STUDIES IN JUDGES No. 20
December 26, 2004
After a hiatus of several Sunday evenings we return to conclude our studies in the Book of Judges. I thought it made sense to complete this study on the last Lord’s Day evening of the year. Next Lord’s Day evening we will consider a subject apropos of the new year and then begin a short series on the Book of Ruth, which very clearly belongs with Judges.
You remember from last time that the Book of Judges concludes with an epilogue in two parts, just as it commenced with a prologue in two parts. We took the first part of the epilogue last time. The two parts are clearly connected to one another as we demonstrated last time, not least by the four-fold repetition of the refrain: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” It occurs twice in the first part of the epilogue and twice in the second. We have it first at 17:6: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” You have it in a shorter form in 18:1 and 19:1 and in a complete form at 21:25, the last verse of the book. The two longer statements, that is the first instance of this sentence and the last, form an inclusio, framing the entire epilogue, and telling the reader what to think about the events that are narrated in it. The people were leading themselves into sin. There was no positive covenantal discipline; there was, instead, moral anarchy. These chapters are clearly an epilogue, and not a continuation of the main body of the book, for they concern the life of the people in general and do not concern the career of any judge; indeed, no judge is even mentioned in the final five chapters of the book. As we saw last time, the theme of this epilogue is the moral chaos that resulted from the people’s defection from the Lord and his covenant.
Our reading tonight is a lengthy one, but it tells its own story and makes its own point. We will need to add little in the way of comment when the reading is over.
19:1 Here the refrain occurs in its shorter form, but we are to assume the remainder: “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
v.2 The story begins as a problem in a single Israelite home, as did the first part of the epilogue. This problem, however, will inexorably lead to civil war. We are reminded of a truth our culture is determined to deny: viz. that public good cannot be divorced from private virtue. Another striking feature of this history is that all of the characters remain anonymous. The only character whose name is given is the priest we encounter in 20:28. More on him later. The point seems to be that, by leaving his characters nameless, the narrator is telling us that the Levite is every Levite, the concubine every concubine, the Israelites are all Israelites and so on. This episode concerns a Levite, a man charged with the spiritual leadership of the nation. His concubine was unfaithful to him. She is a concubine, not a wife, and we wonder why. The previous reference to a concubine in the book, in 8:31, leads us to expect trouble. The NIV’s “was unfaithful to him” literally means, “played the harlot or prostitute.”
v.4 The breach between the man and his concubine was not so complete that his effort to bring her back was not greeted favorably both by her and her father. It was four months later. Either the man had hoped that she would return on her own or had finally begun to miss her too much to leave matters where they were.
v.10 It is not made clear why the father-in-law proved such an importunate host, but the man’s unwillingness to offend his father-in-law until he had finally lost patience explains why he and his concubine arrive in Gibeah when they do. Timing is everything and, had they left earlier in the day, the outrage at Gibeah would never have happened.
v.12 The Jebusites are often mentioned in the lists of the Canaanite peoples who inhabited Canaan before the arrival of the Israelites. The irony, of course, is that the Jebusites would probably have treated these people far better than the Israelites did! The Levite and his concubine would have been better off with the Canaanites!
v.15 In good oriental fashion the visitors expect to be taken in by someone. The social disintegration in Israel had reached the point that the ordinary obligations of hospitality were no longer met.
v.17 The old man is something of an outsider in the town as well. That may explain why he behaves better than the people of the town. He hasn’t yet been as affected by the moral atmosphere of the place.
v.19 The moral rot reveals itself in a loss of community; a loss so profound that even a man who would prove no burden to his host is not offered hospitality.
v.21 The old man’s words suggest that he fears for them if they remain in the town square. He has lived long enough in Gibeah to know the danger that lurks there.
v.22 A reader of the Bible immediately recognizes the parallel with the account of Lot and the two strangers the night before the destruction of Sodom. In fact, there are numerous literary parallels. But these are Israelites, not Sodomites, or are they? The NIV’s “wicked men” is literally, “men of the sons of Belial,” that is, the Devil’s men.
v.23 The evil of what these men propose to do is manifold: it is a violation of neighbor love and the obligations of hospitality, it is sexual sin, and it is sexual perversion as homosexual sex.
v.24 Unlike Lot, this man’s guest cannot strike the men of the town with blindness. And so he proposes that they commit a lesser sin, the violation of these two women, one of whom was his own daughter. We wonder at this, but, of course, that is often the case in times of moral corruption: no one sees with moral clarity anymore and you are left having to choose between equally repulsive alternatives. The NIV’s “do to them whatever you wish” is a translation of the Hebrew that is almost the same as “do what is right in your own eyes.” In any case, this is male headship at its very worst, patriarchy as feminists imagine it always to be: men serving themselves at the expense of women.
v.26 After doing all that he had done to recover his concubine, the Levite now throws her to the wolves to spare himself.
v.28 The Levite seems heartless. After throwing his concubine to these thugs he actually went to bed! Now he expects his concubine to get up and continue the journey. But she is dead. The Benjaminites had not only raped her, they had murdered her. Or, so it seems. The text is vague and we are left wondering if she died en route home. If so, the Levite seems all the more heartless to us; he throws his dying wife on the donkey like a sack of grain and sets out for home.
v.30 The point of his gruesome act, which, once again, showed no respect for the poor woman, was clearly to serve as a call to arms; an invitation to Israel to respond to the outrage that had been committed.
