THE SHADOW OF BLOOMING GROVE
Francis Russell wrote a book about Warren G. Harding, titled The Shadow of Blooming Grove. It’s a biography of a man considered one of our worst presidents, who came from Blooming Grove, Ohio. Russell must have thought all his toil on this dreary subject was worthwhile, because of the power of a bad example. A reviewer of his book described President Harding like this: "The man who emerges from these pages is at best a hapless, well-meaning back-slapper who miraculously rose to the nation’s highest office and found himself in over his head."
In these politically polarized United States, people on each side seem to take turns fearing that a new President might ruin their lives by being in over his head. But we meet a politician in Judges 9 who is an even more extreme example of a bad leader than Warren G.Harding. If I was writing a chapter heading for Judges 9, I’d take inspiration from Russell and call it “The Shadow of Shechem.”
Judges tells the story of a repeated cycle: Israel goes after other gods, the Lord responds by opening the door for their enemies to oppress them; the people call out to God for deliverance; God raises up a judge to deliver them; the land has rest; the people go after other gods, and the vicious circle goes around again. But although each cycle turns in a familiar pattern, they all seem to lead to ever lower and deeper levels of spiritual decline. You may think the most lurid story in Judges only comes at the end of the book, but Judges 9 offers its own unique low point, and you could argue that it doesn’t get much worse than this. It is the story of darkness covering the land, a time when evil gains strength, a time when you see painful things that would be hard to forget, that become the stuff of nightmares. But the word of God exposes us to this kind of horror story because we need to hear it. We’re vulnerable to the promises of people who say they can make life much better if we’ll only follow them. We forget that God is the ultimate King and the only one worthy of our trust.
We’re vulnerable to the promises of people who say they can make life much better if we’ll only follow them. We forget that God is the ultimate King and the only one worthy of our trust.
An introduction to the story of Abimelech sets up the spiritual environment as background to the story:
As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith their god. And the people of Israel did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hand of all their enemies on every side, and they did not show steadfast love to the family of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in return for all the good that he had done to Israel (Judges 8:33-35).
We see that pattern described inJudges time and again and we tend to think it’s just business as usual. But we should react with horror. To turn from the true God to idols is described in Judges, and eloquently described by the prophets, as whoredom. It is a wicked, evil thing that is destructive of marriage, of children, even of a whole community.
In addition to his 70 legitimate sons, Gideon had one more through a concubine in Shechem. He named him Abimelech, or, “My father is king.” This betrays an ambition to be king that Gideon seemed to resist, but it may have been a dormant lust passed on to his illegitimate child. That son, Abimelech, was clearly a man of action. He was aggressive, and he had a keen political instinct. You see Abimelech playing what we have come to call identity politics. He is from Shechem; he goes to Shechem and tells them that he is one of them and therefore they ought to rally around him rather than someone who is of a different heritage. So, identity politics is nothing new. You might say he played the tribal card. And he also played the insecurity card—tapping into people’s fears that things are out of control and may get worse unless the right leader reins things in. Abimelech was a master at playing the tribal card and the insecurity card to gain power.
CRACKING A FEW EGGS
During Josef Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union, the New York Times had a columnist there who became an apologist for the regime, Walter Durant. He justified the mass murders of Stalin with this proverb: “If you’re going to make an omelet, you’ll have to break a few eggs.” The eggs stood for human skulls; the omelet represented the utopia the party would create by their superior policy-making ability. Abimelech began by breaking a few eggs:
And his mother’s relatives spoke all these words on his behalf in the ears of all the leaders of Shechem, and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, “He is our brother.” And they gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the house of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him. And he went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone. But Jotham the youngest son of Jerubaal was left, for he hid himself. And all the leaders of Shechem came together, all Beth-millo, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar at Shechem. (Judges 9:3-6)
Abimelech begins to reign, with a cruel and ruthless strategy. It was aligned with false worship. The house of Baal-berith had quite a stockpile of offerings; the money could finance some hitmen. Abimelech recruited “worthless and reckless fellows” and then started cracking eggs: The 70 legitimate sons of Gideon, minus the youngest, Jotham, who escaped, were killed. Killing your 70 half-brothers is an unthinkable act. If you paraded them all together and shot them by a big firing squad, the deed would be over in seconds. Or, in keeping with the weapons available at the time of the Judges, if you had a soldier for each brother; they were lined up one for each of the sons of Gideon; and at the word of Abimelech each would thrust his sword into the heart of one of the brothers; that too could be over in just a few seconds. But if you kill them on one stone, you’re going to have to do it one by one. This takes a strong stomach! Imagine how long it would go on! Think about how powerful the feeling would grow that this is an outrageous, cruel and evil act. Would anybody cry out, “Stop this!” Nobody stopped it while one by one 69 men were killed!
