Biblical Monarchy and the book of Judges

A Disturbing Story

A woman is brutally raped and murdered in a slow, cruel way. She is abandoned by her own husband, who gives her over to the attackers. They abuse her throughout the night, and finally leave her dead on the doorstep. The following day, her husband grotesquely mutilates her corpse, cutting her into numerous pieces.

I was a teenager when I first read this in the Bible, and it deeply disturbed me. For a long time afterwards, I had trouble getting this story out of my head. I was appalled by the horror, the callousness, and the brutality of it all. This wasn’t just a story; this was history. This woman was real. She actually had to endure this abandonment, violation, torture, and death. And she had to endure it alone.

This story takes place in the 18th chapter of the book of Judges. It is probably not a story you learned in Sunday School as a kid. And it is not a passage that is often preached on Sunday mornings. It it just too graphic, too evil, and frankly, too depressing.

This one event is the catalyst which leads to a civil war within Israel, which nearly destroys the entire tribe of Benjamin. Tens of thousands are slaughtered. The tribe is left with virtually no way to propagate itself. The few remaining men need wives, so the rest of Israel orchestrates a mass-kidnapping to “solve” the problem. The Benjamites go to Shiloh (the location of the Tabernacle where God is worshiped), hide behind the trees, and then proceeded to kidnap women who were dancing during the annual festivities. They were taken away from their families, and were forced to marry their kidnappers. Thus the tribe of Benjamin is sustained.

As Dr. Jeannie Constantinou has noted:

The Judges period is considered by many people to be the worst time in the history of Israel. It’s a very dark and very violent period characterized by tremendous instability. The Hebrews were constantly fighting their enemies, who were relentlessly attacking them. And by the end of the book, the Hebrew tribes are fighting each other.

(audio recording: Judges – Part I, quote begins at 11:15)

Some people suggest that Israel’s Judges were better than Israel’s Kings. But what is there in the book of Judges to warrant such a conclusion?  Is a nation with widespread rape, murder, kidnapping, and idolatry really the sort of place we want to live?

Scriptural Background in Favor of Monarchy

Scripture seems to commend monarchy as a preferable form of government, frequently speaking of kings in a positive light. For example:

  • In Genesis 14, King Melchizedek prophetically acts out the first proto-Eucharist in Scripture, blessing Abraham with bread and wine.
  • In Genesis 17, God promises to bless Abraham with kings for descendants.
  • In Genesis 35, God promises to bless Jacob with kings for descendants.
  • In Genesis 49, God promises that Israel’s kings will come from the tribe of Judah.
  • In Deuteronomy 17, Moses lays out the blueprint for Israel to have godly kings.
  • In 1 Samuel 2, Hannah prophesies about the coming monarchy (verse 10) in a very positive context, focusing on the Lord’s anointed monarch.
  • When Israel’s kings are very good, Scripture never suggests that they should have been “good enough to abolish monarchy, and establish some better form of government”.
  • Similarly, when Israel’s kings are very wicked, Scripture never suggests that “being a king” was part of their sin.
  • In the New Testament, many people spoke Greek, and the entire Roman empire was deeply influenced by the Greek culture, which had already been aware of Democracy for over 500 years.  Yet, Jesus and the apostles never suggest that we should replace monarchies with democracies (or with any other form of government). Individual kings are reprimanded, but the monarchy itself is never condemned.
  • The apostle Peter tells us to “submit … to the king” and “honor the king“.
  • The apostle Paul not only asks us to pray for, but also to give thanks for kings.
  • Throughout Scripture, Jesus is referred to as a great King . . . not as a great President.
  • In the book of Revelation, God promises us Christians that we will reign as kings.

From Genesis to Revelation, monarchy is presented in a positive light. (1 Samuel 8 is no exception, as demonstrated in this article on “The Long-Awaited King“.) Things go well when kingship is practiced in a godly way, and things go poorly when it is practiced in an evil way.  But the same goes for any job under the sun.  In this particular sense, there is nothing unique about the monarchy.

Yet some people suggest that monarchy is contrary to God’s plan.  A better government, they suggest, would look more like the leadership Israel received during the time of the Judges, prior to the advent of Israel’s monarchy.

The Book of Judges

Interestingly, the book of Judges itself points to monarchy as a preferable form of government. The entire book takes place prior to the advent of Israel’s kings, and repeatedly suggests Israel’s need for a godly monarchy.

In reference to the time of Israel’s kings, people sometimes suggest evil Israelite behavior as proof that “monarchy doesn’t work”.  But what if the same standard is applied to the period when Israel was ruled by judges?  Was the nation practicing righteousness during that time?  If not, then the nation’s unfaithfulness cannot be blamed on monarchy.

If government by judges is preferable to government by kings, then the difference should be noticeable. Yet, if we compare the events in the book of Judges with the events in the books of 1 & 2 Kings, what differences do we actually see?

