Wednesday of Week 20 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Judges 9:6-15

Today we have a rather unusual reading. Gideon is now gone and, true to form, the people have relapsed once more into idolatry. Our reading is taken from a section of Judges dealing with the reign of Abimelech as king.

The story of Abimelech does not really belong in this book. The only reason for his appearance is that he was the son of Gideon-Jerubbaal but he was not one of the judges, nor even a king of Israel. He is presented as a highly disreputable character. He was the son of a Shechemite woman and was made king by the Canaanites of Shechem as the result of intrigue and a show of force on his part. His only exploits were the massacre of his brothers, his struggles with the rebels of Shechem and his assault on the Israelite town of Thebez, which ended ignominiously in his death.

The narrative is undoubtedly historical and throws light on conditions of the period, the 14th century BC. Abimelech’s failure served the author-editor’s belief that there could be no other king in Israel but one chosen by Yahweh. That would not happen until the appointment of Saul. As with Rome at a later period, there was a strong anti-king feeling among the Israelites and it is reflected in today’s reading.

As the reading opens we are told that all the leading men of Shechem and all Beth-Millo met and proclaimed Abimelech king at the oak of the cultic stone at Shechem. Shechem, as we saw before, is in the very middle of Palestine, and at that time in the territory of Manasse. Beth-millo is probably the same as the Migdal-Shechem mentioned later in the story (but not in our reading). ‘Millo’ is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning ‘to fill’ and probably refers to the earthen fill used to erect a platform on which walls and other large structures were built. Beth Millo then may mean ‘stronghold’ (see Judg 9:46).

News of the proclamation was brought to Jotham, Abimelech’s youngest brother. He went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim and shouted at the top of his voice. He was totally opposed to his brother becoming king and, after making his speech, he will take flight to be beyond Abimelech’s reach. Mount Gerizim will later be the mountain which, for the people of Samaria, will become the rival to the Temple in Jerusalem. It features in the dialogue which Jesus has with the Samaritan woman when she asks him which place is the right one in which to worship God (see John 4:19).

What follows is known as Jotham’s fable. It is the earliest example in the Bible of a fable using plants or animals to illustrate a human moral. Later examples include the fable that Nathan told to David to make him aware of his terrible combined sin of adultery and murder in connection with Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:1-4) or the fable of King Jehoash about a thistle proposing marriage to a Lebanon cedar (2 Kings 14:9). Ezekiel, too, uses a fable to speak of how Nebuchadnezzar deported King Jehoiachin and put Zedekiah on the throne instead.

As a literary form, it was found everywhere including Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. In Greece, one thinks of the fables of Aesop, part of the literary lore of children up to our own day. The one that is told here may have existed independently and was adapted by Jotham to express his evaluation of Abimelech.

Jotham’s fable betrays a mistrust of the monarchy such as we find in the period just before the choice of Saul as Israel’s first king (1 Sam 8). So here, olive, fig, and vine trees of value for man, refuse kingship as serving no useful purpose. They represent Gideon, who refused to be king or found a dynasty. The thornbush, fruitless and noxious, accepts it and represents Abimelech, a person entirely unsuited for the role.

The fable then follows:

The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves.

As we mentioned, fables of this type, in which inanimate objects speak and act, were popular among Eastern peoples of that time – and indeed in our own, though now they may be more likely to take the form of a Disney cartoon.

The fable continues:

So they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’

But the olive tree declined and answered them:

Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored and go to sway over the trees?

Oil was used in the worship both of the true God and of false gods; it was prescribed in the worship of Yahweh. It was also used to consecrate prophets, priests and kings. In speaking of Jesus as the ‘Christ’, we are speaking of an anointing with oil. Christos means ‘anointed’ and hence that he is a King. The Hebrew equivalent is Messiah. But in fact, Jesus was not anointed with oil but baptised with water by John the Baptist.

Back to the fable:

Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’

The fig tree replied:

Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit and go to sway over the trees?

Then the trees said to the vine,

You come and reign over us.

The vine also declined:

Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals and go to sway over the trees?

Wine was used in the libations both of the Temple of Jerusalem and of pagan temples. But it was also commonly believed that the gods participated in such human experiences as drinking wine (remember Bacchus as the god of wine).

All in all, the olive tree, the fig tree and the vine were all plants which produced fruit of great importance to the people of the Near East. All are mentioned frequently in the Scriptures, including Gospels.

Lastly, the trees approached the thorn bush:

So all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’

The bramble replied to the trees:

If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.

The cedars of Lebanon, the most valuable of all Near Eastern trees, is here symbolic of the leading men of Shechem who are being warned if they do not show their loyalty to Abimelech, whom they have made king.

The ‘bramble’ is probably the well-known buckthorn, a scraggly bush common in the hills of Palestine and a constant menace to farming there. It produced nothing of value and was an apt figure to represent Abimelech. In offering shade to the trees, the thornbush symbolised the traditional role of kings as protectors of their subjects, but there is an element of sarcasm in such a plant offering shade to other trees all much taller than itself. There seems to be an implication that the protection of kings, especially Abimelech, is no better than the thornbush.

Overall, the story reflects Israel’s distaste for monarchy at this time. It implies that the most valuable and productive people are not interested in being kings. Instead the role is taken by the utterly useless brambles (symbolic of Abimelech).

We too can sometimes avoid taking on responsibilities because we are reluctant to give up something we like doing. As a result, the task may have to be done by people who are incapable or unsuitable. On the other hand we may have ambition for some role for which we are not suited and which frustrates the use of the real gifts we have. Discernment is often needed to discover whether we are really in the place that God wants us to be or whether we are making good use of the talents he has given us.

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