The Bible Story - Volume III
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The Bible Story - Volume III

Chapter 65:

The Fire That Failed!

   AFTER GIDEON was dead and Israel had again started slipping into idolatry, one of Gideon's many sons schemed to become king of Israel. He was Abimelech, an overly ambitious young man who went to violent extremes to push himself into power.
   One of his first moves was to pay a band of vicious characters to capture his seventy-one brothers and line them up at a chopping block. One of the brothers escaped, but all the others were beheaded. (Judges 9:1-5.)
   As soon as the dreadful act was finished, the murderers fled, careful to leave no evidence as to who had committed the ghastly crime.
   Gideon's youngest son, Jotham, was the one who had escaped being murdered. He had hidden himself when the assassins had first appeared, but when he heard later what had happened, he almost wished he hadn't. He left Ophrah right after that, realizing that Abimelech's men would be looking for him for a long time.
   While the search for Jotham was going on, Abimelech wasn't too worried about him. He felt that the youngest son would fear to make any move against him. He went ahead with his plans to become ruler of Israel by obtaining the backing of influential men, families and priests of Baal in Shechem, which resulted in a few days in a celebration and a ceremony in which Abimelech was declared king of Israel. (Verse 6.)
   When Jotham learned of this he was quite angry. Even though a son of Gideon, who had been Israel's leader, he didn't yearn to become Israel's king. But he wanted to expose his half-brother for the murderous, power-seeking politician he was, and to help promote in Israel the conduct his father had enforced and practiced against pagan worship.
   By night Jotham went up Mt. Gerizim, which towered close above Shechem. Next morning, when the people were up and about, he appeared on the top to call down to them. This wasn't such a tremendous feat as one might imagine, inasmuch as Joshua had successfully addressed hundreds of thousands of people in that same area. Mt. Ebal was close by to the north, and between the two peaks a strong voice could clearly be heard over an unusually large expanse. (Joshua 8:30-35.)
   Jotham couldn't have chosen a better place to talk to so many people at the same time and say what he had to say before Abimelech's hired murderers could get to him. It isn't known how many people lived in and around Shechem at the time, but there must have been at least a few thousand residents, including people from the neighboring villages and countryside who were gathered at Shechem for a festival.
   "Listen to me, men of Shechem!" Jotham shouted down to them. "You are headed for misery and trouble. But if you will hear what I have to say, and move to correct matters, God will help you!" (Judges 9:7.)

Jotham's Amazing Prophecy

   "Let me tell you a story!" he called down. (Judges 9:6-7.) The people listened with tense excitement. "There was a time when all the trees decided that they should have some kind of tree rule over them. They agreed that the olive tree was best fitted as a leader, so they asked the olive tree to be king. The olive tree refused, saying, 'I honor God and man by the oil I produce. Why should I forsake my outstanding service even to be king?'
   "Then the trees said to the fig tree, 'Be our king.' But the fig tree answered, 'Why should I give up producing my special sweetness and flavor just to be promoted over all other trees?'
   "The trees next asked the grape vine to rule over them. The grape vine replied, 'I cannot be your king. It would mean that I would have to stop yielding the juice from which comes the wine to cheer God and man.'
   "The trees finally turned to the bramble to ask it to be their king. The thorny bush answered quite differently. 'If you really want me to be your king,' it said, 'then leave all matters entirely up to me. If you fail to put your trust in me or disagree with what I want to do, I shall spew out fire to burn up everything, even the cedars on the snow-clad peaks of mount Lebanon!'" (Judges 9:8-15.)
   People below who listened to Jotham realized that when he spoke of the bramble he was referring to Abimelech, and that when he mentioned the cedars of Lebanon he was referring to the elders and chiefs of Israel.
   "If you people think you have done the best thing for Israel in making Abimelech your leader," Jotham continued, "and you really believe that your murder of my seventy brothers was a fitting tribute to Gideon my father, who risked his life for you, then be happy with Abimelech and let Abimelech be happy with you!
   "On the other hand, if you have allowed a scoundrel and a murderer to become your king, Abimelech will soon have his differences with you people who have helped him into power. You will eventually destroy him. But he will also destroy you!" (Verses 16-20.)

