The Execution of Abimelech’s Brothers
“And he entered his father’s house at Ophrah and executed his brothers, the sons of Jeruba’al, seventy men upon a single stone. Yet, Jotham, the youngest son of Jeruba’al, remained because he was hidden. And so he gathered all the leaders of Shekem and all of the house of Millo and they went and enthroned Abimelek king. At the oak which was standing in Shekem.”
Isn’t it sad just how quickly reforms that are made go away? Here, Abimelek’s father had torn down the Asherah (a cultic totem pole of sorts) in his hometown to rid them of the evil of the idolatry and here we have a coronation that takes place…yes, it is of a usurper, we will get to that…but it is under a sacred oak of sorts that happens to be in the town of Shekem. The hearts of men are wicked indeed, but how quickly they flee back to paganism even after being delivered by the one true God.
Now for the attack. It seems that the sons of Gideon were meeting at his home at a predicted time when Abimelek and his “unprincipled and reckless men” laid siege on the house. The language here implies that the thugs were used by Abimelek to capture the brothers, not to slay them. These men were all slain on a single stone by Abimelek, execution style. If you remember in chapter 8, when Gideon had captured Zebah and Zalmunna, he instructed his eldest son, Jether, to slay execute these kings (Judges 8:20-21), here Abimelek is gladly doing what his brother proved unwilling to do.
Recognizing that this is taking place at an oak in Shekem and recognizing the presence of idolatry and the emphasis that is placed on this “single stone,” there is also an implication here that these executions may have been done as a kind of pagan sacrifice. Just as Gideon had sacrificed to the Lord prior to his taking on the role of leadership, one can make the argument that Abimelek is doing the same…just instead of sacrificing to the Lord, he was sacrificing to his pagan gods. Again, how far we have fallen.
The one glimmer of hope is in the news that one of the sons of Gideon escaped slaughter because he had hidden. Notice that the verb, חבא (chaba — “to hide”) is in the “niphal” or passive tense. While this verb is most commonly found in the passive tense, it leaves open the question as to whether Jotham might have been hidden by one of his brothers (to preserve the youngest’s life) or whether he might have been hidden by God himself (who superintends all things). This we do not know for sure, but it is not out of reach of the text. So, whether Jotham skillfully hid himself, whether one of his brothers nobly sacrificed himself to keep Jotham hidden, whether God supernaturally kept the thugs blind to where Jotham was hidden, or whether it was a combination of all of the above, God had determined that one in the line of Gideon — a remnant — would survive not only to tell the tale and to lay a curse of judgment upon Abimelek and his followers. While the wicked rarely fear the curse of a godly man; they almost always regret what follows.
‘You are a dead man!’: Genesis 20:3
“And God went in to Abimelek in a dream by night saying to him, ‘Behold, you are dead over the woman you took for she is married to a husband.’”
Just as God did before, once again he protects the purity of Sarah. God ensures that the woman who will be the vessel of his promised child will have that child with her husband, Abraham, and not through a surrogate, whether Egyptian or Canaanite. Once again, the God of heaven demonstrates that he is the great shepherd over his people, protecting them from the harm that would come from the logical end of Abraham’s sin.
A question might be asked as to why Sarah submitted to her husband. She certainly saw the folly of his initial sin and to see it repeated seems a bit odd. Some may suggest that she was trusting in God’s deliverance. One also may suggest that she could have shared Abraham’s fears and thus entered into his sin willingly. We have already seen the sin of Sarah when she tried to take God’s promise into her own hands by giving her servant Hagar to Abraham as a wife. The child, Ishmael, came into the world as a result of this sin and the world has seen no end of grief as a result of these Ishmaelite children, those we now know as Arabian Muslims. How our sins so often come and haunt us.
Anyway, Abimelek (many of our Bibles wrongly transliterate his name as “Abimelech”) tries to take Sarah as a wife, likely because of Abraham’s wealth and wanting to build an alliance and thus secure Abraham’s allegiance. This was a common practice in ancient times, yet Sarah is not simply a sister, but indeed is the wife of Abraham. In this, all bets are off and God intervenes.
