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Abimelech, Saul, and Amarna - an investigation

Summary

  1. Summary
  2. Abimelech - life summary
  3. Saul - life summary
  4. The name "Abimelech"

Summary
Judges 9 recounts the three-year reign of Abimelech son of Gideon, in the Shechem area. 1 Samuel 8-31 describes the reign of Saul son of Kish. These two individuals are interesting since either might be considered Israel's first king, and there are certain similarities in their reigns. It has been suggested that the Judges 9 account - and Abimelech himself - is a variation of the account of Saul's reign. Under this hypothesis the seemingly separate accounts would actually be duplicate versions of the same underlying events. Both ruled only for a short time, and they both sought to be killed by an armour-bearer to avoid a more shameful death. This page considers both accounts and seeks to assess the likelihood of being able to identify the two with one another. As a secondary point, the question of whether Abimelech rather than Saul should be regarded as the first king of Israel is considered. The varying chronologies arising from the conventional and New Chronology understanding of Egyptian dynastic dating lead to the possibility of either ruler being identified with the habiru leader Labayu described in some of the Amarna letters. Finally, the possibility (under OC) that Abimelech should be identified with Labayu of the Amarna correspondence is investigated. These pages investigate different aspects of the two men.

A straightforward reading of the year-values in Judges places Abimelech around 1200 BCE. The "good match" values described in the Book of Judges exploration pages suggests a revised figure around 1340 in conventional terms, and 1160 for NC. Saul's reign, on the other hand, finished around 1012 BCE. The conventional date would put Abimelech roughly in line with the Amarna period: the New Chronology has Saul in parallel with this.

The duration of Saul's reign is uncertain, as the Hebrew text has been damaged at the crucial place in 1 Samuel 13:1. A minimal estimate would be 2 years, and a maximal one 40, following Acts 13:21. (This very interesting problem is followed up in more detail at The reign-length of Saul). If Saul were to be identified with Abimelech, this would strongly suggest the shortest reign-length. Clearly, if the two were identified, then either Judges would be substantially shortened in duration, or the various episodes would be assembled out of sequence.

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Abimelech - life summary
The name Abimelech means "my father is king", where king probably has reference to a divine king rather than earthly. See below for more discussion of this. He was of the Abiezrite clan of Manasseh, the son of Gideon (Jerub-Baal) by a concubine, and seems to have been estranged from his half-brothers (70 in number). The concubine lived in Shechem, which is where Abimelech grew up. Gideon's home town, Ophrah, has not been identified with certainty. At this time there was a substantial temple to Baal-Berith at Shechem. Baal-Berith translates as "Lord of the Covenant" and the temple is also referred to as dedicated to El-Berith. Abimelech used money to hire a band of "reckless adventurers" - probably a Habiru band, as discussed elsewhere, and after a time proposed to the citizens of Shechem that they make him king. They agreed to this. He was, then, crowned by the inhabitants of Shechem and Beth Millo, but appears not to have used Shechem as a base (later in the account, he appears to have based himself at Arumah). He arranged for his 70 half-brothers to be killed (though one escaped) and in doing so effectively rejected any connection with his father.

Judges 9:22 tells us that he "governed Israel", though nothing in the narrative suggests that his influence or interests lay anywhere outside the immediate vicinity of Shechem. This may perhaps be understood in the sense that all Israel accepted him as leader of his tribe or area. After three years (for reasons that are not disclosed) the Shechemites started acting treacherously by robbing passers-by (and presumably refusing to acknowledge his lordship), and at this time Gaal son of Ebed moved into Shechem and took advantage of the prevailing mood to raise the city against Abimelech. The city governor Zebul - remaining loyal to Abimelech - warned his king and made arrangements to trap him. Abimelech ambushed Gaal and his followers, and an inconclusive battle follwed. Abimelech returned to Arumah, although Zebul successfully drove Gaal from Shechem. Abimelech then returned to Shechem, recaptured it, drove his opponents into the temple stronghold and set fire to it, killing many of them.

He then moved on to Thebez (presumably to quell a similar revolt, though the account is unclear as to his motive) where he pursued a similar battle-plan. However, when the city had been taken and the people were withdrawn to a stronghold, a millstone dropped by a woman mortally wounded him as he was going to burn the tower. To avoid the shame of being killed by a woman he ordered his armour-bearer to kill him instead. At his death, his army dispersed and went home. David refers to this incident in 2 Samuel 11:21.

