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ABIMELECH (a-bĭm'ĕ-lĕk, Heb. ’ăvîmelekh, probably either the father is king or the father of a king)

ABIMELECH ə bim’ ə lĕk (אֲבִימֶ֖לֶכְ, father of a king or Melek is father). 1. A cognomen applied to Philistine rulers as Pharaoh, Agag and Jabin were also applied by the Egyptians, Amalekites, and Canaanites respectively. This title is used of three different persons in the OT: one during Abraham’s time (Gen 20; 21) one during Isaac’s time, (ch. 26) and during David’s days (Ps 34, title).

The king of Gerar was titled Abimelech. Seeing Abraham’s wife Sarah, as Abraham sojourned with his flocks in his country after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the king or Abimelech of Gerar took her, intending to make her his wife. Abraham, again fearing for his life as he had with Pharaoh (Gen 12:10-20), declared that Sarah was his sister. Whether Abraham was implying that she was doubly protected as E. Speiser has maintained on the basis of the Nuzu documents is uncertain. At Nuzu there were not only marriage documents but also “sistership documents” (tuppi ahātūti); thus some wives simultaneously had the juridicial status of a wife and sister, each recorded in separate, independent, legal documents. Abraham may therefore have been technically correct when he referred to Sarah as his “sister” if she were thus protected. When Abimelech discovered the full truth of the situation or understood the implications of this Hurrian practice, he asked Abraham why he had done this to him. Abraham answered that he thought “the fear of God” (i.e., true religion) was not in Gerar, therefore he would be slain for his wife’s sake (Gen 20:11). Indeed “she is my sister,...the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother” (20:12). Abimelech lavished Abraham with a number of gifts and an invitation to graze his flock in his land in recognition of his person and his intercession for him (20:14, 16, 17). Later some twenty-five m. from Gerar, a series of disputes broke out between the servants of the two men over the water wells. Finally, the covenant at a well which they called Beersheba, “well of seven or swearing,” was made by Abraham and Abimelech (21:22-34).

2. The same type of experience occurred almost a cent. later between Isaac and another Abimelech of Gerar (26:1-11), “king of the Philistines.” Isaac claimed that Rebekah was his sister and when Abimelech attempted to move in, God intervened. A series of incidents involving wells followed, and a covenant concluded the hostilities (26:17-32). The reappearance of the name Phichol (26:26 cf. 21:22), the chief captain of Abimelech’s army may be the recurrence of family names in which the sons were named after their grandfathers, every other generation bearing the same name (for examples of patronymy see Egyp. and Phoen. lit. esp.). There is no evidence of any doublet between (1.) and (2.).

3. The title of Psalm 34 gives a third Abimelech in the time of David who was the Philistine king of Gath named Achish (1 Sam 21:10ff.). Most commentators regard Abimelech (Ps 34) as a copyist error for Achish or a confusion with Abimelech found earlier (1 Sam 21:1). This misses the point (Gen 26:1) where an Abimelech is a “king of the Philistines” in Gerar.

4. The son of Gideon (also called Jerubbabel) by a Shechemite concubine (Judg 8:31) in a matrilineal marriage (one in which the wife lives in the parental home and the children belong to the clan). After Gideon’s death, Abimelech approached the “Lords” of his clan of Shechem which is further designated in Judges 9:28 as “the men of Hamor” who still (Gen 34) worshiped the god Berith (Jdg 9:4, 9:6 46), and proposed that he be proclaimed “king.” They agreed and promptly paid him seventy pieces of silver from the treasuries of Baalberith. With this start, he hired a handful of assassins who quickly helped Abimelech slay all of his seventy brothers except for the youngest son Jotham who escaped.

His kingdom was limited to Shechem, Bethmillo (apparently the tower of Shechem, Arumah and Thebez, 9:6, 41, 50). This is the first Israelite man in the Bible to form his name with the divine designation melech. Neither was this his original name, according to Martin Buber, for Judges 8:31 says that “his concubine...bare him a son; and he called his name Abimelech.” The expression “to appoint a name” is not used of the giving of a name at birth, but of “giving a new name” as in the case of Abraham (Neh 9:7) or Jacob (2 Kings 17:34). Possibly it can be tr. reflexively, “he appointed for himself” the new name: this usurper and son of a concubine boasts that my father before me was really a king. The men of Shechem, says the writer (Judg 9:6) sarcastically and pleonastically, “kinged father-king as king.”

Jotham, the sole survivor of the bloody massacre of Abimelech and his henchmen, stationed himself on Mt. Gerizim and cried out his famous fable which placed a deliberate slur upon Abimelech as a worthless bramble incapable of offering the men of Shechem security or profit; to the contrary, it grimly predicted their mutual destruction (Judg 9:7-21).

After three years of reign, God visited Abimelech and the men of Shechem (9:23) in the persons of the usurpers’ assistant Zebul and Gaal, the son of Ebed (9:26). The latter was another slick talker and thus the dissension was sown in Shechem (9:28, 29). An armed rebellion ensued which Abimelech was just on the verge of crushing when an unknown woman dropped a millstone on his skull from the besieged tower at Thebez (9:50-53). Upset by the fact that it was a woman who finally put an end to his proud career, he begged his armor-bearer to spare him this disgrace, which he did by thrusting him through with Abimelech’s own sword (9:54).

5. A priest in the days of David (1 Chron 18:16). This is a scribal error for Ahimelech, the son of Abiathar, as shown by 2 Samuel 8:17; 1 Chronicles 24:6 and the LXX and 12 MSS of 1 Chronicles 18:16. See Ahimelech.


E. Speiser, “The Wife-Sister Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives” in Biblical and Other Studies (ed. by A. Altmann) (1963), 15-28; M. Buber, Kingship of God (1967), 60, 61, 73-76; D. Kidner, Genesis (1967), 137-142, 152-154; A. E. Cundall and L. Morris, Judges and Ruth (1968), 127-136.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

A name borne by five Old Testament persons.

(2) Nearly a century later than the events connected with the first Abimelech, as outlined above, a second Abimelech, king of the Philistines, is mentioned in relations with Isaac (Ge 26), who in time of grievous famine went down from his home, probably at Hebron, to Gerar. Fearing for his life because of his beautiful wife, Rebekah, he called her his sister, just as Abraham had done with reference to Sarah. Neither Abimelech nor any of his people took Rebekah to wife--quite a variation from the Abrahamic incident; but when the falsehood was detected, he upbraided Isaac for what might have happened, continuing nevertheless to treat him most graciously. Isaac continued to dwell in the vicinity of Gerar, until contention between his herdsmen and those of Abimelech became too violent; then he moved away by stages, reopening the wells digged (dug) by his father (Ge 26:18-22). Finally, a covenant was made between Abimelech and Isaac at Beersheba, just ,as had been made between Abraham and the first Abimelech (Ge 26:26-33). The two kings of Philistia were probably father and son.

(3) The title of Ps 34 mentions another Abimelech, who in all probability is the same as Achish king of Gath (1Sa 21:10-22:1); with whom David sought refuge when fleeing from Saul, and with whom he was dwelling at the time of the Philistine invasion of Israel, which cost Saul his kingdom and his life (1Sa 27). It appears from this that Abimelech was the royal title, and not the personal name of the Philistine kings.

(5) A priest in the days of David; a descendant of Ithamar and Eli, and son of Abiathar (1Ch 18:16). In the Septuagint and in 1Ch 24 he is called Ahimelech; but is not to be confused with Ahimelech, the father of Abiathar, and therefore his grandfather. He shared with Zadok, of the line of Ithamar, the priestly office in the reign of David (1Ch 24:31).