Jerub-Baal’s son, and isn’t Zebul his deputy? Serve the family of Hamor, Shechem’s father! Why should we serve Abimelek? If only this people were under my command! Then I would get rid of him. I would say to Abimelek, ‘Call out your whole army!’”

Judges 9:28-29 (NIV)

God allowed the reign of Abimelek to continue for three years before it started self-imploding. God is working according to His own plans and has set a time for everything. There was time for Israel to repent and a time for them to endure the consequences of their actions. A time for us to come closer to God, a time for us to move away from his grace and protection. The people got what they wanted when Abimelek forcibly became the king but evil cannot be subsided without the fear of God. None of the people in this chapter display the slightest adherence to God’s will for His people and thereby suffer through the consequences of their actions.

However, Zebul who was Abimelek’s governor, heard the slander against Abimelek and sent word, warning him to quash this slow-moving coup immediately. The very next morning Abimelek and his troops attacked the city from all four sides driving out Gaal and his clan from out of Shechem.

All that day Abimelek pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed its people. Then he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it.

Judges 9:45 (NIV)

Abimelek was literally rubbing salts on the wounds of Shechem as in the ancient world, salting the land of the enemy was a common practice. The raiding parties or conquering kings would salt the land they attack to ensure that nothing would grow from its soil thereby debilitating the already dire condition of the people of the land. They did this to ensure that the land remains barren and produced neither crops nor warriors desperate for retribution.

The citizens of Shechem were running for their lives with many taking shelter in the stronghold of the temple of El-Berith. Abimelek and his men went up to the nearby mountain of Zalmon and brought back branches, piling them against the stronghold. Then they set fire to the pile of wood next to the stronghold killing about a thousand men and women who were trapped in the human oven. The violence that Abimelek brought upon Shechem mirrored his father’s aggression against the towns of Sukkoth and Peniel.

After burning down Shechem, Abimelek went to Thebez and captured the fortified city. However, all the people of the city were able to escape to the strong tower. Abimelek adopted the same strategy of burning down the building but as he approached the entrance of the tower, a woman dropped an upper part of a millstone on his head and cracked his skull.

Hurriedly he called to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can’t say, ‘A woman killed him.’” So his servant ran him through, and he died. When the Israelites saw that Abimelek was dead, they went home

Judges 9:54-55 (NIV)

An unnamed woman kills Abimelek using a household apparatus which is similar to how Jael killed Sisera with a tent peg. It was shameful for mighty warriors, especially warlords like Abimelek and Sisera to die at the hands of ordinary women. Abimelek did not want anyone to know about the way he died that day but years later we see king David quoting this example when his own soldier was killed (2 Samuel 11:21). In irony of ironies just like Abimelek killed his half-brothers on a single stone, he meets his ends when a woman kills him by a single stone. God used women like Jael and Abigail to bring down great kings when they refused to listen to Him.

Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelek had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. God also made the people of Shechem pay for all their wickedness. The curse of Jotham son of Jerub-Baal came on them.

Judges 9:56-57 (NIV)

Though there were traces of personal vendetta in the parable and the subsequent curses yelled out by Jotham, the succeeding events, albeit three years later, show us that God is the one who was bringing the parable to life. Jotham is incapable of taking revenge for the bloodshed that Abimelek brought to his family but God is causing confusion among the Shechemites to bring down the bastardized reign of Abimelek. Even since the latter days of Gideon’s reign we see Israel heading for a downward spiral and their relationship with God descends to such depths that we do not see the fear of God in anyone. God uses Abimelek and his reign of terror as a learning moment for the Israelites that what happens when they stray away from Him.

Discussion Questions

  • V5: Could not Abimelek have ruled over Shechem without killing his brothers? What motivates him to do so?
  • V15: What is the meaning of the parable of the thornbush?
  • V23: The Parable comes true but why does God let Abimelek rule for three years?
  • V45: Abimelek was literally rubbing salts on the wounds of Shechem, why scatter salt over an already destroyed city?
  • V53: An unnamed woman kills Abimelek using a household apparatus similar to Jael killing Sisera with a tent peg. Is there a common theme in both accounts?
  • V57: Was the parable of the thornbush, an enlightenment from God or was it simply a curse from Jotham?


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