There was a noticeable hush over the congregation when I read the passage out. Some drew deep breaths. Others gasped quietly. Was this really in the bible? Did this really happen? And were these really people who claimed to be God’s people?
There are some parts of the Bible that we all wish weren’t there: Sodom and Gomorrah. David and Bathsheba. Amnon and Tamar. And Judges chapters 19-21. Yes, it would definitely help things if we could leave these chapters out. It might save us a bit of embarrassment. There would be les explaining to do.
Yet God put them in there – for a reason.
As we near the end of the book of Judges, Israel as a nation is morally and spiritually adrift. They have lost their moorings. They are a people doing whatever they like – inventing their own religion and making up their own morality. They are a nation without God. They are a people without a king.
Before we are tempted to become critical and judgemental we ought to take stock of our own nation. We need to look at what’s on our own back doorstep and some of the laws we’ve passed over the last 20 years. What you are about to read is horrifying but is it really that different that what appears on our headlines? Follow with me, if you dare.
“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. And his concubine was unfaithful to him, and she went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months.” (19:1–2)
The story is a simple one. An unnamed Levite takes an unnamed concubine who was unfaithful to him and runs home to her father’s house in Bethlehem. After four months he starts to miss her and decides to go and woo her back. When he arrives at her house he finds the hospitality amazing – overly so. Her father won’t let him go. On the fifth day he finally manages to get out the door with his mistress in tow, even though it’s almost the end of the day.
This is where things get dark – literally and morally. He heads towards Jerusalem, which is at this time in Jebusite, that is, Canaanite hands. But it is dark and so he needs to find somewhere safe to spend the night. And his answer lies another 5 kilometres north at Gibeah of Benjamin. There they will be within the family of Israel. There they will be safe (or so he thinks).
When they reach Gibeah of Benjamin they sit in the town square as was the custom and wait for an invitation. But no one takes them in. No one offers hospitality, except an old man, a fellow sojourner from the tribe of Ephraim, who says to them,
“Peace be to you; I will care for all your wants. Only, do not spend the night in the square.” (19:20)
Why? What’s so dangerous about the town square? Well you’re about to find out. The man takes them back to his house, gives them a good feed and a hot shower and we all think that things are going to be OK – that’s until we get to verse 22:
“As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.” And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine. Let me bring them out now. Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing.” (19:22–24)
There goes his hospitality award. I guess he won’t be getting father of the year.
“But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. And as morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.” (19:25–26)
This all sounds very familiar. Where have we read this before? Genesis 19. Two angels visit the Canaanite city of Sodom. They’re disguised as men. They can’t find shelter. But Lot, Abraham’s nephew, takes them in. The men of Sodom surround the house. They want to sexually abuse them. So what does Lot do? He offers them his daughters. Thankfully the angels intervene and strike the men of Sodom with blindness. But tragically, there are no angels in this story.
So what is the author of Judges saying? He’s saying, Israel, you’ve become just like Sodom. What happened at Sodom was a picture of Canaanite culture at its rock bottom. The men behaved like animals – in fact worse than animals. But here we have the Israelites behaving in exactly the same way. Israel has been thoroughly Canaanized.
What the men of the city did was despicable. But what the Levite did, in handing over his mistress, wasn’t any better. The next morning he finds her on the doorstep of the house. And what is his response? “Get up, let us be going” (verse 28). He shows no compassion, no grief or remorse. But she doesn’t respond. “There was no answer.”
That’s because she’s dead.
What he does next is even more despicable. He tosses her on his donkey, goes home,
“And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel.” (19:29)
He wants vengeance – not for the treatment of the woman (he sent her out to them after all) but for loss of his property. In chapter 20 we find the Levite got the response he wanted:
“Then all the people of Israel came out, from Dan to Beersheba, including the land of Gilead, and the congregation assembled as one man to the Lord at Mizpah.” (20:1)
They send a delegation to the tribe of Benjamin, demanding that they hand the evil men over. The Benjamites refuse and close ranks. What results is an all-out civil war. Initially it is the Benjamites who have the upper hand. The Israelites, somewhat confused, go to God for counsel. After losing 40,000 men they come to God a third time. They weep and offer sacrifices. And the Lord promises them victory.
The Israelites craft a plan. They create a diversion, attacking with a small force who then pretend to be defeated. Meanwhile a larger group of Israelite solders wait in hiding and once the Benjamites have been drawn away from the city, they attack. The two Israelite forces then form a pincer movement, encircle the Benjamite forces and slaughter their army. Only 600 men escape. But they don’t stop there. They continue their vengeful rampage and go throughout every Benjamite city, town and village and kill very man, woman and child. This is not justice, it is genocide. But that’s not where it ends. We find in chapter 21:1,
“Now the men of Israel had sworn at Mizpah, “No one of us shall give his daughter in marriage to Benjamin.” (21:1)
They’ve created for themselves a huge problem here, because there are now no women left to give to the 600 survivors which means the entire Benjamite clan is in danger of extinction. So what do they do? Instead of confessing their foolish oath and offering up a sacrifice, they resolve to wipe out another city in Israel and take their virgins, which they promptly do (Judges 21:10). But they are still 200 short. So they come up with a great plan. They invite the remaining 200 Benjamites to kidnap the young women at Shiloh while they are celebrating and force them into marriage.
What are we to think of all this? In the last verse of the book, the author gives his view,
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (21:25)
The over-the-top slaughter of the Benjamites, the hasty vows, the further killing, kidnapping and forced marriages – this was everyone doing what was right in their own eyes. It’s people doing what they like – inventing their own religion and making up their own morality. It’s a nation without God. It’s people without a king. It’s a picture of our own society today.
There’s no escaping it – the book of Judges ends on a very depressing note. Fortunately however, that’s not where the Bible ends. The story of Judges is part of a greater story. The book of Ruth, which follows Judges and is in the same time period, finishes on a different note – a happy marriage of a godly couple – Ruth and Boaz. They have a son called Obed. And Obed has a son whom he names Jesse. And Jesse has a son called David. And under King David everything comes right. But only temporarily.
Two generations later the kingdom is divided and by the end of 2 Kings Jerusalem is overrun, the temple is destroyed and Israel and Judah have been taken off into captivity.
If the book of Judges has taught us anything, it is that human deliverers aren’t sufficient. We need a better king, a truly godly king that can provide a great deliverance than any human can perform.
The good news is that we now have such a king: King Jesus. He ruled from the cross by dying for our sins. He ruled over death by bursting out of the grave on the third day, proving his power. And one day, after all his enemies have been put under his feet, he will rule the new creation in the new heavens and new earth.
This is the king you must bow to. For one day we are told, every knee will bow before him, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10–11).
I would urge you – if you have not done this already, to bow to him now. Surrender your life to him. Tell him you’ve done wrong. Tell him you have rebelled against him. Tell him you want the forgiveness and freedom that he offers. Ask him to save you from your sin and to be your king. I promise you, he’s a better king and a better master than any other you will find.