Everyone Did That Which Was Right in His Own Eyes (Part 2)
The original mandate for the Israelites from God had been to drive the Canaanites out of the promised land but within perhaps as little as a generation or two after entering the land, the opposite had sadly taken place.
In the previous article, we summarized the events recorded in Judges 17-21 and considered the steady moral decline of the Israelite tribes after they entered the promised land under Joshua. In this article and the one to follow, we will look at those chapters again, this time to search for patterns or principles that might equally apply in our own lives today.
Judges 17-21 describe what one commentator calls the “Canaanization”¹ of the Israelites. Their original mandate from God had been to drive the Canaanites out of the promised land (e.g., Deut 7:1- 6). Sadly, the concluding chapters of Judges (and their broader context) show that within perhaps as little as a generation or two after entering the land, the opposite had taken place.
This process of “Canaanization” was taking place in two distinct ways: religious and ethical.
The Canaanites remained in many areas and, even more disastrously, many of the Israelites had begun to adopt their religious practices. While God’s system of sending judges on a mostly ad hoc basis was successfully keeping the Israelites from being militarily or economically overpowered by their enemies, it was doing nothing to prevent them from being slowly absorbed into the Canaanite culture.
This process of “Canaanization” was taking place in two distinct ways: religious and ethical. Judges 17 and 18 describe how Israel’s religious worship, despite having a surface veneer of true loyalty to Yahweh, had underneath become, at best, a compromise with the pagan practices of the surrounding peoples, and, at worst, little different from them at all. Judges 19 to 21 describes how Israel’s ethical principles had become at based only on what seemed right in their own eyes with little or no reference to God.
As we examine these two areas, we will see that in both cases, what started as a small, localized example of ungodliness eventually grew into something far more widespread and devastating.
Chapter 17 introduces us to three characters: Micah, his mother, and a wandering Levite (later identified in chapter 18 as Jonathan). On the surface, each of them might have appeared to their acquaintances as genuinely faithful Israelites.
Micah’s mother had given her son the name “Who is like Yahweh?” and when he confessed his theft and returned the silver to her, she blessed him in Yahweh’s name and dedicated the returned silver to Yahweh. Micah repented of the theft and eagerly sought Yahweh’s blessings by building his homemade shrine and hiring a genuine Levite as a priest. Jonathan the Levite accepted a position serving as a family priest of Yahweh.
However, those who knew their Torah and looked beyond the surface would have realized that all was not what it seemed.
Micah’s mother did nothing to discipline him for the theft and did not question any of his further actions regarding making an idol or setting up his shrine. Micah only repented because he feared the curse his mother had uttered. He used less than 20% of the dedicated money to build his shrine and presumably kept the rest for himself. His construction of an idol and homemade shrine was strictly forbidden by the Torah, as was hiring a Levite to be a family priest. Only the descendants of Aaron could serve as priests and only in the temple, not in private homes.
Furthermore, while Micah initially appointed Jonathan to be a “father” to him (v. 10), someone he could look to for teaching and example, the relationship apparently changed as time went on. Jonathan became “like one of his sons” (v. 11), suggesting that the spiritual influence began to go the other way. Jonathan is described as wandering around without any real purpose, looking for any place he could temporarily call home contrary to his God-given responsibility as a Levite to teach people God’s law.
However, those who knew their Torah and looked beyond the surface would have realized that all was not what it seemed.
His reaction to Micah should have been to correct him, urging him to destroy the idol and the shrine and worship at God’s tabernacle instead. While it’s easy for us to read accounts such as this and shake our heads in amusement or disgust at how anyone could fool themselves into thinking this was true worship of Yahweh, if we honestly examine ourselves, how would we compare?
No doubt, many of us look like good, sound, faithful brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus on the outside. No doubt, many of us regularly attend the meeting, participate in preaching events, join in social activities, read our Bibles, sing our hymns, say our prayers and so on. Yet what impact is all of that having on our inner selves?
Are you truly repentant of your sins—do you want to change to be like God—or are you, like Micah, just looking to avoid punishment for whatever it is you’ve done?
When you promise God to do something or give something, as Micah did, do you truly follow through with what you said you would do? Or does God have to “make do” with what little you have left after you’ve seen to your real priorities in life?
Is God the number one “ultimate” thing in your life, or do you, too, have idols? Could idols be things we rely on to the exclusion of God, or anything that you could not give up in favor of God?
Do you have a definite sense of purpose where your faith is concerned? Do you have goals you are striving toward? Or are you, like Jonathan, merely coasting through life and dealing with whatever happens to come your way?
Do you fulfill your God-given responsibility to tell people what the word of God says about what they’re doing or the way they’re living? Or do you find it easier to stay silent for fear of offending someone or of being seen as a troublemaker or a bigot?
Who amongst your brothers and sisters do you look to for teaching and example? Is it those with wisdom, experience and knowledge to be a “father” or a “mother” in the truth? Do you look for teachers and elders who will challenge you to step out of your comfort zone and hold you to account, or will you only accept those who will entertain you and tell you what you want to hear?
When we examine ourselves honestly, no doubt each of us will answer that set of questions in a slightly different way, depending on our various life experiences and perspectives. And yet, having considered yourself, do you still find it so easy to look at Micah and Jonathan and shake your head in amazement or disgust?
One commentary describes Jonathan as follows: “This person is shiftless. He has no passion for God, no sense of divine calling, no burden of responsibility. He is a ‘laid back’ professional minister following the path of least resistance and waiting for an opportunity to open up.”¹
This young Levite—quite possibly a grandson of Moses—should have been one of the leading lights of the Israelites, teaching God’s way faithfully by both word and example. Instead, he reduced himself to a wandering mercenary performer of religious ritual. The same commentary then summarizes Judges 17 with these words: “The religious establishment in Israel has been thoroughly infected with the Canaanite disease.”
