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JudgesJudges begins with Israel continuing the conquest of Canaan after the death of Joshua, yet Israel will not defeat all her enemies. Instead, she will make slaves out of several of them. This will usher in a vicious cycle—a death spiral, to be more precise. Israel will become corrupted by idol worship, and then God will send in conquerors to punish her and lead her back to repentance. And Israel will repent and be delivered from her enemies, only to repeat the same sin of idolatry once again. As she progresses down this spiral, Israel becomes less and less repentant and more and more opposed to God. This inevitably results in things becoming worse and worse for her, although the greatest evils will not be committed by oppressors from outside the country, but by Israel herself against her own people. By the end of the book, we will see the utter collapse of Israel, when everyone does what is right in his own eyes instead of what God says to be right, and the dreadful consequences that brings.
The beginning of this death spiral starts as early as chapter one, where verses 27-36 tell us how Israel did not drive the inhabitants of Canaan out of the land they were to occupy. Instead, Israel made them slaves (verses 28, 30, 33, and 35), and this despite the fact that Israel had herself escaped from slavery just a generation earlier. As a result, chapter two begins with the angel of the LORD condemning Israel by saying: “But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them [Israel’s enemies] out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you” (Judges 2:2b-3). Things would immediately get worse:
And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them for harm, as the LORD had warned, and as the LORD had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress (Judges 2:11-15).God delivers on His threat. Because the people had turned away from Him, He turns away from the people. And we need to be clear. This is not just God refusing to help Israel. Rather, “he gave the mover to plunderers” means that God specifically acted in such a manner that Israel was plundered. It was described as “the hand of the LORD was against them for harm.” This means that He actively opposed Israel.
Before we think this might be unfair, bear in mind that this is perfect justice. God had given ample warning and He carried out His threat. Israel had no excuse and God could easily have wiped them out completely instead of using these harsh times to discipline her. For God was still merciful, as we read in verse 16: “Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them.” So this punishment from God is both righteous and, at the same time, contains mercy.
Even after that mercy, Israel did not learn her lesson: “Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them” (verse 17). Indeed, as anyone with children knows, the instant an authority figure is out of view, chaos reigns. Thus, Judges 2:18, 19 tells us, “Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge… But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers.”
Chapter four begins to describe the various judges that were raised up in Israel. The first judge was “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth” (Judges 4:4). Deborah sent for Barak, a general, and informed him that God was going to draw out the enemies of Israel (in this case, led by Sisera, the commander of the army of King Jabin) and give them to Barak’s hand. But Barak responded: “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (verse 8). Deborah responded that she would go, but prophesied that because Barak had been timid and fearful, “the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (verse 9).
In 21st Century America, the impact of this passage is blunted. To truly understand this, try to put yourself into the mindset of someone alive in the ANE, with its shame culture and the patriarchy in place (by which I mean a genuine patriarchy, and not the third wave feminist view of anything masculine as being The Patriarchy™). The fact that a man would not get the glory for killing the enemy commander was seen as an insult to men everywhere. This insult actually was two-fold. First, the fact that Sisera was killed by a woman (Jael, who drove a stake through his temple while he lay exhausted in his tent (Judges 4:21)) would be an insult to the reputation of Sisera, for he had been killed by a female in a male-dominated society. But it was also an insult to Barak, because that same male-dominated society viewed him as the one who ought to have been able to defeat his enemies, but he had been force to rely on a woman for help.
In America today we do not truly grasp how offensive this would have been to someone from that culture, because despite the problems we still have in our own culture, we have predominantly been Christianized and view equality between the sexes as much more ideal than virtually any other culture throughout history. Again, I am not saying that we have solved all the problems today, nor that there is no room for improvement. Still, the fact that God worked through Deborah and Jael here has implications on the church, too, and we will discuss the role of women in church when we get to the New Testament. But suffice to say that this passage is clear that God did not refrain from giving at least some women the power of prophecy (after all, Deborah is described in the text as a prophetess), and it might be purposeful that the first judge of Israel was a woman.
Moving on, Judges 6 begins by saying: “The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.” Again, we see that the fact that Israel was oppressed was due to God handing them over, and so God is sovereign over their punishment. Again, this is not something that happened “accidentally.” That is to say, the Bible does not present this as God using the situation opportunistically, because Midian happened to choose to attack Israel, but rather implies that God stirred up Midian so that they would attack Israel precisely because of Israel’s sin.
