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Everyone Did
That Which Was Right
in His Own Eyes

Let us reflect on our responsibility to ensure that God’s word is faithfully taught, reminding each other of our shared convictions, preaching to anyone who will listen and teaching our young.
Read Time: 10 minutes
“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

This phrase appears twice in the book of Judges, in 17:6 and 21:25, the book’s last verse. It functions as a pair of bookends for these chapters and sums up the situation in the land of Israel at that time and the general attitude of the people.

There was no centralized political or military control of the Israelite people at this time. Each tribe was led by its own chiefs or elders, and each local community felt free to govern its own affairs. It was also likely there was no centralized religious authority or teaching. God gave the tribe of Levi the responsibility for teaching His law (Lev 10:11; Deut 31:9-13, 33:10).

Without central authority, however, the implementation of this responsibility depended on the circumstances in each local community. The message of Judges 17-21 indicates this duty was generally not taking place. The intent of Judges chapters 17-21 was not to show a comprehensive account of any particular time in Israel’s history but a series of “snapshots” indicating the attitude produced by an environment without central authority.

Everyone did what was right in his own eyes, and ultimately sinful behavior came as a result. As we consider the events recorded in these chapters, let us reflect on our responsibility to ensure that God’s word is faithfully taught, reminding each other of our shared convictions, preaching to anyone who will listen and teaching our young.

It is highly unlikely any of us will hear God’s word truthfully expounded from many other sources in today’s secular Western nations. If we don’t teach God’s values and principles, the non-spiritual world will be only too happy to fill our minds and hearts with its own.

In Judges 17, we see a young man, Micah, stealing money from his mother and then confessing the theft only out of superstitious fear of a curse she had uttered. Instead of instructing or disciplining him, she praises him. Together they dedicate the money to God and use some of it (less than 20%) to make an idol.

Everyone did what was right in his own eyes, and ultimately sinful behavior came as a result.

Micah then set up his own worship center, complete with that idol, as well as a shrine, an ephod and a family priest. Later he meets a wandering Levite and offers him the (paid) position of household priest. The chapter concludes with Micah expressing confidence God will bless him because he now has a Levite as his priest.

Given that our key passage states “everyone” did what was right in his own eyes, we can assume Micah stands as an example of what many other Israelite households were doing at the time. In Micah, we see a man who professes faithfulness to God yet seems to be ignorant about God’s requirements for godly worship.

He does not appear to be repentant over his theft. He dedicates money to God, yet keeps most of it for himself. He thinks he can worship God through a man-made image. He appears to have some vague understanding of how the worship in the tabernacle took place—he knows an ephod is involved and that the tribe of Levi was chosen for the priesthood. He believes that this woefully inadequate knowledge and obedience will be enough to secure blessings from God. Perhaps he sees Yahweh as merely one of many tribal deities whose favor can be bought by some mindless ritual. He certainly does not see Yahweh as an authority on how he ought to live.

In chapter 18, the tribe of Dan is looking for a place to settle. They are the only tribe who have not yet done so, presumably because they were either unable or unwilling to take the portion of land allotted to them in Joshua 19:40-48. In their journey, they come to Micah’s house and encounter the Levite, who is apparently known to them. They ask him to enquire of God whether their quest will be successful, and he declares, in God’s name, that it will.

Then they journey toward Laish and on the way persuade the Levite to abandon Micah to now serve as priest for their entire tribe. They also steal Micah’s idols, ephod and shrine and threaten him with violence when he protests. Micah returns home, while the tribe of Dan proceeds, Levite and shrine in tow, to conquer Laish and establish themselves there.

The narrative’s focus shifts from Micah to the tribe of Dan, who, having failed to conquer their allotted land, find an isolated town, Laish, belonging to the Sidonian people. The Sidonians were not among the people groups to be destroyed/evicted from the Promised Land, and this appears to be an opportunistic invasion rather than obedience to God’s commands.

The Danites enquire of God, whether they will succeed, which may indicate some measure of faith on the surface. Yet, it seems that in the Ancient Near East (ANE), it was standard procedure for a military endeavor to begin with a consultation of the tribal deity The Levite assures them, in God’s name, that they will succeed.

The text does not reveal whether he spoke these words by his own initiative or whether he performed some ritual with the shrine and ephod by which he believed Yahweh’s will would be revealed. Later he is easily persuaded to leave his position in Micah’s household and serve as their tribal religious leader, perhaps tempted by the upgrade in status (and presumably a salary increase!).

