Image: The Death of Abimelech
The number of suicides in the United States has risen sharply in the past few years. According to a recent report, almost 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year. Although the number of suicides is increasing every year, the low number of suicides mentioned in the Bible is striking.
In the whole Old Testament there are only six cases of suicide. Those individuals who committed suicide were Abimelech, Samson, Saul, Saul’s armorbearer, Ahithophel, and Zimri. In addition, there are three references to suicide in the Apocrypha and one case of suicide in the New Testament. Today I continue my study of suicide in the Old Testament by studying Abimelech’s suicide. It is my goal to study every case of suicide in the Bible and in the Apocrypha. At the end of my studies, I will look at the problem of suicide from a Christian perspective. For previous studies on suicide in the Bible, click the link at the end of this study.
Abimelech was a son of Gideon, the judge, by one of his concubines. Abimelech’s mother was from Shechem. The text seems to indicate that her family was very influential in the city (Judges 9:1-2). After the death of Gideon, Abimelech persuaded the elders of Shechem to anoint him king.
Although Gideon had refused that honor, Abimelech was so eager to gain the control of Israel that he went to Ophrah, to his father’s home, and murdered all his seventy brothers. Only Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon, escaped by hiding himself in a safe place. A large number of people followed Abimelech, but his rules was very short: “Abimelech ruled over Israel three years” (Judges 9:22).
After three years, the inhabitants of Shechem recognized that Abimelech was an evil man and they revolted against him. While the leaders of Shechem opposed the rule of Abimelech, Zebul, the governor of Shechem informed Abimelech of what the leaders of Shechem were planning to do to him.
In order to fight against Abimelech, the people of Shechem asked Gaal and his followers to fight for them. Gaal marched against Abimelech. However, Abimelech had set an ambush for Gaal who was defeated and forced to return to Shechem. Because of his defeat, the people of Shechem, with the encouragement of Zebul, expelled Gaal and his followers out of Shechem.
To punish the leaders of Shechem, Abimelech attacked the people of Shechem as they were working in the fields. He also attacked and captured the city and killed all the people in it. He destroyed the walls of the city and scattered salt all over the land in order to make the land desolate.
After Abimelech conquered Shechem, the leaders of the city fled for safety. The writer of Judges gives a description of the events that led to Abimelech’s defeat:
All the citizens of Shechem’s Tower heard about it and went into the basement of the temple of El Berith. When Abimelech was told that they had gathered there, he and all his men went to Mount Zalmon. Abimelech took an ax, cut some brushwood, and carried it on his shoulder. He told his men, “Hurry and do what you’ve seen me do!” So all his troops also cut brushwood and followed Abimelech. They piled the brushwood on top of the basement and set it on fire with the people inside. So all the people in Shechem’s Tower died too. There were about a thousand men and women.
Then Abimelech went to Thebez, camped there, and captured it. Now, there was a strong tower inside the town. All the men, women, and leaders of the town fled to it. They locked the door behind them and went up on the roof of the tower. Abimelech came to the tower. He began to fight against it and went near the entrance of the tower to burn it down. Then a woman threw a small millstone that hit Abimelech on the head and cracked his skull (Judges 9:46-53).
When the millstone fell on the head of Abimelech, the stone cracked his skull. Abimelech knew that he was dying and as an act of desperation he called his armorbearer and asked him to hasten his death. The reason Abimelech wanted to die was because as a warrior, he did not want to be killed by a woman.
Abimelech told his armorbearer: “Take your sword and kill me! I don’t want anyone to say, ‘A woman killed Abimelech.’ It is not known how Abimelech knew that it was a woman who threw the stone from the tower. It is possible that he guessed correctly because the task of grinding grain was the task of women (Isaiah 47:2).
Abimelech’s armorbearer did as his master had asked. He delivered the final blow and Abimelech died by the hand of his attendant (Judges 9:54).
After the millstone fell on his head, Abimelech realized that he was mortally wounded. What makes Abimelech’s suicide so unique is his great ego as a man and as a warrior. As a man and as a soldier his ego would not allow him to die at the hands of a woman.
The story of Sisera and Jael is another case where a great Canaanite warrior was killed by a woman. Abimelech was killed by an unknown woman while Sisera was killed by the woman in whose tent he had sought refuge.
The irony of Abimelech’s death is that he was killed by a single stone. His death recalls the way he killed his seventy brothers on a single stone (Judges 9:5, 18).
One cannot avoid comparing Abimelech’s suicide with Saul’s suicide. When asked to kill his master, the armorbearer did not hesitate. He took his sword and killed Abimelech. When Saul lay mortally wounded, he asked his armorbearer to kill him, but his attendant refused to kill the king of Israel. Rather, after Saul had killed himself, his armorbearer took his own life.
While Saul’s servant refused to kill his master, the servant of Abimelech had no qualms about killing his master. It is quite possible that after this event, he went home and resumed his normal life.
Evaluation of Abimelech’s Suicide
When one evaluates Abimelech’s death one must classify his death as assisted suicide. There is no criticism of Abimelech’s action in the book of Judges. Abimelech’s death is seen as a fulfillment of Jotham’s curse: “Let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the lords of Shechem, and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the lords of Shechem, and from Beth-millo, and devour Abimelech” (Judges 9:20).
Abimelech’s death could also be understood as a divine punishment for his evil actions: “God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the lords of Shechem; and the lords of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech” (Judges 9:23). However, nowhere in the book is his suicide seen as divine retribution.
Although what he did was tragic, the writer of the book of Judges does not write anything about the morality of this assisted suicide. Abimelech is not condemned for taking his life and the armorbearer is not criticized for carrying out the killing of his master.
Nothing is said about Abimelech’s burial. It is possible that this omission may be an implied condemnation of Abimelech. However, it is more probable that nothing is said about Abimelech’s family and his burial because he was considered to be a wicked man who deserved his fate.
Abimelech is remembered later not because he committed suicide, but because he was killed by a woman: “Who killed Abimelech son of Jerubbaal [Gideon]? Did not a woman throw an upper millstone on him from the wall, so that he died at Thebez?” (2 Samuel 11:21).
In conclusion, the writer of the book of Judges is neutral on Abimelech’s suicide. Although Abimelech was an evil man who committed abominable atrocities, the writer never attributes his death to his evil ways.
The book of Judges or the Bible never suggests that his suicide came as a recompense for his wickedness. If Abimelech is remembered in the Bible it is not because he killed himself or because he asked someone to kill him. Rather, Abimelech is remembered because he died a disgraceful death: he was killed by a woman.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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