I finished my weekly quiet time on the Book of Judges yesterday, and I’ll be going on to Ruth this coming Saturday.
One line that intrigues me is the final verse of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25 NRSV).
This line also appears in Judges 17:6; 18:1; and 19:1.
In a lot of sermons, I hear about how wrong it is for us to do what’s right in our own eyes, as opposed to obeying God. But the passage mentions the absence of a king for some reason. Why? Is this a pro-monarchical passage?
And how would the existence of a king in Israel ensure that people stopped doing what’s right in their own eyes? Israel had some pretty bad kings, who led Israel down the wrong path. Israel having a king wouldn’t make her more godly, would it?
Yet, Israel having a good king can make her more godly. In Judges 17-21, we see a lot of chaos. A man has his own private shrine and Levite, which is then stolen by Danite marauders. A group from Gibeah gang-rapes and kills a man’s concubine, reminiscent of the men of Sodom (Genesis 19). Israel then fights Benjamin, which is protecting the guilty party, and comes close to exterminating the tribe. When Israel decides that she wants to accept Benjamin back into the Israelite body, she remembers that the Israelites swore not to give their daughters to the Benjamites. The Israelites then have to find some way to get the Benjamites some wives, and they ask God for guidance. But they do not wait for God’s answer, for they decide to slaughter the men of Jabesh-Gilead, taking its virgin women. And when there are not enough women for the Benjamites, Israel sends them out to kidnap dancing women at Shiloh.
Everything appears so ad hoc. Would things be better under a king, in the eyes of the author of Judges? It would under a godly king. One function of the Israelite king was to uphold the worship of God in the central sanctuary (Jerusalem). I-II Kings critiques kings on whether or not they extirpate idolatry from Israel, and it praises those who tear down alternative sanctuaries (e.g., II Kings 21-23). Under a righteous king, a man would not have his own private Levite. God wouldn’t be a cheap commodity.
A king was also to execute justice (e.g., II Samuel 8:15). He’d have a system of justice in place (II Chronicles 19:5), so Israel wouldn’t be making up how to punish evildoers as they went along. The king would hopefully execute justice with wisdom and divine guidance (see I Samuel 29:9; II Samuel 2:1; 5:19; 21; I Kings 3:28), rather than “seeking” God’s will and then doing his own thing.
For the author of Judges, a lot of problems could have been avoided if Israel had a righteous man at the helm–a king who was powerful enough to uphold the worship of God and punish evildoers.