When Israel cried out to God, the angel of the LORD came to Gideon and said, “The LORD is with you, O mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12b). If anything, Gideon’s response was even more timid and cowardly than Barak’s response had been. “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (verse 15).
But God did not treat Gideon the way that Barak had been treated. Instead, God tells Gideon: “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man” (verse 16). Gideon asked for a sign, and the angel of the LORD provided one for him—consuming an offering with fire from the end of His staff. So Gideon destroyed the altar of Baal and cut down the Asherah that had been beside it.
This infuriated the men of the town, and they came after Gideon to kill him. But Gideon’s father, Joash, stood against the men and said, “Will you contend for Baal? Or will you save him? …If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been broken down” (verse 31).
This is a powerful challenge, and one we will see repeated in several more books moving forward. Idolatry is, at its root, fundamentally stupid. If the gods were real, then as Joash pointed out, they could contend for themselves. God certainly contended for Himself, and indeed even though He almost always uses secondary means, He will do so with Gideon in such a way as to guarantee it was God, not Gideon, who was responsible for the victory.
Still, Gideon was understandably frightened that he would be killed by the townsfolk, so he asked for the famous sign of the fleece (Judges 6:36-40). The first time, he asked God to have the morning dew be only on the fleece while the ground was dry, and it happened as Gideon requested. Then, he asked God to reverse the sign and have the ground be wet but the fleece dry. Once again, God did that. So Gideon got his men ready, confident God was on his side.
Despite being from such a small tribe, Gideon actually had 32,000 men with him. But God then said something that must have terrified Gideon even more: “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me’” (Judges 7:2). How well God knows the hearts of men! So He commanded that anyone who was afraid should go home, and 22,000 men left so there were 10,000 men behind.
And God said, “The people are still too many” (verse 4). Again, as Joash had challenged Baal to demonstrate his power, God is demonstrating His power. So He had Gideon go to the river and anyone who drank the water by cupping it and then lapping like a dog was chosen to stay with Gideon while the rest were sent away. After that selection, Gideon had 300 men. And God said, “With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home” (verse 7).
Some might question the authenticity that Gideon had 300 men. You may recall from the movie 300 that the Battle of Thermopylae, which took place when Persia invaded Greece, featured 300 Spartan warriors who held off the entire Persian army until they were betrayed. (Of course, historically there were more than 300 warriors since they had allies, but let’s not get too particular for now.) It might be tempting to think that the story of Gideon was just a legend influenced by that historical event. Yet, that battle took place in 480 BC while Gideon lived in the 1100s BC. Of course, one could still argue that perhaps Judges was written after 480 BC and the 300 men of Gideon were “ret-conned” in. But even an extremely liberal dating of the book has the book of Judges being written by 550 BC. That means Judges was written at least 80 years before the Battle of Thermopylae (although I would argue it was more than five hundred years earlier), which means that anyone who claims the 300 men of Gideon was imported as a legend from the 300 Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae simply does not understand history or math.
In any case, let’s get back to Gideon’s 300 men. That night, a man in the camp dreamed about a cake of barley bread rolling into the camp of Midian and flattening the tent (verse 13). This confirmed for Gideon that God had given the Midianites into his hand. So he divided his 300 men into three companies, giving them each trumpets and empty jars with torches inside. He had them spread out all around the camp of Midian. Then, on Gideon’s signal, they smashed the jars and blew the trumpets, shouting: “For the LORD and for Gideon.”
The camp of Midian was so terrified by this, they began to kill one another in confusion, and the Midian army was routed (verse 19-25). Gideon then went on to rule Israel as a judge.
After his death, Abimelech (not the same as the one Abraham met in Genesis) somehow managed to become ruler of Israel by using the political strategy of killing all seventy of his brothers so no one could oppose him. We read: “Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech” (Judges 9:22-23). This passage cannot be glossed over. Just as God had given Israel over to be plundered, note very well that it was God who sent the spirit. But not only that, the spirit was described as evil.
This doesn’t seem right to our ears. God is “too pure” or “too holy” to be sovereign over evil! Surely the passage must mean something else, right? But no, the Bible demonstrates time and again that God really, truly is sovereign even over evil. In the same manner that the torments of Job were explained as having been from the hand of God, because ultimately He is the one in charge, here God is described as sending the evil spirit. I acknowledge this might make you feel uncomfortable, but the Bible isn’t about comfort divorced from truth—that would be a false comfort. No, God is Truth first, and the fact is that He uses evil spirits to His own ends.
