Judges: Every man did what was right in his own eyes.
The Biblical book of Judges makes a remarkable point which is just as relevant today as it was before Saul established the monarchy in the eleventh century before Christ: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg 17:6). But this may not mean quite what we think, for Israel’s King was supposed to be the LORD.
We are dealing with the period between the settlement of the Promised Land and the establishment of the monarchy. This period is generally reckoned as between four and five hundred years, but its length is difficult to reconcile with what scholars believe was the time of the Exodus from Egypt. In any case, during this time, despite the LORD’s best efforts to purify Israel, the people kept falling under the spell of the gods of those they disobediently allowed to dwell nearby or in their midst.
After periods of suffering at the hands of their enemies, the people would repent and cry out to God, who raised up “judges” to lead them in both righteousness and victory. Again, we must remember that the relationship God desired with the Chosen People was that He Himself would be their sole King, and obedience to His will would enable the people to live in harmony, subdue their enemies, and thrive. As had so often been the case, however, the result was more of an oscillation between self-interested fidelity and self-interested rebellion.
In keeping with God’s manner of teaching and forming the Israelites under the Old Covenant, the deleterious results of waywardness were not long in manifesting themselves. We are talking here about a notoriously “stiff necked” people, as God had already exclaimed to Moses: “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people” (Ex 32:9). But while we may chuckle over this, we need to remember that the entire history of the Jews under the Old Covenant is also a prophecy-in-action of the struggles of each of us to become firmly united with Christ. For do not we all, so very often, have to learn the hard way?
The Book of Judges is filled with intriguing stories as it records the principal judges God raised up to snatch the Israelites out of trouble. There is, for example, the account of Deborah’s victory over the formidable enemy commander Sisera. When she singled out Barak the son of Abinoam to lead her army, Barak said flatly: “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” So Deborah replied: “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judg 4:8-9). There may be a double reference here, for it is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, who ultimately drives the stake through Sisera’s head; but it is Deborah who sets everything in motion according to God’s will.
Later we learn of Gideon, who was somewhat skittish about accepting Divine signs. (I confess a great sympathy for Gideon.) When God called him to deliver Israel from the Midianites, Gideon put out a fleece and said he would take God at His word if, in the morning, there were dew on the fleece but not on the surrounding ground. This sign was given, to which Gideon responded: “Let not your anger burn against me…let me make trial [again]…with the fleece; please, let it be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew” (Judg 6:36-40). These accounts strike close to home, for we are all prone to hold the hand of some Deborah or seek multiple signs like Gideon, making only a faltering sort of progress toward total trust in God.
Other remarkable incidents: When Abimelech, son of Jerubbaal, tried to kill all of his seventy brothers and attempted to become king, the youngest brother, a mere boy who had hidden himself, escapes to proclaim the famous parable of the trees, which we heard not long ago at Mass (Judg 9:7-15). Again, God wanted no king over Israel but Himself. Later, the intemperate Jephthah was chosen to free Israel from domination by the Ammonites. In his faltering doubts, he made a foolish vow to offer in sacrifice the first person who came out of his house to welcome him when he returned home after his victory. It was his daughter.
Nor can we forget Samson, who dallied repeatedly with the Philistine woman Delilah until she finally learned the secret of his strength, betraying him to Philistine warriors who could at last hold him in check. Samson sacrificed his life to get his revenge. All these characters exemplify different aspects of that astonishing human foolishness which regularly disrupts our ability to do God’s will. The book of Judges is one cautionary tale after another, including the periods between major leaders, when Israel forsook the LORD to serve other gods.
After Samson, we hear the story of Micah, who was a believer…of a sort. He had stolen eleven hundred pieces of silver from his mother, but returned it. Therefore, she proclaimed, “Blessed be my son by the LORD,” and she consecrated that wealth by melting it down and fashioning a graven image. Micah kept this in his house, installing one of his sons as a kind of priest to lead them in worship before it. It is just then that the author of Judges finally exclaims: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”
The spiritual confusion encountered in this book is immense. The lesson throughout is that God will prosper His people if they will only be faithful, but the inspired author(s), writing after the monarchy was established, cannot help but see these disasters in the light of the glory of Israel under David and Solomon. This is actually very provocative, since God warned Israel against seeking a king other than Himself. He even predicted (in Samuel) how earthly kings would abuse their subjects. The lesson of Judges is not that Israel needed a king, but that Israel needed sound spiritual judgment. Israel needed holiness.
We make the same mistake today, constantly seeking political solutions for what are essentially spiritual problems. Somehow we never learn that, on this path, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Still, that wistfulness for a worldly ruler who can make things right remains strong in all of us. We should not be surprised that the last verse of the Book of Judges (21:25) repeats, absolutely word for word, what had already been said by way of excuse in the midst of the troubles which the book recounts: In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.
The proper response, however, is sadness, both for Israel and for ourselves. Jesus Christ had compassion on the crowds because they “were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36; Mk 6:34). In response, St. Mark goes on to say, “He began to teach them many things.” But the one thing He would not do is permit people to politicize Him. He would not be made an earthly king. This is a crucial point.The Book of Judges is the beginning of a long section in the Bible that demonstrates something we continue to forget after over three thousand years: The answers we need are not political. Politics cannot save.
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