30 When Zebul, the ruler of the city, heard what Gaal son of Ebed said, he became angry. 31 So he secretly sent messengers to Abimelech, saying, “Be careful! Gaal son of Ebed and his brothers have come to Shechem and are turning the city against you. 32 Come and hide in the fields tonight, you and the troops with you. 33 Then early in the morning, at sunrise, attack the city. When he and the troops with him come out against you, do whatever your hand finds to do.” 34 So Abimelech and all his troops got up at night and waited in ambush for Shechem in four companies.
Zebul, Abimelech’s lieutenant, had been given authority over the city of Shechem. So it’s understandable that he would send word to his boss. “Secretly” is the usual translation for tormah in verse 31, although it could possibly be a place name. It would be the difference between “He sent messengers to Abimelech in secret” and “He sent messengers to Abimelech in Tormah.” Commentators all the way back to Rashi (1040-1105 AD) have understood this to be “in secret.”
Zebul can only make a suggestion to his king, so he summarizes the proposed attack with the phrase, “do whatever your hand finds to do.” Abimelech agreed, and posted his mercenaries (the worthless and reckless men of verse 4) in four companies outside the city. Both of the mountains, Ebal and Gerezim, offer enough hiding places for dozens of such companies. By splitting his men into four groups, he had an excellent chance of success.
35 Gaal son of Ebed went out and stood at the entrance of the city gate. Then Abimelech and the troops with him got up from their hiding places. 36 When Gaal saw the troops, he said to Zebul, “Look, troops are coming down from the mountaintops! ” But Zebul said to him, “You’re mistaking the mountain shadows for men.”
Morning came. Gaal found Ebed watching the sun rise over the shoulders of the mountains from the city gate. As the shadows began to move, Gaal thought he saw other movement. But Zebul was ready. “Your eyes are playing tricks on you. It’s just shadows moving.” It was disarming enough that Gaal didn’t do anything for several minutes. Could Zebul be right? He could see that the shadows were retreating toward the east as the sun rose higher, but the forms he thought we men were creeping slowly toward him, to the west, away from the shadows…
Zebul’s lie wasn’t meant to fool Gaal completely. It was only to make him lose a little time; to confuse him for a few precious minutes. The devil’s lies can be like that. They can be as thin as tissue paper, but we forget that he is a liar, and the father of lies (John 8:44). The devil is always our enemy, just as he is David’s enemy in Psalm 62, putting lies into the mouths of people all around the king: “They take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse” (Ps. 62:4).
When the devil lies to us, he does it through wicked men, or through our own fallen human natures. We are tempted to believe his lies for many reasons, but sometimes like Eve we’re just plain taken in. Sin isn’t just a poison that can be extracted from our flesh, something blended with our human nature or set upon our heads like a hat. Our Confession teaches: “This deprivation and lack [that is, the corruption of the human nature by sin], this corruption and wounding which Satan brought about, this loss has so perverted and corrupted human nature that all men, conceived and born in the natural way from a father and mother, now inherit a nature with the same lack and corruption. For since the Fall human nature is not at first created pure and holy and is corrupted only subsequently through original sin, but in the first moment of our conception the seed from which man is formed is sinful and corrupted” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. I, 27-28).
The gospel for all mankind is that we have been freed from the sticky spider’s web of the devil’s lies by the grace of God. The devil stands condemned; mankind stands acquitted by Christ. The devil tries to reject his condemnation by dragging down men and women, and some men and women try to reject their acquittal by embracing the devil; all of them have a place prepared for them together forever in agony in hell. But as far back as Adam and Eve, mankind has had the promise of forgiveness and peace in Christ. Luther said, “[Adam and Eve] even hear themselves drawn up, as it were, in battle line against their condemned enemy, and this with the hope of help from the Son of God, the Seed of the woman. Forgiveness of sins and full reception into grace are… pointed out to Adam and Eve. Their guilt has been forgiven; they have been won back from death and have already been set free from hell and from those fears by which they were all but slain…” (LW 1:190).
So: Have your been lied to? Have you fallen for it, fallen into sin, or doubt, or despair? Run to Jesus and be forgiven. What he already accomplished on the cross has covered your guilt forever. “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).