That, itself, should actually provide some comfort to us. We know that even when evil happens, it happens because God is using it, not because it is outside His control. That comfort, therefore, is true comfort, not false comfort.
In any case, Abimelech learned about the conspiracy the town of Shechem had been creating, so he struck first by ambushing them. He captured the city, razed it, and sowed it with salt so no one could ever grow crops there again. Then, the leaders fled to a stronghold and Abimelech fought against it. While there, we read: “And a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and crushed his skull. Then he called quickly to the young man his armor-bearer and said to him, ‘Draw your sword and kill me, lest they say of me, “A woman killed him”’” (Judges 9:53-54). Again, this shows confirmation of how shameful it was during that time for men to die at the hands of women. But we also see: “Thus God returned the evil of Abimelech, which he had committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers. And God also made all the evil of the men of Shechem return on their heads” (verse 56-57a). So we find the purpose for which God instigate the evil spirit. Here, He used evil men to punish other evil men through evil actions.
After this, Tola and then Jair became judges. Not much is known about them, but they ruled for twenty-three and twenty-two years respectively. Then: “The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (Judges 10:6), and the cycle repeated. This time, it was the Philistines and Ammonites who conquered Israel.
With that as the backdrop, we will get to one of the more tragic stories of the Old Testament. Chapter eleven begins by telling us, “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute.” Because of that, he was driven out of his father’s household by the legitimate sons, “and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him” (Judges 11:3b). So it appears that Jephthah was what might later have been described as a kind of bandit leader.
When the Ammonites attacked Israel, the elders of Gilead begged Jephthah to help, agreeing that Jephthah could become their head in exchange. Despite surrounding himself with men of low character, it appears that Jephthah at least had a rudimentary faith in God, as he recognized that to defeat the Ammonites it would require God to “give them over to me” (verse 9).
Jephthah first tried a somewhat diplomatic approach to the Ammonites. When he asked why the Ammonites were attacking Israel, they replied that it was “Because Israel on coming up from Egypt took away my land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok and to the Jordon” (verse 13). But Jephthah pointed out that Israel did not attack any of the Ammonite lands when they left Egypt. When they did take the land, it was from the Amorites, not the Ammonites. Jephthah then points out the critical fact: “While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon, 300 years, why did you not deliver them within that time?” (verse 26).
This establishes for us that Israel has now been in Canaan for three centuries, and points out that if the Ammonites truly had a just cause for war then they ought to have pressed it then, rather than waiting this long. However, the Ammonites refused to listen to Jephthah so war was inevitable.
It is at this point that Jephthah made the first of his tragic mistakes. It started off well: “Then the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah…and he passed on to the Ammonites” (verse 29). So God was using him and he was full of the zeal of the LORD, ready to strike down Israel’s enemies. But what he had wasn’t enough for Jephthah: “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.’” (verse 30-31).
This rash vow would have devastating effects. I’m not really sure what exactly Jephthah thought would come out of the door first—presumably some kind of animal. But after Jephthah defeated the Ammonites and returned home, it was none other than his daughter who burst out of the house to meet him. She was his only child. Jephthah lamented the fact that he had made the vow, but his daughter said, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites” (verse 36).
And Jephthah’s second mistake was to listen to that counsel. Some people have tried to soften this by claiming that Jephthah’s daughter was merely given to God in a symbolic sense, similar to nuns who take vows and separate themselves from public life. But the passage is clear and there is no way around it: she was a burnt sacrifice.
Judges offers no commentary itself as to the moral aspect of this choice. Clearly, it was a stupid vow for Jephthah to make, but the larger question is whether he should have carried out that vow or not. While Judges does not directly speak to it here, relaying what did happen as opposed to what ought to have happened, the theme of the perpetual decline of Israel permeates the entire book. The author of Judges clearly intends for us to disapprove of Jephthah here. In fact, one of the main purposes of the book of Judges is to give us a historical depiction of total depravity, so it is a grave mistake for anyone to think the Bible condoned what Jephthah did here.
The fact of the matter is that Jephthah put himself into a position where he had to sin. He either had to break his vow or he had to kill his daughter. And the sad fact is that he chose the greater sin over the lesser sin, in that he killed his daughter. As we mentioned in the chapter on Joshua when discussing whether it was right for Rahab to lie to the king of Jericho, we have to keep in mind the greatest commandments. If Jephthah truly loved his daughter, he ought to have broken his vow and taken for himself the punishment for the violation of the vow, rather than committing even greater evil upon his daughter.
