Jotham’s curse in Judges 9 is that fire will go out from Abimelech to Shechem and from Shechem to Abimelech. Both are brambles; both are fire-hazards.
It’s pretty easy to see how fire goes out from Abimelech to consume Shechem, given that Abimelech burns down the stronghold of El-Berith in Shechem. Not only that, but he sows Shechem with salt, and in the Bible salt is crystal fire.
But how does fire come forth from Shechem and consume Abimelech? It doesn’t in any literal sense, though one can point to various metaphorical fires. But maybe there’s something more going on too.
Jan Fokkelman raises the question and suggests an answer: “How about the fire in v. 20de that is to consume Abimelech? The answer given by the narrator is a pun.”
In v. 49, we have ish (man), esh (fire), and ishah (woman). Then in v. 51b, we hear about man and woman again and we’re told that Abimelech is going to destroy the stronghold of Thebez with fire (esh). But then a woman (ishah) drops a millstone on him.
Fighting fire with fire: What overcomes Abimelech’s fire (esh) is a woman (ishah). Abimelech’s flame destroys Shechem, but Thebez’s Flamette destroys Abimelech.
In Jotham’s fable in Judges 9, he presents Abimelech as a bramble, who, when asked to be king, tells the other trees to “take refuge in my shadow” (tsl). Elsewhere in the Bible, kings provide shade for their people, the shade being a symbol of protection, but of course brambles don’t have a lot of shade to offer to, say, oak trees.
In fact, being the fire hazard that he is, Abimelech the Bramble King’s shadow isn’t a great refuge at all. The next time we hear about shadows is in verse 36. Gaal sees Abimelech and his army coming down the mountain to attack him. But when he cries out to Zebul, who is secretly still loyal to Abimelech, and says, “People coming down from the heads of the mountains!” Zebul responds by saying, “The shadow (tsl) of the mountains you are seeing like men.”
Then, when Abimelech is preparing to destroy the men of Shechem utterly, even though they’ve holed up in Baal’s stronghold, he goes to Shadow Mountain, Mount Tsalmon (English translations have Zalmon). There’s no other record of a mountain with that name, and commentators suggest that this might be another name for Mount Gerizim or Mount Ebal, the mountains near Shechem. If so, then the link with Abimelech’s bramble-shadow is even stronger. This is the mountain from which Abimelech gets the brush with which to burn the men of Shechem and destroy Baal’s temple.
That’s what comes of being under the bramble’s shadow. Having the bramble’s shadow come down upon you isn’t a good thing.
When Abimelech goes up the mountain and gets a branch, he puts it on his shoulder (shikmo). That’s one of those little details that we wonder about sometimes (“Why did the Spirit think it was important to mention that he carried it on his shoulder? Why ‘waste’ the space to tell us that?”).
But it strikes me that the consonants are the same as those of the city he’s about to burn: Shechem (Hebrew: Shekem). I don’t quite know what to make of that. Is there some sort of parallel between the branch on his shoulder and the branches piled up at the stronghold of Shechem? Do the branches parallel Abimelech, while the shoulder parallels Shechem under Abimelech’s “shade” (cf. 9:15)? Or is it just a coincidence?
I don’t know. But it’s worth pondering.
In Judges 9, the lords of Shechem want Abimelech to be their king (Hebrew: melek). But in the end, Abimelech sows Shechem with salt (melach … the last letter is like the “ch” in the Scottish “loch”).
I suspect that’s a play on words: they wanted a king and they got a king, but the result was … a word that sounds like “king” but means “salt”: utter barrenness.
In Judges 9:7, Jotham goes up onto the “head” of the mountain to confront the men of Shechem down below as they make Abimelech their king. The mountain here is Mount Gerizim, which might surprise us because Jotham’s words are identified as a “curse” (v. 57), and yet Mount Gerizim was the mountain of blessing in Joshua. Perhaps the point is that Jotham’s fable and its application are intended as a summons to repentance leading to blessing: “Listen to me … and God will listen to you” (v. 7). It’s only when the men of Shechem refuse to listen to Jotham that his words become a curse.
The curse is worked out in the rest of the story, but interestingly the outworking of the curse involves people going up and down mountains. In verse 25, the lords of Shechem set “men lying in ambush” for Abimelech “upon the heads of the mountains,” and they robbed all those who passed by them. Shechem’s attack on Abimelech involves something on the heads of the mountains.
