At the end of Judges Chapter 8 we learned that after the death of Gideon (=Yeruba'al, "he who strives with Baal") the Children of Israel reverted "and they went astray after the Baalim and they put BAAL BRIS as god over them" (v. 33). It is unnecessary to try to imagine the ancient Israelites falling down and mindlessly prostrating to sticks and stones. The Talmud (B'rachos 12b) interprets the word VE-ZONU, "they went astray", lit. "they whored after", as implying that they entertained THOUGHTS of idolatry, which suggests that many may not have openly practiced idolatrous rituals but were ideologically alienated from their ancestral faith. In fact the ideology underlying certain kinds of idolatry can be seemingly highly profound and indeed very attractive to the enquiring mind.

What exactly the ideology of BAAL BRIS was is hard to say. The Talmud (Shabbos 83) says that BAAL BRIS (lit. "master of the covenant") was identical with ZVUV, the god of the Philistines of Ekron. A ZVUV is a "fly". It may seem weird that anyone would worship a fly, though in fact flies have been even more successful than humanity in populating the world with their kind and can usually move a lot faster than even the best swatters. Whether this god was actually represented as a fly of some kind is open to question. The rabbis encouraged mispronouncing the names of idols in order to deride them. What is significant is that the Israelites, who were sworn to God's Covenant (BRIS), had now allowed the very concept of the Covenant, with the loyalty it demands, to become degraded. Thus the story of AVIMELECH - who burned up the people of Shechem who followed this idolatry - is essentially one of betrayal and its bloody consequences.


We also learned at the end of Chapter 8 that Gideon had seventy legitimate sons and one son from his PILEGESH in Shechem. Under Torah law a PILEGESH is a woman that a man designates for himself as a concubine but without the ceremony of KIDDUSHIN (sanctifying a woman to oneself as a wife, the first stage of marriage) and without the protection of a KESUBA (the "marriage contract" guaranteeing the woman financial security even in widowhood or after divorce). The PILEGESH thus does not have the status of a wife and is considered somewhat disreputable: thus RaDaK on Judges 11:1 equates PILEGESH with ZONAH, "whore".

Did Gideon call this son AVIMELECH - or did the boy that was born of this not-so-proper relationship take the name for himself? From Judges 8:31, a careful reading of the Hebrew suggests that he himself gave himself the name of AVIMELECH, which literally means "My father is king": thus he tried to cover over his disreputable origin using the KUDOS of Gideon. However, AVIMELECH also has the connotation of I WANT TO BE KING: AVI is thus from the same root as AVA, I want, as in EVIYON, the "poor one", who "wants" (see Likutey Moharan I, 10:4).

Midrash Tanchuma contrasts this AVIMELECH unfavorably with AVIMELECH king of the Philistines in the time of Abraham (Genesis ch 20 etc.). " 'Better is a near neighbor than a distant brother' (Proverbs 27:10). Better was Avimelech king of the Philistines who gave great honor to Abraham, saying 'Here, my land is before you' (Gen. 20:15) than Avimelech son of Yerubaal who killed his brothers. Said the Holy One blessed be He to Avimelech: 'You wicked man. You killed SEVENTY MEN ON ONE STONE (Judges 9:5) - You will be punished': 'And a certain woman cast down the MILLSTONE (ibid. v. 53). 'He who digs a trap will fall into it and he that rolls a stone will have it come back against him' (Prov. 26:27)."


The city of Shechem was designated for punishments from long before. It was there that Jacob's daughter Dinah had been raped, sullying the purity of his family and leading to the slaughter of the men of Shechem by Levi and Shimon (Gen. ch 34). It was to Shechem that Joseph's brothers went to graze and devise their plan to destroy him. The solemn ceremony of the Blessings and Curses (Deut. 11:29 ff; ibid. 27:11; Joshua ch 8) had been carried out on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival overlooking Shechem. Joseph's bones had been finally buried Shechem, but since the death of Joshua there had been a steady decline in the Israelites that was expressed now in the corruption of the leadership. Faith and trust in God were replaced with mob appeal.

In Shechem, Avimelech used his mother's family's influence to build a political base for himself founded not on loyalty but on popular resentment against the splendid dynasty of 70 princes that Gideon had established. Avimelech won over the BAALEY SHECHEM - the "owners", "masters" or "bosses" of the place with all the Mafiosi connotations that the term has. With money taken from the Temple of BAAL BRIS (was this the local bank?) Avimelech hired a gang of ruffians to form a private militia to carry out the bloody killing of his seventy paternal brothers.

