Judges 9: Abimelech’s conspiracy, the parable of the trees, Abimelech’s downfall.
This chapter follows the story of Gideon’s many sons; he had seventy sons by his many wives, and also one other son, Abimelech, by a concubine. After Gideon’s death, Abimelech went to the men of Shechem, where his mother’s family lived, and asked them if they would rather be ruled by seventy sons, or by him. The men of Shechem agreed it would be better to have one king, so they gave him seventy pieces of silver from the temple of Baal. Using the silver, Abimelech hired men to come with him, and they killed the seventy sons of Gideon except the youngest, Jotham, who hid. Then they anointed Abimelech king.
When Jotham heard the news, he stood on the top of Mount Gerizim and taunted the men of Shechem with a parable. In his parable, the trees were searching for a king to lead them; they ask the olive, then the fig, then the vine to rule over them. Each refuses, because they do not want to give up their special purpose. Finally, the bramble agrees to lead them, but gives them the choice of either sheltering in its non-existent shade or being consumed by its own fire.
Jotham explained the parable, warning that Abimelech and the men of Shechem would more than likely tear each other down in the end. Then he fled to Beer to escape his brother’s vengeance.
After Abimelech had ruled Israel for three years, the Lord sent an evil spirit to spark ill-will between Abimelech and the men of Shechem. This evil spirit was meant to avenge the killing of Gideon’s seventy sons.
The rest of this chapter describes the city’s descent into chaos, illustrating the various manifestations of evil and falsity through many examples. Robbers were sent to ambush travellers in the mountains, the people of Shechem drunkenly cursed Abimelech in the temple of their god, and the tower of Shechem was burned, killing a thousand hiding in it. Finally, Abimelech lay siege to Thebez, and the people took shelter on the top of a tower there. When he tried to burn that tower, a woman hurled down a millstone to break Abimelech’s skull. In his final moments, Abimelech commanded his armourbearer to kill him with his sword, so that people would not say he was killed by a woman. All of these incidents depict the absolute corruption under Abimelech’s rule.
The key to understanding this story is that Gideon’s son, Abimelech, is the son of a concubine, not a lawful wife. Spiritually speaking, a concubine stands for a love that has become distorted. A genuine love for someone is a love for sake of that other person, while a distorted love means loving someone for what we can get from them (see Swedenborg’s work, Divine Love and Wisdom 271, on the love of dominating for the sake of self-love).
The references to Gideon’s seventy sons stand for the enormity of Abimelech’s wrongdoing. The number ‘seven’ stands for something fully worked through, and seventy even more so.
Jotham’s parable presents three levels of pure love: the love of the Lord (the olive with its fragrant oil), the love of truth (the vine with its rich wine), and the love of use (the fig with its abundant seeds). The bramble, with its painful grip, stands for a love of evil and falsity (see Swedenborg’s work, Arcana Caelestia 273).
The evil spirit sent by the Lord seems to show that God was punishing his own people, but that is only how things appear (Arcana Caelestia 1838). When we look deeper, we will realize that we are punished by our own evil actions, for evil breeds more evil and there is no rest for the wicked (see Isaiah 48:22). In regeneration, the process of breaking down the power of evil and false states in ourselves is called “vastation”. Once we have done the grueling work to minimize these influences over us, we can fully appreciate the joys of spiritual life (Arcana Caelestia 2694).
Spiritually, an ambush depicts the way hell attacks our minds: without warning. Drunkenness and cursing a former ally stands for the abandonment of all values and integrity. The tower represents the pride which rises up in self-love and love of dominance, and beyond that, Abimelech’s aversion to being killed by a woman stands for the rejection of all that is good and true. Her millstone grinds corn to make it edible, in the same way that we must process truths to put them to use (see Swedenborg’s work, Apocalypse Explained 1182).
This powerful chapter shows the descent of evil into greater evils, until they become so consuming they have no vestige of good left, and no recognition of truth remaining. The final two verses state: “Thus God repaid the wickedness of Abimelech, which he had done to his father by killing his seventy brothers. And all the evil of the men of Shechem God returned on their own heads, and on them came the curse of Jotham the son of Gideon.”