We know that murder, especially brutal murder that is hard to watch, helps a tyrant hold on to power. When someone murders in that way, others fear him. You might wonder why a few people surrounding the tyrant don’t get together to get rid of him. They could easily conspire against the leader; after all, he’s only one person. But they’re all so terrified of him that no one would dare attempt it. As Michael Corleone kills all the heads of the rival mob families at the end of The Godfather (Part One). Anyone who can arrange multiple murders like that is to be feared. And Al Capone stood up in one of his business meetings, walked around the large oval table where his henchmen were seated, took a baseball bat and beat in the head of one of them who offended him. This is the kind of king that Abimelech, son of Gideon was: He keeps everybody in line by fear.
GOD'S TRUMPET BLAST
There are times when great evil goes unpunished in this world. God seems to step back and let it run its course. We know that God will eventually bring into judgment all who do evil; but usually that reckoning awaits the great day of judgment. This is not that kind of situation. God intervenes very directly in two ways, one very public and open, one subtle and behind the scenes. The open intervention is through preaching; the preacher is the one son of Gideon who escaped, named Jotham. Jotham ascends a wonderful pulpit: Mount Gerizim. The mountain was where the blessings were pronounced in the book of Joshua, as Leon Morris describes it: "Voices can carry along way in the atmosphere of the Near East and Gerizim itself was used as an open-air pulpit in the great religious ceremony of Joshua 8:30-35, which itself was a fulfillment of the provisions of Deuteronomy 27."
Someone standing on that prominent point could be heard clearly for miles in the valley below. That Jotham stood on that mountain and lifted up his voice is an indication that a great public sermon was being given. God blows a trumpet blast of truth at the evil Abimelech and those who put him in office.
In his sermon, Jotham told a fable. We can call it the fable of the trees. The trees wanted someone to rule over them. They wanted a king, just like the men of Israel wanted a king. That king should be like those of the nations, not like the king described in Deuteronomy 17—a king who will above all else fear God. Their king will reign over the trees.
The trees first try to recruit a king from the olive trees. The olive tree responds: “I’m doing great work already by producing olives. Why would I want to leave that good and noble work to “hold sway” over the trees? Notice the phrase, “hold sway.” That’s what being a king means in the fable. It doesn’t mean shepherding the trees according to the Word of God, ruling under God and carrying out the will of God. So, the trees turn their recruiting efforts to the fig tree and then the grapevine to reign over them. The fig tree and the grape vine answer as the olive tree: I am already doing good work; my calling is noble; I enrich others and am a blessing to God who made me; why would I want to go hold sway over the trees?
Finally, the trees, as a last resort, go to the least productive of all the plants, the bramble. The bramble doesn’t have anything of fruit or leaf to support other living things; the bramble is a waste of a weed. But the bramble salivates at the idea of holding sway over others. The bramble jumps at the idea of becoming king and shows right away it knows how to talk like a politician: “If you really mean it when you invite me to be king, then let me do it and you can take shelter under my shade.” The bramble’s words are rubbish; the type of butchery of the truth that we see ad nauseum throughout each election season. The bramble has no shade to offer, but says it does because that’s what people want to hear! Who cares if it is true or false, so long as it’s a tool to get to the place of power where you “hold sway.”
