The Fable of the Trees

Scripture: Judges 9:1-21

The Bible is a book for all ages.  For the tender young ears of our littlest ones there is the story of Noah with his floating zoo or the story of Jonah swallowed by a whale like Pinocchio.  For the graying seniors, there are the psalms of comfort to sustain them, knowing that the Lord, their shepherd will guide them beside the still waters.  And for the pre-teen crowd, there is the book of Judges.  11 years old may have outgrown rainbows, be easily bored with morality tales or psalms about green pastures but turn them loose in the book of Judges and they will find more sex and violence in its pages than their parents allow them to watch on TV.  If you want to keep sixth grade boys in their seat during Sunday School, tell them some of the stories in Judges.  

Like this one of Abimelech in chapter nine.

Abimelech was the son of Jerubbael, another name for the more familiar Gideon.  After Joshua led the Israelites into the land of Canaan, the twelve tribes spread out across the land and they lived semi-independently of one another.  The Elders in each tribe made decisions for their tribe members and if there was ever a problem too big for one tribe to handle — like invading Midianites, Amalikites, Hittites, Termites, or any other kind of ites — God would raise up a judge who would lead the tribes through the crisis and then when things settled down, the judge would go back to what he or she was doing before the crisis arrived.  Jerubbael — Gideon — had been a farmer before God called him to be a judge, and he was a reluctant hero.  Nevertheless, with God’s help, Gideon saved the Israelites from the hand of the Midianites, driving them out of the land with only 300 soldiers and a lot of stage craft.  He apparently gained such fame for this deed that he just couldn’t keep the ladies away because the Bible says he went on to sire 70 sons and countless daughters, countless because the Bible didn’t think it was important to count female offspring. None of this fame and loving went to Gideon’s head however, because when the people offered to make him a King, Gideon turned them down saying that God was the only ruler they needed.

One of his sons, Abimelech, however, disagreed.  Abimelech was tired of sharing the family fame with 69 other brothers, tired of dealing with 69 other opinions on what was best for the community, tired of having to consider the feelings and needs of 69 other family members when he only cared about the needs of one person — himself —and he thought the best solution to all of this disagreement would be simply to make him the king and reduce 70 opinions to one.  Of course, he realized that the other 69 brothers would need to be persuaded that making him king was a good idea, so he gathered a small army of loyalists, “reckless and worthless fellows,” the Bible says, and instituted his program of persuasion which entailed dragging his brothers one by one to a stone and beheading them.  This proved indeed to be very persuasive because when the bloodbath was over all of the tribe’s Elders quickly bowed down to Abimelech and pronounced him King much to his delight.

One brother, however, managed to escape the chopping block: Jotham, the youngest of the 70 who was apparently also the brightest because he had remained hidden out of sight during the executions.  After Abimilech was crowned King, Jotham emerged from hiding and climbed to the top of a nearby mountain where he shouted out this prophecy and condemnation of his brother.  I am reading to you from Judges 9:8-15 

“Listen to me, leaders of Shechem [Jotham proclaimed from the top of the mountain]. And let God listen to you! The trees set out one day to anoint a king for themselves.  They said to Olive Tree, “Rule over us.” But Olive Tree told them, “Am I no longer good for making oil that gives glory to gods and men, and to be demoted to waving over trees?”

The trees then said to Fig Tree, “You come and rule over us.” But Fig Tree said to them, “Am I no longer good for making sweets, my mouthwatering sweet fruits, and to be demoted to waving over trees?”

The trees then said to Vine, “You come and rule over us.” But Vine said to them, “Am I no longer good for making wine, wine that cheers gods and men, and to be demoted to waving over trees?”

All the trees then said to Tumbleweed, “You come and reign over us.” But Tumbleweed said to the trees:  “If you’re serious about making me your king, come and find shelter in my shade. But if not, let fire shoot from Tumbleweed and burn down the cedars of Lebanon!”

