Category Archive: Bible – OT – Judges
Jotham’s curse in Judges 9 is that fire will go out from Abimelech to Shechem and from Shechem to Abimelech. Both are brambles; both are fire-hazards.
It’s pretty easy to see how fire goes out from Abimelech to consume Shechem, given that Abimelech burns down the stronghold of El-Berith in Shechem. Not only that, but he sows Shechem with salt, and in the Bible salt is crystal fire.
But how does fire come forth from Shechem and consume Abimelech? It doesn’t in any literal sense, though one can point to various metaphorical fires. But maybe there’s something more going on too.
Jan Fokkelman raises the question and suggests an answer: “How about the fire in v. 20de that is to consume Abimelech? The answer given by the narrator is a pun.”
In v. 49, we have ish (man), esh (fire), and ishah (woman). Then in v. 51b, we hear about man and woman again and we’re told that Abimelech is going to destroy the stronghold of Thebez with fire (esh). But then a woman (ishah) drops a millstone on him.
Fighting fire with fire: What overcomes Abimelech’s fire (esh) is a woman (ishah). Abimelech’s flame destroys Shechem, but Thebez’s Flamette destroys Abimelech.
In Jotham’s fable in Judges 9, he presents Abimelech as a bramble, who, when asked to be king, tells the other trees to “take refuge in my shadow” (tsl). Elsewhere in the Bible, kings provide shade for their people, the shade being a symbol of protection, but of course brambles don’t have a lot of shade to offer to, say, oak trees.
In fact, being the fire hazard that he is, Abimelech the Bramble King’s shadow isn’t a great refuge at all. The next time we hear about shadows is in verse 36. Gaal sees Abimelech and his army coming down the mountain to attack him. But when he cries out to Zebul, who is secretly still loyal to Abimelech, and says, “People coming down from the heads of the mountains!” Zebul responds by saying, “The shadow (tsl) of the mountains you are seeing like men.”
Then, when Abimelech is preparing to destroy the men of Shechem utterly, even though they’ve holed up in Baal’s stronghold, he goes to Shadow Mountain, Mount Tsalmon (English translations have Zalmon). There’s no other record of a mountain with that name, and commentators suggest that this might be another name for Mount Gerizim or Mount Ebal, the mountains near Shechem. If so, then the link with Abimelech’s bramble-shadow is even stronger. This is the mountain from which Abimelech gets the brush with which to burn the men of Shechem and destroy Baal’s temple.
That’s what comes of being under the bramble’s shadow. Having the bramble’s shadow come down upon you isn’t a good thing.
When Abimelech goes up the mountain and gets a branch, he puts it on his shoulder (shikmo). That’s one of those little details that we wonder about sometimes (“Why did the Spirit think it was important to mention that he carried it on his shoulder? Why ‘waste’ the space to tell us that?”).
But it strikes me that the consonants are the same as those of the city he’s about to burn: Shechem (Hebrew: Shekem). I don’t quite know what to make of that. Is there some sort of parallel between the branch on his shoulder and the branches piled up at the stronghold of Shechem? Do the branches parallel Abimelech, while the shoulder parallels Shechem under Abimelech’s “shade” (cf. 9:15)? Or is it just a coincidence?
I don’t know. But it’s worth pondering.
In Judges 9, the lords of Shechem want Abimelech to be their king (Hebrew: melek). But in the end, Abimelech sows Shechem with salt (melach … the last letter is like the “ch” in the Scottish “loch”).
I suspect that’s a play on words: they wanted a king and they got a king, but the result was … a word that sounds like “king” but means “salt”: utter barrenness.
In Judges 9:7, Jotham goes up onto the “head” of the mountain to confront the men of Shechem down below as they make Abimelech their king. The mountain here is Mount Gerizim, which might surprise us because Jotham’s words are identified as a “curse” (v. 57), and yet Mount Gerizim was the mountain of blessing in Joshua. Perhaps the point is that Jotham’s fable and its application are intended as a summons to repentance leading to blessing: “Listen to me … and God will listen to you” (v. 7). It’s only when the men of Shechem refuse to listen to Jotham that his words become a curse.