Things would then get worse for Jephthah. Ephraim demanded to know why Jephthah hadn’t called them to fight against the Ammonites, and in revenge threatened to attack Jephthah (Judges 12:1). Jephthah claimed that he had called them to arms and Ephraim had refused to help. He then attacked the Ephraimites and 42,000 of them were killed (verse 6). And the tragedy of Judges continues.
After Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon ruled for seven, ten, and eight years respectively, and we get to chapter thirteen where, once again, we read: “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.”
After those forty years, we read of a barren woman, the wife of Manoah:
And the angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:3-5).If you recall when we read through Numbers 6, the Nazirite vow was supposed to be a temporary vow. The law made provisions for when it ended. But here, the angel of the LORD says that her son “shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb.” This is quite unusual, and it is worthwhile for us to ask: Why? Why would God do this?
A partial answer is most likely found in the fact that Israel has already been through many cycles of repentance followed by greater sin. Even the good judges have done such evil acts as sacrificing their own daughter or being timid and fearful. Now, after a period of forty years—which probably was chosen specifically to mirror the forty years that Israel spent in the wilderness after Egypt—Israel is going to have a new judge. One who will be set apart from the womb.
One other thing should be addressed here. We once again see mention of the angel of the LORD. In this section we see beyond all doubt that the angel of the LORD is, indeed, God Himself: “The angel of the LORD appeared no more to Manoah and to his wife. Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the LORD. And Manoah said to his wife, ‘We shall surely die, for we have seen God’” (Judges 13:21-22). So clearly the angel of the LORD was a theophony. He accepted worship and was recognized as God, something that a mere angel would never have permitted.
So the child was born, and his name was Samson. He grew incredibly strong, but in chapter fourteen, Samson fell in love with a Philistine woman, and demanded his father get her as his wife. His father balked: “Is there not a woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?” (Judges 14:3). But Samson was adamant. “Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes.”
The writer of Judges makes a very interesting comment at this point: “His father and mother did not know that it was from the LORD, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines” (Judges 14:4). Now when the passage says that “it was from the LORD”, it clearly is referencing Samson’s desire to marry a Philistine woman. If this doesn’t raise red flags, then you have to keep in mind that Israel had been expressly forbidden to intermarry precisely because the foreign spouses would lead to idolatry. Wouldn’t this mean that God brought about the desire in Samson contrary to His explicit commandments? (I urge you to pause for a moment and really consider that question before moving on.)
When Samson went with his family to the town where the woman lived, we are told that a lion attacked him. “Then the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done” (verse 6). Later, he returned and found that a swarm of bees had come to live in the body of the lion, so he gathered the honey and gave it to his parents. “But he did not tell them that he had scraped the honey from the carcass of the lion” (verse 9).
Why is this scene so troubling? Remember back to the Nazirite vow. A Nazirite was not permitted to be around dead bodies. In fact, if you inadvertently touched a dead body it terminated your vow and everything you had previous completed for the sake of your vow no longer counted. You had to start the vow over again from scratch. Thus, Samson violated the vow that he was born into by touching this dead lion.
But this, too, was to become part of the downfall of the Philistines, for when Samson was in town with his new wife, he proposed a riddle for them, betting thirty changes of clothes that he could stump them: “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet” (verse 14). The men could not solve the riddle, and told Samson’s wife “Entice your husband to tell us what the riddle is, lest we burn you and your father’s house with fire” (verse 15). After he did, she of course told the Philistines. But when they answered the riddle, Samson knew immediately the source: “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle” (verse 18). Once again, “The Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon and struck down thirty men of the town” (verse 19) using their clothing to settle the bet.
But that was not the end. Samson’s father gave his wife to his best man (verse 20) because he believed Samson hated her (Judges 15:2). When Samson found out, he caught 300 foxes, tied them together by the tail along with a burning torch, and set them loose to burn the grain fields of the Philistines (Judges 15:4). In reaction to that, the Philistines burned his wife and her father and Samson swore to avenge her. He did so by killing a thousand men using the jawbone of a donkey as his weapon (verse 15).
Now remember back to the question posed before. All this began with Samson falling in love with a Philistine woman, and we are told that it was from the LORD because He was intending to strike against the Philistines. All of the events in this chain are intertwined. The thousand men would not have been killed if Samson was not avenging his wife’s death. His wife would not have been killed if Samson hadn’t burned the Philistine’s fields. That would not have happened had his father not mistakenly believed Samson hated her, because she had tricked him into giving away the riddle of the honey in the lion; an event that could only have happened because Samson violated the Nazirite vow because he was en route to marry a woman that he was forbidden by God’s command to all of Israel from marrying. Clearly, there is a lot of evil in this sequence of events! Yet “it was from the LORD, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines.”
