“Right in his own eyes”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
We live in strange times. For my lifetime up to this point, at least, the focus in the church has been on doctrine surrounding worship and salvation. This has been for two reasons—first, those were the main problems the church faced; and second, we pretty much all agreed on the basic standard of right and wrong already. Our nation, taking most of its moral cues from the Bible, mostly agreed, and so we were left to argue over finer points, which are nonetheless important. Who would have thought, a month ago, that there would be widespread questions over whether stealing, for example, was right or wrong? There was theft, of course; but the great majority, in both the church and the world, could easily agree that it was wrong, even if they might have disagreed on precisely why.
I’ve held off talking about this because there were other things more pressing than this to address, and because I wanted to take some time to develop my understanding of worldly events, and to think about God’s Word on the matter. With that done, it’s no longer time to remain silent, and I’m afraid this is becoming a pressing concern that the church should be ready to meet.
We live in a society that no longer agrees on right and wrong. The groundwork for this rift was laid a long time ago, with some maintaining that the things God clearly says are sinful are, well, sinful, and others saying that such attitudes are hateful, intolerant, and directly contrary to God’s Word, or that God’s Word doesn’t matter, or that God doesn’t exist, and we get to make up our own rules. Let’s consider an example of a world without enforcement of any of God’s rules. If you’ve never read the last five chapters of the book of Judges, there’s no better time than now to do so. They are not G-rated, or even PG-13; they paint a grisly picture of life without some enforcement of God’s basic moral rules.
It begins in chapters 17 and 18 with a story of theft within a family, giving way to idolatry and a perversion of the priesthood, after which the author gives a helpful note to explain how events got this ridiculous: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Jdg 17.6). The guy behind all of that nonsense, Micah, ends up being victimized, in turn. What he had built is stolen from him, by a marauding band of fellow Israelites, who then go and murder an entire city for the express purpose of leaving the land God had allotted to them, and taking these poor people’s home for themselves. There’s no one to mourn these “quiet and unsuspecting” people (18.27) as the tribe of Dan sets up its own city, as well as an idolatrous shrine. Lovely.
Shifting gears, we see some more awful behavior in chapter 19, prefaced with a reminder that “there was no king in Israel” at the time (19.1). This time a nameless Levite has a falling out with his concubine (by the way, for some reason he had a concubine rather than a wife…), and then in the course of reconciling, his father-in-law coaxes him into a five-day party, which raises the question, don’t these guys have anything useful to do? The Levite finally sets out on his journey home with his…girl (e.g. v3)…as evening falls, which does not seem like a stupendously responsible decision. They pass the town of Jebus, not wanting to stay there because it’s full of (*shudder*) Gentiles, and eventually reach the Benjaminite town of Gibeah. The Israelites of that town then attempt to force themselves sexually on the nameless Levite, who, in a despicable act of cowardice, throws his concubine to these animals, who proceed to, um, mistreat the poor girl, to such an extent that she dies. How’s that no-enforcement thing looking?
Believe it or not, it gets worse—the Levite (the girl’s “master” according to 19.27) dismembers her body and sends these gruesome postcards to the 12 tribes of Israel. The entire nation is, on the bright side, outraged at this incident, and so after some tribal back-and-forth and escalation, they determine that the logical reaction is to exterminate the tribe of Benjamin, which, call me crazy, seems excessive. In the ensuing war, at least 65,000 men are killed, and that doesn’t take account of the death toll within the towns, of which it is reported, “all the towns that they found they set on fire” (20.48). In the aftermath, someone notices that no one came to help from Jabesh-gilead, in the eastern territory of Manasseh, and so, of course, they slaughter that entire town for the crime of not helping them slaughter several other towns. They do spare the 400 young girls they find there, in order to give them forcibly as wives for the few remaining Benjaminites whose tribe they just finished massacring. This isn’t enough to ensure the tribe doesn’t die out completely, and so “the elders of the congregation” (21.16) settle on a plan of community-sponsored rape. The whole thing leaves me feeling like I could use a shower. Lest we forget, the author helpfully reminds us, as the chapter, and indeed the book, ends: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21.25).
Why anyone would think that some sort of rule-free, communal paradise is a viable option, is beyond me. Humanity tried that once—you can read about it in Genesis 3 and 4. In those sorts of situations, someone always brings evil into it, and it’s not long before Paradise descends into hatred and violence, where the only moral code is to do what you want at others’ expense. That’s not God’s way—“every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Pr 21.2). In fact, we could go farther: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Pr 14.12 & 16.25). Jesus has promised us a return to Paradise. We can see its firstfruits in the church he established, and can glimpse from afar what awaits us after this life. As long as we live in a fleshly world, evil will reign, and we must stand against it. But take courage, and as you stand for God’s Word on what is right, look forward to the day “when all things are subjected to him” (1Co 15.28).