17 August 2011

"So all the trees said to the bramble, 'You come and reign over us.'" (v. 14)


The book of Judges depicts the period just before the rise of the monarchy in Israel and Judah. There seems to have been general wave of interest in the ancient world of this period in setting up monarchies, instead of the local and charismatic battle leaders (judges) on whom various settlements of people previously relied. Probably it was seen that certain groups who had better organised armies with some firm hierarchy and a permanent sacred individual at the top of it were more likely to win their battles with other tribes. People were obliged to obey such kings and accept their discipline (and no doubt often tyranny), but perhaps as a group they were stronger.

In the Bible we see conflicting arguments about whether having a king would be the right thing to do, and this traditional 'parable of the tree' is clearly part of the anti-monarchical polemic. Sometimes the chief argument of the 'anti' party is that to obey a king is to displace the Lord as the real ruler of Israel. But often the point is made, as here, that to create kings is to stir up trouble for yourself and intensify the culture of war.

All of the trees mentioned in the story have symbolic significance. The olive, the fig and the vine are all classic symbols of settled prosperity. Olive oil provided the oil of anointing, for celebration and religious ritual; figs produce sweetness (much in demand in a time when sugar was unknown), and vines gave the wines used for feasting. To sit under your own vine and fig tree and enjoy them was a symbol of settled peacetime existence. These useful and abundant trees reject the idea of becoming king of the trees because they want to go on providing what humans need. The bramble on the other hand (the only plant that will take on the job) is the classic symbol of fruitless, invasive and violent growth. The last verse of the poem suggests that now it has been invited, destruction and devastation is assured, whether the people change their minds or not. You can't accept a king and then decide you don't want to obey him after all.

The whole poem suggests that certain political decisions cannot be recalled, so it behoves us to make very careful choices before we agree to set certain policies in hand. Sometimes the only people willing to take on a job are the last people to which we should hand power.

To Ponder

In your church or community, or in society, do you think there are any decisions being made which may have adverse consequences that may be impossible to reverse? What is your responsibility in lobbying for a re-think?

Bible notes author: Janet Morley

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