a). Election to Office
I’d like to begin today by raising the issue of how we appoint our leaders. Because it is an issue which, as Christians, I believe that we need to think about.
After all, we have a monarch, which is a hereditary position. But we also have State and Federal Governments, which we elect on the basis of one person one vote. We have local councils, where property owners who live outside the municipalities join the residents in electing the mayor and the councillors. And as a parish, each year, we appoint a Parish Council, with the Rector appointing one third of its members, and those on the Electoral Roll electing two-thirds.
Now that adds up to a lot of voting, and a lot of different systems. But are they fair? And have we got the systems right?
Now you may be wondering, at this point, “What’s all this got to do with the Judges, and Abimelech in particular?” After all, my task today, is to preach on Abimelech, not on the merits (or otherwise) of our current electoral systems.
However, what I’m going to say today is that we cannot necessarily split the two. Because I believe that the story of Abimelech—and the events of three thousand years ago—can teach us much about the problems of selecting and supporting our leaders.
B. ABIMELECH’S STORY
1. Choosing a Leader
Now leaving the electoral process aside for the moment, what criteria do we use to appoint our leaders? Do we base it on ability, or do we choose people for their charismatic personality? Do we pick someone we know, and someone who represents our particular group, or do we go for someone because of their ideals? Or do we just pick someone, anyone, because they have to be better than the one who went before?
b). Abimelech’s Appointment
Well I’m sure in Abimelech’s day, the people, and their leaders in particular, were faced with much the same criteria. The previous Judge, Gideon, had died and immediately the people had lapsed back into their old practice of straying from God. Put simply, they were in a mess. They needed a new leader, a new judge, to come to their rescue. And it was at this point that Abimelech, one of Gideon’s sons, saw his opportunity.
Now we’re not told what arguments he planned to put forward to get people to choose him, but presumably he intended to argue in terms of hereditary. After all Gideon had been a judge who had been held in very high esteem. The problem was, however, that wasn’t the way the system was supposed to work. God was the one who was supposed to choose the next judge, they weren’t man-made appointments. And on the basis of hereditary, Abimelech had seventy brothers who could all have made the same claim.
So, what did Abimelech do? Well we don’t even get a hint that he tried to put in his claim in at Ophrah, where his father’s family lived. Instead we see him travelling about seventy kilometres south to Shechem, to where his mother’s family lived. And his mother’s people responded very positively to his offer.
But I wonder on what terms? That he was a nice loving person? That he was called by God to do the job? That he was the best person for the job? That he would be the person most accepted by all the people? No, it was because his mother’s people identified him as one of their own. Indeed, we’re told that they said, “He is our brother.”
They then gave him seventy pieces of silver from the temple of their local god, which he took and used to hire mercenaries to go and murder his seventy brothers. But he didn’t just kill them, each was ritually slain. One by one they were brought to a particular stone and killed. Only one brother escaped, and he went and stood on the mountain overlooking Shechem and warned the leaders of the consequences of their actions.
Now all that might be a bit gory, but it does throw up the question of how we elect our leaders, and the criteria that we use. Because we need to get it right. It’s also a warning of what happens when we turn a blind eye to someone’s faults and failings, to get the person of our choosing. After all, did the people of Shechem think they were getting a good, fair and honest leader? I don’t think so. Indeed, I think seventy pieces of silver says a lot about the price they were prepared to pay in order to get “their man.”
2. Loyalty to our Leaders
Now, having raised the issue of how we elect our leaders, the next issue is the question of loyalty. Because having made our choice, do we always support those we have put in power?
Now I visited England in June 1997, one month after Tony Blair had been elected Prime Minister. At the time there was a lot of excitement. But I wasn’t sure whether the people were excited that Tony had got in, or that John Major had been kicked out. In Australia, we’ve also had many political internal party squabbles. There was Hawke and Keating, Howard and Costello, Rudd and Gillard, then Gillard and Rudd. And they all serve to give examples of people elected to positions only to face a lack of support, or even a stabbing in the back whilst in office (even within their own parties).
And even in the church in Tasmania, the poor attendance at one of our previous bishop’s farewell services many years ago now, shows that lack of support is not just restricted to the political arena.
b). Abimelech Dumped
And Abimelech went through the same thing. Because we’re told that he ruled over Israel for three years, and then dissent really took hold.
Now you can understand that God wouldn’t have been happy. Abimelech wasn’t his choice. Furthermore, Abimelech, acting as a “judge” would have given the impression that he was “God’s man.” But as a God of justice, there were injustices that needed to be resolved. In any event, the very people who had appointed him, turned against him. The leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with him—they did whatever they could to bring Abimelech’s name into disrepute. And Gaal son of Ebed saw his opportunity to take his place.
Now I have to say here, that I don’t think that this turn events came as any great surprise to Abimelech. After all, at one stage in the story we are told he had his base eight kilometres south east of Shechem. Indeed, he probably never actually lived in Shechem itself. His rise to power may have been rapid, but only three years later it was on the decline.
Now does that sound familiar?
Because in politics today there is a thing called “Political Capital.” It refers to the trust, goodwill, and influence a politician has with the public and other political figures. And it is at its highest during the so-called “honeymoon period.” However, in the context of our political system, which is noted as being “adversarial,” the support for our leaders doesn’t last very long at all.
So how long do we support our elected figures? Do we give them all the encouragement that they need? Having voted them in, do we turn on them, even talk about them to other people, and stab them in the back? And do we do the same for our church leaders too?
3. Facing Rejection
Now one of the things about those who have been removed or voted out of office is, “What do they do next?” Do they go away quietly, or do they hang around like a bad penny?
