Jotham & the Thorn Tree

Z spina-christi (2)Jotham’s story is in Judges 8:28-9:57.

Jotham was the youngest son of the great Judge Gideon who judged Israel between 1162 – 1122 B.C.  One of the many positive characteristics of Gideon was that he refused to be king of the Israelites after defeating the Midianites. His words were, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you” (Judges 8:23). Gideon was from the tribe of Manasseh and lived in Ophrah. Gideon had 70 sons by his wives and one son, Abimelech, by his concubine. Abimelech lived with his mother’s people in Shechem.

After Gideon’s death, Abimelech negotiated with the men of Shechem to make him king. Abimelech and a group of paid adventurers murdered Gideon’s legitimate sons with the exception of the youngest son, Jotham. On the day that Abimelech was crowned, Jotham climbed Mount Gerizim and loudly proclaimed a parable to the citizens of Shechem and Beth Millo over which Abimelech was to rule.

Jotham began the parable by saying, “One day the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves” (Judges 9:8). The parable continued as the trees said to the olive tree, “Come be our king.” The olive tree declined as did the fig tree and the vine. Finally, the trees said to the thorn bush, “Come be our king” (Judges 9:14). The thorn bush responded, “If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade, but if not, then let fire come out of the thorn bush and consume the cedars of Lebanon” (Judges 9:16). Then, Jotham challenged the men of Shechem asking whether or not they acted honorable and in good faith to the family of Gideon, the same Gideon who saved them from the Midianites. If their answer is “yes,” Jotham wished them joy in Abimelech’s kingship. If their answer is “no,” then Jotham’s curse was that Abimelech and the citizens consume each other with fire. After telling this parable and giving this curse, Jotham fled the area.

Abimelech governed the towns three years; then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem. The result was that Abimelech destroyed Shechem. He set fire to the tower of Shechem burning the people inside. Abimelech salted the land to condemn Shechem to barrenness and desolation. Then Abimelech attack Thebez. In the process of attempting to take the tower, a woman dropped a millstone on Abimelech’s head cracking his skull. Because Abimelech did not want a woman to receive credit for killing him, he demanded that his armor-bearer kill him. When Abimelech’s men saw that he was dead, they went home. This story conclusion is that God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech did to his brothers and made the men of Shechem pay for their wickedness.

The Thorn Tree

In his parable Jotham compared Abimelech to a thorn tree. Israel and Middle East botanists identify the thorn bush as the Ziziphus spina-christi tree. The Hebrew word for thorn bush is “âtâ.;”  The origin of the atad tree is the warm and humid landscapes of tropical Sudan. The species most likely arrived in Israel approximately 4000 B.C. The oldest Z. spina-christi in Israel – about 800 years old – is located at Ein Hatzeva. In Israel the tree is widely distributed in warm valleys and desert oases.  The atad is larger than all other fruit tree native to Israel.  Its deep and wide-spreading root system often leaches all nourishment from the surrounding soil. For an orchard to succeed, farmers must first remove all atad prior to planting fruit trees. Each leaf has a pair of stipules at its base which turn into thorns. One hard thorn is straight, while the other is hooked. In southern Israel the atad is evergreen; but, in the colder climate of northern Israel, it shed its leaves in the colder months. The fruit is yellow and small, about 3/4 – 1 inch in diameter. Each fruit contains a large stone (pit) in the center which is surrounded by a fleshy pulp. Although not very tasty, the fruit can and is eaten by people living in poverty. Fruit is best eaten green and tastes like sour apples.

Symbolism: Pierce or Penetrate

The Hebrew word for thorn tree, âtâd, is derived from an unused root meaning to pierce. Jotham pierced the conscience of the men of Shechem and Beth Millo when he asked them if they acted honorably to the family of Gideon. Jotham penetrated their thoughts when he included in his parable the thorn tree’s request that other trees come and rest in its shade. In ancient times, resting in the shade of a king was a common illustration, referring to the king providing protection for his people. Yet, the farmers and travelers among Jotham’s hearers knew it was difficult to rest in the shade of the wild atad; often long hanging intertwined branches made the area under the tree inaccessible.

The Israelites had a proverb, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). Jotham’s parable was not reckless, but his words pierced his listeners like a sword — in three year Abimelech was dead by the hand of his subjects. Hearing piercing words are not always bad. At times, we need to hear words that pierce our conscious, heart, or soul. Frequently, it is easy to accept piercing words from a pastor or friend. It is harder to accept them from a un-friend.

When I was in the work world, I dreaded annual evaluations. Even when the evaluative comments were constructive and kind, I cringed when they were offered. At times I discounted the comments or rationalized my behavior. I know now that my attitude was wrong. I should have accepted the comments, carefully evaluating each so that I could grow and accommodate myself to the environment in which I worked.

Thought: What about you? Do you allow constructive evaluations to pierce or penetrate inside of you? Or, do you ignore learning situations, parables, and proverbs, putting up mental barriers to personal reflection?

I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at

Copyright May 21, 2011, Carolyn A. Roth; all rights reserved.



3 responses to “Jotham & the Thorn Tree

  1. Just loved this. If you do not mind, I will use this teaching in leadership camp of our young people August 19- 21,2011

    • Benoni, Bless you for teaching in a leadership camp for youth. For a number of years I worked with Mexican American middle school children in El Paso. It was a learning experience and gave me much joy. At any time, please use any of my materials. For His Sake, Carolyn

  2. Yes! Being unable to take constructive criticism is one of my toughest issues. If it’s negative, I get defensive; if it’s positive, I discount it. I’m working on it… with God’s help.

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