In a time of terrible instability and violence in pre-monarchial Israel, a prominent family is massacred by one of its own. Seventy siblings are slaughtered on one stone by their brother. Only one, the very youngest, survives, for he had gone into hiding when the killing began.[i] His underdog stature and unlikely escape from peril fit the hero archetype well, almost too well. His name means “God is perfect.”[ii] He ascends Mount Gerizim, the great platform of blessings for Israel,[iii] and at this historic moment calls upon the people of Shekhem, who had collaborated with and crowned the murderer as their king, to listen to his message of rebuke and warning.[iv] He speaks in parable. He warns the Shekhemites that the consequence of failing to heed his words will be destruction, but he is ignored and flees, never to be heard from again.[v] Three years and a bloody civil war later, the corpses of Shekhem’s civilians lay strewn about on the streets, massacred by the rampage of Avimelekh’s troops; the survivor’s curse had come true.[vi]
This tale of Yotam, the tragic whistleblower, is memorialized in Tanakh and understood by many to present timeless relevance. The tale’s centerpiece is, of course, Yotam’s parable, recorded in Shofetim 9:7-15. Yotam tells of a time when the trees decided to anoint a king for themselves. They first approached the olive tree, then the fig tree, and then the grape vine, only to be rebuffed by each in turn. Each preferred serving man and God in its unique way to engaging in politics. Finally, the trees were left with no choice but to approach the thorn bush. They offered the bush kingship, and it replied ominously: “If in truth you anoint me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shadow; and if not, let fire come out of the thorn bush, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”[vii]
The parable’s characters are distinct, and its dialogue is sharp. The three declining trees form a front of sincerity of purpose and nobility; the thorn bush is their brutally honest and frightfully dangerous alternative. The text altogether seems to lend itself to assignments of enduring symbolic meaning.[viii] But Yotam constructed his parable in a particular context, with an immediate political goal in mind. Yotam’s father was Gideon, the shofet of Israel, who had saved the people from Midianite oppression during a time of great despair.[ix] After the victory, popular opinion in Israel demanded that Gideon, also known as Yeruba’al, establish a patrilineal dynasty, but the military leader rejected the appeal and deferred to God’s exclusive rule.[x] Soon after Gideon’s death, the people forgot all that he had done for them, and did not act kindly toward his family. So when Avimelekh, son of Gideon’s Shekhemite concubine, resolved to seize power, the people of his mother’s family and city stood by him and said nothing as he slaughtered the members of his own family, the progeny of Gideon.[xi]
Into this great moral crisis stepped Yotam. He attempted to rectify the situation with logic and with the force of his oratory skill. He spoke not a single word about God or any form of higher duty; his address to the people concerned only the subjects of gratitude and loyalty. He told the aforementioned parable; perhaps heads nodded in understanding – the thorn bush was correct in speaking as it did, in demanding the sincerity of the other trees, and in warning of them of danger.
But then Yotam proceeded to provide the allegory himself, in harsh rebuke to the audience. Avimelekh is the thorn bush! The warning to the trees is a warning to Shekhem! If the people acted truthfully in their decision to align with Avimelekh, then let them live happily ever after. But if they did not act truthfully and appropriately (and here Yotam makes his feelings on the matter clear by reiterating the tremendous kindness of Gideon and the complicity of Shekhem in the murder of Gideon’s seventy children), then “let fire come out from Avimelekh, and devour the men of Shekhem, and Beit-Millo; and let fire come out from the men of Shekhem, and from Beit-Millo, and devour Avimelekh.”[xii]
Much ink has been spilt in attempts to decipher the meaning and applicability of all the details of Yotam’s parable. In the midrashic view, cited by Rashi, the symbolism of the three refusing trees grounds the conflict over Avimelekh in historical context, by contrasting him with the great leaders who came before him. The olive tree represents Otniel, the fig tree Devorah, and the vine Gideon, all previous shofetim and heroes of Israel.[xiii] Radak quotes an explanation in the name of his father, R. Yosef Kimhi, that makes use of a similar contrast by identifying the three refusing trees with the three expressions of dynasty in the request made to Gideon (“…both you, your son, and your son’s son also…”),[xiv] all of which he refused.[xv]
Professor Yehuda Elitzur of Bar-Ilan University attaches moral significance to the framework of the allegory by distinguishing between the parable’s three categories of trees. The olive tree, fig tree, and grape vine, all fruit-bearing trees, are physically and spiritually productive, beautiful beings, the pride of Israel. To such trees Yotam compares the great heroes Otniel, Devorah, and Gideon.
Cedars of Lebanon constitute another category: trees of awesome appearance and stature that do not bear fruit. These beings possess a hollow beauty, pleasing to the eye but utterly useless. To such trees Yotam implicitly compares the people of Shekhem, as it is both the cedars and the Shekhemites who face danger of destruction by fire, in the parable and its allegory, respectively. This characterization of the people of Shekhem stems from their actions in this episode: They chase vainly after the glory of having a sovereign king of their own – a glory lacking in positive moral substance.
