Joshua/Judges Week 12

Israel With Two Black Eyes: Judges 17:1–21:25

By Dr. Nijay Gupta

Assistant Professor of New Testament, George Fox University

Read this week’s Scripture: Judges 17:1-21:25


The Levite Carries the Woman’s Body Away
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While this book of the Bible is called Judges, and spends most of its chapters focused on the incomprehensible moral decline of these supposed leaders of the people, the last five chapters look at, more broadly, the depravity and lawlessness (in particular the “Torah-lessness”) of the whole nation.

Two key areas of failure are in matters of religion (17:1–18:31) and social life (19:1–21:25). Looking at Joshua and Judges as a two-part series, there is much hope and optimism at the beginning of Joshua — the holy people of God are ready to take on the challenge of taking over the land promised to them by God and ridding the land of the unholy, idolatrous, savage (e.g., child-sacrificing) Canaanites. Even when Jericho’s walls come “a-tumblin’ down,” there is a feeling that God is in this.

By the time we get to Judges 17, though, it is a world turned upside-down. While at the beginning of Joshua, that great single leader of the people is told to follow unswervingly the guidance of the law of Moses (and especially the counsel in Deuteronomy), at the end of Judges, the so-called holy people have completely abandoned the way of the LORD. Instead of doing what was right(eous) in the eyes of YHWH, they “did what was right in their own eyes” (see 17:6).

The scene we have, in these final chapters, reminds me of situations in which there is chaos in a community and people act like animals — looting businesses; forsaking any sense of dignity, order, or law; acting as if there is no good or evil, right or wrong.

The Apostle Paul narrates something like this that happens when people turn away from God and ignore the truth:

[T]hough they knew God, they did not honor him or give thanks to him, but they became futile [meaning “empty”] in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened (Romans 1:21–22).

I don’t know which people in particular Paul had in mind in these verses, but I think they accurately describe what is going on in Judges 17–21. It is as if the people’s eyes have been “darkened” — hence, they have “black eyes.” They have become blind, like the very idols they so desperately want to worship.

Not only do they have “black eyes” because they are blind and stumble and grope around in the darkness of their selfishness, greed, and lust, but God’s people are so quick to hurt each other that it is as if Israel is constantly giving itself a black eye — better yet, two black eyes, as each Israelite or tribe hastens to retaliate.

Who Is Like YHWH?

When we transition from the story of Samson to the general life of the Israelites in Chapter 17, we encounter a world in which no one seems to know right from wrong. From the very start, we jump into the action apparently in the middle of a scene. In Ephraim, an Israelite man named Micah confesses to his mother that he stole money from her. Upon hearing that, she utters a curse on the stolen money, which he returns. After the money is given back, what do they do with it? The mother requests that an idol be made from a portion of it to be kept in their house for worship!

What is the point of this scene? As with several of the narratives of the disappointing judges (such as Gideon and Samson), the author is highlighting the way that the Israelites have strayed so far away from their God and his commands that they hardly seem to notice that they are rampantly disobeying YHWH’s guidance and instruction. In the short space of four verses we see these Torah-forbidden crimes committed:

  1. Theft (Exodus 20:15);
  2. Unauthorized place of worship (see Judges 18:31); and
  3. The making of an idol (Deuteronomy 27:15).

What you, the modern (English-speaking) reader, may not have picked up on is the sense of sad irony in this story, because Micah’s name means: Who is like YHWH? As his birth-name, this was meant to be a reminder of the unique power and identity of the one God of Israel — who is like YHWH? Answer: Duh! No one!

Unfortunately, in this story, there is much neglect for YHWH’s commands; and the making of an idol, probably in an attempt to fashion the likeness of YHWH in (miniature) statue form, would end up answering the question (who is like YHWH?) like this: Hmmm … maybe the silversmith can make something like YHWH — that would look nice on my mantle.

It gets worse.

Wandering Levite Holding Sign: “Will Bless for Food and Shelter”

Next, in the story of Micah, a drifting Levite rolls into town and is desperate for work. The Levites of Israel came from the tribe of Levi. They did not have their own land allotment, because they belonged to the tabernacle service and were supposedly sustained by “tithes” from the other tribes (see Numbers 18:24). Why is this Levite wandering around looking for work? Clearly, the people of Israel have neglected their duty to support the tabernacle ministry. So this unnamed Levite is hired to be a priest in Micah’s unauthorized private idol shrine!

Why does Micah want an idol and a priest? Laziness?  He probably did lack motivation to go to the tent of meeting in Shiloh (which was very close to his house). However, it is more likely that Micah wanted God’s personal blessing and thought it could happen in this scenario (see 17:13). It would also prove to be a rather convenient way to get quick answers from the LORD that would lead to personal gain (see 18:5).

The Danites: From Bullied to Bully

In Judges 18, we see the pathetic story of the Danite tribe, the only one from the book of Joshua that failed so miserably when it came to possessing the part of the land of Canaan given to them, that the tribe was chased off (see Joshua 19:40–47).

Instead of going back to that land that YHWH had promised to them, they took matters into their own hands and set their sights on Laish. They decide to hire Micah’s Levite to ascertain whether the LORD would bless their raid. Again, like Micah, they turn to an idol and the unauthorized work of a priest, rather than reflecting on the divine law they had already been given!

Ultimately, they siege Laish, which we are told is a quiet and “unsuspecting” city (18:7, 26–27). They declare herem on them by killing everyone and burning the city down. Again, showing how much they were acting selfishly and not for the sake of the LORD, we are told that they placed idols in the city after they rebuilt it and settled into it (18:30).

