In recent days I have spent hours reading about despicable and violent people, callousness and lovelessness in marriage, and the violent debasement of women. The specifics include a public chorus' shouting for the satisfaction of homosexual lust, a heterosexual gang rape that claimed the life of its victim, the grisly dismemberment of a battered corpse, a heartless coward's inciting others to genocide, and gang warfare that ends with the cold-blooded murder of countless innocent victims. I was reading of those things not in the newspaper or in some commentary on the modern world, but in the Bible. This morning we are going to consider what are probably the most morbid chapters in the Bible. At times like this I wish our pattern was not to preach expositorily, going from the beginning to the end of a book or section of scripture. I'd certainly leave this part out if I had the option this morning. But "all scripture is inspired by God," so we need to consider what's before us.
I want you to know that we're not going to end this series at the end of the book of Judges. We'll finish the last three chapters this morning, but there is a sequel, if you will. The events in the next book in the Bible, the book of Ruth, also took place in the time of the judges, and we'll conclude our series, thankfully, with a very encouraging and lovely story.
The sort of grisly events that we'll read of this morning are not foreign
to our contemporary world, of course. In the Academy Awards this week, Hollywood
praised to the skies a movie that is about serial killers, cannibalism,
and ritual disfigurement of bodies. Jeffrey Dahmer's twisted life of murder,
necrophilia, and other terrors is only recently absent from the front page
news. Saddam Hussein is, by all accounts, committing genocide against whole
regions of his country. These events are further confirmation that the events
we'll read about today are not unique to any time in history. We need to
know God's perspective in order to be witnesses, to speak the truth in the
face of these terrible things. Let's begin reading the nineteenth chapter
of Judges, verse 1:
Now it came about in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a certain Levite staying in the remote part of the hill country of Ephraim, who took a concubine for himself from Bethlehem in Judah. But his concubine played the harlot against him, and she went away from him to her father's house in Bethlehem in Judah, and was there for a period of four months. Then her husband arose and went after her to speak tenderly to her in order to bring her back, taking with him his servant and a pair of donkeys. So she brought him into her father's house, and when the girl's father saw him, he was glad to meet him. And his father-in-law, the girl's father, detained him; and he remained with him three days. So they ate and drank and lodged there.
This three-day festival carries on to a fourth and then a fifth day as the story unfolds. Finally the Levite and his concubine are able to leave only toward the end of the fifth day and travel a short distance before they must spend the night.
Now, as is so often the case with the stories in the book of Judges, if we just read the introduction, both the tone and the details are encouraging and upbeat. This story begins with an errand of reconciliation; the Levite comes to "speak tenderly (v3)" and win back the woman with whom he'd become estranged.
The term concubine here means essentially a secondary wife. Concubinage was a form of marriage with a recognized commitment between the man and the woman; it is not just cohabitation. But it is a less honorable commitment than formal marriage would be, and the reason typically is that either the woman was a slave and unable to enter into a marriage, or she had no dowry or had some other mark against her.
Notice in verse 2, where it says she "played the harlot" against him. That may, in fact, mean that she was unfaithful to him, but it also may mean, that she was merely insolent in her behavior, a hothead. (A woman who was unfaithful to her husband would in fact be an insolent woman.) The reason I suggest that is that the Septuagint (an ancient version of the Old Testament written in Greek) says not that she was unfaithful but that she became angry with her husband. That seems to fit the story better, because he's taking the initiative to go find her and patch up the relationship.
The father is delighted (we conjecture) to have his daughter, who is a little hard to live with anyway, married. So the mood is positive as the Levite comes to patch up this relationship, and good will reigns on every side.
Let's pick up the story again in verses 11-15. They haven't been able
to leave until late in the afternoon because of the festivities, and now
the three are traveling.
When they were near Jebus, the day was almost gone; and the servant said to his master, "Please come, and let us turn aside into this city of the Jebusites and spend the night in it." However, his master said to him, "We will not turn aside into the city of foreigners who are not of the sons of Israel; but we will go on as far as Gibeah." And he said to his servant, "Come and let us approach one of these places; and we will spend the night in Gibeah or Ramah." So they passed along and went their way, and the sun set on them near Gibeah which belongs to Benjamin. And they turned aside there in order to enter and lodge in Gibeah. When they entered, they sat down in the open square of the city, for no one took them into his house to spend the night.
The last phrase in verse 15 is like a minor chord in the theme music, and we sense that something ominous is about to happen.
It was an enormous breach of convention for a community in the ancient world to refuse to offer hospitality to a stranger. We find this standard recognized throughout the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. The ancient peoples were nomads before they settled; the Jews, of course, wandered in the wilderness before they settled in Palestine.
