I have deliberately waited until after the election to make the following expository comment. I have waited because I did not want such a rich text to be “used up” by the election. The poetic probe in Judges 9:8-15 is situated amid a sustained contestation about public leadership. The book of Judges consists in a series of disconnected “hero stories” that have been secondarily connected by a strong, highly-visible editorial hand.
In each case of these hero stories, an uncredentialed leader has arisen to deal with oppression and to accomplish emancipation for the Israelite tribes from an exploitative adversary. These several leaders exhibit brashness and boldness, courage and ruthlessness, and so accomplish victories over Israel’s enemies that warrant great celebration in Israel.
The follow-up in each case of such victory and emancipation is that the hero lingers in power as “a judge” for an extended period of time. There are no established protocols or institutions of power in Israel, but there is will for sustained stable leadership (something like a king!). These heroes, moreover, are not reluctant to take such power when it is offered to them. These “judges” regularly give Israel safety and security (“rest”) for extended periods that consist in freedom from external threat. Thus, the “rest” after Othniel was for 40 years (3:11), after Ehud, 80 years (3:30), after Barak and Deborah, 40 years (5:31), and after Gideon, 40 years (8:28). The highly stylized reportage of the book of Judges discloses an urge toward a more stable form of leadership. Israel yearns for a king!
In a little noticed but surely important book, Power and Politics in the Book of Judges: Men and Women of Valor by John C. Yoder, has suggested that the nearest parallel we have in our contemporary world to the book of Judges is “the pervasiveness and perseverance of patron-client politics in Africa.” In that culture, a strong man arises who provides stability and social continuity and order of a durable kind. In a practical bargain, the client-subjects willingly provide support and taxation to sustain such an order. This is what we see in the book of Judges.
Such an arrangement, however, generates a wish for something more durable, that is, kingship. After the refusal of kingship by Gideon (8:23), Abimelech in the next narrative has no such reluctance and seizes power as a king. He does so by the murder of his 70 brothers who might have been a threat to him (9:1-5). Amid the massacre, one of his brothers, Jotham, escaped, “for he hid himself” (9:5). Jotham, the lone survivor, of course sees the danger of such absolutism; in the text that claims our attention here. Jotham issues a parabolic warning to Israel from the top of Mount Gerizim at Shechem. Thus, the narrative of Abimelech (9:1-57) is interrupted by the poetic parable that intends to counter the menace of Abimelech’s absolutism (vv. 8-15).
The poetic scripture imagines a nominating committee of the trees to designate someone to be king, to “hold sway” over all the trees. Of course such a committee would seek only the best and strongest nominees. In this case of the trees (that is, all plants), the best and strongest nominees are an olive tree, a fig tree, and a vine. These are the most luxurious and desirable crops of Israel’s fertile land. It is interesting that the conventional triad, “grain, wine, and oil” is modified with “fig tree” instead of “grain,” perhaps because a fig tree produces edible fruit, or perhaps because “grain” would not qualify as a tree. In typical folklore fashion, we get three candidates, not more, not less.
Each of the three nominees makes the same brief speech in order to decline the post of ruler. Each of the three claims to be engaged in the production of rich food and is unwilling to interrupt that good work for the sake of governance. This triad of excuses is perhaps an anticipation of the three excuse-makers in the parable of Luke (14:18-20). Each of those three is too busy and otherwise engaged to be interrupted by an invitation to the banquet.
Two matters may be observed about these excuses in the parable. First, each excuse takes the trouble to state the spectacular wonder of the present work of food production. Thus:
The olive tree: “my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored” (v. 9).
The fig tree: “my sweetness and my delicious fruit” (v. 11).
The vine: “My wine that cheers gods and mortals” (v. 13).
The point of such lavish descriptions is to insist how wonderfully urgent the work is and to expect that even the nominating committee would surely not want to disrupt that good work.
Second, the poetic formulation of declination is in Hebrew quite terse:
Olive tree: shall I cease my fatness of oil?
Fig tree: shall I cease my sweetness?
Vine: Shall I cease my new wine?
Only the third mentions the actual produce; the others employ only descriptive adjectives. In each case, the point is the desirability of the fruit. And in each case, the question anticipates that even the nominating committee would answer, “No, of course you should not desist from your productive work.”
These statements that refuse election are elliptical. English translation requires the verb “produce” that is lacking in the Hebrew. But the point is that these plants are engaged in useful production that should not be interrupted by political engagement. This sentiment is readily reiterated in our contemporary commitment to production and commoditization! Don’t disturb useful production!
