1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Abimelech
ABIMELECH (Hebrew for “father of [or is] the king”). (1) A king of Gerar in South Palestine with whom Isaac, in the Bible, had relations. The patriarch, during his sojourn there, alleged that his wife Rebekah was his sister, but the king doubting this remonstrated with him and pointed out how easily adultery might have been unintentionally committed (Gen. xxvi.). Abimelech is called “king of the Philistines,” but the title is clearly an anachronism. A very similar story is told of Abraham and Sarah (ch. xx.), but here Abimelech takes Sarah to wife, although he is warned by a divine vision before the crime is actually committed. The incident is fuller and shows a great advance in ideas of morality. Of a more primitive character, however, is another parallel story of Abraham at the court of Pharaoh, king of Egypt (xii. 10-20), where Sarah his wife is taken into the royal household, and the plagues sent by Yahweh lead to the discovery of the truth. Further incidents in Isaac’s life at Gerar are narrated in Gen. xxvi. (cp. xxi. 22-34, time of Abraham), notably a covenant with Abimelech at Beer-sheba (whence the name is explained “well of the oath”); (see Abraham). By a pure error, or perhaps through a confusion in the traditions, Achish the Philistine (of Gath, 1 Sam. xxi., xxvii.), to whom David fled, is called Abimelech in the superscription to Psalm xxxiv.
(2) A son of Jerubbaal or Gideon (q.v.), by his Shechemite concubine (Judges viii. 31, ix.). On the death of Gideon, Abimelech set himself to assert the authority which his father had earned, and through the influence of his mother’s clan won over the citizens of Shechem. Furnished with money from the treasury of the temple of Baal-berith, he hired a band of followers and slew seventy (cp. 2 Kings x. 7) of his brethren at Ophrah, his father’s home. This is one of the earliest recorded instances of a practice common enough on the accession of Oriental despots. Abimelech thus became king, and extended his authority over central Palestine. But his success was short-lived, and the subsequent discord between Abimelech and the Shechemites was regarded as a just reward for his atrocious massacre. Jotham, the only one who is said to have escaped, boldly appeared on Mount Gerizim and denounced the ingratitude of the townsmen towards the legitimate sons of the man who had saved them from Midian. “Jotham’s fable” of the trees who desired a king may be foreign to the context; it is a piece of popular lore, and cannot be pressed too far: the nobler trees have no wish to rule over others, only the bramble is self-confident. The “fable” appears to be antagonistic to ideas of monarchy. The origin of the conflicts which subsequently arose is not clear. Gaal, a new-comer, took the opportunity at the time of the vintage, when there was a festival in the temple, to head a revolt and seized Shechem. Abimelech, warned by his deputy Zebul, left his residence at Arumah and approached the city. In a fine bit of realism we are told how Gaal observed the approaching foe and was told by Zebul, “You see the shadow of the hills as men,” and as they drew nearer Zebul’s ironical remark became a taunt, “Where is now thy mouth? is not this the people thou didst despise? go now and fight them!” This revolt, which Abimelech successfully quelled, appears to be only an isolated episode. Another account tells of marauding bands of Shechemites which disturbed the district. The king disposed his men (the whole chapter is specially interesting for the full details it gives of the nature of ancient military operations), and after totally destroying Shechem, proceeded against Thebez, which had also revolted. Here, while storming the citadel, he was struck on the head by a fragment of a millstone thrown from the wall by a woman. To avoid the disgrace of perishing by a woman’s hand, he begged his armour-bearer to run him through the body, but his memory was not saved from the ignominy he dreaded (2 Sam. xi. 21). It is usual to regard Abimelech’s reign as the first attempt to establish a monarchy in Israel, but the story is mainly that of the rivalries of a half-developed petty state, and of the ingratitude of a community towards the descendants of its deliverer. (See, further, Jews, Judges.) (S. A. C.)