Of trees and thornbushes
November 1, 2019
There’s a fascinating, oft – overlooked parable in Judges 9. It might be one of the most profound teachings about political power and who we trust to rule found in the scriptures. As we see political chaos in England over “Brexit” and in the U.S. amid impeachment deliberations for presidential abuse of power in relations with Ukraine, it raises questions about who we choose to lead our governments and why.
Rather than rushing to our polarized partisan camps, can Christians pause to think about power and the morality of people we place in power? And, surely, we believe we can find hints about how to respond in the Bible. Judges 9 provides just such a place.
But first some background to the text. I learned in children’s Sunday School about the biblical judge Gideon. He has some cool stories. There are the overnight tests where first the dew covers the wool fleece but not the ground, and then where the fleece is dry while the ground is wet with dew.
Then there’s the battle against the Midianites where God winnowed Gideon’s army down from 22,000 to just 300 (in part by watching who cupped water to drink instead of lapping it up like a dog), and then when Gideon’s small army snuck in during the night with trumpets and torches in jars and so surprised the Midianites that the enemy army ran away in frightened confusion. Fun stories for kids!
But I don’t recall learning as a kid about what happened next. Impressed by Gideon’s leadership, the Israelites went to him and asked him to become king and start a hereditary monarchy over the nation. And like George Washington refusing to rule for life and instead returning home to farm, Gideon turned them down!
After Gideon’s death, however, one of his sons apparently wished dad would’ve have started that whole king thing because that son — Abimelek — wanted to rule as king. There was another problem for Abimelek, though. Even if Gideon had accepted the throne, Abimelek wouldn’t have inherited the throne because there were 70 sons of Gideon ahead on the royal lineage chart.
Yet Abimelek was undaunted. Full of arrogance and self-interest, he raised some campaign money from supporters and hired what the text calls “reckless scoundrels, who became his followers.” Then, like Cain on steroids, Abimelek killed his brothers so he could lay claim to the throne of Gideon that didn’t actually exist. However, one of the brothers, Jotham, escaped and hid.
As Abimelek sought to persuade the city of Shechem in northern Israel to declare him king, Jotham suddenly appeared from the wilderness like the priestly monkey Rafiki in The Lion King to declare a warning to the people of Shechem.
Although the people ignored him, Jotham nevertheless offered a timeless parable about power that we should consider today. Here is what Jotham said about choosing a rough, immoral leader:
Listen to me, citizens of Shechem, so that God may listen to you. One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’
But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’
Next, the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come and be our king.’
But the fig tree replied, ‘Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’
Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come and be our king.’
But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?’
Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘Come and be our king.’
The thornbush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’
Jotham’s warning came true when, after Abimelek ruled for three years, Abimelek brought death, destruction, and a massive fire to Shechem before also himself being killed. As Jotham, warned, don’t vote for a thornbush and then be surprised when they rule like a thornbush.