After delivering these words of warning, Jotham must have slid down the other side of the mountain because he disappears before Abimelech can catch him and we never hear of him again.  Abimilech, however, becomes just like the tumbleweed of Jotham’s prophecy.  The reckless and worthless fellows that had put Abimelech in power turn on him; they rob people on the roads, steal crops from the people, and ignore Abimelech’s laws sowing fear and discontent among the people.  Abimelech spends the three years of his reign trying to hold on to his power.  Finally, when the Elders themselves turn against him, Abimelech goes on a rampage.  Filled with murderous fury, he lays siege to his enemies, destroying their crops and razing their towns.  In one city, when the people try to take refuge in a temple, Abimelech lights the temple on fire roasting them like barbecue in an oven thus fulfilling Jotham’s prophecy — “Fire shoots from the Tumbleweed and burns down the cedars of Lebanon.”

Abimelech’s rule finally comes to an end in a most inglorious way.  When Abimelech’s rampaging army comes to the city of Thebes, the townspeople take refuge in a strong watchtower on the city’s wall.  Roasting his enemies worked so well in the last town, Abimelech decides to roast these people as well and orders wood piled around the base of the tower.  He walks over to the piles of wood, ready to light the fire with his very hand, probably calling up in savage glee, “Roast Thebians for supper tonight!” but just then, a woman leans out of the window of the tower and drops a millstone on Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull like an egg.  In his final breath, the King says to his attendant, “Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him.’ ” 

Defeated and ashamed, Abimilech’s followers slink away and the Israelites give up on kings for a long time, content once again to live in a messy tribal confederacy. 

The story of Abimelech may be a rousing tale for eleven year olds but does it have anything to say to us today, we who are no longer eleven, no longer living in a country of kings, would be or otherwise? 

Well, obviously I think it does or I wouldn’t be preaching on it.  I think that this story and the book of Judges overall addresses a conflict that is experienced in every human society — in fact, in every human heart — between the comfort we find in following a strong leader and our conflicting desire for freedom of thought where every individual is heard.  Abimelech himself was not that philosophical — he just wanted to be king because he was a power hungry ego maniac — but being a power hungry ego maniac isn’t enough to get a person a throne.  Abimelech only became king because his tyrannical aspersions were initially supported by the other leaders and Elders of the people.  Certainly, part of their willingness to make him king came from their fear of the man and his followers, but part of it also came from their own dissatisfaction with the de-centralized authority of a tribal confederacy.  These tribal leaders had spent their lives trying to navigate the diverse opinions of the community, trying to meet everyone’s needs, and working to make judgments that would make a majority of their people happy.  It was a tiring confusing job and they must at times have wondered if everyone wouldn’t be better off with one strong central authority rather than the muddy waters of too many voices. 

The story of Abimelech represents the debate that was taking place within Israel over the benefits of a strong central leadership versus those of a de-centralized coalition among the diverse tribes.  And that debate plays out over and over again in the pages of the book of Judges. Every time a crisis arises, every time people become anxious about the future, they clamor for a king because they want a strong figure in whom they can put their trust, but when they do get a king, inevitably the King’s power goes to his head and the people become subject to his whims and delusions and they become the victims of his oppression.  Prophets like Jotham try to warn the people that the only authority they can trust is God.  Give a human being too much power, they say, and fire will shoot from the tumbleweed and threaten to burn down the cedars of Lebanon.

I am not a political scientist; I am only a preacher and so I would not presume to comment on the social systems of human governments and political structures but I can say that I agree with the premise of the biblical writers that the sole authority over our lives should be God.  There is no human King or Queen or President or Governor or Town Council or even minister who should have sole authority over how you behave and the choices you make and what you believe.  God alone is your sovereign.  God alone is your ruler.  As Christians, we say that Christ alone is our Lord and King.

And so the only way we can ensure that no one replaces God as the sole authority in our lives is to protect the diversity of thought and experience found in the human spectrum with whom we share this planet.  No one person can know God fully and so the only way to fully know God is to listen to the fullness of God’s creation in the voices of all of those whom God has created.  When I preach for the inclusion of the voices of people of color, for the acceptance of transgendered people, for respect for others of every sexual orientation, race, creed, and gender, I’m not preaching it because of politics or social pressure; I’m preaching it because I believe that God is bigger than my one experience and the only way I can be certain that I am hearing God is to open my heart to the broad experiences of all of humanity. 

And so I leave you today with these two morals to take home from the story of Abimelech and his tragic rule.

1.  Let the olive tree make its olives, let the fig tree make its sweet fruit, let the vine make its wine, and let the diversity of the trees glorify God alone.    

2.  When setting a tower on fire, don’t lean over because a woman might just drop a millstone on your head.