Thus we see that the bramble is not oriented toward productive work. Rather, he is oriented toward tyrannical rule… His is a socialist society based on taking what other people have labored to produce.
—James Jordan, Judges (1985)
The producer produces, and the bramble man seeks power by hurting, restraining, or killing the producer.
—Rousas J. Rushdoony, Bread Upon the Waters (1969)
The Sword of the LORD and of Gideon
Gideon gathered an army of 32, 000 men, barely a quarter of the size of Midian’s army. Yet God told Gideon that he had too many soldiers. If they defeated Midian, they would take the credit. So God had Gideon dismiss all those who were afraid (Deut. 20:8). 22,000 men went home. God still wasn’t satisfied. He set a special screening test. Gideon took his men down to the water to drink. Some knelt down to drink; others used their hands to bring the water to their mouths. God selected the second group, just 300, to be His initial strike force (Judg. 7:1-7).
God’s strategy was odd, nearly comedic, and it made heavy use of psychological warfare. Gideon was to divide his men into three companies. Each man was to carry a trumpet and a lamp concealed in a clay pitcher. Together, they were to surround the enemy camp at night. When it came time for the first watch to retire, Gideon’s men were to blow their trumpets, break their pitchers, and cry, “The sword of the LORD, and of Gideon!” They did as they were told (vv. 16-20).
In the enemy camp the soldiers coming onto the second watch saw their forces surrounded by 300 torches. They naturally assumed that each stood at the head of a hundred soldiers; they immediately raised an alarm. Soldiers awakened by the alarm found men moving in their tents—the returning first watch—and assumed they were the enemy. Terror and chaos ensued. “The LORD set every man’s sword against his fellow, even throughout all the host” (v. 21). The Midianite army fled. Gideon pursued, and the remainder of the Israelite army flocked to his aid.
Gideon’s Checkered End
Gideon did God’s work well. He moved in humility and faith. He broke the power of Midian and restored peace and prosperity to Israel. But after the battle, he did something out of character. When it was time to execute the kings of Midian, Gideon turned the job over to his firstborn son, Jether. It seems that he was deliberately pushing his firstborn into the limelight with some tough responsibilities. But the young man wasn’t up to the task… lacking his father’s fire. Gideon killed the kings himself.
Afterwards, the men of Israel made Gideon an offer: “Rule over us, both you and your son, and your son’s son also… for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian” (Judg. 8:22). Israel understood that the one who saves is the one who should rule. But the truth was that Yahweh had saved Israel from Midian, and He wasn’t ready to appoint a human king for Israel just yet.
So Gideon said, “I won’t rule over you and neither will my son. Yahweh shall rule over you” (v. 23). Whatever Gideon might have been thinking earlier, he now refused to establish any king of family dynasty. And it would have been a happy ending for Gideon if his story had simply ended there.
But Gideon made one last request. He asked that every soldier give him the golden earrings they had taken as spoil from the slain Midianites. The men of Israel gladly agreed. They gave Gideon 1,700 shekels of gold—nearly $1 million at current market prices. Gideon used the gold to construct an ephod, a replica of the high priest’s liturgical garments. He set it up in his hometown. Scripture says, “and all Israel went a whoring after it” (v. 27). The ephod became a magical relic in the popular imagination, a tool for divination—a magic answer box. And, it became “a snare to Gideon, and to his house” (v. 27).
Gideon, in his retirement, took many wives to himself. He begot seventy sons. This, of course, was absolutely contrary to God’s creation ordinance for marriage (Matt. 19:4-6; cf. Deut. 17:17). And one wife, a Canaanite concubine, bore Gideon a son whom he named Abimelech—“my father is king” (Judg. 8:31). The boat begins to drift.
Even so, Gideon lived a long life and went to his grave in peace. The New Testament remembers him as a hero of faith (Heb. 11:32).
Not many know the rest of the story—what followed Gideon’s death. It isn’t pretty. First, Israel returned to their idolatries. They fused the covenant faith with Baalism and named their new deity Baal-berith, Baal of the covenant (v. 35). They may actually have objectified and idolized the covenant itself (cf. Judg. 9:46: “the god Berith”). Next step in the drift, Gideon’s son Abimelech was able to position himself as a petty king in northern Israel.
