Who do you think of as the first king in Israel? Saul? It’s probably not Abimelech.
Abimelech was one of Gideon’s sons. His mother was one of Gideon’s slaves (or servants). His people, through his mother, were in Shechem. It was Shechem that chose Abimelech as their king.
Shechem was an important city. It controlled access to the pass across the hill country (we could call it a highway), and it overlooked the rich pasturelands of the Mediggo valley.
It was also an important cultural centre:
- Abraham built an altar there when God promised him all the land he could see (Genesis 12:6-7)
- Jacob settled there after leaving Laban, and built another altar (Genesis 33:18-20) (It was also Shechem, the prince of that town, who raped Jacob’s daughter, Dinah). He later buried all the family’s idols and earings there, before moving on to Bethel (Genesis 35:1-5)
- It was a city of refuge, and reserved for the Kohathites (a Levite group) (Joshua 21:20-21)
- Joshua confirmed the covenant with the Israelites and erected a huge stone as a memorial there (Joshua 24:25-28)
- Joseph’s bones were buried there (Joshua 24:32).
Shechem’s strategic importance continued: Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) gathered with Israel there to be made king (1 Kings 12:1); it became Jeroboam’s capital city when the northern tribes revolted (1 Kings 12:25).
Abimelech almost certainly knew what he was doing in asking the people of Shechem to support him over the rest of Gideon’s sons.
In choosing their own king, this important city was rejecting the family of the man God had chosen to rescue them from the Midianites. As a city of refuge, Shechem should have wanted no part in Abimelech’s plot.
In chosing a king, Shechem also rejected God as king. God explained the problem to Samuel years later, when all of Israel asked for a king:
1 Samuel 8:7-9 … for they are rejecting me, not you. They don’t want me to be their king any longer. Ever since I brought them from Egypt they have continually abandoned me and followed other gods. And now they are giving you the same treatment. Do as they ask, but solemnly warn them about the way a king will reign over them.
Jotham, the sole surviving son of Gideon, made a similar point. Had the people of Shechem done the right thing in electing Abimelech for a king? He shouted out a curse from a cliff overlooking the city:
Judges 9:18-20 But today you have revolted against my father and his descendants, killing his seventy sons on one stone. … If you have acted honorably and in good faith toward Gideon and his descendants today, then may you find joy in Abimelech, and may he find joy in you. But if you have not acted in good faith, then may fire come out from Abimelech and devour the leading citizens of Shechem and Beth-millo; and may fire come out from the citizens of Shechem and Beth-millo and devour Abimelech!
After three years, the people of Shechem rebelled and started a war with Abimelech. the result was that, like a Shakespearean play, everyone died.
After the first battle:
Judges 9:45 He killed the people [of Shechem], leveled the city, and scattered salt all over the ground.
He then moved on to Baal-berith, where he slaughtered the survivors from Shechem. Abimelech and his army:
Judges 9:49 They piled the branches against the walls of the temple and set them on fire. So all the people who had lived in the tower of Shechem died—about 1,000 men and women.
Not knowing when to stop, Abimelech then moved against Thebez, where he was killed by a woman:
Judges 9:51-53 But there was a strong tower inside the town, and all the men and women—the entire population—fled to it. They barricaded themselves in and climbed up to the roof of the tower. Abimelech followed them to attack the tower. But as he prepared to set fire to the entrance, a woman on the roof dropped a millstone that landed on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull.
Well, not quite. Abimelech’s head injury was almost certainly fatal, but rather than suffer the ignominy of being killed by a woman, he had his armour bearer run him through with the sword.
Again, there’s a parallel with Saul (although his armour bearer was less inclined to kill his king):
1 Samuel 31:3-4 The fighting grew very fierce around Saul, and the Philistine archers caught up with him and wounded him severely. Saul groaned to his armor bearer, ‘Take your sword and kill me before these pagan Philistines come to run me through and taunt and torture me.’ But his armor bearer was afraid and would not do it. So Saul took his own sword and fell on it.
An Amalekite took the credit for finishing off Saul in the end, and he was executed by David for killing he Lord’s anointed one (2 Samuel 1:14).
Abimelech’s end was different. He wasn’t chosen by God in any way. Nobody mourned his death. Instead, it was seen as a just outcome for his crime and for the crimes of Shechem:
Judges 9:56-57 In this way, God punished Abimelech for the evil he had done against his father by murdering his seventy brothers. God also punished the men of Shechem for all their evil. So the curse of Jotham son of Gideon was fulfilled.
The city of refuge had failed in its mission to deliver justice.
Is Shechem a real place?
Yes. There’s enough evidence to suggest it was where the town of Nablus stands. Some sources suggest it could have been on the adjacent Mount Gerazim:
- Associates for Biblical Research: Abimelech at Shechem, and Shechem: Its archaeological and contextual significance
- Wikipedia entry: Shechem