“Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us.
And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in nay shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”
Gideon is one of those sad instances of a person who, once having stood strong in faith, followed it with a decline into weakness such as does not become a child of God.
With the destruction of Midian, Gideon suddenly saw his personal popularity catapulted unto unprecedented heights. Whereas before people had been skeptical of him, of his testimony, and of his efforts, now he was the man of the hour. People talked endlessly about this man, who with only three hundred men had put to fight the whole multitude of Midian. They marveled at the tenacity with which he had pursued the enemy into their last and greatest stronghold, until he had Zebah and Zalmunna in his own hands. People came from all over the land to see and consult with Gideon, the same man who so shortly before had been ignored by just about everyone. Now they followed him wherever he went and hung fawningly upon his every word. It was not surprising, therefore, when they came to Gideon and said, “Rule thou over us, both thou, and thy son, and thy son’s son also: for thou hast delivered us from the hand of Midian.”
But Gideon was not one to lose hold of reality so easily. Even though the people seemed to forget it, he remembered full well that the victory was not so much his as it was Gods. God had led and strengthened him every step of the way. Furthermore, he felt that the people in this request were being carried along with the enthusiasm of the moment and had never thought through all of the implications of what they were asking. And finally, of course, God had appointed him to be judge and deliverer of the people, but He had never as much as suggested that Gideon might become king. Without the blessing of God, it would surely be futile for him to assume the position of king. So quickly-he answered the people, “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the LORD shall rule over you.” Gideon spoke this with the conviction that it was right and the only answer he could give them; and yet even as he spoke, it seemed too bad if all this enthusiasm of the people could not in some way be encouraged. Thus it was that there came to his mind a plan that seemed to be more in line with his calling as judge in Israel. So he went on to say; “I would desire a request of you, that ye would give me every man the earrings of his prey.”
The people were quick to catch the implication of this, although they were perhaps surprised to receive such a request from Gideon. This was language they understood. Was it not customary for one who had won a great victory in battle to take the ornaments of booty and fashion them into a graven image of their favorite idol? Enthusiastically they responded, “We will willingly give them;” and before Gideon realized it, they had spread a garment and cast into it all kinds of jewelry, until there was nearly fifty pounds of gold and jewels and the like.
Actually Gideon had in mind nothing so crude and lawless as the making of an idol. His intent was to make an ephod after the pattern given by God to Moses in the wilderness. It would be like the one worn by the high priest in the tabernacle and would always serve as a reminder to the people of the enthusiasm which they had felt when they donated the gold and jewels that went into its making. In addition, it would also remind the people that he, Gideon, was also a representative of Jehovah, and that they should come to him to hear God’s judgments for them. Soon the ephod was made, very richly; and Gideon kept it prominently displayed in his house.
The people were pleased. Here was something visible to which they could bring their allegiance. They found it hard to be satisfied with just words when all of the other nations had their visible gods before which they could worship. It did not even matter so much that this object did not have the form of a man or animal; it was something they could see and feel, and they were satisfied. They came from far and wide to see it. They would listen to Gideon’s instructions; but their main interest was in that beautiful ephod, which to them seemed to be the embodiment of the power which had delivered them from Midian. They considered that ephod to have an almost magical guarantee that they would not be subjugated like that again.
Inevitably, of course, all of this attention began to have its effect upon Gideon also. It was soon apparent that his home was receiving more attention even than the tabernacle of God at Shiloh. By this Gideon was pleased. With the attention of the people came gifts and wealth. As he became a man of importance, he began to marry wives and to keep a great house. Although he had rejected the title, he often thought of himself as the equivalent of a king nonetheless. In fact, in one particularly proud moment, when a concubine from Shechem bore him a son, he named the child Abimelech, meaning “son of a king.” Gideon’s ephod had become a snare unto him and unto the people, to lead them into sin. Nevertheless, as long as he lived, Gideon did speak out against Baal worship and succeeded in keeping it from the land.