Loved ones, the God we worship today is the same God who protected Sarah. Now, sometimes he chooses not to protect his own in the way he protected Sarah, but he has promised to protect nonetheless and to carry each of us through whatever trial or trauma that we may face in this fallen world. God is a good God and though we often have to walk through hellish experiences in this life, we should be comforted in knowing that his hand always remains on us. Be at peace, his hand will guide and protect still today.
Conclusion (Judges 9:7-15)
There is much more to the story than just this parable, and I would encourage you to go and read the rest of Judges, chapter 9 (and on…). Ultimately, the people get what they ask for: an illegitimate king. Also, Jotham’s prediction certainly comes true—there is fire between Abimelech and the people of Shechem, which brings about Abimelech’s downfall. But this is hardly the end of the story. The people keep on asking for a king until God finally grants them to have a human king. And what a mess of people they were. Even the good ones, though they are few, have their low points. This is what happens when we chase after the ways of this world rather than chasing after the things of God, and that point does not just apply to our political leaders, but to all aspects of life.
Friends, chase after the things of God and seek to grow holy. Learn to resist sin and to glorify God in both your public and private lives. Love him in all you do. Love his word—study it, pray it, sing it, and memorize it—and seek his face in prayer. If you do these things, you will stay clear of the seduction of the world. You will keep yourself out from under the choking bramble of sin—not by your strength, but by the strength of the one who dwells in you and is reflected in you more and more clearly as you grow in faith.
The Fire and the Cedars (Judges 9:15)
“And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me to be king over you, enter and take refuge in my shadow. But if there is not, let fire go out from the bramble, and let it consume the cedars of Lebanon!’” (Judges 9:15)
There are two levels to how we need to approach this passage. The first level is the immediate context of the passage. Here, the bramble is given kingship and will subjugate all of the trees, destroying them in the process. Indeed, there is a curse that is attached to the acceptance of the bramble: may fires go out to consume even the great and stately cedars of Lebanon. Abimelech will be made king, he will rule with an iron fist—and does so for three years—and not even the greatest of the people who made him king will be able to stand against him, indeed fire will consume even his strongest opposition during his reign.
And, were we just studying the book of Judges, we would leave this verse be with that translation. But, given that all scripture is authored by God, it is important for us to see where this imagery is referenced in other books of the Bible. And, indeed, the imagery is referenced in other books of the Bible, and in those cases, the language carries with it Messianic intent.
Indeed, just as Abimelech, the false king of Israel destroys his enemies, so too, does the true king of Israel destroy his enemies with fire. The book of Amos, within its first two chapters, repeatedly finds God sending out his fire to consume his enemies. Also, in Zechariah 11:1-3, God pronounces his judgment against the unbelievers in Israel by declaring that his fire will devour the cedars of Lebanon. Though this language is often used figuratively, it also looks backward to a time before the time of Judges, during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, where God literally destroyed his enemies with fire (Leviticus 10:1-7).
Yet, there is an even more compelling allusion to the language of this parable that occurs nearly 1300 years after the Jotham’s telling of this parable. In Revelation 11, there is a reference to the two witnesses of God breathing out fire and destroying their enemies. Now, admittedly, there is a great deal of debate as to just what these two witnesses represent, but I hold the position that they represent Christ during his earthly ministry. The two witnesses are described as the two olive trees that stand before the lampstands which are before God. This is imagery taken right out of Zechariah 4, where the two olive trees are the “anointed ones” that stand before the Lord (Zechariah 4:14). Who is the anointed one before the Lord? It is the Messiah—Jesus our Lord.
Why then is Jesus represented by two witnesses? I would like to suggest two options: first, Jesus’ witness is to both the Old Testament believers and to the New Testament believers, and second, Jesus had dual natures—one human and one divine. Thus, two witnesses are given within the figurative language of the book of Revelation. And indeed, getting back to the imagery that we spoke of earlier in this passage, Jesus is the olive tree; he is the rightful king of Israel.
Did Jotham have all of this in mind when he told his parable? I very much doubt it. Jotham was telling a story to tell the people what they had gotten themselves into. At the same time, God, through other Biblical writers and in other times, used that imagery to warn those who would be the enemies of his son. Abimelech would rule as a despot, and the righteous had much to fear; Jesus rules as the rightful and righteous king, and the unrighteous have much to fear. Our God will obliterate even the strongest resistance to his rule—even the modern cedars of Lebanon cannot withstand his wrath.
