MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 29, 2002 FROM JUDGES 21
This morning we come to the last chapter in Judges as we near the end of our series of messages from this intensely relevant and profitable book. You’ll recall that in this last section of the book in chapters 19 through 21 the author tells a complex and grisly story that characterizes the moral health of the nation of Israel during the time of the Judges. At the beginning and end of this sad story, the author writes, “In those days Israel had no king.” The Jews have chosen to rebel against their national King, Yahweh and the result is captured in the final phrase of this book which we will get to this morning, “everyone did as he saw fit.” Ultimately, the series of disgusting events contained in Judges 19-21 is a portrait of what life becomes in a culture where God is no longer submitted to as King and where everyone does as he sees fit. The story in this final section begins with a domestic disagreement where a concubine leaves her Levite husband. After a few months, the Levite decides to retrieve his wife and travels to her father’s home in Bethlehem. On their return journey, they spend the night in the town of Gibeah in the tribe of Benjamin. An old man takes them into his home for the night, but a pounding on the old man’s door rudely interrupts them. Outside are wicked sexual predators who demand that the host send out his Levite guest so they might abuse him sexually. The old man, not wanting to lose his honor as a host to this man, instead callously offers these men his virgin daughter and the Levite’s wife. The decision is finally made for these perverse men by the Levite when he forces his wife out the door and she is brutally raped all night. The next morning the man takes his wife (alive or dead at this point we are not told) and places her on his donkey and brings her back to their home in Ephraim. Upon arriving home, he in effect butchers his wife, dividing her body into 12 parts, which he then sends as parcels to each one of the 12 tribes.
The nation is outraged by this and gathers for a sacred assembly of sorts at Mizpah. There they gather 400,000 swordsmen who, after hearing the Levite’s account about what the men of Gibeah have done to his wife, decide to punish the men of Gibeah. They first go to the men of Benjamin and ask them to turn over to them these perverse men of Gibeah for punishment, but the men of Benjamin not only refuse, they muster an army of 26,000 very skilled fighting men to defend these perpetrators. In response to that, the Israelites attack the men of Benjamin in three separate advances. The first two attempts are disastrous with the Israelites losing a total of 43,000 men while the Benjamites experience almost no losses. The author makes it clear that in both these losses Yahweh sends the Israelites to be slaughtered. Finally, before the third battle, the Israelites humble themselves before God and in response God gives them a massive victory where they kill all but 600 Benjamite warriors. This tiny remnant escapes by running and hiding at the rock of Rimmon. Like the holy wars of the past waged against the Canaanites, the Israelites also move into the land occupied by their very own tribe of Benjamin and destroy all the towns including every man, woman and child.
That might be the end of the story except for the fact that the author in chapter 20 conceals one very important detail from us about a couple of oaths the Israelites swore at Mizpah at this pre-war sacred assembly they held. As we’ll see, these oaths the Jews swore at Mizpah make an already wretched mess into an even more complex and God-dishonoring situation. As we read chapter 21, don’t forget that these events manifest the natural consequences of a people who do not submit to God as King and where everyone does what he sees fit. Let’s pick up the story in verse one of chapter 21. “The men of Israel had taken an oath at Mizpah: "Not one of us will give his daughter in marriage to a Benjamite." 2The people went to Bethel, where they sat before God until evening, raising their voices and weeping bitterly. 3"O Lord, the God of Israel," they cried, "why has this happened to Israel? Why should one tribe be missing from Israel today?" 4Early the next day the people built an altar and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. 5Then the Israelites asked, "Who from all the tribes of Israel has failed to assemble before the Lord?" For they had taken a solemn oath that anyone who failed to assemble before the Lord at Mizpah should certainly be put to death.”
The author begins with this detail he has until now concealed. That is, in addition to making war plans against Benjamin in this assembly at Mizpah, the leaders had also taken an oath that none of the Israelites would give their daughters to any surviving warriors of Benjamin. The grand hypocrisy here is that there has been no real concern in Judges about intermarrying with the Canaanites around them (Samson married a pagan) but in a moment of self-righteousness, the Jews here vow not to intermarry with their own kinsmen. This presented a real problem because there were 600 surviving Benjamite males and their wives and potential wives had all been killed. They were either going to have to intermarry with the pagans, remain celibate, which would have made an end to the tribe of Benjamin or pursue a third option. That is, the Jewish leaders would need to find some legal loophole that would provide an escape hatch from this strict oath they had taken not to give their Jewish daughters to these surviving Benjamites. The Jews determine they would do whatever was necessary preserve the tribe of Benjamin. As it turns out, they found what they considered to be a legal loophole thanks to another, previously unrevealed oath they made at Mizpah. It seems the Israelites had also sworn an oath that any Jewish tribe or clan that did not go to battle against Benjamin would be subject to destruction. The Jewish leaders scheme and figure out a way they could somehow get Jewish wives for these Benjamites by carrying out the terms of this other oath.