How are we to make sense of that? Does God intend actual evil? If so, then wouldn’t that mean that God is the author of evil? Would He not be evil Himself?
We must give the same answer that Joseph gave back in Genesis: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Samson clearly acted with evil intent many times in this story, as did his wife and the Philistines. But none of that implies that God acted with evil, even though He very definitely is said to be the initial cause of this entire chain of events. This answer might not be fully satisfying to some, but it appears to me to be the only way to remain consistent with everything the Bible teaches. God meant it for good, while all the actors in this scenario meant it for evil.
After this, Samson went to Gaza (Judges 16:1) and there fell in love with a prostitute named Delilah. The Philistines asked her to seduce him and discover where his source of power came from. Samson at first lied, saying that seven fresh bowstrings could be bound around him and he would be unable to escape. So Delilah tied him up while he was asleep and then woke him by saying he was being attacked by Philistines. Samson immediately broke the strings and the secret of his strength was still secure.
Delilah responded by saying that he had mocked her and lied to her. So Samson said, “If they bind me with new ropes that have not been used, then I shall become weak like any other man” (verse 11). So Delilah did so, and of course that too failed. This happened again, until it is said “she pressed him hard with her words day after day, and urged him, [until] his soul was vexed to death” (verse 16). And so at that point Samson told her the truth: “A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man” (verse 17).
Why did Samson tell the truth here? The statement that Delilah had pestered him to the point where he was vexed to death explains some of it, but I also think that you can see a pattern of rash behavior with Samson, from the moment he married his first Philistine wife, to the slaying of the lion, to his relationship with Delilah. He does not make wise choices through any of this. It was obvious after the three previous times that Delilah had tested his word that she would test him here too, but perhaps Samson did not truly believe that he would lose all his strength.
Regardless, this time Delilah shaved his head and bound him, and when she woke him Samson said, “I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.” “But”, we are told, “he did not know that the LORD had left him” (verse 20). Samson had already violated his Nazirite vow when he touched the dead body of the lion and ate the honey from it. Likewise, since Nazirites were to avoid all dead bodies, the fact that Samson had killed so many Philistines also ran counter to the vow. The text does not say why, after overlooking all of that, God left Samson for shaving his head, but He did. Now Samson was as weak as other men.
And thus the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes, and bound him with bronze shackles, forcing him to be a slave in the prison mill. But as foolish as Samson had been, the Philistines were as well, for Samson’s hair began to grow back.
The Philistine lords gathered together to sacrifice to their god Dagon, saying, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hand” (verse 23). Of course, we know from verse 20 that it was the LORD who had departed Samson who gave him into their hand, and the Philistines were about to find out what a mistake they had made in attributing this to their false god. They had Samson hauled out of prison and forced him to stand between the pillars in their temple to mock him.
Then Samson cried out to God and said, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes” (verse 28). And with that, he pushed apart the pillars of the temple and it collapsed, killing the 3,000 men and women inside, along with Samson.
The book of Judges ends with two stories that display the extent of depravity that Israel had fallen to. The first involves a man named Micah, who stole money from his mother. His mother put a curse on it, and then Micah confessed he had taken it. He returned the silver, 1,100 pieces in total, and his mother dedicated it to the LORD. But, critically, she took 200 pieces of silver to fashion an idol.
This shows the syncretism that was rampant in the ANE. The woman thought that the silver was dedicated to the real God, because the capitalized LORD in English shows she was intending it to be Israel’s God. Yet, He had specifically forbidden idols to be fashioned.
The story then introduces a Levite from Bethlehem, who went to Ephraim to the house of Micah and lodged there. And Micah hired him to be his priest, thinking that the LORD would overlook all his idols and prosper him because he had a Levite as a priest.
Chapter 18 opens up, however, by saying “In those days there was no king in Israel.” This will be a common motif through the remainder of the book. In the absence of authority, wickedness prevails. Here, the people of Dan came to Ephraim and they, too, lodged with Micah. They spoke with the Levite and, after spying out the land, returned with 600 men to steal Micah’s idol, kidnapping the Levite at the same time. Micah could not oppose them because there were 600 of them. And we learn: “The people of Dan set up the carved image for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. So they set up Micah’s carved image that he made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh” (Judges 18:30-31).
