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Judges: Exploring A "Dark Age" in Jewish History
Video 6 of 6
In this segment, we are going to consider Abimelech and Yotam as they appear in chapter 9, of Judges. Just I want to briefly share with you a science experiment that I remember from being a kid, called color chromatography. If you take green dye and put it in filter paper, the color begins to creep up the filter paper and after a while, the blue dye sorts out to one side and the yellow to the other side. It was really cool. This color chromatography analogy is actually excellent for explaining what would happen if you put Gideon inside some filter paper. What happens is his personality would creep up and creep up and eventually his very good side will come out in Yotam and his very negative side would come out in Abimelech and that’s what we see in chapter 9.
Yotam gets up and yells at all the people after Abimelech has massacred all of his brothers and Yotam says, this low life, Abimelech is going to be your king, this is terrible. Instead you should serve God, that’s it. Yotam is pure and his name ‘Yotam’ which means ‘God is perfect’, reflects this dimension of Gideon. There is nothing negative about Yotam, he is this pure, good, upstanding son of Gideon who is standing up for the truth on the face of the tyranny that Abimelech is about to do. Abimelech on the other hand, meaning ‘My father is king’, reflects the personal dimensions of Gideon but with all the negativity and no positive elements to balance it out.
Let’s just be sure whether we understand this. Gideon and Abimelech are astonishingly different people. Gideon was largely a tzaddik, whereas Abimelech is a monster. Gideon even if he might have wanted to be king, refused to reign because he understood that God is king. Abimelech seeks power by massacring his brothers and becoming the first so called Melech, of sorts all be it, a disastrous one and a one who is immediately removed from power because he was so negative. Gideon took the spoils of war and turned it into the ephod, which was at least intended, presumably as a religious shrine, it was not meant to become this idolatrous, negative spiritual force. Abimelech on the other hand took money to hire people to commit murder, he didn’t do it leshem shamayim, to glorify God very much, he used it to glorify himself and his kingdom and support his own power. Gideon destroyed his father’s Baal statue in chapter 6, whereas Abimelech receives his funding from the temple of Baa-berith. Gideon avenged the loss of his brothers, he was outraged that his brothers were killed by Midian and defeated the enemies of Israel. Abimelech in contrast, murdered his own brothers and then destroyed Israelites, hence he became the enemy of the people of Israel.
So, Gideon and Abimelech on that point of view are night and day. But yet, there are certain uncomfortable similarities between Gideon and Abimelech as well. Gideon massacred Israelite towns particularly Penuel. He also set up a shrine, the ephod, which led to spiritual disaster possibly even in his lifetime and he carried out a personal vendetta. As we discussed, Gideon’s actions can be judged both positively and negatively because he is such a complex figure whereas Abimelech is pure, unambiguous negativity, there is nothing good about him at all which became a downfall of Israel’s situation.
So to summarize everything, Gideon certainly belongs to the good half of judges, he is very much inline with Othniel ben Kenaz, Ehud ben Gera, and Deborah. He brings military salvation and religious guidance to his people and brings peace to the nation for a full generation. He therefore becomes the last of the judges to bring peace to a full generation. All the later judges are much shorter 10 years but Gideon also begins to pave the way for a decline in the second half of judges. He was the first judge to act out of revenge and as a result of being mocked. The military actions of Abimelech and later on Jephthah and Samson, also were colored by personal motivations and revenge. It is also important to know that Gideon is the first of the Judges about whom it is said that he has so many children. Clearly trying to setup some kind of dynastic succession of sorts. Later Judges, Jair, Ibzan and Abdon follow suit. From this point of view Gideon is the transitional figure in the book of Judges, the positive elements in his career mirror those positive elements that we have already seen in the good judges before him. The more personal, negative and king like components find expression in the second half of Judges and this is a way of setting up not only a transition within the period of Judges but it also means of introducing issue of monarchy in Israel. On the one hand Gideon represents an anti-monarchy stand as he emphatically declines it himself but on the other hand a part of him really wanted that and that setup the dynastic succession to Yotam and Abimelech, isolating his very positive and very negative dimensions which continue to carry over into later generations.
But we learn from all of these, besides just an analysis of the book of Judges is that people are very complex. Gideon is an excellent example of that, he gets a larger than life treatment and then we are able to isolate different elements of his persona but in fact many of his positive and negative elements are intertwined brilliantly by the author of Sefer Shoftim. As we draw to the conclusion of our series on Shoftim, we realize that this shiur and the previous shiur actually have a very important common denominator. In this shiur we talked about how one person is very complex. He has positive and negative elements completely intertwined and through careful analysis we can pick out the positive and negative elements and see a much deeper, more alive personality in this case of Gideon and how that helps him enlighten our understanding of the entire book of Shoftim.
In the previous shiur we looked at the interrelatedness between the book of Joshua and the book of Judges. Once again they started off very black and white with Joshua being a golden age and Judges being a dark age but when we look at them together, we begin to see how a lot of their elements are in fact intertwined. They are very gray and this is all part of the growth that we can gain from learning Tanach in general and through the book of Judges in particular. Seeing how something which starts off so black and white, so absolute, so clear and unequivocal when you think about it and give it a careful analysis we begin to realize more and more how much depth and nuance there us in every person and certainly in every generation. This helps us intersect better as we consider our own human reality, it helps develop our relationships with other people and ultimately brings us closer to God.
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