Abimelech went to his mother’s clan in the Canaanite city of Shechem and asked for their political backing. In his mind, and perhaps in theirs, it was a forgone conclusion that Gideon’s sons would be rulers in Israel. Wouldn’t it be better for them to pare the number of rulers down to one? “Remember also that I am your bone and flesh,” he said (Judg. 9:2). His mother’s family won over the men of Shechem, and they gave Abimelech enough silver to hire a band of followers—“vain and light persons” (v. 4). The money came out of the temple of Baal-berith. Abimelech had created a potent fusion of political and liturgical power.
Abimelech followed through with the plan he had outlined—and in a very bloody manner. He murdered sixty-nine of his seventy brothers in ritual fashion. Only the youngest escaped. His name was Jotham (v. 5).
The men of Shechem held a coronation ceremony for Abimelech. But Jotham had climbed Mt. Gerizim, which overlooked Shechem. He broke into the ceremony with a shouted-down parable about trees choosing a king (vv. 7-21). The gist of his story was that the fruitful and productive trees didn’t have time for political ambition; they had work to do. Only the bramble bush would consider the offer of kingship. Brambles, of course, produce nothing, but they easily catch fire and bring destruction to all about them. Abimelech, Jotham implied, would prove to be a bramble bush.
It took three years, but God honored Jotham’s warning. The men of Shechem turned against Abimelech. They put their confidence in a man named Gaal, who openly defied Abimelech and mocked his reign. Gaal pointed out that Abimelech was the son of Gideon, whose nickname, Jerubbaal, marked him as an enemy of their god. How much better it would be for Canaanites to be ruled by a full-blooded Canaanite! Shouldn’t pagans get their paganism straight?
Abimelech’s puppet mayor sent word secretly to his master and told him what was going on in Shechem. Abimelech gathered his forces and came against the city. In the battle that ensued, Abimelech was able to destroy the opposition and take the city. He killed its inhabitants, beat down the city, and sowed it with salt (v. 45). The men who escaped him fled into a strong tower that belonged to their god. Abimelech had his troops bring wood from the mountain and set the tower on fire. Everyone inside died, and Baal-berith’s temple went up in flames.
Abimelech carried his mopping up operations to a nearby town named Thebez. It, too, had a strong tower, and the town’s citizens fled into it. Abimelech attempted to use his previous tactic. But there things fell apart. Abimelech got too near to the tower, and an unnamed woman dropped a piece of millstone onto his head. With his dying breath, Abimelech ordered his armor bearer to kill him, lest later generations remember that he died at the hands of a woman. His armor bearer obliged. So ended Abimelech’s short and inglorious reign. God gave Abimelech and his followers exactly what they deserved: The implications of their deepest held beliefs, which was evil upon their own heads.
There is only one mention of Abimelech later in Scripture. When King David was warning his men about getting too close to a city wall, he brought up the pathetic example of Abimelech: “Didn’t a woman cast a piece of millstone upon him from the wall so that he died in Thebez?” (2 Sam 11:21). Abimelech’s last gesture was futile, and his name became a by-word to future generations.
Conclusion: “No King in Israel”
A significant refrain in the latter chapters of Judges is this: “In those days there was no king in Israel” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). This has often been misunderstood. The problem was not Israel’s lack of a human king; the problem was Israel’s rejection of their divine King. More than one of the judges showed an interest in establishing a dynasty, but God wouldn’t permit it.
As long as Israel was obsessed with nature worship (naturalism), political unification wouldn’t serve any good purpose. Kings and leaders who claw their way to power in the context of naturalism or even some sort of syncretism are inevitably bramble men and nothing more. That was true then, and it’s certainly true of politics in America today. When they go up in flames, they will take everyone and everything with them. They will leave their names, if at all, as a by-word and a curse to future generations. There is no salvation in “neutral” politics. There is no biblical value in “traditional values” and half-hearted “Christian” candidates. Republican Deism is false hope and dead wood. We live in a very personal universe, and it’s God and his laws that govern it. Until God’s people abandon their compromises and yield whole-heartedly to King Jesus, we ought to assume that the fires of judgment are coming, lit by the bramble men we keep electing.
For Further Reading:
James B. Jordan, Judges, God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985).
Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, Christian Faith and Its Confrontation with American Society (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983).
Rousas J. Rushdoony, “Bramble Men” in Bread Upon the Waters, Columns from the California Farmer (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1974).
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