Judges 19,20 – 'Rape and Terrible Violence'
In the final year of university my research project was on the history of genocide. Before we began the class we were required to read a paper on the psychological issues raised by studying that type of material. As an arts student paper cuts were my biggest problem before then. It came as a shock but as I read about the brutality of humankind, the horror of genocide – the warning became sensible, necessary even. There were two warnings; firstly about the graphic content we would uncover and secondly the danger that we would become de-sensitised even to these shocking evils. A similar warning might be appropriate for us tonight as we look at Judges 19 and 20. We've seen some difficult things in Judges so far but even for a book like Judges these chapters are deeply unpleasant. As we read them we need to be horrified, we need not to hold these events at a distance, to put 3000 years between us and them. However, we also need to hold these chapters in the context of the Bible's wider narrative and to hold them up to the light of Christ.
Father, help us to listen to your word tonight, help us understand it and you better. Work in our minds and our hearts so that we might live in truth and be sanctified by it. In Jesus name and for His glory. Amen.
The Bleakness of Sin
Point one; 'The Bleakness of Sin'. The chapter starts familiarly, for this part of judges, with the words; 'In those days Israel had no king'. That's primarily the spiritual context rather than the political. You could say that ch 19 an 20 are simply illustrative of that statement; 'In those days Israel had no king' – this is what it looks like to live without reference to the creator. It like that reading we had from Romans 1 paints a bleak, dark image in our minds. Let's review the events;
One of Israel's spiritual leaders takes a live-in prostitute, who then commits adultery. Already we can see depravity taking root as the Levite attempts reconciliation with his mistress.
On the way back from this supposed reconciliation, the Levite and his concubine refuse to stay in Jebus (Jerusalem) as it is; 'an alien city, whose people are not Israelites.' Instead they head for the safety of Gibeah, an Israelite town. That's where we picked up the narrative in our first reading.
A stranger is the only one willing to give them shelter but when wicked men, literally; sons of darkness or evil beat on the door wanting to rape the Levite the host is willing to give up his daughter and the Levite his newly reconciled, domestic prostitute. Eventually the concubine is sent out to be raped, abused and left for dead. Then comes perhaps the darkest point of the chapter in v27-29;
'When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, "Get up; let's go." But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.
When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel.'
Even seeing this woman, a life made in the image of God lying on the threshold in front of him stripped of any dignity, a raped and dead sacrifice which he had allowed he simply puts her on his donkey before setting out for home.
Israel has descended into depraved amorality. It is lost no longer having any sense of right and wrong, seemingly lacking any compassion. The account appears sub-human, the actions of the Levite animal like at best. Israel has no king; it is leaderless each man doing what is right in his own eyes, scrambling about in bleakness.
This passage should appall us, it should disgust us; the author is counting on that. We should read it with tears in our eyes, it is abhorrent. We can't only let it horrify us though, we mustn't stand back from these events thankful that we live in less barbarous times – we don't. We cannot mourn this women from the moral high ground, our society treats women very much like this through a multi-million pound porn and prostitution industry, we are so confused about what life means that we may be about abandon centuries of ethics to legalise 'assisted suicide', murder. 2008 saw a total of 202,158 terminations. The Church too cannot step back in judgment – only this week we have seen evidence of a horrifying cover up of sexual abuse by priests in Ireland, leading one of the victims to responded like this;
If the Catholic Church in Ireland is to be led by a man who accurately reflects it in its current state, then maybe it's only right and fitting that it should be led by a man who has covered up the sexual abuse of children by a priest.
This is what society sees of the church. Horror is not enough; the Levite is horrified, horrified enough to send a dismembered corpse as a graphic illustration of it. Yet he forgets the shamefulness of first the relationship with the concubine itself and worse still his effective sacrifice of her to these evil men he is so quick to accuse. Don't be the Levite; appalled at wrong-doing whilst ignorant of your own sin.
Sin is death, those of us who are trusting in Christ have forgiveness, and we are able to put sin to death, to mortify it with the Spirit's help. We are not isolated from it though, we are not to be sanctimonious – this is what we have been and are being saved from – our own squalidness apart from Christ. A picture like this needs to lead us not to condemnation or moralising but to heartfelt thanks to God for saving us, a greater realisation that all sin is black, rancid death and a greater desire to keeping putting it to death.
For those who have yet to put their faith in Christ this should be a sobering wake-up call, this the path life without a restored relationship with your creator is headed down – full of broken relationships, fetid cowardice, violence and shame and death.
A War of Compromise
That's point one; 'The Bleakness of Sin' let's get back into the narrative at the end of ch 19 at v29, which I've called 'A War of Compromise';
29 When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. 30 Everyone who saw it said, "Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!"
Now we will see how the Israelites response to these horrifying events as a nation. In 20.1 they assemble at Mizpah to get the full facts, in response they gather an army and go to Gibeah the crime-scene; a Benjamite village to administer justice we'll pick the story up at v12;
12The tribes of Israel sent men throughout the tribe of Benjamin, saying, "What about this awful crime that was committed among you? 13 Now surrender those wicked men of Gibeah so that we may put them to death and purge the evil from Israel." But the Benjamites would not listen to their fellow Israelites. 14 From their towns they came together at Gibeah to fight against the Israelites. 15 At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah.
This is the beginning of a civil war which the rest of ch 20 chronicles, a war which will lead to the deaths of 25,100 Benjamites and 40,030 other Israelites. The Levite was unwilling to deal with his sin, now the Benjamites are unwilling to deal with sin amidst them, they won't give up the wicked men of Gibeah. These men are not in fact Israelites but the tribe of Benjamin are living alongside them, the author makes the distinction clear these men are not Israelites and they're actions should mark that out;
13 Now surrender those wicked men of Gibeah so that we may put them to death and purge the evil from Israel." But the Benjamites would not listen to their fellow Israelites.
