In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
The book of Judges records for us a history of sad, spiritual decay in Israel. From the spiritual heights which concluded the history of Joshua, Israel descended gradually into the dark valley of indifference against which Samson struggled so very much alone. Each judge that God raised up found his nation weaker than it had been before. The record of each judge depicts for us the battle in which he was called to engage, no only against the heathen nations which had been sent in judgment by God, but against the wickedness of Israel which was the cause of it all. Finally, at its conclusion, so that we may understand exactly how debased the people of God had become, the book of Judges presents us with two detailed illustrations of what was actually taking place during this period. These events were not temporally successive to the history of Samson. Rather they were taken at random from the preceding period of the judges. They illustrate well the spiritual perversity which had come to flourish among the people, the one in their worship and the other in their morality.
The first of these is the history of Micah, a man of mount Ephraim. In outward appearance both Micah and his mother were people of deep, religious inclination. Their conversation was filled with repeated references to the name of Jehovah, with affirmations of dedication to Him, and with pleas for Jehovah’s blessing. In actual practice, however, it was quite evident that they cared not one whit for Jehovah, for what He said or how He commanded that He should be worshipped. They had no real desire to serve Him or dwell in His fellowship. Their piousness was the sickening sort of which we read in Isaiah, “This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.” (Is. 29:13)
The account opens with Micah returning to his mother eleven hundred shekels of silver which he had stolen. Superstitiously, he feared the curse which she had pronounced upon the thief. Piously, his mother wished the blessing of Jehovah upon him because, she said, she had dedicated the money to Jehovah for the making of a graven image and a molten image. Thereupon she gave two hundred shekels of the money to Micah, and he proceeded to have them formed into two idols. In addition, he made an ephod (a priestly garment), teraphim (a number of small images), a sanctuary to hold them, and he consecrated one of his sons to be a priest. It all served to make him a man of distinction in his community, a man with his own gods, his own sanctuary in which to worship, and his own priest to lead in service. But, if that was not enough, when a wandering Levite appeared at his house, he enlisted him to be priest in place of his son, for after all God had separated the tribe of Levi for temple service, and, if possible, it was best to observe such formalities. Proudly Micah exclaimed, “Now know I that Jehovah will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest.” (RV) It reflected the sad way in which the service of Jehovah had been corrupted and intermixed with pagan idolatry. Micah was not alone in such practices.
It was at this same time that the tribe of Dan was finding itself without sufficient land to support its people. It was their own fault. Joshua under the guidance of God had assigned them the whole of the land of the Philistines as their rightful inheritance in Israel. But at the time they had not felt the need for all of this, and they had never bothered to drive out the Philistines as God had commanded. As a result, the Philistines had grown strong and powerful, so that in turn they were taking back more and more of the land which Dan had once inhabited. The situation had become critical, and the Danites no longer dared to challenge the might of the Philistines. Rather, they determined it wiser to withdraw from the Philistines completely. They sent out five spies to find some other land in which they might locate.
The spies returned from their investigation jubilant. They had found a land far to the north inhabited by a small company of Zidonians, quiet and peaceable, without any defenses. Soon the whole tribe of Dan was on the road, leaving the land assigned them by God for one of their own choosing.
But that was not the whole of the matter. The five spies in their original investigation had happened to stop one night at the home of Micah. To their surprise, they found that the Levite who served as Micah’s priest was a man of their former acquaintance. Proudly he showed to them Micah’s whole set-up, idols, sanctuary and all. Instead of being shocked by the perverse mixture of idolatry with the worship of Jehovah, they had admired it, even asking for the Levites counsel and blessing upon their efforts. The result was that as they led the Danites toward their new land, they brought them also to the house of Micah. When they came there, they said to the men of Dan, “Do ye know that there is in these houses an ephod, and teraphim, and a graven image, and a molten image? now therefore consider what ye have to do.” Quickly they went into Micah’s house, took his images, and drafted his priest to go with them. Over against the protest of Micah and his neighbors, they proceeded on their way, with the result that the wicked practices of Micah became the heritage of a whole tribe in Israel. Neither was a word of objection heard in all Israel.
This is the first illustration of spiritual decay in Israel; and the second in its way is even more repulsive.