When Abimelech strikes back at Shechem, he also sets an ambush. Though Zebul tells him to set an ambush “in the field” (v. 32), it turns out that the ambush is on the mountain. Gaal sees Abimelech and his army arising “from the ambush” (v. 35) and says “People are coming down from the heads of the mountains” (v. 36).
When Abimelech prepares to wipe out the men of Shechem utterly, he goes up Shadow Mountain — Mount Zalmon, though this mountain is otherwise unknown and this may be a different name for Mount Ebal or Mount Gerizim — and cuts branches and brings them to burn the stronghold of El Berith in Shechem.
Up and down the mountains they go. Why? I wonder if it’s not because Jotham’s curse was proclaimed on the head of the mountain, and now the outworking of that curse flows, as it were, from the mountain down to the people who were cursed.
There are sure a lot of heads in Judges 9, though you wouldn’t know it if you just looked at an English translation. In fact, the word “head” (Heb. rosh) appears ten times in this one chapter.
Jotham stands on the head of Mount Gerizim to confront the men of Shechem. The lords of Shechem set an ambush on the heads of the mountains. Abimelech’s army is divided into four heads (companies), and Gaal sees them coming down from the heads of the mountains, one head by way of the diviners’ oak.
But then, as Jan Fokkelman points out, there’s a progression: Abimelech’s army has four heads (9:34) … then he divides the people into three heads (9:43) … then two heads rush against the people in the field (9:44) … and finally a woman throws an upper millstone upon the head of Abimelech (9:53). It’s as if we’re counting down: 4 … 3 … 2 … 1!
And in this way, God brings back the evil of the men of Shechem on their head (9:57).
That’s a lot of heads in one chapter. I’m not entirely sure what all of the significance might be — though certainly the crushing of the head is a fulfillment of Genesis 3 — but it’s interesting to note.
David Dorsey (The Literary Structure of the Old Testament) points out that the story of Gideon can be seen as a chiasm:
A Beginning of Midianite oppression; chronological note (6:1-10)
B Gideon’s call by YHWH to save Israel; destruction of idolatry at Ophrah; fleece on ground to collect dew (6:11-40)
C Troops gather for battle; reduced forces so Israel won’t boast (7:1-14)
D YHWH gives victory (7:15-22)
C’ Troops disperse after battle; enlarged army; boasting (7:23-8:21)
B’ Gideon’s call by Israel to rule Israel; establishment of ephod-worship at Ophrah; mantle on ground to collect plunder (8:22-27)
A’ End of Midianite oppression; chronological note (8:28-32)
This seems pretty compelling to me. But what particularly interests me here is the parallel Dorsey sees between the fleece on the threshing floor to collect dew (or not) in Gideon’s two tests in ch. 6 and the mantle on the ground to collect the plunder in ch. 8.
It seems to me that the fleece on the threshing floor represents Gideon. When we first see Gideon, he’s threshing. Then Gideon brings an offering that represents him, and the offering is a kid (Hebrew: gid, the first syllable of Gideon’s name). Dew is associated with the Spirit’s anointing (e.g., Ps 133), so dew on the fleece suggests Gideon filled with the Spirit and able to deliver Israel.
But now we have a mantle on the ground to collect plunder. Again, Gideon is not forbidden to have the plunder, but at the same time, motive matters … and it seems that Gideon is especially interested in the outward trappings and ornamentation of the Midianite kings and their camels and that he uses these things to make something that increases his prestige in Israel while leading Israel into sin.
Gideon is, on the whole, a faithful man. But is he moving here from a concern that he be a fleece filled with the Spirit’s dew to a desire to be a mantle filled with Midianite plunder and royal trappings?
When Gideon wins the victory in Judges 8, the men of Israel ask him to rule (MShL) over them. Gideon says that he will not rule (MShL) over them and his son will not rule (MShL) over them, but Yahweh will rule (MShL) over them. Lots of repetition of that Hebrew word.
Then Gideon asks for some of the plunder (ShLL). Notice that the word for “plunder” includes two of the same consonants as the word for “rule.” Probably not significant, but interesting, especially given what comes next.
But then we have one of those details that’s included in Scripture but didn’t need to be. We’re told that the men of Israel “spread out a mantle (ShMLH)” and threw rings into it from the plunder (ShLL) to collect them for Gideon.
