What does Judges chapter 9 mean?Abimelech was not like Gideon's other seventy sons, born to his many wives as he ruled over Israel as judge (Judges 8:29–30). Abimelech was born to Gideon's concubine in the city of Shechem (Judges 8:31). He craved to inherit his father's position of authority over Israel. Unfortunately, as a concubine's child, any of his brothers had a more legitimate claim to Gideon's legacy.
Abimelech devises a way to overcome this obstacle. He convinces his mother's family in Shechem to plead with the leaders of that city. Their position is that it would be better to answer to him than be obedient to all of Gideon's other sons. The leaders agree. They give Abimelech money to carry out his plot, agreeing that he will become their ruler when he does so. Abimelech uses the money to hire rough, immoral men. These paid goons help him slaughter his brothers. Only the youngest, Jotham, escapes by hiding (Judges 9:1–6).
The leaders of Shechem and the people of the region gather at the official town pillar to make Abimelech their king. Jotham, survivor of Abimelech's massacre, learns of the coronation and interrupts it by calling down to those assembled from the top of Mount Gerizim. From this vantage point, he can be heard without being immediately captured (Judges 9:7).
Jotham delivers a fable that turns into a prophetic curse on both Abimelech and the leaders of the city. In this story, the trees look for a king. This offer is rejected by the olive tree, the fig tree, and the grapevine. All of these are valuable, productive plants—they have no need or desire to seek power over others. So, the trees settle for something inferior: the bramble. This refers to a thin, thorny shrub. At the time, these were a nuisance at best and a fire hazard at worst. The bramble agrees to rule, but only if the other trees genuinely want it as king. If they are being insincere, fire will come out and devour the trees (Judges 9:8–15).
This parable points out that Abimelech is worthless and dangerous. He's only power-hungry because he has nothing else to offer. The story also sets up a prophetic curse. Jotham concludes by saying that Shechem's leaders did not act in good faith toward Gideon. Nor are they choosing Abimelech for his merits. Since they are acting in bad faith, Abimelech and Shechem's leaders will devour each other with fire (Judges 9:16–21).
Abimelech becomes king over Shechem, but the Bible doesn't say he was Israel's "king." Rather, the terminology used here simply indicates he had power, or rule, or influence. His command over Shechem only lasts three years. God sends an evil spirit between Abimelech and Shechem's leaders. This might refer to a literal demon. However, the same phrasing is also used to imply disagreement and anger. Whether by a supernatural instigator, or simple rivalry, God will work to hold both sides accountable for the murder of Gideon's sons. This begins with Shechem's leaders hiring men to ambush Abimelech. This might imply an assassination attempt, but it more likely means a disruption of local trade (Judges 9:22–25).
When that fails, Shechem's noblemen put their confidence in a man named Gaal. This man's name carries ironic symbolism. Abimelech's name means "the king is my father," but Jotham made a point of saying Abimelech was the son of a concubine servant (Judges 9:18). The name Ga'al ben Ebed literally means "loathing the son of the servant." This is the puppet Shechem's leaders choose. In what is likely alcohol-induced arrogance, Gaal swears he would remove Abimelech from the throne by force if he were in charge (Judges 9:26–29).
Zebul is Abimelech's officer in Shechem. He remains loyal and sends messengers to warn Abimelech of the plot. Zebul's suggestion is to ambush the city by hiding in the fields outside the gate overnight. Shechem's eastern gate faces the rising sun, and a field surrounded by hills. In the morning, Zebul maneuvers Gaal to be at the gate. When the attack comes, Gaal struggles to recognize the approaching enemy thanks to the long shadows. Using this surprise, Abimelech and his men attack the city and chase Gaal and the plotters away (Judges 9:30–41).
Abimelech is not content with this outcome. The next day, he and his men kill all the people of the city who come out to work in the fields. Next, they attack the city and slaughter everyone in the lower parts of the town. Then, in an act of brutal cruelty, they burn the stronghold of Shechem with the remaining survivors inside (Judges 9:42–49).
For reasons not made clear, Abimelech and his fighters then move on the town of Thebez. Once again, they trap the city's population in their stronghold. This time, however, the stronghold is a tall tower. When Abimelech foolishly gets too close, a woman drops an upper millstone on him. These were wheel-shaped rocks weighing around 25 pounds, or 11 kilograms. The impact crushes Abimelech's skull. He commands his armor-bearer to quickly kill him so that it can't be said he was killed by a woman. This is futile since future generations will recall exactly how and why Abimelech died (2 Samuel 11:21). Abimelech's followers show no passion for their mission: as soon as he is dead, they immediately stop fighting and go home (Judges 9:50–55).
With the death of Abimelech and the destruction of Shechem and its leaders, God fulfills the curse of Jotham. This brings a measure of justice to the sad ending of Gideon's story (Judges 9:56–57).