Avimelech and Yotam’s curse

Summary: After Gideon’s son Avimelech was appointed king of Shechem, he raised a band of thugs to go to his mother’s house and murder his own brothers – seventy in total – in order to eliminate any rivalry to his power. Only the youngest child, Yotam escaped. As the people of Shechem went to anoint Avimelech, Yotam ascended Mount Gerizim and bellowed out curses against the people. God intervened to sour relations between Avimelech and the people of Shechem which sparked a rebellion led by Gaal ben Eved. Avimelech crushed the rebellion resulting in the annihilation of Shechem but was killed in the process, thus fulfilling Yotam’s curse.

A deeper look: Yotam’s curse was a parable rich in meaning and symbolism. Rabbi Shmuel Laniado (16th Century Aleppo) explains that Yotam chose Mount Gerizim because this was the mountain designated by God to relate the blessings (Deuteronomy 27:12 and Joshua Chapter 8). Yotam’s first message was that corrupt leaders will transform God’s blessings into curses (Kli Yakar on Judges 9:7). Yotam’s parable involved the trees, symbolising the Jewish people wanting to appoint a king over them. They approached the olive tree, the fig tree and the grapevine all of whom declined. Finally they approached the thorn bush who asked if the people were honest in their offer. If not, fire will come from the thorns and consume the cedars of Lebanon. The Midrash Tanchuma explains that the first three trees were the three worthy judges who declined the position of leadership of the people. The olive tree represented Otniel ben Kenaz (Judges 1:13 and 3:9) who was a Torah scholar. Just as olive oil is used to provide light, so too the Torah (called Oraita in Aramaic, meaning light) gives out its own spiritual light. The fig tree represented Devorah (Judges 4:4) whose Torah and prophecy was like a sweet fruit. The grapevine represented Gideon who was a descendant of Joseph. Joseph is described as בן פרת יוסף – a charming son is Joseph… (Genesis 49:22). Targum Onkelos (ibid.) likens Joseph to a vine which spreads out, alluding to his offspring. The thorn bush symbolised Avimelech. Thorn bushes offer no benefit and may harm those who come too close. Similarly, Yotam warned the people of Shechem about their leader, but it was too late.