Judges

F. W. Grant.

Division 3. (Judges 17 — 21.)

The corruption at heart manifest.

We have now reached the last division of the book, in which we have the revelation of the internal condition of the people, Godward and manward, — the clear illumination of the whole history. For this, therefore, we go back before the history; for of this it is not the consequence, but the cause, and an abiding cause: for the Danite idolatry lasts, as we are told, quite through the whole period of the book. Not that this, by itself, is anything more than a sample of the state in general, having just its significance in this — that it is but a sample.

Another thing is manifested in connection with this — the need of a king. Men are, indeed, very far from doing even what is right in their own eyes; but to do this also is not enough. Give man a law, he cannot be trusted as to the interpretation of the law. It needs that there should be one apart from the influence of private ends and motives, to interpret for him, as well as with power adequate to the enforcement of the interpretation. This shows us how the book of Judges prepares the way for those of Kings; although in these, also, it is soon evident that among all that follow, the best are but the shadows of the true King, for whom all creation waits. Thus history becomes prophecy, and Messianic: for the longing born of the Spirit must have its accomplishment, and the "Desire of all nations" come. The Old Testament is but an unfinished and broken utterance apart from the New, — a witness to its own utter barrenness.

Yet though Christ has come, we are still typically in the days of Judges merely, as we have seen, and the want of a king is not less manifest now than then. Even Christianity has no perfection apart from the personal presence of Him whom it has made necessary to us. If the light has brightened — how much! — since those Old Testament days, the shadows, too, have darkened. We, too, that have the first fruits of the Spirit groan within ourselves, waiting for the manifestation of the power to be put forth when He who is to come shall come, and change our bodies into the likeness of His glorious body, and take the whole world into His almighty new-creative hands. "Amen! Even so, come, Lord Jesus!"

Subdivision 1. (Judges 17 — 18.)

Godward: will-worship in the typical "judge" (Dan).

The witness to man's condition here is, as commonly, a double one; and as the second table of the law is based upon the first, it is with the first that we must begin. The idolatry in Dan precedes in moral order, probably historically also, the Benjamite war, though the latter was early, for Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, was then high priest. On the other hand, the seizure of Laish or Leshem by the Danites is given in the book of Joshua (19:47). It is quite plain, therefore, that we have thus a new beginning, all the more significant as looked back to from the end, as God will one day require again the things that are past.

(1) The idolatry in Dan is not original with them, but the transplanting of a sin begun in the house of a man no way prominent, as it would seem, in Israel. Leprosy will spread, in whatever member of a body it begins; and none may think himself too little or mean to become a propagator of disease that may infect a nation. There is, moreover, in sin a power of real and rapid evolution, a transmutability of species such as that it is certain that from one covetous act in Eden all the myriad forms of wickedness with which the world is filled today have been derived. Traced to its origin, as the Spirit of God would trace it for our profit, we have first a man's theft from his mother of eleven hundred silver pieces, which, terrified by her curses, but without any repentance toward God, he restores. Apparently on the impulse of the moment, soon regretted, she dedicates it to Jehovah for a purpose absolutely forbidden by Him, to which finally she applies less than a fifth part. It is the old sin of the wilderness that she repeats, a founder making of it a graven image and a molten image, and she solemnly passes them over from her hand for her son to Jehovah, making no doubt of the acceptability of this to Him.

Thus she is doing what is right in her own eyes, evidently; though of any movement of her heart to God there is not a trace. To make his own god and have it is the natural desire everywhere of the human heart away from Him. We need not use as much silver as did the woman here to make one. We may be less ignorant or more indifferent, possibly both; but will-worship is everywhere essentially of the same pattern. This is why the case before us is so instructive to us.

Morality and religion are sundered by superstition. The brigand has his crucifix and his rosary, and is still a brigand. "Nowhere is the Virgin more fervently adored than in the prisons [of Italy] by the malefactors and camorristi. The first demand made of a new-comer, immediately on his entry into the cells, is for a penny to furnish oil for the Virgin's lamp." This was the style of devotion of the mother of Micah, and the stream will rise no higher than its source. The man adopts his mother's religion, and the change is indicated in the clipping of his name, which, from Micajehu ("who is like Jehovah?") becomes Micah simply, meaning, probably, "who is dull of sight?"

Dull of sight he is, assuredly, keenly looking after his own interest all the while, for what more profitable than a god of your own manufacture and in your own possession? And all this takes place not in some remote corner of even the little Israelitish land, but in Mount Ephraim, quite near to Shiloh, where was the ark of God. Just so the golden calf was made under the shadow of Mount Sinai: for distance from God cannot be measured by latitude and longitude; heathenism is not the sigh of a heart that says, "Oh, that I knew where I might find Him!" No; it was "when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened," — which is just the transformation of a Micajehu into Micah.

