MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 8, 2002 FROM JUDGES 19

 

This week we begin the nineteenth chapter of the book of Judges.  This chapter begins this last, three-chapter section of the book.  This final section, like chapters 17-18 chronicle events that put on display the rebellion of God’s people during this particularly dark period in the history of the Jews.  Whereas the previous section highlighted the decay of the practice of the religion of God’s people, this section is broader. It conveys the general moral decay in the Jewish culture.  Though there is a religious element of the story because one of the main characters is a Levite, it’s more about the disgusting moral climate present in the nation of Israel.  This particular narrative tells one of the most hideous, gruesome stories in the entire bible.  The source of the sin is the same as it has been in chapter 17 and 18.  This narrative (which we will treat only in part today) begins and ends with the words, “In those days Israel had no king.”  That’s the author’s way of giving us an interpretive lens through which to understand the hideous events in this story.  It’s his way of saying, “the underlying reason why these horrific events happened is because this is what occurs—this is the natural consequence when a people does not recognize or submit to God as their King.”

It might be asked why we would preach from these texts given their explicit content.  The first reason is because the same God who inspired the first 18 chapters of Judges inspired these last three.  Second, because Paul tells us that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  There are two broad lines of application from this story because on the one hand you have an Israelite culture that is thoroughly paganized—the Jews live and act just like their worldly, pagan Canaanite neighbors.  They have become “the world.”  That means one application is directed toward what the New Testament calls “the world.”  This story shows us what happens when the people of God allow and even encourage the self-centered values of fallen humanity to be the dominant force in a culture.  There is much in this text about the depraved wickedness of the world.  Now, we must be careful when we as the church of Christ speak about the world.  The unredeemed world is a very big target and it is easy to rail about what an evil world it is.  Though that is tempting and is often well received in the church, we must be careful to not allow our dominant attitude toward the world to be one of disgust and disdain. 

It’s easy to get “amen’s” in the church when you are ranting about the world, but we must set our sights higher than that.  When we must read this story, with its unmistakable application to the increasingly wicked North American culture, rather than respond in the easy and superficial way by railing against the wickedness of world, we should use what this text teaches about the world so we can be more discerning, not more condemning.  Oswald Chambers said, “God never gives discernment in order that we may criticize, but that we may intercede.” The goal of our observations about the wickedness of the world from this text is for us to develop more discernment about the moral decay of the world so that we can pray more effectively, love more sincerely and give the gospel more urgently to a lost world.  The goal is not for us to sit around and cluck our tongues.  A second other line of application is to the church because even though these Jews look and act just like the world, they were called to be the people of God.  As the people of God under the New Covenant, we can learn much from their gross faithlessness. 

Let’s begin to read chapter 19 beginning with verse one, “In those days Israel had no king.  Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. 2But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her father's house in Bethlehem, Judah. After she had been there four months, 3her husband went to her to persuade her to return. He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her father's house, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him. 4His father-in-law, the girl's father, prevailed upon him to stay; so he remained with him three days, eating and drinking, and sleeping there. 5On the fourth day they got up early and he prepared to leave, but the girl's father said to his son-in-law, "Refresh yourself with something to eat; then you can go." 6So the two of them sat down to eat and drink together. Afterward the girl's father said, "Please stay tonight and enjoy yourself." 7And when the man got up to go, his father-in-law persuaded him, so he stayed there that night. 8On the morning of the fifth day, when he rose to go, the girl's father said, "Refresh yourself. Wait till afternoon!" So the two of them ate together. 9Then when the man, with his concubine and his servant, got up to leave, his father-in-law, the girl's father, said, "Now look, it's almost evening. Spend the night here; the day is nearly over. Stay and enjoy yourself. Early tomorrow morning you can get up and be on your way home." 10But, unwilling to stay another night, the man left and went toward Jebus (that is, Jerusalem), with his two saddled donkeys and his concubine.

It’s interesting that the first character we meet in this story is another Levite who follows Jonathan the Levite in chapter 17 and 18.  Like Micah in the last story, this Levite is also from the hill country of Ephraim.  The priest in this story has a concubine.  Concubines were a strange hybrid institution of the Ancient Near East.  These women were considered slaves and were owned by their masters.  Primarily, they provided sexual gratification to the men who owned them.  However, they were also legally married to the men and their children could be legal heirs to the estate.  Concubines were, as one scholar says, “second class wives.”  They had some legal standing but they basically served to provide pleasure for their masters.  Even though the patriarchs had concubines and David, Solomon and the rest of the kings had concubines; we must not believe this had God’s approval.  This was an ungodly, self-centered abuse of women by men in a godless, woman-degrading culture influenced far more by pagans than by Yahweh.  The fact that this Levite has a concubine should immediately signal to us the priesthood had fallen far from the high moral standards God originally established under Moses.