The pace of the action now slows to a crawl as the narrator describes Israel’s response to what has happened in one of her towns.
20:1 That is, men from all the tribes except Benjamin. This is the first instance, by the way, of the phrase “from Dan to Beersheba” as a description of all of Israel, that is, the country from its northernmost to its southernmost point. Remember, we have just, in the first part of the epilogue, learned how it was that Dan came to occupy the northernmost part of the nation. It is surprising that a single Levite from Ephraim could rally the entire nation so successfully. Even Deborah and Barak never managed to do this.
v.5 “they raped my concubine…” He conveniently leaves out the details that would place his own behavior in a much more unfavorable light.
v.13 The effort at negotiation fails, as, apparently, they expected it would. One of the demonstrations of a deepening depravity in the Bible is the willingness of the population at large to defend the conduct of the depraved or, at least, to shield them from consequences.
v.16 Generally a left-handed soldier was at a disadvantage in an army of right-handed men. But if you had enough to make a contingent of left-handed warriors, carrying their shields with the right, they created a problem for the army they were attacking.
v.18 Judah had gone first before (1:2), but then it was war against the Canaanites. Now Israel is reduced to fighting against herself. Judah may have gone first in this instance because the concubine was from Judah.
v.23 The narrator doesn’t tell us how Benjamin obtained the upper hand, but it was the rout of a much larger force by a much smaller one. Nothing is said about Benjamin’s casualties. In any case, we weren’t expecting this result.
v.25 Still less were we expecting this result. A second defeat after the Lord told them to do battle.
v.28 Their prayer to the Lord is more serious and heartfelt this time. They go to the sanctuary, fasted, prayed, and offered sacrifices to God. Now the Lord gives them an actual promise of victory.
Phinehas, Aaron’s direct descendant was there at Bethel, administering the sanctuary and its worship. He is the only named figure in this history, as we said. The sense seems to be that we are only a few generations removed from Aaron and Moses and look how far Israel has fallen in such a short time.
v.32 The confidence that the Benjaminites had gained from their first two victories now betrayed them into a foolishly aggressive strategy.
v.35 The victory was the Lord’s and the two previous defeats that Benjamin inflicted on Israel made that fact all the more undeniable. 25,100 out of 26,700 fell.
v.39 The battle before them was raging so they were blind to what was happening behind. Israel’s main body was keeping the Benjaminites’ main body occupied while the force in ambush entered the unprotected city and put it to the sword and set it afire. When the Israelite army saw the cloud of smoke, they stopped giving ground and the rout began.
v.47 The numbers are obviously approximations. The six hundred survivors represent a pathetic remnant of a once proud army.
v.48 The tribe of Benjamin was almost literally wiped off the map. This was the kind of destruction that was supposed to have been visited upon the Canaanites and, because it was not, it must now be visited upon a tribe of Israel. Indeed, in an Israelite context the slaughter seems dramatically excessive. The passion for revenge led Israel to run amok. It creates a problem that will be addressed in the final chapter.
What follows is one of the strangest chapters in the Bible, as it is the strangest chapters in the Book of Judges.
21:1 This was probably an expression of solidarity prior to battle. But it is high irony here because the intermarriage that God forbade was with the Canaanites. That law Israel had ignored but now she couldn’t intermarry with one of her own tribes. Her moral compass failed to direct her rightly. But the ties of brotherhood had resurfaced and she wanted to heal the breach in the nation. But where to find wives for the remaining men of Benjamin?
v.5 Someone thinks of a way of resolving the problem. The problem is that if they are to destroy the people who did not assemble with the rest of the nation then they will not solve the problem of finding wives for the men of Benjamin. They will fudge a bit on their oath as we will see.
v.12 They couldn’t give their own daughters to the men of Benjamin, but nothing prevented them from giving someone else’s daughters to them. Someone has described the entire affair as a “comedy of correctness” as the elders “resort to a mixture of force, casuistry and guile to circumvent the oath sworn at Mizpah without actually breaking it.” [Webb, 196]
v.14 There were six hundred Benjaminites who had escaped death on the battlefield, but only 400 virgins from Jabesh Gilead.
