Zebul the Tattle-Tale

“Zebul, the prince of the city, heard the words of Ga’al the son of Ebed. And his nose burned. So, he sent messengers to Abimelek covertly to say, ‘Behold, Ga’al the son of Ebed and his brothers have entered Shekem! And be aware that they are binding up the city against you.”

(Judges 9:30-31)

As we suggested above, Zebul is likely a stooge of Abimelek, not a legitimate prince over the people of Shekem. He has someone that Abimelek has left behind to keep the peace and to keep the people of Shekem loyal to him. And thus we see Zebul’s response to Ga’al’s boasting. He is not simply angry, but he is enraged and furious at what is taking place.

One of the points of debate in this verse surrounds the word תָּרְמָה (tarmah), which we here have translated as “covertly.” This word is only ever used here in the Hebrew Testament, so it takes some inference to determine the word’s meaning. Modern scholarship connects this word with the root רמה (ramah), which means, “with deception.” Thus, it implies that Zebul’s message was sent out covertly and without the knowledge of Ga’al. And, the context seems to imply the same.

Older translators sometimes also connect this word with the location of אֲרוּמָה (Arumah), which is where Abimelek was living (see Judges 9:41). This would suggest simply that Zebul dispatched messengers to the location of where Abimelek was residing. What is even more curious is that the Septuagint (a Greek translation done about the 4th century BC) renders this word as μετὰ δώρων (meta doron)…or “with tributes.”

In the end, these variations do little to alter the meaning of the text. Perhaps, as some suggest, this is a figure of speech that has been lost to antiquity. We just do not know for sure. What we do know is that Zebul swiftly dispatches messengers to alert Abimelek of the impending threat.

And the warning? Literally that Ga’al is “binding up” the city against Abimelek. Many of our English Bibles will render this “stirring up,” but that misses some of the idiomatic meaning that is contained here. Ga’al has challenged the people to follow him instead of Abimelek. What takes place next is covenantal language. It is not just that Ga’al is getting the people all worked up, but he is covenantally binding the people to himself. He will become their new leader. Having made a pact with one devil, the Shekemites don’t seem to mind making a deal with another. Such is the effect of the depravity of man not just in ancient times, but today.

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