Mount Ephraim is the place where Micah dwells, as it is the home of the Levite also in the story that follows this. It is in the practical life that diseases of this kind break out. We have seen the pride of Ephraim already developing itself in relation to Gideon and to Jephthah. Afterwards the rival kingdoms are a more enduring memorial of it, and Jeroboam's calf-worship is established close upon its border. Even true fruitfulness has its danger in this direction, and pride and idolatry are never far apart. We do not know the forms of Micah's idols: no doubt this is left vague, as unimportant: what matter what supplants God in the heart? — the evil is only that He is supplanted.

(2) Yet there is development: the thing is a living germ that grows. Micah with his gods must have his house of gods. Then he must have his ephod and his priest, and his gods themselves must be supplemented with the teraphim. All this was still "right" in Micah's eyes. When we are thus committed to the guidance of our own minds, quite a system may be easily elaborated; the further we advance, the more completely do we get astray. How careful need we to be as to beginnings!

The matter of priesthood troubles him. He first consecrates one of his sons to be his priest, but he is uneasy about it: some reminiscence of the law will not allow him peace. Strange that we find nothing to indicate any alarm of conscience about his rival tabernacle, or even about his carved and molten gods! And we often find this strange anomaly among men. Conscience may be alive and sensitive upon certain points, when upon others it seems dead or paralyzed. And it is often the minor thing to which it is sensitive, while to the greater it yields no response. Nor is this limited to unbelievers either, but the same thing is found among those that are truly the Lord's. In this case, however, as with Micah, it is generally the case that the awakened soul is easily quieted again, and with some half-truth which is but the perversion of truth. A Levite becomes his priest: and now he is radiant with satisfaction, and knows assuredly that Jehovah will do him good!

The Levite himself is another sign of the times. He is of the Levites of Judah, has been for a while in Bethlehem-judah, and wandered away again to find where he may another temporary resting-place. His is the restless foot of a stranger where he might have claimed inheritance, and he is ready to find a home where he should have been a stranger. Little solicitation prevails with him: his sustenance, a suit of clothes, a salary, has prevailed with many in all ages of the world, and the Levite exchanges his ministry for priesthood in the house of Micah, where the idolatry of the place is sanctified with Jehovah's name. All this is simple enough to read by those that care, and Christendom has exhibited every detail of this transformation, — not, alas, as it would seem, a long process: a manufactured priesthood for manufactured gods, all covered with a fair name of orthodoxy, and men doing with great satisfaction what is right in their own eyes!

(2.) And the evil does not stop with this. We are now to see how the private sin becomes a public sin, and roots itself in a tribe of Israel. The tribe of Dan we have seen long since as linked in Jacob's prophecy with apostasy. Dan is the typical judge, and it is here the failure begins, and is so disastrous. With Samson's failure the book ends; but here we see the Danite, from the first and all through, a failure. No tribe so signally fails to lay hold on its inheritance; and this is the only way in which we can understand that their lot had not fallen to them. They had suffered the Philistines to regain the cities upon the sea-coast, and the Amorites had forced them into the mountains. This loss of what is our own, and should be made our own, is often the reason of much restless activity among the people of God, and of much that looks like success in other directions. Their history, as far as their original possession is concerned, clings around Zorah and Eshtaol, significant names when cut off from the rest that God had allotted them. They are here seen forced by their own slothfulness or timidity to seek an inheritance elsewhere; and were then as violent and rapacious as before they were indolent. Human nature in fallen man commonly shows itself in extremes of this kind.

From Zorah and Eshtaol they send out spies to search the land. Refusing God's choice for us we have, of course, to search out for ourselves. This becomes a snare to them by means of Micah's images: the path that is not with God is always exposed to Satan's ambushes.

Micah finds his judgment also through the Levite who was to be the means of blessing to him from Jehovah. The wandering Levite had been known to these wandering Danites, and they learn from him all about his present employment. He is not ashamed to speak of his hired priesthood, and they are quite ready to consult his oracle. They get the usual ambiguous response, which they interpret according to their own desires: but the end of this is not yet.

So the five men come to Laish, and here find the opportunity they seek. The Canaanites are living quiet and secure, in lawless self-indulgence, which shows them ripe for the judgment of God. They are evidently an easy prey; and they return with the good news to their expectant brethren. God's good news they would have it; for we see with keen eyes the sins of others, and pronounce God's judgments readily enough. Self-interest and self-flattery are potent in begetting a kind of religion; and the spies talk piously and fervently to their brethren. Soon there is a little army assembled at Kirjath-jearim, the forest city, which gives its suited character to the "Camp of Dan."

