judges

Introduction

“What’s in a name?” This is the question Juliet asked Romeo in her not understanding why their love was not to be. Her argument follows that “that which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet”. And her answer was easy:

Deny thy father and refuse thy name, Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

This type of approach would not go down well in Hebrew thought. Your name and the name of your family was equally important. We do not pay much attention to this nowadays, purely because of our post-modern, anti-historical, individualistic and self-centered culture. Names were important, as they were an expression of the value system and reputation, as well as status within society. I still remember when we settled in Paarl, whenever we introduced ourselves, people would ask if we were family of the “Kings”. That was because just prior to us moving here, the Kings from around here were involved in a financial scandal!

The text we are looking at today, involves a couple of characters and their names are very important in the flow of the narrative. In fact, they are so important, that they determine many of the actions and meaning of what happens.

We find ourselves in the aftermath of Gideon’s period as judge. Unfortunately, it is not a positive one. We read that as soon as he dies, the people of God fall back into idolatry and all its dark practices. Gideon’s son with a concubine, Abimelech, takes charge by convincing the leaders of Shechem that he is family. They pay him 70 pieces of silver and he kills all his brothers except for Jotham the youngest. His rise to power was by eliminating his competition through murder.

Jotham appears on the scene as a type of a prophet with a fable to tell. This fable would play out under the sovereign hand of God during the rest of Abimelech’s rule. This is followed by 2 new Judges, Tola and Jair, who established peace for 45 years in total.

We will now turn to some of the main character in this narrative in order to make better sense of what was going on behind the scenes.

The main characters

Baal-berith: the counterfeit

The first character we encounter is the new god they adopt after Gideon’s death. He is called Baal-berith (8:33). Later in 9:46 we read of El-berith. In Canaanite religion, the high-god El had a son called Baal, but in some instances the line between the two were blurred so they were regarded as the same.

What
is important for the purposes of the narrative is the “berith”. The literal meaning is “to cut an agreement”. In ancient times animals were cut in two and both parties agreeing to the conditions of the contract would then walk between the cut halves as their commitment to the contract. Today we sign these contracts.

This would make Baal and El the gods of the covenant, indicating that they made a definite commitment to them as their gods.

This is very significant, as this meant that they abandoned Yahweh as their covenant God. Up to this point in Israel’s history He would at many times remind them of the fact that He is their covenant God. He ordered Abraham to cut the animals in half and himself passed through it as a sign of His commitment to them (Genesis 17). He did not abandon His covenant relationship with them, in fact it was deepened and widened in the new covenant which He sealed by the blood of His own Son. “Take, drink, this is the blood of the new covenant”.

Our God is per definition a covenantal God. Salvation, rebirth and justification is Him including us in His covenant. Sanctification is us living the conditions of His covenant, i.e. being renewed into the likeness of His Son.

Therefore, it is not a light matter that Israel changed their worship to Baal-berith, as if he was a covenant-making and keeping god! The roll-out of this exchange is clear as we see chaos ensuing under the rule of Abimelech, Baal-berith’s instrument of destruction.

Jerubbaal: the representative of God’s people

This brings us to the second character, Jerubbaal. This is Gideon, but in chapter 9 we exclusively encounter him as Jerubbaal.

In chapters 6-8, the writer of Judges made sure we know that Gideon is Jerubbaal. We are told he got this name from his Baal worshipping father after he broke down his altar. The name is translated as “Let Baal contend”, and his argument was that if Baal is a god, he must contend for himself.

During Gideon’s time of judging, this seems to have been forgotten, but now it comes into play, as Baal-berith started using Jerubbaal’s own son, Abimelech, as his chosen instrument. He would contend for the throne as king, starting at the house of Gideon.

This indicated that the road ahead for the people of God was not only one marked by a quest for personal ambition, but that of a so-called god trying to overthrow the God of Israel! The war was clearly a spiritual one! And this is a war that has been raging through the ages and will carry on until the final victory when all enemies will be subdued under the feet of Christ the King.

So in a very real sense Jerubbaal introduces us to this spiritual war. Time does not allow us to delve into this, but it Judges 9 is pointing us to the real spiritual war that Satan is waging against the redeemed, trying to contend against Christ. Well, we know how that will end for Satan! And until then, we are part of this battle. 

Abimelech: the anti-judge

Baal-berith’s chosen instrument is Abimelech. He was Gideon’s son by his concubine in Shechem. His name is also translated as “my father is king”, an indication of Gideon’s aspirations to actually be king.

Abimelech rises as an anti-judge, one not appointed by God to free His people. In that sense, all his actions are contrary to what the Judges stood for, namely salvation, deliverance, peace and justice, all of which pointed to the ultimate fulfilment in Christ.

At this point, we also need to keep in mind that Judges was written as a quest for the coming of the true king, and therefore the rise of Abimelech to power would indicate the depths to which they had sunk.

He
was purposefully conjuring himself into a kingdom built on lies, murder, and evil, promising ultimate pleasure and freedom but actually delivering enslavement and destruction of body, soul and spirit. This is the kingdom of Satan!

An unknown woman

Abimelech’s ambition did not go unchallenged. A fellow by the name of Gaal tried to stand up against him. Abimelech had victory over him and torched all the leaders of Shechem in the Tower of El-berith. Now that Abimelech tasted revenge, he continued to conquer Thebez. Once again the people fled into the tower, and Abimelech tried to torch them also. But we read “a certain woman” threw a millstone on his head and cracked his skull. Once again, a woman comes to the rescue!

This is such a precious moment in the story. We find all these big names, meaning all sorts of things. But eventually the enemy is defeated by an insignificant, unnamed woman who did not waver to crush his head!

Judges often picks up the theme that the ultimate defeat would be at the hands of the seed of a woman, and that through crushing his head. This would ultimately be fulfilled in the virgin Mary giving birth to a Son. Listen again to her conversation with the angel:

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy- the Son of God.

An insignificant young virgin would bear the one who would crush the head of Satan, bring down his corrupt rule of slavery through sin and death, and establish the eternal Kingdom of God!

Elohim: the sovereign God

This brings us to the final character in this narrative, God. It is significant that in this part of the narrative He is not called Yahweh, but Elohim. His battle is against Baal-berith and El-berith. He controls every aspect to the detail. He sends Jotham to tell a fable which was fulfilled. He caused enmity between Abimelech and the leaders who appointed him. And this he did in order to show that He is the King and will not let Baal or Abimelech think otherwise. Even more, He will not let Baal-berith or El-berith enslave His people under the false pretense of being a covenant god.

In this chapter He wins the war not as Yahweh, but as Elohim, the Sovereign Lord and ultimate King. This is how the battle will play out in the end. Satan will not be able to stand against the Rider on the white Horse, the King of kings and Lord of Lords.

Conclusion

Maybe after this you understand more about the battle that Christ waged for your soul. Satan and his demons on the one hand trying to enslave you under false pretenses and promises. God and Christ, the true God of the covenant, on the other side, winning the battle in the most unexpected way – the cross. But, think about this. He is the God of the covenant. In Christ He confirmed His covenant. And through saving you, He included you in His covenant. And ultimately, you will rest forever in His presence, which is the ultimate goal of His covenant.

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