In the movement of scriptural interpretation from antiquity to the modern period, critical attention in the Christian world recurrently turns to a provocative passage in the book of Judges. The passage (Judg 9:8–15) is a story about talking trees, a tale that is repeatedly called a “fable” (fabula) by Christian interpreters. In seeking from varying perspectives to explain the role of a fabulous dialogue in the discourse of truth, such interpreters suggest pressing issues in the assessment of figurative language. These issues include the controversial concept of the “literal” sense of Scripture; its potential relation to a “literary” sense of the text; the broader relation between scriptural and literary texts in general; and finally the complex interplay between factual and fabulous modes of expression.
In this expansive movement a decisive turning point is the late-medieval period. During this period commentary on the fundamental test case in Judges displays revealing changes in critical orientation. To assess those changes, it is important to investigate a broad range of interacting developments in exegesis, semiotics, homiletics, rhetoric, and poetic theory. The implications of this formative activity eventually extend far beyond the Middle Ages to the modern period. In the end, what is involved in the historic encounter with the passage in Judges is far more than the interpretation of a story. It is the intricate intersection of fable and fact in the changing poetics of Scripture itself—and beyond Scripture, in the intriguing poetics of imaginative language at large.