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Abimelech (Heb. אֲבִימֶלֶך; "the [Divine] Father is King" or the [Divine] King is Father), the king of Gerar, and the male offspring of Gideon the Abiezrite by his Shechemite concubine (Judg. 8:31). During the period of the Judges, Abimelech became the ruler of Shechem through the support of his mother's family and the local oligarchy ("the lords of Shechem"; Judg. 9:2–3 et al.) who financed the hiring of a regiment of worthless and reckless fellows (9:4). With their aid, Abimelech murdered all but one of the 70 sons of Gideon (see Jotham ) to eliminate possible claims to the leadership of Shechem. He had reason for apprehension because of Gideon's special connections with this city.

The Bible does not count Abimelech among the Judges. He is not credited with having saved Israel. The placing of his story in the Book of Judges is apparently due to its connection with the traditions about the house of Gideon. At any rate, Abimelech maintained close ties with the Israelites, since he ruled [not 'judged'] over Israel three years (9:22). It is probable that the Manassites submitted to him because of his paternal lineage, though it is possible that he attained power solely by means of the support of his hired regiment. It would seem that Abimelech's connection with the Israelites did play a decisive role in contributing to his election as a ruler of Shechem. The preservation of normal relations with Israel was of vital importance to Canaanite Shechem which existed as a foreign enclave within the boundaries of the tribe of Manasseh.

According to the narrative, the "lords of Shechem" acclaimed Abimelech "king" over them (9:6). However, all indications point to the fact that the title "king" was used because of the lack of a more appropriate term for the type of ruler that existed in various cities in Syria and Ereẓ Israel who performed the functions and exercised the authority of a king. A ruler of this kind was chosen by the municipal institutions. There is evidence that the ruler was dependent on the city's institutions, which guarded their own status and power. Other non-monarchal rulers governed in Shechem at different times: Hamor the Hivite, ruler of Shechem in the days of Jacob (Gen. 34:2), was "chief of the country"; Lab'ayu, chief of Shechem during the 14th century B.C.E., known from the el-Amarna letters, was another such example.

In the course of time a conflict arose between Abimelech and the lords of Shechem, who had chosen him as their leader (Judg. 9:23). It appears that he wished to increase his power at the expense of the local oligarchy. The appointment of Zebul, who was among Abimelech's most prominent supporters and who protected the latter's interests in Shechem as the ruler of the city (9:30), testifies to these aspirations. According to the Bible, the "lords of Shechem" placed "men in ambush against [Abimelech] on the mountain tops" (9:25) to prove his incompetence in the delicate area of security and to remove him from power. They even conspired with Gaal son of Ebed (9:26), a non-local and non-Israelite personage, who headed an army of his own and who seduced the Shechemite population by underscoring the city's descent from Hamor the Hivite, its ancient founder (9:28–29). Possibly this reflects a split within the local population, part supporting Abimelech and part opposing him. Gaal apparently sought and found supporters among the Hivites (Horites) of Shechem, who were almost certainly a significant section of the city's population. It is a fact that Abimelech lost support precisely among the lords of Shechem.

Since Abimelech had to be informed about the events in Shechem by Zebul's messengers (9:31), it would seem that he was not a permanent resident but lived outside the city proper. Abimelech hastened to Shechem and attacked Gaal and his confederates (9:39–40). Abimelech's supporters in Shechem drove Gaal from the city (9:41). The continuation of the story implies that Abimelech decided to turn the territory of Shechem into his private estate by conquest. He completely destroyed the city, slaughtered its inhabitants, and sowed it with salt (9:45). He then invested Thebez (9:50 ff.). During the siege of the tower of Thebez he was mortally wounded by a millstone thrown down on him by a woman (9:53). Badly injured, he asked his armor bearer to slay him rather than let him die disgracefully at the hand of a woman (9:54).

Although the story of Abimelech is episodic, it represents a shift in Israelite attitudes leading to the establishment of the monarchy. There is an obvious continuity between the Israelites' request that Gideon be king over them and Abimelech's status as ruler of Israel. Only the period of the consolidation of the monarchal concept in Israel separated Abimelech's rule from the anointing of Saul.