He is not recording as having any children, and had no obvious successor. His enemies were entirely within Israel - indeed within a short distance of Shechem. No external adversaries of Israel are mentioned at all. The surrounding narrative has the Midianites as enemies before his time (defeated by Gideon), and the Ammonites and Philistines as enemies 50-100 years later, confronted by Jephthah. There is virtually no religious content in the account at all - he is not said to have been selected, backed, or anointed for leadership by any priesthood.

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Saul - life summary
The account of Saul is given in 1 Samuel 8-31, with a few salient references in 2 Samuel as well. There are no details given of his early life, and we know of his father only indirectly. He was of the tribe of Benjamin through the clan of Aphich. His home town is not entirely clear though there are strong associations with the hill-country of Ephraim and with the transJordan town of Jabesh Gilead. Saul's portrayal of himself as unworthy (9:21) might be compared with Gideon's quite similar self-portrait in Jdg 6:15. This night be seen as a standard form of speech to a superior, or a deliberate attempt on Saul's part to imitate an earlier hero, or a commentary on the part of the author wishing to make a religious point. In Saul's case, this initial attitude compares unfavourably with his later usurpation of religious duties.

At the point where the account opens, Samuel, the current Judge, is old. His sons have shown themselves untrustworthy and were not acceptable to the people, who demanded a king. Samuel acceded to this despite initial hostility to the idea, and a strongly-worded warning about the consequences of having a king. He does not refer to Abimelech's reign in this warning, or indeed to the excesses of any particular king. Samuel anoints Saul for kingship in a religious ritual before the people. After Saul's relief of the assault on Jabesh-Gilead (in which he called on support from both Israel and Judah) his kingship was reaffirmed in another ceremony at Gilgal. This might be seen either as a retelling of the same episode, or (perhaps more likely) as confirmation that he was king by virtue of leadership and military prowess, as well as being the choice of the religious leadership.

He then engineered a border incident to provoke the Philistines at Geba, after which he was ultimately successful although at first the vehemence of the response unnerved the population. The suggestion here is that his followers consisted of a mixture of Israelites and Habiru mercenaries (note the careful distinction between 'Israelites' and 'Hebrews'). The closing sections of ch. 14 relate a variety of external enemies - Moab, Ammon, Edom, Zobah (Aramaeans) - though the Philistines were the principal adversaries.

From this point on, relationships between Saul and Samuel (still the religious leader) deteriorated. This came to a head with a number of key episodes in which Saul abrogated religious duties. The lengthy description of the animosity between Saul and David is used to present a picture of Saul's worsening mental state. During this period Saul ordered the death of 85 priests, and was also responsible for the sacking of Nob, a priestly city close to Jerusalem. 2 Samuel 21 indicates he was also responsible for a massacre of Gibeonites. These episodes suggest that his grasp over Israel may have owed more to force of arms rather than enthusiastic and willing support. Finally, a battle on the slopes of Mt Gilboa with the Philistines led to the death of Saul and three of his sons. The account of his death is confused. 1 Samuel 31 records that Saul was wounded by archers and asked his armour-bearer to kill him. He refused, however, so Saul took his own life. 2 Samuel 1 records a young Amalekite informing David that Saul was still alive as the enemy chariots and riders were closing in, and that at Saul's request he had killed him with his own hand. Whichever account is correct, the citizens of Jabesh-Gilead went to considerable effort to ensure he had an honourable burial.

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The name "Abimelech"
Of course neither Abimelech's nor Saul's (earthly) father was a king, and it is not clear that either father would have given such an apparently presumptuous name as a literal one. Gideon had refused the offer to become king even after his military success, and Kish does not appear to have been at all influential. Hence it could be asked why this name was given. There are several possible suggestions:
  1. The name simply has reference to God as father, and does not have any earthly connotations.
  2. The name was an "official" throne-name taken at coronation, and not a birth-name given by parents. This seems to have been the case with other kings of Israel, and was certainly a practice used in other nations. This might be applied equally to Abimelech or Saul.
  3. The name was given by a later author or copier of the text as a sort of summary of the person's exploits. This again seems to have been done with other OT figures. The name as applied to Abimelech could be seen as an ironic pun, along the lines of "Gideon acted like a king by defending the land but never became one, but this man claimed to be a king and never showed it".
  4. The name was a standard royal title and not a name in the ordinary sense of the word. This would explain its use for the kings of Gerar who met with the patriarchs as well as within Judges. Additionally, similar names appear several times in the Amarna correspondence - Abimilki wrote from Tyre, and Milkilu of Gezer appears in numerous letters. The Milki element here is essentially the same as the Hebrew Melech.

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