Saturday, May 17, 2008

Divine "Punishments" for Ruffian Kings: Judges 9

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

This story is bizarre and, I think, represents yet another stage in the decline of Israeli military society.

Gideon, who takes the new name Jerub-Baal to symbolize his defiant opposition to Baal, has a pile of sons, a bunch of whom live in Shechem. As soon as I read that sentence at the beginning of chapter 9, I knew there would be trouble, because Shechem last featured way back in Genesis when the sons of Israel, upset that the local prince's son was dating their sister, dishonoured their covenant with God by demanding the men of the town be circumcised, then rushing in and killing them all as they recovered and were "weakened" from the impromptu surgery.

This time, Gideon's son Abimelech arrives in Shechem. Abimelech is the son of one of Gideon's mistresses, not one of his wives, so he walks into Shechem and tells the people they would prefer the single rule of a single son of Gideon - in other words, him - rather than all 70 of the legitimate ones. Some of the people agree and give him 70 shekels of silver - the original 30 pieces of silver - drawn from Baal's temple treasury, and he uses the money to hire some bandits which the Bible charitably calls "reckless adventurers" (ha!). His crew attempts to murder all the other Gideonites, but one escapes: young son Jotham. Jotham conducts a public protest: he climbs up onto a hill and shouts to his fellow citizens, telling them a strange parable about trees and bushes, the upshot of which is that the people should rise up and get rid of Abimelech because he is evil. Having made his announcement, Jotham flees for his life.

Abimelech reigns as king for several years, then God "sends an evil spirit" to cause dissension in the land. (How literalists interest this strange phrasing I'm very curious to know.) Amidst the turmoil, a new challenger arrives, seemingly out of nowhere: Gaal son of Ebed (sounds very heroic). Gaal foments rebellion against Abimelech and his men take over Shechem while Abimelech is away. However, Abimelech, apparently an easily superior tactician, arrives with four companies of soldiers armed for a night raid, and after much bloody fighting, Gaal's group is driven away. The next day, the Shechemites go out to work in the fields, and while they're away, Abimelech takes some of his men and kills them.

Next, Abimelech besieges the temple of El-Berith, where the citizens have taken sanctuary. He and his men cut branches from trees, pile them up around the temple, and fire it, killing the thousand or so people hiding inside.

Abimelech moves on to besiege another rebellious town, Thebez, and he apparently intends to perform the same sort of massacre, but just as he's walking up to the tower to survey routes of access, a woman drops a rock on his head. Mortally wounded, he asks his servant to kill him so that at least he won't be killed by a woman. Once his army sees that he's fallen, they lift the siege and go home.

After this strangley disjointed story, the author of Judges concluded that this was how "God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. God also made the men of Shechem pay for all their wickedness." This is a rather strange conclusion. A long series of seemingly chance events occur, and because most of the people involved are dead by the end, the natural conclusion is that God must have "punished" everyone?

I'll try and follow the twisted logic. Abimelech must be "punished" by God because usurps the power of the real brothers. The people must be "punished" for siding with him. Gaal must be "punished" for worshipping pagans. So, God "punishes" Gaal by having Abimelech kill him. Then God "punishes" the Shechemites by having Abimelech kill him. And finally, God completes the circle by "punishing" Abimelech, killing him.

Abimelech's death confirms my earlier suspicions about the story of Deborah not being particularly empowering. Being attacked by a woman is morally and socially disgraceful in Israel. Thus Abimelech is so shamed by being struck by a woman that he begs his aide to euthanize him so that, at the very least, he will have been killed by a man.

Most of Judges - and most remarks about Judges - seems to be focused on the evils of an anarchic society. But one could just as easily look at it another way: kings aren't very productive or useful either. Abimelech is the first of the kings in Judges - "king" apparently being a different title than "judge" - although even the "judges" weren't necessarily sound. Look at Gideon, for example. Pretty much everything in the Israelite society of Judges is evil and corrupted - and that which isn't, inevitably becomes so within a generation.