This began with another Levite dwelling in mount Ephraim. He took to be his concubine a beautiful young woman of Bethlehem-judah. His attitude toward her was hardly proper, however, with the result that she engaged in whoredom and finally left him to return to the home of her father. Drawn perhaps by her beauty, he went after her. Her father, completely unconcerned about the well-being of his daughter, welcomed him. The greater part of five days were spent by the two men reveling in fine food and strong drink. Finally, in the afternoon of the fifth day, after several false starts, the Levite left for home with his concubine. It was a foolish and irresponsible thing to do, for now there was no possibility of reaching home before nightfall. The result was that toward evening he found himself by Jebus, later called Jerusalem, the as yet unconquered city of the Jebusites. Wisdom dictated that he should have stopped there, and his servant urged that he do so, but his national pride would not allow him to stay with these heathen. Instead he pressed on toward Gibeah of Benjamin.
When at last he arrived at Gibeah, his welcome there closely resembled that of the angels of God many years before in Sodom. He was ignored by the inhabitants of the city and left to make out for himself in the streets of the city until at last an old man, himself but a temporary resident of the city, came along and inquired about his intentions. Piously and falsely the man explained, “We are passing from Bethlehem-judah toward the side of mount Ephraim; from thence am I: and went to Bethlehem-judah, but I am now going to the house of the LORD; and there is no man that receiveth me to his house.” Graciously the old man answered, “Peace be with thee; howsoever let all thy wants lie upon me; only lodge not in the street.”
All went well until darkness fell completely. Then a group of ruffians from the city came to the house with homosexual intent, demanding that the old man bring out the stranger for them. When the men would not be discouraged with words, the Levite, fearful for his own well-being, brought out his concubine to them. Impressed by her beauty perhaps, the men were satisfied and abused her all through the night.
Unrested and irritated by the events of the night, the Levite rose in the morning to prepare for the rest of the journey. Opening the door of the house, he found his concubine lying before it. Speaking roughly as though somehow she was the culprit, he said, “Up, and let us be going.” But the young woman did not stir; and looking closer, he found that she was dead. Now suddenly the Levite’s feelings were aroused in righteous indignation. Now he had been hurt and he was determined to get even. Without respect for the young woman who had been his concubine, as soon as he had returned home, he cut up her body into twelve pieces and sent them into all of the tribes of Israel with a report of what had happened.
Israel’s sense of moral righteousness, although greatly dimmed, had not yet died completely. The message of the Levite, together with its shocking evidence, was sufficient to arouse the nation to a pitch of moral indignation such as had not been seen for many years. Quickly representatives of all the tribes came together to the tabernacle at Mizpeh to decide what should be done. There the Levite gave his account of what had happened, carefully refabricating it to reflect favorably upon himself. He said, “I came into Gibeah that belongeth to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to lodge. And the men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about upon me by night, and thought to have slain me: and my concubine have they forced, that she is dead. And I took my concubine and cut her into pieces, and sent her throughout all the country of the inheritance of Israel: for they have comitted lewdness and folly in Israel. Behold, ye are all children of Israel; give here your advice and counsel.” It was true of course, in spite of the misrepresentation by the Levite as to his own part in the matter, that a terrible sin had been committed. Together the men of Israel determined that Gibeah should be punished, and when they consulted with the Lord, His answer was in agreement. Only the tribe of Benjamin disapproved and determined to stand by their brethren of Gibeah.
The end of the matter was that a great civil war took place in Israel, the eleven tribes against Benjamin. It was close to disastrous. The Benjamites won the first two engagements, for they were valiant fighters; but in the third they were roundly defeated. The rest of the men of Israel, long removed from the practice of moral discernment, pushed their pursuit far beyond reason.
When they were finished, all of the tribe of Benjamin had been destroyed except three hundred men, and then they all vowed not to give any of their daughters to the men of Benjamin for wives. When at last their tempers cooled, the men of Israel began to realize the implications of what they had done. A tribe was about to perish from Israel. Still reason did not prevail. Instead of repudiating their rash vow, the men of Israel went to war against Jabeshgilead taking the young, unmarried women to be wives to the men of Benjamin. But still there were not enough. Thus they advised the remaining two hundred Benjaminites to take by force the young women who came yearly to dance at Shiloh. All told, the whole situation was such that it can only shock one’s sense of Christian decency. It serves only to bear out the conclusion of the Scriptures that “in those days there was no king in Israel, but everyman did that which was right in his own eyes.”
In conclusion, we may well note again the objective manner in which all is reported. The history of Israel was not designed in any manner of hero worship. The sins of Israel are clearly pointed out so that all may know that God has chosen and remained faithful to His people, not because of their excellency, but merely because of His amazing grace.