On March 9, the good people of Crafton Heights sat through my fifteenth and final sermon in a year-long study of the book of Judges. For many months, it had been on my heart to work through this book, and I am deeply grateful for the chance to have done so with such a wise and loving congregation. This final message, encompassing the last three chapters of Judges, is an exploration of how bad it can truly be. The New Testament passage that was read for the day was Romans 1:18-25.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of nights riding (as an invited passenger!) in the back of a City of Pittsburgh police car. It was an effort to get to know the neighborhoods and understand what some of the problems are.
After we were summoned to a home, one of the officers with whom I was riding said, “I hate these calls involving a domestic dispute. You never know what’s going to happen; you’re not sure who the ‘bad guy’ is, it’s hard to think that you’re really going to make any difference, and at the end of the day it could all just blow up in your face.
This morning, we are here to read what could be the worst story ever. I am sure that this is the first time I’ve ever encouraged you to get your young children out of the room before we start reading from “the Good Book”. And our reading starts, fittingly enough, with a domestic disturbance: Judges, chapter 19
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. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah. After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her parents’ home, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him. Judges 19:1-3, NIV)
Like most domestic disputes, it is a long and difficult story. And because I’m not sure that you have the time to hear all three chapters, and I know that I don’t have the stomach to read all three, we’re going to move through them and I’ll tell you the story. You can follow along through Judges 19-21 if you’d like.
It starts with a Levite – a member of the nation of Israel who is charged with reminding the people about God’s best for them. The Levites were not given specific territory in the Promised Land, but instead, all the other Israelites were supposed to be looking our for them and alert to hearing the Good News from them.
So this Levite “takes” a woman – and I want you to note the violent word that is already here. She is unfaithful to him, and they split up. Four months later, he decides that he misses her, or he looks bad, or whatever – and he chases her down. The woman’s father is eager to avoid the messiness, expense, and shame of a divorce, so he does everything he can to convince the Levite to make things right. After five days of partying, the Levite is convinced and they head for home. Unfortunately, they get a late start because of the intensity of the night before, and they don’t make it very far before the sun starts to go down.
The Levite’s hired man suggests that they head into Jerusalem and find a Holiday Inn or something, but the Levite won’t trust that town because it’s filled with foreigners. So they press on and by dark, they make it to the town of Gibeah, in the territory of the Israelite tribe of Benjamin. And the situation that they find there is not good.
Judges 19:15 says, “They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them in for the night.” Uh-oh. In the ancient near east, when there’s no one to offer you hospitality, you’re in a bad place. It says something terrible about Gibeah and Benjamin that a group of strangers would sit in the town square at nightfall and not receive help.
But wait! Help does come – from an old man, another stranger in town, who says to these travelers, “What are you, nuts? You can’t spend the night here! Come and stay with me.” The tension heightens.
And after dark, it really gets bad. The men of the city start to pound on the door of the house, and demand that the visitor be sent outside so that they can rape him. This is not about sex, it’s about a city that is intent on humiliating and debasing a guest. The old man shouts through the door that he’s not about to let his guest be treated this way, but if it’s sex they want, they can have his daughter and the Levite’s wife in order that the crowd can “violate them and do with them what seems good to you.” (19:24 ESV) Then the text tells us that the Levite “seized” his wife and threw her out the door…and then he went to bed.
Look. I really wish that was the worst part of this story. Because it is awful. In what kind of universe does this even make sense? But it gets worse.
The man gets up the next morning and starts to leave the house, and there is the woman laying across the threshold. “Get up,” he says. “We’re going home.” But she does not answer. Is she alive or dead? The Bible doesn’t say.
What it does say is that he put her on his donkey and carried her home, and when he got there, he cut her body into twelve pieces and sent a hunk of his wife to each of the twelve tribes of Israel as a means of complaining about the way that he and his property were treated by the people of Gibeah and Benjamin! Each tribe receives a messenger who says, essentially, “Can you believe this? What is this world coming to when this kind of thing can go on?”
And I really wish that this was the most disgusting part of the story. But it’s not.