Our storyteller comments on the refusal of the travelers to enter the Jebusite city because of its uncertainties. They don't want to take a chance on entering the town of the unrighteous! Rather, they will go on to the town of their brothers, to Gibeah...and there no one offers them shelter. Verse 16:
Then behold, an old man was coming out of the field from his work at evening. Now the man was from the hill country of Ephraim, and he was staying in Gibeah, but the men of the place were Benjamites.
The Ephraimite farmer, who is living in Gibeah, is not from there originally. Meeting him for the first time, we might suspect that he is a rescuer, another "good guy." We have a Levite who has reconciled with tender speech to his wife and a father-in-law who throws long parties. Now we're in the town of the Benjamites who have shown no hospitality. Thankfully, our hearts are set at rest for the moment because this old man-we might even speak of him as a kindly, sweet old man-coming in from the fields, invites the travelers into the rich hospitality of his home.
We might begin to think well of this "kindly old man," but let's continue on. Verses 22-26:
While they were making merry, behold, the men of the city, certain worthless fellows [sons of Belial], surrounded the house, pounding the door; and they spoke to the owner of the house, the old man, saying, "Bring out the man who came into your house that we may have [sexual] relations with him." Then the man, the owner of the house, went out to them and said to them, "No, my fellows, please do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not commit this act of folly. Here is my virgin daughter and his concubine. Please let me bring them out that you may ravish them and do to them whatever you wish. But do not commit such an act of folly against this man." But the men would not listen to him, so the man seized his concubine and brought her out to them. And they raped her and abused her all night until morning, then let her go at the approach of dawn. As the day began to dawn, the woman came and fell down at the doorway of the man's house where her master was, until full daylight.
Sometime between the hours of early dawn and full daylight, she crawled to the doorway, and died with her hands on the threshold, having been raped and abused all night. Verse 27:
When her master arose in the morning and opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way...
After throwing his wife out to a gang of rapists, he sleeps in a little late, having spent a comfortable night. He feels good, ready to travel for the next day. Yawning, stretching, he steps out the door...
...then behold, his concubine was lying at the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold.
She had crawled that far, hoping that someone in the house, either the Ephraimite or her husband, might save her life.
And he said to her [perhaps kicking her in the ribs], "Get up and let us go," but there was no answer. Then he placed her on the donkey; and the man arose and went to his home. When he entered his house, he took a knife and laid hold of his concubine and cut her in twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout the territory of Israel [pieces of her body with notes attached, presumably]. And it came about that all who saw it said, "Nothing like this has ever happened or been seen from the day when the sons of Israel came up from the land of Egypt to this day. Consider it, take counsel and speak up!"
All the twelve tribes of Israel are supposed to be outraged by what they hear and see and are called on to punish Gibeah.
The archetypical account of a society in rebellion against God and God's
judgment is in Genesis 19, which every Jew would know. It is the story of
Lot, who lives in Sodom, his angelic visitors, and the attempt by the men
of Sodom to rape them in the middle of the night. The Sodomites were judged
by fire from heaven. This is the same story, only it's happening in Israel!
This is not an account of debauched idolators. The men of Israel are acting
just as the wicked men of Sodom had.
You will look in vain in this story for a ray of light. First we find the Ephraimite host who is graphic in his description of what ought to be done to his own daughter---"Here, take her and ravish her and do whatever you please to her." The concubine is cruelly sacrificed to the mob. The Levite wakes up in the morning without a twinge of conscience or concern for his wife's ordeal. (This is the woman whom just days before He had sought out for a loving reconciliation). This Levite's hardness of heart defies description. The Benjamites are rapists. When all facades are removed we see only wickedness. There is no redemptive or hopeful note.
What can be learned from this awful business? First, sins are connected together. The town that is inhospitable becomes the town that is violent and sexually out of control. We find the cowardice of the husband in the story resulting in cruel disregard of his wife. Homosexual lust becomes heterosexual lust. The sins we read of here are all intertwined with each other, and there is no restraint on what the flesh will do. Despite the initial appearance of people of good will, of reconciliation, underneath we find something terrible.
I read a story in the newspaper this week that I'd like to quote from. Speaking of a scientific discovery that was reported in a British magazine, it says:
"The world's biggest living things may not be California's regal Sequoia trees after all, say scientists after studying a vast fungus whose underground tendrils extend across nearly forty acres in a Michigan forest. Visible at the surface only when it sprouts mushrooms, the monster fungus seems to be all one individual organism, not a colony as was previously supposed, the scientists said. "You might take a walk in the woods and see mushrooms a kilometer apart, but most people would not guess that they are all part of the same individual," said Myron Smith. The underground mass of fungal fibers, called the mycelium, can spread slowly for centuries, protected from fire and drought as it feeds on dead and dying wood."
