Sefer Shofetim Chapter 9
Avimelekh, the “illegitimate” son of Gideon, convinces his family in Shekhem to choose him as leader of Israel rather than accept leadership by all seventy of the children. They agree, and Avimelekh proceeds to hire a band of evildoers who assist him in massacring all of the sons of Gideon except for a single survivor, Yotam, who escapes. Avimelekh has himself anointed as king in Shekhem.
Yotam stands atop Mount Gerizim and delivers a message to the people couched in a parable. When the trees sought a king for the forest, they went from tree to tree offering the position and everyone declined. The olive tree, fig tree and grape vine all have something beneficial to offer the world and have no interest in lording over others.
The thornbush, however, accepts the title with the threat that if his leadership is not taken seriously, fire will burst forth and devour the entire forest. So too, Yotam says, none of the judges or prophets who led Israel in the past sought to become king, even though they contributed so much to its welfare. Avimelekh, someone who has done nothing for his people, has arranged for himself to be coronated. If this is an unjust or unwise arrangement, then it will certainly lead to the destruction of the nation that has selected him.
Avimelekh’s leadership is not well received and after only a few years, rebellion is brewing. Many signs of resistance to his authority are already evident amongst the citizens of his hometown, Shekhem. A man by the name of Gaal ben Eved (who was not Jewish) capitalizes on the dissatisfaction with Avimelekh and escalates the situation into a full-blown civil war, the “rebel base” now being Shekhem. Avimelekh puts down the resistance with great force, repeatedly battling the opposition until they submit. When the upper class citizens (termed the Baalei Migdal Shekhem) take refuge in a bunker, he and his men burn it down, killing one thousand men and women.
Avimelekh proceeds to Tevetz and captures it; this time, the citizens hide in a fortified tower to escape his forces. When Avimelekh approaches the structure to set it aflame, a woman drops a piece of grinding stone on his head, crushing his skull. He asks his armor-bearer to put him out of his misery so that he won’t suffer the dishonor of having been killed by a woman. The young boy complies, stabbing him, and the unjustly founded regime of Avimelekh comes to a bitter end, precisely as foretold by his brother, Yotam.
This chapter is long and rich in interesting detail. One noteworthy aspect of the story is the prediction of Yotam that Avimelekh’s regime will self-destruct. We can interpret this less as a prophetic pronouncement and more as an astute and realistic political analysis. Someone who is contributing meaningfully to a community doesn’t need a title to prove his or her importance; goodness will be recognized in and of itself.
By contrast, someone who seeks a powerful title for its own sake is attempting to feed his ego for selfish reasons. Such an egotistically driven person is dangerous and destructive. Not only will he fail as a shepherd of his flock, he will ultimately alienate his own constituents and set himself against those who once supported him.
As one instance of this, we see that Avimelekh, the “home grown” politician from Shekhem, relocates to another neighborhood when he makes it big, and this distance from his own community seems to exacerbate the emotional and ideological distance that develops between them. The flames of passion that propelled him to seek power in the first place will fuel the aggression and terror he employs to hold onto that power. In the end, his government will implode.
Another noteworthy aspect of the narrative is the significance of the geographical locations mentioned therein. Avimelekh’s home base is Shekhem, which has symbolic importance as the first place in which Avraham settled in Canaan, the place Yosef went to meet his brothers when he was sold, the place Yehoshua and Yosef were buried and the place in which Yehoshua contracted the final covenant between the Jewish people and Hashem before his death. The fact that Avimelekh attempts to establish the first Kingdom of Israel in Shekhem reflects his understanding of the significance of that location in Jewish history – specifically in the lives of the Patriarchs – and his desire to position himself as a link in the chain of tradition, a patriarch of sorts.
Interestingly, Yotam ascends Mount Gerizim to deliver his message. Mount Gerizim (together with Mt. Eval that stands opposite it) is the place where the Jewish people fulfilled the commandment to “reaffirm” their covenant with Hashem by building an altar, pronouncing blessings and curses and reading from the Torah. Symbolically, this was a reminder that the relationship between the nation of Israel and Hashem must ultimately be rooted in the truths of the Torah and adherence to its commandments, and that no project, however ambitious, can succeed if it runs counter to the principles they teach us. Yotam draws the attention of the people back to the real basis of all “power” in Judaism as it was shown to us by all previous Shofetim going back to Moshe Rabbenu – namely, knowledge and observance of Torah.