Abimelek is Gideon's son, but by a concubine. Gideon had many sons by many different wives, but Abimelek was different because he was conceived with a concubine, a servant-wife of Gideon's. The situation Abimelek inherits is unusual, compared to the pattern of sin in the rest of the stories in Judges. The pattern that exists often ends with a judge's death which is followed by a period where Israel reverts back to sin and idolatry. They are then turned over to a foreign nation for judgment, cry out to God after a time of oppression, and are rescued by God when God sends a deliverer to rescue them. But Abimelek's story picks up almost immediately after Gideon's death.
Abimelek is not content to see how things develop. Rather, he surveys the scene, considers what his role could be going forward, and makes a power-play for the leadership of Israel: he sets himself up as a judge. He considers that, because of Gideon's popularity (despite the idolatrous turn at the end of his life), Israel may want leadership to continue from the house of Gideon. So he goes to Shechem, not coincidentally the place of his birth, and asks the rest of his blood-brothers to ask the people there if they would rather be "ruled" by him or by the rest of Gideon's sons (2). He reminds them that he, and not the other sons of Gideon, is their flesh and blood. This is a way of saying he knows them: he knows the land, the scene, the eccentricities of the Shechemites.
This sounded like a good idea to the Shechemites, especially when they realized they could follow and be led by one who "is related to us" (3). They immediately gave him tribute, a payment to guarantee his protection over them, which Abimelek used to hire "reckless scoundrels" to work for him as enforcers. One problem with this payment, besides the immorality of it, was the location of the money: it came from the temple of Baal-Berith, a false god. Through this connection, Abimelek is already working for himself...and for a false god. The God of Israel is really nowhere to be found in this narrative, as a godless people follow a godless leader, the son of the man who led them there.
Abimelek must have realized how he had manipulated his way into leadership. Still, at this point, he was just a regional leader. To solidify his leadership, and to erase any competition, he paid a visit to his half-brothers in Ophrah. When they came out to meet with him, he killed them all on one stone. (Oddly enough, Abimelek himself is later done in by "one stone," a millstone dropped the top of a tower that crushed his head.) However, one half-brother, the youngest, Jotham, escaped.
When the people realized what had happened they came to Abimelek to crown him king. This is reminiscent of the time of Samuel when the people also wanted a king. Samuel felt rejected, and was reminded by God that they were actually rejecting him, not Samuel. In this case, the people did not even consult God--they took the responsibility upon themselves of crowning Abimelek king.
But there is one person in this story who speaks for God, who stands up for what is right and for the people: Jotham, the escaped half-brother. When he heard what had happened, and how Abimelek had been made king, he ascends a hill and speaks to the people from there. He tells a story about the deceit of power. He tells about the trees who kept inviting different types of fruit and trees to be king over them. But each one realized that they had to take care of themselves first and weren't able to be king over the trees. Finally, a thornbush accepted. Jotham compares Abimelek, literally, with the thorn that gets caught in the flesh.
The point of his parable is judgment. He calls on the people to discern if their actions in killing Gideon's sons and in crowning Abimelek king have been honorable to Gideon's name. The result of his parable is that they will see the "fruit" of their decisions through the leadership of Abimelek--if they have honored Gideon (which we know they have not) then positive things will result. If they have not honored Gideon, then they will be consumed as a result of their bad choices.
After this, Jotham fled and lived in exile because he feared the reaction of Abimelek.
Abimelek's Reign of Terror
Abimelek reigned as king for three years without incident. But after three years, and despite Abimelek's attempts to leave him out of the story, God showed up. He stirred up trouble between Abimelek and the Shechemites (his own people) so that the murder of Gideon's sons would be avenged. This avenging would affect both Abimelek (who committed the murders) and the Shechemites (who were complicit in the murders). The Shechemites set up an ambush on the hilltops to rob people who passed by, thereby creating terror in the kingdom among those who needed to travel.
To make matters worse, a mysterious man named Gaal moved into the area and challenged Abimelek's authority. He reminded them that even though Abimelek himself was a local boy, his father was not. He pointed to an alternative ruler who was more "home-grown" than Abimelek and stated that if he had an army, he would call out Abimelek's army for a fight!
Abimelek heard about this challenge and because he couldn't back down from a fight, after a period of posturing between the two men (Abimelek and Gaal), there was a skirmish between Abimelek's troops and Gaal, who commanded the citizens of Shechem. Abimelek won round one, and round two began the next day when the defeated Shechemites tried to get back to life-as-usual. As the people went out into the fields, Abimelek attacked them, defeated them, and trashed the city, going so far as to salt it so nothing could be grown there.
Then things went from bad to worse. Despite having destroyed the city, Abimelek wasn't satisfied in his "revenge tour." He heard some people were holed up in the "tower of Shechem." So he grabbed branches, ordered his men to do likewise, and burned the tower down, killing about a thousand people who had sought sanctuary inside the temple.
But Abimelek wasn't done. His need for revenge was strong, and he went to another town and captured it as well. Inside the city, the people sought refuge in another tower. Abimelek knew how to defeat them, so they gathered more wood and began to set fire to this tower also. But this time, a woman used all her strength to lift a heavy millstone to the top of the tower, where she shoved it over the edge. Abimelek looked up just in time to see the millstone come down upon him and crack his skull.
He realized he was dying so he called to his armor-bearer. But he had a strange request: he wanted his armor-bearer to kill him, to spare him the indignity of being killed by a woman. The armor-bearer listened to his boss and ran him through with his sword, and he died.
Israel did not even grieve the loss of Abimelek. It was such a strange time and set of circumstances that when Abimelek was killed the Israelites simply "went home."
Actions and Consequences
Why did Israel go through all this? Why is this story in Judges? There is concluding coda to this story which sums up Judges: actions have consequences. Abimelek raised himself up in an ungodly way and didn't bother to recognize God at all during his reign. Accordingly, God recognized him, but not in the way Abimelek would have wanted. The narrator of Judges tells us, "Thus God repaid the wickedness that Abimelek had done to his father by murdering his seventy brothers. God also made the people of Shechem pay for all their wickedness" (56-57). Actions have consequences. Ignoring God comes back around. Ultimately, Abimelek's story reminds us to follow God, not our own desires, because only God's agenda provides us with the purity that will keep us from destructive, selfish leadership.
Abimelek's story also reminds us that we are all leaders because we all influence others. From Abimelek, to Jotham, to Gaal, all three men used words to influence others. Abimelek led them astray, Jotham was the only one rooted in truth, and Gaal led others to their destruction. What kind of leader are you? Are you a patient leader, waiting for God before you give "marching orders" to the people you influence? Or are you an impatient leader, impetuously leading others astray as you stumble along, hoping to find another angle to keep you in front of people?
In Luke 17:1-4, Jesus provides a teaching about not causing others to stumble in their faith. It seems like a generic teaching...until Jesus says that it would be better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck than to cause someone to stumble in their faith. It seems that Jesus may be recalling the story of Abimelek as he teaches this. The connection is the millstone because it reminds us the millstone that was used to crack the skull of Abimelek. Looking at the context of Jesus' teaching, we see the emphasis on not causing others to stumble in their faith.
What was Abimelek noted for? Causing others to stumble. He led them astray, did not focus on God at all, and killed many people who consequently lost the ability to focus on God.
Could this be Abimelek's curtain call, to be remembered by Jesus, not as Israel's first king (albeit a regional one), but as the poster boy for causing others to stumble? He is, finally, a reminder to us to check the substance of our lives, to ensure that we are living for God, protecting and forgiving others, not leading them astray through our words and actions.