A fable has a moral message. The fig tree, the olive tree, and the grape vine knew they did good work right where they were. They weren’t about to push themselves forward into the kingship. They saw that as a step down. Why? Because the type of throne that was in view was merely exercising power to feed the ego of the ruler. These fruitful plants were content. They weren’t dreaming of a future time when they’d leave behind their current, second-class life for something really significant. The fable warns us about the kind of person who is eager to take power over others.
The bramble has no shade to offer, but says it does because that’s what people want to hear!
The fable also makes us ask if we look to political leaders to bail us out of our situation by bringing in better conditions. Do we think that a certain party or approach to governing will be the thing that will finally make life good? Do we put our hopes for this world in the promises of politicians? Do we put too much faith in politicians? One of the ways we might be able to tell if we’re taking the promises of politicians too seriously is if the side we voted against wins, we feel like our world has collapsed.
Jotham concludes his sermon. He calls on the men of Shechem to ask whether they’ve acted in good faith in joining in the slaughter of Gideon’s sons and the setting up of Abimelech as king. If they did that in good faith, then let them rejoice in Abimelech! Jotham’s words are dripping with irony! How could anyone participate in such a slaughter in good faith! Of course they didn’t remember all the good Gideon had done for them! And how could anybody rejoice in Abimelech, who should be compared to a useless bramble? No, there is only one outcome possible: Fire. Jotham’s prophetic curse is that there will be a two-fold conflagration: (i) Fire will flame out from the men of Shechem to burn up Abimelech, and (ii) fire from Abimelech will flame out and burn up the men of Shechem.
GOD USES AN EVIL SPIRIT
Jotham’s sermon was the open and public intervention of God. Verse 22 tells us of a secret, hidden intervention: “God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem” (v. 22). This is the second way God intervened in this dark time. God sent an evil spirit, whether an actual personal demon or an influence in the mind and heart, it doesn’t really matter. God is able to drive a wedge between people and stir up strife. This is a judgment: God is thwarting Abimelech’s reign of terror. He is actually making some of the men of Shechem brave enough to oppose Abimelech. God is doing this to bring Jotham’s curse down on their heads.
In verse 25 we read that the men of Shechem get the idea to ambush traders crossing their region and collect the pay-off money for themselves instead of sending it to Abimelech. Then in verse 26 the conspiracy grows when a man named Gaal, the son of Ebed, moves into Shechem and does some politicking of his own. He outplays Abimelech with the tribal card.
Gaal the son of Ebed said, “Who is Abimelech, and who are we of Shechem, that we should serve him? Is he not the son of Jerubbaal, and is not Zebul his officer? Serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem; but why should we serve him? Would that this people were under my hand! Then I would remove Abimelech. I would say to Abimelech, ‘Increase your army, and come out.’”
A revolt is now underway. Abimelech hears about it from Zebul and decides to attack the rebels before they attack him. Abimelech’s aggression helps him hold on to power. He defeats the troops of Shechem. Then the civilians of Shechem come out of hiding to look around at the aftermath of the battle. Abimelech attacks them. Other innocent people take refuge in a tower and Abimelech pursues them and sets the tower on fire. 1,000 Shechemites, men and women, perish by fire in the tower of Shechem. The curse of Jotham comes true. Fire ignites out of this corrupt reign of terror and consumes the Shechemites.
Jotham’s fable was a two-edged sword. Fire would devour the men of Shechem, and fire would devour Abimelech. The chapter ends with Abimelech’s murderous rampage turning toward another group of survivors: The people of Thebez. Again, the people took refuge in a tower. Again, Abimelech prepared to set it on fire. But this time, a woman positioned high in the tower takes a millstone and throws it down. Leon Morris thinks “it was probably the upper millstone, which was normally about two or three inches thick and eighteen inches in diameter with a hole in the center.” The upper millstone was probably like the heavy disk weights that go on barbells. God the providential ruler of all things was there; making sure the millstone struck Abimelech’s head. We must attribute this direct hit to God and not to the aim of the woman in the tower. There is a striking theological reflection as the story ends in verses 56 and 57:
Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech, which he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers. And God also made all the evil of the men of Shechem return on their heads, and upon them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.
