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Everyone Did That Which Was Right in Their Own Eyes, Part 5

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Judges 21 opens with the eleven victorious tribes having realized the full implications of their victory. The tribe of Benjamin had been almost entirely wiped out. Had it not been for the survival skills of six hundred men who had fled and taken refuge in the wilderness, Benjamin would indeed have ceased to exist.

What had begun as the pursuit of justice against one city on behalf of a murdered woman had escalated into the near annihilation of one whole tribe. It appears that once the madness and the bloodlust had subsided and the thirst for vengeance quenched, the tribes began to take stock of their situation in a calmer, more rational manner.

Now that they presumably felt justice had been done, they had no desire to see Benjamin destroyed. And yet, how could this almost-dead tribe, comprised of six hundred men but no women or children, be revived when the other eleven tribes had collectively sworn an oath not to marry their daughters to Benjamites?

There is a tragic irony here in that, while the book of Judges repeatedly depicts the Israelites failing in their divine commission to destroy the Canaanites and ignoring the restrictions on intermarrying with them, they did not appear to have a problem with disregarding either of these where Benjamin was concerned.

Is there a lesson here for us? Do you find it far easier to cut yourself off from brothers and sisters in Christ whose doctrinal positions or lifestyles offend you than you do to keep yourself separate from the ideas and practices promoted by the godless world around you?

we should examine our motivations just as much as our actions

In verse 2, we’re told they wept, clearly greatly moved by the perilous situation in which Benjamin now found itself. Was this out of compassion and empathy, or was it out of a more pragmatic concern that if the tribe of Benjamin could not recover, the lands it currently held might have been lost to non-Israelite people groups?

When, as Christians, we decide to act in a certain way, we should examine our motivations just as much as our actions. Are you, for example, genuinely motivated by love and compassion, by a desire to serve others and help them reach the Kingdom? Or are you more interested in trying to make yourself look good in the eyes of others? Or do you perhaps only help those who you expect will be able to return the favor in the future?

Whether it was compassion or pragmatism that moved them, their concern was only to lift Benjamin out of their position of near extinction. They were not weeping for the sins committed by the Benjamites or by themselves. As we shall see, none of their actions described in this chapter did anything to solve Benjamin’s (or their own) real problem, that of Canaanization.

They dealt effectively with the immediate crisis while leaving the root cause (sin) completely untouched. When we find ourselves moved by the plight of others, are we concerned only for their immediate physical needs—something we should certainly help with—or are we also moved to care for their spiritual welfare?

What may seem astonishing in verse 3 is that, even as they pleaded with God for help in this crisis, they almost seemed to be blaming Him for what happened (see also v. 15). Did they think they had faithfully obeyed God throughout the events of chapter 20, only for it to lead to this? From what we read in chapter 20, God at most only sanctioned them going to war against Benjamin to seek justice against Gibeah.

There is no record of Him being consulted about the slaughter of non-combatants in the towns afterward. Had they somehow convinced themselves that this was God’s will? Note that there is no record of any response from God to their plea. Was this because they had asked with entirely the wrong attitude? Was it because, given everything that had happened up until now, God knew they would never have listened to him anyway?

The truth, and it can be a hard truth to accept, is that God is not obliged to rescue us from our mistakes. If we truly repent, He will always be ready to forgive us, but that does not mean He will take away the negative consequences of our sins. David still lost his baby even after God forgave him for what he did to Uriah and Bathsheba.

The tribes built an altar and made various offerings to get God’s attention or secure His favor. This approach of giving a deity something he wanted, to get something back in exchange, was common in the Ancient Near East and only shows how little they understood the unique kind of worship Yahweh truly wanted. It made no difference. God still didn’t answer.

God is not obliged to rescue us from our mistakes

Instead of considering that perhaps they needed to engage in some self-examination before approaching again, they gave up. They looked for their own solution to the problem, a decision which led only to even more murder and suffering. While the tribal elders desired to see Benjamin revived and re-attached to the family tree, they had sworn an oath not to give any of their daughters to Benjamin in marriage.

This should remind us of the need to be extremely careful what we say and do in moments of great emotional stress. Hasty words and actions could come back to seriously trouble us at a later time. It’s also highly ironic that, despite one of the major themes of Judges 17- 21 being the lack of any centralized authority in Israel, here the tribal elders now claimed the authority to impose the death penalty on an entire town for failing to take part in the civil war (v. 10).

Despite their apparent urgency to rescue Benjamin from this crisis, we should note two things. First, they were not prepared to accept the blame for their part in causing it. Second, they were not prepared to sacrifice anything themselves to reach a solution. However, as we can see, they were quite prepared to sacrifice the lives of those in Jabesh Gilead and the freedom of the daughters of Shiloh.

Perhaps this should serve as a general principle for us. If a problem was even partly caused by something you did, does not that give you the responsibility to sacrifice something to reach a solution? The thinking of the tribal elders was very much along the lines of “the ends justify the means.” Jabesh Gilead’s absence from the civil war wasn’t considered important until the tribal elders needed a source of unmarried girls.