(2) The six hundred follow the road taken by the spies, and come to the house of Micah; and here the union of superstition with immorality once more manifests itself in a startling way. The spies recall their visit to the Levite, and the opportunity of securing the images for themselves seems to them all too favorable to let pass. Gods so helpless and so beneficent, whose virtue they perhaps supposed they had already proved, — for in idolatry it is vain to deny an efficacy attributed to the image, and thus the superiority of this to that Madonna, although as representations they are all the same. But blindness here is absolute: "they that make them are like unto them," says the inspired Word; "so is every one that trusteth in them."

The hireling priest shows himself but a hireling. A greater personal advantage to himself outweighs at once all obligations to his employer, and he is "glad" of the robbery by which he is to benefit. For the Danites, as with other sacerdotalists today, it is not necessary to respect the man who by reason of his office is supposed to have the ear of God. Once again, morality is divorced from religion, and He is not glorified but dishonored in those that draw near to Him.

Little comment, surely, is needed here. The gainers have lost; the loser, if he knows it, has gained. The Danites depart with their booty in peace.

(3) The third part shows us, briefly, the end of this sad story. The surprise of Laish is complete; and the Canaanites, doomed of God before, are cut off. Laish becomes Dan. But there the idolatrous system begun by Micah is established, and abides till the captivity of the land; that is, as we are informed, as long as the house of God continued at Shiloh. When the ark went into captivity among the Philistines, the sanctuary at Shiloh came to an end (Ps. 78:60, 61); and with the reformation under Samuel, the idolatry under Dan was no doubt swept away.

But now we have revealed one of the saddest proofs of the decline in Israel that had already taken place. The name of the Levite priest is Jonathan ("Jehovah hath given,") the son of Gershom, the son of Moses: scarcely the grandson, but certainly a descendant not far removed, of the great lawgiver. Of this and not Manasseh, as the true reading, there is no doubt. Only respect for so honored a name that of Moses induced the alteration, — the "n" alone needed for it being suspended also over, rather than written in the word. "The significance of the statement," as Cassel observes, lies in the contrast between descendant and ancestor." So early and grave was the degeneracy of the people.

Subdivision 2. (Judges 19 — 21.)

Breach between man and man: the Benjamite war.

We now come to the sins against the second table of the law. The breach with God sunders all links at once, and the whole framework of society shows itself as ready to fall to pieces. The story here is a sickening one; and if it is thus given us in detail, there must be corresponding need on our part. It does not follow that it will furnish proportionate material for such notes as these, the lesson being so strictly a moral one, and needing so little an interpreter. But what a world is this, in which such scenes can be! The thing we need is to trace them to their root, and let the shock which they produce make us cling close to those paternal arms, which, circling us all, alone can hold us fast to one another.

We hear once more of Mount Ephraim and of Bethlehem-judah: the figure of a Levite is again prominent, and not with honor; but the place of Laish is now filled by Gibeah, and the tribe connected with it in shame is not Dan but Benjamin. But all Israel is here, in one way or other, involved; and the shadow left upon the people is a dark and terrible one.

1. We have first the account of the awful deed at Gibeah. The Levite and his concubine are evidently intended to convey to us the general laxity. The woman is hardly lighter than the man. The five days of eating and drinking at Bethlehem have their moral significance: then the departure, when too late; the notice of Jerusalem as a Jebusite city, twice apparently recovered out of the hands of the Israelites, and Judeans and Benjamites having been driven out from their partial hold upon it. It is now a city of the stranger; but no more strange than Gibeah of Benjamin, with its ominous lack of common hospitality. The one who receives them at last is an Ephraimite; and touched, perhaps, by the recognition of one from his own locality. His Levite character seems not to be in the traveler's mind,* — though he is afraid, as well he might be, of the Canaanite city.

{*Except with Keil and Cassel we translate verse 18, "I walk at the house of Jehovah," that is, "my walk in life" is there. But few accept this however, and the expression seems a strange one. On the other hand, the mention of the house of Jehovah at all seems strange also, as he was simply going home. If he speaks of his calling, however, it seems mere wounded dignity.}

There follows the horrible outbreak,which makes him realize that the Israelite city is as bad as any Canaanite one. All through it is a repetition of the Sodomite outrage, but without the angel-guard that insured things there. The old man, their host, repeats Lot's offer. The Levite, for his own safety's sake, abandons his concubine to the insane fury of the crowd. The morning finds her dead, with her hands stretched, imploring and in vain, over the violated threshold.

Then comes the call for judgment, — itself brutal, and effective in its brutality. The doubly dishonored body makes its own ghastly appeal, and all Israel is summoned to give its answer.

