Everyone Did That Which Was Right in His Own Eyes, Part 3
In Part 3, we show how the ethical and moral values of the people were now based on what seemed right in their own eyes and we'll consider several ways in which the same thing could so easily happen in our lives.
As we saw last time, chapters 17 and 18 of Judges show how Israel’s religious practices had become corrupted or “Canaanized,” perhaps only a generation or two after entering the land.
This time we’ll begin to consider how Judges 19-21 show that, as a result, the ethical and moral values of the people were no longer based on anything God said but only on what seemed right in their own eyes. We’ll also consider several ways in which the same thing could so easily happen in our lives.
Chapter 19 introduces us to the two principal characters of this part of the account: a wandering Levite and his concubine. We are not told their names—in fact, we are not told the names of any of the individuals who appear in chapters 19 to 21.
This may suggest that the ungodly attitudes and behavior we read about were not confined to these individuals alone but were widespread in the Israelite community. It may also suggest that the author of Judges intended to emphasize the “dehumanization” of Israelite culture: as their society grew more and more like Canaan’s, individual people (mainly women, as we will see in these chapters) ceased to matter or have value as children of God made in his image and began to be seen as little more than objects for pleasure or convenience.
Daniel I. Block, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, sums up the situation like this: “Because Israel refuses to acknowledge Yahweh as king, the nation lacks a theological reason for not sinking to the ethical level of the Canaanites at the personal, tribal, and national levels”¹
Although this people claims to be the people of Yahweh, their conduct and their consequent fate contradict this claim. In chapter 19, we see that the concubine has left her husband the Levite and returned to her father’s house.
Social degradation inevitably leads to moral degradation
We are not told why she left him or on which side of the relationship the fault lay. Was she unfaithful to him, perhaps working as a prostitute on the side? Or was she attempting to flee an abusive relationship? Whatever the reason, in verse 3, he went after her, apparently genuinely seeking reconciliation, and she seemed happy enough to welcome him into her father’s house.
It should be noted that this will be the last time in the account that this woman will take an active role. From this point on, she will play an entirely passive role, with all of the decisions and actions affecting her being taken by the men, who do not consult her at any point.
This should not surprise us, for in a patriarchal society such as Israel at the time of the judges, a woman would be expected to take the submissive role. While the writer does not appear to be criticizing patriarchal society per se, this passage does emphasize the horrors that can take place in such societies if the men in charge treat women as inferiors, or worse, as mere objects, instead of taking seriously their responsibility to respect, protect and provide for them.
Block describes it as “a social system in which men rule over women in the worst sense of the phrase and sacrifice them for their own interests rather than providing responsible leadership and sacrificing themselves for the best interests of women”²
Leadership within the ecclesia or the family is about self-sacrificial care and provision (Eph 5:25). It is not about getting to rule or dominate the ecclesia or force obedience from those for whom we are responsible. We are one family in Christ, and all of us should feel the same sense of loyalty and affection to all of our brothers and sisters, not just those who are our biological family or close friends.
Israel, in Judges 19-21, had forgotten that.
In these chapters, we see time and again that, with God’s authority ignored and everyone doing what was right in his own eyes, there was no social cohesion, nothing to hold the twelve tribes together as a single family. Social degradation inevitably leads to moral degradation, as we shall see.
When we no longer respect or value people as individuals made in God’s image and with the potential to be his children, our treatment of them will inevitably grow worse. When we begin to see people from other countries or backgrounds or ethnicities as different or inferior to ourselves, that sense of familial loyalty and affection will be lost. We may find ourselves ignoring their needs and cries for help, or using them for what they can give us and then abandoning them once our needs are met, or exploiting them in some way for our pleasure or benefit.
This is illustrated most horrifically for us in the account of what happened in Gibeah.
The tragic irony is that the Levite ignored his servant’s suggestion to spend the night in Jebus since he expected they would receive a better welcome in an Israelite town than a Canaanite one. On the surface of it, this might seem a sensible enough decision. If you were to find yourself in an unfamiliar place, needing somewhere to spend the night and without enough money for a hotel, would you feel safer in the home of an unbeliever or the home of a brother and sister in Christ?
The Levite did not appear to be aware of the extent to which the culture and moral values of Canaan had taken over the Israelite people. Having said that, the requirement to show hospitality to visiting strangers was not unique to Israel. It was common through the Ancient Near East.
Perhaps we see here another example of people who were supposed to be faithful to God having rejected him so entirely that they had sunk even lower than the entirely godless people around them (see, e.g., 2 Chr 33:9). The human mind which has been exposed to the mind of Christ but has then decided to reject him completely may find itself, as a result, sinking into a deeper and darker place than it would have done if it had never encountered Christ in the first place (see, e.g., 2 Pet 2:17-22; Heb 6:4-8).
The Levite and his party may have been better off going to Jebus! We would naturally expect better treatment from our brothers and sisters than we would expect from people in the world. Yet, we cannot automatically assume that taking the name “brother/ sister in Christ” makes us inherently better than anyone else. Our attitude and behavior and treatment of others will only be better than that of the world if it is based on Jesus and what he taught, and if we continually seek to transform ourselves to become more like him.
Suppose we rely on our self-identity as “brother/sister in Christ” and assume our moral superiority to everyone else, yet follow our own hearts and do what’s right in our own eyes. In that case, we won’t treat people any better than the world does.
On arrival in Gibeah, it quickly became apparent that its inhabitants felt no sense of loyalty to those outside their tribe or city. Despite the lateness of the hour, the Levite and his party were utterly ignored. To our eyes, that may seem rude or unkind, yet in that culture, it would have been seen as a shocking lack of even the most basic common decency. An entire city of people had sunk to the level of not even meeting the world’s standards of behavior, let alone God’s.
