Judges 9: A Kingdom of Tribalism

After giving notice that Abimelech has risen to be the “king of Israel,” in verse 22, the narrator of Judges immediately moves to the rebellion of Shechem. The text begins with the reason for the rebellion, giving the reader a behind-the-scenes look, much like Job, of the disaster, appearing like a small cloud far out on the horizon portending a major storm. On reading of this evil spirit, the reader might be led to ask, “is God truly sending evil into the world?” Or, perhaps, in a more direct question, echoing the more general problem of evil, “is God directly causing the evil wrought in this narrative?”

The answer is, of course, no. The phrase here, rûaḥ rāʿâ, can either mean moral malignancy or experiential misfortune. In all four cases where this phrase appears in the Scriptures, it always means a spirit which causes bad consequences, rather than one that causes moral evil. The moral failing is, according to the text, in the men who chose Abimelech, and in Abimelech himself; God simply sends a spirit that will guide the results of their evil in a way that rebounds on them, rather than on Israel at large.

The rebellion breaks out almost immediately. Setting ambushes in the hills against the traders who might pass through the area would not only prevent those traders from paying taxes (which, in theory, should have gone to the royal treasury to support an army, and provide for the various other functions of the king), but would have also reduced travel through the area, as merchants avoided the robbers. This is a “double whammy” against Abimelech’s newly found position as king. He could not personally guarantee the safety of travelers passing through his lands, and he loses the revenue needed to build the forces necessary to provide such protection.

The curious thing is that Abimelech doesn’t seem to do anything about this affront. The text notes that he is told of the affair, but notes no reaction to it. Why should this be? There are many possible readings, but the one that fits most closely with the narrative, so far, is that Abimelech is not concerned with Israel’s fate so much as his own. Here is a shadow of the self-centeredness that runs throughout this text, eventually destroying all.

Not long after, Gaal comes to Shechem, and makes a bid for leadership of Shechem, and hence, by extension, for the kingship of Abimelech. His argument is eerily familiar to the reader–“Who is Abimelech, and who are we of Shechem, that we should serve him? Is he not the son of Jerubbaal, and is not Zebul his officer? Serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem; but why should we serve him?” As Abimelech began his bid by dividing Shechem from his brothers, resulting in their death, Gaal aims to divide Abimelech from Shechem. Abimebelch gains power by an appeal to tribal loyalty, “us against them,” and his reign begins to unwind on the same basis.

When the people of God move away from God, they are beset by concern over who is in, and who is out. A base tribalism more worried about who is related to whom, who is like whom, takes over for the pursuit of righteousness. God’s kingdom is not replaced with man’s, but rather a rough tribalism that is no kingdom at all. That which is built on “you are more like me,” ignoring the image of God in every man, is built on the shiftiest of sands, and will not stand long.

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