MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 16, 2002 FROM JUDGES 20

 

            This morning we will examine the second and longest section of this complex and gruesome story that makes up the last three chapters of the book of Judges.  Last week, we introduced this section by pointing out that the author provides us a lens to look through at the events in these three chapters.  In the first verse of the narrative in 19:1 and the last verse of this long story he says, “In those days Israel had no king” In the last verse in 21:25 he also adds, “everyone did as he saw fit.”  Or, “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”  The people were not looking to or submitting to Yahweh who was their national King—they were instead doing what their self-centered desires led them to.  As we saw in chapters 17-18 this meant that, although they still practiced some of the religious customs of the law, it was horribly distorted and twisted to conform to their own self-centered lifestyles.  Whatever truths from God cramped their freedom to live independently, they replaced with their own, self-centered paganized form of religion.  They kept some of the external and sentimentally precious elements of their religion but ultimately; they had created a “designer religion.” This was made up of the less demanding elements of the law combined with the carnal, self-centered religions they had adopted from their pagan neighbors.

            In the last three chapters of Judges, the author shows us the general moral climate of Israel within this context of “everyone doing what was right in their own eyes.”  When we looked at chapter 19 last week, we saw the hideous consequences of what happens when a people do what is right in their own eyes.  You’ll recall that a Levite and his concubine—this “second-class wife” have a serious marital dispute.  The concubine is in some way unfaithful, leaves her husband in Ephraim and flees to her father’s home in Bethlehem.  After four months, the Levite decides to go retrieve her, journeys to her father’s home and after a few days heads back with his wife toward the hill country of Ephraim.  On the way, he spends the night in a town called Gibeah in the tribe of Benjamin.  After a long wait in the town square, an old man finally offers the Levite and his party a place to spend the night.

            As they are eating dinner, wicked and perverse men from the town come and pound on the old man’s door, demanding that he turn over his Levite guest for their sexual pleasure.  The old man, wanting to preserve his honor as a host, instead offers these violent men his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine for their perverse, sexual indulgence.  When the men refused this offer, the Levite forcibly offers his concubine to these men who use her sexually until just before dawn.  She collapses on the threshold of the old man’s house and is discovered by her husband, as he is getting ready to leave for home.  The Levite callously throws her on his donkey and when he gets her home, he cuts her into twelve pieces, sending a portion of his wife’s body to each of the tribes of Israel.  The author never tells us whether the actual murder is committed by the rapists in Gibeah or the Levite himself.  The Levite’s “mailing” of his wife’s body parts to the tribes produces an outrage among the people of Israel who passionately want to respond to this grotesque act but are not sure just how to do so.  That brings us to chapter 20 where the author chronicles the nation’s response. 

Before we read this, remember what our perspective should be.  The author has placed this series of events within the context where “each man did what was right in their own eyes.”  That’s easy to forget because, whereas chapter 19 is filled with grotesque, in- your-face, wickedness; chapter 20 takes on a very different tone.  As you hear that contrast, don’t make the mistake of forgetting that the author has already told us that these people too were doing what was right in their own eyes.  This is a long reading, but we must read all of it to get the sense.  Beginning with verse one we read, “Then all the Israelites from Dan to Beersheba and from the land of Gilead came out as one man and assembled before the Lord in Mizpah. 2The leaders of all the people of the tribes of Israel took their places in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand soldiers armed with swords. 3(The Benjamites heard that the Israelites had gone up to Mizpah.) Then the Israelites said, "Tell us how this awful thing happened."  4So the Levite, the husband of the murdered woman, said, "I and my concubine came to Gibeah in Benjamin to spend the night. 5During the night the men of Gibeah came after me and surrounded the house, intending to kill me. They raped my concubine, and she died. 6I took my concubine, cut her into pieces and sent one piece to each region of Israel's inheritance, because they committed this lewd and disgraceful act in Israel. 7Now, all you Israelites, speak up and give your verdict."

8All the people rose as one man, saying, "None of us will go home. No, not one of us will return to his house. 9But now this is what we'll do to Gibeah: We'll go up against it as the lot directs. 10We'll take ten men out of every hundred from all the tribes of Israel, and a hundred from a thousand, and a thousand from ten thousand, to get provisions for the army. Then, when the army arrives at Gibeah in Benjamin, it can give them what they deserve for all this vileness done in Israel." 11So all the men of Israel got together and united as one man against the city.

