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Truth in Historical Narrative (Judges ch.9)

Author: Esther Ehrman, Tevet 5771/Dec 2010

We do not expect total recall in a historical account. We do expect information on events that have had an impact on the lives of groups of people. How that information is presented will naturally depend on the narrator's perception, his interpretation and his values; he may also be influenced by the demands of the reader, for instance in the case of Court historians The reader may be looking for a factual, true record or he may be interested to see if something, some truth, can be learnt from that record. Chapter 9 of the Book of Judges is an interesting example of a historical narrative that makes deliberate use of several levels of truth. We are given a factual, - true in the sense of unadulterated - account of certain events that took place around the 12thcentury BCE; we have an interpretation of the events in the form of a parable that ends in a prophetic curse and we have the narrator's understanding of the true meaningfulness of that set of events.

The setting is the city of Shechem, in the valley between Mount Eval and Mount Gerizim, location of the blessings and curses recorded in Deut.11,v 29. Although there is no record of the conquest of Shechem in the Book of Joshua, we see that the Israelites were there, as were the Canaanites. It was in Shechem that Joshua had presented the Israelites with a choice of loyalty to the Lord or Canaanite idol worship. The Israelites had sworn loyalty to the Lord and Joshua made a covenant and wrote it 'in the Book of the law of G-d (be sefer torat elokim)' (Josh. 24).

Gideon had died and his son by a concubine, Avimelech, sought to become king. Avimelech kills his seventy brothers 'on one stone' and with the help of the people of Shechem – it is not clear whether these were Canaanites or Israelites – Avimelech is made king. In the massacre of the brothers, one, Jotham, had escaped. He climbs Mount Gerizim and speaks to the people of Shechem below. He tells them a parable: The trees wanted to have a king; they offer the crown in turn to the olive, the fig and the vine, each of which refuses. They then offer it to the thorn, which not only accepts, offering them his shade, but curses them if they do not choose it, saying that fire will then issue from the thorn 'and devour the cedars of Lebanon' (Jud.9,15). Jotham continues his speech with an accusation, saying that the people of Shechem showed their ingratitude for the good that Gideon did for them and their bad faith in electing Avimelech king, 'let fire come out of Avimelech and devour the men of Shechem and Beth Millo; and let fire come out from the men of Shechem and from Beth Millo and devour Avimelech' (v.20).

After three years of Avimelech's rule, the people of Shechem revolt because 'G-d sent an evil spirit between Avimelech and the men of Shechem' (v22). The latter, led by an outsider, Gaal, set an ambush for the king. A leader of Shechem, Zevul, tells the king. He sets a counter ambush, conquers the city and burns its inhabitants ('fire from Avimelech'); he continues to the city of Tebez, the people seek refuge in a tower, Avimelech is set to burn the tower, when a woman throws a stone down on his skull ('fire from the men of Shechem'). Not wanting it to be known that he died at the hands of a woman, he gets his young man to kill him by the sword.

At this point the narrator steps in. - According to the Gemara, (Bava Batra 14b) the Book of Judges was written by the prophet Samuel.- 'Thus G-d requited the wickedness of Avimelech, which he did unto his father by slaying his seventy brethren. And all the wickedness of the men of Shechem did G-d requite upon their heads; and upon them came the curse of Jotham, the son of Jerubaal (Gideon) (v56, 57).

The text is beautifully crafted. We are given a true and faithful account of events. The parable, set in the middle, seems to be an interpretation, indicating a sub-text that illustrates the underlying true motives of the people involved in the account, a truth that reveals wrongdoing and predicts consequences. The problem is that it is not easy to understand the symbolism. Instead of clarifying the events, an ambiguity is created. Is the message of the parable anti-monarchy? The fruit trees reject the offer of the crown, because they have better things to do. Their fruit is valuable and would be lost if they had to uproot themselves -which might kill them-in order to 'wave over the trees' (rule), itself an ambiguous phrase. However, it is just as possible to understand the refusal by the trees as a sign of humility. It may equally well be a reference to Gideon's refusal of the crown (Ch8.v23), where the reason he gives is that only G-d rules.

Clearly, the thorn bush refers to the unproductive Avimelech – the thorn offers its shade, but in fact a thorn has none to offer. The predicted consequences come true, except that Avimelech is not killed by fire, but by a stone. The truth of the parable is a hidden truth that makes the reader wonder and perhaps question whether the message he receives is the same as the message received by the audience of the Jotham's parable, the people of Shechem.

Lastly, we have the truth as stated by the narrator: all the events manifest the workings of G-d in history. Wrongdoing incurs divine punishment; in this case the death of the people of Shechem is a punishment – it is not clear whether their sin was only that they made the cruel Avimelech king or whether their ingratitude towards Gideon and their reversion to idol worship incur this punishment. Avimelech is punished for his evil doing – the slaughter of his brothers, we are told. What is clear is that his death is a divine punishment. We have a different account of the same events in the Jewish Antiquities by Josephus (Bk 5, ch.7). Josephus writes 'So he (Avimelech) underwent this death as a punishment for the wickedness he had perpetrated against his brothers and his insolent barbarity to the Shechemites. Now the calamity that befell those Shechemites was according to the prediction of Jotham'. Josephus is a historian, not a prophet. He sees the punishment, but lacks the prophet's awareness of the divine. The Biblical narrative raises history to a new level of truth – we may have free will and we may use it for ill, but 'the judge of the whole earth' as Avraham addressed G-d at Sodom (Gen.18,v.25) ensures that justice prevails.