Judges 17–21: Idolatry & Degeneracy

Read the Bible in 2023 ◊ Week 9: Tuesday

In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Judges 21:35 LSB

Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. aptly summarizes the book of Judges. The events in Tuesday’s Bible reading of Judges 17–21, recount idolatry, wanton lasciviousness, gang rape, and war between the tribes of Israel—a picture of wretchedness, but not an anomaly in Judges.

The events in these chapters from Judges could have come straight out of today’s big city metro areas or a television network series. Man’s default setting of idolatry and degeneracy continues. These dark events of the past and today highlight the mercy of God that He would send His Son to our evil world to suffer and die for sin.

Christians easily forget, cocooned as some of us are, who we were and the death and wrath we have been delivered from. The book of Judges could have been written about you or about me. Our culture, personality, or family background may have prevented us from falling into the bottomless pit of evil recorded in Judges, but we are all rebels at heart.

Arthur Cundall titles these last chapters simply as Appendices, and comments:

“In the final section of the book there are two unconnected incidents: Micah and the Danite migration (17,18) and the incident of the Levite’s outraged concubine and its sequel (19–21). There is much here of an unsavoury nature, yet the documentation of the debased religious and moral standards of the age is of first-rate importance, as are also the allusions to the prevailing social and political conditions. The standpoint of the writer is clear; the oft-repeated observation ‘there was no king in Israel’ (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) shows that he looked back from the time of the monarchy and accounted for the disorder of the earlier period by the absence of the firm rule of a king.”1

Cundall writes this about the incident of Micah and the Danite migration:

“It is highly probably that these events came after those recorded in the second appendix (chapters 19–21), but being generally connected with chapters 13–16 (the Samson narratives), inasmuch as both are connected with the Philistine pressure on the tribe of Dan, they have been set first. Frequently in the Old Testament it may be observed that connection of subject-matter takes precedent over chronological sequence.”2

These events are horrific. They are very difficult to read. Why is it important not to skip over these chapters? Go back to what Cundall said in his preface.

“Few periods in Israel’s eventful history are as important as the period of the judges. During these centuries the nation took the wrong turning that led to her downfall and near-destruction. The apostasy of the later generations has its origin in the early years of the settlement, and there is a clear line between the time when the nation first went after Baal and the dark age when the Jerusalem Temple itself was defiled with all the trappings of Baal worship, not excluding cultic prostitutes (2 Ki. 23:4–7). There is much in Judges to sadden the heart of the reader; perhaps no book in the Bible witnesses so clearly to our human frailty. But there are also unmistakable signs of the divine compassion and long-suffering.”3

Cundall lists things we learn in Judges that are of permanent value:

“1. God is righteous…Some parts of the Old Testament make a positive appeal to us, exhorting us to the life of uprightness and integrity by direct command and instruction, or by illustration and inspiration in the life of a godly man. But in Judges the appeal is negative. As the reader observes the results of a nation’s apostasy he is warned rather than edified. This is not formulated in abstract principles but in living examples, particularly in the last five chapters…the editor underlines the fact that the misery which overtook the people was due to their forsaking of a holy God. Their sin was not an insignificant thing, to be passed over lightly; it was an affront to God’s righteous being and as such was visited by stern and painful judgement. A nation that forsakes the Lord, or lowers and compromises His standards, cannot hope to prosper in any ultimate sense.”4

We live in the days of the Judges. There are sporadic periods of repentance, but far too many Christians think and do what is right in their own minds and in their own eyes. Their attitude towards the Bible is that the identity of its message is what they determine it to be, but in actuality who they are is revealed by their response to the Word of God.5

Much of the church today has forgotten reverence for God and the fact that He is a holy and righteous God. We’ve forgotten the reality of our default setting, and a vigilance for truth and an earnestness of love within the Christian community have dwindled, while the culture determines preaching and teaching as Christian leaders seek fame and a following.