The final category is that of the thorn bush, explicitly identified in the words of Yotam as a representation of Avimelekh. The thorn bush lacks all the good qualities of both other categories, featuring neither productivity nor physical beauty. Such was Avimelekh, a morally decadent figure whose initial military might quickly waned. And as if the lack of positive traits were not enough, the thorn bush also presents a terrible danger to all the other trees in its propensity to catch and spread fire when dried out by the summer heat. Even the mighty cedars of Lebanon are bound to fall victim when a simple thorn bush dries out and catches flame. And so, predicted Yotam, would the lowly Avimelekh bring calamity to the great city of Shekhem.[xvi]
Unfortunately, though, Yotam’s allegory is unconvincing. The analogy of the thorn bush fails to capture the most important features of Avimelekh’s image in the eyes of the people of Shekhem. The bush is neither the offspring of the tree community’s late savior nor is it of closer kinship to the other trees than the first three that had been offered kingship, both of which Avimelekh was to Shekhem. All we are told about the thorn bush is that it is a lowly, unattractive being and no more than an afterthought. Other than that, its significance in the eyes of the other trees seems equal to that of the olive tree, fig tree, and grape vine; the people of Shekhem, however, had more personal stake in Avimelekh than in any of the previous leaders of Israel. Yotam may have tried to appeal to logic, but he failed to construct proper parallels for actual events. Even worse, he may have deliberately sacrificed nuance for the sake of shock value.
Perhaps more puzzling is the role of the thorn bush itself. While the thorn bush does, in a sense, play the part of the unworthy king Avimelekh, it also delivers the warning of destruction to the other trees. Avimelekh did no such thing in his interaction with the people of Shekhem; in all likelihood, he guaranteed that following his lead meant safety and prosperity for all.
The force of Yotam’s real warning is its antagonism of Avimelekh and its indictment of the people for the sin of following him. The warning in the parable, however, comes from the Avimelekh equivalent itself and seems to come for no purpose. The trees had not committed any sin of disloyalty to previous leaders in following the thorn bush. The thorn bush had not done anything wrong that would make it so taboo.
Still, Yotam’s predictions came true: Civil war decimated Shekhem when its inhabitants grew dissatisfied with Avimelekh’s reign.[xvii] Yotam was the whistleblower, the prophet of doom. His warning was ignored, perhaps because of the incoherence of his allegory, and he had no choice but to flee for his life.
The book of Shofetim is full of failed messiahs. Time and again, the people succumb to decadence and idolatry, and are punished with enemy oppression. Each time, a shofet rises up and saves the people, inspiring them to repentance in doing so. But the inspiration is never lasting, and the people repeatedly relapse into sin and punishment. What distinguishes Yotam from these leaders is that he is not appreciated by the people even momentarily. Rather than stand up to foreign enemies on behalf of Israel, as did the rest of the leaders, Yotam stands up to Israel itself on behalf of justice. He is not a failed messiah but a failed whistleblower.
Alternatively, to borrow Providence College professor Terence J. Keegan’s Bible-study terminology, Yotam is a sort of messiah in the world of the narrative and the world of the text, but not in the world of the story.[xviii] In other words, Yotam is uniquely poised to save an entire Israelite city at one historic moment (and his personal background lends itself to this mission), but this capacity is not recognized by anyone at the time. This view of Yotam’s role is only crystallized later in history, when the narrator records his story for posterity. The narrator knows it, and the readers know it, but the people in the world of the story itself do not.
* * *
I cannot help but see Yotam’s speech as a colossal missed opportunity. As a son of Gideon and a powerful speaker, Yotam could have addressed the Shekhemites on their own terms, by acknowledging their struggles and their motivations in choosing Avimelekh. Perhaps the people would have paid attention had he done so. Perhaps he could have then convinced them with his logic, and perhaps disaster could have been avoided. By opting for a simplified, dramatized smoke-and-mirrors presentation instead, Yotam ensured that his position would offend the people of Shekhem, and that it would therefore go unheeded.
Three thousand years later, Israel is still a land of failed messiahs (but of a different nature entirely, to be sure). The state’s challenges and threats always loom large, and so the political stakes are always high. These circumstances frequently give rise to “self-anointed political saviors,” in the words of journalist Eetta Prince-Gibson.[xix] These include Yigael Yadin in 1977, Ezer Weizman in 1984, Rafael Eitan in 1992, Tommy Lapid in 2003, and now Yair Lapid in 2012. Each of these men jumped into the limelight of Israeli politics suddenly and with great fanfare, creating dynamic new political parties. In every case (save for Yair Lapid, who is still new on the scene), the movement fizzled quickly and disappeared entirely within a decade.[xx]
A simple reading of the book of Shofetim speaks to this trend. Israelite autonomy and religious devotion failed to survive after the death of each military savior in that era. This suggests that depending heavily upon an individual personality, rather than on an enduring message or set of values, endangers the welfare and stability of the nation.[xxi] The same can be said of the many messiahs of modern Israel, whose rises and falls ensnare the small country’s political system with constant fracturing and intensely populist sentiments. The government’s capacity for decisive action is hindered so long as these realities persist.