To find out exactly how they hoped to do this, we need to read verses six and following. “6Now the Israelites grieved for their brothers, the Benjamites. "Today one tribe is cut off from Israel," they said. 7"How can we provide wives for those who are left, since we have taken an oath by the Lord not to give them any of our daughters in marriage?" 8Then they asked, "Which one of the tribes of Israel failed to assemble before the Lord at Mizpah?" They discovered that no one from Jabesh Gilead had come to the camp for the assembly. 9For when they counted the people, they found that none of the people of Jabesh Gilead were there. 10So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children. 11"This is what you are to do," they said. "Kill every male and every woman who is not a virgin." 12They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women who had never slept with a man, and they took them to the camp at Shiloh in Canaan. 13Then the whole assembly sent an offer of peace to the Benjamites at the rock of Rimmon. 14So the Benjamites returned at that time and were given the women of Jabesh Gilead who had been spared. But there were not enough for all of them.”
The story gets more complicated as the Jews try to find a way to extricate themselves from the terms of their oath to not provide wives for the surviving warriors of Benjamin. As the leaders come together to solve this seemingly unsolvable problem, they happen on what appears to them to be a reasonable solution. The Jews had also vowed to destroy any clan or tribe that did not participate in this holy war against Benjamin and when they took a role call of the participants in the war against Benjamin, they discover that one town; the town of Jabesh Gilead in the tribe of Gad was not represented. That, according to this second oath placed that town under the death sentence. Now, this alleged solution to their first problem creates a number of questions for us. The most obvious question is, “how can you get wives for these surviving Benjamite warriors from the town of Jabesh Gilead if you have vowed to kill everyone in the town?” That question will not go away. This second vow was NOT, “We will kill all non-participating clans and tribes EXCEPT the virgins.” It was, “We will kill everyone in the town.” So, in order to supposedly keep the terms of one vow, they violate the terms of the other. The Jews however were not bothered by that small gap in their plan and we are not given the reason why this obvious flaw was not considered.
One scholar speculates that maybe the Jewish leaders thought that since the men of Jabesh Gilead were not in Mizpah to prepare for this war against the Benjamites, they were not bound by the oath made there and could therefore give their daughters to the Benjamites. Perhaps the leaders thought that after they had killed all the fathers and brothers of the virgins, they would not actually be guilty of giving their virgins in marriage because they would in fact be dead. We don’t know their thought processes here, but they came to the decision that they would destroy the entire city with the exception of one group—young virgins who could serve as wives for these surviving Benjamite males. So, they make war against this town and through some undisclosed process of discrimination, determine who the virgins are, sparing their lives while slaughtering the rest of the town.
Another problem with this alleged solution was that this provided wives for only two thirds of the Benjamite warriors—only 400 of the 600 needed virgins were found. This so called solution was grossly incomplete, which sent the nation’s leaders back to the drawing board. The rest of this tragic comedy of errors follows beginning with verse 15. “15The people grieved for Benjamin, because the Lord had made a gap in the tribes of Israel. 16And the elders of the assembly said, "With the women of Benjamin destroyed, how shall we provide wives for the men who are left? 17The Benjamite survivors must have heirs," they said, "so that a tribe of Israel will not be wiped out. 18We can't give them our daughters as wives, since we Israelites have taken this oath: 'Cursed be anyone who gives a wife to a Benjamite.'
19But look, there is the annual festival of the Lord in Shiloh, to the north of Bethel, and east of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem, and to the south of Lebonah." 20So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, "Go and hide in the vineyards 21and watch. When the girls of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, then rush from the vineyards and each of you seize a wife from the girls of Shiloh and go to the land of Benjamin. 22When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, 'Do us a kindness by helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war, and you are innocent, since you did not give your daughters to them.' " 23So that is what the Benjamites did. While the girls were dancing, each man caught one and carried her off to be his wife. Then they returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and settled in them. 24At that time the Israelites left that place and went home to their tribes and clans, each to his own inheritance. 25In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”
If it weren’t for the horrible dehumanization of these women in this last scene, it would be hilarious. This is what happens when people use fallen human reasoning to try to solve a God-sized problem. It’s a political and military solution to what is fundamentally a spiritual problem. The leaders of Israel find what they believe is a way to provide Jewish wives for the remaining Benjamites while not sacrificing their oath to curse anyone who provides these men with wives. They remember a festival of some sort that will be occurring in Shiloh. We don’t know what kind of festival this is, but with the religious life of the nation running at such low ebb, it may very well have been a pagan festival. We just don’t know. The one distinguishing aspect of the festival as far as the Jewish leaders were concerned was that there would be marriageable women there.
