This past week as folks were coming in and out of the church office, I was asked an interesting question: “Pastor, what is that passage from Judges saying – the one where the olive and tree and the fig tree are asked to be king?” My answer, as is sometimes the case: “Great question! Let me get back to you …”
Judges 9 shows us a picture of the uneasy existence of a Canaanite community (Shechem) within the Israelite tribes. Gideon (also called Jerub-Baal), has died and his seventy sons (by several wives) are sharing the role of leadership within the tribal structure. Within the Canaanite tradition, by the time of the conquest led by Joshua it was common for kings to rule communities. The Israelite community was governed by judges and patriarchal family heads. Abimelech was one of Gideon’s sons whose mother was a Canaanite from Shechem. So Abimelech, seeing an opportunity, goes to the men of Shechem and asks them, “Which is better for you: to have all seventy of Jerub-Baal’s sons rule over you, or just one man? Remember, I am your flesh and blood.” Abimelech is appealing to their cultural sense of how things should be and reminding them of their kinship through his mother’s Shechemite identity.
The men of Shechem agree, they give him tribute, he hires a band of mercenaries, and proceeds to attack his father’s home where his brothers continue to reside – killing all of his brothers but one on a single stone. That one survivor, Jotham, manages to flee. And while standing on the slopes of Mt. Gerizim he delivers the parable that we find so cryptic. All of the trees invite an olive tree, a fig tree, and a vine to become king. All three refuse, because to do so would require them to forfeit the role God had entrusted to them. Finally, the trees ask a thorn bush, who agrees and becomes their king – absurdly inviting them to take shelter in the limited shade such a low lying plant can provide and warning them that if they will not do so, a fire will erupt from him and consume them all.
Abimelech is the thornbush. He is made king by the men of Shechem who wanted one ruler. For three years they “sheltered” under the thornbush’s shade, and then they rebelled (Judges 9:22f). Just as the brambles become tinder that can fuel horrific forest fires during the dry season, Abimelech became a source of fire that consumed and destroyed all around him. After sacking the city of Shechem, Abimelech destroys the stronghold of that city by burning it to the ground – immolating about a thousand of his kinfolk in the process.
As we read this account so many centuries later, it should serve as a warning against being so desperate for the things we think we want that we settle for thornbushes. The stories of each of our lives include times when we have experienced a need and accepted a solution that, if we had been thinking ahead, we would never have chosen. Often this involves thorns we could have never foreseen, but many times the thorns are there to see and we simply choose not to consider them.
What choices are you in the process of making? Are you thinking ahead? Jesus wore a crown of thorns so that you could make better choices. Let him be the only king you need.