Chapter 20 opens with a big meeting of all the tribes of Israel. Evidently, this message had gotten through, and the people are of one mind on this. In fact, the narrator of Judges uses the words “all of Israel” five times, and “as one man” another three. Finally, God’s people are going to do something, right? They ask the Levite to tell his story, and he does, more or less. I mean, he doesn’t express any sadness at the death of his wife and he makes himself out to be the victim, but at least he’s got their attention. And they decide to act.
Eleven of the tribes of the Israelites turn to the folks from Benjamin and say, “This is outrageous. Those folks from Gibeah ought to be punished. Hand them over.”
But the Benjamites say, “Nope. That’s not gonna happen. They are our people, and nobody touches them.” The people of Benjamin refuse to deal with, or even to acknowledge, the sin and brokenness that is in their midst.
The rest of Israel gets pretty worked up about this, and says, “What do you mean, you’re not going to listen to us?” Well, one thing leads to another. First off, they all make this silly promise that nobody is going to let their daughter marry a Benjamite ever again, but that doesn’t seem harsh enough, and before you know it, you’ve got a civil war, where 400,000 men of Israel are prepared to go up against 26,000 from Benjamin. There is all kind of treachery and violence, but by the time we get to the end of the week, 40,000 Israelites have died along with 25,400 Benjamites. This is how chapter 20 ends:
Six hundred men [from Benjamin] got away. They made it to Rimmon Rock in the wilderness and held out there for four months.
The men of Israel came back and killed all the Benjamites who were left, all the men and animals they found in every town, and then torched the towns, sending them up in flames. (Judges 20:47-48, The Message)
Now let’s just stop and take a look at what is happening here as a result of this “domestic dispute”. Do you remember what comes before the book of Judges in the Bible? The Book of Joshua. What is the event that leads us to Judges? The release of the people from Egypt. For 400 years, God’s people are held in a hostile and violent place. They are enslaved and treated as property and murdered and abused until finally, God’s voice comes to Moses and calls them to a new way of life. And he leads them to the Promised Land and he says, “Look, come in here and do things differently. Don’t tolerate the systems that seek to own or destroy. Get rid of anyone or anything that stands in the way of your true worship of me.”
And the people fail miserably at that. The book of Joshua is filled with story after story indicating that the people of Israel failed to drive out the Canaanites who opposed them. But here, in Judges, we see that they succeed in doing it to themselves! They couldn’t get rid of the Hittites or the Amalekites or the Philistines, but they wiped out the entire tribe of Benjamin. Every man, woman, and child; every donkey, every cow, every house – killed or burnt.
It is terrible! And I wish that this was the worst part of the story. But it’s not.
You see, next, the Israelites get to thinking about how there should be twelve tribes in Israel, and what have they done by going and killing all the Benjamites and someone says, “Hey, no, there are still 600 of them left! They’re all hiding out over by the rocks in Rimmon.”
Eventually, someone states the obvious and says, “Look, all of those Benjamite soldiers are men, and unless they find someone to marry, the tribe of Benjamin is going to perish.” But because they made this oath about not allowing their daughters to marry a Benjamite, they are stuck. And then some sharp thinker says, “Wait, did we all promise not to do this?” And it turns out that there was one town, Jabesh-Gilead, who did not send anyone to the big meeting. So the people of Israel, in the name of God, decided that the way to ensure the survival of the tribe of Benjamin (which they had wiped out) would be to attack Jabesh-Gilead.
So the congregation sent twelve divisions of their top men there with the command, “Kill everyone of Jabesh Gilead, including women and children. These are your instructions: Every man and woman who has had sexual intercourse you must kill. But keep the virgins alive.” And that’s what they did. (Judges 21:10-11, The Message).
In wanting to preserve their own integrity and be seen as “people of their word”, the Israelites said that they couldn’t possibly break their oath about marrying the Benjamites, so they commit an act of genocide against an entire community.
As bad as that was, it turns out that there were only 400 women who survived the slaughter, and they needed two hundred more in order to give every Benjamite a wife.