It struck me that this discovery is significantly analogous to what we're talking about in the book of Judges. A huge subterranean fungus, impervious to the effects of drought, sun, or anything else, periodically sends up mushrooms as evidence of itself. In a similar way, our typical response in thinking of how sin operates is to attack the "mushrooms," to deal with the individual sins as they sprout here and there. But what we often lose sight of is that they're related; they come from the same thing underneath. If we don't have an answer to the problem of sin, it does us very little good to deal with sins. The book of Judges is crying out for us to see how awful the problem of sin is, how widespread, how enormous the "fungus" under the ground is, how long it's existed, how powerful its life is! We need to see the extent of our own fleshly capacity for wickedness if we are ever to get help for it.
We need to treat other people's sinful patterns with a degree of humility on our own part. There will be many times when we see patterns of sin that we find disgusting in somebody else: greed, lust, callousness, mistreatment of a family member, or some other thing. We say, "I would never do that. That mushroom would never grow in my plot of ground." There's an angry denouncing of the other person's sins. That's exactly what takes place in Judges. This Levite, who is cowardly, cold-blooded, and loveless, is morally outraged by what takes place in Gibeah. Galatians 6:1 gives us an important word here:
Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted.
We need to be honest and redemptive, aiming to restore one caught in sin, and to do that we have to have a spirit of humility, recognizing that we can also be tempted and victimized by our sin nature.
The second insight we can gain from this is that we need to be vigilant toward our own sin. Perhaps we have problems with our thought life, or behind the closed doors of our home we give vent to our anger and terrorize people close to us, but we're different out in public. If we learn to live with "acceptable" sins in our life, it will eventually break down our other defenses. We may find ourselves one day doing things that we never thought we were capable. We're foolish to think otherwise.
There are two chapters left, and I just want to briefly acquaint you with them. We don't have time to do more, and it would probably be unwholesome to look at them in too much detail! The sad thing about both chapter 20 and chapter 21 is that tragic choices are made in clear efforts to make matters right.
Think of the story of the sorcerer's apprentice. The young man is still very unskilled in the sorcerer's art, and when the sorcerer leaves one day, he begins to play with the potions and to cast spells. All of a sudden things lurch out of control. Disasters begin that he can't stop. He attempts to cast more spells to get control of the powers that he's loosed, but that makes it all worse, and things spin further and further out of control. The sorcerer's apprentice can't, by his own efforts, stop the consequences of the problems that he's initiated. The righteously indignant Israelites here are like the sorcerer's apprentice.
The concubine's body parts have been sent out, and everybody meets together
in Mizpah to punish the unrighteous. Verse 1 of chapter 20:
Then all the sons of Israel from Dan to Beersheba, including the land of Gilead, came out, and the congregation assembled as one man to the LORD at Mizpah. And the chiefs of all the people, even of all the tribes of Israel, took their stand in the assembly of the people of God, 400,000 foot soldiers who drew the sword. (Now the sons of Benjamin heard that the sons of Israel had gone up to Mizpah.) And the sons of Israel said, "Tell us, how did this wickedness take place?" So the Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered, answered and said, "I came with my concubine to spend the night at Gibeah which belongs to Benjamin."
By the way, that phrase "which belongs to Benjamin" isn't added to be informative, everyone knew which Gibeah was in view (although there was another Gibeah in Judah). The Levite is isolating the Benjamites, making them responsible: "This Gibeah belongs to Benjamin." He's putting Benjamin on the defensive. This outraged Levite whose wife died, who has been wronged, this upright man; this coward who threw his wife to a bunch of rapists to save his own skin, is inciting a riot against the Benjamites. Verse 5:
"But the men of Gibeah rose up against me and surrounded the house at night because of me. They intended to kill me; instead, they ravished my concubine so that she died."
He's leaving a lot out, isn't he? He's leaving out his complicity in all of it, his cowardice.
"And I took hold of my concubine and cut her in pieces and sent her throughout the land of Israel's inheritance; for they have committed a lewd and disgraceful act in Israel. Behold, all you sons of Israel, give your advice and counsel here."
