I hate the Book of Judges. A little over a year ago, I set out to read the Bible. I started in Genesis 1, Psalm 1, and Matthew 1 and then carried on from there reading three subsequent chapters each day (and, yes, if you do the math, it reveals some inconsistency on my part). So for the last 21 days, a third of my daily reading has been from Judges.
How bad is Judges? Prominent among the “heroes” of the book is a guy that threw up idols after God gave him victory (Gideon), a man that sacrificed his own daughter (Jephthah), and the Ancient Near Eastern embodiment of roid rage (Samson). I’m always encouraged that God uses flawed individuals to accomplish good things. But on the whole, the crew in judges is a bleak, violent bunch that seem mostly interested in God insofar as it allows them to kill a bunch of people.
The book culminates with a Levite throwing his concubine to a violent mob that then precedes to sexually assault this woman throughout the night. In the morning, the Levite carves this daughter of God into twelve pieces (while she was possibly still alive) and sends each part to a tribe of Israel as an invitation to war on those that did this to her. He obviously felt little remorse for his role in how things turned out. So Judges is a terrifying, miserable book.
Of course, part of that is the point. The refrain repeated throughout the narrative is: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” That was probably used as a rather persuasive piece of propaganda later on. If the public ever had issue with a royal policy, the king could just say: “Well, maybe you’re right and there shouldn’t be a king. Oh wait, this whole place would go to hell in a hand basket if there’s no king. Judges. Prooftext that, suckers!”
Yet anyone who has a passing knowledge of the narrative arc in the Hebrew Bible knows that a king was not the cure for what ailed the people in Judges. Things were plenty terrible under various monarchs throughout Israel/Judah’s history. 1 Samuel opens with God initially unwilling to let Israel have a king. The problem splattered all over judges is not that Israel had no king. It was that God was not king.
Thus Judges is what happens when anything and everything is king instead of God. This is where things get uncomfortable for me, because I have many times had something coronated as king besides God. You probably have too.
Maybe it’s ourselves, some other person, or a relationship. Maybe it’s materialism, a job, lust, anger, pride, or comfort. Maybe it’s our church or our way of interpreting scripture. Whatever it is, we all have these things that we crown king. In those moments we live as if God is not king and we do what is right in our own eyes. Just like the people in Judges.
I think I just destroyed the high ground from which I judged Judges (though, again, it’s horrible).
Yet all this talk about kings makes me wonder if we in the West are ill-suited for such a mindset. The last two hundred plus years of European and America history is the story of one monarch after another overthrown for democracy. This is not to say that the democratic system is incompatible with following God. However, a distrust of any king but the voice of the people seems to be deep in our DNA (and we don’t even really trust democracy either).
So I wonder if there is a better picture? Can something else convey to us that we need God to save us from our Me-ocracies, Lust-ocracies, Church-ocracies, and Whateverelse-ocracies that ineptly rule over us? I don’t know. Probably.
But I think there is still some resonance in the idea of God as king. At least I think there is as long as it is alongside all of these other beautiful images of God; including, in a seeming paradox, that of God as servant. Reading Judges these past weeks have convinced me of that. Without God as king, life can turn into total desolation.
[What should be a completely unnecessary side note: I am referring to people personally declaring God as king, not any sort of state-sanctioned theocracy. That would open a whole different can of worms.]
Humbly following God and swearing complete allegiance to our Creator is the only thing that can save us from looking like we stepped out of Judges. Sure, when we do what is right in our own eyes it may not be as gruesome as those Old Testament passages. But selfishness is still selfishness. Hatred is still hatred. When God is not king, those are the things that happen.
Thus the response to Judges is simple: the follower of Jesus that truly wants to follow in his way must simply recognize that there is no king but God. Easier said than done I know, but the worth the difficulty to be done.