Well in the context of Australian politics, we seem to have had quite a few leaders who have not gone quietly. Indeed, moving to the back bench waiting for another opportunity, or using it to stir up trouble seems to have been a preferred option for many. And the classic examples of that have been John Howard and Andrew Peacock, and more recently Kevin Rudd. Meanwhile many of those who have quit, have remained commentators on the sidelines.
b). Abimelech’s Revenge
In Abimelech’s case, he wanted revenge. As a consequence, his usurper Gaal was quickly disposed of; the people of Shechem were killed; the city was raised to the ground; the people in the Tower a little distant from the city, were burned; and the tower was raised to the ground. And that was only the start. Because Abimelech then moved on to the next city.
But in the case of Thebez, he may have taken the city, but at the tower within it, he met his demise. A woman threw an upper millstone out of the tower, and his head was crushed. Then, at his own request, he was finished off by his own armour bearer. After which everyone went home.
Now if the first part of the story was gory, then the last part is even worse. But then what should the people have reasonably expected, knowing full well that they were complicit in appointing a man who was planning the mass murderer of his brothers?
And on that basis, we shouldn’t be surprised either, if someone we finally reject, continues to behave just as badly out of office, as they did before they were elected.
So, who we vote for is vitally important. Because it says something about us, and about the things we hold dear.
Now undoubtedly Abimelech was not a nice man. And I wonder whether that was why he needed to go to Shechem, to his mother’s people, to get into office. But he isn’t the only one who wasn’t nice in this story. Indeed, those who appointed him, those who helped him in the ritual killing of his brothers, the residents of Shechem, and everyone who turned on him, were not nice people either.
As a consequence, there are two questions which need to be asked about Abimelech. And the first is, “Why is this story here in the Book of Judges?” Well it’s here, because it tells the story of a people who had not only strayed from God, but thought they could fix up their own mess without God in the equation. And don’t we hear that so much today—about how we as humans have become so clever we can fix up our messes?
And the second questions is. “How does Abimelech fit into the concept of being a ‘Judge’ in a Biblical sense?” Well he ticks the box for being a military leader. He also ticks the box for being a judge (small “j”). After all, he ruled over Israel for three years. But he fails miserably in the department of having any sort of God-given gift. And that was the most essential criteria to be a genuine “Judge.”
In other words, Abimelech doesn’t fit in at all. He wasn’t a true Judge, he just paraded around as though he was. So, his story in the book of Judges illustrates what happens when we try to replace God, when we try to usurp him. It’s a good example of what happens when we leave God out of our election and decision-making processes.
So of course, that brings us back to the questions we asked at the start: How do we appoint our leaders? What kind of people do we appoint? What criteria do we use?
You know, our society takes great pride in our system of democracy. And yet democracy is quite foreign to the pages of the Bible. And the reason is, because it tends to leave God out of the equation. Nevertheless, democracy is a system that the church has worked alongside over the years, because amongst all the secular systems available it seems to be the best. In other words, from a Christian point of view, it’s not a good system, just the best of a bad bunch.
That, of course, then leaves the obvious question, “How should we, as Christians, appoint our leaders? And what process should we use to make those important decisions?”
Well in the Old Testament, the High Priest was given a means to seek God’s mind on serious issues. Indeed, he carried what is known as the Urim and Thummim on his priestly breastplate for that very purpose. Now no one seems to be quite sure what they were, the Bible isn’t clear. But over the years there has been a consensus that they were a means for casting lots.
But in Old Testament terms, this wasn’t just a matter of tossing some things up in the air and seeing which way they fell. This was very serious. Only the High Priest could use the Urim and Thummim, and he could only do so whilst performing his official duties in the Tabernacle or Temple.
And in the New Testament, there are at least two examples where serious decisions needed to be made. The first was for a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:12-26). And the second was when there was a need to appoint deacons to help the widows and the elderly (Acts 6:1-7).
But the leaders didn’t see these situations as trivial matters either. Indeed, the apostles asked for a list of names of appropriate people. And in the case of Judas’s replacement, they prayed and then cast lots, and for the deacons, they prayed, and then they laid their hands on them.
In other words, Old Testament or New, the focus was on seeking the mind of God. And only when it became clear what decision God had made, were the people commissioned or the decisions carried out.
There was nobody trying to pick the best candidate. There was nobody trying to work out who would do the best job. There was nobody trying to pick someone because he was “one of us.” All human preferences were eliminated. The only thing that mattered was who it was that was God’s choice. And if the people had sought the mind of God, in Abimelech’s day, none of the sorry events in Abimelech’s story would have ever taken place.
But, of course, that leaves us with the problem of today. Because, you can understand a secular society choosing a secular system. But the church…? Well secular systems should have no place. As Christian’s it’s not about who we want, but who God wants. Indeed, we need to have an emphasis on seeking God’s mind in all cases.
And if we don’t, then perhaps we shouldn’t be wondering why the church is in the mess that’s in at all.
The story of Abimelech, then, is a classic example of what happens when God is left out of the decision-making process. It’s a classic example of people who think they can fix their own problems. And it’s a classic-example of what happens when people elect leaders, without first seeking the mind of God.
Of course, translating that into a secular system of voting is not easy. But at least, in the church, we should be able to get it right. Because if we don’t try, if we don’t seek the mind of God, then we will end up with leaders like Abimelech—with the wrong people for the job. And not just in our State and Federal Governments, and our local councils, but in the people we elect as leaders in our churches as well.
Posted: 18th November 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis