IV. The Corruption of the Levites (Judges 17:1–21:25)


IV. The Corruption of the Levites (17:1–21:25)

To fully appreciate the depth of depravity seen in this next section, we must remember that the priests of Israel came from the tribe of Levi. Priests and Levites were supposed to steer the people away from idolatry toward the worship of God, teaching them right from wrong (see Lev 10:8-11; Ezek 44:23). But during the time period covered in these final five chapters, there was no divine standard operating in the nation. Everyone simply ignored the rules God had given to Moses and did “whatever seemed right to him” (17:6). And by this point in the nation’s history, even the Levites were complicit in the decline and debauchery.

A. Micah’s Priest (17:1–18:31)

17:1-3 The first thing we learn about the Ephraimite named Micah is that he stole from his own mother. She had 1,100 pieces of silver (that’s about twenty-eight pounds!), and Micah helped himself to it. Only when he heard her curse the silver so that it would fail to be an advantage to whoever stole it, did he return her money (17:1-2). (So not only was he a thief, but he was superstitious too.) At his admission, his mother blessed him and said, I personally consecrate the silver to the Lord for my son’s benefit to make . . . a silver idol (17:2-3).

Clearly, we have problems here. She dedicated the silver to the Lord for the express purpose of making an idol. But the Lord had commanded Israel, “Do not make an idol for yourself” (Exod 20:4). That kind of blatant double-mindedness is just what we would expect to develop in a culture that tries to blend the worship of the true God with the world’s pagan ways. The Lord demands whole-hearted devotion.

17:4 The woman took five pounds of silver and gave it to a silversmith. Don’t miss that little detail. While she’d promised the whole twenty-eight pounds would be used in the idol’s manufacture, she only gave up part of it. Micah probably learned how to steal from her.

17:5-6 Once the idol was in his house, Micah used both an ephod to determine God’s will and household idols to determine the pagan gods’ preferences. Then he made one of his own sons to be his personal priest (17:5). Micah was from the tribe of Ephraim, and only Levites could be priests. Thus, this was a further flagrant disregard for God’s commands.

It’s not surprising that the author of Judges says, In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever seemed right to him (17:6). The people had completely forgotten that the Lord was to be their King. So there was no divine standard operating in Israel. Everyone followed his own standard, his own god.

17:7-12 Next we are introduced to a young man, a Levite from Bethlehem, and he was looking for a place to stay (17:7-8). Micah invited him to be his personal priest for four ounces of silver a year and living expenses (17:10). The Levite agreed to stay with the man (17:11). And while only another priest could consecrate a priest, Micah consecrated the Levite (17:12). This tells us that while Micah was an idolater, the Levite was just as far away from God’s standards of holiness in his thinking and practices. He accepted the role of personal priest for a price (17:6).

17:13 Micah was convinced that having a Levite of his own was a sign of the Lord’s blessing: Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, because a Levite has become my priest. Yet this mixture of worshiping the true God with idols and substituting right doctrine for warped would contribute to a whole series of terrible events. It most certainly was not a sign of God’s blessing.

If you attend church and half-heartedly worship the Lord, but then you go home to your idols—those things that you look to as your source of satisfaction and deliverance—you have an unholy mixture in your life, too. The Lord clearly commands us, “Do not have other gods besides me” (Exod 20:3). So know that should you worship and pray to the true God while counting on an idol, you undermine yourself and prevent your prayers from being answered. God will not accept partial allegiance.

18:1 In those days, there was no king in Israel. There was no governing authority to bring God’s rule to bear on the nation. That’s how the book ends as well (21:25).

And since people were pretty much doing whatever they liked, the Danite tribe decided to look for territory to occupy. The problem was that the tribe of Dan had failed to conquer what they were supposed to have conquered in the power of the Lord (1:34). So they searched for a people weak and helpless enough that they would be able to take their land away.

18:2-6 The Danite scouts found Micah’s house, and they asked the Levite about his circumstances (18:2-3). He said concerning Micah, He has hired me, and I became his priest (18:4). Impressed, the men asked the priest to inquire of God so that they could know the way to become prosperous and find a new land (18:5). The Levite said to them, Go in peace. The Lord is watching over the journey you are going on (18:6). Now, that’s the kind of thing he was expected to say—what he was paid to say. The Danites weren’t paying him to give them bad news. But in truth, if you only get good news from a preacher, he’s not doing his full job.

18:7-10 The scouts found a place called Laish, where the people were unsuspecting. They had no alliance with anyone who would come to their aid (18:7). Thus, it appeared that the Levite had been right that God was watching over their journey and had even provided just the kind of target they’d wanted. Encouraged, they told their brothers, Come on, let’s attack them (18:9). God has handed it over (18:10).

18:11-14 Six hundred Danites set out for Laish. On the way, they came by Micah’s house (18:11, 13), and the scouts said, Did you know that there are an ephod, household gods, and a carved image and a silver idol in these houses? Now think about what you should do (18:14). What they should have done was “destroy” the idols and “drive out” the idol worshiper (see Num 33:52). But given how spiritually dark Israel had become, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what they planned to do.

