Toward the end of Gideon’s tenure as Judge, the Israelites offer him a pretty sweet deal: be our king. Gideon, knowing that God is the king of Israel, declines and that is the end of that.
Just kidding! This is the Bible (AKA Reality), where everything humans do turns to rot and final victories have to wait for, you know, the end. After Gideon dies, his bastard son Abimelech murders all his legitimate brothers in an attempt to claim the throne his father declined.
Well, almost all. Abimelech misses out on one fleet-footed son, Jotham, who runs away from the train wreck he can see coming so clearly. But before he heads for the hills, he delivers a pretty sweet curse-parable to the people of Shechem who are crazy enough to entertain making this deal with Abimelech.
The parable of the trees serves up a healthy dose of insight wrapped in a delightful cover of mockery and condescension:
- The trees of the world decide they want a king.
- They offer the throne to each of the three noblest trees in the world, the olive, the fig, and the vine.
- The three noblest trees laugh at the rest of the trees and indicate that they are content with their lot.
- Miffed, the trees ask the lowliest off the trees, the bramble, if he will be king over them.
- The thorn bush, good only for drawing blood and starting forest fires, happily agrees.
And they all lived happily ever after!
Jotham accelerates into the curse phase and declares that a forest fire will blaze out from this wicked alliance and consume the men of Shechem and environs. Then he drops the mic and disappears to his anonymous ending.
I won’t spoil what happens next in the story–ok, fine, I’ll do that in another post–but I do want to comment on a number of interesting connections between this parable and some later adventures in covenant history.
First, the parable itself has the same wicked-dark sense of humor on display throughout the book of Judges. Why do trees need a king? They don’t! Why do they want a king? They are stupid! How would a tree rule? What would he do? Nothing, obviously!
Once all the good trees have wisely turned you down, what should you do? Learn your lesson and move on to being good trees? Hah! Find the most useless and dangerous tree and make him king? Of course! I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it! Let’s do it!
Except for the fact that his entire family has just been murdered, Jotham is practically cackling with glee as he drops the mic and walks off into the sunset. Trees! Hah! Morons! What could possibly go wrong?
Second, we’re going to play this exact game again with Samuel in I Samuel 8, this time with all of Israel instead of one city in the hill country of Ephraim. Samuel doesn’t trade in parables–in fact, it’s quite surprising to see a parable at this stage in covenant history–and he doesn’t have Jotham’s humor/resignation about the matter, but he does try to put the brakes on a bad scene brewing and he does lay down the curse of the king. Maybe there won’t be a forest fire, but the king will be a burden and oppression to Israel. He also drops the mic and departs, a bit saltier than Jotham.
Third, when David begins his reign in II Samuel 5 there is a deliberate contrast with the covenant-making scene in the parable. The thorn bush in the tale, as well as Jotham in his commentary, condition the success of this endeavor on the good faith of the people involved: “If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon” (Judges 9:15). Jotham even adds on a bit of bridal imagery in his commentary, saying that if they act in good faith and honor with the family of Gideon (ahem, no) then “rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you” (Judges 9:19).
When David finally ends his long war with the house of Saul, we get a covenant scene with a declaration of good faith and some bridal imagery. Hmm…
Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you that led out and brought in Israel; and the Lord said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.'” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord. (II Samuel 5:1-3)
A promising start! I bet the Israelites will finally live happily ever after! Ok, well, it’s an improvement at least, and David isn’t murdered by his own people. Baby steps is what we are all about in the Old Testament.
But wait, there’s more! Because this parable is also about Jesus.
When David is at his absolute lowest, when his reign most approximates that of the failed Abimelech, when he’s murdering Israelites to take their wives and wasting the lives of his soldiers in a battle to do it, David completes his turn to the Dark Side with a dreadfully symbolic act. After Joab finally conquers the Ammonite city of Rabbah over the corpse of Uriah, he insists that David take the credit for the deed. David, a true king of the world–look how powerful he is! ooh! ahh!–marches into Rabbah at the head of his army and takes the massive gold crown from the head of the vanquished king of Rabbah. World, behold your king! Look how mighty and powerful he is! Ooh! Ahh! Look at all that good faith and honor between David and his people!
A king and his crown…and thorns. Hmm…this seems to ring a bell somehow.
The true king of Israel enters his own city, wears a crown of thorns, and lets his own people murder him. Gideon once threatened to beat traitors with a whip of thorns; the true king of Israel gets whipped by his own people. They even nail him to a tree.
But fire doesn’t blaze out from the betrayed king. Blood and water do. All the harms are reversed onto him and miraculously, by taking Jotham’s curse of the king upon himself, sets the people free to be good trees and stop worrying about having a king. Because the true king has arrived to teach them what that means, and there is a tree that rules over them all…it’s just made with human hands to kill God.
And then they really did live happily ever after (eventually).