In the Book of Judges we find a fantastical story of a debate between the trees about who should become their king. They first asked the olive tree who refused on account of the oil it produces; then they asked the fig who refused because she produced sweet fruit, and finally the grapevine who refused – well you get the idea. Then they asked the thornbush who responded that if they would honour him they could shelter under his shade, but if not, fire would come that would destroy even the cedars of Lebanon.
The story is told by Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon the judge who had brought Israel back to God after it had strayed into idolatry, but who notably had refused the kingship, saying that neither he nor any son would rule over them, only God was ruler of Israel.
Yet Abimelech, one of Gideon’s sons had other ideas. After Gideon’s death Abimelech committed fratricide to become the first king of Israel. Bible tells us Gideon had seventy sons – only Jotham survived Abimelech’s murderous onslaught by hiding. When Abimelech was made king in Shechem, Jotham stood atop Mt Gerizim and declared the story of the trees to the populace.
What was the purpose? To remind the people that good leadership comes with personal sacrifice, and that those who grab leadership for their own benefit can bring down the whole of society. Three trees were not prepared to give up their fruitful lives to take on leadership, and so the barren yet aggressive thorn was able to assume the title, with the false claim that it could provide protective shade (it cannot). Once in power, if anyone went against it, it could fuel the fires that would destroy them all.
Civil war scarred the population. Abimelech died after a brief and bloody reign. Jotham’s story is for us all.