March 08, 2008

Judges 8-9: Like father, like son

(Today's passage covers Gideon's interactions with some unhelpful Israelite cities, and his son Abimelech's intrigues with Gaal and the rulers of Shechem.)

While last essay we read about Gideon as a conquering hero, Judges 8 shows us his dark side. Gideon follows the fleeing Midian army across the Jordan and asks the cities of Succoth and Penuel for food to feed his 300 soldiers. They refuse, giving the weak excuse that Gideon hasn't yet captured the Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. (Judg. 8:1-9)

As the chapter progresses, Gideon captures the kings and kills their armies. Then he remembers Succoth and Penuel and decides its time to repay them for their lack of hospitality. (Judg. 8:10-12) First, he goes to Succoth and whips her leaders with thorns and brambles, as a way of "teaching" them. Then he goes to Penuel and kills everyone. (Judg. 8:13-17) It might not seem like the punishment fitting the crime, but you can be certain that the men of Succoth will never been foolish enough to refuse food to a conquering army again. And the men of Penuel, well, they won't be doing much of anything.

Gideon eventually has 70 sons, dies, and the land has peace for 40 years. (Judg. 8:28-35) And then, as we all expected, Israel falls back into corruption.

In yet another case of Biblical succession battles, we now turn our eyes on Abimelech, Gideon's son by one of his concubines. Following in his father's footsteps of brutality, he convinces the men of Shechem -- his mother's home-town -- to give him money to buy a mercenary army and wipe out his 70 half-brothers. (Judg. 9:1-6) He's thorough, but not thorough enough, because his youngest half-brother, Jotham, plants the seeds of dissension in the rulers of Shechem before running for cover. (Judge. 9:7-20)

The rest of the chapter is a long and complicated plot of intrigues between Abimelech, the leaders of Shechem, and a man named Gaal, a newcomer who wants to oust Abimelech as Shechem's king and take control for himself. It culminates with Abimelech routing Gaal's army and following it up with a slaughter of the men of Schehem. In fact, Abimelech isn't content to simply kill them, but when the 1,000 men and women of Shechem flee to a temple, Abimelech and his men set it on fire and kill them all. (Judg. 9:42-49)

Figuring that one city isn't enough, Abimelech also conquers Thebez and tries his "burn the tower to the ground" trick again. This time, however, a woman drops a mill-stone on his head and cracks it open. Just before he dies, Abimelech tells his armour-bearer to kill him, so no one can say a woman finished him off. The armour-bearer runs him through, and Abimelech dies by the sword. (Judg. 9:50-55)

It seems that, like his father Gideon, Abimelech had a taste for blood but not much wisdom to temper it. We can only assume that the surviving cities in the region were happy to see them both dead, so that they could get on with their business of corruption and idol-worship... at least until the next judge.

A change in format: my astute readers will notice that today's essay is much shorter than normal. That's because I'm experimenting with the format of Daily Breadcrumbs. For the next month or so, I'm going to do 500-word essays instead of the usual thousand-word ones. The intervening "Breadcrumbs" will be short and pithy, about 100 words, like always. Let me know what you think!

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