Summary: The faith-response to corrupt leadership
“Anti-judge Abimelech” Judges Chapter 9
Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
Politics is often a quest for power, and power can corrupt. We all know of individuals who’ve been seduced by power and do whatever it takes to get to the top. It’s been said that politicians are only concerned about the next election, whereas statesmen are concerned about the welfare of the next generation.
Abilelech was one of Gideon’s 70 sons, from a harem of wives and concubines. He was not a judge appointed by God, and he did not deliver Israel from invaders as did previous leaders. Abimelech was an opportunist who usurped power through violence and treachery. He is the “anti-judge”. Nowhere does he even acknowledge God as Lord of Israel. The Jews had been fighting external enemies; now they’re burdened from internal corruption, far more insidious than invading armies.
We hear of sibling rivalry from the beginning of time—Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers—and now Abilelech against his 70 siblings. He convinced the people of Shechem, his hometown, to crown him king. He promised to look out for their best interests when he consolidates power; what we call “political favors”. The Shechemites certainly knew this local son, but they did not know God. Their religion had devolved into a hybrid-fusion of theism and idolatry, the Jewish Law coupled with pagan practice. They worshipped baal-berith, “the baal of the covenant”. The outcome of allowing the ungodly to assume public office is aptly described by William Penn: “If we are not willing to be governed by God, we shall be ruled by tyrants.”
Abimelech’s claim to the throne was on the basis of being a son of Gideon, who had been offered kingship. The motive for his ambition was not to serve his people, but to gain power. As a son of Gideon, his name meant “my father is king”, and Abimelech felt he might take the throne his father declined. But there were many other potential contenders. With ruthless efficiency, Abimelech rounded up his 70 brothers, and had them brutally and publicly executed. He was inspired by his father to lead Israel, yet revealed hatred toward his father by murdering his brethren. His atrocity went far beyond what we might categorize as “dirty politics”.
Of the 70 brothers, Jotham alone escaped, and he addressed the people of Shechem safe atop Mount Gerizim. He denounced Abimelech with a fable and a curse. Jotham’s name means, “God is blameless, honest, and filled with integrity”; the very antithesis of Abilelech, who rejected all that is holy.
Jotham’s fable is about 3 valuable trees, native to Israel, which are offered kingship but refuse—however, the thornbush accepts with a provision, vs 15: “If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade.” That would be quite impossible—there is no shade, comfort or protection from a thornbush, which is Abimelech. Jotham drove home the point of his fable with a curse, vs 20—fire will come from Abimelech, who will also be consumed. It was folly for the people to make such a wicked man their king—they would reap consequences and suffer ruin under his rule.
Why did the people let this happen? God’s people had become Canaanite in their character; rather than stand for God, they broke their covenant and adjusted to the values of the godless culture. We have to guard against being shaped by our culture, especially when leaders do not model godly behavior.
Do Abimelechs continue to reign today? Throughout history we have had to contend with the “sons of Abilelech”. One example from the 20th Century is Adolph Hitler. Like Abimelech, he hated his father and rose to political power by eliminating opponents and by making deals with power structures. Only after he attained control did the people gradually realize how evil he was. He brought devastation to his country and died an ignoble death. Hitler is only one of many graduates of the “Abimelech School of Leadership”. When leaders serve self and reject good, it feels like evil is in control and God is absent. We wonder if and when we will be delivered, and how we will ever recover. We may even wonder why God seems to be doing nothing. In such times we cannot lose hope. God is still sovereign over human events which move according to His pre-determined outcome and timetable.
In the days preceding the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin declared, “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” God raised up opposition to Abimelech, and He can use human means to oppose all leaders who refuse to live for Him. In Jotham’s prophetic fable, he stated that fire will come from the thornbush and consume the people—when the people of Shechem finally had enough of Abimelech and rebelled against him, he and his forces took branches and set fire to the walls of the city temple, and a thousand men and women perished in the flames.