Judges 9: On power plays and death curses

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For this chapter, Gideon has fully transformed into his Jerubbaal form. While Gideon refused kingship in Judges 8:23, Jerubbaal, it seems, took it. Or, perhaps we misunderstood Gideon’s words in Judges 8:23, and he was actually making a theological point rather than a refusal. Sort of a “yes, I’ll wear the crown, but God will be your true king” sort of thing.

Abimelech, one of Jerubbaal’s bastard sons – born of a concubine (Judges 8:31) or slave/servant (Judges 9:18) – decides that perhaps he should inherit his father’s title after Jerubbaal’s passing. But first, he needs supporters.

Abimelech travels to Shechem, where his mother’s family is from.

I find it rather curious that Shechem has had so many mentions both in Joshua and Judges – far more than a site I would have assumed would have had more importance, like Jerusalem. I found it especially surprising because, prior to this project, I’d never heard of it.

My study Bible says of the city that it was “the most important city and sanctuary in north central Palestine. It guarded the important east and west highway which passed between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim” (p.305). Baalberith, the god the people began worshipping in Judges 8:33 and who will make an appearance in a couple verses, is, according to my study Bible, named “the lord of the covenant” and was “the god of Shechem.” It’s significant that this is also, if you’ll recall, where Joshua’s covenant ceremony took place in Joshua 24.

It’s also worth noting that Abimelech’s name  means “my father, the king,” and is the perfect name for someone “claiming the inherited right to rule (wiki). It was also, according to the same source, a common name among Philistine kings. You will probably remember another Abimelech who slept with both Sarah (Abraham’s wife) and Rebekah (Isaac’s wife).

Back to the story, Abimelech asks his mother’s family to sow dissent, telling them to go out and ask everyone “What is better for you, that all seventy of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?” (Judges 9:2). He compels them to work on his campaign by reminding them of their blood tie.

The campaign works and Abimelech soon has Shechem on his side. They even fund his efforts, giving him seventy pieces of silver from the temple of Baalberith (one for each of Jerubbaal’s sons?), which he uses to hire “worthless and reckless fellows” (Judges 9:4).

The Rise of Abimelech, by Kevin Rolly

The Rise of Abimelech, by Kevin Rolly

Abimelech then travels to Ophrah (Gideon’s home-base in Judges 6) and kills all seventy of his brothers. Well, except that Jerubbaal had seventy sons of which Abimelech himself was one, so that would leave only 69 brothers. Also, he missed one. Jotham, Jerubbaal’s youngest, hides like the son of Gideon that he is, and thereby escapes death.

The people of Shechem, now joined by the people of Bethmillo who are never mentioned again, gather by the oak pillar at Shechem to name Abimelech their king. It was under this same oak that Joshua set up a large stone after composing his book of law (Josh. 24:26).

Jotham returns one last time, standing atop Mount Gerizim and yelling some weird parable about Ents choosing a king. The olive tree, fig tree, and vine all refuse the title, but the bramble accepts it on condition that the offer is sincerely made. If not, warns the bramble, “let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon” (Judges 9:15).

If that’s too trippy for you, Jotham helpfully spells it out – Abimelech, as a bastard, is as lowly and useless as a bramble, and if the offer of kingship is not sincerely made, then Abimelech and Shechem will both be destroyed.

With this, Jotham drops his mic and goes back into hiding. Clearly, his parentage is beyond doubt.

Big Trouble In Little Shechem

Abimelech rules Israel for three years. Notice that the text specifically says Israel in Judges 9:22, even though the story is very clearly focused on the Shechem region.

Indeed, when trouble begins to brew, it is the “men of Shechem” (Judges 9:23) who are divided from Abimelech, not the men of Israel.

Though God is otherwise quite absent from this story, he does get the credit for Shechem’s dissent, having sent “an evil spirit” (Judges 9:23) between Abimelech and the city. This is explained as punishment for the murder of Abimelech’s brothers (Abimelech for doing it, Shechem for giving him the means). Interestingly, it is not punishment for, say, being associated with Baalberith (Judges 9:4).

After this, the narrative gets a little hectic. As best as I can figure, the Shechemites take to banditry, but it’s also a covert attack on Abimelech himself (Judges 9:25).

