The refrain in chapters 17 to 21 of Judges is “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” The author seemingly tacks on two out of place narratives at the end of a series of action-packed narratives about the deliverers that God raise up to give relief to His people. In the two narratives, there is no account of a Judge saving the day. Rather, we see the outcome of the Israelites left to their own devices with God’s word far from their thoughts and practices.
Both narratives involve a Levite that travels from Bethlehem in Judah to the hill country of Ephraim. The first Levite departs from Bethlehem “to sojourn where he could find a place” and initially settles down to become Micah’s priest. The second Levite fetches his concubine from Bethlehem to bring her back to his home in the hill country of Ephraim. Why is this significant? Bethlehem is the birth place of King David and also the birthplace of the greater King, Jesus Christ. The significance of Bethlehem is explained in prophecy:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)
The movement from Bethlehem to Ephraim by these two Levites (who are supposed to be God’s attendants in His temple) become significant and meaningful in the context of the Levites’ unwise and sinful decisions that result in a false worship system (in the first case) and internecine warfare (in the second case). Ephraim was blessed with the riches of the earth through becoming many nations (by Jacob) and yet God laments over Ephraim for playing the harlot.
In Psalm 78, we are told that God rejects Ephraim:
67 Then he rejected the tents of Joseph,
he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim;
68 but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loved.
69 He built his sanctuary like the heights,
like the earth that he established forever.
70 He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheep pens;
71 from tending the sheep he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel his inheritance.
The ministry of condemnation
It’s helpful to review Samson’s career to better understand the role of the Judge. Samson’s tactic of aggression against aggression only escalates the atrocities until there is mutual destruction. Samson as Judge is guided by a measure for measure world view.
Because the Danites had trouble establishing their land inheritance, they migrate northward; but not all since Samson, a Danite, contends with the Philistines in the area west of Ephraim. It is apparent throughout this narrative that the author is critical of the Danite tribe and the way in which they conquer the northern part of the territory. The people of Laish are described as “unsuspecting and secure”. Six hundred Danites go up against “a peaceful and unsuspecting people”. “There was no one to rescue them…” and the city was named Dan “though the city used to be called “Laish”. The Danites did as they saw fit, albeit it was Micah’s priest who gave them the green light to attack Laish after supposedly consulting God. On their way to Laish, they stop by Micah’s house and carry away his idols as well as the Levite priest. In this encounter with Micah and the Levite priest, the author is explaining the origins of Dan’s descent into idol worship. The Levite priest is identified as Jonathan, a grandson of the Moses, whom everyone would have known – the author’s contemporaries might have exclaimed “so that is how Jonathan became a priest for the Danites”. It was to Dan that Jeroboam sent one of the 2 golden calves to be worshipped as the god who brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
The story of the Danites is one of lost glory. Instead of being clothed in righteousness, the Danites are the unrighteous aggressors against an unsuspecting and vulnerable people. The Danites take and conquer without direction from God. Therefore the refrain: “In those days there was no king.”
With the setting up of the idol by Micah and the Levites as his priest, the Israelites are on course for deepening apostasy that ends in conquest by foreigners and exile from the land. The breaking of the second commandment is an expression of having broken the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Our God is a jealous God, He wants an exclusive relationship with us, same as we would expect if we were married. By calling upon the living God and entering into a relationship with him, we are agreeing to worship only the true God and give our lives to Him. In their backsliding, the Israelites have rejected the Covenant relationship, therefore, God to some degree withdraws and leaves them to their own devices. Without clear direction from an anointed leader, the Israelites do as they please and grope about in the darkness, transgressing God’s ways and laws, such that the weak are trampled upon and left vulnerable to aggression. There is a role reversal in which the Danites become God’s enemy instead of his people and the people of Laish (not God’s people) take on the characteristics of God’s people in that they are described as “peaceful and unsuspecting”. Surely they were in need of a deliverer from the aggression of Dan!
(This narrative is placed early in the order of events in Judges since Jonathan, the Levite priest and grandson of Moses is alive. The events in the book of Ruth occur at around this time as well…)
In the final narrative of Judges, a Levite living in the mountains of Ephraim goes to Bethleham to bring back his unfaithful concubine who had returned to her father’s house. The Levite’s plan was to depart quickly with his concubine but the father-in-law detains the Levite. The Levite decides to stay for 3 days only but the father-in-law prevails upon him to stay a fourth day and again a fifth day. On the evening of the fifth day as they draw near to Jebus (later Jerusalem), a city of the Jebusites, the Levite’s servant requests that they lodge there for the night but the Levite wants to go further to seek shelter in an Israelite city. At Gibeah, they have difficulty in finding someone to take them in until an old man (also from the mountains of Ephraim) gladly brings them to his home.
