Summary: At the time of the Judges, Israel was out of control and accountable to no one. When God’s revelation is rejected, when we try to live independent of God, things that were once regarded as abominable and appalling are accepted as commonplace.
“The Lure of Lawlessness”
Judges chapters 18-21
Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
The days of the Judges were Israel’s “Dark Ages”, a time of lawlessness, confusion, and idolatry—in other words, it was a moral mess. The Judges were barely able to maintain a semblance of order, partly due to their own flawed character. It was a troubling time of near anarchy. When societies reject absolute law, they develop their own, arbitrary rules (a major theme of Francis Schaeffer). The big question is> who’s authority are we under? Our own, or do we answer to God? There are only three options: We either do whatever we like, whatever works, or we obey God. If we create our own rules, then we can easily justify any kind of behavior. Philosophers have reluctantly admitted that if there is no God, then anything is permissible, because without God, there is no “right” or “wrong”. Without God and His word, all we’re left with are societal attempts to maintain some kind of relative order, but without any real weight.
I taught ethics at the Air Defense Artillery School, Ft Bliss, and I know some soldiers don’t like military rules & regulations. They only comply due to the threat of punishment. But sometimes their response is to reject Army values, and say, “To heck with your standards.” In a world with twisted values, where people celebrate doing whatever they like, we shouldn’t be surprised when we hear of atrocities. The Life Application Study Bible warns, “When you leave God out of your life, you may be shocked at what you are capable of doing.” Some people obey the law because they want to live for God; others obey simply because they don’t want to suffer the consequences. At the time of the Judges, Israel was out of control and accountable to no one.
These final five chapters show us exactly what can happen when we become our own authority; it’s embarrassing to even have these chapters in the Bible. It’s rare to hear anyone preach on these passages…yet we’re told “all Scripture is profitable” (2 Tim 3:16). We see that Israel’s enemy is no longer external but internal. “We’ve met the enemy and he is us!” When we allow our culture to shape us, we are letting a cancer into our value system. This is disappointingly true in the sordid, closing chapters of Judges, where we witness idolatry, theft, murder, sodomy, rape, kidnapping, and civil war.
Israel at this point has a semblance of formal religion, but without a foundation in God’s word. When the Danites capture Micah’s idols and priest, he whines in protest, “I have nothing left!” (18:24). He has no idea that his priest has betrayed him, has left for a “better offer”. What Micah had was a perversion of religion—a fusion of pagan idolatry and Judaism. Had he lived today, Micah would have likely consulted his horoscope or called a psychic. Long before Micah’s assets were stolen, he had next to nothing; he just didn’t realize it. The irony in all this is that Micah’s name means “Who is like God?”, yet God is absent from his life. Micah had long lost God before he lost his idols. Why is he even surprised at the theft when he’s living in an age of lawlessness?
Even today it’s possible to have a form of religion without much substance. This pretence, which I call “churchianity”, is empty, devoid of genuine faith. When churches reject the word of God, they become mere social clubs, lacking spiritual power. Churches die when they cease to proclaim God’s truth. God expects us to live out our beliefs; He expects us to seek and follow His will. He will say to those with inauthentic faith on the Day of Judgment, “I never knew you” (Mt 18:24).
We read in chapter 19 of a group of hell-raisers who seek to molest a Levite, and to appease them, the Levite offers them his concubine, a second-class wife, lacking the full legal privileges of a genuine wife. She is brutally abused and murdered by the gang (note the similarity to Lot in Gen 19). In response, the Levite gets the country’s attention in a revolting way, as body parts of the murdered woman are sent to each of the Twelve Tribes—is this some kind of “wake-up call”? It’s been suggested that this grisly act was a symbolic warning that the nation was becoming divided into 12 independent tribes (Campbell). The Levite acts as a self-appointed, self-righteous Judge. He sends the grisly packages but conveniently fails to mention that he set this poor woman up for rape and murder in order to save himself. On one hand, women appear devalued in Hebrew society during the time of the judges (with the notable exception of Deborah). They’re treated as property; yet at the same time the tribal leaders express moral outrage over the incident, which seems in my mind pretty inconsistent.