Arguments from silence can be risky, but Scripture uses such an argument with devastating effect in Judges 17 – 21.
The narratives in these five chapters show the covenant community of Israel in complete moral collapse. But the intriguing thing is that the historian allows the events to speak largely for themselves. There is no such comment as ‘the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord’.
In the episode concerning Micah and the Danites (Judges 17 – 18), practically every commandment in the Decalogue is broken.
Take the Second Table: Micah dishonoured his mother (17:2); the Danites threatened murder (18:25); Micah both stole and was stolen from (17:2; 18:24). Moses’ great grandson — no less — proved false to his promise and his benefactor (18:20); and the Danites were so covetous of Micah’s idols they needed little incitement to steal than the suggestion, ‘now therefore consider what you should do’ (18:14).
Nothing in the first narrative relates to the 7th Commandment and adultery, but the second narrative begins with an account of the ‘Benjamite outrage’ (chap. 19) and moves on to civil war within Israel (chap. 20).
It describes sexual infidelity, attempted homosexual gang rape and actual heterosexual gang rape. It revolves around sexual violence and ends in the forcible abduction of two groups of virgins (chap. 21).
The central figures in these chapters are not without status and moral responsibility; they are Levites, those charged with the spiritual care of Israel. But the first is a disloyal, mercenary-minded ‘time server’, the second only exceeded in heartlessness (19:28) by the perpetrators of the ‘Benjamite outrage’.
The writer of Judges never sinks to the prurient depths of today’s UK daily newspapers as he describes ‘life in the raw’, but narrates these incidents in such clear detail as to make sections of them difficult to read aloud in public worship.
These accounts are, however, essential keys to understanding life in a society that is undergoing moral implosion — the kind of society Western readers know all too much about. That it is possible for believers to survive spiritually in such an environment is demonstrated by the contemporaneous book of Ruth.
There is only one interpretative comment the sacred historian (Samuel?) makes in Judges 17 – 21. It is a phrase repeated three times. The writer digs down into the moral mess to draw up this aphorism — ‘In those days there was no king in Israel: everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 21:25).
The historian’s programme for restoring Israel is revealed in this phrase as more than moral renovation; it is complete spiritual renewal. Israel’s moral anarchy was a symptom rather than a cause; its cause was much profounder — the departure of Israel from its covenant king, Yahweh.
A few generations earlier, the Lord had declared his name to Israel as Yahweh, or ‘I AM’ (Exodus 3), and by a series of supernatural acts delivered his people from slavery in Egypt. He had judged the Egyptians, hurling Pharaoh’s pursuing chariots and armies into the Red Sea (Exodus 7 – 15).
He had led Israel out of Egypt and through the desert, and given visible manifestations of his protecting presence, including the pillars of cloud and fire. He had supernaturally provided food and water and given victory over the armies of Amalek (Exodus 16 – 17). He had brought the people of Israel safely to Mount Sinai.
At Sinai the Lord bound the nation to himself in covenant treaty (Exodus 19:4-6) — Yahweh was now their king, and they his people. Their love and gratitude to him was to be expressed in wholehearted obedience to the covenant’s stipulations, centred on the Ten Commandments. The ethos of this relationship, established through divine redemption at the Passover, was, ‘You shall be holy; for I am holy’ (Leviticus 11:44).
In the same way, Christians today know that, under the new covenant, the natural outworking of love to Jesus Christ is wholehearted obedience to the law of the Lord (1 John 2:2-3).
Under both old and new covenants, moral anarchy is symptomatic of departure from the king, of unfaithfulness to Christ. Everyone only does what is right in their own eyes when there is no king in Israel.
Christians also learn from Judges 17 – 21 that Christians are not just to react to moral anarchy in today’s society by throwing up their hands in horror, but are to be spurred to realise that the people have no king and need reconnecting with Jesus Christ.
This reconnection is called ‘reconciliation’ and is only achieved because of the death of Christ, God’s antitype for the Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). It is Christ’s blood sprinkled on the consciences of guilty, but repentant, sinners that brings moral healing and renewal.
What can be more appalling than the gang rape of a woman, followed by her dismemberment and the distribution of her body parts in twelve different directions? Yet the Judges’ historian is not giving a lecture on morals, but aiming at a return to the king.
What can be more disgusting than two unsuspecting overnight guests being threatened with homosexual rape by people from within God’s own covenant community?
But, don’t be too shocked! Anything goes where there is no king in Israel. And don’t be too shocked by what you read, see and hear in today’s society. Anything goes without Christ as king!
But all this leads to the question, how could the Old Testament church sink to such depths so soon after the Exodus?
The answer is found particularly in what is called the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17 – 26). In this section of the Pentateuch, the sins which Israel is warned against include deep sexual perversions like incest, homosexuality and bestiality.
These unmentionables are not there as museum exhibits of spiritual pathology, but to describe contemporaneous sins actually being practised by the Canaanites, into whose territory God had brought his people and among whom the Israelites continued to dwell.
Not only were they practised by the Canaanites, but they were integral to Canaanite religion: Israel’s unholiness was Canaan’s ‘holiness’!
Canaan was ‘flowing with milk and honey’, a nation of great agricultural fertility, but the Canaanites ascribed this fertility to their gods (the Baalim), whom they believed were geographically located on specific plots of land and were responsible for their productivity.
Sexual perversion and even human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 18:10; 12:3) were employed in sympathetic magic to ensure that the Baalim gave life-giving rain and renewed fertility.
Alongside the principal god, Baal, was Asherah, his consort goddess, whose spirit was believed to reside in wooden poles near the stone Baal pillars (Deuteronomy 7:5). These two gods together governed all the affairs of fertility, sex and war.
Asherah’s vicious character is well illustrated in the ancient Baal epic poem:
‘She smites the people of the sea shore
Destroys mankind of the sunrise…
She piles up heads on her back
She ties up hands in her bundle…
Anat gluts her liver with laughter
Her heart is filled with joy’.
Why did Israel depart so quickly from her God after the Exodus? Because she daily exposed herself to temptations she would never have experienced if she had obeyed the Lord in completely exterminating the Canaanites and their debased religion (Deuteronomy 7:1-6).
Orgiastic and ecstatic communion with the idols in their ‘high places’; taming and manipulating local spirits; debased sensuality and hedonistic worship; and everything divorced from ethical considerations — it was all calculated to make Israel exchange her covenant king with Baal, who provided a far more pleasurable way to achieve material prosperity.
Only those Israelites who appreciated the costly nature of redemption through the blood of the lamb and (as far as they were allowed to see) its antitype in the Messiah’s death would be motivated to maintain complete faithfulness to God’s covenant, whatever the cost.
The easy downhill path of covenant unfaithfulness was the path taken by most Israelite people for most of the time, in the days of the Judges. It has also been the spiritual path taken by millions in our nation, privileged with a rich Christian heritage, over the past 150 years. The King of kings has been decisively rejected.
Only the inexplicably gracious covenant faithfulness of the Lord could rescue Israel from complete implosion. And that faithfulness was manifested in the ministry of the Judges, and of Samuel in particular. These ‘saviours’ became in their activities prophetic types of Christ, the great Saviour.
Our nation today is in moral crisis. But it needs to rediscover, more than anything else, not just good morals, but that there is a gracious king who can be sought for and found.
That king is immeasurably superior to all the gods of hedonism and secularism. He is the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who purchased the church with his own precious blood (Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Peter 1:18-19).