On trees, the language of God and the Book of Common Prayer

Judges 9:8 The trees once went out
to anoint a king over themselves.

Of all the parables found in scripture, only eleven [1] appear in the Old Testament (Jesus tells 46 parables in the New Testament). Today’s passage from Judges contains one of the longest, perhaps oldest, parables in scripture titled alternately between the Parable of the Trees the Parable of the Bramble.

The parable is a subtle critique of those who clamor for a king as much as it is an explicit critique of those who would be king. Here’s a brief background of the context – it’s the age of the Judges (before Kings) and specifically the age of the Judge, Gideon who had been called by God to rout Midian, testing God and asking for signs to do God’s bidding (for the full story of Gideon, read Judges chpts 6-8).

  • The people tried to make Gideon their king and he refused…but he allowed them to put up an idol of himself, which the Israelites worshipped, which was abrogated the Hebrew’s relationship with God
  • After Gideon died, the people went back to their Canaanite idols
  • one of Gideon’s 70 sons … was a man named Abimelech, which literally means “my father is king” in Hebrew who went to live in Shechem with his mother—a concubine of Gideon.
  • They conspired with the people of Shechem to make Abimelech king, and they did so by capturing and putting to death all of Abimelech’s brothers (though one, Jotham, escaped).  Thus Abimelech was made king.
  • When Jotham heard what had happened, he went to the top of Mount Gerizim and told this parable
  • it is a cry for judgment for the unfaithfulness of God’s people

Ok, so that is the context. But what paused me at the reading was how the language and poetry of parable work only when the hearer shares an understanding of what the ‘things’ are in the story. In this parable, it is our understanding of the tree and the different species of tree which allow the parable to work.

Knowing the species of the trees desiring a king – the cedars of Lebanon – is necessary for a clear understanding of Jotham’s intended message. For the first tree approached is the olive tree, the second is the fig, third is a non-tree, the grape vine, and finally the bramble. All are significantly smaller than the cedar of Lebanon and thus incapable of fulfilling the request to “reign over” or “wave over” the cedar by virtue of their relative size.

Got it.  I understand this parable more deeply because I understand the significance of the types of trees and their relationship to the mother tree, the cedar of Lebanon. The illustration expands my understanding of God as it is written.  Neutralize the language of this parable and I won’t get the breadth of understanding.  Take out the species reference and it makes no sense.  A tree by any other name is ?

I’ve just begun to do some reading about the proposed changes to the Book of Common Prayer underway since the Episcopal Church voted at General Convention to begin revisions.  Revisions intended to move the text towards more inclusive, gender-neutral language for God.

In a recent interview, and in response to the question, How does expanding our language for God impact the (sic) struggle for gender equality within the church? the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, a scholar, known expert on the Book of Common Prayer and a leader in the revision process for The Episcopal Church, says:

…we have a strongly masculine image of God, a strongly patriarchal understanding of God, that creates a world and a worldview that is more patriarchal and hierarchical. This then allows for abuse of women, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, and a sense of entitlement by men to women’s bodies.

It creates a whole structure and world view. Our prayer is really quite powerful and seeps in in ways that we aren’t necessarily consciously aware of and yet shapes the way we understand reality. [ We need to] expand our language about God, draw on riches of tradition, and find the quieter voices that are still there.

I know that I’m in the minority who think the language of scripture with regard to God should be the language of worship and the language of scripture about God is often, not always, gender specific.  And while I agree that our prayer shapes our understanding of reality,  I don’t know that a particular context or reality should amend the language of God as received by the Holy Spirit in God’s Word.  I just do not think of God as gendered, as male, when we pray, Our Father, or any other prayer that utilizes the male pronoun. It was Jesus, not some patriarchal society, who called God, abba Father.

As the parable of the trees works only if we agree that there are a variety of species of trees, defined, ‘gendered’ if you will, for specific purposes according to the Creator – what happens when we decide otherwise? If our experience of one tree type is different than that of another tree type?  How is the parable altered?  Does it continue to point us to the truth intended?

In a recent short story heard on This American Life, a young boy was known to be in touch with the spirit of ‘things’ and could locate lost items by sensing a sort of tug from the thing – like a beckon call that it is in the wrong place and needs to be found.  Of trees so displaced,

…He felt the tug of a tree in the front yard, which had been uprooted from Virginia to be replanted here …

The boy felt the tug because it felt the tree’s true nature.  What if in the future we have genetically engineered all trees to be like the cedars of Lebanon so that the disrespected and offensive bramble is eradicated and the olive tree is now able to bear grapes, the cedar bear olives, and so on.  What does it mean to our understanding of reality to rename something specific to something generic?

I don’t mean to belabor the metaphor (pun intended), I’m simply paused to think about what my church is considering doing with the language about God, and what the changes communicate theologically and what rabbit hole we are diving into that might be taking us further and further away from God’s Word.

I write this as I stare out at a canopy of Monterey Cypress, a species of cypress native to the Central Coast of California. Though now grown in other regions of the world they remain called, known and named as a Monterey Cypress.  Is the spirit of the tree, its created essence,  any different as it grows in Great Britain or Kenya or New Zealand? I think not.  It is known as the Monterey Cypress.  Does renaming it something neutral change the tree?  Change the reality?

I am just left to wondering how the language about God will change to be more inclusive and gender neutral. What are we revising? The language? Or our own understanding of gender? I am not sure.

Praise God from whom all blessings and trees and parables and language and prayers flow.

Daily Office Readings Year Two: AM Psalm 88; PM Psalm 91, 92
Judges 9:1-16,19-21Acts 4:13-31John 2:2-12

[1] OT parables: Of Balaam – Concerning the Moabites and Israelites.Num 23:24 Jotham – Trees making a king. Jdg 9:7-15 Of Balaam – Concerning the Moabites and Israelites. Num 23:24  Jotham – Trees making a king.Jdg 9:7-15 Samson – Strong bringing forth sweetness.Jdg 14:14Nathan – Poor man’s ewe lamb.2Sa 12:1-4 Woman of Tekoah – Two brothers striving.2Sa 14:1The Smitten Prophet – The escaped prisoner.1Ki 20:35-40 Jehoash, King of Israel – The thistle and cedar.2Ki 14:9Isaiah – Vineyard yielding wild grapes.Isa 5:1-6 Ezekiel – Lion’s whelps.Eze 14:2-9 The boiling pot.Eze 24:3-5The great eagles and the wine.Eze 17:3-10

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