Before Plato, Jotham Extolled the ‘Reluctant Ruler’

It is sometimes said that the history of philosophy consists in a series of footnotes to Plato. But occasionally, it seems Plato ought to have footnoted the Hebrew Bible. For example, centuries before Plato argued that the best political rulers are reluctant rulers, the author of Judges made the same argument. But few have noticed Plato’s unoriginality here, mostly because the practice of reading the Hebrew Bible as a document containing political concepts that can be extended beyond their original context, has fallen out of fashion. Yet the similarities on this point between Judges and Plato stand as a case study in the political teachings of the Hebrew Bible, which are peers in sophistication and insight with any of their classical Greek and Roman models.

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This claim will strike many as implausible. The most skeptical readers of the Bible today believe that it presents us with little more than an archaic story of a slavishly theocratic people whose backward ways we happily glance at only in the rearview mirror of liberal progress. Meanwhile some of the Bible’s defenders think it an act of piety to refuse asking of it the same questions that they might ask of a thinker like Plato. But neither of these forms of interpretation is particularly illuminating. Instead, recovering the tradition of reading the Hebrew Bible as, among many other things, a document of political theory permits its teachings to be placed in conversation with the canon of political theory, and sheds light upon both.

This conversation has already begun among a small but burgeoning literature that attempts to derive a political theory of the Bible. Book length studies have been written on, among others, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Job, Esther, Jeremiah, Samuel, Ruth, alongside studies of the figures of Moses, Joseph, and the Minor Prophets. But the book of Judges is largely overlooked.

In The Republic, Plato depicts Socrates regaling his listeners with the now-famous Allegory of the Cave, which culminates in the enlightened philosopher, after the process of education, returning to the cave to enlighten those still in bondage to ignorance and shadows. But this poses a difficulty, as Socrates himself notes: “Don’t be surprised if those who have attained this high vision are unwilling to be involved in the affairs of men. Their souls will ever feel the pull from above and yearn to sojourn there.” That is to say, once the one who loves and seeks after the Truth has glimpsed it, the lowly affairs of human rule will hold only slender allurements.

These philosophers would be the best ones to rule the city, given their ceaseless quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. But they are also the most reluctant to rule the city, given that they consider the quotidian life of politics to be a distraction from the noble contemplation of the Highest Good. Therefore, Socrates says, if the city is to be a just city, the best men must be compelled to rule. Socrates is so emphatic about this claim that he repeats it at least six times in The Republic.

That the same kind of argument should appear in the book of Judges is initially quite strange. If Judges has one main political teaching, it is the surpassing badness of anarchy and lack of centralized rule. Almost all of the ills that befall Israel in Judges have their source in their leaderlessness: “and there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). Therefore the solution to those ills is to appoint a judge, whose major failure seems to be their institutional instability. The whole book of Judges seems to point forward to the political solution of the king, which we find in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.

Except, that is, for Jotham, the obscure fabulist of Judges 9. Jotham was one of the seventy sons of Gideon, the famous and cowardly judge who routed the Midianites. After Gideon’s death, Israel devolved back into idolatry. Abimelech, Gideon’s most ambitious son, sensing the opportunity presented by this political vacuum, acted quickly to become not just the next judge, but Israel’s first attempt at kingship. This, of course, required the elimination of rival claimants to the throne, so Abimelech, echoing both the stories of Cain and Abel and of Romulus and Remus, murdered his seventy brothers to take the kingship. The only survivor was Jotham. Witnessing the willingness of his countrymen to make this fratricide into a king, Jotham ascended a mountain near the city, and pronounced his political teaching in the form of a fable:

Once upon a time the trees went to anoint a king over them. And they said to the olive tree, “Reign over us.” And the olive tree said, “Have I left off my rich oil, for which God and men honor me, that I should go sway over the trees?” And the trees said to the fig tree, “Go, you, reign over us.” And the fig tree said to them, “Have I left off my sweetness and my goodly yield that I should go sway over the trees?” And the trees said to the vine, “Go, you, reign over us.” And the vine said to them, “Have I left off my new wine, that gladdens God and men, that I should go sway over the trees?” And the trees said to the thornbush, “Go, you, reign over us.” And the thornbush said to the trees, “If you are really about to anoint me king over you, come shelter in my shade. And if not, a fire shall come out from the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon” (Judges 9:7–20, Robert Alter translation).