There appear to have been no depths to which they would not have sunk to achieve their goal of reviving Benjamin without breaking their oath. Doing what’s right in our own eyes can so often become “ends justify the means” thinking. When we make decisions based on how to achieve particular goals rather than on following moral principles, we may find ourselves justifying almost anything for the sake of achieving those goals.

For a Christian, how we achieve an end should matter just as much as the end itself. In God’s eyes, only the right means can produce the desired ends of our transformation and salvation. The entire episode regarding Jabesh Gilead shows the tribal elders looking for one loophole after another to solve their problem without needing to make any personal sacrifice or admit wrong on their part.

They found a town that did not participate in the civil war and applied the letter of their law (v5) in the strictest sense, condemning Jabesh Gilead to death. Of course, they needed the unmarried girls to survive, so they may have looked for an Old Testament precedent (such as Numbers 31:13-20) in which only the unmarried girls were left alive from a people group devoted to destruction.

There doesn’t seem to be any real reason why that example would have relevance to their situation, but all they needed was an excuse. That can be a temptation for us too, namely when we wish to do something which would contravene one of God’s laws or principles. So, we look into the Biblical record or our own community’s history for events that have elements in common, which we then apply to our situation to justify the action we desire to take.

The newly orphaned daughters of Jabesh Gilead were taken to Shiloh to be handed over to the Benjamites. The record doesn’t state why they were taken there specifically, but Shiloh was the location of the tabernacle at that time, so perhaps the elders thought that bringing these girls to the vicinity of God’s house would in some way “sanctify” these new marriage unions.

Verse 12 describes Shiloh as being “in the land of Canaan.” It’s not clear why this remark was included; perhaps the writer of Judges was trying to make the point that even the location of God’s own house had now been corrupted by Canaanization. While the tribal elders may have thought God’s house would “sanctify” their sordid machinations, the opposite had taken place. They had contaminated the site of God’s house to the extent that God now saw it (and them) as just another part of Canaan.

Note the stark contrast between how this situation might have appeared to God’s eyes as opposed to their own! Even after all this, it transpired that there still weren’t enough girls to go around. By this point, the tribal elders were committed to doing whatever it took to revive Benjamin, and so there was no turning back from their grisly path. Notice that in verse 16, they spoke only of the women of Benjamin having been destroyed in the passive sense. They did not admit that they were the ones responsible.

Coupled with verse 15, this looks very much as if they were trying to pin the blame on God rather than themselves for the slaughter of chapter 20:48. Do we ever fall into the same trap of appointing ourselves the saviors of a situation while deliberately or subconsciously playing down our part in causing it in the first place?

The elders then formed the next stage of their plan, namely, to allow the remaining Benjamite bachelors to snatch away girls from the town of Shiloh during a festival to God. We are not told which festival this was, and it’s possible the writer was intentionally vague to make the point that even the elders had only a hazy understanding of how true Yahweh worship should have been carried out.

The fathers and brothers of the kidnapped girls were reassured that by “allowing” their daughters and sisters to be snatched away, they hadn’t broken their oath, which was unlikely to have been the first thing on their minds at that moment! This is a further demonstration of the legalistic, loophole-seeking attitude of the elders. They seemingly cared more about the technical keeping of the oath than the distress caused to these families.

Legalism is an easy trap to fall into when we are only doing what’s right in our own eyes. We naturally want to find a way to justify doing the things we desire most while maintaining our self-identity as servants of God. So, we carefully craft and develop a set of rules which will accommodate both.

Verses 23 and 24 are a remarkably casual and matter-of-fact summary of what must have been a traumatic experience for the young girls snatched at Shiloh and the families left behind. Perhaps again, the writer implies the lack of concern the tribal elders felt for anything other than holding to their own legalistic set of oaths and standards. The account ends by summing up the five chapters with the same phrase which opened them: “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (v. 25).

Notice how the tribal elders, who at the beginning of chapter 20 were full of “righteous” fury at the conduct of Gibeah towards a defenseless woman, by the end of chapter 21 have willingly ordered the slaughter of an innocent town and the abduction of even more defenseless women, and appear to be fully convinced that they have done the right thing.

Here is one of the very great dangers of doing what’s right in our own eyes, one that is particularly prevalent in the US and beyond at present, where societies are increasingly divided between two extreme socio-political viewpoints (e.g., “far-left” vs. “alt-right”). When we label ourselves and the group we identify with as “good” and the group at the opposite extreme as “evil,” we may find ourselves justifying virtually any action taken to further our side’s aims, regardless of the principles involved, even if the actions taken by our side are all but identical to the actions taken by those on the other side whom we consider being “evil.”

Just as the tribal elders of Israel ended up sanctioning actions no better than those for which they had initially condemned Benjamin, we can easily fall into the trap of condoning in ourselves behavior and attitudes that we would immediately condemn if we saw it in our socio-political enemies.

As Jesus said, we must take the log out of our eye before we can see clearly to remove the speck from somebody else’s eye. It’s only when we learn to look at ourselves through the eyes of Jesus that we will even realize the log is there, blinding ourselves to our faults and our own desperate need for submission and repentance before God.

Neil Robin,
Wardley, UK

Suggested Readings
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.
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.
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.
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.
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