Abimelech appears in several incidents in connection with Abraham and Isaac. Each of these patriarchs, fearing for his personal safety, represents his wife as his sister. Sarah's honor is saved through a dream theophany in which Abimelech's life is threatened; timely detection of the subterfuge preserves Rebekah's virtue. In both instances the king's integrity is manifest and he is righteously indignant at the deceit (Gen. 20; 26:1–11). Abimelech is also involved with both patriarchs in quarrels over wells (21:25; 26:15–16, 18–21). In both events he is accompanied by Phicol, chief of his troops (21:22, 32; 26:26), and concludes treaties (21:27–32; 26:28–31). Also, Beer-Sheba figures on each occasion (21:31; 26:33). The detailed similarities between the two stories and the resemblances of both to that of Genesis 12:10–20 have generally led critical scholars to assign Genesis 20–21 to the e source and Genesis 12 and 26 to J, regarding all three narratives as variants of a single tradition.

The name is ancient, and attested in the form Abi-milki as the name of the King of Tyre in the 14th century B.C.E., but because the Philistine migrations to Canaan do not antedate 1100 B.C.E., the title King of the Philistines (26:1, 8; cf. 18 – not in E) must be viewed as an anachronism.

In the Aggadah

Abimelech was referred to as a righteous Gentile (Mid. Ps. 34). His attempted seizure of Sarah is explained by the fact that he was childless, and that he hoped to be blessed with offspring by marrying such a pious woman (PdRE 26). Among his punishments for his sin were that ruffians entered his house, that boils erupted on his body (Gen. R. 64:9), and that his household became barren (BK 92a). Abimelech, however, clearly did not consider himself to be the only one at fault. According to the aggadic commentary on his words Behold it is for thee a covering of the eyes (Gen. 20:16), he said to Abraham You covered my eyes (i.e., by saying that Sarah was your sister), therefore the son which you will beget will be of covered eyes (i.e., blind). This prophecy was fulfilled in Isaac's old age (Gen. R. 52:12). The aggadic treatment of Isaac's relations with Abimelech is briefer. It records that, although he had heard of Rebekah's great beauty, Abimelech remembered his previous punishment, and therefore left her alone (Ag. Ber. 20). However, once Isaac had become so wealthy that people kept saying: Rather the dung of Isaac's mules, than Abimelech's gold and silver, he became jealous, and claimed that Isaac's wealth was derived from his favors (Gen. R. 64:7).


E. Nielson, Shechem, a Tradition-Historical Investigation (1955); E. Taeubler, Biblische Studien i: Die Epoche der Richter, ed. by H.-J. Zobel (1958); Reviv, in: IEJ, 16 (1966), 252–7; G. Dossin, in: L'Ancien Testament et l'Orient (1957), 163–7 (Orientalia et Biblica Lovaniensia, no. 1); Ehrman, in: Tarbiz, 29 (1959), 259; Gevirtz, in: VT, 3 (1953), 192–5 (Eng.); van der Meersch, in: Verbum Domini, 31 (1953), 335–43; Milik, in: Verbum Domini, 31 (1953), 335–43; Milik, in: RB, 66 (1959), 550–75; Naor, in: BIES, 20 (1950), 16–20; Fensham, in: BA, 24 (1962), 48–50; Gevirtz, in: VT, 13 (1963), 52–62 (Eng.). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J.C. Exum, Was sagt das Richterbuch den Frauen? (1997); Y. Amit, Judges (1999), 173–80; D. Herr and M. Boyd, in: BAR 28/1 (2002), 34–37, 62.

J. Skinner, Genesis (ICC, 19302), S.V.; E.A. Speiser, Genesis (1964), S.V. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: C.S. Ehrlich, The Philistines in Transition: A History from ca. 1000–730 BCE (1996); S.D. Sperling, The Original Torah (1998), 21–22, 86–90.

Source:  Hanoch Reviv and Nahum M. Sarna, Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.