Ephraim's Future Effrontery, Pt. 2: The Seventy Sons of Gideon and the Birthright Tribe's Political Machination
Returning to this topic requires more focus on Ephraim's jealousy aimed towards Gideon and his success in liberating the House of Israel from her enemies. To begin with, why perhaps did Gideon, or rather the Lord, not include this tribe in the battle plans? The answer lies in the details of the narrative presented, for the Lord desired all of Israel to know that He, and He alone, delivered them and not their own devices or economic means. Gideon's flattery towards Ephraim concerning their plentiful fields suggests that the economic power of this tribe superseded that of all other tribes, save perhaps Judah. Had they been allowed to participate, and given their status as the birthright tribe, they undoubtedly would have insisted on taking the lead to ensure that they would aggrandize themselves, which would reinforce their position among the tribes. All this is to say that Ephraim, and the other tribes, would have attributed their victory to the "arm of the flesh" and perhaps may have led to their further distancing themselves from God and His commandments. But the scriptural account provides signposts indicating that something much more sinister was afoot among the Ephraimites. Before broaching the details concerning Ephraim, some preliminary information must be addressed.
Gideon and His Seventy Sons
The narrative informs the reader that during the days of Gideon Israel experienced forty years of peace under his watch, but it cannot be said that he ruled alone.1 To assist him in his governmental duties, Gideon, being a polygamist, had seventy sons who shoulder this responsibility along with him.2 Inarguably, these sons, when they came of age, oversaw the political activities and religious observance throughout Israel, fostering the ambiance conducive to faithful observance of God’s commandments and provided oversight ensuring the people remained within the boundaries the Lord prescribed. Interesting as this information is, something more striking emerges to the gaze of the reader when considering certain parallels this account mimics with another occurrence in Israel’s history. Just as Gideon's encounter with “the angel of Lord” mirrored that of Moses, so too does Gideon’s rule along with seventy others, namely his sons, echoes Moses’ rule with the seventy elders. Yet this is only one parallel in the microcosm, for there perhaps remains an even more astounding one for the reader to ponder.
The scholarship of Michael S. Heiser has divulged insights concerning certain passages of scriptures that indicate the same organizational structure, a ruler and seventy others, derives its primary essence from the heavens. This is to say that God Himself rules with seventy others, possibly more, in what Heiser claims represents the “Divine Council” that appears in several instances throughout the scriptures.3 The account given in 1 Kings narrates the prophet Micaiah describing God’s deliberative council with those surrounding His throne, though the exact number of seventy is not given in this case. Heiser’s article addresses this and is revelatory in many other ways, but the most provocative aspect surfaces in the analysis of his main point, namely the apparent corruption of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 in the accepted Hebrew, Masoretic text. To summarize his argument, Heiser demonstrates this corruption obscured Moses’ declaration of God’s “Divine Council” and evidence that He partitioned the earth after the flood among His seventy sons, with Jehovah being chief among them.4
Heiser’s research provides textual evidence that supports the governmental structure of a ruler with seventy councilors present in the divine order, and yet there are clues associated with Moses that illuminate the role mortals can have in this organization. Two verses declare something somewhat shocking to some and oftentimes consider blasphemous to the many concerning this point. Using Moses as an emissary to Pharaoh’s court necessitated God to place His seal of authority upon this man, and, in doing so, the Lord informed Moses of his divine authority in telling him that he will be God unto both Pharaoh and Aaron.5 Not only does this begin to explain Moses’ power over the elements but also his ability to speak with God face to face atop Mt. Sinai, with seventy others there to witness it. If this is the case for Moses, then the parallel between him and Gideon implies that the latter too had obtained an elevated status empowering him to rule of over Israel for forty years as Moses had done. This claim becomes more evident when one considers from whom Gideon obtained his authority, namely the “angel of the Lord.” Thus, Gideon stood as God unto the people just as his predecessor.
Going through the trouble of demonstrating Gideon’s divine authority to the reader was undertaken to impress upon the mind the divine order God commissioned Gideon to establish for the benefit and protection of His people. This order, however, did not last once the judge passed away. But did not Gideon’s sons remain to maintain this tranquil stated? They did but not for long, for Gideon had a son not enfranchised with the rights to governor in this order.
Abimelech’s Machination Against His Brothers
Believing the established order perhaps limited his prospects for power, Abimelech, whose name means “my father is king,” traveled to Shechem to visit his mother’s relatives in a ploy to stir up dissatisfaction against his brothers.6 The motive seems to have materialized because of this son’s disquieted soul, perhaps a result of his exclusion from a leadership position, something Gideon may have orchestrated. To obtain the elevated position Abimelech thought he deserved meant he had to organize a combination through which he could achieve his political ambitions. But why go to Shechem to achieve this end? Sure, Abimelech's maternal kinsmen resided there, but what else could have contributed to this decision? To understand the answer to this latter question involves understanding who resided in Shechem.