18:15-21 The Danites took the carved image, the ephod, the household idols, and the silver idol (18:17). Concerned, the priest asked, What are you doing? (18:18). But the Danites answered, Keep your mouth shut. Come with us. . . . Is it better for you to be a priest for the house of one person or for you to be a priest for a tribe and family in Israel? (18:19). In other words, they appealed to his pride and materialism. They said, “We are giving you an opportunity for promotion: leave this house church and come lead our megachurch.” And the priest, ever the opportunist, gathered his idols and moved on to his new post (18:20). Thus, a compromised priest who’d been serving in a compromised house was now moving on to serve in a compromised community. Idolatry was spreading.

18:22-26 Micah gathered a few of his neighbors to chase after the Danites. The six hundred Danite soldiers faced them down and asked what the problem was. Micah replied, You took the gods I had made and the priest, and went away. What do I have left? (18:24). Now, any god that can be stolen from you is no god at all, but no one involved in this saga seemed to grasp that. And in the end, though Micah begged for pity, the Danites threatened to harm him and his family if he didn’t just accept the turn of events and go home (18:25). The Danites, then, were a gang of thugs who treated their brother Israelite with contempt.

18:27-31 Taking Micah’s gods with them, the Danite army continued to Laish and killed a quiet and unsuspecting people (18:27). They burned and rebuilt the city and named it Dan after their patriarch, who was one of the sons of Israel (that is, Jacob; 18:29). It would become the northernmost city in Israel, a fact often acknowledged in the phrase “from Dan to Beersheba (Israel’s southernmost city),” which appears throughout the Old Testament. Then they set up for themselves Micah’s carved image that he had made, and it was there as long as the house of God was in Shiloh (18:31). Thus, they had created an idolatrous stronghold. And though they still kept the Lord in the equation, used his name, and even inquired of him, they were not truly worshipping the Lord. They were worshiping a god of their own making.

Idolatry is a devastating sin that robs the true God of glory and cuts people off from his help. The Lord will not compete with false gods. You don’t have to bow down to a statue of wood or stone to commit idolatry. If you look to anything other than God as your source of meaning, provision, deliverance, and fulfillment, you’re looking to an idol. Worship and serve the Creator, not the creation (see Rom 1:25).

B. Outrage in Benjamin (19:1–21:25)

19:1-9 In this sad chapter we see that the Levites continued to facilitate the compromise of Israel. A Levite from Ephraim took a concubine for himself from Bethlehem. Concubines, or mistresses, were typically slaves. Over the course of time, she was unfaithful to him and left him for her father’s house (19:1-2). After several months, the Levite went searching for her to speak kindly to her and bring her back (19:3). The girl’s father was glad to see him, so he stayed with them (19:4). On the fourth day, he was preparing to depart with his concubine, but the father-in-law insisted that he stay (19:5). This happened every time he attempted to leave (19:6-9).

19:10-12 Finally, the Levite refused to stay any longer. He traveled as far as Jebus (which would one day be called Jerusalem, 19:10), and it was getting late. His servant suggested that they stay within its borders for the night, but the Levite insisted, We will not stop at a foreign city where there are no Israelites. Let’s move on to Gibeah, which was a town in the territory of Benjamin (19:12). Unfortunately, finding a city of Israelites would bring perversion instead of provision.

19:13-21 When they arrived at Gibeah, a city of the tribe of Benjamin, the Levite . . . sat down in the city square, but no one took them into their home to spend the night (19:15). Hospitality was an important and valued practice in the ancient Near East. It was customary to offer a stranger a place to stay. So the fact that nobody would do even that basic service for his fellow Israelites shows that at this point in history there really was no spiritual standard among the people—and that’s a recipe for disaster. Finally, an old man who was heading in from a day of hard work in the fields outside town saw the priest and welcomed him into his house. I’ll take care of everything you need, he said. Only don’t spend the night in the square (19:20). Clearly, he didn’t think it would be safe to camp out in that neighborhood.

19:22 As they were having dinner, wicked men of the city surrounded the house and beat on the door. They demanded that the man hand over the Levite: Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him!

Careful Bible readers will notice that this story sounds familiar. In Genesis 19, Abraham’s nephew Lot lived in the city of Sodom and welcomed into his home two angels. But the wicked men of the city demanded, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Send them out to us so we can have sex with them!” (Gen 19:5). The author of Judges wants us to see a sad reality: God’s people—who were called to be holy—had become just like the Canaanites whom they had driven out.

19:23-24 The old man defended his guest (19:23), but then he said the unthinkable: Here, let me bring out my virgin daughter and the man’s concubine now. Abuse them and do whatever you want to them. But don’t commit this outrageous thing against this man (19:24). This is horrific! Though he wanted to protect the Levite, he was willing to do so by handing over two defenseless women to a group of rapists! This is a twisted and depraved form of manhood. Even he, apparently among the city’s finest given his hospitality, was completely without conscience with regard to how women should be treated.