12The tribes of Israel sent men throughout the tribe of Benjamin, saying, "What about this awful crime that was committed among you? 13Now 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. 14From their towns they came together at Gibeah to fight against the Israelites. 15At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. 16Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. 17Israel, apart from Benjamin, mustered four hundred thousand swordsmen, all of them fighting men. 

18The Israelites went up to Bethel and inquired of God. They said, "Who of us shall go first to fight against the Benjamites?"  The Lord replied, "Judah shall go first."  19The next morning the Israelites got up and pitched camp near Gibeah. 20The men of Israel went out to fight the Benjamites and took up battle positions against them at Gibeah. 21The Benjamites came out of Gibeah and cut down twenty-two thousand Israelites on the battlefield that day. 22But the men of Israel encouraged one another and again took up their positions where they had stationed themselves the first day. 23The Israelites went up and wept before the Lord until evening, and they inquired of the Lord. They said, "Shall we go up again to battle against the Benjamites, our brothers?"  The Lord answered, "Go up against them."  24Then the Israelites drew near to Benjamin the second day. 25This time, when the Benjamites came out from Gibeah to oppose them, they cut down another eighteen thousand Israelites, all of them armed with swords.  26Then 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 to the Lord. 27And the Israelites inquired of the Lord. (In those days the ark of the covenant of God was there, 28with 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."  29Then Israel set an ambush around Gibeah. 30They went up against the Benjamites on the third day and took up positions against Gibeah as they had done before. 31The Benjamites came out to meet them and were drawn away from the city. They began to inflict casualties on the Israelites as before, so that about thirty men fell in the open field and on the roads--the one leading to Bethel and the other to Gibeah. 32While the Benjamites were saying, "We are defeating them as before," the Israelites were saying, "Let's retreat and draw them away from the city to the roads."  33All the men of Israel moved from their places and took up positions at Baal Tamar, and the Israelite ambush charged out of its place on the west of Gibeah. 34Then ten thousand of Israel's finest men made a frontal attack on Gibeah. The fighting was so heavy that the Benjamites did not realize how near disaster was.

35The Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel, and on that day the Israelites struck down 25,100 Benjamites, all armed with swords. 36Then the Benjamites saw that they were beaten. Now the men of Israel had given way before Benjamin, because they relied on the ambush they had set near Gibeah.

         This text gives us a picture of God’s people in desperate need.  The Levite’s dismembering and delivering of his wife’s body parts to the nation propelled this one local event to a much larger scale than it had in chapter 19.  Remember, the response of Israel to this crisis described here is ultimately the response of a people who have been doing what was right in their own eyes and not submitting to God as their King.  So the specific question the text answers is, “How do you respond in a time of great spiritual need when your individual or corporate life has been characterized by doing what is right in your own eyes?  That is, when you have been living your life apart from a conscious submission of your life and will to God?”  That question may seem to be of fairly limited value to us, but as we’ll see from the text, it’s actually very important because just as the Israelites had gradually drifted into spiritual compromise so can we. The response of the Jews to their time of deep spiritual need gives us the chance to take our own spiritual pulse as we compare and contrast ourselves with how they, as a compromised people handled this dire situation. 

         So, how DO you respond in a time of great spiritual need if you have been doing what is right in your own eyes?  Let’s look at two ways seen in the life of Israel at this time.  First, You are selective in who you blame for the problem.  In Judges 20, the Jews quickly and rightly assess blame to the tribe of Benjamin for this gross act.  When the men of Benjamin choose to defend the sexual predators from justice, as Dan Block points out, they place themselves in the wretched position of identifying more with the rapists than with the assembly of God.  For that they certainly bear responsibility and as we read, God ultimately holds them responsible.  But the fact is, they are not the only guilty parties in this—there are at least two others that completely escape scrutiny by the people.  First, what about the Levite who dismembers his wife?  Remember, it was his butchering of her that first arouses the disgust of Israel.  It’s when they received her body parts that they became so incensed.  Yet, when the Levite tells the story, he is given a free pass because he hides behind the guilt of the men of Gibeah. 

