Judges 17-20

Jimmy JoJudges, O.T. Survey, SermonsLeave a Comment

Read the passage here.

Today is going to be our last day in the book of Judges.  Obviously, we’ve gone through it very quickly.  However, I hope that we’ve still managed to sufficiently explore some of the major ideas and, most importantly, understand the place of the book of Judges in the greater biblical narrative.  In other words, I hope we’ve managed to answer the question of, “what does the book of Judges tell us about the story of God’s redemption in human history?” 

And if it hasn’t been clear, and also by way of a bit of a spoiler for today, what we’ve seen is that human beings are not able to establish the kingdom on our own.  Human beings, left to our own devices (so to speak) are bound to try to do things our own way.  We desperately need God to intervene, we need God to step in and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  And what we know if we know the biblical story is that this is finally and fully completed only in Jesus Christ. 

But to our chapters for today.  What I’m going to try to do today is give a brief overview of the last four chapters and try to bring out the major points of theology, especially as they relate to the overall narrative of the book of Judges. 

By way of introduction, we should know that the story of Samson, which we wrapped up last time, is the last of the stories of the actual judges in the book.  If we remember, what we saw in the stories of the Judges (Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jepthah, and Samson) is a cyclical decline of the nation of Israel.  Which is to say that we see a repeated pattern through the stories of the Judges which serves, at least in part, to demonstrate how Israel gets progressively worse, progressively further from God, over the years. 

  • Israel does evil in the eyes of the Lord
  • This evil results in oppression
  • The Israelites cry out to the Lord
  • The Lord raises up a deliverer (judge)
  • There is a time of peace in the lifetime of the judge.

The chapters that we’re looking at today leave this pattern behind; it is the second (and final) major division in the book, excluding the prologue/introduction.  Unlike chapters 2-16 (roughly), in chapters 17-21, we see that the refrain tying everything together is, “In those days, Israel had no king.  Everybody did as they saw fit.” 

The first time we encounter this refrain is in chapter 17: 

17:1 Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim said to his mother, “The eleven hundred shekelsof silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse—I have that silver with me; I took it.”

Then his mother said, “The Lord bless you, my son!”

When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, “I solemnly consecrate my silver to the Lord for my son to make an image overlaid with silver. I will give it back to you.”

So after he returned the silver to his mother, she took two hundred shekelsof silver and gave them to a silversmith, who used them to make the idol. And it was put in Micah’s house.

Now this man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and some household gods and installed one of his sons as his priest. In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.

Judges 17:1-6

We’re not going to get into the details of this story (or the others).  But we should note that there is something of a callback in this story to Gideon’s story – Micah, like Gideon, also made an ephod for himself.  And the passage tells us that he also made an idol for his own household.  Whether it’s an ephod, an idol, or an ephod and an idol, the implications seem fairly clear.  Micah is not using the ephod in its role as the garment of the high priest.  He is not interested in developing a relationship with the living God (or perhaps he doesn’t know how to relate to God).  Rather, it’s almost an act of capturing god, of localizing god in his own household.  Micah even goes so far as to appoint his own household priest. 

Now this story continues with Micah hiring a Levite to take over the role of priest (we don’t know what happens to Micah’s son).  And then in the following chapter, chapter 18, some people from the tribe of Dan encounter this Levite and make him a better offer.  And, again, without getting into the details, the Levite turns his back on Micah, the Danites take the ephod, the idol, and (the passage tells us) the other household gods, and settle their own city.  In 18:27, we read: 

27 Then they took what Micah had made, and his priest, and went on to Laish, against a people at peace and secure. They attacked them with the sword and burned down their city. 28 There was no one to rescue them because they lived a long way from Sidon and had no relationship with anyone else. The city was in a valley near Beth Rehob.

The Danites rebuilt the city and settled there. 29 They named it Dan after their ancestor Dan, who was born to Israel—though the city used to be called Laish. 30 There the Danites set up for themselves the idol, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land. 31 They continued to use the idol Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh.

Judges 18:27-31

So the people of Dan do, essentially, the same thing that Micah did but on a larger scale.  They set up for themselves an idol and chose their own priests.  The relationship between God and his chosen people has been turned on its head.  It’s no longer a matter of worship and obedience, but a matter of possession and control. 

The second major story in this section (from chapter 19-21) has to do particularly with the tribe of Benjamin.  Again, I’m condensing this whole story considerably so I hope you’ll forgive me.  In short, a Levite and his concubine were travelling and found themselves in Gibeah, a town of the tribe of Benjamin.  They are taken in by someone from the city and during the night are accosted by some wicked men.  The relevant part of the story for us is this: 

19:22 While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.”

23 The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing. 24 Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.”

25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. 26 At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

Judges 19:22-26

This is obviously a pretty horrific story.  And the rest of Israel seems to agree.  In the next chapter, we see that all of Israel gathers together to make the tribe of Benjamin pay, and wind up effectively destroying the tribe of Benjamin. 

