In the book of judges, up to and through the time of Samson, we can find a constant and consistent refrain. When we read it, we know that a time of exile is coming upon Israel. The exile points to a coming exodus, and of necessity, a deliverer through which God will bring about that exodus, delivering His people from foreign subjugation. That phrase, repeatedly seen throughout the narrative of the judges, is “The Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight.” Inevitably, the doing of evil has to do with idolatry, and a forsaking of the ways and knowledge of their Lord God. After Samson however, we no longer encounter that phrase, which is quite telling. In its place, we find instead “In those days Israel had no king” (18:1a).
In all honesty, it’s fairly difficult, at least on the surface, to determine if the author is presenting this as something positive or negative. Problems certainly arise in Israel in the years following Samson’s death, but it’s not at all clear that the presence of a king would have had any impact one way or the other. On the positive presentation side of not having a king, when we look into the first book of Samuel and find the desire of Israel to have a king, expressed in words such as “Give us a king to lead us” (8:6b), God’s response to Samuel is “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king” (8:7). The negative side of the statement in Judges in regards to the lack of a king is also encapsulated by what is to be found following what was just quoted from Samuel, in that God says in regards to His people rejecting Him in favor of a human king, “Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day, they have rejected me and have served other gods” (8:8a).
This actually clears things up quite a bit, allowing us to return to Judges and see that the statement that “Israel had no king” is really no different from the statement that “Israel did evil in the Lord’s sight.” Since the definition of the evil was always intertwined with idolatrous practices, this issue of having no king, when viewed through God’s word to Samuel, is another way of speaking of Israel’s idolatry. With no king, and therefore by extension, no acknowledgment of their God as they continued with their service to other gods, Israel would have remained in exile from God’s purposes for them, though there is no explicit statement from this point forward within the book of Judges concerning subjugation to a foreign power. What we do see, in confirmation of the connection of “no king” with idolatry, is the story of a man named Micah, the carved image that he had made, a young Levite made to be a priest for service to Micah and his personal god, and a group of marauding Danites that take this priest and carved image for themselves to worship (ironically, the tribe of Dan was the source of Israel’s judges---“Dan” means “judgment---and after this, there are no more judges). This brief story actually comes to a close by stating that the Danites “worshiped Micah’s carved image the whole time God’s authorized shrine was in Shiloh” (18:31), and furthermore, in something of a tie-in to our overall theme, that the situation persisted “for the tribe of Dan until the time of the exile” (18:30b).
At the conclusion of this story, another story begins with “In those days Israel had no king” (19:1a). What follows is a story that is something of a re-visiting of the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, as it involved a traveler (a Levite) spending a night in a foreign town (Gibeah of Benjamin), being invited to stay with a citizen of that town, the residents of that town demanding to have sex with the visitor, and the offer of a virgin daughter (along with the traveler’s concubine) to appease the hostile mob. Clearly, as this is taking place in Israel, and because the residents in question were all Benjaminites (members of Israel), exile from God’s purposes for them is clearly in full demonstration. In the story, we find that the concubine was abusively handled and killed by the mob, and the dramatic response by the Levite traveler of cutting the dead concubine into twelve pieces and sending them throughout Israel (19:29), caused “All the Israelites from Dan to Beer Sheba and from the land of Gilead” to gather together and assemble for war against Gibeah of Benjamin. In their state of exile, with no king and in service to idols, the people that had been charged to purge the land of the people whom God had said were defiling their land with abominations, were now doing the same things, and they were turning against each other. With such a display, it is clear that they could not function as God’s representatives, as lights to the surrounding nations, and reflections of the glory of God.
The story of this civil war within Israel, as the tribes subjugate each other, closes out the book of Judges. The words that close out the book itself are “In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right” (21:25).