This concubine had apparently been unfaithful to the Levite and had left him for her father’s house.  The reason I say “apparently” is because scholars don’t agree on whether the Hebrew language here conveys that she committed adultery or she was simply very angry with him.  In fact, the Greek translation of the Old Testament translates verse two, “she was angry with him.”  In any case, the Levite waits four months for her to return and then decides to retrieve her.  We don’t know if this man had other wives or concubines but after four months he wants her back so he goes to his “father in law’s” place to get her back.  This father of the concubine is painted as a very friendly and hospitable man.  He apparently didn’t hold to Ben Franklin’s adage about fish and company starting to stink after three days and in fact persistently requests his son in law to stay and “make merry” with him.  Finally, the Levite has had enough of the man’s hospitality and on the fifth day in the late afternoon he leaves with his concubine, a servant and two donkeys and sets out in the direction of Jerusalem which was then in the hands of pagans and was called Jebus. 

Verse 11 picks it up from there,  11When they were near Jebus and the day was almost gone, the servant said to his master, "Come, let's stop at this city of the Jebusites and spend the night."  12His master replied, "No. We won't go into an alien city, whose people are not Israelites. We will go on to Gibeah." 13He added, "Come, let's try to reach Gibeah or Ramah and spend the night in one of those places." 14So they went on, and the sun set as they neared Gibeah in Benjamin. 15There they stopped to spend the night. They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them into his home for the night. 16That evening an old man from the hill country of Ephraim, who was living in Gibeah (the men of the place were Benjamites), came in from his work in the fields. 17When he looked and saw the traveler in the city square, the old man asked, "Where are you going? Where did you come from?"  18He answered, "We are on our way from Bethlehem in Judah to a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim where I live. I have been to Bethlehem in Judah and now I am going to the house of the Lord. No one has taken me into his house. 19We have both straw and fodder for our donkeys and bread and wine for ourselves your servants--me, your maidservant, and the young man with us. We don't need anything." 20"You are welcome at my house," the old man said. "Let me supply whatever you need. Only don't spend the night in the square." 21So he took him into his house and fed his donkeys. After they had washed their feet, they had something to eat and drink.

The Levite’s late start from Bethlehem turns out to be a very important detail.  The first implication is that they are running out of daylight when they reach the city of Jebus. The Levite however doesn’t want to stay in “an alien city, whose people are not Israelites.”  Don’t miss the irony here.  The Levite refuses to stay among the pagans in favor of the Jews but as the events of the story unfold, it becomes clear that the moral climate among the Jews is as bad or worse than the pagans at this time.  They go past Jebus and end up arriving at Gibeah in Benjamin where they did what Ancient Near Eastern people arriving in a strange city typically did who needed a place to stay.  They went to the city square—a gathering place where people who needed a job or a place to stay congregated until someone would offer them a place.  The fact that they weren’t soon asked into someone’s home was a serious indictment on these people from Gibeah.  As we will see, this was, to put it mildly, an inhospitable place.  This breach in hospitality is made all the more glaring later when the Levite says in effect that all he needed was a bed—he had all the other supplies necessary for an overnight stay. 

An old man, who happens to be from the same part of Ephraim as the Levite but was living in Gibeah, offers him and his companions a place to spend the night.  The old man clearly knew the moral climate of the town because he pointedly tells the Levite not to spend the night in the square.  In light of what is to come, we can only shudder to think what happened to other visitors who did not find formal lodging in Gibeah.  The old man attends to the Levite’s needs and they are eating and drinking when the darkness that had been present all along emerges.  Verse 22 says, “22While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him." 23The owner of the house went outside and said to them, "No, my friends, don't be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. 24Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don't do such a disgraceful thing." 25But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. 26At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

            If you are familiar with the Old Testament this story doubtless sounds familiar to you.  In fact, in telling this story the way he does, the author is inviting us to make comparisons with the events recorded in Genesis 19.  You’ll recall that is the account of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham’s nephew Lot was living in this godless town of Sodom when he was visited by two angels in human form.  The perverted men of Sodom take notice of these angels and come to Lot’s house and make the same request of Lot that these wicked men in Gibeah make of this old man regarding this Levite.  The similarities of these two accounts are remarkable. There are at least ten parallels just in the contents of the two stories.  Add to that, the intentional uses of shared vocabulary and style and it’s clear the author is in this story working to call up for us images of Sodom.  The similarities between this account and the story in Genesis 19 is a subtle but powerful way the Holy Spirit inspired author is saying, “at the time of the Judges, Israel (here represented by the tribe of Benjamin in Gibeah) had become Sodom.”  This is what happens when the people of God do “what is right in their own eyes” and refuse to recognize the reign of Yahweh, they become just like the worst sinners imaginable—they become Sodomites.