Then Gaal, son of Ebed, moves to Shechem. He and the Shechemites harvest their grapes, tread on them, celebrate, go to the house of their god (unspecified), and “reviled Abimelech” (Judges 9:27). I can’t figure out what the significance is of the pastoral backdrop, except perhaps that we’re supposed to understand that Gaal is winning over the Shechemites by working with them, or perhaps that the Shechemites are drunken to the point of suggestibility by their post-harvest revelry.

Gaal incites the Shechemites by asking why they should serve Abimelech. Didn’t Abimelech’s father Jerubbaal and his officer Zebul both “serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem?” (Judges 9:28) I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. The only other reference I can find to Hamor is way back in Genesis 34, when Jacob is staying near Shechem and Hamor’s son rapes/has sex with Jacob’s daughter Dinah. I’m assuming that the mention here refers to some story that has not been included in the text.

At least we find out who Zebul is fairly quickly – he is “the ruler of the city” (Judges 9:30). Presumably, Abimelech is ruling the region (or all of Israel), and Zebul is his officer appointed to Shechem. Indeed, we will soon find out that Abimelech’s court is in Arumah.

So Zebul finds out about Gaal’s grumblings, and he sends word to Abimelech. He tells Abimelech to hide in the fields around Shechem at night and, in the morning, rush the city. If all goes according to plan, Gaal and his supporters will rush out to meet him and then Abimelech “may do to them as occasion offers” (Judges 9:33).

Abimelech follows his officer’s instructions. When Gaal spots his army, he tells Zebul, but Zebul insists that he must just be seeing things. But when Gaal insists, Zebul says “I thought you said Abimelech was just a nobody. If he’s just a nobody, go out and face him!”

Goaded, Gaal rushes out, is defeated, flees, and many die. His work done, Abimelech goes back to Arumah and Zebul casts Gaal’s family out of Shechem.

The next day, people go out into the fields, so Abimelech slays them. He then takes Shechem, razes it, and sows it with salt. None of this is really explained, except insofar as it was predicted by Jotham’s parable.

The survivors of Shechem hide in the temple of Elberith (Judges 9:46). It’s worth noting that no one in this story appears to be especially concerned with YHWH. Abimelech turned to Baalberith for support, and the Shechemites turn to Elberith for protection. Jotham and Gaal’s faiths are never mentioned. The only mention we really get of YHWH is the note that he is the one who turns Shechem and Abimelech against each other as punishment for the slaying of Gideon’s other sons.

Abimelech, once compared to brambles, goes to Mount Zalmon and collects a bunch of brushwood, which he then uses to set the temple of Elberith on fire, killing the thousand men and women inside.

For no particular reason, he then heads out to Thebez and makes to burn them down as well, but a woman throws a millstone down from the battlements of the tower and it lands on Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull. Dying, he begs his amour-bearer to kill him so that no one can say that he was killed by a woman (an interesting mirroring of Jael’s work in Judges 4).

As the chapter concludes, we are told that this was all part of Jotham’s curse. The end.

Numbers 21: Snakes on a plain

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It doesn’t rain unless it pours. Numbers is an odd book; a good half of the chapters are nothing but Levitical drudgery, and then we get chapters like these, where the narratives just seem to be breathlessly jammed together.

As the Hebrews are travelling through Atharim, they are attacked by the king of Arad, a Canaanite. This appears to have been a small skirmish, since we’re given no death tally and only told that he took some of the Hebrews captive.

The Hebrews then call to God for help and, while reticent to provide them with the necessities of subsistence, he seems quite happy to help when it involves killing people.

With God’s help, the Hebrews are able to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, as well as their cities. Because of this, they name the area Hormah, which my Study Bible notes means “destruction.”

Waaay back in Numbers 14:39-45, we heard of a different battle in which some of the Hebrews run up into the hill country and are attacked by the Amalekites and Canaanites. In that battle, the Hebrews are destroyed and their remainder pursued “even to Hormah” (Num. 14:45).

The similarities between the two stories are interesting: the initial defeat at the hands of Canaanites, and the mention of Hormah. A possible interpretation of this Numbers 21 story is that it is a continuation, explaining what happened after the Hebrews (whether the initial group or the larger group following) arrived at Hormah and retaliated.