I find it comforting to serve a God who has all of his enemies at his feet. As believers, we know just how the story will end up and who ends up on top. We do not worship in vain and we worship a God that gives life and sanctuary to those who enter under his shadow. Jesus calls out to all who would hear: “come and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Won’t you rest in him?
The Acceptance (Judges 9:15)
“And the bramble said to the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me to be king over you, enter and take refuge in my shadow. But if there is not, let fire go out from the bramble, and let it consume the cedars of Lebanon!’” (Judges 9:15)
If you ever drive through the mountains of Virginia, in places you will see a remarkable sight. There are portions of the mountainside that are covered with green-leafy vines as far as the eye can see. In fact, this phenomenon can be seen in many parts of the American southeast. What you are seeing is area that is covered by the kudzu vine. Originally, these plants were imported to the United States from Japan for the purpose of soil conservation, but it was soon discovered that these vines not only grew well here, but grew at an alarming rate. While this was good for soil conservation efforts, this proved disastrous for forests. The plants would grow and choke the trees, preventing them from absorbing sunlight. In perfect conditions, a kudzu plant can grow up to sixty feet in a year.
This is what happens when you allow vines or brambles to rule. Their offer of kingship having been rejected by the fruit-bearing plants, the trees went to the bramble, likely thinking that they could control his actions as well. Look at the response of the bramble once again. He tells the trees to enter and take refuge in his shadow. This should catch our attention. How is a stately tree to take refuge under the shadow of a bramble. The only way for that to happen is if the bramble grows to overcome the trees—just as the kudzu plant did in the southeast—yet, when this happens, the trees will be choked out. What begins as an offer of refuge ends up being a sure promise of destruction.
How often, in our lives, does the sinful path seem to be a path of refuge and safe from danger? Yet, it always brings destruction. The people were afraid that if they did not have a king like the Canaanites did, they would be overrun—even though God proclaimed himself to be their king and even though God had repeatedly delivered them from their enemies. They felt that the path of faith entailed danger and the path of sin would offer safety. How we are deceived by the wiles of sin.
Friends, God calls you to be holy. That means trusting God to set the timing for your life and to walk in that timing with integrity and godliness. That means walking in faith. The temptations of sin may seem to provide a clear and safe route through the mountains and valleys of life, but that path will lead you straight into the briar patch.
The Bramble (Judges 9:14)
“Then all of the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’”
And this is where you end up if you try and organize life in accordance with your own desires and not in accordance to God’s will. You end up with a good-for-nothing, thorny bramble as your king. The term that the Jotham uses here is dDfDa (atad), which is only found five times in the Old Testament (2 times in Genesis 50 as a proper name, 2 times in this parable, and 1 time in Psalm 58:9, where it is used to describe a thorny bush ready to be destroyed), but is never used in a positive way when referring to such a bush.
Indeed, the only fruit that such a bush bears are thorns and thistles. This contrast is very important to note in this parable. The previous three candidates which were asked all bore abundant and good fruit. The fruit of the grapevine, the fig, and the olive are not only staple foods, but they point to the promised new creation. Given that the new creation is a restoration of the earth to its pre-fall purity, beauty, and abundance, new creation language often uses language that points our minds backwards to Eden as well—a place where the grapevine, the fig, and the olive would have been abundant. What am I getting at here? The bramble was not present in Eden, nor will it be present in the new heavens and earth.
In God’s judgment of Adam, God cursed the land rather than cursing mankind (who rightfully deserved the curse). This is a foretaste of the substitutionary work of Christ for our sins. The effect of that curse on the land is that it would bring forth “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18). This thorny bramble, which the people of Shechem have made king, namely Abimelech, is being linked with sin. Indeed, it is the sin of not trusting God’s kingship that has brought them to desiring a human king and to bring this about, the sin of murder (68 of them to be exact) is committed. Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden was an outward rebellion against the rulership of God, and the fruit of that sin was demonstrated in the lives of their two sons: Cain and Abel. What a dark place the people of Shechem have gotten themselves into.