Shechem, according to most instances in the scriptures, represents the most ancient of the sacred towns of all the land holdings of the house of Israel. But more importantly for the analysis here, it belonged to and was under the government of the tribe of Ephraim. When Joshua partitioned the land to satisfy the requirements for tribal inheritances, he allocated this city into the territory of the Ephraimites, not to mention that the bones belonging to Joseph of Old were buried at this site.7 Having the bones of their most majestic ancestor in their territory perhaps gave them a political cudgel with which to buttress their claims of preeminence and solidify their authority associated with their birthright. Yet the problem was that since Gideon’s seventy sons ruled over Israel, Ephraim’s claim to authority dwindled in the minds of the people. And this condition possibly caused many within this tribe to be discontent and even jealous that men from Manasseh had obtained the reins of government, even if they had done so by the authority of God. Also contributing to this disgruntlement was Ephraim’s perception of Gideon and what they deemed as his snubbing them during the conquest of the Midianites.8 Reflecting on the tension of the time presents Shechem as the epicenter of malcontent.
All these factors provided an unusual advantage for Abimelech's bid for political power. Given Abimelech's mother, Gideon's Ephraimite concubine, came from this city, this added to his pedigree in the eyes of the audience he would persuade to his cause.9
Speak, I pray you, in the ears of all the men of Shechem, Whether is better for you, either that all the sons of Jerubbaal, which are threescore and ten persons, reign over you, or that one reign over you? remember also that I am your bone and your flesh. And his mother’s brethren spake of him in the ears of all the men of Shechem all these words: and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech; for they said, He is our brother. 10
Note well the focus placed on Abimelech’s lineage and not whether he obeyed the commandments of God. Furthermore, these verses reveal his design to overthrow the established political order, an order decreed by God under the hand of Gideon, and replace it with one-man rule based on murder and intrigue. His calling Gideon by the name Jerubbaal before the masses persuaded the men of Shechem even more, for this name’s Hebrew meaning, “with whom Baal contends,” served to remind those present of the indignity done to Baal the day Gideon moved to deliver Israel.11
Baal-Berith, the Covenant with Death
The plotting factor comes into view when the men of Shechem, along with Abimelech, entered the house of Baal-Berith. The association of the name Baal with this house alone should set off red flags for any student of the Old Testament, and yet the Hebrew of this house's name is even more stunning. The Hebrew term Baal (בַּעַל) denotes the supreme male deity in the Canaanite/Phoenician religion, with translators frequently rendering the term in English as "master" or "lord." The term Berith (בְּרִית) means "covenant." Combining these two terms results in "the lord of the covenant" and appears in this combination only in connection with Shechem and, by extension, the Ephraimites.12 What exactly does covenant making look like with this deity?
Entering in this house sets the scene for these men covenanting with Baal, an action through which Abimelech obtains seventy pieces of silver empowering him to hire men for his scheme. The plot's motive sought to rectify perceived injuries of all parties involved in the oath, and, in return, Abimelech would reign as king; those who consented to his power would benefit in various ways, whether it be obtaining positions in the new government or acquiring property. Both seem plausible. The scriptures apprise the reader concerning Abimelech's hired hands: they "were vain and light person."13 These descriptive terms present them as vainglorious lackeys bent on achieving the ends of the covenant, which entailed that they gather up the seventy sons of Gideon and execute them. Once they accomplished the job, they crowned Abimelech king.14
These methods evoke the foundational event from which such things came about into the world: the machination of Cain against Abel. The Moses account offers details depicting Cain's covenant lord and the procedures by which this shadowy figure commanded his servant to operate.
And Satan said unto Cain: Swear unto me by thy throat, and if thou tell it thou shalt die; and swear thy brethren by their heads, and by the living God, that they tell it not; for if they tell it, they shall surely die; and this that thy father may not know it; and this day I will deliver thy brother Abel into thine hands. And Satan sware unto Cain that he would do according to his commands. And all these things were done in secret. And Cain said: Truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain. Wherefore Cain was called Master Mahan, and he gloried in his wickedness. 15
This presents some parallels in the Judges' account that demonstrate Abimelech and his cabal's impetus to exchange the life of the rightful rulers so that they could accrue power for aggrandizing themselves before the whole of Israel. Undoubtedly, the success of their operation served as an example for the people, signalling that worshiping Baal has lucrative rewards for those willing to enter into the covenant with death. With Gideon and his seventy sons out of the way, the children of Israel had no righteous authoritative figures to curb their excesses by means of religious correctives. And historical as this account is, it serves to instruct the reader that such events again will present themselves in the future when Ephraim's secret works become known and preached upon the house tops, for they, like Cain, have again made a covenant with death.16
Judges 8:28 (JST)
Judges 8:30 (JST)
Psalms 82:1-8, 1 Kings 22:19-23 cf. 2 Chronicles 18:18-22
Michael S. Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God”, Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (Jan.-Mar. 2001): 52-74.
Exodus 4:16 cf. 7:1. The KJV translation of Exodus 4:16 appears somewhat muddled, but the Hebrew could be rendered as “and you shall be to him for (for a?) God” (וְאַתָּה תִּֽהְיֶה־לּוֹ לֵֽאלֹהִֽים).
James Strong, Strong's Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), s.v. אֲבִימֶלֶךְ
Joshua 17:7-8, 24:1, 32 (JST)
Judges 7:24-25, 8:1-2 (JST)
Judges 8:31 (JST)
Judges 9:2-3 (JST)
James Strong, Strong's Expanded Exhaustive Concordance, s.v. יְרֻבַּעַל
Ibid., s.v. בַּעַל בְּרִית. Note well that this concordance reveals the connection with this house specifically with the land of Shechem and Ephraim.
Judges 9:4 (JST)
Judges 9:5-6 (JST)
See Isaiah 28 (Gileadi Translation and Commentary)