“Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.”
Those five chapters include not once or twice but four times the phrase, “there was no king in Israel.” The first two chapters show a Levite from the town of Bethlehem committing spiritual adultery by signing on with whomever pays him the most: first an idol worshipper, then 600 soldiers who destroy a peaceful city.
In the next chapter, a Levite travels to Bethlehem and retrieves his concubine. They stop for the night in Gibeah, a town belonging to the tribe of Benjamin where—with the complicity of the Levite—gang inhabitants rape her. She dies. The Levite cuts her body into 12 pieces and sends one piece to each tribe.
The result: 11 tribes of outraged Israelites demand that the perpetrators be punished, but the 12th tribe, Benjamin, refuses to hand them over. The other tribes then virtually wipe out the Benjamites, and also the residents of one town that would not fight against Benjamin, the town of Jabesh-gilead.
There’s more, including wife-stealing, but enough! In case we missed the message, the last two sentences of the Book of Judges repeat it: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” That’s not unlike America, where we legally cut up the bodies of unborn children. So what can we learn from this passage?
I’ll start first with what is superficially apparent: These chapters are great writing. Compare them with other accounts from 3,000 or so years ago—the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, the Hindu Vedas—and the realism and honesty stand out. These are not glorious stories of ancestors or heroes, but tales of woe.
Second, these chapters show what happens when we do what’s right in our own eyes rather than God’s. Levites, who had the special responsibility of knowing God’s law, are committing spiritual adultery. So are the residents of Gibeah, and the Benjamites who defend them, and the Israelites who (among other things) devote to destruction Jabesh-gilead without doing so by God’s word.
Third and more subtly, they show us how God upturns our expectations—for who becomes Israel’s first king perhaps two generations after these events at the end of Judges? Saul, a Benjamite in the rebuilt town of Gibeah. What city does Saul rescue, and by doing so win the allegiance of Israel? The rebuilt Jabesh-gilead.
But last and most important, these chapters of Judges point us to our desperate need for Christ, our King. When there’s no king in Israel and we do what’s right in our own eyes, we craft idols and worship them. Wrong beliefs lead to rape and death and the deaths of virtually a whole tribe. And oddly again, our hope comes from Bethlehem—the town from which the first treacherous Levite in Judges 17 and 18 came, the town in Judges 19 from which the Levite’s tragic journey began.
Samson was referring to honey within a lion he had killed, but doesn’t that also refer to Jesus of Bethlehem? The town produced Levites who ate up the inheritance of Israel, but in the Lord’s Supper we symbolically eat Christ, and He changes us. Israel thought itself strong in its own strength, but its real strength lay in the Scripture that God produced through Israel—which the Psalms tell us is sweeter than honey.