Momentary Sorrow but not Repentance

   Many of the people who listened below were greatly impressed by what Jotham had to say. Some of them were ashamed that they had not united to protest Abimelech's being made their leader, but most of them did not repent of their part in Abimelech's treachery. They waited to hear what more Jotham had to say, but no more words came down to them. God's warning to them was finished. They had no more excuse for remaining on Abimelech's side.
   As Jotham finished speaking, he sighted men creeping toward him around the shoulders of the mountain. He realized that they had been sent to take his life, so that no son of Gideon could possibly be left to be set up as leader of Israel in opposition to Abimelech. Before the assassins had time to reach him, Jotham fled.
   Jotham's pursuers were weary and winded from their hurried ascent of Mt. Gerizim, and when Gideon's son suddenly bolted down the side of the mountain opposite the one facing Shechem, they were unable to catch their intended victim.
   By the time he reached the base of the mountain, Jotham was out of sight of his pursuers. He sprinted toward the south, carefully keeping out of sight in the gullies and defiles until he was well out of the region of Shechem. After traveling about twenty miles, he succeeded in reaching safety in the town of Beer, about eight miles north of Jerusalem. (Verse 21.)

How God's Law Operates

   Perhaps Jotham's efforts to remind the local Israelites that they were headed for trouble weren't entirely wasted. Abimelech was leader of the northern Israelites around Shechem and Arumah for three years, but at the end of that time a feeling of dislike and suspicion developed between him and many Israelites, especially those in the Shechem area. Former partners in murder now became enemies. This was the natural result of building a government on murderous plots, evil schemes and unholy religious propositions. Even so, God stepped in to cause differences to develop more quickly in order that Abimelech and his hired murderers and fellow conspirators might come to faster justice. Abimelech probably was aware of God's laws, but he wasn't convinced that the dreadful penalty for breaking them was certain to fall on him. (Romans 15:4; II Timothy 3:16.)
   Some of the same men who had helped Abimelech become a ruler hired men to watch for him and his friends as they traveled about in the more wild, mountainous regions around Arumah and Shechem in upper Canaan. They hoped to assassinate him in some out-of-the-way spot, but their attempts were unsuccessful because he had been told of the plan.
   All that was accomplished was the injuring and robbing of many other people who were moving through lonely areas. (Judges 9:22-25.)
   Meanwhile, a Canaanite named Gaal, who wished to see the Israelite driven out, organized a band of soldiers and went to Shechem to suggest to Abimelech's enemies that they band together against their leader. Gaal volunteered to head the movement.
   Abimelech wasn't in Shechem at the time, so many of the men of Shechem felt free to join Gaal. There was a great celebration in the temple of Baal. There, inflamed by much drinking of wine, Gaal loudly announced that the Israelites should turn to the Canaanite leaders if they wished to be free of Abimelech, an Israelite, and that he, Gaal, would remove Abimelech from power if only the people would back him up with fighting men.

