Usually when we think of parables, we think of Jesus because he often used parables in his teaching and preaching method. Yet, we should remember that Jesus was not the only one to use parables and that they can be found throughout scripture. Indeed, this parable is taken from the book of Judges.
So what is a parable? I remember my Sunday school teacher when I was a child drilling this answer into our heads. At least then, our definition was that a parable is an “earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Certainly, with respect to the parables of Jesus, this definition is correct, but once you look elsewhere in the Bible, you will quickly realize that my Sunday School teacher’s definition was lacking.
For our purposes, it is perhaps better to say that a parable is an earthly story that speaks beyond itself. It is similar to a fable of old in that it carries with it meaning that can be gleaned from the story. The difference between a parable and a fable is that a fable contains a moralistic message that can be gleaned from a literal interpretation of the story. To understand the message of a parable, one must look beyond the literal setting and seek the deeper meaning. Yet, a parable is also different than an allegory. In an allegory, every image has a one to one correlation with something else. Sometimes when people read parables they get lost trying to make a connection between every element and something else, missing entirely the message of the parable. It is true that the elements of a parable do contain deeper meaning and represent other things, but they do not always do so on a one to one basis and sometimes elements or images within the parable are simply there to add flavor to the story and do not contain any deeper meaning.
When Jesus was asked by his disciples (sf. Mark 4:10-12) why he taught in parables, his answer was that the parable kept the truth veiled from those whose eyes were not opened by God. Indeed, to be able to discern spiritual truths, one must have a spirit which is alive and regenerate. But sometimes parables are meant not to veil, but to reveal deep truths in a way that would have more impact than simply stating the facts. That is the case with this parable of the trees. It is an earthly story with a deeper meaning, but the deeper meaning is clear to all those who heard the parable and the story was meant to give the truth more impact.
So, what is the context of this particular parable? To begin with, we must travel back to the age of the Judges. The nation of Israel had been led through the wilderness from their captivity in Egypt to the Promised Land. God had given them the Law at Sinai through Moses and God would lead them into the land through Joshua. Yet, the people did not purge the land of all of the idolaters as they had been commanded to do. Instead, some were allowed to stay, usually as servants. This meant that the culture and the idolatry of the Canaanites were all around the Israelites. And sadly, more often than not, the Israelites fell into the temptation of idolatry rather than converting the Canaanites to Judaism.
That statement in itself is a telling message for the church today. It does not take much effort to see this same kind of thing going on in the Church to day. We are called to be distinct from the worldly culture, but more often than not, our churches begin to look more like the world than they do God’s kingdom. Sure, we may not be bowing down to wooden or stone idols (though you certainly find some of that in the Catholic church), but we certainly see people bowing down to money or egos. In a sense, the church is supposed to be the embassy of the kingdom of heaven in this world. The church should be a safe place and a holy place. It should be a place where faith is built up, not a place where personalities vie for the attention of others. In many ways, the days of the Judges are not that different than America today.
Most of us know the story about the famous Judge named Gideon. Gideon, of course, had some doubts about his calling, placing a fleece on the threshing floor to see whether it would be wet or dry, etc… But, eventually, God would have Gideon lead an army of 300 men to rout the armies of Midian. For the full story of Gideon, read Judges chapters 6-8.
What most people forget about the story of Gideon is what happens at the end of his life. The people tried to make Gideon their king and he refused. At the same time, he allowed them to put up an idol of himself, which the Israelites worshipped. Literally, the Hebrew text reads that they committed fornication with the idol, which reflects the marriage language that God often uses when conveying his relationship with his people. When God’s people look toward other idols, it is seen by God as an adulterous affair. How gracious our God is to be willing to forgive when we have been so unfaithful a spouse.
After Gideon died, the people went back to their Canaanite idols. One of Gideon’s 70 sons (that in itself is an indication of the fact that Gideon had slipped away from a godly life for he had many wives and concubines) was a man named Abimelech, which literally means “my father is king” in Hebrew, went to live in Shechem with his mother—a concubine of Gideon. They conspired with the people of Shechem to make Abimelech king, and they did so by capturing and putting to death all of Abimelech’s brothers (though one, Jotham, escaped). Thus Abimelech was made king.
When Jotham heard what had happened, he went to the top of Mount Gerizim and told this parable. This gave Jotham a place where the acoustics would have been good enough for him to be heard over a great distance as well as some distance from those who would try and put him to death. Mount Gerizim was an important mountain in ancient Israel. In Deuteronomy 27, we read the command of Moses that when the people have entered into the Promised Land, some are to ascend Mount Gerizim and others are to ascend Mount Ebal. From Gerizim, blessings for obedience were to be pronounced and from Ebal curses for disobedience were to be pronounced. We see this command being acted out in Joshua chapter 8. What is interesting about Jotham’s story is that it is a cry for judgment for the unfaithfulness of God’s people—yet he cries out from Gerizim, not Ebal—perhaps simply to reflect that Jotham is leaving Judgment of the people’s actions up to God. Regardless, it is from Mount Gerizim that Jotham tells this parable.