I noted in an earlier post that the first oppressor of Israel was a world-emperor, that the second was a regional power, then the rest of the oppressors were much more close to home. By the time we reach these last chapters of the book the enemy is Israel herself. And the bottom line reason for this is noted in the final verse of the book, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Doing what is right in your own eyes when applied to worship is the essence of breaking the second commandment. The problem is that Israel has become religiously and morally just like the Canaanites — she has become pagan.
It is worth noting that the man of the hill country of Ephraim named Micah who confessed to taking the 1,100 pieces of silver in Judges 17 did not repent. He had stolen from his mother (breaking the fifth and eighth commandments). And he only tells her when he hears the curse that she has uttered about the thief. Block notes, he is “motivated by fear of the curse,” a typical ANE response. Her response was not to take the silver to present it to the priests at Shiloh but leaves it in her son’s keeping for making a cult object (breaking the second commandment). Both the woman and her son are only worshipers of YHWH on the surface – their religion is completely pagan. The tragedy as Block also notes is that they are described as completely unaware of the inconsistency – they seem to have no idea that they are saying one thing and doing another. And the story leaves us wondering who his father was and where did the other 900 shekels of silver go? This is the difference between the amount stolen and the amount that went to the silversmith. (See Block, Judges, Ruth in NAC, 479-480).
Note that this chapter stresses the breaking of the second commandment: “I dedicate the silver to YHWH from my hand for my son, to make a carved image and a metal image” (Judges 17:3). “And the man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and household gods, and ordained one of his sons, who became his priest. In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:5-6).
Breaking the second commandment is primarily a sin of doing what is right in your own eyes with regard to worship. Keeping the second commandment is worshiping according to the revelation of God as to how one should worship. A Levite left Bethlehem in Judah and went to live in Micah’s household and Micah made the Levite his priest. Remember that not any Levite could be a priest. But Micah said, “Now I know YHWH will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest” (Judges 17:13).
The passage is full of irony. First, remember that Micah is not said to have a father so he tells this Levite that he can be his father. The Levite, however, is described as a “young man” or better yet – a “boy.” So instead of treating him like a father, Micah ends up treating him like one of his sons. Not only is man-made religion foolish, but it makes Micah look foolish that he would make a boy his father and then treat him like a son. (See Block, 488).
Chapter 18 begins on the same note: “In those days there was no king in Israel” (Judges 18:1). So here we descend to the depths of the tribe of Dan, which is looking for a new land. And the spies from Dan came to the house of Micah where they stayed. And the Levite who was Micah’s priest sent the spies with the blessing of YHWH. The narrative of the spies is a parody of the story in Joshua where the spies went to the prostitute’s home. Here they have arrived instead at a home of an Israelite committing Spiritual adultery (see Block, 492).
So what happens next is the Danites come into the land to conquer it and they came upon the house of Micah and took the carved image, the ephod, the household gods, and the metal image and they took the Levite who was acting as priest to Micah and made him the priest of the tribe of Dan. Thus instead of YHWH sending a foreign army of oppressors to punish Israel, fellow apostate Israelites are doing the punishing of other apostate Israelites.
Eventually Micah discovers that his priest and his cult objects have been stolen. Ironic isn’t it that the thief will have these things stolen from him. The whole story shows these kinds of what goes around comes around things. The pagan Micah is the victim of an even more pagan tribe of Dan (which should have put him to death but only threatened to do so).
The chapter then tells us about the founding of the city of Dan and the carved image was set up there and they had their own order of priests (descendants of Moses’ son Gershom). The disease had infected even Moses’ household (Block, 512).
The next chapter begins again in a similar way: “In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite…” (Judges 19:1). This story also has a tie to Bethlehem in Judah – the Levite took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. And the concubine was unfaithful to him (or perhaps, was angry with him) and went back to her home in Bethlehem. The story sounds somewhat similar to Genesis as the man goes there for his wife and her father keeps convincing him to stay longer.
The Levite refused to stop to stay in Jerusalem, because at the time it was still occupied by the Jebusites and instead went on to Gibeah. But we know something is wrong as soon as they arrive in Gibeah, belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. “And he went in and sat down in the open square of the city, for no one took them into his house to spend the night” (Judges 19:5). Back in Bethlehem, he could not get away from the hospitality…now it is nowhere to be found.
Someone finally offered them hospitality and took them in for the night and as they were “making their hearts merry” (i.e. drinking) “the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, ‘Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him’” (i.e. have sex with him). The man responded, “do not act so wickedly…do not do this vile thing” (Judges 19:23). So the man offered them his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine instead (2 female victims to match the offer of the two daughters of Lot, see Block, 534).
The text then says, “Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing” (Judges 19:24). The narrator tells us that the men would not listen, so the host forced the concubine to go out to them. And the men of Gibeah raped her and abused her all night until morning and they let her go when the dawn began to break. Afterward, the Levite took his concubine and divided her, limb by limb, into 12 pieces and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. He will claim to have found her dead, but the text implies that he may have killed her himself (cf. Block, 541).