We could have been told simply that they collected the rings, but instead we’re told about this mantle. Why? Perhaps because of the three basic consonants in the word for “mantle.” They’re the same as the consonants in the word for “rule,” though in a different order: MShL (“rule”) and ShML (“mantle”).
I suspect, though I can’t prove, that there’s something of a pun going on here. He’s not going to MShL, but instead he gets a ShML full of ShLL. It’s not wrong for Gideon to collect plunder (Deut 20), but in that Gideon then makes the plunder into an ephod leading Israel to sin and in that Gideon then starts acting as if he were a (pagan) king, I wonder if the “mantle” full of “plunder” is already punningly being indicated as the start of a sort of “rule.”
A couple of weeks ago, I summarized Jean-Pierre Vernant’s thoughts on the “hope” (elpis: anticipation, expectation) left in Pandora’s jar when all the evils flew out. While some have presented the safekeeping of elpis in the jar as if it means that, in spite of all the evils in the world, man still has hope, Vernant sees the elpis as something closely associated with the emergence of the evils, something ambiguous. As he explains in his essay “The Myth of Prometheus in Hesiod” (in Myth and Society in Ancient Greece):
If in the Golden Age, human life held nothing but good things, if all the evils were still far away, shut up inside the jar (Works, 115-16), there would be no grounds to hope for anything different from what one has. If life was delivered up entirely and irremediably to evil and misfortune (Works, 200-1), there would be no place even for Elpis. But since the evils are henceforth inextricably intermingled with the good things (Theog., 603-10; Works, 178, to be compared with Works, 102) and it is impossible for us to foresee exactly how tomorrow will turn out for us, we are always hoping for the best. If men possessed the infallible foreknowledge of Zeus, they would have no use for Elpis. And if their lives were confined to the present with no knowledge or concern at all regarding the future, they would equally know nothing of Elpis. However, caught between the lucid forethought of Prometheus and the thoughtless blindness of Epimetheus, oscillating between the two without ever being able to separate them, they know in advance that suffering, sickness, and death is bound to be their lot, and, being ignorant of the form their misfortune will take, they only recognize it too late when it has already struck them.
Whoever is immortal, as the gods are, has no need of Elpis. Nor is there any Elpis for those who, like the beasts, are ignorant of their mortality. If man who is mortal like the beasts could foresee the whole future as the gods can, if he was altogether like Prometheus, he would no longer have the strength to go on living, for he could not bear to contemplate his own death directly. But, knowing himself to be mortal, though ignorant of when and how he will die, hope, which is a kind of foresight, although a blind one (Aeschylus, Prometheus, 250; cf. also Plato, Gorgias, 523d ae), and blessed illusion, both a good and a bad thing at one and the same time–hope alone makes it possible for him to live out this ambiguous, two-sided life. Henceforward, there is a reverse aspect to everything: Contact can only be made with the gods through sacrifice, which at the same time consecrates the impassable barrier between mortals and immortals; there can be no happiness without unhappiness, no birth without death, no abundance without toil, no Prometheus without Epimetheus–in a word, no Man without Pandora (200-201).
That’s Vernant’s view. Elpis is not a purely good thing; it is ambiguous, both the anticipation of good and the certain knowledge that–somehow, sometime–evil will come.
But what surprises me is that Vernant, at least in what I’ve read, doesn’t seem to see the elpis in Pandora’s jar in connection with the other parallels he so carefully works out in Hesiod’s accounts of Prometheus’s rivalry with Zeus:
* Prometheus tricks Zeus into accepting the worse part of the sacrifices and letting man have the best. He does so by taking the bones of the sacrifice and covering them up with lovely white fat. When Zeus sees them, he thinks they’re going to be especially delicious and so he chooses them as his portion, leaving man with the good meat, the better part, as his portion of the sacrifices.
* Zeus responds by refusing to let man have fire and by hiding man’s life (bios, here a reference to grain) in the ground so that now man has to work hard to get it. Bones hidden in fat correspond to bios hidden in the ground.
* Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to man.
