A parable for election time

As the United States and other countries approach elections, and as protests abound in Honduras and Guatemala, it might be helpful to meditate on today’s first reading, Judges 9: 6-15.

Abimelech is about to be proclaimed king of Israel. Jotham, who is his youngest brother and is the other survival of Abimelech’s massacre of his seventy brothers, proclaims the parable of the trees from a position of safety on Mount Gerizim.

Jotham speaks of a time when the trees wanted a king. They approached the olive tree which turned down the request, preferring to continue to provide rich olive oil. They then went to the fig tree which also refused, not wanting to give up its tasty fruit. Even the vine rebuffed their offer, treasuring the wine that gladdens the heart.

But then the trees went to the thornbush, the bramble, a prickly bush. Having nothing else to offer the trees, the buckthorn quickly agreed to be king and promised to burn up all the trees that did not submit to it.

Only the good-for-nothing thornbush agreed to be king. Note that the buckthorn is considered by many as an invasive species. According to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, page 140, the thornbush “may claim to offer ‘protection’ … but it hardly offers ‘shade’…, being a ground cover of the sort that propagates forest fires.”

And so Abimelech was king for three years.

But it is useful to recall what precedes this parable.

Abimelech, after the death of his father Jerubaal, wanted control and so conspired with the powerful leaders around him. Seeing him as their ally and “kin,” they took money from the temple of Baal – a false god – and gave it to Abimelech who used it to hire “worthless men and outlaws.” With their help, he went to his father’s house and killed all of his seventy half-brothers. Only the youngest, Jotham, survived.

The parable is meant to reaffirm the tradition that the LORD did not wish that there be a king in Israel, who would possibly set himself up as a god, a supreme real – in competition to the true God, the LORD who rescued the people from slavery in Egypt. (Note 1 Samuel 8: 6-9.)

As Samuel tells the people a few generations later, in 2 Samuel 8: 14-18, the king will recruit their sons for war or for forced labor in the fields or in the arms factories of the time. Their daughters will be forced into domestic servants of the king. Lands will be taken from the people and given to the elite – a sort of “land reform” and redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. The king will demand tithes and enslave the people.

For some of the prophets, kingship was not only a sign of forsaking the rule of the LORD. Kingship was a renewal of the enslavement of the people in Egypt and a ploy to enable the king to keep power by forced labor and war.

Does any of this sound familiar? – for the US, for Honduras, for other nations that claim to be democracies?

It is worth pondering.

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