Abimelech’s Suicide

Death of Abimelech

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’s Wars

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.

Abimelech’s Defeat

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).

Abimelech’s Suicide

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.

Studies on Suicide in the Bible

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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8 Responses to Abimelech’s Suicide

  1. Shilloh Wall says:

    I heard from Proffesor Jacob L. Wright. on The Torah.com that there is an older version of the story of Deborah when Barak is said to have killed Sisera instead of Jael, and that all of the women who took down men was all a lie and not a single woman took down a man, and that it was put there to emasculate the male heroes of Judges.
    And also that Abimelech was not killed by a woman Is this true? I pray that it is not true, I pray that the women actually did what they did how the bible tells us, I pray that the events actually happened and that the women actually killed these men. So what do you know about an older version of the story of deborah about Barak killing Sisera instead of Jael? What is it called?

    Like

    • Shilloh,

      I do not know about this old story where Barak killed Sisera and not Jael. This story must be based on Jewish tradition, a tradition that contradicts what the Bible says. To say that women did not kill these men is to deprive these women of their identity as women and their role as persons capable of heroic acts. This is also a misogynistic statement because it reflects a prejudice against women, saying that women cannot do what men can do. In the Ancient Near East it was a shame for a warrior to be killed by a woman. So, to say that Jael did not kill Sisera or that Abimelech was not killed by a woman in an attempt at defending the honor of these two men. They were killed by women no matter what other stories say about their death.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

      • Shiloh Wall says:

        That’s great, and also since Abimelech was already dying than why should it count as suicide? Abimelech was about to die by her hand anyway. And also Abimelech tried to lie about his death, he was clearly beaten by a girl, and not just any girl but a beautiful fit African girl! I will find and merry a woman like her! This biblical event is truly empowering for all women!

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      • Shiloh,

        You have to remember that Abimelech was still alive when he was killed. Today we would called this an act of assisted suicide. I doubt that the woman who killed Abimelech was “a beautiful fit African girl.”

        Claude Mariottini

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  2. Shiloh Wall says:

    Remember, Abimelech was mortally wounded (and was just about to die because of what the woman did to him,she sent him to his deathbed!)and as he was about to die he asks his amorbearor to kill him(so that no one would say a woman killed him), but his armor bearor only stabbed him while he was dying, and it killed him faster or as he died. So Abimelech atemted suicide but it obviously failed because 200 years later the real truth of his actual death was told in 2 Samuel 11:21″ Who smote Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth? Did not a woman cast a piece of a millstone upon him from the wall and he died in Thebez?” And the woman who killed Abimelech was fit, because she literally broke his skull! And all of the people in the bible are African people, so therefore she was African. Our Heavenly father gave her that supernatural strength so that she could save her people. Just like how he gave David that same strength to kill Goliath and how he gave Sampson that strength to do all the things he did. So Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth was singlehandedky killed by a feminine, beautiful and soft African woman! “A woman slew him.” And also this shows how women during the bible days in Israel perticipated in war! She is a true heroine, unlike Jael.

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    • Shiloh,

      Thank you for your comment. Although Abimelech was about to die, he died by the hands of his armor-bearer. The Bible is very clear on who killed Abimelech: “So his attendant stabbed him, and he died” (Judges 9:54). What the book of Samuel says is that a woman defeated him and became the cause of his death.

      Your statement that “all of the people in the bible are African people” is not correct. This Pan-African view of the people of the Bible is a myth that has been taught by many, but this view is just not true.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

  3. Shiloh Wall says:

    No, I disagree with your opinion. The people of the bible which are called Israelites are African people, and also evan if the armorbearor hadn’t stabbed Abimelech, he still would of died just the same, as he was dying he asks his armor bearer to kill him so that no one would say that woman did it, so as he was already about to die, his armorbaeror stabbed him though which killed him faster just as he was about to die by a woman’s hand, this is why Abimelech is remembered for being killed by a woman. It makes perfect sense.

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    • Shiloh,

      You may disagree with the fact that the Israelites were not Africans, but this is the fact. The people of ancient Israel were Semitic and they spoke a Semitic language. You can also disagree with the fact the Abimelech was killed by his armorbearer, but this is what the book of Judges says.

      Claude Mariottini

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

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