2. And not in vain is the summons. Israel gather, by their representatives, from Dan to Beersheba, save only the tribe involved, and the Levite at Mizpeh recounts the awful story, — reticent, naturally, however, as to his own part in it. The people respond with prompt determination, and all the men of Israel are gathered against the city, knit together as one man.

But Benjamin refuses the appeal to them, and gathers to the defense of Gibeah with sullen resolution. They are practiced warriors, and seem to build upon it, though but little more than a fifteenth part of the combined forces opposed. Israel has, too, the house of God; and it is not a moment doubtful on which side He will be. How fearful must be, then, the condition of those that can thus fling themselves into the adverse ranks!

The united people, on the other hand, do not neglect to consult the divine oracle. They inquire as to who shall lead on the attack upon Benjamin, and are answered, "Judah shall be first." But to be fit to be used of God to deal with evil involves much more than readiness to be His instrument. They are too ready, as we see in the result. Their wrath is too prompt, too implacable, too unsparing. Theirs is the reckless haste of vengeance, and not the solemn discrimination of divine judgment. They remember not their own sins, bring no sin-offering to God, no tears of penitence. They build on their numbers; no doubt on the justice of their cause, also, but in self-righteousness and without self-suspicion. Thus they go up to smite, and they are smitten heavily, disastrously. Benjamin, the wrong-doer, is wholly victorious.

Then, indeed, they go up and weep before Jehovah, and seem to remember that Benjamin is their "brother," and inquire, shall they go up against him any more? They are answered, simply, "Go up"; and when they go are again smitten almost as heavily as before. Their losses in these two encounters far exceed the whole number of the men of Benjamin, — exceed them by half as many again.

What a lesson as to the hasty and self-righteous judgment of real iniquity! Yet the word from Jehovah was, none the less, "Go up"; and such judgment of it is as imperatively necessary today. But it must be judgment all round, — self-judgment before any other. And now they come up once more before God, and weep, and offer at last burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, fasting that day till even: and they are heard of God, and obtain the assurance that tomorrow Benjamin will be given up into their hand.

Remembering the connection of Bethel with the life of Jacob, and the discipline to which he is made to bow — that it is here the ark of God is at this time, and not at Shiloh, the place of "peace," — must be surely significant. And now we see on the part of Israel a self-distrust they had not before. The stratagem at Ai is repeated, and with a like result; for Benjamin, elated with their previous victories, easily fall into the snare, and are only awakened at last, too late, when they see Gibeah going up in flame to heaven. Destruction falls overwhelmingly upon them: only six hundred men escape to the cliff of Rimmon. The rest — with women and children, everything in their cities the merciless edge of the sword devours. For one awful crime of Gibeah, thousands of innocent lives pay forfeit. But the state, everywhere, we see is frightful. All this time the insult to God in Dan abides unnoticed: a web of heathen cities is suffered to entangle them with the abominations of Baal and Ashtaroth-worship, while indiscriminating judgment extirpates almost one tribe in Israel. The facts need here but the briefest comment.

3. At last, when the sword has done its reckless work, and a few hundred young men, stripped of all that they held dear in life, alone remain, the people wake up to realize the result of their own handiwork; and to inquire, as if of an inscrutable Providence, why this had come to pass. And now they find themselves bound by their own past acts, in which they must seem to have deliberately contemplated the extinction of a tribe, which they had almost accomplished, and of which they are quite ready to throw the blame on God. They had bound themselves, under a curse, not to give a wife to a Benjamite. And now, instead of bringing this in penitential sorrow before God, and seeking to be loosed from their folly, they take the matter once more into their cruel hands.

The inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead had sent no aid to Israel in the war; and this, with another of their desperate oaths, they had adjudged a crime worthy of death. One oath is made the means of evading another; and they send an expedition against the unfortunate city to inflict the ban of utter destruction upon it, reserving only by an exception which they had no right to make, but which condemned their wholesale and pitiless slaughter — four hundred young maidens for wives to Benjamin.

But this is not enough, and they must have another expedient. Scrupulous oath-keepers as they are, who must not give their daughters, they consider it all right that the Benjamites should steal them; and actually suggest a festival to Jehovah as a good opportunity for them to do this! Then they will intercede for them with the aggrieved relations: and this is the plan that is finally carried out.

This is Israel, the people of God: infirm and wavering where good is to be accomplished; quick and decisive where patience and forbearance would become them; tolerant of what is only against God; fierce and unsparing in judgment, save only of themselves; scrupulously keeping an insane oath, yet managing to evade it by a jesuitry that deceives no one. Such is the people of God, and such is Christendom today; and such it has been. Let us search our hearts as we read the record, — not given as a record without purpose in it. How solemn is the repetition at the end of what has been the text of these closing chapters: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did what was right in his own eyes."