19:25-30 The Levite grew so concerned for his own safety that he cruelly delivered his concubine over to be raped by these men all night! He slept while she was abused (19:25). In the morning she collapsed at the doorway . . . where her master was (19:26). Yet, he still showed no remorse. Ready to continue his journey, he said to her callously, Get up. . . . Let’s go (19:28). And when she didn’t respond, he put her on a donkey and carried his dead concubine to his house—where he butchered her (19:28-29). This story is enough to make you ill.

He cut her into twelve pieces . . . and then sent her throughout the territory of Israel (19:29). Those who saw the grim deliveries said, Nothing like this has ever happened . . . since the day the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt (19:30). This was serious cultural decadence and decline. There was homosexuality, rape, cultural chaos, and mutilation among God’s people in the promised land, because there was no divine standard operating.

When people within a nation move away from honoring God, debauchery, decline, and chaos do inevitably set in. It doesn’t matter who is in power. Until the spiritual aspect gets rectified and idols are dismissed—specifically among God’s people—there will be no God, no King, no divine standard operating within that country that can fix the downhill race into tragedy.

20:1-13 The soldiers of the tribes of Israel assembled as one body before the Lord at Mizpah and asked how the terrible matter could have happened (20:1-3). The Levite explained the previous events—though he carefully omitted the fact that he had been wickedly willing to sacrifice his concubine to save himself (20:4-7). When they heard the awful story, the Israelites decided to attack Gibeah to punish them for all the outrage they committed (20:8-10). Then they sent messengers throughout Benjamin (since Gibeah was in the territory of Benjamin) saying, Hand over the wicked men in Gibeah so we can put them to death and eradicate evil from Israel (20:12-13).

The result would be a civil war. The Benjaminites would not listen to their fellow Israelites (20:13). They preferred to defend their own evil tribesmen rather than let the instigators face judgment. Their relationship with the town trumped their relationship with the people of God. Their misplaced loyalty should make us ask whether we are willing to endorse what is wrong for the sake of a relationship.

20:14-25 Over twenty-six thousand men from Benjamin and Gibeah faced off against four hundred thousand men from Israel (20:15-17). The Israelites, perhaps awakening to the fact that they’d need God’s help in setting things right within their borders, asked the Lord who should fight Benjamin first. He answered that Judah would be first (20:18). They did as God told them, but the Benja-minites came out of Gibeah and slaughtered twenty-two thousand men of Israel on the field that day (20:21). (Things had gotten so bad that victory wasn’t going to come easily.) They wept and asked God if they should attack again. God said, Fight against them (20:23). But once more the Benjaminites came out from Gibeah to meet them and slaughtered an additional eighteen thousand Israelites (20:25).

20:26-48 Grieved by their losses, Israel decided to get serious about making sure of its repentance before the Lord. This time the whole Israelite army went to Bethel where they wept and sat before God. The also offered burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the Lord. With that show of sincerity and humility done, the Israelites inquired of the Lord (20:26-27). This time the Lord defeated Benjamin in the presence of Israel (20:35).

What changed? In the first two battles they prayed and inquired of God while allowing unaddressed sin to linger in their midst. But before battle number three, they offered a burnt offering to sacrifice for their sins and a fellowship offering to make sure there was harmony between them and the Lord. If you have a request to make of God, make sure you deal with any known sin in your life before expecting him to overrule your circumstances (see Jas 1:19-21).

21:1-14 Disgusted by their brothers’ behavior, the men of Israel had sworn not to give their daughters to any Benjaminite in marriage (21:1). But when they realized how depleted the tribe had become already and that there would be no propagation of the tribe, they had compassion on their brothers (21:6). Since the city of Jabesh-gilead had not come out to fight against Benjamin, they decided to put the city to death and take virgins from the city as wives for the Benjaminites (21:8-14). Thus, in spite of a season of repentance, Israel continued to slide into moral darkness.

21:15-24 Even with the slaughter at Jabesh-gilead there were still Benjaminite men who had no wives. Yet the Israelites had declared, Anyone who gives a wife to a Benjaminite is cursed (21:18). So the elders reminded the Benjaminites that there was an annual festival to the Lord in Shiloh (21:19). They told them to hide in the vineyards and when the young women of Shiloh came to perform the dances, the Benjaminites were to leave the vineyards and catch wives from among them (21:20-21). Apparently, they had reasoned this way: the curse said that no one could give them wives, it said nothing about the Benjamin-ites catching wives. Thus, they convinced themselves that they wouldn’t be guilty (21:22). Fallen human beings are good at justifying their actions and explaining away their guilt.

21:25 In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever seemed right to him. The book of Judges ends with an indictment against the people of God—who looked nothing like “people of God.” They had turned from God to idols, and the Levites had facilitated their departure. There was no spiritual standard in those days, no king to turn the people to God through his example.

Thankfully, this is no longer the case. Though the judges and even the later kings of Israel were always imperfect and often wicked, we now have a Judge and King like no other: Jesus Christ. He alone can turn sinners to the living and true God, making them holy and upright. Will you submit to his kingdom rule over your life?