Enter the serpents

From Mount Hor, the Hebrews set out to go around Edom (having been denied through-passage in Numbers 20). On the way, however, the people start griping again about the lack of variety in their diet. As punishment, God sends “fiery serpents” (v.6) among them, the poison killing everyone bitten.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent, by Sébastien Bourdon, 1653-1654

Moses and the Brazen Serpent, by Sébastien Bourdon, 1653-1654

Moses prays on behalf of the people and God, once again, relents. However, while sending miracles that kill masses of people is easy-peasy for God, removing them seems to be a bit on the “rock so heavy even God cannot lift it” side of things, so he needs Moses to perform some magic.

To pull this one off, Moses must build an idol – specifically, a bronze serpent set on a pole. Anyone who has been bitten and sees the idol will survive.

I think that this is a similar situation to the Golden Calf story. Indeed, we’ll see in 2 Kings 18:4 that this idol – later called Nehushtan – was considered in violation of the cultic prohibitions and was destroyed.

According to J.R. Porter:

This is the origin of the bronze serpent that stood in the Temple of Jerusalem. It was originally a symbol of Canaanite religion, but is here attributed to Moses, although its original significance as part of a cult involving serpent worship has been neutralized. (The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p.61)

The symbolism of the serpent as a sign of healing was not at all uncommon in the Near East. The Rod of Asclepius is probably the one most people are familiar with (even if they don’t know the name), though there are plenty of other examples.

I think it’s probable that this symbol was in circulation and somehow got included in Hebrew cultic iconography. At some point, the icon was associated with Moses, and this story made it into Numbers. At some later point, there was an iconoclast crackdown and the idol was destroyed.

It seems to me that the bronze serpent is quite clearly a violation of the Exodus 20:4 prohibition of idolatry. Even if the idol is commissioned by God, it’s still an idol (and, one might argue, all idols are commissioned by a god or gods).

Brant Clemens of Both Saint and Cynic explains that “idolatry has been defined as the sin of mistaking the good for the best.” To extrapolate, the idol – at the time of its creation – is seen as merely an earthly tool for God’s use, not a conduit or representation of God himself. Once this changed and people started worshipping the idol, it was destroyed.

Interesting side-note, Brant also mentioned that “the snake on the pole is used in Christian art (and preaching, I’m sure) as a figure of Christ on the cross.” This was totally new to me but, when I was searching for images to use for this post, I had no trouble finding examples of it.

Numbers 21 - Serpent Christ

Journey to Moab

We haven’t had a proper son in quite a while, and someone apparently realized that they weren’t meeting quota. Through the rest of this chapter, we get three of them, all up next to each other like it’s perfectly normal to stuff all the songs in one place or something.

A long section of the chapter simply lists the pit-stops taken by the travellers:

  1. Oboth
  2. Iye Abarim, west of Moab
  3. The Zered Valley
  4. Alongside the Arnon, which is the border between Moab and the Amorites
  5. Quite interlude to quote a poem from the lost Book of the Wars of the Lord
  6. Beer, which means “well,” where the people break into song about how awesome wells are
  7. The wilderness of Mattanah
  8. Nahaliel
  9. Bamoth
  10. The valley in Moab where the top of Pisgah overlooks the wasteland

Defeat of Sihon and Og

In a near-identical passage to their request of the king of Edom in Numbers 20, the Hebrews ask Sihon, king of the Amorites, for permission to pass through his territories.

Once again, they are refused. This time, however, the refusal apparently comes with a rather brutal and – if the text is to be taken at face value – totally uncalled for attack.

Sihon and his army find the Hebrews at Jahaz, where the Hebrews retaliate and conquer his lands “from the Arnon to the Jabbok” (v.24). But they are stopped at the Ammonite border because they have hard, protective shells.

Then we get our third, and final, song of the chapter, which goes on about how woe’d and destroyed the enemies of the Hebrews are, and how the Israelites have settled in the lands that they formerly owned.

After their victory, Moses sends spies to Jazer and the Israelites drive out the Amorite residents. They then head up toward Bashan and fight against the army of King Og at the battle of Edrei, which the Hebrews win.