When these three most attractive tree-candidates are removed from the field, space is left for the fourth candidate, the “bramble” (this is a quite unusual word in the Old Testament, used only elsewhere in Psalm 58:10 with reference to a thorn-bush used for fire wood). The bramble is thorny, unattractive, and menacing. In the parable, the bramble is eagerly ready for governance. The bramble makes a speech promising to provide protective shade. But the bramble requires “good faith” (emeth), that is, a reliable commitment from the other plants. The bramble asks for a blank check of allegiance.
That promise of protective shade, however, is accompanied by a threat of devouring fire that would engulf even the great cedar trees. One can sense that this speech of acceptance by the bramble is laden with ominous potential. That speech in the parable, moreover, is closely matched by the speech concerning Abimelech in the narrative of verses 19-20 that also bid for “good faith” (emeth) for Abimelech and also offers a threat of devouring fire. This candidacy is indeed “playing with fire!”
Thus, the parable has an eye on the narrative (or the other way around) and wants to call attention to the onerous offer of governance by Abimelech. And there the parable ends. It does not report that the rule of the bramble is accepted by the other trees. It leaves open the response that must be made by those who hear the parable, that is, by those who face the governance of Abimelech. This parable, like every parable, requires the listeners to complete the parable by deciding upon a response. In the narrative, we are not told that the rule of Abimelech was accepted, only that he lasted in power for three years, while his brother, Jotham, who has told the parable, “ran away and fled ... for fear of his brother Abimelech” (v. 21).
The point of the parable is not obscure. The parable is simply a clever way to assert that if good people with positive political potential default on governing responsibility, then rule will be exercised by less desirable, more dangerous alternatives. The point is clear; nonetheless there is merit in lining out the parable. Not only is it entertaining in its imagery, but the repetition of patterned speech reinforces the danger and the possibility concerning governance. In the case of this narrative, the parable implies that Abimelech came to power because better candidates refused to have their productive lives interrupted by public responsibility.
It takes no great imagination for us to see the contemporaneity of the parable for us. If responsible people eschew public responsibility, the way is open for those who would misuse power in a governing space. I have wanted to wait with this parable until after the election because I did not want it to be taken simply as an invitation to vote in the election. That would be minimal. The point I wish to make it that the parable pertains to public engagement between elections, that is, all the time. Public life is a day-to-day enterprise. Many good responsible people (like me!) exercise our “political franchise” at election time and then relax until the next election. But the “brambles” of dark money and nefarious hidden money-power never rest or take a day off from seeking leverage, advantage, and control of the public apparatus. That every day engagement cannot be resisted or countered simply by voting. It can only be countered or resisted by regular, insistent engagement in the “down ballot” work of organization, money, vigilance, and effort all of the time.
Our recent experience has made clear that our political institutions and traditions go by default to the brambles if they are not defended and performed with faithfulness. Thus, the work of pastoral leadership, I suggest, is to show how, why, and in what ways political engagement by ordinary citizen-believers is part of our urgent vocation. This will require sustained pastoral intentionality in order to counter and resist the usual assumptions among us that pastoral work is exclusively private, one-on-one, and spiritual with a disregard of public issues.
Faith pertains exactly to public power, public money, and the common good. There is no reason that a local congregation should not be an engine for political energy that is committed to the practice of compassion, mercy, and restorative justice in the public domain. That practice is not conservative or progressive, Republican or Democratic. It is rather about the love of the neighbor by the shape and energy of public will. An urgent pastoral task is surely to refocus faithful energy to public life so that the brambles do not carry the day.
The long, sorry narrative of Abimelech ends with an uncompromising theological flourish:
When the Israelite saw that Abimelech was dead, they all went home. Thus God repaid Abimelech for the crime he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers; and God also made all the wickedness of the people of Shechem fall back on their heads, and on them came the curse of Jotham son of Jerubbaal (Judges 9:55-57).
In this concluding resolve of the narrative, it is affirmed that political exploitation and self-serving violence cannot finally outflank the good governance of God. Or as Senator Sam Irwin said during the Watergate investigation, “What you sow, you will reap.” Indeed! “They all went home.” We may hope they all went home to continuing public engagement. Unless, of course, they had not learned anything. If they had not learned anything from the devastating episode of Abimelech about the fragility of common life, then there was likely more to come of political violence that would further jeopardize the safety and the prosperity of the body politic.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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