The division is clear except to the Benjamites; they do not separate themselves from the wicked men of Gibeah and instead they are willing to fight for them against their fellow Israelites. Or as Romans 1 puts it;
Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Why is it that the Benjamites are willing to fight against their own brothers for the sake of a group of rapists? The answer lies back on p170 in Judges 1. This is part of the account of Israel being given the Promised Land by God who tells them to take over completely. We'll see too why the Levite was unwilling to stay the night in Jerusalem, 1.21 says;
The Benjamites, however, failed to dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites.
The Benjamites had failed to take hold of the land God had given them, they compromised which led to them living alongside the Jebusites and adopting their practices and culture. A culture not just different to that of Israel but vehemently opposed to God's standards; a culture that functioned through child sacrifice to multiple pagan gods. We see the effects of that compromise now; the Benjamites are blind. They are not able to see the wickedness of the culture they have adopted as their own, they do not see it critically but they approve of its depravity which leads to war with their own people.
As the Israelites assemble to fight their brothers the narrative again evokes Judges 1 and the Israelites initial seizing of the land. Here's Judges 1.1-2
1 After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the LORD, "Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites?"
2 The LORD answered, "Judah is to go; I have given the land into their hands."
Listen to the similarity with our text in ch 20.18
18 The Israelites went up to Bethel [b] and inquired of God. They said, "Who of us shall go first to fight against the Benjamites?" The LORD replied, "Judah shall go first."
There is tragic irony here. In the same way Judah was commanded to go up against the Cannanites and enter the Promised Land now they face their own brothers in war. If we could not see the dangers of flirting with sin in the account of the Levite and his concubine surely we can see it now writ large on Benjamin. Their failure to remove the Jebusites has led them to compromise, compromise which has twisted their thinking such that they now stand against their fellow Israelites. Such is the pervasiveness of sin; it has corrupted a whole tribe. Like damp it requires immediate and decisive attention, if left to fester it can destroy a whole house and this is the story here the disobedience of the Benjamites as they only partially took over the land God had given them has festered and now it threatens their very existence. The battle now begins and it is a painful and bloody one for both sides.
A Painful Lesson to Learn
Let me summarise the at times confusing narrative of the civil war in ch20 before we draw some lessons from this part of Judges.
Judah is sent up to battle.
Benjamites cut down 22,000 Israelites.
Israel weeps before God asking; "Shall we go up again to battle against the Benjamites, our brothers?"
God answers; "Go up against them."
Next day's battle Benjamites cut down another 18,000 Israelites.
V26 is the turning point;
26 Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings [c]to the LORD. 27 And the Israelites inquired of the LORD. (In those days the ark of the covenant of God was there, 28 with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, ministering before it.) They asked, "Shall we go up again to battle with Benjamin our brother, or not?" The LORD responded, "Go, for tomorrow I will give them into your hands."
An elaborate ambush is set leading to the deaths of 25,100 Benjamites and the complete destruction of Gibeah. All that are left are 600 Benjamites who flee into the desert – Matt L will tell you what happened to them next week. That's the culmination of this sobering narrative. What can we learn from it?
We can trace the war in ch20 back to the sexual sin of the Levite, actions have consequences. Whilst it is not right to try to explain every tragedy in terms of a persons personal sin – we have seen how sin has a pervasive effect. When we are idolators – everything is inverted from its rightful place. War, violence, breakdown of relationships, cowardice, malice all have their root in sin – in idolatry. Surely tonight we have seen the bleakness of sin, we cannot any longer brush it off as undesirable, naughty but nice. Sin is deadly – we've seen that over the past few weeks if you've been here for the 7 deadly sins series.
Sin is not just negative for us personally but corporately too. When we treat a sin lightly we compromise not just ourselves but our families, our home groups, our church are affected too. This doesn't mean that we expect perfection; none of us are close to capable of that but we do need to spur each other on in the fight against sin – its serious. We're responsible for each other – as Lewis said this morning we're family. We need to work things out whether that means calling somebody out on something or repentance and reconciliation.
This is a civil war with massive consequences for Israel, however on an even more fundamental level it is a spiritual war. This is a war over the heart of Israel; will it continue to live without a king degenerating into moral and political chaos or will it return to the blessing of God's covenant? The war has it's origin in the personal sin of the Levite, which serves to highlight just how far Israel has strayed from God. Each time Israel returns to God to ask for guidance, to ask who should go up against the Benjamites they are beginning to return to God. The weeping that we read about in v26 is the turning of Israel's heart back to their king. The series of battles isn't just a war playing itself out it has a spiritual significance.
At the end of chapter 20 Israel has returned to ask God for guidance three times, as Jesus asked Peter three painful times; do you love me? So Israel must show genuine repentance, not just asking God for emergency guidance. This is the fierce discipline of a loving God and it parallels the weeping back in ch2 when the Israelites did not drive out the Canaanites completely and in ch11 after Jepthah's foolish vow forces him to sacrifice his own daughter.
There is weeping under God's discipline but there is also hope. God disciplines because he loves. Discipline is not the opposite of love, indifference is. God is passionate for Israel's heart and so he must discipline them when they turn away from Him, and entangle themselves in the rottenness of sin. God deals firmly but lovingly because he wants to rescue them from the bleakness of sin.
If you're a Christian here tonight – you have been rescued from sin. One day our judge will make everything new, we'll be completely free from sin and its effects. Jesus death and resurrection means that process is in no doubt but there will be pain on the way, we require God's discipline at times. Sometimes they are painful lessons to learn as they were for the Israelites but let's accept it for what it is; the loving response of a passionate God who gave up His son for us so that we could be free from the bleakness of our sin.