And, all too often, we do the same. No, we may not be guilty of killing off our brothers and sisters to gain a kingdom, but how often do brothers and sisters raise their fists against one another fighting over a share of their parent’s estate? How often do we cut someone down to size at work, seeking a better position in the boss’ eyes? How often do we insult someone just to get others to laugh? Jesus calls this murder (Matthew 5:21-26). Just because we do not wield the knife, does not mean we are innocent of this sin. Friends, the good news is that in Christ there is forgiveness for our sins (1 John 1:9). But God does not simply forgive us and let us go back to our sinful ways, he wants us to grow and mature in holiness. Repentance means turning around; it implies seeking to put to death those things that cause you to trip and fall. We have a lifetime of work ahead of us, but in Christ, there is progress in that work. The people of Shechem put their own desires ahead of God’s will—nothing but trouble comes from doing that; it brought them brambles then and it will bring us brambles today.
The Third Rejection (Judges 9:13)
“The Third Rejection”
“And the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my new wine, which is joy to God and men, and shall I go to dominate the trees?’” (Judges 9:13)
This is the third and the last rejection that the forest’s “new king committee” receives, and once again, the rejection is based on the same principle. The vine, a third tree that bears good fruit, understood that when one pursues one’s own ego rather than the proper plan of God, good fruit is lost. There is no rushing ahead of God and there is no pushing God to act—and all actions that are aimed in that direction are sin. There is only waiting upon the Lord’s good timing and good will to open doors ahead of you and to close doors behind you. Once again, in the context of our passage, Abimelech and the people of Shechem were seeking their own agendas first and above all things rather than seeking to live righteously for before the Lord.
Friends one of the great lessons of this parable is that there is a proper calling for each of us. To fulfill that calling and to do it well and to the glory of God is the task that is laid before us. There are times when others will flatter our egos and tickle our ears with promises of honor and great authority, but if God is not opening the doors, it will likely ruin your fruit which blesses God and mankind. Our sole purpose in life is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever—outside of that purpose is nothing other than eternal misery. Friends, discern and use your gifts for God’s glory, whatever your calling and whatever your situation—use every moment for God’s glory and ignore the temptations of those who would call on you to be king.
The Vine (Judges 9:12)
“And the trees said to the vine, ‘Come, you reign over us.’” (Judges 9:12)
And once again, the trees turn to another candidate for kingship, this time to one who is not even a tree at all, but a vine. Technically, the term that is used here, NRp‰…g (gephen), is a generic term that can be used to describe any kind of climbing plant, yet in the context of the next verse, it is clear that it is the grapevine that is being spoken to. Like the fig tree, the grapevine is a symbol of God’s blessing here in this life and in the next (Deuteronomy 8:8, Zechariah 8:12).
Once again, the trees are looking at two things when they choose a candidate for kingship: abundant fruit and small stature. They want a leader who will bless them with great fruit in the forest, but one that can be easily manipulated or trampled if need be. Is that not how we often choose leaders? Do we not often look at a candidate and begin by thinking, “what can this person do for me?” How often this mentality even shows up in the church when people vie for church offices.
For the trees, it was still, “all about them.” Beloved, as God’s people, it is not, “all about us,” indeed, it is all about God. Part of our maturing in faith is learning to allow God to be God and that means allowing him to be king over all aspects of our lives. Church leadership is about servant-hood, not rulership. Indeed, even political leadership should be about servant-hood, though that is not often the case. Lastly, let us never forget that our individual families are to be modeled upon the church, which means we as parents or grandparents have an obligation to be servant leaders in our homes as well, demonstrating God’s love to our children that they might grow up to glorify God as well.
The Second Rejection (Judges 9:11)
“And the fig said to them, ‘Should I end my sweetness and my good fruit and shall I go to dominate the trees?’” (Judges 9:11)
And once again, the trees are rejected by the one they would make king. The fig rejects the throne on the same basis as the olive; gentleness, sweetness, and good fruit disappear when one becomes a despot. The olive understands that this kingship that is being offered to him is not some form of peaceful democratic rule; rather, it would be characterized by his “shaking” over the other trees—dominating them according to his will. I have often wondered what causes people to seek positions of such power. Perhaps it is a heartfelt belief that some good can be brought about, but surely great good can be done without holding the highest office in a land—take Billy Graham for example (and his son Franklin is quickly filling his father’s shoes). Usually I end up with the answer that it has to be a person’s ego that drives him to seek such power. And so often, oh, what a toll it takes.