v.22 Of course, any reader immediately notes the hypocrisy – they are giving Israel’s daughters away in the crudest, host heartless fashion; not altogether unlike what the Levite did to his concubine in Gibeah. This is supposed to be the solution to Israel’s problem? The rape of one woman becomes the rape of 400 and then 200 more. Here are men figuring out a solution to their troubles and, as so often in history, the women bearing the brunt of the pain. The moral compass has simply been lost. Israel thinks like the Canaanites and acts like them and doesn’t seem to recognize the difference. She has become a nation given over to violence.
v.25 In other words, nothing that has been done in the previous chapter has the Lord’s approval. These events are, instead, a demonstration of the moral chaos into which Israel had descended when she made her peace with the world and betrayed her covenant with the Lord.
Interestingly, tonight we have before us a text on which Hosea the prophet preached during his ministry. In Hosea 9:9, in one of his sermons of judgment against the northern kingdom of his day, he says,
“They have sunk deep into corruption, as in the days of Gibeah.
God will remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins.”
And in 10:9 we read,
“Since the days of Gibeah, you have sinned, O Israel, and there
you have remained. Did not war overtake the evildoers in Gibeah?
When I please, I will punish them; nations will be gathered against
Them to put them in bonds for their…sin.”
In other words, Hosea regarded what happened at Gibeah and its aftermath as an illustration of ultimate depravity. When a people forsakes the Lord this is what happens. This is the evil they do and this is the judgment that befalls them.
Remember, we began our studies in Judges by saying that the book sets out explicitly to describe what we called the “Canaanization” of Israel. Her failure to obey the Lord, and to trust in his power, resulted in her acceptance of coexistence with the Canaanites. The Lord had warned her that if she did that, she would be corrupted and eventually ruined by that radioactive spiritual culture and that was precisely what happened. The Canaanites were not raised by the Israelites among them – that never happens – but the Israelites were lowered by the Canaanites among them; lowered until they were, spiritually, ethically, morally indistinguishable from the pagans around them. Indeed, in the epilogue the author, on several occasions, as in our text this evening, subtly suggests that the Canaanites would have been more just, less violent, less evil than the Israelites. The Levite and his concubine would have been safer in Jerusalem, the Jebusite town, than they proved to be in Gibeah of Benjamin.
So the epilogue concludes where the book begins, with the brutal, sordid demonstration of the theme: that Israel, instead of destroying Canaanite culture, had succumbed to it; had become as cruel, as violent, as superstitious a culture as existed in the Promised Land before her arrival. And, what is more and what is worse, she had reached a point of moral and spiritual corruption that she was no longer able to diagnose her problem or find her way back to the truth. She realizes that she has problems, but with an unerring instinct for the preposterous, she proposes to fix her problems by doing something bound to make them worse. So the problems created in the nation by a woman’s rape and murder are finally resolved by wholesale kidnapping and rape. As in our own day: a culture that has become very rapidly Canaanized over the last 40 years. It is impossible to ignore the cascade of tragedy that has resulted from the sexual revolution, but the efforts to make amends always have about them the air of the ridiculous, but no one notices. We have, as a culture, lost our ability, morally speaking, to add two to two and get four. The simplest calculations are beyond us. So the problems created by sexual license are to be solved by more sexual license; the despair caused by the separation of sex from love is to be solved by a more total separation of sex from love; the social carnage visited upon children by the instability of the home is to be solved by telling the children that it isn’t their fault.
Here is the true measure of Israel’s spiritual nadir. It is not only that she has become like the nations around her, but that she can’t see what has happened to her any longer or discern a way back to God. Her sins have separated her from him so far that she cannot any longer remember what she used to be when she was in covenant with him or what pleasure and victory there was in walking with him.
In the middle of the 19th century, William Wordsworth, surveying what he took to be the decline of English culture in the industrial revolution, the encroaching tawdriness of the grasping spirit of the English middle and upper classes, and the disintegration of the once noble spirit of the English people, wrote:
Milton! thou shouldest be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! Raise us up, return to us again:
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
It sounds thoughtful, even pious but, of course, that was nonsense. It wasn’t John Milton, the great poet, that England needed. It was Christ and faith. Englishmen have been looking for Milton ever since, more and more utterly unaware that Milton couldn’t help them. They are like Americans who are looking for the founding fathers or a return to the fifties or any other recipe for renewal except the one that is actually needed: repentance before God and faith in Christ. Judges reminds us of the true, the real cost of disobedience and unbelief: at last a blindness so thick, so dark, so complete that one is oblivious to the truth that might set him free; an imprisonment so complete, so profound, so all-consuming that the prisoner forgets that he lives behind bars.