This was done not just by a Levite, but from someone in the very lineage of Moses himself. This was the moral fiber of the Israelites now. This is how far they had sunk.
Chapter 19 begins our second story showing the collapse of Israel in much the same way: “In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.” I do not find it a coincidence that in both instances there are Levites, they both have a connection to Bethlehem, and they both are in the hillside of Ephraim. In this case, the Levite’s concubine was unfaithful to him, and she went away to her father’s house in Bethlehem. Her husband spoke kindly to her and convinced her to return. They stopped in the town of Gibeah, which belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, and there an old man from Ephraim stopped by and pleaded that they not stay in the square, but rather stay with him.
But the men of Gibeah surrounded his house and said, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him” (verse 22). This is very similar to what the men of Sodom did with the angels who visited Lot, and it is clear that the “know” here is a euphemism for rape. The old man refused, and instead offered his virgin daughter and the man’s concubine. The men of Gibeah refused the offer, so the Levite seized his concubine and forced her to go out to them. “And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning” (verse 25). She then died at the doorstep to the old man’s house.
As disturbing as this was, what happened next was even worse. The Levite cut the woman into twelve pieces and sent her body throughout the territory of Israel. As a result, the rest of Israel declared war on the tribe of Benjamin and assembled 400,000 men (Judges 20:2). Benjamin had only 26,000 men, along with the 700 men of Gibeah who were left-handed and “every one [of them] could sling a stone at a hair and not miss” (verse 16).
The men of Israel prayed in Bethel and asked who should fight against Benjamin first. God said “Judah shall go up first” (verse 18). When they attacked, Benjamin won the battle and killed 22,000 men of Israel. Again Israel inquired: “Shall we again draw near to fight against our brothers, the people of Benjamin?” and the LORD said, “Go up against them.”
This time, they lost 18,000 men. Then all of Israel wept in Bethel and asked again: “Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?” And the LORD said, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand” (verse 28).
This, to me at least, is hard to understand. Why did God send them out before this, knowing that Israel would lose the battle? It wasn’t like they hadn’t asked Him what they should do, but after consulting God Israel lost 40,000 men! What was the purpose of this carnage?
The book of Judges does not say. But one thing is sure: given what God said, He never said that Israel would win the battles they fought on the first two days, so one cannot accuse Him of lying. Furthermore, all of Israel was living in rebellion against God at this point, so they really had no expectation that God would be on their side in any particular battle either.
Israel marched out a third time. This time they set up an ambush. After the battle began, Israel retreated and Benjamin, thinking they had won again, left their defenses to chase after Israel. They were slaughtered in the ambush, losing 25,000 men. In fact, after the battle was over, there were only 600 Benjaminites left in all of Israel.
Now the people realized there was a problem. They had sworn “No one of us shall give his daughter in marriage to Benjamin” but only 600 Benjaminites were left, and presumably the Benjaminite women had been killed during the battle too. But Israel did not want an entire tribe to go extinct. So the leaders devised a plan.
First, they discovered some families had not made the vow. Now at this point you might think, “Hey, problem solved! They can just ask that family to give their daughters in marriage to Benjamin.” But would a people who had already sunk to this level of depravity do such a thing? Of course not.
Israel instead attacked the clan that had not made the vow, killing the men and older women, and capturing the virgin daughters. They ended up with 400 young virgins who they gave to Benjamin as wives. Not surprisingly, Judges ends with this: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
What more fitting words could be used to describe this situation? Consider what we have just witnessed. First a woman was raped and killed. In response to this, an entire tribe of Israel was nearly wiped out in warfare, even though only a portion of the tribe was involved in the original rape and murder. Then, the people in charge decided that the best way to solve the problem they had just created was to kill even more people and kidnap their daughters to force them to be wives. In other words, to avenge the murder and rape of one Levite concubine, Israel killed tens of thousands of people and gave over 400 girls to be raped. Somehow that doesn’t seem to have improved the situation….
This is what happens when “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” When there is no one enforcing the rules, anarchy prevails. Especially when the people have already shown a proclivity toward depravity.
And at this point, the death spiral of Israel is complete. They have nearly killed off an entire tribe, they are still conquered repeatedly by opposing forces, they still have idols that even the priestly tribe has no problem offering sacrifices too. They are barely holding on as a nation. This truly is the nadir of Israel’s history in the Promised Land.