* Zeus responds by making a “beautiful evil” (kalon kakon) for man that corresponds in some way to fire, namely, woman. In the Theogony, the woman isn’t named but is described as being the equivalent of drones who eat the honey the worker bees produce. A woman has a beautiful face and figure, but it hides a hungry stomach that gobbles up all a man’s earnings. In Works, Hesiod describes the woman, now called Pandora, as a beautiful woman who has a jar which, when opened, disperses evils among men. Once again, however, there is a correspondence: bones hidden in fat to look attractive to Zeus correspond, not only to grain hidden in the ground, but also now to an evil heart and a hungry stomach hidden inside a beautiful face and figure.
But right here I expected Vernant to say something about elpis. He notes that in the Theogony, “men are presented with a choice: either not to marry, and to enjoy a sufficiency of grain (since the female gaster [belly] does not take it from them) but not to have any children (since a female gaster is necessary to give birth) — the evil thus counterbalancing the good; or to marry and, even with a good wife, the evil again counterbalances the good” (Myth and Society 187). Elsewhere, Vernant puts it this way:
This is the dilemma now: If a man marries, his life will pretty certainly be hell, unless he happens on a very good wife, which is extremely rare. Conjugal life is thus an inferno–misery after misery. On the other hand, if a man does not marry, his life could be a happy one: He would have his fill of everything, he would never lack for anything–but at this death, who will get his accumulated wealth? It will be scattered, into the hands of relatives for whom he has no particular affection. If he marries it is a catastrophe, and if he doesn’t, it’s another kind of catastrophe.
Woman is two different things at once: She is the paunch, the belly devouring everything her husband has laboriously gathered at the cost of his effort, his toil, his fatigue; but that belly is also the only one that can produce the thing that extends a man’s life–a child (The Universe, the Gods, and Men 61-62).
Now we can put it together: It is only in Works that Hesiod tells us about Pandora’s jar; in Theogony, the “beautiful evil” is the woman herself. In fact, we could put it this way: woman herself is Pandora’s jar, a nice-looking vessel full of all kinds of evils. She is Zeus’s victory in his rivalry with Prometheus. She is the source of all evils in a man’s life, and in Works, she is the gift Prometheus warned Epimetheus not to accept from Zeus.
And yet, though the evils rush out from her, still elpis (hope, expectation, anticipation of the future) resides inside her. From the woman evils come into man’s life, but in the woman is the only hope the man has for the future, the hope of an heir–assuming that her all-devouring belly is also a fruitful belly and that the fruit it bears is a male child who lives and grows up to inherit a man’s property. And so the ambiguity of elpis that Vernant points out is maintained: a man gets married in the hope of an heir, and yet that hope is blind and uncertain (will she be fruitful? will she have a male heir?), so that elpis is both good and bad.
In the Greek myth of Pandora, she opens the jar and all the evils that were in it rush out into the world. By the time she gets the stopper back in, only one thing is left inside: elpis, which is often translated “hope.” And so, as the story is sometimes told, even though there are all kinds of evils and hardships in the world, we still always have hope. It’s kind of a positive ending to a sad story.
Or is it?
After all, what was this jar full of? Evils. Not evils and one good thing (hope). It was full of evils, full down to that last drop, elpis.
But how could hope be an evil?
In his essay “At Man’s Table,” Jean-Pierre Vernant takes a stab at an explanation. In Hesiod’s view, man has undergone a change from the way things used to be. Where men used to eat in fellowship with the gods, now there is sacrifice which not only provides some communion with the gods but also emphasizes the distance between them. Where food used to be free for the taking and the least effort could get you a year’s supply, now Zeus has hidden bios (life = grain) in the ground and you have to sweat to get it. Where there once were only men, now there are women (“beautiful evils,” as Hesiod describes them), who are like drones and dogs, gobbling up all that men produce and bring home. And where once everything was the same, day after day, now there is change.
And with change comes elpis: not hope (which for us is always positive) but, more broadly, expectation or anticipation. A man labors to plant his field and he cherishes the expectation (hope) of a good harvest. He labors during harvest in the expectation (hope) that he will have enough grain saved up that he and his family will be able to eat all winter and have enough to plant in the spring. His life is full of that sort of elpis, but he has that elpis only because he also knows that misfortune is coming. It’s not just that trouble might come: bad weather might destroy his crops; a fire might destroy his barn and all the grain he saved. Rather, it’s that he knows trouble is coming. Pandora let those evils out into the world and they’re roaming around, alighting on one person after another. You never know what’s coming. You never know when it’s going to be your turn. But you know one thing for certain: While things might go well for you for a while, trouble is coming. That’s elpis, and unlike those other evils that roam the world, striking here and there, elpis stays in the jar at home, because it’s something you have every day, all day long. It’s your constant but blind expectation: While you’re always hoping for good, evil will come and you never know when or how.