Verse 30 gives the Levite’s name as “Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Moses.” Some manuscripts read Manasseh instead of Moses, and Biblical genealogies sometimes use “son” as a general term for “male descendant,” so we cannot be sure if this man was, in fact, the grandson of Moses. If he was, then it’s a shocking indication of just how far the entire nation had lost sight of God only two generations after entering the land.

In chapter 19, another Levite from Ephraim’s hill country had a concubine who returns to her father’s house. He went to be reconciled to her and spent four or five days enjoying the hospitality of his father-in-law. This hospitality is in stark contrast to the welcome they received in the town of Gibeah, where they faced having to spend the night in the town square until an old man offers them lodging for the night.

Some of men of Gibeah then surrounded the house and demanded that the Levite be handed over to them to satisfy their lusts. The host refused, instead offering the man’s concubine and his own daughter. The Levite sent his concubine out to them, and after a night of horrific abuse, she was left for dead.

On finding her in the morning, he cut up her body and sent the pieces to the various tribes, demanding that action be taken. This is where the narrative takes a decidedly darker turn in one of the most appalling chapters in the Bible. The inhabitants of Gibeah, save for one old man, disregarded the requirement for hospitality demanded by their culture and went as far as to demand the visitors be handed over for their own pleasure.

The old man was willing to protect his male visitor, but only at the expense of the women in the house. The Levite showed no hesitation in handing over his concubine to save himself, and his outrage and demands for justice the following morning rang hollow, given his own part in her demise.

In chapter 20, the people of Israel gather as a whole to hear the Levite’s complaint against Gibeah. On their initiative, the tribes decided to punish the inhabitants of Gibeah. The tribe of Benjamin (to which Gibeah belonged) refused to hand them over to face retribution and instead rose in their defense.

Before the battle began, the other tribes enquired of God at Bethel who should lead their attack. God’s answer was Judah. On the first day of battle, the tribes were defeated by Benjamin. The tribes enquired of God again and were told to continue the fighting. On the second day, Benjamin again emerged victorious. The tribes enquired of God a third time, and this time he promised them victory. On the third day, Benjamin was defeated, and Gibeah was destroyed.

They gathered together for what can perhaps be described as vigilante justice, at best, and sheer vindictive revenge, at worst.

The tribes then destroyed every Benjamite town and person they could find, leaving the tribe virtually wiped out. Here we clearly see the result of Israel having no king. Without any centralized authority to appeal to for justice, the Levite contacted each tribe individually. They gathered together for what can perhaps be described as vigilante justice, at best, and sheer vindictive revenge, at worst.

Benjamin’s refusal to agree appears motivated by a desire to put tribal loyalty above the need for justice. The tribes enquired of God, which may gave the appearance of faith, but as pointed out earlier, this was standard practice for any group about to execute a military campaign. Note that they don’t ask of God until after they have mustered their army and made preparations.

It isn’t a request for guidance on how to handle the Gibeah situation; it’s merely a question of tactics the night before the battle. Why does God answer the way He does and yet allow them to be defeated on the first two days? Perhaps He allowed these experiences of defeat to humble them until they were ready to approach Him with the correct attitude.

They should have asked at the very beginning of the chapter whether they should be engaged in this campaign of retribution at all. With God’s help, or perhaps without God working against them, they defeated Benjamin and destroyed Gibeah. Yet the violence did not stop there.

After Gibeah’s destruction, they continued pursuing the Benjamite forces until all but 600 men were wiped out. They returned to sack and burn all of the Benjamite towns that were without defenders, killing the women and children. This goes far beyond anything that could have been remotely justified as retribution for Gibeah’s atrocity.

In chapter 21, the tribes faced up to the consequences of their near annihilation of Benjamin, which then numbered only 600 men with no wives or children to carry on the tribe. Furthermore, the tribes had sworn an oath not to give any of their daughters to Benjamin as wives. Faced with, on the one hand, the end of a tribe and, on the other hand, the breaking of their oath, they began to look for a way out.

First, they decided that any towns whose fighting men did not answer the summons to the civil war were now liable for being punished with destruction. Whether Jabesh Gilead was the only such town or was simply the most convenient one found, the record does not tell us, but the town was attacked, and everyone killed save for 400 unmarried girls who were given to the surviving Benjamites. That left 200 men without wives, so another solution was found.