That said, the legacy of Yotam has a place within the book’s larger message as well. Between the failed messiahs arose a whistleblower, without any military might, who had the opportunity to steer the people away from disaster with a call for moral conduct. Had he succeeded, his influence may have survived longer than that of other leaders recorded in the book. Yotam had the truth, and his prediction ultimately came true. But he failed the people with his presentation.
If this tale can be said to suggest a lesson for modern Israel, it would be to warn the people to take its whistleblowers seriously – whether they speak of a demographic threat resulting from the failure of the peace process, an Iranian nuclear threat resulting from lack of preventative action, or a domestic threat resulting from the Haredi sector’s freeloading of national resources. But Yotam’s story also warns the whistleblowers to take their opportunities seriously and thereby be taken seriously, instead of endangering their messages with illustrations as fantastical as comparisons to the Holocaust or solutions as alienating as calls as for Jews to boycott other Jews.
Chesky Kopel is a senior at YC majoring in English and History, and is an editor-in-chief for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Shofetim 9:5.
[ii] The Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew English Lexicon, Strong’s number 3147, accessed via www.biblestudytools.com. I substituted “God” for the Lexicon’s transliteration of the Tetragrammaton.
[iii] See Devarim 11:29. Midrash Tanhuma, Vayera 29 adopts the characterization of this message as a curse from Shofetim 9:57, and asks why it was delivered from Gerizim, a geographic symbol of blessing. The answer places an anachronistic polemic in the mouth of the speaker, retorting the Samaritans’ later claim to Mount Gerizim as a site of blessing. Really, the Midrash explains, it is a site of curse, since the curses recited on Mount Eval were directed at the people standing on Gerizim, and vice versa. Therefore, the curse of Shofetim 9 is not delivered out of place, and the Samaritan claim to Gerizim is entirely unfounded.
[iv] Shofetim 9:7.
[v] Ibid. 9:20.
[vi] Ibid. 9:57.
[vii] Ibid. 9:15. This and all Bible passages quoted in this essay are translated by the Jewish Publication Society, with my small emendations.
[viii] See, for instance, Yosef Tsamudi, “ha-Mivneh ve-ha-Retorikah shel Mashal Yotam” (“The Structure and the Rhetoric of the Parable of Yotam”) (Hebrew), Beit Mikra 98 (5744), accessed via www.daat.ac.il, the online academic database of Michlelet Herzog; and Yisrael Rosenson, “Avimelekh: Mashal Yotam” in Yisrael Rosenson, Shefot ha-Shofetim: Iyyunim Parshaniyyim be-Sefer Shofetim (“The Judging of the Judges”: Interpretive Analyses in the Book of Judges)(Hebrew) (Alon Shevut: Tevunot, 5763), accessed via www.mikranet.org.il.
[ix] Shofetim 7.
[x] Ibid. 8:22-23.
[xi] Ibid. 8:35-9:6.
[xii] Ibid. 9:16-20.
[xiii] Rashi to Shofetim 9:8-12. The Midrash ties each figure to his or her tree symbol with complex allusions.
[xiv] Shofetim 8:22.
[xv] Radak to Shofetim 9:13.
[xvi] Yehuda Elitzur, “Halokh halekhu ha-etsim…” (“The trees went forth…”) (Hebrew), Mahanayyim 42 (5720), accessed via www.daat.ac.il.
[xvii] See Shofetim 9:57.
[xviii] See Jerome T. Walsh, Old Testament Narrative (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 6-8. Keegan’s distinction, as explained by Walsh, identifies three components of Biblical texts: 1) The world of the story is the “realm where individuals live (characters) and things happen (events) in particular circumstances (settings).” 2) “The world of the narrative is identical to the world of the story…except that the narrative’s events are chronologically later than those of the story. What happens in the world of the narrative is that a narrator tells the story to a narratee.” 3) The world of the text is “our primary world, in which the written text we hold in our hands exists, just as we ourselves do.”
[xix] Eetta Prince-Gibson, “Can a ‘Messiah’ Save Israel Now?,” Moment Magazine 37:2 (March/April 2012), 16.
[xxi] This does not mean to say that no shofet left a legacy of enduring values, nor does it mean to imply that the lessons of such a complex period of Jewish history can be easily summarized into a one-sentence moral. In fact, this essay is not the proper place for a broad study of the book of Shofetim. My only intention in making such a claim is to propose a modern Israeli reaction to the tragedies of the book.