By Joy LaPrade
Seventy men slaughtered on one stone; an entire town full of people killed, another thousand burned to death, and in the end, Abimelech lying on the ground with his skull crushed, begging to be run through with a sword.
Judges 9 is a bloody story. What sets it apart from other chapters in Judges is not necessarily the body count, but where the violence takes place. This is not a victory narrative, the Israelites banding together to triumph over a common enemy, but a family tragedy. It is a story of brothers consuming one another. It is a story about a son who does not know his father, and his desperate attempts to fill that void. In their tribal warfare, Abimelech and his family hold up a mirror to those of us who have been adopted as sons and called to live together as brothers.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul warns us against consuming one another, the very same language Jotham used when he rebuked Abimelech and the men of Shechem: “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15). What was Paul warning us against? Should we assume we are safe because we are not taking up swords and millstones against each other?
We cannot measure the sin of Abimelech and his brothers by the quantities of blood spilled. Their weapons of discord are just as readily available to us, in our eyes and in our hearts. The violence of Judges 9 is the result of men who cannot see their brothers because they do not know their father. Throughout the chapter, Abimelech and the men of Shechem define their “brother” as the one who will most benefit them in the moment.
Abimelech appeals to the men of Shechem based on their relation to him (“Remember also that I am your bone and your flesh,” v. 2) in order to murder the 70 men with whom he shares Gideon as father. Then, ironically, when the men of Shechem plot to overthrow Abimelech, their justification is that they owe him none of the loyalty due to a relative: “Who is Abimelech … that we should serve him? Is he not the son of Jerubbaal [Gideon)” (v. 28)?
Both Abimelech and the men of Shechem are consistent in their morals—they will not hurt their family—but selective in their vision. They will love and care for their brother just as long as he does not get in the way of their path to power and wealth.
We who belong to one another in Christ are also in danger of this blindness. Who do we turn away from, in our local gathering or in the broader church? Perhaps we avert our eyes as we walk past those who are suffering, as Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan, because we do not want the weight of responsibility that would come from seeing them as neighbor or brother. Or perhaps we choose to call “brother” the one who has much to offer us, whose wealth or reputation we would be glad to share, leaving those with shabby clothing in the corner.
Our envy and pride blind us, causing us to see brothers and sisters as rivals, strangers to whom we have no responsibility. From there it is easy to commit the crimes of murder and adultery that Jesus warned against. In the hidden corners of our hearts, our homes and churches can be as full of treachery, rape and violence as the bloodiest Old Testament stories. Distant as we are from Abimelech and his brothers, we are in just as much danger of consuming one another.
What can save us from this?
If we recognize ourselves in the bloodstained pages of Judges 9, we need more than to simply use the name “brother” in our dealings with each other. We need more than a list of family rules; we need someone to heal our sight.
Our love for one another as siblings can only begin when we see and know our Father.