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Mental Illness and Murder: Gideon’s Son, Abimelek

Gideon’s legacy, like most men with an abundance of wives in the Bible, is complicated by his offspring. In fact, Gideon had seventy sons by his wives and an additional son by a concubine according to Judges 8:30-31. Gideon named this other son Abimelek. Gideon died, and everything fell apart per usual. Abimelek’s story made me wonder about the links between mental illness and murder. Let’s look at that today.

The Passage

Abimelek son of Jerub-Baal went to his mother’s brothers in Shechem and said to them and to all his mother’s clan, “Ask all the citizens of Shechem, ‘Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal’s sons rule over you, or just one man?’ Remember, I am your flesh and blood.”

When the brothers repeated all this to the citizens of Shechem, they were inclined to follow Abimelek, for they said, “He is related to us.” They gave him seventy shekels of silver from the temple of Baal-Berith, and Abimelek used it to hire reckless scoundrels, who became his followers. He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and on one stone murdered his seventy brothers, the sons of Jerub-Baal. But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerub-Baal, escaped by hiding. Then all the citizens of Shechem and Beth-Millo gathered beside the great tree at the pillar in Shechem to crown Abimelek king.

Judges 9:1-6 NIV

Mental Illness and Murder

I always imagined that people who committed homicide must have struggled with some sort of mental illness. I could not imagine how else someone justified taking another’s life. As with Abimelek, where could that overwhelming need for power come from? So when I searched “murder and mental illness,” the results surprised me. This article by Treatment Advocacy Center showed that while researchers did note a connection between severe mental illness and homicide, these cases did not make up the majority.

Important caveat: I do not mean to imply that those with mental illness will commit homicide. As the Treatment Advocacy Center’s article notes, additional risk factors like “substance abuse and medication noncompliance” significantly impacted the studies’ results. Further, mental illness cases only accounted for a small percentage of all homicides. I still don’t understand the majority of cases, and that’s ok. We live in a broken world. Our selfish, sinful nature leads us to do all sorts of unhelpful things. After all, gossip and gluttony steal joy just like all the other sins.

How Do We Respond?

While statistics can lead to fear, I would rather they lead to compassion. Those struggling with severe mental illness battle a much greater darkness than most of us ever have to face. Medication can be complicated. Everyone reacts differently. While some may quickly find relief through medication, others may have to trial-and-error for months or years to get the dosage right.

I acknowledge that my instinct is to react in fear. I avoid people whose erratic actions make me uncomfortable; sometimes that is the safest option. However, God created each human being. He loves each one far more perfectly and beautifully than we can imagine. With God’s help, let’s grow our compassion for our fellow human beings. Let’s remember that regardless of anything we ever do, Jesus died for each one of us. He wants to see us flourish and create beauty despite our struggles.