During the time period covered by the book of Judges, Israel had no centralized monarchy or national bureaucracy. They lived as a very loose confederation of tribes and lower family units, inhabiting primarily the areas assigned to the tribes upon entry to the Holy Land under Joshua’s leadership.
The book of “Judges” takes it’s name not from the meaning of the Hewbrew word denoting a judicial authority (though indeed “judges” in that sense played an important primary function during this era) but instead the name of the book denotes a non-hereditary military leader, raised up by divine intervention. Without a centralized monarchy or professional military, and with a system of loose tribal militias based on family organization, Israel found itself in need of this sort of short-term inspired military leadership on many occasions during this era.
The book of Judges defines itself as a chronicle of the rise, exploits, downfalls and failure of several of these personalities. It is commonly viewed as a document of political and spiritual tragedy, as Israel failed to rise to the expectations and responsiblity offered them under a newly-won condition of literal individual freedom and covenental responsiblities.
One of the more well-known of these military leaders was a man named Gideon who, along with a very small army which had been purged through a divinely directed process, managed to liberate Israel from the occupying Midianites under the Lord’s direction. (Judges 7)
After this military victory Gideon, in a pattern which would forshadow the actions of the Roman statesman Cincinattus and later George Washington, refused the offer to reign as Israel’s king with the pronouncement;
“I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you.” (Judges 8:22-23)
Gideon did, however, have a very large family and many of his 70 sons were not so reluctant to assume political power. One of his sons, Abimalech, conspired with a local tribe known as the Schechemites to become their ruler and eventually assume power over Israel. In his conspiratorial quest for power, Abimalech managed to kill 68 of his 69 brothers.
Abimalech’s remaining brother, Jotham, confronted Abimalech in front of a gathering located at Mt. Gerizim and in his discourse he delivers an analogy and a prophetic warning to Israel. The Parable of the Trees (Judges 9:7–15) illustrates the principle that the ill-disposed and otherwise unproductive in society are drawn to positions of power. The parable also predicts both the end of Abimalech’s short reign as ruler of Schechem and the coming adoption of central monarchy by Israel.
“Hearken unto me, you men of Shechem, that God may hearken unto you. The trees went forth at one time to anoint a king over them and they said unto the olive tree, ‘reign over us.’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘should I leave my fatness, seeing that beyond they honor God and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?’ And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come thou and reign over us.’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘Should I leave my sweetness and my good fruitage and go to hold sway over the trees?’ And the trees said to the vine, ‘Come thou and reign over us.’ And the vine said unto them, ‘Should I leave my wine which cheers God and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?’ Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘Come thou and reign over us.’ And the bramble said unto the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shadow, and if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”
The dim view of rulership represented by the bramble in the parable, was both an instruction of general principle and a prophetic warning to Israel. The immediate fulfillment of this warning is demonstrated in Abimalech’s own downfall, as he was later killed by a conspiracy of the same Schechemites who had made him ruler over them. (Judges 9:47–56). The more distant fulfillment of this prophetic warning to Israel was played out in Israel’s rejecting the Lord as their direct ruler and demanding that a King be chosen for them by Samuel the prophet.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this parable is the way that all of the other trees and the vine (which are a recurring scriptural symbol for patriarchal family lines) reject the offer of rulership on the basis of their prosperity and productivity. The parable seems to be teaching that material blessings and prosperity are conditions which are fundamentally at odds with the centralization of and desire for power over others.
Whether a people’s coming under the figurative “shadow” of the bramble (unrighteous and oppressive rulers) happens as a function of the pre-existing dispositon of those who skillfully maneuver into power, or merely because of that very power’s influential tendency acting upon those who obtain it with good intentions, we can clearly see this pattern in Jotham’s warning played out time and time again in both scriptural and secular history. We would be wise to apply this understanding by ordering our own lives and influencing our loved ones and neighbors in kind ways to create the spiritual and temporal conditions under which we can govern ourselves according to divine laws and prepare the coming of him whose right it is to rule over the Earth.