Thursday, May 09, 2013

Is this where Tolkien got the idea for the Ents?

The reader of this blog will have noticed that I've recently written about quirky hermeneutics. This time it comes from a discussion in a chat room in which an atheist asserted that amongst other scientific impossibilities, the Bible describes talking trees. When I asked him (I assume I was chatting to another male) to show where in the Bible these talking trees are, he referred me to Judges 9:8-15. It reads as follows:

One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king.’
 “But the olive tree answered, ‘Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and humans are honored, to hold sway over the trees?’ “Next, the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come and be our king.’ “But the fig tree replied, ‘Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet, to hold sway over the trees?’
 “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come and be our king.’
“But the vine answered, ‘Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and humans, to hold sway over the trees?’
 “Finally all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘Come and be our king.’
“The thornbush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’

I consulted commentaries by Daniel I. Block, Dennis T. Olson, and Trent Butler, and some carefully selected online study helps. The consensus is that Jotham was telling his audience a story. You would have to be using some creative hermeneutics to assert that Jotham believed in literal talking trees. Perhaps the chatroom participant was working from the Skeptic's Annotated Bible.

According to Win Groseclose, the context of this story is that Gideon, who was once a strong, godly leader, had taken his eyes off the ball by taking many wives and concubines. After Gideon's death. one of his 70 sons, named Abimelech, went to live with his mother in Shechem. This may have occurred in 1129 to 1126 BC. She was one of Gideon's concubines, and they conspired with the people of Shechem to make Abimelech their king. and they did so by capturing and killing all of Abimelech’s brothers. Jotham was the only one who escaped. Thus Abimelech was made king.

When Jotham heard this news, he went to the top of Mount Gerizim and told this parable. This gave Jotham a place where the acoustics would have been good enough for him to be heard over a great distance as well as some distance from those who would be offended by his words and try to kill him. Mount Gerizim was an important mountain in ancient Israel. In Deuteronomy 27:9:26, Moses commanded that after the people had entered into the Promised Land, some were to ascend Mount Gerizim and others were to ascend Mount Ebal. From Gerizim, blessings for obedience were to be pronounced and from Ebal curses for disobedience were to be pronounced. This command was later acted out in Joshua chapter 8.

Jotham’s story is a cry for judgment upon both the Shechemites for being unfaithful in choosing such a man as their king (verses 8-15), and for the process by which he assumed power (verses 16-20). Speaking in symbolic language, Jotham compares Abimelech, who was so evil that he murdered his own brothers, to a bramble or a weed. Interestingly he cried out from Gerizim, and not Ebal. Perhaps this is because Jotham is leaving judgment of the people’s actions in the hands of God. Regardless, it is from Mount Gerizim that Jotham tells this parable.

Jotham's strong pronouncement came to pass in Judges 9:22-57, with Abimelech being killed in battle by having a stone dropped upon his head, crushing his skull, and judgement coming upon the Shechemites as well.

Quite clearly he was speaking figuratively. When I pointed this out to the atheist, he strongly disagreed with me. This led to a lengthy and not very productive discussion about how important it is to read the Bible carefully and it context. Often one learns what the Bible does say by what it doesn't say.

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