Only YOTAM was saved. The name implies "God (YO) is perfect/pure (TAM)" and is also an anagram of YATOM (="orphan"). To put his curse upon the murderer Avimelech, Yotam went up Mt. Gerizim . In the ceremony of Blessings and Curses, the blessings had been delivered from Mt Gerizim and the curses from Mt Eival. Yotam reasoned that if so, the blessings went in the direction of Mt Eival and the curses to Mt Gerizim, and thus the latter was a suitable location from which to send curses in the direction of the Bosses of Shechem. (In later time, after the exile of the Ten Tribes, Sennacheriv under his policy of population exchange settled the KOOTIM, who came to be known also as the SHOMRONIM - Samaritans - in Shechem. They semi-converted to Torah practice but later fell into idolatry and placed an image of a dove on the ill-fated Mt Gerizim, after which they were proscribed by the rabbis as idolaters. In many Talmudic editions the term KOOTI is used synonymously with NOCHRI or AKUM - oveid avodah zarah, "idolater".)

Yotam's eloquent parable about the trees turning successively to the Olive Tree, the Fig Tree and the Vine to rule over them alludes to the growing degeneracy of the Israelite leadership. The Olive Tree alludes to Osniel ben Knaz ( Judah is compared to an olive tree -- Jeremiah 11:16). The Fig Tree alludes to Devorah, who gave the people sweet nourishment with her Song, while the Vine refers to Gideon. That Avimelech could be compared only with the pricky thorn bush which hurts anyone who touches it and affords scarcely any shade is symptomatic of the decline of the leadership.

Our text (ch 9 v 22) states that Avimelech ruled over Israel for three years, implying that he was more than merely a local tyrant, although no heroic acts of national service are attributed to him. He was merely power-hungry. Nevertheless, he is considered the Seventh Judge of Israel, and was the first to actually be called MELECH ("king"; ch 9 v 6). He had about as much staying power as the succession of rickety governments with which contemporary Israel has been plagued in recent years: Avimelech ruled for only three years.

The RUACH RAAH ("bad spirit") that God sent between Avimelech and the bosses of Shechem is also reminiscent of the break-up of so many latter-day Israeli political coalitions with all the accompanying betrayal and acrimony. Opportunism and shifting loyalty were the order of the day. "And all the bosses of Shechem. went and made Avimelech king" (v. 6). "And the bosses of Shechem BETRAYED Avimelech" (v. 23). "And Ga'al ben Eved moved into Shechem, and the bosses of Shechem TRUSTED IN HIM" (v. 26). Verse 25 illustrates the anarchy that prevailed: this verse is cited in Talmud Bava Kama 72b as the paradigm case of blatant robbery.

Rashi states that GAAL BEN EVED "was from another people" (Rashi on v. 26). GAAL has the connotation of vomiting, and EVED is a slave. His influence over the bosses of Shechem illustrates the extent of the Israelite assimilation with the surrounding peoples. They listen when Gaal tells them they would be better off serving HAMOR FATHER OF SHECHEM (the Hivite, the archetypal serpent) than serving Avimelech (v. 28).

Avimelech is the embodiment of degenerate MALCHUS (kingship). MALCHUS is identified with FIRE (see Likutey Moharan I, 4) - and Avimelech takes vengeance on the people of Shechem for their rebellion against him by going on a rampage of bloodshed and burning, moving from town to town to chase after and destroy his enemies.

This was a horrible civil war the like of which had not been known among the Israelites. It was stopped only through the quick thinking and resourcefulness of the anonymous woman who rolled a heavy millstone down from the fortress tower of the city of THEBETZ , smashing Avimelech's skull just in time to prevent him setting fire to it. The moral of the whole sorry story seems to be that secular politics is a dirty business.


Our sources contain scant information about the exploits of Tola ben Pu'ah of the tribe of Issachar who judged Israel after Avimelech, and very little about Ya'ir HaGiladi, who seems to have established a splendid dynastic empire with his thirty sons on their thirty foals and their thirty cities. Rashi on verse 6 states that even he was numbered among those who abandoned HaShem and did not serve Him.

The deepening idolatry of the people now encompassed the cults of no less than SEVEN of the surrounding nations, despite the fact that God had saved Israel from SEVEN enemies (v. 6 & v. 11, see Rashi). This led to a terrible retribution in which the Israelites became subject to yet another "existential threat", this time from the Philistines and the Ammonites.

The Ammonites, who not only gained sway over the territories of Reuven, Gad and half-Menasheh east of the R. Jordan but were now attacking the very heartland of Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim (v. 8-9) were the offspring of Lot's incestuous relationship with his younger daughter (Genesis 19:38). Their territory was in what is today northern Jordan , whose capital, Amman , is named after them. The Ammonites' frightening successes against the Israelites left the distraught leaders of Gil'ad asking the same question that so many are asking today. "Who is the man who will start to fight for us.?" There is a vacancy for Mashiach: who is going to fill it?



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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