9 Now Abimelech son of Jerub-Baal went to Shechem to see his mother’s relatives. He said to them and to his mother’s entire extended family, 2 “Tell all the leaders of Shechem this: ‘Why would you want to have seventy men, all Jerub-Baal’s sons, ruling over you, when you can have just one ruler? Recall that I am your own flesh and blood.’” 3 His mother’s relatives spoke on his behalf to all the leaders of Shechem and reported his proposal. The leaders were drawn to Abimelech; they said, “He is our close relative.” 4 They paid him seventy silver shekels out of the temple of Baal-Berith. Abimelech then used the silver to hire some lawless, dangerous men as his followers. 5 He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and murdered his half-brothers, the seventy legitimate sons of Jerub-Baal, on one stone. Only Jotham, Jerub-Baal’s youngest son, escaped, because he hid. 6 All the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo assembled and then went and made Abimelech king by the oak near the pillar in Shechem.
7 When Jotham heard the news, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim. He spoke loudly to the people below, “Listen to me, leaders of Shechem, so that God may listen to you!
8 “The trees were determined to go out and choose a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king!’ 9 But the olive tree said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my oil, which is used to honor gods and men, just to sway above the other trees!’
10 “So the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and be our king!’ 11 But the fig tree said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my sweet figs, my excellent fruit, just to sway above the other trees!’
12 “So the trees said to the grapevine, ‘You come and be our king!’ 13 But the grapevine said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my wine, which makes gods and men so happy, just to sway above the other trees!’
14 “So all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘You come and be our king!’ 15 The thornbush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to choose me as your king, then come along, find safety under my branches! Otherwise may fire blaze from the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’
16 “Now, if you have shown loyalty and integrity when you made Abimelech king, if you have done right to Jerub-Baal and his family, if you have properly repaid him— 17 my father fought for you; he risked his life and delivered you from Midian’s power. 18 But you have attacked my father’s family today. You murdered his seventy legitimate sons on one stone and made Abimelech, the son of his female slave, king over the leaders of Shechem, just because he is your close relative. 19 So if you have shown loyalty and integrity to Jerub-Baal and his family today, then may Abimelech bring you happiness and may you bring him happiness! 20 But if not, may fire blaze from Abimelech and consume the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo! May fire also blaze from the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo and consume Abimelech!” 21 Then Jotham ran away to Beer and lived there to escape from Abimelech his half-brother.
Yes, there’s lots of good stuff in the book of Judges! Here we have a splendid anti- government parable, spoken scornfully by the one surviving (legitimate) son of Gideon after all the rest have been massacred. Abimelech is a man with a grievance- he will not share the inheritance of Gideon’s legitimate sons- and so he arranges to have them all murdered, with the support of the inhabitants of Shechem and Bethmillo, who then accpet him as their king. The reader will remember that Gideon refused to be made king because only God should be recognised as a king in Israel. Abimelech however is happy to rule.
Jotham’s bitter parable basically says that people who are of some use to society will get on with their useful contributions, while those who are useless will be ready to rule over others. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, rule.” Obviously this could be applied to any ruling person or class, especially in Israel where there were always people who continued to believe that having kings was their nation’s cardinal sin. In this case Jotham is aiming especially at the useless thug Abimelech who has elevated himself over the people of Shechem and Bethmillo.
It remains a stinging rebuke to all professional rulers. They rule because they’re good for nothing else. Competent people will want to contribute to society by the use of their skills. The parable suggests that where people value God and his commandments not much government is needed and can be supplied by the people themselves. Doubtless the complexity of modern societies requires both bureaucracy and public services, but there is a real question about the worth of leaders who’ve never been anything other than politicians.
And the idea of breeding a family of people so useless that they would be hereditary monarchs would have seemed an excess of stupidity to people like Jotham. The politics of the “kingdom of God”, that is, the rule of God on earth, is found throughout the Bible, not least in the gospels, and remains a live issue today. When the thugs of ISIS proclaim the rule of God in Iraq and threaten to kill Christians and Yazidis, we can see how dangerous are people who imagine they can rule with God’s authority. The true value of faith in God’s rule is to expose those who try to take God’s place and to impose limits on human authority.