This is a crucial point.
We can assume godlessness and apathy toward the truth creeps into our community from the outside. We may think it starts with those who might be “on the fringes,” who don’t quite “fit in” or whose views don’t align with our community’s longheld traditions.
Likewise, we may feel confident there is no need to carefully examine those “on the inside.” We may feel those who adhere to long-held traditions, who are highly respected and soughtafter teachers, or who have impeccable family credentials and connections are beyond reproach. The example of this young Levite should give us cause to reconsider.
In chapter 17, we saw the problem of Canaanized religious practice, idolatry disguised as genuine worship of God, as it affected one single household. Micah’s home most likely was not unique or exceptional in this regard. He was presented merely as one example of what was going on in numerous households across the land.
In chapter 18, we see the same problem on a larger scale, that of an entire tribe. Without a king or any other kind of central authority with the power and willingness to investigate and stamp out false worship, it had spread to encompass the entire tribe of Dan.
Applying this principle to our community can be a little tricky, since we do not have a single human leader or centralized authority with the power to investigate and stamp out false teaching and practices. In New Testament times, it seems that each ecclesia had its own body of elders who exercised responsibility for leadership and teaching on a local basis. Yet they could, if necessary, be overridden by the apostles, who had authority from God to oversee the ecclesial community.
In the 21st century, we do not recognize any of our members as having that same apostolic authority. Each of our meetings has the autonomy to shepherd and discipline its members. This responsibility means that those appointed as elders and teachers should possess the required wisdom, knowledge, zeal and compassion to guide and instruct those under their care.
Eldership can, of course, be exercised incorrectly. On the one hand, it can be done too leniently or not at all, as was the case in Judges 17-21. We might end up in a position in which everyone does whatever is right in his or her own eyes. Elders have a responsibility to lead well (1 Pet 5:1-4).
Likewise, those under their care have a responsibility to listen and follow their lead (Heb 13:17). It can be very tempting for us to say, “I answer only to God, I don’t have to listen to you,” when we are challenged or corrected, but we should always be prepared to examine our motivations. Would you say such things out of loyalty to God or a desire to be left alone to do what’s right in your own eyes?
We are very good at deceiving ourselves that the things right in our eyes are also right in God’s eyes.
On the other hand, eldership can be abused and/or misused when done so in the spirit and form of domination and control (1 Pet 5:2-3), where everyone is forced to do whatever is right in the elders’ eyes, rather than the eyes of God. The irony of Judges 18 is that while Israel’s divine mandate was to drive the Canaanites and their appalling practices out of the land, the tribe of Dan is shown to have become exactly like the Canaanites.
This happens even while they are supposedly obeying God by driving them out of Laish. It is an equally sad irony that in our day too, those who find themselves possessed of a zeal to drive ungodliness and false teaching out of the community can so easily find themselves blind to their own errors and shortcomings. And in some cases, they can end up doing far more damage to the faith of their brothers and sisters than was ever caused by those they sought to drive out. Unfortunately, as human beings, we are very good at deceiving ourselves, particularly at finding ways to convince ourselves that the things right in our eyes are also right in God’s eyes.
We see an example of this in Judges 18:5-6 as the Danite scouting party seeks to secure a new portion of land to call home. In Judges 1:34, we find that they are in this position due to their failure to conquer their original tribal allotment. Instead of turning to God in humility and asking for help to overcome the Amorites, they looked for a different solution (one that was right in their own eyes), and went to seek an easier target.
How do you react when the path God has set ahead of you seems too hard, or when you have tried to walk that path but failed? Would you give up and look for an easier way? Or would you come to God in humility and ask for His help and guidance?
The Danites concluded that Laish was a far better prospect than their original allotment. The people were isolated from their Sidonian overlords and were apparently overconfident or lax in their defenses. The Danites felt they could do to Laish what they hadn’t been able to do to the Amorites. Was this because it seemed an easier prospect militarily, or were they prepared to take a greater risk for a bigger and more attractive prize than the Amorite land?
We are always tempted by the path that seems easier than the one God has chosen for us or the outcome that seems more attractive in the short term. We must always remember the way to true life in the Kingdom of God is narrow and difficult (Matt 7:13-14), and what awaits us there is incomparably greater than anything we might be able to achieve by ourselves in this life (Rom 8:18-21).
The way to overcome these temptations is to ensure that God, through His word, remains the ultimate authority in our lives.
When we stop listening to God, we will inevitably start listening to some other authority, one that comes far more naturally to us as human beings. For us, doing that which is “right in our own eyes” will typically mean doing whatever is normal or necessary for success and popularity in the 21st century Western world.
The world may tell us to trust our feelings and follow our heart to find our own truth and the way we ought to live. The world makes us trust our natural reasoning and senses to make empirical observations and logical deductions about how society is and how we ought to shape it. God’s word makes it clear that the human heart and brain (e.g., Jer 17:9, Matt 15:19) cannot be trusted to determine what is ultimately good and right.
As stated at the outset, Judges 17- 21 describes how the nation of Israel, despite their promise to remain faithful to God, had become “Canaanized” to match the original inhabitants of the land. In Judges 17 and 18, we’ve seen some examples of how their religious outlook and practices had been corrupted and considered some of the ways the same principles can apply to us.
Next time we’ll look at chapters 19- 21 to see how corruption in religious views and practices inevitably led to a deterioration of ethical and moral values, and again consider the implications for our own lives.
1 Judges, Ruth by D I Block, from the New American Commentary series. “Canaanization” -> page 473 onwards.