Israel Falls Apart (Judges 17-21)
If the central section of Judges offers us flawed heroes caught in a depressing cycle of oppression and deliverance, the final chapters portray a fallen people seemingly beyond the hope of redemption. Judges 17 opens with almost a parody of idolatry. A man named Micah has lots of money, his mother uses the money to make an idol, and Micah hires a free-lancing Levite as his personal priest. It is not surprising that Micah’s tawdry home-grown cult features an equally abysmal theology. “Micah said, ‘Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because the Levite has become my priest’” (Judges 17:13). In other words, by getting a religious authority to bless his idolatrous enterprise, Micah believes that he can co-opt God into churning out the goods he craves. Human creativity is here wasted in the worst possible way, in the manufacture of make-believe gods as a cover for greed and arrogance.
The impulse to turn God into a prosperity machine has never died away. A notorious form of it today is the so-called “prosperity gospel” or “gospel of success” which claims that those who profess faith in Christ will necessarily be rewarded with wealth, health, and happiness. With respect to work, this leads some to neglect their work and descend into licentiousness while waiting for God to shower them with riches. It leads others—who expect God to deliver prosperity though their work—to neglect family and community, to abuse co-workers, and to do business unethically, certain that God’s favor exempts them from ordinary morality.
The final episode in Judges is the most appalling event in Israel’s long slide into depravity, idolatry, and anarchy. Some men from the tribe of Dan make off with Micah’s whole religious enterprise, including the Levite and the idol (Judges 18:1-31). The Levite takes a concubine from a distant village (Bethlehem, as it happens), but after a domestic quarrel, she returns to her father’s house. The Levite goes to Bethlehem to retrieve her. After a five-day drinking binge with her father, the Levite foolishly begins the journey back home not long before sunset. They find themselves alone at night in the town square of a village in the tribe of Benjamin. No one will take them in until at last one old man offers the hospitality of a place to stay the night.
That night the men of the city surround the house and demand that the old man bring out the stranger so they can rape him (Judg. 19:22). The old man tries to protect the stranger, but his idea of protecting visitors is stomach-turning, to put it mildly. In order to spare the Levite, the man offers his young daughter and the Levite’s concubine for the men to rape instead. The Levite himself casts the concubine out the door, in perhaps the earliest recorded instance of religious authorities’ complicity in sexual abuse. Then “they wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning” (Judg. 19:25). Her body is subsequently dismembered and dispersed to the tribes of Israel, who almost exterminate the tribe of Benjamin in reprisal (Judg. 20-21). The Canaanization of the Israelites is complete.
The concluding line of the book sums up things succinctly. “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). In case it’s not obvious, this means that without leadership that led the people to serve the Lord, people followed their own evil devices and desires, not that people’s inherent moral compasses led them to do right without needing supervision.
In our spheres of work today, threats against the powerless— including abuse of women and foreigners—remain shockingly common. Individually, we have to choose whether to stand with those who face injustice—undoubtedly at risk to ourselves—or lie low until the damage is past.
Organizationally and societally, we have to decide whether to work for systems and structures that restrain the evils of human behavior, or whether to stand aside while everyone does what is right in their own eyes. Even our passivity can contribute to abuses in our places of work, especially if we are not in positions of authority. But anytime others perceive you as having power—say because you are older, or have worked there longer, or are better dressed, or are seen often talking with the boss, or belong to a privileged ethnic or language group, or have more education, or are better at expressing yourself—and you fail to stick up for those being abused, you are contributing to the system of abuse. For example, if people tend to come to you for help that means you have a significant amount of perceived power. If then, you stand idly by when a derogatory joke is told or a new employee is bullied, you are adding your weight to the victim’s burden, and you are helping pave the way for the next abuse.
Reading the horrible events in the last chapters of Judges may make us grateful that we do not live in those days. But if we are truly aware, we can see that simply going to work is as freighted with moral significance as was the work of any leader or person in ancient Israel.
Image courtesy of Inknow.
Note that Block makes the Canaanization of the people the central theme of his commentary on Judges. See Block, D. I. (1999). Vol. 6: Judges, Ruth. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.