While I am getting ready for my next reading project I will look at some passages in the Hebrew Bible that puzzle me. These are the kind of passages that people tend to pass over because they don’t seem to make sense or because they give us random information with little context.
One such passage is the little speech of Gaal in Judges 9:28. The situation is that Shechem is being controlled by Abimelech. Abimelech resides in Arumah (Judges 9:41) but convinced the Lords of Shechem to allow him to be chief of Shechem. Unlike most figures in Judges, Abimelech did not “judge” Israel. Rather, he “ruled” (v. 22). So he was king or chief.
He was a ruthless warlord who had hired some good-for-nothing criminal types as an army (v. 4). Then Gaal and his men showed up in Shechem and challenged Abimelech’s authority. Gaal made this speech according to the NRSV:
“Who is Abimelech, and who are we of Shechem, that we should serve him? Did not the son of Jerubbaal and Zebul his officer serve the men of Hamor father of Shechem? Why then should we serve him?
My interest is the mention of Hamor. In Genesis 34, Hamor is the king of Shechem who raped Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. Levi and Simeon then tricked and murdered Hamor and his men. According to the NRSV, it looks like Gaal claimed that Hamor lived recently and that Jerubbaal, identified as Gideon in Judges, once served him. This would put Judges and Genesis at odds about Hamor.
The problem in translating the Hebrew is figuring out just who the men of Hamor are. Are they the contemporaries of Abimelech’s dad? Or is Gaal making a claim about his own ancestry? The New American Standard Bible has:
“Who is Abimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should serve him? Is he not the son of Jerubbaal, and is Zebul not his lieutenant? Serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem; but why should we serve him?
Here the argument seems to be that Gaal and his men should rule Shechem because they are descended from Hamor, the original king of Shechem.
This makes more sense to me not because it is impossible that Genesis 34 and Judges 9 have two conflicting traditions about the history of Shechem, but because it looks like Gaal’s need was not to undermine the authority of Abimelech. Abimelech’s authority seems already to have become questionable in Shechem. But the claim to be the men of Hamor makes a positive, but perhaps not very credible claim to Gaal’s own authority.
Here is one more interpretation. This one is from The Message:
“Who is this Abimelech? And who are we Shechemites to take orders from him? Isn’t he the son of Jerub-Baal, and isn’t this his henchman Zebul? We belong to the race of Hamor and bear the noble name of Shechem. Why should we be toadies of Abimelech?
There are a few fascinating clues to the history of Shechem, an important biblical city. The career of Labayu, the 14th century warlord who attempted an end-run around Egyptian rule and tried and failed to take the Jezreel valley, gives us our most detailed information (we can know that Labayu was from Shechem, not only because that is where he was going when he was assassinated, but because we have analyzed the clay in the tablets he sent to Pharaoh and know they match the clay from around Shechem).
Genesis 34 may not give us much history. The story of tricking the men of Shechem by having them circumcised and then slaughtering them while still indisposed sounds like a folk tale. But the mention of Hamor in unrelated passages in Genesis 34 and Judges 9 shows that there was an independent tradition about the Canaanite or Hivite founder of Shechem.
Along with Jerusalem, Shechem was one of the two ruling city-states in the higher country of central Israel. While the Israelites had to conquer Jerusalem and its Jebusite rulers, there is no story of the conquest of Shechem–except maybe this Abimelech story. Archaeology shows that someone actually did destroy Shechem in the late 12th century. So as difficult as Judges 9 is from a historical standpoint, the claim in vs. 45 that Abimelech leveled the city seems credible. But Judges 9 leaves it unclear what happened in the area after the woman conked him with a millstone (vs. 53).
The next thing we know it is a couple hundred years later and there is a confab at Shechem to make Solomon’s son king (1 Kings 12). Clearly there is a lot of information that has been left out. From archaeology we know that the city was uninhabited for a while after the 12th century destruction and then rebuilt. 1 Kings 12 implies the importance of the site, but the Hebrew Bible does not fill in many details.