Thus the congregation of Israel assembled together and heard about what the men of Gibeah had done “for they have committed abomination and outrage in Israel” (Judges 20:6). And the nation of Israel went to war against Gibeah. They sent messengers throughout Benjamin to demand that they surrender the worthless fellows in Gibeah, “that we may put them to death and purge evil from Israel” (Judges 20:12). This was as they should have done. But the people of Benjamin would not give them up.
And rightly the people of Israel “inquired of God, ‘Who shall go up first for us to fight against the people of Benjamin?’” (Judges 20:18). And the answer was the same as the beginning of the book: “Judah shall go up” first. The people of Israel suffered the loss of 22,000 men the first day, inquired of God and He sent them again a second day when they lost 18,000 men, and inquired of God who sent them a third day and they won that third day. The city went up in smoke to heaven.
In the next chapter the people of Israel realized that they needed to provide wives for the tribe of Benjamin because they had vowed that none of them would give their daughters in marriage to Benjamin. They realized that no one from Jabesh-gilead had come to the assembly when the people of Israel had been mustered so they went and slaughtered the inhabitants, except for the 400 virgin girls who were given to Benjamin. This was not enough women for Benjamin.
Therefore, they snatched wives from the daughters of Shiloh at their dances. This allowed the people of Israel to keep their vow not to give their daughters to Benjamin but also allowed Benjamin not to die off as a tribe because they had enough wives for their men. The book ends, as noted earlier, “And the people of Israel departed from there at that time, and they went out from there every man to his inheritance. In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:24-25).
So what are we to make of this section? Al Groves noted that the story of Sodom is echoed in the description of Gibeah in Judges 19:14-25. The stories share the following characteristics: arrival at city square, no need for hospitality, offer of hospitality, host cares for the guests, men menace at night (remember that Canaanites raise cain at night), the men’s demand, host’s action, host’s first response, host offers substitutes, rationale, men’s response, result for substitutes, and then we find the final outcome of the story in the defeat of the city. The basic point in comparing Gibeah and Sodom is to say that the Canaanization of Gibeah is complete. This is a process we have been seeing in the book as the people of Israel become like Canaanites. Remember that Saul is from Gibeah, of the tribe of Benjamin.
Block’s commentary outlines chapters 17-18 this way: The Corruption of an Israelite Household (Judges 17:1-6), The Corruption of the Levitical Priesthood (Judges 17:7-13), The Corruption of an Israelite Tribe (Judges 18:1-31). This is the “religious degeneration of Israel.” He then notes that the rest of the book (ch.19-21) shows “the moral degeneration of Israel.” This includes the Levite finding no hospitality and then the raping of the concubine and the mess that occurs because of the oath regarding wives. This outline also reinforces the point we are making – Israel is becoming religiously and morally like Canaanites. (See Block, 473).
Block’s commentary notes the following similarities between the stories of Dan and Benjamin:
1. The no-name Levite has a Bethlehem-Judah connection (Judges 17:7-8, 19:1-2).
2. Both Levites have Mt. Ephraim connections. Micah lived on Mt. Ephraim (Judges 17:1), the second lived in this region (Judges 19:1).
3. Both accounts end with a reference to Shiloh (Judges 18:31, 21:19-24).
Here are some of the other similarities he mentions: The tribes of Dan and Benjamin were located between Judah and Ephraim, thus at the heart of the nation of Israel. In both, there is a military unit of 600 men. The refrain “In those days Israel had no king” (Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25) served as an episode marker for each episode in the Danite story and the same refrain frames the Benjaminite story. Once in the Danite story the formula adds, “Everyone did as he saw fit,” and once in the Benjaminite story the formula adds the same phrase (Judges 17:6, 21:25). (See Block, 474-475). The formula follows the following chiastic pattern: Long, short, short, long.
Israel did not need a judge to lead them to sin, to be snared by an ephod, they were quite capable of doing so themselves.
They needed God to be their king. The failure to submit to the Lordship of God is the primary problem in the text. Of course, the fact that Benjamin is the example of Israel’s moral degeneration and Gibeah in particular is a polemic in favor of David and not Ishboseth son of Saul.
One other note – throughout these stories concerning Benjamin many of the players are left unnamed. This does two things – one, it allows the reader to substitute anyone in Israel for the players – two, it dehumanizes the characters because they have become like Canaanites. It is dehumanization that allows the husband to cut up his wife’s body and send around the 12 pieces. It is dehumanization that allows the townsmen to want to gang rape another man. As others have observed, the irony of every man doing what is right in his own eyes is that the individual counts for nothing. See Block, 517-518.
That all of this happens within the lifespan of Phinehas, the hero of Numbers, shows how quickly Israel became like the Canaanites.
[This post relies on and is in dialogue with the people and books noted. I recommend Block’s commentary on this section as it is very thorough.]