Am I My Brother’s Sister’s Keeper?

Judges 19:1–30 narrates ones of the most repulsive stories in the Bible. It begins with another Levite, a different one from before, whose concubine leaves him (both characters, again, are unnamed). A concubine in Israel was, essentially, a second wife, with fewer rights and privileges than the first. While she runs off to her father’s house, the Levite admirably goes after her to reconcile with her.

As he and his concubine travel back together, they consider resting overnight in a foreign (non-Israelite) territory of the Jebusites, but the Levite is insistent that such a place is dangerous and he would prefer to be in the company of fellow Israelites for safety. So they press on into the land of Gibeah, where his kinsmen live.

The first sign that all is not well is that he seeks out hospitality for the night and there are no takers. Finally, a foreign Israelite resident (from Ephraim) takes the Levite and his concubine in. It is not long before some “perverse” men from Gibeah come to this house and demand to have the male visitor (the Levite) come out so they can rape him.

This scene is intentionally reminiscent of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), where angels in disguise visit Lot (the nephew of Abraham). In that story, the perverse men are blinded by the angels and their scheme does not play out.

Not so with the men of Gibeah. In a desperate act of self-preservation, the Levite thrusts his concubine (with whom he recently sought reconciliation) out to the men. She is raped and abused all night long and at dawn she musters enough strength only to make it back to the home before she collapses at the door (19:26). In the very next verse (19:27), we come to learn that, after the Levite has sent off his “beloved” concubine to be mistreated on his behalf, he does not stay up all night in search of her or weep in regret. He goes to bed and wakes up the next morning to find her at the door.

This grim tale reminds me of that scene from early on in Genesis in which Cain kills Abel and, when confronted by God about Abel’s whereabouts, he asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” — Why should I care? What responsibility it this of mine? The sin of Cain is meant to highlight the downfall of humanity in general after the sin of Adam and Eve. Correspondingly, both the monstrous actions of the men of Gibeah and the callous actions of the Levite seem to repeat this sentiment: Am I my brother’s or sister’s keeper? They are all bent on self-gratification and self-preservation. Sin has done its work of corrupting, distorting, and fragmenting.

The Dividing Is Multiplying

What does the Levite do in response to the rape of his concubine? He divides her body up and sends the pieces to the tribes of Israel as a call to arms against the men of Gibeah. Eleven tribes of Israel make war against the tribe of Benjamin (where the Gibeahites come from). The hostile onslaught that ensues against an Israelite tribe resembles the herem warfare that was indicative of how Israel was to wipe out the wicked Canaanites.

This is a climactic demonstration that all the hopes and expectations of Israel at the beginning of the book of Joshua are being undone. They are turning on each other, as if blind to whether the person they are putting to the sword is a wicked Canaanite or a fellow Israelite. They seem to make no distinction. Every series of actions in these last two chapters of Judges shows a kind of division among the people that is multiplying [see Author’s Note 1].

No King in Israel

Four times in these concluding chapters the refrain is given, “In those days there was no king in Israel” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). This statement lays bare the fact that the one people of Israel are not “one” at all — they are broken and divided. The only time they act as “one body” is when they plot to destroy one of their own tribes (see 20:1)! The reminder that at this time there was no king was the narrator’s way of pointing ahead to a time where good King David would bring cohesion — what military forces call “esprit de corps” — to the people of God.

There is, though, an important theological dimension at work in this refrain as well. Israel was meant to view YHWH as the “King” of the whole world (see Psalm 48:2). Even before Israel had a national, human king, Israel had the LORD to reign over them.

To say that “In those days there was no king in Israel,” was to say not only that in the future there would be a single human ruler of the people, but also that in that gloomy period (of the events of the book of Judges) one could hardly tell that YHWH was respected as King over Israel.

In a way, then, the move towards having an earthly ruler of the people was a divine act of grace and mercy, a way of God’s re-establishing a connection with his wayward people, so that, through the mortal king, they could see a reflection of the Immortal King.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. The Lectio writer referred to this period of Judges in these last chapters as a state of chaos and the abandonment of civility. Can you think of recent occasions on a local or national level where (perhaps in the aftermath of a disaster or tragedy) there was looting, rioting, and a neglect of order? Why does this kind of disorder and chaos ensue?
  2. The story of the Levite and his concubine is a disturbing one.  Why are these kinds of events recorded in Scripture?  What are we meant to learn or gain from this episode?  Look up 2 Timothy 3:16-17.  What do you think about Judges 19 in light of this assertion about the nature of God’s Word?
  3. There are two repeated statements in these concluding chapters of Judges (1) the Israelites did what was right in their own eyes (though evil before the Lord), and (2) there was no king yet in Israel. How do these two ideas frame the way we are meant to look at the wider purpose and meaning of the book of Judges?  Are there ways in which these themes serve as a challenge to you?  To your local church?  To the church across the world?
  4. Through the testimony of the Old Testament we know very clearly that God is at work in and through Israel. And yet it also teaches that they have regularly sinned and disobeyed. Why do you think God did not intervene at various points? Why would he allow his people, Israel, to become so entrenched in their own sin?  Have you experienced similar or dissimilar patterns in your own life?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

See also Professor Frank Spina’s article “Multiplying Division: A Figural Reading of the Story of the Levite’s Concubine (Judges 10–21),” the 2008 Winifred E. Weter Faculty Lecture at Seattle Pacific University.

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