There Was No King (Judges 17:6 and //s)

Four times in the book of Judges, we run across this formula: “In those days Israel had no king” (17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25). The first and the last time, the author adds the phrase “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Now, make no mistake, Judges is in scripture as a negative example: do not act like this. It has become common then, to read this repeating formula as if it were saying that the bad morality displayed in this period is because there wasn’t a king — that is, if they’d had a king, they’d have been better. There is a glaring problem with this: it’s clear from the book of 1 Samuel, which follows Judges, that having a king is itself part of the bad thinking, and not what God or Samuel want.

Mary Evans, in her new commentary on Judges, suggests a nuanced interpretation, one which doesn’t occur to us because we’re not living in the kind of monarchy that the biblical writers would have been writing in. If we lived under a dictatorial monarchy that we knew God didn’t really want, when things went badly, we would be tempted to blame everything bad on the monarch.

Into such a situation, Judges could be telling you about the old days, which were not good old days, and using our repeating phrase to say: yeah, but things were awful even before the kings; the problem is not the form of government, it’s deeper and wider than that. The problem is the unfaithfulness of the people.

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