The curse is worked out in the rest of the story, but interestingly the outworking of the curse involves people going up and down mountains. In verse 25, the lords of Shechem set “men lying in ambush” for Abimelech “upon the heads of the mountains,” and they robbed all those who passed by them. Shechem’s attack on Abimelech involves something on the heads of the mountains.
When Abimelech strikes back at Shechem, he also sets an ambush. Though Zebul tells him to set an ambush “in the field” (v. 32), it turns out that the ambush is on the mountain. Gaal sees Abimelech and his army arising “from the ambush” (v. 35) and says “People are coming down from the heads of the mountains” (v. 36).
When Abimelech prepares to wipe out the men of Shechem utterly, he goes up Shadow Mountain — Mount Zalmon, though this mountain is otherwise unknown and this may be a different name for Mount Ebal or Mount Gerizim — and cuts branches and brings them to burn the stronghold of El Berith in Shechem.
Up and down the mountains they go. Why? I wonder if it’s not because Jotham’s curse was proclaimed on the head of the mountain, and now the outworking of that curse flows, as it were, from the mountain down to the people who were cursed.
There are sure a lot of heads in Judges 9, though you wouldn’t know it if you just looked at an English translation. In fact, the word “head” (Heb. rosh) appears ten times in this one chapter.
Jotham stands on the head of Mount Gerizim to confront the men of Shechem. The lords of Shechem set an ambush on the heads of the mountains. Abimelech’s army is divided into four heads (companies), and Gaal sees them coming down from the heads of the mountains, one head by way of the diviners’ oak.
But then, as Jan Fokkelman points out, there’s a progression: Abimelech’s army has four heads (9:34) … then he divides the people into three heads (9:43) … then two heads rush against the people in the field (9:44) … and finally a woman throws an upper millstone upon the head of Abimelech (9:53). It’s as if we’re counting down: 4 … 3 … 2 … 1!
And in this way, God brings back the evil of the men of Shechem on their head (9:57).
That’s a lot of heads in one chapter. I’m not entirely sure what all of the significance might be — though certainly the crushing of the head is a fulfillment of Genesis 3 — but it’s interesting to note.
David Dorsey (The Literary Structure of the Old Testament) points out that the story of Gideon can be seen as a chiasm:
A Beginning of Midianite oppression; chronological note (6:1-10)
B Gideon’s call by YHWH to save Israel; destruction of idolatry at Ophrah; fleece on ground to collect dew (6:11-40)
C Troops gather for battle; reduced forces so Israel won’t boast (7:1-14)
D YHWH gives victory (7:15-22)
C’ Troops disperse after battle; enlarged army; boasting (7:23-8:21)
B’ Gideon’s call by Israel to rule Israel; establishment of ephod-worship at Ophrah; mantle on ground to collect plunder (8:22-27)
A’ End of Midianite oppression; chronological note (8:28-32)
This seems pretty compelling to me. But what particularly interests me here is the parallel Dorsey sees between the fleece on the threshing floor to collect dew (or not) in Gideon’s two tests in ch. 6 and the mantle on the ground to collect the plunder in ch. 8.
It seems to me that the fleece on the threshing floor represents Gideon. When we first see Gideon, he’s threshing. Then Gideon brings an offering that represents him, and the offering is a kid (Hebrew: gid, the first syllable of Gideon’s name). Dew is associated with the Spirit’s anointing (e.g., Ps 133), so dew on the fleece suggests Gideon filled with the Spirit and able to deliver Israel.
But now we have a mantle on the ground to collect plunder. Again, Gideon is not forbidden to have the plunder, but at the same time, motive matters … and it seems that Gideon is especially interested in the outward trappings and ornamentation of the Midianite kings and their camels and that he uses these things to make something that increases his prestige in Israel while leading Israel into sin.
Gideon is, on the whole, a faithful man. But is he moving here from a concern that he be a fleece filled with the Spirit’s dew to a desire to be a mantle filled with Midianite plunder and royal trappings?