         The practice of dismembering a human body to mobilize people to action was not unknown in the Ancient Near East.  We know from ancient history that this happened in pagan cultures, but for one of God’s people and even more, for a priest of God(!) to do this to a person created in the image of God is surely an abominable sin.  A dead body was to be treated with respect.  Deuteronomy 21 tells us that a body hung on a tree was accursed—you were not to place dead bodies, even whole dead bodies on display for public ridicule.  The text says this desecrated the land, but to do this to a body and send the parts out to the 12 tribes was a horrific offense and the Levite gets off without so much as a slap on the wrist.  Do you hear how selective they are in their indignation?  Perhaps even more alarming is the question, what about the nation of Israel as a whole?  Where is the national sense of shame and guilt about this?  This happened within their national family.  Where is there honest soul searching about their own responsibility here?  This happens in some degree even in our own secular country in times of deep crisis.  In the 60’s when a number of national public figures were assassinated, the country, in addition to crying out for justice on the perpetrators also began asking the question, “What have we become as a nation that we keep killing our leaders?” 

         There was a sense of national responsibility for this even in our secular state.  How much more should that have been the case in this theocracy, this nation of God’s covenant people?  As we have seen throughout Judges, there is no sense of community-no sense of national identity and responsibility to each other.  The Levites should have called Israel to a time of national repentance—everyone should have been in sackcloth and ashes.  There should have been a time of asking the question, “What have we as a people become that something like this could happen within our national family?”  It’s ironic that they repeatedly refer to Benjamin as their “brother” but they don’t respond as if this happened within their own family! When someone in a family does something vile like this there is some honest soul searching among the rest of the family asking, “what could we have done—what is our responsibility here?”  If there is a strong sense of community, you don’t live oblivious to what is happening among your other family members. After a time of national repentance then the Levites should have lead the people in seeking after God’s will about their erring brothers.   

         These people had been doing what was right in their own eyes and had become horribly detached from God and from each other.  That’s what happens when you aren’t walking with God.  Your fellowship with God not only suffers but also your fellowship with the people of God.  These people in community felt no feel to reflect on their own lives before punishing their brothers.  Jesus tells us in Matthew seven that before you deal with someone else’s sin, you must judge yourself first.  You first pull the log out of your own eye, and then you are free to take the speck from your brother’s eye.  Granted, what these perverse men from Gibeah did was hardly a “speck” but the principle of judging yourself first still holds.

         A second mistake spiritually compromised people make in times of crisis is that you make decisions based on your own independent judgment.  Notice how when this decision to bring retribution on the criminals is being formed, God is nowhere in the picture.  He is imported only later on after all 400,000 troops had been mustered.  In verse seven, this godless, wife-dismembering Levite tells his version of the story and assumes a position of national leadership saying, “Now, all you Israelites, speak up and give your verdict?”  The obvious question at this point is, “In a land where Yahweh is King what difference does it make what the people’s verdict is?”  This is incredibly presumptuous here to think that the authoritative opinion on this matter belonged to the people!  In the book of Joshua when God’s people were conquering the Promised Land again and again you have God speaking with Joshua before a battle, telling him what to do or at least assuring him that He would be with them.  There was a dependence upon God to tell them how to bring his holy war against the enemies of Yahweh.  In this story, we are not talking about destroying Canaanites whom God has already declared war on, but judging their own brothers.  This was much more grave but the Levite calls for a verdict from the people and without God’s counsel they say in verse nine, “But now this is what we’ll do to Gibeah:  We’ll go up as the lot directs.”

            Do you hear how this is again a half-hearted practice of their religion.  They know enough to ask God to tell them which tribe should go first, but they spend no time in national reflection or repentance and there is a sick mixing of their own independent judgment and God’s guidance here.  This is the reason the first two stages of the battle are disastrous for the Israelites.  Think about this astonishing story for a moment.  When the people consult God as to who to send in first, remarkably he answers in verse 18, “Judah shall go first.”  And then they send 22,000 off their men to death in battle against these Benjamites.  It’s a slaughter—the same kind of utterly one-sided victory repeated won against the Canaanites when the Jews first entered the land under Joshua.  This time however, they themselves are trounced.  In verses 22-23 we read, “But the men of Israel encouraged one another and again took up their positions where they had stationed themselves the first day.   The Israelites went up and wept before the LORD until evening, and they inquired of the LORD.  They said, “Shall we go up again to battle against the Benjamites, our brothers?”  That’s the question they should have asked the first time.

            In a truly remarkable response, “…The LORD answered, “Go up against them.”  So, they send another 18,000 men to their death.  Notice from the numbers on the Benjamite side, they are losing almost no one in these first two battles.  We know from verse 15, the Benjamites mobilized 26,000 troops.  We know from verse 35 in the third and final battle they lose, 25,100 men and 600 men survived, which means that they had lost only 300 men in these first two battles compared with 40,000 from the other tribes of Israel.  The inescapable fact here is that the Lord orders the Israelites to walk into a blood bath. Twice he tells them to go into battle (the first time, albeit only naming which tribe should lead the way) and twice the outcome is disastrous.  This makes no sense…until you remember that Israel too had been in rebellion against God, doing what was right in their own eyes.

