Trees, Kings, and Muses: Robert Graves's Battle of the Trees and Jotham's Parable of the Trees

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Although the word "myth" is used in everyday speech to denote a fictional narrative, and as such may on occasion bear pejorative connotations, for Robert Graves and Raphael Patai myths "are dramatic stories that form a sacred charter either authorizing the continuance of ancient institutions, customs, rites and beliefs in the area where they are current, or approving alterations. [...] Hebrew myths are mainly national charters" (11-17). It is this definition that encouraged me to turn to Graves's The White Goddess, subtitled "A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth," for help in searching out new meanings in Jotham's Parable of the Trees (Judges 9:7-16). Yet as poet Grevel Lindop notes, grappling with The White Goddess "induces in the reader, willy-nilly, a state of poetic trance. [...] The White Goddess is a book that makes poets; and it makes them by stimulating the nonrational, intuitive, and mythically creative side of the mind" (35). My own sense that Graves's interpretation of "The Battle of the Trees" might expand our understanding of Jotham's Parable of the Trees first resulted from intuition; yet since I make no claim to be a poet, I venture to hope that the basic rationality of this approach will be evident.

The story that frames Jotham's Parable is as terse as it is shocking (Judges 9:1-21). (1) Having murdered seventy of his brothers, Abimelech, son of Jerubaal (Gideon), is chosen to rule over the city of Shechem. Jotham, the youngest and only brother to escape the massacre, repairs to a mountain near Shechem and tells what has come to be known as Jotham's Parable (Judges 9: 7-21), the story of "trees who went forth on a time to anoint a king over them." The trees first appeal to the olive; the latter refuses the crown, asking, "Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honor God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?" The fig and the vine likewise turn down the crown. Neither wants to cease producing the benefits with which it honors God and man: its sweetness and good fruit, or its wine; with perhaps surprising honesty, each plant claims that it cannot both nourish its people and enable them to honor God, and at the same time be a monarch. Finally the bramble, with nothing to offer but its shadow, agrees to reign, but not without making a thinly-veiled threat: if the trees do not put their trust in him, "let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon" (Judg. 9:15). This parable is understood by Bible scholars to express the political agenda of the composer of the Book of Judges: prediction of the evils concomitant with the people's demand for a monarchy. Among these evils are war, usurpation, and chaos, all of which result when the monarch, whether chosen by the Deity or by the people themselves, is unworthy of the trust placed in him. Current biblical exegesis thus tends to view Jotham's Parable as a statement of the dilemma in which the people and its leaders found themselves at the time: there was a clear demand to be ruled by a king, rather than by a judge, but there was also concern that under a monarchical system the most worthy candidate for leadership would not necessarily become king. On the one hand, the strength of the people's yearning for a strong, permanent dynasty may lead them to accept the least qualified candidate for the kingship; on the other hand, only the Deity has the right to choose a king. Yairah Amit notes that

The parable is thus intended to bring out the attachment of the trees to the idea of kingship. To this end, it is also fashioned in a three and four pattern. This structure enables it to repeat four times, one after another, the situation in which "the trees went forth to anoint a king over them." On the fourth and decisive occasion, all of the trees address the bramble (9:14), and the bramble, who is unable to do anything useful, accepts upon himself the task of reigning as king. The ironic fashioning of the bramble as one under whose shade they come to take shelter, but whom it would be better for them to fear because of its fire, is a characterization of the unsuccessful attempt to set up a monarchy without divine approval. …


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