When Gideon wins the victory in Judges 8, the men of Israel ask him to rule (MShL) over them. Gideon says that he will not rule (MShL) over them and his son will not rule (MShL) over them, but Yahweh will rule (MShL) over them. Lots of repetition of that Hebrew word.
Then Gideon asks for some of the plunder (ShLL). Notice that the word for “plunder” includes two of the same consonants as the word for “rule.” Probably not significant, but interesting, especially given what comes next.
But then we have one of those details that’s included in Scripture but didn’t need to be. We’re told that the men of Israel “spread out a mantle (ShMLH)” and threw rings into it from the plunder (ShLL) to collect them for Gideon.
We could have been told simply that they collected the rings, but instead we’re told about this mantle. Why? Perhaps because of the three basic consonants in the word for “mantle.” They’re the same as the consonants in the word for “rule,” though in a different order: MShL (“rule”) and ShML (“mantle”).
I suspect, though I can’t prove, that there’s something of a pun going on here. He’s not going to MShL, but instead he gets a ShML full of ShLL. It’s not wrong for Gideon to collect plunder (Deut 20), but in that Gideon then makes the plunder into an ephod leading Israel to sin and in that Gideon then starts acting as if he were a (pagan) king, I wonder if the “mantle” full of “plunder” is already punningly being indicated as the start of a sort of “rule.”
James Jordan, commenting on Israel’s failure to thoroughly conquer Canaan:
It is a temptation to settle down and enjoy the fruits of victory before the victory is fully accomplished. The land was essentially but not thoroughly conquered. This temptation was not unique to ancient Israel. Christianity captured the Roman Empire essentially but not thoroughly. The Reformation captured Northern Europe essentially but not thoroughly. God does promise peace and prosperity as the fruit of victory, but only when the victory is thorough. It is dangerous to settle down too soon and too much. The war is real, and it is never really over. Eternal vigilance is the price of holiness. — Judges: A Practical and Theological Commentary, 28.
I’ve been preaching through Judges and this Sunday I’m coming to Judges 16, the story of Samson and Delilah. Puzzling things happen all through the story of Samson, starting with him being moved by the Spirit (13:25) to marry a Philistine woman, a marriage which his parents didn’t understand but which was “of the LORD” (14:4).
Then, Samson defeats a lion in a vineyard, representing the Philistines in the Promised Land, and the LORD provides honey from the lion’s carcass, which Samson, moved by the Spirit, uses as a riddle at his wedding party. By the use of the riddle, he is going to force the Philistines to choose: Will they acknowledge defeat and come to him for the answer? Or will they cheat?
They cheat and Samson knows it: there’s only one person he told the riddle to. By telling his wife the riddle, Samson was forcing her to choose too: Will she trust her husband, who can rip up a lion barehanded or will she side with the Philistines against him? She makes the wrong choice.
But when she tells the Philistines the riddle, they also must choose: Will they keep oppressing God’s people? Will they despise the one who can tear up lions with his bare hands? Or will they humble themselves and turn to the LORD, the God of Samson? They make the wrong choice: “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” Well, Samson is, for starters! And the Word of the LORD is sweeter than honey (Ps. 19), so they’d better start listening to Samson. But they miss the point of the riddle, reject the Messiah, and fall under God’s judgment.
The riddle in the first story about Samson sets the tone for the rest of the Samson story. There are riddles galore here. Samson’s judgment, for instance, is a riddle. Samson maintains that he has judged according to God’s perfect standard of justice, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: “As they did to me, so I have done to them” (15:11). Samson is the judge, authorized to carry out this kind of judgment. But it’s not easy to see how each of his judgments on the Philistines is eye-for-eye.
When the Philistines reveal the answer to the riddle, Samson knows that they cheated to get the answer. And so Samson cheats to give them their reward: he gets the clothes from thirty other men, whom he kills in Ashkelon. They assaulted his wife (James Jordan suggests that “ploughed with my heifer” in 14:18 has sexual overtones and could be seen as rape) and so he assaults them.