Four times in the book of Judges, Israel’s lack of a king is explicitly mentioned.  Does Scripture make this reference in a positive context, or in a negative one?  This is a key to understanding Scripture’s position on monarchy.

Thus, when reading the book of Judges in this context, at least three things should come to mind:

  1. Considering the Widespread Wickedness in the Book of Judges
  2. Comparing the Books of Judges and Kings
  3. Seeing how Judges Contrasts Monarchy with near-Anarchy

Widespread Wickedness in the Book of Judges

The Book of Judges begins with Israel’s disobedience. God had commanded them to drive all the Canaanites out of the land, but they refused to do this. In chapter two, God sends an angel to rebuke them. By the end of chapter two, they are not only living among the Canaanites; they are also worshiping the pagan gods of Canaan.

Throughout the rest of the book, we see a tortured cycle of idolatry, subjection to foreign powers, mighty deliverance from God, and an eventual return to idolatry. No matter how many times God appoints Judges to rescue His people, they just never seem to learn.

In addition to the constant cycle of idolatry and war, we also see mass murders (Judges 9), child sacrifice (Judges 11), wives forcibly taken from one husband and given to another (Judges 15), prostitution (Judges 16), theft, cursing, and pagan priestcraft (Judges 17), the merciless slaughter of a quiet and peaceful community (Judges 18), a civil war which nearly destroys an entire tribe of Israel (Judges 20), mass kidnapping of women, and the forcing of women to marry their kidnappers (Judges 21).

While some Judges were godly (Deborah, Eli, Samuel), there were also Judges who were guilty of fornication with prostitutes (Samson), excessive polygamy (Gideon), and child sacrifice (Jephthah).

Overall, Scripture suggests that Israel was just as wicked under the leadership of Judges, as it was later under the reign of Kings.

Comparing Judges and Kings

God commanded kings not to multiply wives for themselves (Deuteronomy 17:17). Kings such as David and Solomon violated this command.  But were the Judges any better? According to Judges 8:30, Gideon had quite a harem.

Some savage mass-murders took place in Israel during the reigns of monarchs. For example, Queen Athaliah attempted to slaughter all the royal heirs, and only one child escaped.  She may have been evil, but she was not very original.  A very similar event had already happened during the reign of the Judges, when Abimelech slaughtered his 70 brothers, shedding their blood on a single stone. Only one child escaped.

Godly kings often failed to train their children in righteousness. Unfortunately, the judges often had the same problem. The sons of Eli and the sons of Samuel were noted for their wickedness.

Idolatry pervades the history of Israel’s kings.
But idolatry also pervades the history of Israel’s judges.

Was Samson a great warrior?  So was King David.
Was Samuel a wise leader?  So was King Solomon.
Was Gideon a faithful reformer? So was King Josiah.

There is simply no indication, anywhere in Scripture, that Israel’s judges were any better than Israel’s kings.  Every corruption found among the monarchs can be found among the judges.  And every virtue found among the judges can be found among the monarchs.

Anarchy vs. Monarchy

Anarchy is a consistent refrain throughout the book of Judges. Lacking a monarchical form of government, every man in Israel “did that which was was right in his own eyes”. Instead of promoting peace and freedom, this state of affairs produced a nation full of people with hardened consciences:

The recognition and acknowledgment of God’s holy standard is a foundational necessity for repentance, and this fact is poignantly made in the book of Judges.  This book spans several centuries, and covers numerous cases where Israelites raped and murdered one another, while committing flagrant forms of idolatry.  Significantly, the book simultaneously repeats the refrain that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25). We would be appalled just to read that Israelites were willingly committing acts of wickedness.  But how much more shocking it is to hear that they committed these acts without even comprehending the gravity of their evil! It is ghastly to imagine that men can rape and murder in spite of their consciences.  But it is even more mind-boggling to think that men can rape and murder in agreement with their consciences. Men’s consciences may become so seared that they don’t even feel guilt when committing such acts.  People in such a state may express sorrow for getting caught, but they are not yet in a position to exercise true repentance.  Before godly sorrow and meaningful confession can take place, the conscience itself must first be pricked.  (Source: The Sacrament of Confession)

Just what sorts of atrocities did the Israelites commit when they were doing what was “right in their own eyes”?  The phrase is first used in the context of idolatry:

The man Micah had a shrine, and made an ephod and household idols; and he consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest. In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:5-6)

The phrase is used again in the context of kidnapping, and also as a finale to the entire book of Judges:

Therefore they instructed the children of Benjamin, saying, “Go, lie in wait in the vineyards, and watch; and just when the daughters of Shiloh come out to perform their dances, then come out from the vineyards, and every man catch a wife for himself from the daughters of Shiloh; then go to the land of Benjamin. . . . And the children of Benjamin did so; they took enough wives for their number from those who danced, whom they caught. . . . In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
(Judges 21:20-25)

In each case, notice that the phrase “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” is paired with the phrase, “In those days there was no king in Israel”.  In other words, the lack of monarchy implies anarchy.  The consciences of the populous were insufficient for bringing righteousness to the nation. A godly king was needed.

