This devotional is about Judges 9.
Gideon, in Judges 8, refused to become the ruler of Israel (Judges 8:22-23). He was too busy impregnating his many wives, apparently (Judges 8:30) to be bothered with national leadership. But he wasn’t too busy to find a girlfriend in addition to his wives; she lived in the city of Shechem and Gideon had a son with her named Abimelek (Judges 8:29-32).
Here in Judges 9, which we read today, Abimelek, Gideon’s illegitimate son, convinced the citizens of Shechem to pay him to become their king. Remember that he, unlike the rest of Gideon’s kids, was from Shechem (8:31), which is why he said to the citizens of Shechem, “I am your flesh and blood” (9:2).
There is a bit of a gap in the story here that we have to fill in by implication. Although Gideon (aka “Jerub-Baal”) said he and his children would not rule over Israel (8:22), some people in Israel must have looked to Gideon’s many, many sons for some kind of leadership. If they didn’t, then Abimelek’s statement in verse 2 about having “all seventy of Jerub-Baal’s sons rule over you” would have made no sense. Probably, whatever leadership Gideon’s boys gave to Shechem also came with some kind of price tag. It also seems probable to me that it was confusing and probably oppressive to have seventy guys as “leaders” for one town, where they didn’t even live. Gideon’s sons, then, may have offered protection to Shechem in exchange for money and authority. Abimelek offered them a simpler, cheaper solution. “Pay me to become your king and I’ll do a better job because this is my neighborhood, too.”
The people of Shechem thought this was a good deal, so they gave Abimelek some money. He hired some street thugs to be his army (v. 4) and they slaughtered all the rest of Gideon’s sons except his youngest, Jotham, who escaped (vv. 5-6). Jotham called to the Shechemites and told them a weird little parable about trees (vv. 8-15). The parable makes sense for a while—truly productive trees want to continue to be productive instead of becoming king. It is the unproductive plant, the thornbush, who wanted to be king.
Every citizen of America should reflect on that parable. People who seek power want to portray themselves as wise public servants who could be very successful in private enterprise but instead seek to serve humanity by ruling over everyone else. There may be some examples where that is true, but we should be skeptical. Rulers have incredible power to enrich themselves at the expense of the productive.
The point of Judges 9 is to show how God did not allow Abimelek’s murders to stand unaddressed (see verses 23-24, 57). Although he was a reckless, unaccountable, self-anointed “leader,” his brutality did not escape the notice of a just God. But I think the lesson of the trees is one for us to consider anytime there is an election. God gave Israel very specific, very limited laws. Most of God’s laws were ceremonial and those were regulated by the priests. So there was central government for Israel in terms of religion. But Israel’s civil laws were few and specific and so were Israel’s moral laws. Both those laws and the penalty for breaking them was written down in God’s law. God’s intention was not for Israel to have a central, civil government. Rather, the elders of individual tribes and clans were to read God’s laws for themselves and interpret and apply them as a group of leaders when there was an infraction. In other words, they were supposed to live productive lives farming, ranching, manufacturing, etc. and only govern when necessary. There were not supposed to be permanent government leaders, just family leaders (aka “fathers” or “patriarchs”) who worked together with other family leaders when necessary.
Moses’s law did contemplate Israel having a king but that king was to be the Messiah, not a human ruler. What we see again and again in the Old Testament is that most human rulers are unproductive themselves and seek power to enrich themselves by taking, forcefully if necessary, from the productive. If the men of Shechem had stepped up to their responsibilities—teaching their families God’s laws, living by God’s laws themselves, and working together with other fathers to punish offenders appropriately—none of Judges 9 would have happened.
What would happen in our country if the productive people in our nation limited the power of its “leaders,” kept the laws simple and few, held leaders accountable to follow the law themselves, and worked out issues on a local level rather than letting the big federal government impose its will on everyone?