They instruct the remaining 200 Benjamite warriors to hide in the vineyards until the women come out to dance. The women danced with women in those days so this would provide the men with their chance to get a wife without much male interference. The men of Israel quite literally declared “open season” on these women and the Benjamites were told to seize the women they want to be their wives. We can only imagine what this must have looked like. The poor women are reduced to animals as the men go through a process probably not unlike that which a child goes through when they sift through a litter of puppies to pick out just the right one to be their pet. One obvious flaw in this supposed solution, which they even admit, is that this forces the fathers of these Shiloh virgins to receive into their families men whom they had earlier declared a holy war upon and whom they had vowed NOT to give their daughters to.
The Israelite leaders apply a band-aid to this gaping hole in their plan by declaring that these men of Shiloh would be innocent of violating the oath because they had not actually given their wives to the Benjamites but instead had them forcibly taken from them by the Benjamites. They are saying in effect, “We don’t want you to break a vow, so we’ll just kidnap your daughters.” This is what happens when you try to live up to the letter of the law but have completely forgotten the spirit of the law. The value system gets horribly twisted. Forget about the fact that these pitiful women would be forcibly dragged from their families kicking and screaming and forced to live as little more than slave wives. They would, cook, clean, bear children and fulfill other spousal obligations to men who had earlier defended rapists and who on their first encounter with them had violently taken them away from everything they loved. As we said earlier, if this wasn’t so utterly barbaric and dehumanizing for these women, this would be funny.
The story concludes with the men of Benjamin going back to their villages and rebuilding them. The Israelites, having in their minds settled this dilemma of preserving the tribe of Benjamin, break up the meeting and return to their homes. The author wants to be certain we do not assume this story is morally neutral or worse that we try to see anything good in it. He helps us to see how despicable all this is by closing his narrative in verse 25 with, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” This statement is also a fitting way to close the book of Judges which has been marked by people rejecting God and doing what they saw fit. What can we learn from this bizarre and complicated story?
Before we answer that, let’s do some summarizing. These last three chapters are like a bad train wreck for Israel. What starts off as a domestic problem ends up costing the nation tens of thousands of lives and very nearly reduced the number of tribes from 12 to 11. The reason is because instead of people sincerely looking to God, they were doing what THEY thought was right. Doing what they thought was right got them into this mess. As they repeatedly did what was right in their own eyes to try get them out of this mess, instead of turning to God in true repentance and faith, they just dug a deeper and deeper hole for themselves. Dan Block has traced this national chain reaction of sin into 17 separate parts. I won’t list all of them, but think about this sin-riddled context as I give you a brief paraphrase of his summary of events.
Two hundred Benjamite men kidnap 200 virgins dancing at a religious festival in Shiloh because the leaders of Israel were only able to get 400 virgins by destroying Jabesh Gilead. They destroyed Jabesh Gilead because the Jews vowed that anyone who did not participate in the war against Benjamin was liable for destruction and because they had vowed not to give their own daughters to the 600 surviving Benjamites. They surmised that if they got the wives from this condemned city it would solve the problem created by their oath not to give their virgins to the Benjamite males. There were only 600 surviving Benjamite warriors because the other tribes went to war against Benjamin and decimated them. They went to war against Benjamin in response to receiving body parts of a Levite’s concubine. These parts were sent out because the Levite cut up his concubine to send to the other tribes. He cut her up because she had been gang raped by the sexual deviants of Gibeah and he wanted to call the nation to arms against the perpetrators. He was in Gibeah because he was returning home after retrieving his concubine who had abandoned him and fled to Bethlehem. She fled to Bethlehem because she had in some way been unfaithful to him and left him.
Do you hear how this mushroomed? This is what happens in a context of sinful independence from God. Think of it like a room filled with gasoline vapor—add one spark to that atmosphere and it all goes up. Israel during the period of the judges was an incendiary environment for sin. There was nothing to check the spread of sin because everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes and so it kept building to a point that all it took was one domestic squabble in the right place in the right time with the right people and it all went up in flames. Chapter 21 chronicles repeated attempts to put out the fire started when people made decisions independent from God. However, each fleshly intervention by the leaders just throws more gasoline on the fire.