It is in this Israelite town that a shocking and revolting assault enfolds. The men of Gibeah pound on the doors of the old man demanding to have sex with the Levite. Instead they rape his concubine throughout the night until she collapses to her death in the early morning. This parallels the account of the men of Sodom wanting to have sex with the visitors in Lots house, not knowing that they are angels sent by God to destroy the city. The same words are expressed: “Don’t do this wicked thing,” and offers his two young daughters as substitutes. In this parallelism, certainly God is saying that Gibeah is deserving of the same judgment. And they were judged so that only 600 Benjamites remained after the tribes of Israel fought against them to purge the evil from within. In Hosea, God refers to Gibeah in the following way:
They (Israel) have sunk deep into corruption, as in the days of Gibeah. (Hosea 9:9)
Since the days of Gibeah, you have sinned, O Israel, and there you have remained. Did not war overtake the evildoers in Gibeah? (Hosea 10:9)
The Levite was biased against a non-Israelite town, Jebus, not wanting to lodge there, and yet experiences a heinous crime in a Israelite town. It seems that at this point, though God had planted Israel as a choice vine, they have become as wild as the Canaanites if not worse. In the war of judgment, the Israelites lose upwards of 40,000 men and the Benjamites are nearly wiped out with 25,100 struck down. Would not God be pronouncing judgment on all the Israelites since there was sure to be idolatry across all of Israel? (It is important to keep in mind that God allows the Israelites to experience the consequences of their sinful decisions rather then willfully wiping out thousands upon thousands. One gets the sense that the Israelites have no moral compass and decision after decision results in bloodshedding.)
Scripture tells us that God exercises lovingkindness, righteousness and justice. God loves righteousness and hates wickedness, wherever that may be. In these two last narratives, we see judgment being brought to bear upon the Israelites.
God’s glory is in his lovingkindness, righteousness and justice. He intended for his chosen people, Israel, to be righteous and just. But they become just like the idol worshiping peoples around them, and at times God says they are worse. Therefore, curses befall them as part of the terms of the Mosaic Covenant, the main curse being exile and dispersion. In Hosea, God pronounces the Israelites as being no longer his people. Most of the tribes lose their identity by being exiled from the land and being absorbed into the culture of the conquering nations. The remnant that return after being carried off into Babylon are mostly from the tribe of Judah and presumably Benjamin.
As Israel does what is right in its own eyes, they become like the Canaanites whom they were supposed to expel from the land in righteousness. In the case of the defeat at Ai, we saw that the people could not stand against their enemies because of forbidden treasure hidden in the camp. In the same way, the Danites were not able to prevail over the Philistines so that they were pushed northward.
The Danites and the Benjamites in their unrighteousness deeds face (or will face) God’s judgment. That God judges (even his own people) point to his glory in that God is just and righteous. And beyond judging his people, there are intimations that God is lifting up non-Israelites. The people of Laish whom the Danites destroy are portrayed as victims. The Danites do what is right in their own eyes, in contrast to the Judges who prevail over the Canaanites with a true sense that God is with them. In the account of the Levite and the concubine, the tragic incident would have been avoided if the Levite had consented to spend the night at Jebus (a Jebusite town and later Jerusalem after conquest) instead of insisting on pressing further until they reach Gibeah. Presumably, the Levite was thinking that an Israelite town was better in terms of safety, comfort or hospitality.
Where else do we begin to sense that God has his eyes on the Canaanites, or those who are not “his people”? As mentioned earlier, there is a Levite priest that travels from Bethlehem to the hill country of Ephraim in both accounts. Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and his descendant, the greater King, Jesus Christ. Under King David’s reign, the Israelites have control over the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates. David remains faithful to God (despite a grievous sin) and leads the people in righteousness. But the flourishing under his reign points to a greater flourishing under Christ’s eventual kingship. Under the reign of the eternal King, the people in the kingdom are from all nations. In Psalm 87, we learn that within Zion (Jerusalem) where God dwells are people from Egypt, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Cush – meaning peoples from all nations. According to the following verses, Zion is God’s beloved city:
1 On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
2 the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.
3 Glorious things of you are spoken,
O city of God.
In remembering the rape and death of the concubine and how she had no one to protect or rescue her, we see that Jesus (as man) would have taken her place knowing that he would be brutalized and killed. Whereas the Levite failed her, the true priest sacrifices his own life for his beloved. I think it’s not a stretch to see that the concubine is a stand-in for the church, the bride of Christ, Zion – God’s beloved.
Referring back to Psalm 78 where God rejects the tents of Ephraim and chooses the tribe of Judah, God has in mind a true savior arising from Judah, his chosen vine. The savior from Judah saves from all nations. Ephraim is dispersed while the line of Judah endures until the coming of Jesus Christ. Yet, God does not ultimately abandon Ephraim and we see the heart of God in the following:
8 How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9 I will not execute my burning anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
Though God judges sin, yet His heart is also to save and rescue. Therefore, God raises up Judges despite the iniquity of His people such as we see in the narratives discussed here. Ultimately, the Judges cannot truly save the people; they only point to the one Saviour who will truly save Ephraim once and for all time. I may be verging on speculation, but scripture seems to be indicating that Ephraim and the Gentiles are one, so that the Gentiles are saved through the disperson of Ephraim!