JUDGING THE HEBREW BIBLE INTO THE NEW TESTAMENT
Judges 9:1-15: The Reign Forest
A young general, (whose name meant my father is monarch), who was son of a man nicknamed ‘Byelobog Will Defend Himself’, stood before the political elites of a farm town in Eastern Europe and asked, “Is it not better to have one military dictator over you rather than all seventy of my half-brothers? Let us covenant together since we are from the same village.” The townspeople received word about what was the general wanted to happen from their town leaders. Seventy Euros were taken out of the village’s large famous cathedral in order to hire hitmen to got with the general to take out the seventy. The seventy brothers were gathered together, taken into a dark forest, where subsequently, each were shot in the back of the head twice and buried in a very old ditch. Fortunately, the youngest son, whose name means “May God Complete,” was able to escape, and like his father before him, mastered the art of hiding.
The general became leader of the military junta over the entire nation. When the lone survivor, Joe was his name, heard this, he climbed a mountain and confronted the dictator with a parable:
“There was a group of trees who had determined for themselves that they wanted a king. The olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine; all three refused for they did not want to rule over any other tree, but to produce fruit to honor and please both the gods and the humans alike. The trees’ offer was accepted by a black berrybush, whose wood is only good for burning in fires. The trees anointed the bramble; yet, after three years, the entire forest was burned down.”
[three years later, God apparently stirs up the people of the village revolt against the tyrant]
Luke 13:1-9: Jesus Warns that everyone, High and Low, Must Repent!
The cruel Italian mobster Pilate had a reputation for despising local religious traditions, and he struck fear into the Irish population. There were a few in the crowd with Jesus, a fellow Mick. He had heard that Pilate had executed some Irishmen and women in cold blood as they were praying. Jesus asked them, “Were these Irish people any worse of sinners than all other Irish? Did they deserve this treatment? No, I tell you, but unless all of you repent, you will perish as they did. Or those who we killed with the World Trade Center fell—do you think they were worse offenders than anyone living in any other part of New York?” No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will surely suffer as they did.” Then, Jesus told them this parable:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and when it came time, he tried to find fruit, but could not. So, he said to the gardener, “Look here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and it has yielded none. Cut it down! But the gardener answered softly, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it; if it bears fruit, it was worth the wait. If not, I will destroy it as you asked. The owner of the vineyard agreed.”
The traditional Christian understanding of Luke 13:1-9 would have us believe that Jesus is using the parable as a polemic against the nation of Israel.
It suggests, that because Israel, in a scant few instances, is referred to as a plant, abacadraba, Jesus preaching repentance (although the call is futile since Christianity ends up superseding Judaism) to only the people of Judah and Israel. However, the understanding of the imagery of fig trees in the Hebrew Bible (and Septuagint for that matter) do not really point to Israel as a nation, but rather could be associated with the righteousness/wretchedness of the ruling classes in Israel. For example, in Zechariah LXX 3:9-10 as I have argued here, as well as Micah 4:1-5 (as Walter Brueggeman argues) there is an implicit critique of the false prosperity during the reign of the monarchs (which happens at the expense of the oppressed). Eschatologically speaking, the notion that everyone will have her/his own vine and fig tree is a dream of universal shalom; in terms of Christology, Christ fulfills the visions of the prophets in passages such as John 1:48 (Jesus talking and summoning others underneath a fig tree).
Given the fact that figs/fig trees have far more instance of prominence when Scripture discusses the royal lines, I must reject the traditional interpretation of this parable. In addition to leaning towards anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, normal readings of this passage also let someone off the hook for his actions: Pilate. Verse 1 clearly says that Pilate murders worships while they are giving devotion to God. Do not the Ten Commandments matter in our reading of the New Testament?
I argue, given a reading of Judges (along with the rest of the First Testament) into the New Testament, that Jesus is more of a Gideon/Jotham-like figure. Christ Jesus’ prophetic call to repentance is part of his office as Judge (normally not talked about in churches). Both stories have tyrannical political leaders over-stepping their God-given authority. They are repressive, and unrepentant, as well as useless as unfruitful trees. The language in the Judges 9 passage suggests that Abimelech is not exerting royal power, but military power. He rules by coercion over others, much like Pilate as he exacts arbitrary terror over his subjects. Jesus, in his subversive use of parabolic language, is suggesting that Pilate as well as his subjects are in need of repentance, or they shall all be chopped down. Jesus, as usual, has precedent in the Hebrew Bible, just as it was YHWH’s desire for Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar to turn away from idolatry and injustice, so too did the Triune God want Caesar and the Roman Empire to change their wicked ways. As for the identity of the gardener, who is usually ignored in the parable, my thoughts are it is the Church, standing in the tradition of intercessors such as Moses whose relationship with God is so strong that he can influence God to have mercy on a nation.
To see similar account of figs and fig trees, see Walter Brueggeman’s A Social Reading of the Old Testament.