This observation is consistent with the other two times when the book of Judges notes that “there was no king in Israel”.  In each case, Scripture pairs the phrase with sins that are the fruit of anarchy.

Instead of fighting to take possession of the land which God had given them, the tribe of Dan goes outside their approved borders, and slaughters a peaceful community of people. They found the city of Dan, and proceed to setup pagan idols in it.  This is the sort of thing that happens when no godly king is present to restrain evil:

In those days there was no king in Israel: and in those days the tribe of the Danites sought them an inheritance to dwell in; for unto that day all their inheritance had not fallen unto them among the tribes of Israel. And the children of Dan . . . came unto Laish, unto a people that were at quiet and secure: and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and burnt the city with fire. . . . And they called the name of the city Dan, after the name of Dan their father, who was born unto Israel: howbeit the name of the city was Laish at the first. And they set them up Micah’s graven image, which he made, all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh. (Judges 18:1-31)

Then comes the horrific story referenced at the beginning of this article, about the woman who was brutally raped, murdered, and dissected:

Now it came about in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a certain Levite staying in the remote part of the hill country of Ephraim, who took a concubine for himself from Bethlehem in Judah. . . . they passed along and went their way, and the sun set on them near Gibeah which belongs to Benjamin. They turned aside there in order to enter and lodge in Gibeah. . . . the men of the city, certain worthless fellows, surrounded the house, pounding the door . . . the man seized his concubine and brought her out to them; and they raped her and abused her all night until morning, then let her go at the approach of dawn. As the day began to dawn, the woman came and fell down at the doorway of the man’s house where her master was, until full daylight.

When her master arose in the morning and opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, then behold, his concubine was lying at the doorway of the house with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up and let us go,” but there was no answer. Then he placed her on the donkey; and the man arose and went to his home. When he entered his house, he took a knife and laid hold of his concubine and cut her in twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout the territory of Israel. (Judges 19:1-29)

Four times, the book of Judges mentions there being “no king in Israel”.
And in every case, it is mentioned in a negative context:

  • Judges 17 / Idolatry / Quote: “there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes”
  • Judges 18 / Genocide / Quote: “there was no king in Israel”
  • Judges 19 / Rape & Murder / Quote: “there was no king in Israel”
  • Judges 21 / Kidnapping & Forced Marriage / Quote: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

It is never suggested that the lack of a king was a good thing.  Israel’s lack of monarchy is never mentioned when Gideon smashes idols, or when the people of Israel turn towards God.

Rather, Israel’s lack of monarchy is always mentioned in connection with blatant public sins which could have been restrained by the presence of a godly king.

When there are godly kings, righteousness reigns.
When there are godless kings, wickedness abounds.
The solution is to pray for God to replace a wicked king with a godly king,
not to replace the monarchy with some other form of government.

About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in 1 Kings 3:5-13, 1 Samuel 17:6, 1 Samuel 18:7, 1 Samuel 21:25, 1 Samuel 2:10, 1 Samuel 2:12, 1 Samuel 2:22-23, 1 Samuel 8:1-3, 2 Kings 23, Deuteronomy 17:14-20, Genesis 14:18-20, Genesis 17:6, Genesis 35:11, Genesis 49:10, Joshua 19:47, Judges 11, Judges 15, Judges 16, Judges 17, Judges 18, Judges 19, Judges 20, Judges 21, Judges 8:30, Judges 9, Monarchy. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Biblical Monarchy and the book of Judges

  1. Peter B. says:

    I have enjoyed looking around your blog, sir. Just one question regarding this topic: how do you deal with the statement in the book of I Samuel in which it is said that Israel sinned by asking a king for themselves? I have not yet satisfactorily answered that, and it is often brought to bear as Scripture against monarchy. This from one who would consider himself a monarchist.

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  5. Enoch Elijah says:

    I believe that the king that the phrase “there was no king in Israel” refers to the people not holding God has king, not letting His reign be seen by doing His will. Here you interpret the king to be fleshly, this cannot be. Every fleshly king sins, the only non-sinning king is Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of the Virigin Mary.

    • This part of the book of Judges was written during a time when Israel was ruled by kings. In these passages, the author is looking back in time. It says, “In *those* days there was no king in Israel . . .” Scripture is drawing a distinction between “those days” (when there was no king), and “today” (when there finally is a king).

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  11. Les says:

    I was thinking the same thing as Enoch Elijah. That the word “king” referred to God, or maybe Jesus. What is your response to this Fr Gleason?

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