Think about it.  In previous instances in Judges, God has used the oppression of the pagan nations around his people to bring them to a place of crying out to him.  In this instance he uses this sinful act of the perverse men of Gibeah and this wretched Levite as a launching pad to bring judgment upon his sinful people.  He uses their own independence from God to severely punish his people and cause them to cry out to him, which they finally do in earnest after this second military disaster in verse 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 to the LORD.”  When they inquire of God notice what they ask, “Shall we go up again to battle with Benjamin our brother, or not?”  Literally, “or shall we desist?”

            This time, there is no encouraging one another, no half-hearted inquiries, no calling upon the people for a verdict—there is FINALLY a humble response from Israel.  They fast, they worship and they cry out to God with true humility.  “God, just tell us what to do and whatever you say, we will do it.”  It took the blood of 40,000 Israelites to be shed but at last these people, who had been doing what was right in their own eyes and whom God needed to brutally humble, are in a place where they are truly seeking God.  They are finally in a place where God can give them a victory.  We didn’t even read the detailed account of the battle in chapter 20 because in a nutshell it communicates that everything that went wrong for the Israelite army in the first two battles went right in the third.  And everything that went right for the Benjamites in the first two battles went horribly wrong for them in the third.  And that complete change in fortunes is because of what it says in verse 35, “The LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel…”  God stepped into the battle and the outcome was assured.  Do you hear how Yahweh had used Benjamin to judge the other tribes in the first two battles and now that Israel had cried out to him in humility he uses them to judge Benjamin for their dastardly behavior?  The evil is judged on a national scale, not just in the tribe of Benjamin.

            It would be heartening to tell you that the tribes had learned their lesson completely here, but as we’ll see in chapter 21, even they remain independent from God.  This huge humbling God gives them is only temporary and when the next crisis comes they once again act on their own independent, fallen judgment.  The point is, this is what happens when a compromised, self-centered people are confronted with a great spiritual challenge.  Do we see what happens when the Benjamites, who have been living like pagans refuse to purge the evil from themselves?  Do we see the consequences when the Israelites, who have been living independently from God, in a time of great need choose to, out of habit, lean on their own fallen judgment instead of living in dependence upon Yahweh?

            The applications for us from this story are far too numerous to list.  We have already mentioned one in previous messages from Judges.  That is, when a crisis of some sort or a time of great need comes (as they invariably do in life), it reveals where are hearts really are and what we are really trusting in.  These Jews had been doing what was right in their own eyes and so when a time of testing came that required God-centeredness and critical reflection, they independently launched into their own plan with disastrous results.  That is a warning to us.  If our relationship with God is superficial and mostly self-centered then that will come to the surface in the fire of affliction and it often affects more than just ourselves. On the other hand, if a person is walking in close fellowship to God, and a time of great need or crisis comes along, that provides an opportunity for God’s grace to be seen in them in a unique way.

            Second and related, take note of the disastrous results when the people only partially lean on God.  The people initially limit God’s role to that of a consultant.  They have already rendered their verdict on what needed to happen with the Benjamites.  They decided that without any input from God.  They have set the time, the context, the methods but they do want God to give them the order of assault—“…Who of us shall go first to fight against the Benjamites?”  In other words, “God, here’s our plan, now you provide us with one small detail.”  The people chose a limited level of input and a limited role from God on this one.  How sharply this contrasts with the conquest of Canaan under Joshua where it was clear that the role of God was the president, CEO, commanding general, military strategist, in short, the King.  These people wanted to be their own King and have God fill some in some of the details of the strategy and provide the firepower and He will never fit into that box!  God isn’t a cosmic consultant for our lives, he is our King!  Our role is not to invite him into some areas of our lives while reserving for ourselves the right to govern in the others.  Our role is to say as the Israelites finally said after they had been humbled twice, “God, just tell me what to do and whatever it is, I will do it.”  That’s the way a subject relates to their King and although we are not only God’s subjects, we have never stopped being are his subjects.

            Is this how we relate to God?  Is he our King or do we treat him more as a divine consultant whose advice we seek in only certain circumstances? May God give us the grace to walk in humble submission before him so that we might know the joy of the Lord and walk in his victory.

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