Please Reign Over Me: The Bible, Trees, and the Problem of Power

For years, in both an academic setting and in other writings, I have railed against the misuse of the Bible. I see it used as a moral justification to deny humans basic rights by taking ancient passages out of context and I have watched as those who claim to live their lives by it ignore the difficult passages for which any modern reader should grapple. For this post, I am going to approach things differently. Instead of looking at a biblical passage historically, I am going to argue how it applies to today’s world, using a very specific situation. If I were giving this as a speech, I believe it would be called a sermon.

I am going to give a cautionary warning based on a passage in the book of Judges. If you are not familiar with it, let me provide some quick context for the book of Judges. It is a collection of several independent stories that chronicles the tribulations during Israel’s tribal period. This is a time in which they had been led into the Promised Land by Joshua, but before the establishment of the monarchy.

In Judges 9, Abimelech (literally “My father is King”) goes to the city-state of Shechem after the death of his father Jerubbabaal (also known as Gideon). Abimelech approaches his mother’s family, likely a ruling class, and asks which would be better: For all seventy of Jerubbabaal’s sons to rule or just one. They respond one, and Abimelech kills all his brothers on his father’s side, save for the youngest, named Jotham, who escapes. Abimelech is made king by the elders of Shechem.

At this point in the story, Jotham approaches the elders and tells them the following parable:

“The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’ The olive tree answered them, ‘Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?’ Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ But the fig tree answered them, ‘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.’ But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?’ So, all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the bramble said 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.’” (Judges 9:8-16, NRSV).

Those who create realize that taking a position of power means they compromise their craft. Alternatively, those who truly do not contribute to the benefit of humans seek power. The olive tree, fig tree, and grape vine contribute to betterment by producing goods that people need. Yet, the bramble (or thorn bush), not only wants assuredness that the others want it to rule, but suggests they take refuge in its shade. This is of course absurd, as what little shade the plant may produce would be useless, as one would have to navigate the thorns to even use what little shade was provided. According to the Cultural Background Study Bible (Zondervan Press), it is possible that the text is referring to a type of thorn bush (Christ Thorn, or Ziziphus spina-Christi) that does provide shade, however I think the suggestion of shade from a thorn bush is more sarcastic in this instance. Finally, the bramble threatens to have fire consume the Cedars of Lebanon, a large tree that does provide immense shade.

The fable in this passage is not only wary of power, but those who seek it. The thorn bush in this story lacks the usefulness of the other trees and should its own legitimacy be questioned, threatens to destroy a valuable tree. The self-confidence inherent in the fruit-producing tree is absent in the thorn bush, replaced instead by insecurity.

Perhaps at the end the true folly lies with those who ask others to rule over them. If we actively seek for others to make decisions for us and to dictate how one conducts his or her own life, then we are simply opening the door for the power-hungry. Instead, we should focus on our own abilities and the innovation of individuals, rather than hoping a ruling body will solve the problems of society.

At the end of the chapter, Abimelech meets a gruesome end. A woman drops a large stone on his head during a siege, at which point he asks his armor bearer to bring him a sword so he can take his own life, rather than having been killed by a woman. The ending is fitting. Abimelech gained power through violence and violence ended his reign. While I do not think the modern political climate will come to stones dropping from towers, the parable of the trees and the story of Abimelech serves as a cautionary tale for us all. Be cautious of those who seek power.

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