If you think I exaggerate go into any evangelical church and ask its leaders and members what they think about marriage and child rearing, about the role of women, about sexuality and immorality, about abortion. Ask how they determine which study publications are used and taught in their church. Ask how they treat and care for their members who are struggling in sin or difficult circumstances. Ask if their church structure is determined by those who are godly or by those who are connected and successful in their careers. Ask if their leaders are, as Paul enjoined Timothy to be, examples of “speech, conduct, love, faith and purity.” Ask whether they submit to the Bible or the Bible submits to them. As long as the church does what is right in its own eyes, we are not salt, we are not light to those who surround us.

Going back to Cundall’s list:

“2. God is sovereign…He orders all the forces of nature and history in accordance with His own righteous will, thus working out His judgement upon the nation. This sovereign power, however, is also revealed in His saving activity through the various judges who are men upon whom His Spirit has come…The book of Judges recounts the exploits of the judges, but the focus of attention is not on the individual but on the ever-present and all-powerful God…It may well be necessary to remind the people of God in our own troubled generation that this sovereignty remains unimpaired. He is still on the throne.

“3. God is gracious and longsuffering. The cycle of sin, servitude, supplication and salvation is repeated so frequently in Judges that it almost becomes monotonous. We must be on our guard against such an attitude, for it could easily blind us to fundamental truths. The first is the downward bias of the human heart, mind and will and man’s incurable reluctance to profit by experience, either his own or that of a previous generation…But there is a reverse side to this coin. In contrast to man’s multiplied misdemeanours there is the constancy of a God who is always ready to hearken to the cries of His wayward people and to intervene on their behalf…His arms are stretched out still to welcome the penitent supplicant. The forbearance of God and the wonderful possibility of a new beginning through His grace strikes a glad note in this book which cannot be silenced by the discordant sounds which appear to predominate.”6

The last thing Cundall lists is:

“4. The importance of faith. As we consider the characters of the individual judges we shall not discover much of moral grandeur to inspire us, but we shall often observe that quality of faith which co-operates with the Lord and enables Him to reveal is might. It is this aspect which the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews takes up when he includes so many of the judges in his catalogue of the heroes of the faith. ‘And what shall I more say? for the time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Japhthah… who through faith subdued kingdoms…’ (Heb. 11: 32, 33, RV). Thus these men who achieved so much as God worked through them witness to our own generation, reminding us that the people that know their God (and how immeasurably greater is the revelation of God granted to us!) and have faith in Him can do mighty things (cf. Dn. 11:32).”7

Cundall closes his commentary with verses from Nehemiah:8

Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their back…and they wrought great provocations.
Nevertheless in thy manifold mercies thou didst not make a full end of them, nor forsake them; for thou art a gracious and merciful God.
Nehemiah 9:26,31 21:35 RV

Against the darkness of their times and our times is God, righteous, sovereign, gracious and longsuffering, who is ever ready to welcome the penitent prodigal.

Silvesterzug Laterne: Bk muc. (CC BY-SA 4.0).
The Levite’s Wife Dies at the Door: James Tissot. Public Domain.
1,2,3,4,6,7Arthur E, Cundall, Judges: An Introduction and Commentary (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1968) This commentary is published in the same volume as the commentary, Ruth, by Leon Morris. 25, 183, 11, 45–46, 46–47, 47, 213.
5When I was reading on the background of 1 Corinthians, I found a quote Thiselton uses from J. D. Moores Wrestling and Rationality in Paul, SNTSMS 82 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 133–134, that prompted this paragraph: “Paul (in contradistinction to postmodern emphases upon textual indeterminacy “does not think (as some…upholders of the importance of the reception factor do) that the identity of the message in a piece of communication is in any sense determined by what it means for those at the receiving end. For him it is rather their identity than that of the message which is determined by their response. To subject him to the criteria of present-day reception or reader response theory would be to turn his ideas on the subject upside down” (Moores’ italics)”.” Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapid MI: 2000) 16. Follow the link to a Wikipedia article, “Indeterminacy,” for a brief definition.

I’m using Michael Coley’s Bible reading plan (one page PDF to print) to read through the Bible in 2023. Each day my posts are on different books because he divides Bible readings into seven categories, one for each day of the week: Epistles, The Law, History, Psalms, Poetry, Prophecy and Gospels. There’s more information on his plan and other ones at Read the Bible in 2023.

Copyright ©2021–2023 Iwana Carpenter

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