However, if we are paying attention, we will notice that this story sounds awfully familiar.  In fact, this story is essentially a repeat of a story from Genesis, a story about one of the most notoriously evil cities in scripture – the story of Sodom.  In Genesis 19, we read: 

Gen 19:4 Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

“Get out of our way,” they replied. “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

Genesis 19:4-9

Now in the story of Sodom, the men of Sodom aren’t successful in their desire to take the two men.  However, we also remember that these two men are in fact angels.  And because of the wickedness of the people of Sodom (remember, God promised Abraham that if there were only 10 righteous people in the city, He would not destroy it), the entire city (along with the sister city of Gomorrah) are destroyed by burning sulfur from the heavens. 

So what we see here at Gibeah of the tribe of Benjamin is a sin as great as the sin of Sodom.  And the people of Benjamin suffer the same fate, though by different means.  Again, all of Israel rises up to punish Benjamin for this sin and the entire tribe (more or less) is destroyed. 

Now on the one hand, we might be tempted to think that the rest of Israel is therefore righteous – they would not stand for this sin.  But if we’ve been paying attention to what’s going on in the book of Judges, what we should recognize is that the sin of the nation of Israel has reached a sort of peak.  Israel is so broken that one of the twelve tribes of Abraham has been wiped out.  Israel is no longer whole.  And so the entire book of Judges closes with the words: 

21:25 In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.

Judges 21:25

Previously, we had said that one might have been tempted to think that the story of Abraham should have wrapped up at the end of the book of Joshua.  In our Old Testament Survey, following the pre-history of Israel, we saw that God called Abraham and promised that He would make Abraham into a great nation.  And we read how God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt through Moses; we saw how the Israelites were led into the wilderness and given the Law, the constitution for this new people; we saw how Joshua led the Israelites through victory after victory in the new land, the promised possession.  So at the end of Joshua, we might have thought that that was that.  Promise fulfilled; story completed.  That would have been a great ending. 

But in the book of Judges, we see how wrong that assumption is.  We see that merely possessing the land isn’t enough.  Remember how, at the beginning of Judges, we said that each generation had to claim the promise, take hold of the promise of God, for themselves.  And this precisely is what each new generation did not do.  Instead, each time, the people did evil in the eyes of the LORD.  Each time, everyone did as they saw fit. 

So, as we finish the book of Judges, we might be inclined to be exceedingly depressed.  Because what we see is that people are awful.  People left on their own, people left to their own devices, to decide for themselves what is good or evil, are inevitably going to forget about God and make the world according to our own image. 

But Judges isn’t the whole story.  It is only part of the story.  And what we know, because we know the rest of the biblical story, is that God does not leave us alone.  He doesn’t leave the kingdom up to us.  He doesn’t leave righteousness up to us.  He doesn’t leave salvation up to us. 

Instead, God steps in (which is possibly misleading because God has never been out) – but God steps in and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. 

And so, from the book of Judges, I hope there are a couple of things that we understand; a couple of things that we learn about how the world is.  None of this is new or surprising and so I’m not going to expand any more on it.  Therefore, and simply put: 

  • Firstly, the reality of sin. 
  • Secondly, the reality/necessity of grace. 
  • The story (here) is not over

Now before we close the book of Judges, and related to the above, I want to make a quick comment on the framing refrain in the chapters we’ve been looking at: 

  • In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit. (21:25)

I want to be brief about this but my basic observation is that there is a pretty significant cultural disconnect between how the original hearers of Judges would have understood the phrase, “In those days Israel had no king,” and the way we in the 21st century western world are likely to understand it. 

In our contemporary world, the lack of a king is probably seen as a good thing.  According to the current worldview, there is little worse than someone else telling us what we can or cannot do, what we should or should not do.  In our contemporary world, resistance to such figures is seen as admirable and necessary – we must stand up to our oppressors. 

And of course, given the history of kings and rulers in the world, this was undoubtedly inevitable. 

But in the Canaanite world, this would not have been the case.  In this world, a king was necessary in order to validate and defend your place as a nation, a people in the world.  If you were not part of a nation, with the attendant requirements of king, land, military, wealth, etc., you were not a people.  A king spoke to identity. 

Now I’m sure this is evident to most people.  I’m merely saying that the gulf is probably bigger than we can appreciate.  It’s really hard for us, here and now, to truly understand the importance of a King.  This is really important if we want to understand what is going on in this text.  But the most important thing for us to understand, and one that presents a lot of problems, creates a lot of tension, and leads to a lot of equivocation, is that Jesus comes precisely as a king.  Now certainly, when we become a Christian, we assent to this truth.  But do we really understand what it means? 

As we know from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus came to bring His kingdom.  Jesus came as a king.  But it’s a different kind of kingdom than the religious leaders expected.  It’s a different kingdom than the Israelites in Canaan wanted.  But make no mistake, Jesus is king.  But what this means for us is that the tragedy of Judges, the failure of Israel, finds it’s redemption in Jesus, finds its fulfillment in Jesus.  Jesus fulfills and redeems the story of Judges.  He fulfills and redeems the story of Abraham and Moses.  He fulfills and redeems your story and mine.  In Christ alone, all things are made whole.

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