NIV Judges 9:

7 When this was reported to Jotham, he climbed to the top of Mount Gerizim, raised his voice, and cried out:
“Listen to me, O leaders of Shechem,
and may God listen to you.
8One day the trees set out
to anoint a king for themselves.
They said to the olive tree,
‘Reign over us.’
9But the olive tree replied,
‘Should I stop giving my oil
that honors both God and man,
to hold sway over the trees?’
10Then the trees said to the fig tree,
‘Come and reign over us.’
11But the fig tree replied,
‘Should I stop giving my sweetness
and my good fruit,
to hold sway over the trees?’
12Then the trees said to the grapevine,
‘Come and reign over us.’
13But the grapevine replied,
‘Should I stop giving my wine
that cheers both God and man,
to hold sway over the trees?’
14Finally all the trees said to the thornbush,
‘Come and reign over us.’
15But the thornbush replied,
‘If you really are anointing me as king over you,
come and find refuge in my shade.
But if not, may fire come out of the thornbush
and consume the cedars of Lebanon.’

  • Thanks for sharing, Tony! – Visual Hermeneutics Sep 30 at 18:36
  • The same parable occurs in Aesop’s Fables, wherein presumably does not represent biblical characters. – Alex Oct 1 at 2:44

Nogah Hareuveni, in Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage (1984) quotes a Midrash (Tanhuma, Vayere, 29) which identifies the Olive, Fig, and Grape as Othniel, Deborah, and Barak, respectively. Hareuveni writes:

The midrash sees in these trees the earlier judges each of whom returned to his home and fields after completing the task set him to lead the people in time of trouble.

More important to understanding the fable is identifying the atad tree (אתד) in v. 14-15:

"Finally all the trees said to the (atad אתד) thornbush, 'Come and be our king.'

According to Hareuveni, the atad should be identified as the Ziziphus spina-christi and not with the Lycium europaeum as many have done in the past.

One positive quality of the atad is its shade which is reflected in Judges 9:15:

come and take refuge in my shade

The problem is, fruit trees cannot live under an atad. The roots of the atad are shallow and spread out. Other fruit trees cannot compete with its roots for water.

The message of the fable of course is that the fruit trees brought forth a king (Abimelech) who will be like an atad to them. The shade may seem like a nice attribute but ultimately there is no life for a fruit tree under an atad.

The same midrash as mentioned above identifies Abimelech as the atad.

Here is a picture of an atad growing at Tel Gezer in Israel:

enter image description here

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Who were the olive tree, fig tree, and the grapevine in Jotham’s parable?

Judges 9:8 [MT] "8 The trees went forth to anoint a king over them. And they said to-the Olive, 'Reign over us.' " (הָל֚וֹךְ הָֽלְכוּ֙ הָעֵצִ֔ים לִמְשֹׁ֥חַ עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם מֶ֑לֶךְ וַיֹּאמְר֥וּ לַזַּ֖יִת מָלְכָ֥ה (כתיב מָלְוכָ֥ה) עָלֵֽינוּ )

Olive / Olive [tree] (Zayit, זַּ֖יִת) is singular. Olives / Olive [trees] (Zeitim, זֵיתִים) would be plural.

1. Who is the Olive (Zayit, זַּ֖יִת) in Yotham's fable? The Olive (Zayit, זַּ֖יִת) refers to the people of Shechem (Shekemah, שְׁכֶ֔מָה) the 1st supporters of Abimelech. [Judges 9:1]

Judges 9:11 [MT] "11But The-Fig said to them, 'Should I leave my sweetness, and my good fruitage, and go to wave over the trees?' (וַתֹּ֚אמֶר לָהֶם֙ הַתְּאֵנָ֔ה הֶחֳדַ֙לְתִּי֙ אֶת־מָתְקִ֔י וְאֶת־תְּנוּבָתִ֖י הַטּוֹבָ֑ה וְהָ֣לַכְתִּ֔י לָנ֖וּעַ עַל־הָעֵצִֽים )

2. Who is The-Fig in Yotham's fable? The-Fig (Ha-Tetenah, הַתְּאֵנָ֔ה) refers to Baal-Berit (בַּ֣עַל בְּרִ֑ית) the 2nd financial supporters of Abimelech. [Judges 9:4]

Judges 9:13 [MT] : "13 And the-Vine said to them, 'Should I leave my wine, which causes God and men to rejoice, and go to wave over the trees? ' (וַתֹּ֚אמֶר לָהֶם֙ הַגֶּ֔פֶן הֶחֳדַ֙לְתִּי֙ אֶת־תִּ֣ירוֹשִׁ֔י הַֽמְשַׂמֵּ֥חַ אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַאֲנָשִׁ֑ים וְהָ֣לַכְתִּ֔י לָנ֖וּעַ עַל־הָעֵצִֽים )

3. Who is The-Vine in Yotham's fable? The-Vine (Ha-Gefen, הַגֶּ֔פֶן) is Ophrah (Aferatah, עָפְרָ֔תָה ) the root of Yotham's family, where Abimelech goes to destroy Jotham's brothers. [Judges 9:5]

Jotham (Yotham, יוֹתָ֗ם ) is telling a frustrating Fable to describe a false king Abimelech as "The Thorn" ( הָאָטָד֘ ) who reigned over trees & vines in Yisrael.

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I do not think that the olive tree, the fig tree and the grapevine need to have explicit, individual fulfillments.

The function of these it simply to show that they were noble trees who refused to reign. The point of the drama/parable is that, against their better judgement and because there were no other options, the trees asked the thornbush to reign.

The thornbush is clearly Abimelech - one who was unworthy of rulership. He was unworthy because of his murderous past (Judges 9:5) and reckless intentions (V30-49).

The prophecy of Jotham was fulfilled only a few years' later (V22) when Abimelech was killed in battle (V50-55).

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