Another thing that I find interesting about this parable is found in the choice of the trees chosen for the office of king. First, the olive is asked, next, the fig, then the grapevine and the bramble. None of these are large, stately trees. Why not ask the towering cedars or sturdy oaks? Perhaps it is a reflection of the good fruit that these trees bare (the bramble aside). I have another suggestion. The trees wanted a tree as king that could not “shake” over them. In other words, this committee of trees was looking for a king that they could control and use as a puppet, allowing them to keep the throne for themselves.
In the context of this story, note that it was not Abimelech that was seeking kingship; rather, his mother and the people of Shechem made him king. They could have gone to any of Abimelech’s other brothers, but Abimelech was kin, and could likely be manipulated and controlled by his hometown people through his mother. The people of Shechem were not interested in Abimelech the man, but were simply interested in using him to dominate the rest of the people of Israel.
How dangerous power is when it is in the hands of those who do not wield it with integrity. How dangerous it is when leaders are manipulated by small, special interest groups. Though we have all these things present in our own nation, our founding fathers were wise enough to establish a system of checks and balances. Yet, we still need to be careful, looking to elect leaders who have integrity and who will not easily be manipulated by others in power.
Friends, even in the living of our own lives we find this—though on a smaller level. People at work, using friendships to manipulate others, people at church doing the same. I have seen personality conflicts tear churches to shreds. Friends, do not forget that the church is to be a sanctuary from the world; it is to be a safe place where we can grow and are nourished by God’s word, enabling us to bear fruit to his glory. It is a place where no “shaking” or domination should take place. Always endeavor to keep that in front of you.
The Fig Tree (Judges 9:10)
“Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come, you reign over us.’” (Judges 9:10)
Do you see how the trees are trying to take the initiative over God? They first asked the one who would have been the rightful king and he turned down the job. Rather than turning back to God to bring them a king in His time, they start going to others—others who do not belong on the throne. And this is just what the people were doing. Gideon had turned down the kingship, so as soon as he died, they sought out another. And, oh what a mess they ended up with.
The fig tree is another staple fruit of Israel. In good years, it will bear fruit twice in a season—once early and once late. Its fruit is sweet and highly nutritious and their presence and imagery is a sign of abundance for the people. The promised land is a land described as a land of fig trees (Deuteronomy 8:8) and times of peace, both in this world and in the new creation, are described as a place where each person can rest under his own fig tree (1 Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4).
Yet, peace does not come to us when we seek to run ahead of God. The people were not happy with the fact that other nations had human kings and they did not have one, though how much more wonderful it is to have God as king. Through Gideon’s rejection of kingship, God was telling the people to wait for the appropriate time. They found that entirely unacceptable and went to another.
How often it is in our lives that we try and run ahead in our own time rather than stopping and waiting? How often do we receive a “no” from God and we proceed anyhow? Friends, trying to run ahead of God is never profitable behavior. God will work in his own time. That time is perfect and proper and we need to learn to be patient, waiting upon the Lord to open doors when he is ready.
The First Rejection (Judges 9:9)
“And the olive tree said to them, ‘Should I leave my fatness, which in me God and men are honored and shall I go to dominate the trees?’” (Judges 9:9)
Here we see that Jotham, who is telling the story, understands what is going on. The rightful tree rejects the offer of kingship, just as Gideon, his father, had done. Why is that? Because Gideon understood that it is God, not man, who should call and anoint a king. God had called Gideon to judge for a time, not to create a dynasty to his name. We see this in the response of the olive tree.
Literally, the olive tree asks if he should leave his abundance to go and “shake” over the other trees. The word e1On (nua) refers to a violent shaking, usually over something or someone else. There is an implication that through this shaking, fear is generated in the hearts of others. When God does not ordain a king, that king assumes power by subjecting others to his own authority. We can see what happened with Abimelech. The first act he did in seeking to be king is to have all of his brothers executed. The olive tree recognized that were he to accept the kingship, it would be a violent rule.