Jotham’s fable presents us with two classes of plants: three that are useful and noble, and one which is ignoble and useless. The three useful plants would presumably make noble and excellent rulers, but when the trees of the field offer them political fealty, they refuse. They have better things to do. Out of good options but still desperate for a leader, the trees approach another plant, which is more ignoble than they themselves are, and offer it the kingship.

The thornbush, unlike the noble trees, is willing to accept political rule with one condition: the rest of the trees must bow down to take shade under its branches. The irony here is obvious. Thornbushes offer no shade, but only the scratchy discomfort of thorns. The trees, in accepting the thornbush as their king, abase themselves and make themselves less secure, less comfortable, and less noble than they once were.

The immediate political meaning of Jotham’s fable is straightforward. Gideon was the noble tree who refused the kingship, as the narrator just finished telling us (Judges 8:22–23). Gideon’s death created the power vacuum into which the ignoble thornbush, Abimelech, stepped for his own coronation. Like the thornbush, Abimelech the usurper is an agent of pure destruction. Over the course of his three-year kingship, violence and destruction reign, until he himself is killed in battle with a millstone to the skull.

By presenting his warning against Abimelech in the form of a parable, Jotham—like Aesop many centuries later—intends to teach about not only one particular historical moment, but also a general pattern of human behavior. A fable is detached from the contingencies of space and time, and therefore, applicable beyond its immediate space and time. Fables are immediately relevant because they are universally applicable. Said otherwise, Jotham’s fable is less about what would happen, and more about what always happens. Abimelech is untrustworthy not only because he is personally and uniquely evil, but also because he is an instance of a general pattern that those most worthy of political power would rather not have it, and those most unworthy of political power are those who seek it with the greatest ambition. Jotham teaches us not just about Abimelech, but about the nature of political rule more generally.

The use of literary devices like fables is one of the many ways that the Hebrew Bible makes arguments of a general nature. Biblical narratives commonly reveal patterns of human history that are generalizable beyond their immediate historical context, and which are therefore relevant to how later readers ought to organize societies.

This hermeneutic is commonly employed in the study of other ancient political theorists like Thucydides or Livy. Likely the reason this hermeneutic is overlooked when applied to the Bible is the widespread suspicion that the Bible is a document of pure revelation, detached from reason. If the Bible is not a reasonable document, then it does not present principles open to its readers’ rational evaluation, and therefore cannot be the grounds for further and better reflection. The Bible, so the story goes, is a conversation-stopper, rather than a conversation-starter.

But the truth is almost exactly the opposite. Despite caricatures to the contrary, few Christian readers of the Bible throughout history have suggested its civil and political teachings be adopted whole cloth for the sake of contemporary politics. It is not even obvious that such a thing would be possible, given that the Hebrew Bible contains numerous voices, parables, principles, and stories that are not immediately and obviously harmonizable with each other, or applicable beyond their immediate context.

How, for example, are we to understand Jotham’s warning against kingship in general alongside the warnings against anarchy that permeate the book of Judges? How are we to make sense of the fact that Saul, a ruler so reluctant that he hides from his own coronation, is also one of the very worst rulers in the Bible? Attempting to synthesize these voices leads the reader into ambiguity and uncertainty that invites deeper reflection. Puzzles like these in the Bible are not altogether dissimilar from the kinds of textual difficulties we find in any other of the great canonical texts of political theory.

After all, ambiguity and uncertainty are the starting point of philosophical reflection. If philosophy begins with the unsettling awareness of one’s own ignorance, and the kindling of a desire to remedy that ignorance, then the fact of widespread Biblical illiteracy might be precisely the thing to jumpstart careful, philosophical consideration of the Bible’s complexities. The meaning of the story of Plato’s Cave is that humanity is commonly ignorant of their own ignorance. We do not realize what we do not know, so we return to the Bible anew in search of a deeper teaching that might illuminate our uncertainty, and yield to us a deeper understanding.