We need to start by reviewing a little Hebrew history.
Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert. He wasn’t a king. His sons did not assume his position on his death. But he acted as a judge — deciding disputes — and he was famously a great lawgiver, even though the laws he made came from the mouth of God. He was the only government Israel had — speaking in human terms.
Joshua succeeded Moses and led the Israelites in a series of military campaigns to occupy a portion of Canaan.
After Joshua, Israel divided the land among the tribes and allocated plots of farmland to each household. Israel settled into an agrarian lifestyle. They farmed or raised sheep. But they were surrounded by unfriendly nations, had no national government, and so had no national military.
The borders were far from secure and there were large portions of the land that had not yet been conquered — especially the fertile coastal plain, where the Philistines lived.
Many of the surrounding nations were technologically superior, having discovered how to make and work iron — a vastly superior material for swords and chariots. And many of the surrounding nations were much more prosperous, with established trade relations and powerful allies.
Each year, at harvest time, the Israelite farmers were at risk of losing everything. It was easy for marauders from neighboring nations to sweep in to steal the crops — leaving a family or clan to starve for a year.
In short, at the end of Joshua, Israel had been established as a nation, but it was in a very precarious situation. In wouldn’t take many military reverses to send Israel into the dustbin of history.
The book of Judges tells the stories of several “judges” or leaders raised up by God to defend the Israelite tribes from their enemies. Not much was accomplished during this time in terms of completing the conquest of Canaan. The Philistines were too powerful, too rich, and too well equipped.
Here’s a map of Israel at the time of the Judges, as usually presented in Sunday school classes —
In reality, the borders looked much more like the below map.
Even those tribes with a place to live and farm were in the hill country, where farming was possible but difficult. The land was rocky, difficult to plow, and distant from the more regular rains that watered the coastal plains.
It was a tough, challenging existence. You can imagine how the people must have longed for God to lead them to complete the conquest of the Promised Land!
Under the judges, Israel’s enemies were repeatedly defeated, but they weren’t subdued, that is, that weren’t so defeated that they were no longer a threat.
God the King
But the people did have a king. Going back to the time of Moses, Israel considered their king to be God himself.
(Deu 33:5 ESV) 5 Thus the LORD became king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people were gathered, all the tribes of Israel together.
(“Jeshurun” means “upright one,” and is God’s pet name for Israel, just as you might refer to your daughter as “angel” — this is how you see her at her best even though she’s not an angel all time.) God is also declared king of Israel in Num 23:21 and Judg 8:23.
Nonetheless, the Law of Moses anticipated a day when Israel would have a human king.
(Deu 17:14-20 ESV) 14 “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ 15you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.
18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. 19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.”
God could not have been more plain that a king would be permitted — provided the king is sufficiently humble and true to the Torah.
The conclusion of Judges
Some truly awful things happened near the end of the period of the judges.
(Jdg 17:4-6 ESV) 4 So when he restored the money to his mother, his mother took 200 pieces of silver and gave it to the silversmith, who made it into a carved image and a metal image. And it was in the house of Micah. 5 And the man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and household gods, and ordained one of his sons, who became his priest. 6 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
A woman made silver idols and ordained her son as a priest. And the author of Judges blames this sin on the fact that “there was no king in Israel.” As a result, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” In context, this is not praise for Western radical individualism. It’s a commentary on the bad things that happen when there is no leader in authority.
Next, the author of Judges tells us –
(Jdg 18:1 ESV) In those days there was no king in Israel. And in those days the tribe of the people of Dan was seeking for itself an inheritance to dwell in, for until then no inheritance among the tribes of Israel had fallen to them.
The author goes on to explain how this resulted in the founding of the city of Dan, which contained silver idolatrous images and a false priest. We next read –
(Jdg 19:1 ESV) In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.
This introduces the dreadful story of a raped and murdered concubine, considered such an atrocity that the other 11 tribes nearly exterminated the tribe of Benjamin because she was raped and killed by Benjaminites.
The story (and the book of Judges) concludes with –
(Jdg 21:25 ESV) 25 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Clearly, the author of Judges is explaining the necessity for a king — a position entirely consistent with Deuteronomy 17.
Judges ends sadly, with Israel in turmoil, idolatry gaining a footing, and lawlessness becoming so pervasive that a tribe is nearly destroyed by its brother tribes.
It’s no surprise that the elders of the tribes soon begged for a king.