One truth that comes out of this text is: Unless we humble ourselves and genuinely invite God into our sinful messes, we will only breed more sin. The Jews never really humble themselves in a way that produces lasting fruit. In chapter 20 after 40,000 Jewish men lay dead on a battlefield in their war against Benjamin, they manage to go through some level of brokenness but its not very deep because here in chapter 21, they go right back to making huge decisions without God’s counsel. They cry out to God but when he doesn’t answer, they go right on without Him and make these two foolish oaths. First, they swore this oath at Mizpah that no one should give their daughters to any surviving Benjamites. Where did they get that? It is true that these men had done great evil in defending the rapists in Gibeah but did this oath come from God or from men? The resulting debacle it creates strongly suggests it was their own creation.
Second, they take this other vow that anyone not going to war against Benjamin is liable for destruction. Notice, they make this vow BEFORE they had actually bothered to take a roll call to determine whom, if anyone had not showed up or to inquire as to why any tribe was absent. That’s not the way God does things. Third, they independently decide that the tribe of Benjamin MUST be preserved. Where did they get that? That’s an assumption on their part—they never ask God about that. Jesus lost one of the twelve—maybe the Jews were supposed to lose Benjamin. It’s clear from verse 15 that “the LORD had made a gap in the tribes of Israel.” God came within a whisker of destroying Benjamin by HIS power. Should the Jews have gone and finished the job by pursuing the surviving warriors to the rock of Rimmon and killing them too? We don’t know. What we DO know is that if God made the gap in the tribes by annihilating the Benjamites, it was HIS job to either leave the gap or fix it. Its no stretch to say that if He had wanted to restore Benjamin, the Creator of the universe could have come up with a far better plan than these godless, immoral, hypocritical, legalistic and dehumanizing schemes the Jews provided.
Earlier I recounted a summary of the sinful chain reaction seen in these last three chapters. If we think this kind of chain reaction of sin is limited to this bizarre context we are mistaken—here’s one from every day life. A young, unmarried couple from Christian homes is dating and after repeatedly quenching the Holy Spirit’s warnings to them, engages in premarital sex. Blinded by their lust to the serious flaws in their relationship, they blissfully announce that they are in love and engaged and in several months get married. After the rings go on the fingers and the initial lust dies down, they discover to their horror that the relationship weaknesses that have been under the surface, violently manifest themselves. The couple refuses to do the hard work of seriously confronting their root issues but instead choose to have a couple of kids thinking that bringing children into the world will in some way solve their marital woes. The two children the couple brings into the world only contribute to the problems because it greatly increases marital stress. After five more years of struggle and horribly bitter feelings take over the marriage, the two divorce with no legitimate biblical grounds. After a few years of divorced life, they both become horribly lonely and find not only two other people to marry but also a pastor who will wink at the biblical prohibition against these marriages. The two children grow up in a broken home and in blended families and having enormous emotional needs. As they grow into their teen years they come to believe that they can find satisfaction and healing for their deep hurt in a dating relationship where they soon become sexually active and apart from God’s intervention, repeat the cycle of their parents…only worse.
And it all started with two teenagers who should have never been left alone together. Out of that, comes a sea of human wreckage. The point is not just about the evils of premarital sex or unbiblical divorce though we all need to be reminded of the grave consequences of those sins. One point is in a context of sinful independence from God, sin explodes and eventually shatters more and more lives unless it is checked. An important side bar truth is that at any point in that process, as in Judges 19-21, if a person in this cycle of sin were to honestly seek after God, he could have in some way redeemed it. He CAN restore the years the locusts have eaten if we will do the HARD work of trusting in his word and following his direction rather than doing what is right in our own eyes. Our Savior died for all those sins and can make something beautiful even out of our sin if we will let Him. However, if sin is left unchecked and we continue to do what seems best to our foolish and short-sighted flesh, Judges 19-21 show us what happens when a spark hits a room full of gasoline vapor.
Some of you are living in a spiritual gas chamber. You have made decision after decision about job, relationships and family that are not based in his word but what works best in your own eyes. Make no mistake, it will go up in flames someday—if not in this world then in the fires of hell which is the ultimate destination of people who, although they may be in an evangelical church every Sunday morning, nonetheless live their lives doing what is right in their own eyes. But what’s even more tragic goes beyond the fact that sin has horrible consequences. Sin is ultimately evil NOT for what it brings but for whom it is against. When we live in arrogant independence from God we are turning up our nose, we are declaring our autonomy from the God who sent his only Son to die for us. We are spitting in the face of the One who bore our sin on the cross of Calvary. The word of Judges couldn’t be more clear—we must live in radical dependence upon God FIRST, for his pleasure and glory and our joy and second, to escape the wretched consequences of sin. If you are not living in radical dependency upon God but are doing what is right in your own eyes, know this—it’s not too late to repent. He can and will come and pull you out of your mess if you trust in Him and allow HIM to direct your life according to His word. May God give to all of us the grace to live in dependence upon him.
Page last modified on 1/12/2003
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