Political Confusion Worsens

   Many men in Shechem rallied to join Gaal. He was so encouraged that he became certain he could lead a revolution without any danger of failure. He went so far as to send messengers to challenge Abimelech to return to Shechem and fight for the right to be ruler. (Judges 9:26-29.)
   This development troubled Zebul, governor of Shechem and one of Abimelech's right-handmen. He knew where Abimelech was, and sent a swift messenger to him to warn that Gaal had taken over the city and was fortifying it. He suggested that Abimelech quietly bring in an army by night, hide in nearby fields and then wait to see what Gaal would do.
   That night Abimelech quietly moved his army into the vicinity of Shechem, concealing it in four companies in gullies and behind hills and rocks.
   Next morning Gaal strode out through the city's main gate with some of his men. Zebul accompanied them.
   "The mighty Abimelech must have heard of my challenge long before this, but I don't see any sign of him," Gaal loudly remarked in a sneering tone. "Perhaps he decided to lead the Israelites back into Egypt!"
   Gaal's men laughed at this comment. Zebul smiled, too, but not because of the remark. He was aware that Abimelech's troops were all around. Suddenly Gaal squinted his eyes as though trying to make out something in the distance.
   "Look!" he barked, pointing. "Do I see people moving down from the tops of those hills?"
   "People?" Zebul echoed. "Aren't you looking at just shadows and rocks?"
   Gaal hardly heard what Zebul said, so engrossed was he in staring in other directions. (Judges 9:30-36.)
   "Those are people," he exclaimed. "They're coming toward us through the valley and across the plain! We're surrounded!"
   "How true!" Zebul remarked with a grim smile. "Now let's see how you'll go about destroying Abimelech as you boasted you would do! And you'll have to hurry, or the opportunity if any will soon be gone!
   "You seem pleased!" Gaal barked angrily at Zebul. "Probably you've had something to do with this!"
   One of his men saw him move threateningly toward the governor, and quickly stepped up to ask what the trouble was. "Look around you!" Gaal snapped. "We're about to be attacked, and for some reason Zebul seems to be happy about it!"
   The man looked about, but he saw no attackers because the approaching soldiers had moved behind a hill in one direction and had marched out of sight into a depression in the plain in the other direction.
   "I see no attackers," he said to Gaal. Gaal stared quickly about, perplexed that no one was in sight. He glanced uneasily at Zebul, then went back to scanning the horizon. "I guess you were right about shadows and rocks," he told Zebul.
   "The heat makes them look as though they're moving. But why did you say what you did about my boasting that I would destroy Abimelech?"
   "If you have the courage to stand up to Abimelech," Zebul answered, "then you're entitled to boast."
   Gaal didn't know whether he was being complimented or insulted, but that wasn't his concern at the moment. He continued blinking at the horizon and hoped that somehow Abimelech would never show up to give him any trouble. His fleeting belief that he had been surrounded had worn the sharp edge off his desire to fight with the man he had challenged to battle. Besides, he had lost a little confidence in himself because of what he thought he had seen.
   "If Abimelech comes," Gaal remarked, "I'll meet him in a fair fight in the open, but there is no point standing here all day in the hot sun waiting for something that perhaps won't happen. I'm going back inside the gates."
   "If Abimelech should suddenly show up and catch you in the city, we could be besieged for weeks," Zebul observed.
   "If he accepts my challenge, we'll see him long before he gets here," Gaal answered.
   "Then you'd better start looking!" Zebul pointedly commented.
   Gaal glanced around. To his sudden surprise and dismay, he saw men pouring out from behind a nearby hill and more swarming up from a depression in the plain. There was no doubt that they were Abimelech's men, and they were closing in fast. Gaal realized then that he had actually seen them when they were at a greater distance, and that Zebul had also seen them and was silently waiting for them to get much closer.
   "It appears that you'll soon have to decide to fight or run," Zebul grinned.
   Gaal wasted no time with counter remarks. He yelled to the men who were with him to sound a call to arms. The closest of Abimelech's men were only a few hundred yards from the city by the time Gaal and his men rather hesitantly stomped out to meet them.

Canaanite Ambition Thwarted

   Minutes later the two armies closed in battle, but not for long. Abimelech's men cut down the foremost of Gaal's soldiers, and the sight of the slaughter unnerved the rest of Gaal's men. They turned, including their leader, and fled back toward Shechem's main gate. Abimelech's men rushed in behind them, killing and wounding many before they could reach the city. Gaal was among those who managed to race through the entrance to Shechem before the gate was slammed shut. (Judges 9:37-40.)
   Satisfied that he had put down the revolution, Abimelech led his army to the town of Arumah, about eight miles southeast of Shechem. There the men rested and took on provisions.
   Meanwhile Zebul, the governor of Shechem, who hated Gaal, managed to round up a sizable band of Shechemites who shared his feeling. These men pounced on Gaal and the remnant of his army, and thrust them out of the city.
   Because there had been so many people in Shechem in recent days, there was a serious shortage of food. Regardless of the threat of attack by Abimelech, who now regarded Shechem as an enemy stronghold, hundreds of people went out next morning to the surrounding fields, orchards and vineyards to obtain vegetables and fruit. Spies reported this to Abimelech, who immediately led his army back to Shechem. About one third of the soldiers dashed to the main gate of the city.

