Rhamnus cathartica, more widely known as Common Buckthorn is a species of shrub invasive to Ontario. According to Ontario’s Invasive Species Awareness Program, this thorny bush “thrives in a variety of habitats and forms dense thickets that crowd and shade out native plants”. This plant arrived in North America sometime in the 1880s and has been crowding and choking out native species ever since. In a more general sense, all thorns and thistles can be considered invasive if we understand their origins.
Genesis 3:17-18 describes the curse put upon Adam and, more specifically, the land he was to cultivate.
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.”
The thorns and thistles, like the Rhamnus cathartica, were not native to God’s creation, but invasive species that destroyed and suffocated what God had declared “good”. The Gardener had planted many good things in His world, but the thorn bushes that became a plight to mankind were not among them. Notice how thorns and thistles were portrayed throughout the Scriptures:
“Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; He who guards himself will be far from them.” (Proverbs 22:5)
“I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there.” (Isaiah 5:6)
“But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.” (Hebrews 6:8)
To refer to someone as a thorn bush is not taken as a compliment. Of course, Jotham knew this when he declared Abimelech was the thorn bush that would rule the trees. The thorns that Gideon used to punish the people of Sukkoth in Judges 8 are embodied in the reign of Abimelech in Judges 9. All of the native species had declined the throne – the olive tree, fig tree, and vine – so the people of Shechem chose to find shade under a thorn bush. One reason the Common Buckthorn is such a threat is its tendency to shade out the native plants and cut them off from the sun. Fittingly, Abimelech choked out all those who sought refuge in his shade. Rather than use his position to protect and nourish those under him as a true judge would, he devours and destroys – exactly the opposite of what we would expect out of a true judge.
Ontario’s Invasive Species Awareness Program recommends discarding the Rhamnus cathartica in the garbage rather than throwing it in the compost or disposing of it in natural areas. 2 Samuel 23:6 has a similar suggestion: “worthless men are all like thorns that are thrown away, for they cannot be taken with the hand.” Abimelech certainly proved to be a worthless leader, so God removed this thorn from the land when the woman crushed his head with a millstone. The spread of the invasive thorn bush was halted, for now.
Even if we were able to rid Ontario of the Rhamnus cathartica, other invasive species like the Giant Hogweed, Himalayan Balsam, and Japanese Knotweed continue to rule the meadowlands and forests. Sometimes, we are successful in holding off the invasive species, but other times they flourish. The history of God’s people after the death of Abimelech is characterized by this pattern. At times, the natural plants take root and grow; leaders like David, Josiah, and Nehemiah. Other times, the thorns and thistles that were not planted by the Gardener thrive, like Ahab, Jehoram, and Ahaziah.
The thorns spread out across the land, reducing even the great tree of Jesse’s line down to a stump. For a time, it seemed as if the thorns had prevailed, that the native trees had been choked out by the invasive species. But, in that stump of Jesse’s tree, there was a seed, the seed of the woman. That seed sprouted into a shoot, and the shoot grew in wisdom and stature. It grew fast and strong, because it didn’t mind the shade of thorns. The light it needed came from within. It wasn’t bothered by drought, because it contained living water within it. Before long, that seed became the true vine, the vine the Gardener had always intended for that land. In a last ditch effort, the thorns wrapped around the head of the vine but the Gardener sheared them off and cast them into the fire to be burned. The thorns are receding and the vine grows larger, grafting in all sorts of branches. The day is coming when the painful briers and sharp thorns will be no more and the garden will be restored.
God is at work to rid the land of the thorns that oppress His people. When the curse of Genesis 3 is finally removed, we will see the fulfillment of Ezekiel 28:24:
“No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbours who are painful briers and sharp thorns. Then they will know that I am the Sovereign LORD“.
The peace that is so fleeting in the Judges will be firmly rooted forever.