We should pause to consider whether the same attitude can be found in our own hearts. Do we truly see ourselves as part of a worldwide family in Christ, or have we become divided into different groups and factions? Are our loyalty and our religion concerned only with the interests of our local ecclesia and the people in it? Or the people in our social clique or biological family? Do we let family or “tribal” loyalty take priority over the fellowship we should feel for all of our brothers and sisters regardless of nationality, social class or race?
The Levite and his party were finally taken in for the night, not by anyone of Gibeah, but by another outsider, an Ephraimite who happened to be temporarily living there. Did his status as an outsider make him feel more inclined to look out for them? Might that tell us something about those who are more likely to look out for the needs of the marginalized and abused in our midst? Do we tend to look inwards at our own interests and concerns or outwards at those who are seeking help?
Block explains it like this: “He insists that whatever they do, these travelers must not spend the night in the city square. The old man does not say why. Since this is a walled city, they should be safe from outsiders, but as a resident alien he has learned that the problem is inside. He knows the ways of the citizens of Gibeah all too well.”³
While it may seem obvious to look at the world and see the evil and the darkness of people’s hearts and keep ourselves away from it, are we equally watchful for instances of the same darkness within our midst?
Verses 22-30 have several similarities with the story of Sodom in Genesis 19. This is not accidental. Sodom was no doubt used as a byword for the utmost depravity which deserved destruction from God. Here the writer makes the point that an Israelite town has sunk to the same level. Do they deserve any better from God than Sodom did?
Interestingly enough, we are told very little of God’s thoughts or reaction to the events of Judges 19. Perhaps this is because the Israelites had ceased asking him or even thinking about him. As the men of Gibeah surrounded the house, demanding that the Levite be handed over to satisfy their lusts, the old man stood up to them. He denounced their evil behavior, both in their refusal to show hospitality and their demands to have illicit sexual relations with the Levite.
when that world makes demands of us, how do we respond?
At first, he may appear to have been a faithful man making a stand for godly principles, yet his noble words didn’t last long. In his efforts to protect the Levite, he offered up the concubine and his own daughter as a sacrifice in his place. Even he was only doing what was right in his own eyes. His interest lay not in defending God’s principles but only in protecting his male guest and his honor as a host. These vulnerable women, whose only hope of protection lay with him, were entirely expendable for that end.
In Genesis 19, Lot made essentially the same offer to the men of Sodom. We likewise can look at the world around us and see much that is vile and depraved, such as modern Western society’s obsession with sex, money, power and other vices.
We would hopefully consider ourselves to be separate from that world. Yet when that world makes demands of us, how do we respond?
Would you offer up your own spouse or child to save your own skin? Perhaps not. But are there other situations in which you would be prepared to sacrifice or compromise the physical or spiritual wellbeing of those for whom you are responsible?
Would you be prepared to let the world pour ungodly ideas into your children’s heads if refusing to allow it would get you into trouble? Would you be prepared to neglect your family’s spiritual needs to agree to extra demands at work? Would you be prepared to sacrifice either principle or people to maintain your reputation, either within the meeting or at work, or in your local community?
Like the old man in this passage, we may be so worried about “honor” and reputation that we end up doing some fairly dishonorable acts. Why pursue or try to maintain a reputation that our thoughts and actions don’t justify? To what lengths are we prepared to go to give other people a perception of ourselves which is very different from who we are inside?
The world around us will apply pressure for us to be what it considers “good Christians,” that is, people who do good deeds and care for the needy while keeping our mouths shut on what the Bible says about the way humans ought to behave. Will we give in to that pressure, or will we instead pursue what God considers “good Christians” to be?
It’s unclear which of the two men threw the concubine out to the men of Gibeah. In most English translations, the text reads “the man.” Either way, the Levite did not protest and is not recorded as showing any concern for her safety. In the morning, he “rose up,” which may suggest he did not have much trouble sleeping despite what was happening to her.
In the morning, his lack of concern continued, as he simply demanded she get up so they can continue on their way. It was only when he realized she was dead that he seemed to begin caring (or perhaps it was even worse than that—one commentary suggests that the text is ambiguous over the question of whether she was already dead when he found her or whether he, finding her disfigured, but still living, body to be no longer attractive to him, finished her off himself).
Having left Gibeah and returned to his own home, he divided up her body and sent the pieces to the twelve tribes, calling for justice to be done to the perpetrators of this great moral outrage. However, the question must be asked: was he outraged at what had been done to an innocent woman or at the offense against himself and his honor? What about us? Are we more likely to feel outrage and a thirst for justice when we see innocent people worse off than ourselves treated appallingly? Or are we only motivated to demand justice when we are in some way affected by it?
Perhaps, like the Levite, we should sometimes be prepared to ask ourselves if some of the terrible injustices around the world could have been mitigated or avoided if we’d proactively done something to help people in need when we had a chance, rather than just reactively protest when it was too late.
Human beings who are struggling to process their inner guilt can often project it into an expression of anger towards wrongs done by others. Sometimes a person who cannot bring themselves to admit their fault and confess it to others will double down on their accusations and demand punishment towards someone else who was part of the same problem.
Is that something you ever find yourself doing? Chapter 19 ends with “all who saw” one of the dismembered parts of the woman’s body, declaring that “such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day.” (Judg 19:30).
While this may seem an appropriate reaction from godly people to something so evil in their midst, notice that they make no mention of God. People loyal to God and mindful of his covenant would have been more likely to say, “from the day that the LORD God brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt.”
Next time we’ll examine in more detail their response to the Levite’s cry for justice and consider what this means for us and how we respond to times of crisis or acts of great evil.
1 Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, Publishers, 1999), from the New American Commentary series. Pages 521-522.
2 ibid. Page 543.
3 ibid. Pages 531-532.