The Shechemites' Penalty for Murder

   The remainder of the army was divided into two companies, and closed in on the Shechemites in the fields and orchards. The victims tried to race for safety in the city, but were either cut down as they ran or were killed by Abimelech's men when they reached the gate.
   All of Abimelech's soldiers then converged on the city. They battered down the gates and poured inside, but it wasn't a matter of a quick victory. The Shechemites were prepared to fight, and they put up stiff resistance by showering spears, stones and arrows down from the walls and the buildings. By late afternoon, however, it was evident that the defenders were running out of arms and missiles. From then on the victory swiftly went to Abimelech, whose men slaughtered or chased out all the people. There is no record of what happened to Zebul, governor of the city.
   It was a custom at that time that a home, city or village should be strewn with salt if for any reason it was considered a disgraceful or abominable place. To show his contempt for Shechem, Abimelech ordered his men to fling salt all about the city. (Judges 9:41-45.)
   While this was going on, fugitives of the Shechem area were fearfully gathering not far away at a tower-like structure built on a mountainside. It was the place of worship of one of the Canaanite gods, and was considered a strong refuge. More than a thousand people swarmed into it. They hoped that Abimelech, who had shown a strong leaning toward pagan gods would spare the place in the event he found them hiding there.
   Their period of concealment was short. Again Abimelech's spies informed him what was going on. Abimelech took his men into a nearby region where there was a heavy growth of trees and brush. There each man cut down as large a branch as he could comfortably carry, and took his load to where the people were hiding.
   The branches were piled around the base of the structure, then ignited. The tremendous fire that followed speedily destroyed the tower. The hundreds of people inside, unable to escape, were burned to a charred mass for having helped Abimelech murder Jerubbaal's sons, just as Jotham had prophesied. (Judges 9:19-20; Judges 9:46-49.)

From Revenge to Conquest!

   Night had arrived, and as the flames died down in the darkness, Abimelech considered it a successful day. He gave orders for his men to camp for the night where they were. Abimelech's God-given victory made him so conceited and greedy he wanted to conquer innocent cities. Next morning he started them on a march to the city of Thebez about ten miles to the northeast. He had received reports that most of the people there were not in favor of his leadership. His vengeful, bloody desire was simply to wipe them out, just as he had done to others who had stood in the path of his political aims. Abimelech didn't realize that God had allowed him to wipe out Shechem only because of its part in his treacherous murders.
   When he reached Thebez late that morning, the people there were so frightened that they fled to a high, walled stronghold within the city. This pleased Abimelech.
   "We have them bottled up without so much as having to throw a spear!" he exultantly told his officers. "Spread our men out to camp around Thebez so that no one will escape during the night. Tomorrow we shall take their stronghold and everyone inside it!" Abimelech's army closed in on the city, converging on the high fortress within. The stone structure was large and strong, but the gate was made of timbers. Brush and branches were piled against it so that it could be burned open.
   People gathered on the open top floor of the fortress fought hard to keep the attackers away by hurling all kinds of objects down on them. Many invaders lost their lives in showers of heavy missiles from the tower. Abimelech's men countered with arrows, spears and stones, but they realized that they could make little headway until the gate was burned. (Judges 9:50-52.)

The Fire That Failed!

   In his eagerness to accomplish a break-through, Abimelech moved closer to the wall. It was a foolish thing to do because he became the intended object of a number of missiles. A heavy chunk from a broken millstone struck him on the head. He thudded to the ground, blood oozing from his scalp. His young armorbearer rushed to him, noting that he was still conscious.
   "It was a woman who threw it, sir!" the young man exclaimed. "We'll get her as soon as we get inside!"
   "I know," Abimelech muttered, "but don't let it be said that a woman sent me to my death! Thrust your sword through me! Now!"
   The armorbearer was hesitant. One of Abimelech's officers nearby, realizing that his leader was dying, shouted at the armorbearer, at the same time motioning for him to do what his superior commanded.

God Restores Peace

   The young man obeyed. Abimelech died by the sword, but he would have died only a little later from the head wound. Thus died Abimelech, who had refused to profit from the sad experiences of others who had rebelled against God's laws. Only those who want to obey God can learn from such tragic events. (Romans 15:4; II Timothy 3:16.)
   When his men realized that he had been killed, they ceased fighting and withdrew from Thebez. Within minutes the army became disorganized. The men started back to their homes, many of them ashamed that they had taken part in the slaughter of their own people. Their neglected fire, like their war, died. (Judges 9:53-55.)
   Jotham's prediction of grief in Israel wasn't an empty one. God had brought destruction upon the destroyers. (Verses 56-57.) All the trouble and misery could have been avoided if the people had shunned pagan gods and had been willing to learn the right and happy way to live by obeying God's laws. God had promised that all would go well with those who obey. (Deuteronomy 6:3.) But Satan has suggested that it would be better to choose any way of life that seems easiest and most pleasant and wait to see what develops. (Genesis 3:4-6.) Unfortunately, almost every generation of Israel preferred to go along with the latter way and learn life's principles in the most difficult and miserable manner. Most of mankind continues to believe that delusive old adage that experience is the best teacher. Experience is really the worst teacher because of the wretchedness and grief that accompany it.

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Publication Date: 1984
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