What did the ancient Greeks think about women?
Jean-Pierre Vernant, in a brilliant essay on Hesiod’s Theogony, explains. According to Hesiod, Zeus created the first woman to be a “beautiful evil” (kalon kakon) to afflict men. She would be a trap from which men could not escape. Though she appears beautiful on the outside, on the inside she has “the spirit of a bitch and the temperament of a thief” (kuneon te noon kai epiklopon ethos). You might be able to find a good wife, Hesiod admits, but even so, in and through her, “evil will come to balance out the good” (kakon esthloi antipherizei).
Women, according to Hesiod, are like drones: the men do all the work, and women sit at home and feed on the honey. Women are like flaming fire, burning and consuming but never satisfied. Women are stomachs, disguised by outward beauty, gulping down the food the man works so hard to provide. Women are like dogs, gobbling up the scraps.
That’s not just Hesiod. Vernant compares two passages in Homer’s Odyssey: “Is there anything more like a dog than the odious belly?” asks Odysseus, when he’s hungry. Elsewhere, Agamemnon says the same thing, but changes one word: “Is there anything more like a dog than a woman?”
Nevertheless, for the ancient Greeks, men are now stuck having to get married to women. On the one hand, they consume everything you’ve earned. On the other, you need them in order to have a (male) heir. They’re a trap, but one you can’t do without.
It is no wonder, then, that this first woman — whose name Hesiod gives in his Works and Days as Pandora — is the one who opens the jar that contains all the evils in the world and releases them on mankind (on males, that is).
What a difference there is when you turn from the ancient Greeks to the Bible, where the woman, far from being a “beautiful evil” is called “glory,” where the blame for the sin that brought death and misery into the world is attributed to Adam, even though Eve ate the forbidden fruit first, and where men are called, as co-heirs with them of glory, to show honor to their wives.
We take it for granted, perhaps, that families ought to eat together. The rule may be more honored in the breach than in the observance these days, but it still seems to be understood as the norm. But it certainly wasn’t always that way. The family meal wasn’t a feature of Roman society.
Wives and children were not necessarily excluded from every meal, but their involvement — if they were involved at all — was certainly secondary. Keith Bradley explains:
The overriding impression … which the sources leave — the prevailing ideology one might say — is that no matter whether modest or elaborate, dinner was a meal about which the individual male made an individual decision — to entertain, to eat alone, to respond to an invitation — in a world in which ties of amicitia and hospitium were paramount. Other household members, wives for example, responded to such decisions as appropriate. Dinner was not a meal at which the company of family members was automatically and invariably assumed essential or even desirable. Within innumerable elite households, therefore, many wives and children must have eaten completely apart, in time and place, from their husbands and fathers, and from one another … and when husbands, wives and children did dine together, they did so in ways that continually reinscribed the subordination of the two latter to the former (“The Roman Family at Dinner,” in Inge Nielsen and Hanne Sigismund Nielsen, Meals in a Social Context: Aspects of the Communal Meal in the Hellenistic and Roman World [Aarhus University Press, 1998], 49).
As he puts it elsewhere, “The fact is that for the Roman family at dinner, there was no common table” (48). Hanne Sigismund Nielsen agrees: “It is … evident from the literature that meals with spouses and children were of no importance or at least of minor importance…. There is no evidence that the common meal of parents and children played any role at all in constituting them as a family group, a nuclear family in our sense of the word” (“Roman Children at Mealtimes,” 58, 59).
As with mothers nursing their own children instead of giving them to wet nurses (see here), the family meal appears to be another fruit of the gospel in Roman society. Augustine writes about Psalm 127 (“Like newly planted olives your sons sit around the table”), one passage in Scripture where we see the idea of the family together at a meal. Nielsen says, “In his commentaries on the Psalms of David, Augustine makes mention of the family dinner table even though this is not referred to in the text on which he is commenting” (62).
Nielsen sums up his findings: “In pagan Latin literature it is difficult to find any mention of children at mealtimes. Children begin to be mentioned in early Christian literature, and it was not before that time that the ideal of the parents and children unit became established and cherished” (63).