            Notice some telling details about this story.  The men of Gibeah want the Levite—he is their main target here.  They are not interested in this old man’s virgin daughter and in fact she is spared from this.  That tells us these men are obviously homosexuals.  Paul gives God’s perspective on homosexual sin is in Romans 1:27 in a section on the wrath of God where he says, “…men...abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.  Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”  These men of Gibeah are not only homosexuals; they are also sexual predators—violent men who take what they want by force.  But notice that when they are refused the Levite, they opt to abuse the Levite’s concubine.  Why do these wicked men prefer the concubine to the innocence of the old man’s daughter?  We aren’t told but we get a strong hint through the phrase the author uses to refer to these men.  He literally calls them, “men of the sons of Belial” which, as one scholar points out, is a phrase used elsewhere in the Old Testament to characterize, “murderers, rapists, false witnesses, corrupt priests, drunks, boors… rebels [and] those who lead others into idolatry and who do not know Yahweh.”  This phrase indicates the very lowest order of human being.  Paul uses this same expression in 2 Corinthians 6:15 where he asks the question, “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?”  He uses Belial as a synonym for Satan there.

            It would seem the author wants to bring out the spiritual element underlying this horrible scene.  He portrays these men as “sons of the devil” and their intention is not only homosexual rape, but impelled by dark, spiritual forces who hate Yahweh and anything associated with Him, they want to defile one of God’s priests.  Lacking that opportunity, they settle for the wife of one of God’s priests.  This would explain their sexual priorities.  Now, we mustn’t make too much of that because the reference to the powers of darkness is so subtle—the author’s main emphasis here is the wickedness of these men.  But this spiritual element helps us answer the difficult question of why they were so intent on abusing the Levite and barring him, his concubine.  The men of Gibeah are not the only villains here, however.  As we’ll discuss more later, both the Levite and the old man act with glaring cowardice.  The Levite shoves his concubine out the door and in so doing reduces her to nothing more than food for hungry wolves.  The old man, in a grossly misplaced sense of protecting his honor as a host for this Levite, unbelievably offers his own virgin daughter to these godless, ravenous animals. These wicked men end up preying upon this Levite’s concubine until just before dawn.

            What began as a marital problem between a Levite and his concubine has, in this godless, Benjamite context quickly degenerated into a horrifically debauched situation that will eventually involve the entire nation.  The chapter concludes beginning with verse 27.  27When 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. 28He 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.  29When 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. 30Everyone 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!"

            The utter callousness of this Levite is incredible!  He seemingly gets up the morning after unaffected by the awareness that his concubine—his wife has been gang-raped all night.  He gives the impression that the most important thing to him is getting an early start on the day.  There is no emotion displayed, no sense of anger, no desire for retribution. He sees her with her hands reaching out for the protection of the house and HIM as she lay outstretched on the threshold and his cold, heartless response is, “Get up; let’s go.”  This man, this priest of God is very nearly as much of a monster as the men of Gibeah!  He hoists her up on the donkey, takes her home and methodically butchers her. The author is very ambiguous as to who actually murdered her.  Was it the men of Gibeah or the Levite himself?  The Levite later accuses the men of Gibeah and that may be true, but by the time he blames the rapists, the author has taught us not to trust this man.  We don’t know for certain and that ambiguity is intentional to show that ALL these men are depraved, not just the sexual predators of Gibeah.

            There is obviously much more to the story.  Much of the rest of the book is given to the response of the Jews to this act and the ripple effect this has on the entire nation.  For today, we want to focus in on how this story masterfully portrays the characteristics of a culture that has collapsed morally.  As we notice these characteristics our hope is that we will look with much more alarm at our own culture that is in a moral tailspin and at the church, which is called to be light in this present moral and spiritual darkness.  As we conclude, let’s list from this story four characteristics of a culture that has morally imploded.  The first characteristic is a complex blurring of the lines between the “good” people and the “bad” people.  One of the elements that makes this story so complex is the fact that just when you think you figure out who the good guys and the bad guys are, the characters destroy your preconceptions.  The concubine is introduced to us as at best, a woman who had abandoned her husband and master and at worst, an adulteress.  Yet this woman ends up being the victim of this story who is utterly degraded in life and death.

