January 15, 2010 Volume 23, Number 21
The fable of the talking trees
Reflections on literature and leadership
By Rob Alloway | ChristianWeek Columnist
"Then the thornbush said, if you really want me as your king, come and take refuge in my shade."Judges 9:15
It's the layers of meanings that make this tale such a delightful puzzle to ponderthe mark of clever writing. The fable was first shouted from the top of Mount Gerizimclever sarcasm once you recognize that this was the Mount of Blessings and the listeners are about to receive anything but.
Gideon has died some years back having refused to establish a royal dynasty despite the entreaties of the people. What he left instead were 70 legitimate sons, each with varying degrees of interest in exploiting their father's heritage. There was also one bastard son, Abimelech, who made up in initiative what he lacked in pedigree. His concubine mother hailed from a city called Shechem, and its citizens were persuaded to back and finance Abimelech's quest for kingship. With the proceeds of the pagan temple treasury he hires a band of ruthless mercenaries who promptly descend on Gideon's hometown and murder all but one of his half brothers. Only the youngest, Jotham, escapes.
Abimelech, now with hands redder than Macbeth's, is crowned king by the citizens of Shechem, only to be confronted by Jotham, standing atop Mount Gerizim.
"One day the trees went out to find themselves a king," Jotham shouts. "The first tree they asked was the olive tree. 'Come, and rule over us,' the trees said. But the olive tree replied, 'Should I give up my oil and fruit with which both gods and men are honoured just to hold sway over the trees? No I will not rule over you.'
Next they asked the fig tree. 'Should I give up my sweet fruit, just to hold sway over the trees? No, I shall not rule over you.'
The vine was asked, its answer was much the same as all the rest. 'Should I give up my wine which cheers both gods and men just to hold sway over the trees?'
Finally the trees, having run out of good candidates, turned to the thorn bush and said, 'Come, and be our king.' 'Ah,' said the thorn bush, 'if you really want me as your king, then come first and take shelter in my shade. But if you will not do this, then may fire consume you all.'"
The reader will smile at the image of someone trying to snuggle up to a short, stubby bush, full of outwardly pointing six-inch spikes. The thorn bush promised things he did not possess for a job that was impossible to fulfill. For nothing holds sway over trees except the wind. Judges goes on to describe the short and ignoble events of Abimelech's ersatz monarchy. It ends with a woman dropping a millstone on his head.
At one level, this story suggests that people usually end up getting the quality of leadership they deserve, and that how they have treated their previous leaders (Yahweh included) is taken into consideration by others who are invited to fill the vacuum. Good leaders aren't short on options.
But the fact that it is a fablea short story in which objects or animals behave as humans for our moral instructionis perhaps the thing that should most impress us. For Judges is the oldest extant use of this literary form. It predates the famous writer Aesop by almost 800 years. It's a cutting-edge, previously unused written genre, confidently embraced by the divine writers with neither caveat nor caution to the reader.
It was a bold move. It suggests that the authority of our Scriptures is independent of any one particular literary structureand signals that we as readers will encounter an array of literary techniques. It suggests we should be free from the strictures of literalism.
The words of God in a fable. The words of God in poetry. The words of God in genealogies. The words of God in letters, oracles, dramas, novellas, histories, parables, proverbs and allegories. Each with its own way of being understood.
It's an awesome library. And God speaks through it all.
Rob Alloway has written three award winning collections of Old Testament stories: Balaam's Revenge (1999), Babylon Post (2005) and The Left Hand of God (2008).