So now there is a great puffing up of chests and angry denunciations. "Those Gibeonites-and if the Benjamites defend them, then those Benjamites-are going to get what they deserve! Who do they think they are, anyway?" Oaths are sworn and sabers are rattled. A war starts, and it proceeds such that Benjamin, with the smaller force, wins the first two battles. And then the people want to know why they aren't winning, except they don't ask the right question. They just say, "God, should we keep fighting?" They never ask God what he's doing in the process. When Joshua lost a battle at Ai, he wept before the Lord and said, "What about your name? Why have we lost this battle? What is your purpose in these things?" These folks never asked God whether this war should be fought, or for his understanding of events. If they had asked, I'm sure the Lord would have said, "Judgment on everybody-on the self-righteous and on the wicked!" But they never asked; they just keep making requests of him as to how the battle should be fought. Finally, after two defeats, the Lord says, "I will give the Benjamites into your hand."
The Gibeonites and their defenders deserved to be punished, and God gave them into the hands of the larger force. Instead of just winning the war, the Israelites decide to massacre the upstarts. They cut down Benjamite soldiers who were trying to retreat. Look at verse 48:
The men of Israel then turned back against the sons of Benjamin and struck them with the edge of the sword, both the entire city with the cattle and all that they found; they also set on fire all the cities which they found.
Having come to punish a town, they carry it to the last degree and destroy not only soldiers but cities, families, economic structures, and everything else.
They become killers, violent destroyers themselves who claim the lives of women and children. The scale is far beyond the original loss of the one life. They're trying to set matters right and like the sorcerer's apprentice, they can't stop the results, and it's getting worse.
In chapter 21 they're going to have another solemn meeting to see if
they can figure a solution to the new problem. The tribe of Benjamin is
reduced to six hundred men; everybody else is dead. Look at verse 3:
And they said, "Why, O LORD, God of Israel, has this come about in Israel, so that one tribe should be missing today in Israel?"
"We're about to lose all of Benjamin. Lord God, how could it have happened?" Well, they've just killed them all, that's how it happened! The tribe is nearly extinct; six hundred soldiers whose wives and children have been massacred.
The same "wise counselors" who loosed the destructive fury of chapter twenty are going to come up with another plan. "I know," says someone. "I've got a great idea. The region of Jabesh-Gilead didn't send any fighters to the first war." (Now, probably that's to their credit). "Let's go massacre everybody in Jabesh-Gilead and take all the marriageable young girls." So they destroy another whole region, gathering up women for the six hundred remaining Benjamite soldiers to marry.
They only find four hundred women in Jabesh-Gilead, so they're short two hundred. "Well, we'll fix that," you can hear them saying. They send Benjamites out in the night to a debutante ball in Shiloh, and they kidnap two hundred innocent, unsuspecting girls.
The end of the book of Judges is the refrain that we've highlighted more than once:
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Without mastery by someone who is right and good, whose heart is pure; without humility before the Lord, the human capacity for sin rages out of control. That's what this book teaches in no uncertain terms.
The last question for our study of this book is, who will be king? Who
will rise up to rule? Well, the most natural sovereign for this kind of
people is someone who is more terrible than they, more cruel, capable of
reining in by violence, this violent people. They are in grave danger of
not getting help at all, but instead, falling under the sway of someone
whose despotism exceeds their anarchy.
But, if God is merciful, who will he send to be king? His answer is not Saul nor even David ultimately, but the long-awaited Son of David. How will the true King come? Will he come as a military figure, with a strong right arm and a powerful army behind him, defeating everything that lies in his path? No, when the true King came to his people he came gently and humbly, riding on a donkey's colt, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, the son of a carpenter. He came in humility. He came with an understanding of the needs of sinful human beings.
We are like the people of the book of Judges; our hearts are no better than theirs. We need someone who can come into our lives as Lord, yet who understands the sin problem, who understands that we ruin ourselves, that our best efforts are no good. We need someone who can help us by forgiving our sins and by giving us a new nature.
That's the great news of the gospel, isn't it? The Master who is Lord of all also understands what it's like to be human. He walks into the lives of people with the willingness to accept the condemnation for their sins on himself, to offer life.
Let's close with Hebrews 4, verses 14-16. It begins:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God...
Now, that phrase "the Son of God" is an Old Testament title for a king. Who is this King who will come to rule? He is a King who is a priest, who has descended to us from the heavens, from the presence of God.
...let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.
We draw near to a throne, which belongs to a King, but it is a throne of grace. He is someone who understands it-he has been human, been tempted. He is merciful. Instead of dominating us by his authority, he changes us. He is a life-giver. When this King comes who loves us and treats us with mercy, and we give our lives to him, when he becomes our Lord, then we find ourselves free of the awful condition that obtains in Judges-free not only from the individual sins that display themselves in our behavior, but free from the power of sin itself to control us.
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