So they came up with a plan that, well…they came up with a plan. They knew that the Israelites who lived near Shiloh had a big festival at this time of the year. And as a part of that festival, the young women would go out into the vineyards and dance. So they told the Benjamites to go and hide out in the vineyards and when they saw the girls from Shiloh coming out, they could pick one they liked and take her home. Their reasoning for this was simple: if the girls were kidnapped, raped, and forcibly married, then it wasn’t like anyone was actually breaking his oath. No one was allowing these marriages. They just happened.
This is, as I have said, the worst. Story. Ever.
I’d like to make a few observations about it. We see here how sin and brokenness clearly amplifies itself. We go from a troubled marriage and an adulterous affair to the rape and murder of a single woman to civil war and finally to state-sanctioned genocide, kidnapping, and mass rape. The last sentence in the book of Judges says it all:
In those days there was no king in Israel: everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25)
The story of Judges is in the Bible to set up the books of Samuel and Kings. It’s there to tell the people why they needed a king – because when we didn’t have a king, do you see what kinds of trouble we got ourselves into? One writer puts it this way: “In a society where people pursue their own self interest rather than the purposes of God, everybody eventually stands to lose.”
Theologically, Israel needs a king. They need someone who will bring justice and truth and righteousness. A king, as best understood in the Bible, is the one who comes in and sets up the world the way that God wants it to be.
The trouble is that the King of Israel is going to be, well, from Israel. Saul, the first king? He was from Gibeah. You’ve heard what kinds of standouts that community is capable of producing in this morning’s reading. The second king? He’s associated with Jerusalem, the place where the Levite was afraid to go before he went to Gibeah. In other words, the only people available to be kings in Israel are the same sorry lot that gave us the book of Judges.
And I could wander down the path of historical reflection a little further, but here’s the truth: it’s not just the people in the first half of the Old Testament who need a king – who need someone to help them know right-ness, someone who can orient their world. Haven’t we seen how time and time again in our own experience the incredible violence and harm that comes when my desire to do what I want to do becomes a selfishness that leads to an idolatry that encourages me to make myself (or my people or my country…) the highest authority?
Just think about the beginning years of the 21st century! Our nation is attacked on 9/11 and that leads to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan…throw in Abu Ghraib and Benghazi and car bombs and drones…look at Russia and Ukraine and Syria and Sudan…
Doesn’t our world give testimony to the fact that when every person does what is right in his or her own eyes, it’s bad news?
And let’s make it even more personal. How many times has my life, my world, gone from bad to worse because I was not willing to allow anyone to speak truth to me? How much pain and suffering have I undergone or have I caused because there was no room in my world for anyone to speak for righteousness or justice? How quickly do our bad decisions pile up?
What about the guy who has a bad day at work and decides that he owes it to himself to stop off at the Casino on the way home and, because he’s a little irritated, winds up losing his month’s pay?
What about the kid who is so angry at her mother that she decides to take the car without permission and drive like a maniac, forgetting to notice the stopped school bus?
What about the person who didn’t prepare for the project at work or at school, and instead of coming clean about it goes in and makes stuff up, and then finds himself in a deeper hole than he was before?
Do you see how in our lives, and in our world, just like in the book of Judges, one choice leads to other choices that leads to a breakdown?
I called this message the Worst Story Ever not because it’s so stinking filled with violence and destruction and inhumanity, but because it keeps happening again and again and again.
We need a King!
Individually, we need a moral compass, a center, an authority who is greater than we. One who can teach us how to live in ways that please God and serve our neighbor.
Collectively, we need to realize that there is Truth, that we are a people and that God has a purpose in this world.
It is not up to us. We dare not attempt to live by doing what is right in our own eyes.
And we do not have to.
This is Lent. And we are through the book of Judges. And we have a king. In the back of a room, there’s a banner that has the image of his crown. It’s made of thorns, because he’s not like any King the world has ever known. And now, we have the chance to walk with him, and to learn to walk like him.
Thanks be to God, the King of Kings has come to us. Let us open our eyes, our hearts, our minds, to Jesus – the King of kings, that we may be faithful followers this Lent and always, to the end that we might be found doing what is right in his eyes. Amen.
 J. Clinton McCann, Interpretation commentary on Judges (John Knox, 2012) p. 133.