Then, when the Philistines’ treatment of his wife and of Samson leads to her being given to the best man, Samson responds by destroying the Philistine harvest. How is that eye-for-eye perfect justice? Most likely because Samson came to his wife expecting to sleep with her, but the Philistines have robbed him of the chance of having offspring, having his own harvest of children. And so he destroys their harvest.
Then things get a bit murkier. What about those three hundred foxes, tied together in pairs, with a torch between each of them? I dunno. The 150 pairs of foxes could perhaps be aimed at the thirty men who stole Samson’s “heifer”: according to the Torah, if you steal a cow, you pay back five times, and 5 X 30 = 150. Why foxes? Why this kind of judgment? I don’t know. But the details must be important or the Spirit wouldn’t have included them here.
Then the Philistines retaliate, fighting fire with fire and doing their own evil sort of eye-for-eye judgment (as they claim in 15:10). They burn Samson’s wife and her father’s house, the very thing they’d threatened to do in 14:15. She sided with them to avoid this sort of death, and (eye for eye) that’s the death she receives from them anyway. But Samson responds by killing many of them “thigh on hip” (or however that’s supposed to be translated). Jordan suggests that this means that he dismembered them and piled up their limbs, the way you would with a sacrifice. They burned up his wife and her family like a sacrifice and he chopped them up like a sacrifice. That’s a suggestion, but I’m not sure yet.
When the men of Judah hand Samson over to the Philistines, he uses the jawbone of a donkey to kill a thousand of them. Then he makes up a little song in which the word “heap” is identical in form to the word “donkey: “With the jawbone of a donkey, one heap, two heaps; with the jawbone of a donkey, I have slain a thousand men” or “With the jawbone of a donkey, one donkey, two donkeys; with the jawbone of a donkey, I have slain a thousand men.” It’s a pun: the Philistines are donkeys slain by a donkey’s jawbone. (But why a donkey’s jawbone?)
Now I’ve come to Judges 16, where Samson, like Israel, turns away from the LORD and goes whoring after the Philistine culture, represented by two women. (Delilah may have been an Israelite, but she’s a Philistine at heart.)
What are we to make of the things Samson tells her in this chapter? Is Samson just coming up with stuff out of the blue? Is it not really significant?
In his great tape set on Samson, Samson: The Mighty Bridegroom, Jordan offers a very tentative suggestion. The answers Samson gives may be intended as riddles, as in Judges 14. Samson thinks he’s in control here, hinting at the solution to the secret of his strength, but of course he’s not in control; he’s in sin and he’s ensnared.
The second answer Samson gives is that he must be bound with new ropes (16:11). That’s what the men of Judah bound him with when they handed him over to the Philistines (15:13). Is this second answer hinting back to that previous episode? And if so, does that mean that the other two answers hint back to the other two episodes in the Samson narrative?
The third answer might be linked with the Gaza episode. Samson tells Delilah that if she weaves the seven locks of his hair into the loom he’ll be weak but when he awakens he pulls out the batten and the web of the loom (16:14). Is that parallel to Samson being trapped in Gaza and then pulling up the gates and getting out (16:1-3)? Maybe.
The first one is the hardest to connect to a previous episode. Do seven fresh (i.e., unused) bowstrings hint back somehow to his marriage to the Philistine woman and to the ties of love that bound him to her and the seven day wedding feast? That seems like a stretch.
But I do wonder if there might be something here. After all, the Holy Spirit chose to record these statements for a reason. Part of the reason is that they show us that Samson is playing with his calling.
But is there more going on here? Is Samson subtly saying to Delilah, “They tried to get me by having my wife whom I loved betray me, by having the men of Judah bind me, and by trapping me in Gaza when I was ensnared in a woman’s web, but I got out all three times?”
Here, as Jordan reminds us in his tape set, is another place where “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter” (Prov. 25:2). I’m not yet a good enough king to search out these things. But it’s fun to wrestle with them. And now I need to go and write a sermon on Judges 16.