I was ordained in 1958 alongside my brother Ed. He promptly accepted a pastoral call to St. Paul Church in Napoleon, Missouri. It was a small rural parish. Soon after he arrived at the church, he learned that the Women’s Guild of the congregation had a “wee leadership crisis.” They could not find anyone in their group who would accept leadership for the Guild. The chair of the nominating committee for the Guild reported, “We have asked everyone, and no one would agree to serve.” The story becomes poignant because a somewhat disgruntled woman in the group said in a stage whisper, “They did not ask everyone.” That is, they did not ask her, because they judged her ill-suited for such leadership.
This slight memory from my brother, Ed, has caused me to turn to the parable about leadership in Judges 9:8-15. In that parable told by Jotham, youngest son of Gideon-Jerubbaal, the trees wanted to anoint a king over them. The olive tree declined kingship, and wanted instead to continue to produce rich oil. The fig tree likewise declined kingship, preferring to produce the sweetness of figs. And the grape vine declined, wanting only to continue to produce grapes for wine. All of these trees—olive, fig, and vine—were too busy with their productive work to accept the demanding role of governance. When all of the candidates declined kingship, the bramble volunteered to occupy the vacancy. The bramble accepted the role of king, but stated a stark either/or for governance:
If in good faith you are anointing me king over you,
then come and take refuge in my shade;
but if not, let the fire come out of the bramble
and devour the cedars of Lebanon (Judges 9:15).
My way or fire! If the other trees trusted the bramble, all would be well. If not, the bramble promised a destructive fire.
A LEADERSHIP VACUUM
The parable is rather obvious and does not require much commentary. Dennis Olson, in his fine commentary (NIB II), gives the parable itself only seventeen lines (p. 816). The point of the parable is that if good people will not provide leadership, the vacuum will be filled by those less effective and less responsible. I thought perhaps that the leadership crisis in Napoleon, Missouri is a case in point for the parable.
In the book of Judges the parable is set in an extended narrative that concerns the governance of Gideon (=Jerubbabel) and what comes after him. As judge and savior of Israel, Gideon delivered the Israelites from the Midianite threat with a great victory. In their gratitude the people of Israel offered Gideon kingship with the continuing right of his family after him. Gideon nobly refuses the offer:
I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you (v. 23).
Upon the death of Gideon, his son Abimelech steps forward as successor to his father, and ruthlessly kills his many brothers, sons of Gideon, who might have shared power with him. By popular acclaim, Abimelech is made king, appointed to the office his father had generously declined, an office never heretofore present in Israel. He becomes the first king in Israel, well before either Saul or David was on the horizon. While Abimelech killed all of his brothers but one, Jotham, the youngest, had somehow survived. Young Jotham mounts a protest against the usurpatious rule of his brother and utilizes the parable in order to identify the rule of Abimelech as evil and sure to fail. After reciting the parable, Jotham must flee for his life from his brother Abimelech, now made king.
The remainder of this restless story of Abimelech is told, governed by “an evil spirit” dispatched by God (v. 23). Abimelech lasted in power for only three years. As a counterpoint to the threat of fire voiced by the bramble in the parable, Abimelech with his troops gathers brushwood and sets the Tower of Shechem aflame:
So every one of his troops cut down a bundle and following Abimelech put it against the stronghold, and they set the stronghold on fire over them, so that all the people of the Tower of Shechem also died, about a thousand men and women (v. 49).
As a reprise he also attempts to set fire to the strong tower of Thebez (v. 50-51). While he was busy working on that fire, a woman from up on the tower threw a millstone down on him and crushed Abimelech’s skull. Thus he died, shamefully killed by a woman! The narrative concludes with a verdict that the violent end of Abimelech was God’s revenge for the violent murder of his brothers by Abimelech:
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 9:56-57).
The curse uttered by Jotham in the form of the parable has now come to fruition. Thus from the “evil spirit” of verse 23 to the vengeance of God in verses 56-57, the whole of the life and rule of Abimelech is contained in the governance of God, a containment about which he knew nothing. God will not be mocked by violent, self-serving governance. Abimelech is deposed and the narrative of Judges moves on to the emergent rule of Jephthah to face the next crisis, this one from the Ammonites.
OUR CURRENT BRAMBLE
Back in Shechem, the rule of YHWH trumped the evil rule of Abimelech. The parable is a warning about poor leadership that can do great harm to the body politic. Back in Napoleon what was perceived to be potentially poor leadership was refused. My comment, however, does not concern the leadership crisis in either ancient Shechem or in Napoleon. Rather, it concerns the stunning fact that in my home state of Michigan the leadership of the Republican Party has been completely preempted by followers of Donald Trump who continue to claim that the election of 2020 was rigged and that Biden is not our legitimately elected president. What is happening in Michigan is happening more broadly across our nation, thus creating a leadership crisis and thereby placing our democratic institutions and procedures in jeopardy.
I call attention to the parable of Jotham because it is so readily accessible, and so easily pertinent to our current political crisis. When good leadership does not step up to responsibility, it may go by default to nefarious control of others who intend no positive outcome for the common good. This political reality, read through the lens of this biblical parable, is yet another cogent reminder to us that gospel faith is concerned with the real world of governance and is not confined to matters spiritual or other-worldly. It may well be that the church (and its leadership) are regularly cast as “talent scouts'' to identify potential local leaders, to recruit them for public office, and to school them in the ways in which the gospel concerns civic realism. Abimelech may have claimed for himself the title of “king.” But he had no real interest in or capacity for governance.
The great temptation in governance is always the chance for self-benefit. Thus even though Gideon refused kingship, he acted nonetheless in covetous ways:
“Let me make a request of you; each of you give me an earring he has taken as booty.” (For the enemy had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) “We will willingly give them,” they answered. So they spread a garment, and each threw into it an earring he had taken as booty. The weight of the golden earrings that he requested was one thousand seven hundred shekels of gold (apart from the crescents and the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian, and the collars that were on the necks of their camels) (Judges 8:24-26).
In the next verse we are told, moreover, that Gideon engaged with religious symbols (ephod) that the narrator identifies as a “snare” whereby Gideon and all Israel “prostituted themselves” (v. 27). This report juxtaposes self-serving political practice (greed) and destructive religious practice (idolatry) that characteristically come together.
In ancient Israel the construction of kingship was in crisis as the occupant of the royal office variously adjudicated public interest and private gain. It remained for the hard-nosed old judge, Samuel, to enunciate the risks of concentrated power in the hands of a bramble-like leader:
There will be the ways (mišpat) of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle, and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day
(I Samuel 8:11-18).
It remained, in the modern world, for Machiavelli to line out this reality of public power of The Prince. The episode of Abimelech in ancient Israel permits the narrator to assert the deep learning that human governance is always penultimate and answerable to the ultimate governance of God. That lesson is one we always seem to relearn belatedly. My guess is that the women in the church in Napoleon had fully intuited this reality, even if they did not and could not spell it out. They knew, as we always learn again, that sooner or later brambles will burn the house down. Thus we might recall the towers of Shechem and Thebez in the time of Abimelech, and then we may ponder the wise words of Paul Krugman, “Blackmailers without a Cause,” The New York Times (February 3, 2023):
It’s dangerous when a political party is willing to burn things down unless it gets its way; it’s even more dangerous when that party just wants to watch things burn.
Brambles are relentless when they do not get their way!
This essay was originally published on the Church Anew Website.