In those days Israel had no king; everyone did what was right in their own eyes.
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One of the most tragic (and gruesome) events during the Westward Movement of the mid-1800s was the story of the Donner Party, a group of pioneers who banded together and left for California in 1846. Stranded over an historically bad winter in the Nevada mountains, they eventually resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.
The Donner party made a number of critical mistakes. They left Independence, MI a month later than they should have to safely cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. They only brought enough food for a four-month journey, when in reality, it would be a full year before the last of the survivors was rescued. They missed a meet-up with a guide by two weeks, but decided to go forth alone. They failed to protect their cattle along the trail and ended up losing 100 due to theft and death, meaning they had to abandon the majority of their wagons.
All those errors contributed to the grisly outcome. But the biggest mistake they made was to put their faith in an untrustworthy guidebook. Even though he had never traveled the route himself, a man by the name of Langford Hastings wrote an emigrant’s guidebook in which he described a shortcut that would supposedly shorten their trip by 300 miles. Only after the guidebook became popular did Hastings attempt to take that shortcut himself, and afterward he left a note for the Donner Party telling them the trail was too treacherous, especially for the women and children. He told them to wait there at Fort Bridger for him and he’d show them another route. But when he didn’t arrive after eight days, they forged ahead on the route he had just warned them not to take.
Stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains in one of the worst winters on record — and only 80 miles from their destination — the travelers ran out of food and resorted to eating mice, pine cones, bark, and strips of leather. After that, they boiled the hides of their oxen and drank the smelly, gluey result. And when all of that was gone, they turned to the frozen corpses of their companions and ate those.
The sad truth is that if they had taken the tried-and true route instead of opting for the shortcut that looked better, and if they had heeded the warnings about how difficult the route was, and how full it was of treacherous paths and large expanses of trees and other obstacles that would stop them in their tracks until they found a way to move them, none of us would know anything about the Donner Party, because they would have arrived in California along with all the other wagon parties.
Israel actually did have a king; they had the Lord. But because they thought they knew better, they didn’t submit to Him as their king. Instead, “every man did was what right in his own eyes.” And there’s no sentence that more clearly predicts chaos and evil, for when when every man sets his own standard for what is right and good, standards inevitably clash, and death results.
Little has changed since the time of the Judges. We have laws for the land, but that doesn’t stop anyone from dong what is right in their own eyes. That’s why our news is full of stories of murder, sexual assault, child abuse, extortion, theft, adultery, and terrorism.
There is an alternative way to live. We can do what is right in God’s eyes, and we can follow the precepts He has laid down for us, no matter how tempting it may be to disobey; no matter that the world’s ever-present cry is, “Do what feels good!” We can walk the path He’s laid out for us, no matter how desirable another road may look.
We only have two options. We can trust our impulses, or we can trust God’s instructions.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12).