God will not leave evil unpunished.The arrogance of Abimelech, the narcissistic pursuit of his own power, the cruelty, the violence, the disregard for the truth, the treachery, the unspeakable barbarism of murdering his seventy brothers one by one, on a single stone, the horrific burning to death of 1,000 people in the tower of Shechem and the attempt at another conflagration of those seeking shelter in the tower in Thebez; God paid it back with exquisite justice. Seventy murders on one stone resulted in a stone crushing Abimelech’s head. And Abimelech’s ambitious hurry to take royal power in Israel, where the king must not be like those of the surrounding nations but must above all fear God and live by God’s Word, is judged.
THE TRUE KING
Abimelech shows three disqualifications for leadership: (i) Ambition that drives him to lust for a position of authority; (ii) craftiness that understands what people want to hear and knows how to say it; (iii) ruthlessness that uses fear to cause people to submit.
The history of Israel under Abimelech is a dark chapter that teaches the people of God what a king should not be; it is a powerful bad example that turns the stomach away from evil and causes the heart to ache for something entirely different. Jesus Christ came as the true king.
Jesus was uniquely called by God; a call to the ministry unlike anything in the history of the world. He was sent by God. After the single most memorized sentence in Scripture is this statement on his unique calling: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). Again, take in these words from John 5:
I seek not my will but the will of he who sent me . . . For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.
Jesus did not gain a following by the craftiness of politics. His enemies went up to Jesus, trying to trap him in his words, and unwittingly gave one of the greatest testimonies to who he was: “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances” (Matt. 22:16). He taught the word of God as nobody had ever done. The people heard him gladly, because he spoke with authority and not as their scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus did not gain a following by the craftiness of politics.
He earned the right to rule by passing through fierce temptation, withstanding the assaults of the devil that tempted him to seize power by an easier way than the cross. Jesus did not exert power over people by making them cringe with fear. Rather, he had compassion on the broken and the outcast. He received sinners. And Jesus did not earn the right to the throne by conquest. He knew the millstone would drop on him. He willingly submitted to the torture of the cross, unlike Abimelech who resisted the judgment of God to the bitter end, foolishly thinking he was escaping dishonor by having his armor bearer run him through rather than the blow of the millstone that God directed through the hands of a woman.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN
What can the dark days of Abimelech teach the church about involvement in the public square?
First and foremost is to put our trust in Christ to save us, not politicians or political parties or legislative agenda. We should be resistant to the promises from a political campaign that all our problems can be solved if we vote a certain way.
In the light of Jotham’s preaching on Mount Gerizim, we should evaluate the current trend to keep politics out of the pulpit. God wanted a banner raised against corruption and evil and he wanted it raised boldly and publicly. We are witnessing an ever-enlarging fence around the law that the Church should not be partisan. That basic rule serves us well if it means neutrality toward any political party. But the fence around the law—the distance required to avoid even a hint of partisanship—is blunting the declarative role of the Church. My own church tradition, reflecting a broad consensus of the Reformation, defines this essential role: “Bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in practice, within or without the Church.” The Church has a role to declare the will of God regarding the issues debated in the public square.
A modest proposal from Abimelech’s sad history is that preachers at a minimum declare the following:
(1) Condemn identity politics as unworthy of the truth that all people are made in the image of God. No one group should be singled out for special favor or condemnation or entitled to support because of some element of common identity.
(2) Call out any use of fear and intimidation by the government. Sadly, you don’t have to look very hard to find current examples. As the church prays for governing authorities, we should pray that specific acts of tyranny will be exposed.
(3) Learn from the fable of the trees to be skeptical of the promises of career politicians. Instead, support limited periods of political service by citizens who have proven their worth in some useful endeavor.
(4) Urge Christians to serve the community by running for local office. This is not to “hold sway” over others, but to serve with the wisdom God has given them by doing their own useful work.
The history of Abimelech draws us to Christ and away from human pretenders to God’s throne. The church should be a place where people are taught and reminded not to trust in man, in whom there is no salvation, and to warn people that chasing after promises of utopia has always led to oppression and misery.