The book of Judges Chapters 19-21 tell about an episode early in Israel’s history after they conquered the Promised Land. The first sixteen chapters of the book mostly are presented in chronological order, but Chapter seventeen through the end of the book are appendices, relating events of earlier times as side stories that set the stage for the eventual change in Israelite government from Theocracy to Monarchy.
The Judges served Israel’s God in administering justice and providing human leadership during the several hundred years between the conquest and Saul, the first king. Chapter 19:1 begins the story with, “In those days Israel had no king.” There was only a loosely-organized governmental structure, so the crime that was committed against two people, described in 19:1-26 escalated to a national incident as v. 27-30 explain. One of the leaders was Phinehas the High Priest (20:28), who had shown himself to be a decisive and zealous servant of God during the latter part of Israel’s 40-year journey through the desert (Numbers 25:7–13). As he had not idly stood by during a previous time of national moral failure, he was part of the national leadership that weighed in on this latest criminal act (Judges 20:1-3). Clearly a horrible moral evil had taken place for which Yahweh would hold the nation responsible (Numbers 35:33-34; Deuteronomy 21:8-9), but exactly what was this evil seemed to have been heavily shaped by the cunning dramatization of the religious figure who portrayed himself as the victim (Judges 19:27-29). Without fully understanding the matter, the leaders, pressured by the alleged victim’s effective depiction of the outrageous nature of the crime, considered themselves responsible for bringing about justice (20:3, 6-7).
Who was right in this matter: the criminals or the outraged nation? Obviously, the nation was right, even if they had been skillfully manipulated by an angry and astute victim. Whose side was God on? That question does not have a simple answer. The Israelites were God’s covenant people to whom He had given the Promised Land. Because God told them to remove its previous inhabitants, the Israelites erroneously assumed that they were morally better, but Moses reminded them that it was not their moral purity that won the inheritance for them; no, they were themselves “a stiff-necked people” (Deuteronomy 9:4-6).
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