The article of the month

Is That in the Bible? by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.

Reign of Terror

There is today near Modi’in, Israel, a botanical garden of biblical plants, though for most of the year much of what is planted there is desiccated and displayed in forty shades of brown: a kind of Middle-Eastern tumbleweed museum. Yet alongside the sturdy olive, the flowering fig, the noble vine, and the lofty cedar, one squat and ugly tree, needled with thorns, is also surprisingly robust, bearing a mushy little crabapple-like fruit even at the end of the burning Palestinian summer: the buckthorn. A good look at a buckthorn in its natural setting helps put some color into Jotham’s parable of the trees in Judges 9.

One day the trees went out to anoint a king over themselves (9:8). First the olive is invited to rule but declines as having much better things to do, such as honoring gods and mortals. The fig next finds the offer unappealing for similar reasons; in turn the vine also declines. Finally, the luckless trees turn their attention to the buckthorn, who accepts the job. If you are anointing me in good faith, to make me king over you, come and take refuge in my shadow. But if not, let fire come from the buckthorn and devour the cedars of Lebanon (9:15). This is all strange behavior for a copse of trees, but we are dealing, of course, with an allegory.

A certain ne’er-do-well, Abimelech, just now guilty of a murderous purge, has been made king by his kinsmen in Shechem. He is the buckthorn. The family of the fruitful Gideon, also called Jerubbaal, with his seventy sons (Jotham himself being the sole survivor), takes, by contrast, the place of the more dignified trees that refuse the royal honor, in order to honor instead both God and men. For when earlier asked to wear the crown, Gideon had answered for both himself and his line: I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you. The Lord must rule over you (8:23). Abimelech, it happens, is Gideon’s half-bred son, born of his concubine. Something clearly went wrong with his siring, for his name means in Hebrew, “My father is king.” The parable thus becomes both a commentary and the prophecy of a reign that will end in no good (matching its bloody beginning). For in comparison with the other trees, the staples and staves of life and joy in the Mediterranean world, the buckthorn stands out as completely useless—except perhaps to serve as shade…or firewood.

In other words, the shade that Abimelech, this gangster-style kinglet, offers—it is Israel’s first experiment in monarchy—will destroy in the end even the more magnificent shade cast by the towering cedar: that is, the noblest source of shelter, the giant tree from which are built the dwellings of the gods. Like a pitiful piece of firewood, this king will destroy the refuge Israel found in YHWH, her covenant Lord.

As foretold, after three quiet years the leaders of Shechem grow tired of Abimelech and decide to step out from under his cover. Who is Abimelech? And who is Shechem, that we should serve him? (9:28). A plot is hatched and the people put their faith in a drunken boaster named Gaal. He mounts an army and, lest the code be missed, is compared to a shadow moving on the mountain (9:36). This is the people’s new source of refuge. But Abimelech violently routs the rebellion and the people shut themselves up in a tower. Then comes the prophetic resolution: Abimelech’s soldiers cut brambles of brushwood, set them against the tower, and burn the whole thing down. This “cedar” under whose protection they try to take refuge is, in fact, the temple of Baal-Berith: a false god who blasphemously claims for himself the title “Lord of the Covenant.” The moral of the story is a memorable lesson about the rights of God’s prosperous and peaceful reign over his people, versus the deadly foolishness of putting one’s faith in man.

Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.