And why would the olive tree be leaving its abundance? Olive trees are neither the largest nor the most hardy of trees. The “shaking” of itself over the other trees would likely destroy him just as violent windstorms do great damage to olive orchards. The tree recognized that rulership by the terms of the world not only requires the domination of others, but it is self-destructive as well.
There are two things that I think we should learn from this. The first is just simply a reflection on the values of the world. Ruling by the world’s terms takes a huge toll on the person. One of the things that I find quite interesting is to watch the hair color of presidents change from the time they are a candidate to the time they close out their term in office. If you do not believe that stress brings on gray hair, I challenge you to start digging up before and after pictures of some of our recent presidents. One of the most dramatic changes could be seen in Bill Clinton. As a candidate, his hair had color; by the time he left office, it was snowy white. This is admittedly an extreme example, but the principle remains: worldly leadership will take a huge toll on you.
The second thing that we should take from the response of the olive tree is an understanding of calling. Each of us is called to a different occupation in life to serve the Lord. Some are called to be preachers, others are called to be farmers, and still others are called to be accountants and teachers and lawyers, etc… All believers have a calling and not one is higher than the other. If, when we understand our calling to be x,y, or z, we do something else, that is sin. God has given us skills and gifts to serve him in a particular way, and even if the opportunity is given to us to serve otherwise—though it may satisfy our egos to do so—we should not deviate from that which God has given for us to do. The olive tree understood that his calling was to bless people with its good fruit, not to destroy itself, domineering over the other trees. Wisely, it stayed with its calling.
Friends, I lay the example of the olive tree before you. Bear fruit in the calling that God has given to you—whatever that calling may be, glorify God in what you are doing. This is the only way you will find satisfaction in life and the only way you will bless God and men with your fruit.
The Olive Tree (Judges 9:8)
“The trees surely went to anoint a king over them. And they said to the olive tree, “You must surely reign over us!”
As we see what is going on in the land of Israel at this time, and as we reflect back at the history of Israel as it moves out of the book of Judges and into the books of Samuel and Kings, we get a taste for the heart of the people. They want an earthly king over them. Why is this? Certainly, they had a king in God. He sent his prophets and judges to lead his people when necessary and he provided Levites to provide for the people’s religious needs. Why would they want a king?
As we spoke earlier, though, the Israelites had not driven the Canaanites from the land and the Israelites had adopted much of the Canaanite culture into their own. They looked at the other nations and said to themselves, we must have a king so that we can be known in the land. They were not interested in God’s protection and leadership; they were interested in their own honor and greatness. Thus we see the people longing to make Gideon their king and when he refused, they made Abimelech their king against his wishes (as he had said that no son of his should be king). So here we see the eagerness of the trees, who need no king, but want one to satisfy their own ego. And they begin by going to the olive tree.
It is absolutely appropriate that they look to the olive tree first. The Olive tree is a symbol of Israel in both the Old and the New Testaments (Jeremiah 11:16, Romans 11:17) and also is used in Messianic imagery as well (Zechariah 4:11-14). Of course, olives were a staple fruit throughout the history of Israel. Not only were they used as food but they provided oil for cooking and for lamps.
The trees have gone to the rightful leader first, God’s anointed tree, if you will. In the context of this story, they went to Gideon, the judge first. The problem that came out of this is that in their zeal to have a king, when he refused, they did not stop there. They were determined to make their own king rather than waiting for God to raise someone up to fulfill their needs.
How often do we do we behave this way in our own lives. We look at the world around us and get jealous of the things that they have and we perceive ourselves as lacking because we do not have them. We know from scripture and experience that God blesses us when it is appropriate and in his time, but we aren’t always satisfied with that. We want God to act on our own timetable and according to our own parameters. And when God says “no” to us, we go about trying to make things happen for ourselves.
What trouble we usually make for ourselves when we do this. Indeed, that is where this parable is going, and of course, that is where the history of the people of Israel takes them. Friends, as we reflect on this parable, let us reflect also on our own lives and learn from the mistakes of those who have failed before us. Let us learn to wait as the psalmist calls us to do, when he says:
“My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” (Psalm 130:6)
Let us learn now to wait upon the Lord and not rush headlong into trouble and sin.
The Parable of the Trees: Intro (Judges 9:8-15)
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.