            The old man is introduced to us as a warm, hospitable sort who manages in some way to redeem Gibeah’s horrible lack of hospitality.  In the end, he gutlessly offers to throw his own virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine to these animals who come knocking at his door.  The Levite is introduced as a Levite, a priest of God who patiently waits for his wife for four months and humbles himself to go to her father’s house to retrieve her to (as the NASB says), “speak tenderly to her in order to bring her back.”  Yet as the story unfolds this Levite reveals himself to be among the most contemptible characters in all of sacred scripture.  We thought the Levite in chapters 17-18 was a good for nothing.  He’s a saint compared to this intensely callous man who treats his wife created in God’s image no better than an animal for slaughter.  The Levite, especially when you factor in that he was a priest of Yahweh, behaves almost as wickedly as these men of Gibeah.  Underneath the old man’s pleasant hospitality is a heart of wickedness and beneath the Levite’s surface concern for his wife is horrific evil. 

            Do you hear how the moral lines are hopelessly blurred?  You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys.  Does this sound familiar to you?  Isn’t this more and more the way it is in our culture?  From pedophile priests to sexual predators in the previous White House, more and more the people who our culture has traditionally looked to provide moral leadership are revealing themselves to be part and parcel of the moral collapse.  There is much more that could be said on that point but we are pressed for time.  A second characteristic of a culture that has collapsed morally is a wicked and perverse people increasingly dominate day-to-day life.  The people who ran the town of Gibeah were these homosexual marauders.  The streets and the visitors belonged to them.  They appear to rule this community unchallenged.  Don’t misunderstand, these kinds of people are in every culture, but these people in Gibeah mercilessly dictate the public life after sunset. 

            Again, this sign of impending moral collapse in our own culture is more evident than ever before.  In many cities and especially the inner cities the gangs and other domestic terrorists rule the streets.  On a political level, the homosexual agenda is not only not being challenged in many places (especially in states like California) it is actually promoted by those elected to govern.  The church must find its voice on this issue and speak the truth even if it means that we will be looked upon as intolerant bigots who need to crawl back under the rock we emerged from.  Public education is more and more influenced by people with the moral grounding of an alley cat and the church often does little more than sit back and cluck its tongue.

A third characteristic of moral collapse in a culture is weak and defenseless people are exploited, oppressed and sacrificed.  This concubine had no social standing and no political clout so she is easily used, thrown away and butchered.  If we don’t see in this concubine a graphic picture of the plague of abortion in our nation we are blind.  The unborn have no political voice and no social standing so they are easily dispensed with in the name of choice and a so-called “right to privacy.”  They are, like this woman butchered and carted off as “medical waste.”  Abortion isn’t just about the taking of unborn life—it is a clear sign of the impending moral collapse of our culture and an expression of the wrath of God.  When this concubine’s body was vivisected, even the carnal Jews were deeply incensed by this.  By contrast, how incensed is the church in response to the blight of abortion and what are we doing about it? 

            A fourth and final characteristic of a culture in moral collapse is the people of God rapidly become indistinguishable from the prevailing culture.  The Levite doesn’t want to stay in the pagan city of Jebus and opts for a city supposedly filled with worshippers of Yahweh.  In light of what happened in Jewish Gibeah, one wonders how it could have been any worse among the pagan Jebusites.  When they get to Gibeah there is no sense of community—no one gives the Levite a place to stay until the old man finally offers and that, in a community where it was obviously well known that you did NOT want to be on the streets at night!  We’ve already seen that this Levite is wicked.  One of the more sobering details of this story is found in chapter 20:28 where the only person who is named by name is mentioned, a priest named Phineas.  The reason that detail is so disconcerting is because we recognize this man named Phineas from elsewhere in the Old Testament.  This Phineas is part of the generation that arose after Joshua died.  That means this story takes place within forty years after the death of Joshua!  The point is that these people who not all that long before were trusting God and conquering the Promised Land had within a few decades totally lost their spiritual uniqueness.  Gibeah had become Sodom.  The point for us is that though Christ will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it, that does NOT in any way mean that the church in North America is guaranteed a lasting place.  Read the letters to the seven churches of the Revelation and you will notice that for the past millennia there has been no gospel witness in places like Ephesus and Sardis and Thyatira and Pergamum.  Christ removed his lampstand as he threatened he would.  Christ WILL build his church but on a human level within every culture, the church is always one generation from extinction. Are there people alive here today who will watch the collapse of the church’s gospel witness in North America?  If we don’t believe that’s possible, we need to read church history.

            The gruesome events depicted in Judges 19, though they are repulsive to us are in fact immeasurably important for us to know so that we can more accurately discern the times we live in and as Christ’s church seek to transform a moral culture that is heaving and buckling all around us.  May God give us grace to be faithful in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.

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