What does Judges 9:22 mean?
ESV: Abimelech ruled over Israel three years.
NIV: After Abimelek had governed Israel three years,
NASB: Now Abimelech ruled over Israel for three years.
CSB: When Abimelech had ruled over Israel three years,
NLT: After Abimelech had ruled over Israel for three years,
KJV: When Abimelech had reigned three years over Israel,
Verse Commentary:
Abimelech came to power by murdering his brothers (Judges 9:1–6). The only survivor of that massacre predicted Abimelech and the people of Shechem would mutually destroy each other (Judges 9:19–20). Abimelech's name means "the king is my father," and his superficial claim is that he's a son of Gideon (Judges 8:30–31).

However, Gideon was never a "king" over Israel (Judges 8:22–23). The text here, as well, does not describe Abimelech in kingly terms. The Hebrew word here is suwr, often translated "ruled," which leans more towards "commanding." In contrast, the Bible uses different words for kings and those who legitimately reign. The Bible does not indicate Abimelech was actually "king of Israel," but that for a time he held sway. He was made king over a group of people, at their request, but that did not make him a real king of Israel.

Even that statement is somewhat surprising. Abimelech was crowned king of the mostly Canaanite city of Shechem. Most commentators suggest Abimelech's literal control only extended to the area surrounding Shechem. Because he was the sole survivor of Gideon's line—other than Jotham, in exile (Judges 9:21)—his influence likely extended to all of Israel, but in name only.

The statement also reveals that Abimelech's power was limited to just a few years. This is not surprising. Abimelech rose to power solely thanks to murderous ambition and the money of Shechem's leaders. His time in power will be destructive and lead inevitably to ruin.
Verse Context:
Judges 9:22–57 describes the brutal fulfillment of Jotham's curse against his brother, Abimelech, and the leaders of the city of Shechem. God allows the two sides to be split by an evil spirit. First, Shechem's leaders attempt to kill Abimelech. Then they plot with a man named Gaal to overthrow him. Helped by his officer in the city, Abimelech and his men ambush Gaal and Shechem. They kill all the people and destroy the city. They then move on to the town of Thebez to do the same, but Abimelech is killed. Jotham's prediction of divine vengeance (Judges 9:19–20) comes true.
Chapter Summary:
Shechem's leaders conspire with a concubine's son to kill Gideon's other seventy sons. They make this man, Abimelech, their ruler. Gideon's youngest son survives, however, and delivers a curse. Using a fable, he says Abimelech and Shechem's leaders will destroy each other. God causes a division between Shechem's leaders and Abimelech. The noblemen attempt to kill Abimelech and unite behind a new leader. Abimelech discovers the plot and kills everyone in Shechem, destroying the city. When attacking a tower in a nearby town, however, Abimelech's skull is crushed by a thrown millstone. The curse is fulfilled.
Chapter Context:
Gideon successfully defeated Midianite raiders but declined to become Israel's official king. His sons, however, were held in high esteem during his remaining years (Judges 8). After Gideon's death, ambitious men conspire to kill almost all those heirs. This results in a series of bloody events. Eventually, judgment comes on those responsible. Israel fails to learn from the tragedies. Chapter 10 explains further idolatry and sin, before introducing the next major judge, Jephthah, in chapter 11.
Book Summary:
The Book of Judges describes Israel's history from the death of Joshua to shortly before Israel's first king, Saul. Israel fails to complete God's command to purge the wicked Canaanites from the land (Deuteronomy 7:1–5; 9:4). This results in a centuries-long cycle where Israel falls into sin and is oppressed by local enemies. After each oppression, God sends a civil-military leader, labeled using a Hebrew word loosely translated into English as "judge." These appointed rescuers would free Israel from enemy control and govern for a certain time. After each judge's death, the cycle of sin and oppression begins again. This continues until the people of Israel choose a king, during the ministry of the prophet-and-judge Samuel (1 Samuel 1—7).
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