It was after Gideon died that his sin had its most pernicious effect. During his lifetime Gideon had received no fewer than seventy sons from his many wives. To them was now left the ephod with all of the attention, wealth, and temptation which it had brought to Gideon’s house. On the whole they were good men and carried on in the tradition of their father. There was one, however, who having tasted a little of popular favor, wanted it all for himself. Ironically, of course, it was the one who least deserved it: Abimelech, the son of the concubine from Shechem. He wanted badly to be king and felt quite sure that his brothers wanted the same. Thus he began to plot against them.
Going to Shechem, a wicked city whose inhabitants were of Canaanitish descent and where the worship of Baal was generally practiced, Abimelech soon convinced his mother’s family that all of Gideon’s seventy sons had royal ambitions. He concluded with this suggestion, “Speak, I pray you, in the ears of all the men of Shechem, Whether is better for you, either that all the sons of Jerubbaal, which are threescore and ten persons, reign over you, or that one reign over you? remember also that I am your bone and your flesh.” For the men of Shechem, who felt no love for Gideon, the enemy of their God; to begin with, the simple suggestion was enough. They gave to Abimelech seventy pieces of silver out of the treasury of Baal, with which he hired a group of vain men to follow him to Ophrah, where he took and slew his brothers. Of them all only Jotham, the youngest brother, escaped.
This event was followed by a great celebration at Shechem. Taking Abimelech to their hearts as a brother in the worship of Baal and as the destroyer of the house of Gideon, the enemy of their god Baal, the men of Shechem brought him to the very spot where Joshua had first affirmed the covenant of Jehovah in Canaan; and there under an oak tree they crowned him king. It was a wicked celebration, as one might imagine, until suddenly it was stopped cold.
During a pause in the feasting, a voice began to sound clearly through the mountain air from its source at the top of nearby mount Gerizim. It was the voice of Jotham, Abimelech’s youngest brother; and he spoke a parable: “Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you. The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us. But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God, and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?
“And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us. But the fig tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?
“Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us. And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?
“Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us. And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.
“Now therefore, if ye have done truly and sincerely, in that ye have made Abimelech king, and if ye have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done unto him according to the deserving of his hands; (for my father fought for you, and adventured his life far, and delivered you out of the hand of Midian: and ye are risen up against my father’s house this day, and have slain his sons, threescore and ten persons, upon one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his maidservant, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother;) if ye then have dealt truly and sincerely with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice ye in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you; but if not, let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the men of Shechem, and the house of Milo; and let fire come out from the men of Shechem, and from the house of Milo, and devour Abimelech.”
With that Jotham turned and fled.
The allegory of Jotham hung over the brief and wicked reign of Abimelech with a strange foreboding. Abimelech was very truly, as the allegory said, a bramble with neither shade to provide nor fruit to give. He could only prey upon the people without giving them anything in turn. Even more, the men of Shechem, upon whose strength Abimelech had built his power, were wicked men, whose loyalties could change in a moment. Soon they tired of Abimelech and began to hate him just as strongly as they had held to him before. Agitated by an evil spirit from God, this hatred soon broke out into open conflict. The result was an example of the wicked consuming each other in their wickedness.
From the first it was Abimelech that held the upper hand. He had gathered behind him a trained army, and he used it ruthlessly. When the men of Shechem under a certain Gaal, son of Ebed, boasted themselves in drunken revelry against Abimelech, it was reported to Abimelech and he brought his army against them. With superior maneuvering he overcame Gaal and forced him to flee for his life. But Abimelech was not satisfied. The next day he returned to Shechem again and set upon the people. These who came out into the field to work he slew in cold blood. The city itself he utterly reduced to rubble, and a thousand people who fled to the tower of their god’s temple he burned mercilessly with a great fire. And still it was not enough, but Abimelech turned to the neighboring city of Thebez. Here again he forced the people into a fortified tower. But by this time the Lord allowed that he had done enough in his wickedness. A woman cast a piece of millstone from the wall of the tower. It struck Abimelech upon the head so that he died.
It was as Jotham had predicted. Fire came out from Abimelech and devoured the men of Shechem; and fire came out from the men of Shechem and devoured Abimelech; the bramble bush devoured those that first trusted in it.