There was a feast held at Shiloh at which unmarried girls came out to dance, and the tribes reached an agreement with Benjamin that they would not interfere if any Benjamites snatched some of these girls as wives. The newly married Benjamites returned to their ruined towns to rebuild and repopulate, while the rest of the tribes return home. The tribes then began to realize the implications of their spree of violence and bloodlust in almost wiping out an entire tribe.

what is depicted in Judges may not be a circle but rather a downward spiral.

In verse 3, they wept and demanded of God why He has allowed this to happen as if having entirely forgotten that it was their will and their doing, not God’s. While they began to sympathize with the surviving Benjamites, they weren’t willing to risk being cursed by breaking their rash oath, and so they started looking for loopholes to get around it. Notably, they did not enquire of God at all, save for their initial complaint.

Their first solution involved yet more unprovoked murder of fellow Israelites in the attack on Jabesh Gilead and the taking of their newly orphaned girls. Their second solution consisted of kidnapping young girls taking part in the dancing at a feast in Shiloh. Note in verse 19 that this is a feast dedicated to Yahweh Himself. It says much about their attitude toward God that they would use a festival of religious worship in His name to arrange this sordid mass abduction, simply to provide a loophole around a foolish oath.

The record does not comment on what any of the 600 or more girls thought of these solutions. How did the Israelites end up in the appalling state summarized by these chapters? It’s widely recognized that chapters 1-16 of Judges show God’s people going through a continual cycle of:

They are unfaithful to God –>
God allows oppression –>
They cry to God for deliverance –>
God sends a judge to deliver them from the oppressor –>
They live faithfully for a while under the judge’s influence –>
The judge dies –>
They are unfaithful to God again.

On closer examination of the text, however, what is depicted in Judges may not be a circle but rather a downward spiral. Each iteration of the cycle sees a deterioration in at least two elements:

  • The character of the judge. Compare the first judges such as Othniel and Ehud, of whom nothing negative is said, with later judges such as Jephthah—pushed to the fringes of society by his brothers, acting as if a crime lord—and Samson, a man compromised by his willingness to mix with Philistine culture while not paying allegiance to Philistine gods. This suggests that as time went on, each judge reflected the character of Israelite society at large, and even the most faithful men were not much better than those around them.
  • The involvement of the people in their deliverance. Compare early judges such as Ehud and Barak, who command large armies of Israelites with Samson, who is a one-person army handed over to the Philistines by his own terrified people. This suggests that as time went on, the people at large were less and less willing to commit themselves to a call from a divinely appointed leader, manifestation of a general lack of faith or interest in God.
Mosaic showing Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (photo by Jim Haberman)


God’s willingness to hear and to rescue His people never failed. Still, we can see a steady decline in the faith and the character of Israelite society throughout the book of Judges, not only within chapters 17 to 21.

God’s appointment of a judge in answer to prayer whenever the people were experiencing hardship was not working. Without a king, they had sunk into a pit of moral decay in which everyone recognized no authority higher than what was right in his own eyes.

God’s appointment of a judge in answer to prayer whenever the people were experiencing hardship was not working.

Judges was probably written to introduce a hereditary monarchy system, a permanent leader to act as a representative of God and a moral example for the people. Over time, in theory, the people’s character would come to reflect the character of their king.

Unfortunately, both Israel and Judah had a mixture of good kings, indifferent kings, and terrible kings. One of the worst, Manasseh (2 Kgs 21:1-18, see also 2 Kgs 23:21-27; Jer 15:1-4), finally left Judah in an irreversible moral decline that resulted in the Babylonian invasion and exile.

The system of hereditary monarchy did not prevent God’s people from falling into moral decay either. Only the perfect example and willing sacrifice of the Lord Jesus could do that. He was, is and will again be Israel’s true king, the only man who ever lived a life of perfect virtue and faithfulness before God.

And what of us? We have what the Israelites in the times of the judges and kings did not have: a perfect human representative of God whose moral example and character can be applied to every circumstance in our lives. Yet, do we apply them?

Are your decisions and actions based more often on the example and teachings of Jesus or what seems right in your own eyes?

Next time we’ll explore that question in more depth and, with Judges 17-21 as our basis, consider ways in which we can examine the motivations behind what we believe and do.

Neil Robin,
Wardley, UK


Suggested Readings
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 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 Christians, we must strive to overcome our survival instincts and to accept the portion of blame, however small or large it may be, that lies at our door.
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