7 When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on top of Mount Gerizim and cried aloud and said to them, “Listen to me, you leaders of Shechem, that God may listen to you. 8 The trees once went out to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us. ’ 9 But the olive tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees? ’ 10 And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us. ’ 11 But the fig tree said to them, ‘Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees? ’ 12 And the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us. ’ 13 But the vine said to them, ‘Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees? ’ 14 Then all the trees said to the bramble, ‘You come and reign over us. ’ 15 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 9:7–15 ESV)
I spend a lot of time talking about Israel as a failure — this idea is central to my reading of the biblical story, and to my theology. But it’s important to remember what Israel has failed at. They are not a failed people of God, for God has made sure that even in their failure and their unfaithfulness, Israel is still his people.
No, what Israel has failed at is being a political entity, a nation with a flag and an army and a government and a leader. Israel cannot sustain faithfulness to God’s call, to it’s covenant with God, and remain a wealthy, powerful nation. Wealth and power, according to the account in Deuteronomy through 2 Kings, undoes Israel, opens the door for the kinds of idolatry that will forever plague the people of God — faith in other gods and faith in our own strength and riches.
Eventually, Israel is conquered, and even when its fortunes are restored and exile is ended, Israel’s sovereignty is highly circumscribed, dependent on the Persian occupation that will end — eventually — with Alexander the Great. And eventually that even circumscribed sovereignty will be extinguished by Roman armies in the great war that destroys Jerusalem.
Unlike many, I don’t find a model for government in scripture. God raises leaders — Moses, Joshua, the judges who save Israel from conquest and redeem it from the consequences of its sin — but there is no constitution in scripture, no recipe for government. No recommendation.
God leaves the puzzle of human government to ourselves. (This is also true in the Qur’an, which is why Muslims argue so violently about “proper Islamic governance.”) We are utterly on our own.
But this is not to say scripture is without something to say, without wisdom and even revelation on the matter.
Here, Israel is offered a king — Abimelech, the son of Gideon, who was himself offered the monarchy, and who refused it, saying, “the Lord will rule over you.” (Judges 8:23) Abimelech has killed his brothers, all but Jotham, in his quest to rule Israel. And Jotham warns them — you have not selected a man of good character as your ruler, and you have not acted in “good faith” while doing it.
I’m not sure what good faith means here. Perhaps the men of Schechem — who are doing the actual choosing — want a king so they may go forth and conquer, to rule and plunder others. That is what Abimelech eventually does, and this is why he eventually perishes — crushed by a stone dropped from from the walls by “a certain woman” while his army besieges Thebez.
But here, we have a parable. The kingship is offered to the olive tree, the most noble of trees, which cannot take it because to do so would rob men of the olive tree’s precious and valuable fruit. The same is true of the fig and grape vine. These plants — these trees — are too busy actually producing things to take on the miserable work of governance.
Only the bramble, which yields nothing of value, nothing but thorns, is happy to take on the task. Relax in my shade, the bramble says, which is probably a joke, because brambles don’t yield much shade. But careful what you ask for, the bramble adds. If you seek my rule for the wrong reasons — for strength, power, conquest, to “Make America Great Again” — then there will be nothing but fire. Fire which will devour even the mightiest of trees, the great cedars of Lebanon.
It’s a reminder that as we govern ourselves (because there is no choice to self-government, whether done as monarchy or democracy), the people who aspire to rule are rarely sterling men of good and decent character. They are not olive trees, or fig trees, or even grape vines. They are brambles and weeds, which choke and suffocate and crowd out all that is productive and good. They promise, not comfort and ease, but fire, suffering, and death.
Human government is a puzzle without a solution, for when you put human beings together, you create authority, hierarchy, collective resources, and the needs to sustain all three. But authority, hierarchy, and shared wealth almost always lead to violence and exploitation, almost always end — sooner or later — in fire. I was once a libertarian, thinking there was a way to square this. But no longer. Understanding and embracing the paradox — that we cannot govern ourselves even as we have no choice but to — is an important part of being human, of rejecting a modernity which thinks proper systems and structures can make government forever foolproof.
A modernity that believe we can create a world where character and the caprice of God do not matter.
We want a thing we are not supposed to have, and God has grudgingly given it to us — dominion over each other. Sometimes it goes well, but frequently, it does not. However it goes, and whatever part of history we find ourselves living in (it always better to live in the reign of Solomon, but sometimes we find ourselves living under Manasseh, or Josiah, or at end, where it hardly matters who leads because the Babylonians are at the gates, or even in exile far away from the land of promise), we don’t get to pick our age, or the conditions under which we live.
But none of this means we are less God’s people, that we have lost God’s favor, or that some kind of instant magic will bring it all back. We always have God’s promise and God’s presence, however well or poorly we rule ourselves.
We are always God’s people.