17. Israel’s Sodom and Gomorrah (Judges 19-21)Related Media
In our church, one of the men is asked to read the biblical passage that is the Scripture text for the sermon. I’ve done this for years. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the text for this lesson is the only biblical text anyone has ever declined to read, due to the violence and sexual perversion it depicts. Actually, three men, as I recall, declined to read it. The brave soul who finally agreed to read the text commented first, “I know we normally read the Scripture text and then pray, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to pray before I read.”
If this text is difficult to read, it is even more difficult to preach. The preacher has to deal with at least two decisions. The first is this: “How explicit should one be in describing the sins that are depicted in this text, especially with children present?” In preaching this sermon, I requested that the public Scripture reading end at verse 21 of chapter 19. I then attempted to deal with the more violent and offensive details of the text by using language that was a little less graphic, assuming that my adult audience would be familiar with the gruesome details. I hoped that the younger listeners might not fully grasp all that took place in the text and thus not become troubled by the particulars of the text. In print I will be more specific, convinced that if this text shocks us, that is precisely what the Spirit of God intended when He inspired it.
Second, in some parts of the world, preaching this passage would probably be against the law (since it condemns homosexuality as sin), and I fear that it will not be long before that will be the case in the United States of America. For the first time in my ministry, I sense the risk that every preacher of God’s Word takes when speaking the truth of the Bible to a world that does not want to hear it (and may soon use governmental power to oppose it).
The Relationship Between Genesis 19 and Judges 19
It is almost impossible for the reader of this text to miss its connection to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19.1 In both texts, the sin of homosexuality and its judgment is a primary theme. In both accounts, the wicked men of the city wish to rape the male guest of an outsider who is sojourning in their city. Likewise, in both accounts the host offers his daughter(s)2 to the men of the city in place of his guest. There is no doubt that the author is informing the reader that Israel has now stooped to the moral level of the Canaanites.3
Another Observation Concerning our Text
This is the final message in our series on the Book of Judges, and it is the second of two conclusions to the Book of Judges. The first conclusion (chapters 17-18) had to do with Jonathan, the Levite who sold out and became a “personal priest for hire” to Micah, and then to the tribe of Dan. The second conclusion (chapters 19-21) focuses on another Levite, whose testimony results in the destruction of an Israelite town and the near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin. I believe the author was very deliberate in focusing on two Levites in his two-part conclusion and that he intends for his readers to compare and contrast the two conclusions in order to discern the message that God has for us as the book ends. We will do that at the end of this message.
Abuses of Our Text
Among the many challenges that arise from the text itself, there are also challenges that come from outside the text, from those who would seek to turn the reader’s attention from the author’s message to their own “message.” Some who practice, advocate, or seek to validate a homosexual lifestyle try to convince us that it is not homosexuality that is condemned here, but rather man’s failure to show hospitality. Hospitality is an issue that is addressed in our text (and we will talk about it later), but it is not the central issue; homosexuality is much more emphatically addressed here. Those who wanted to “know” Lot’s two guests were not the “welcome wagon committee” for Sodom and Gomorrah. The same is true of the worthless men of Gibeah, who wanted to “know” the young Levite. The Hebrew word translated “know” has various meanings, but sexual relations is clearly the sense in this context.4 Otherwise, why would Lot offer his two virgin daughters, “who had “never known a man” to be dealt with in whatever way the men of Sodom thought was right.5 In our text, the old man offered his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine to the worthless men of Gibeah to be abused in whatever manner they chose:
Here are my virgin daughter and my guest’s concubine. I will send them out and you can abuse them and do to them whatever you like. But don’t do such a disgraceful thing to this man!” (Judges 19:24)
Another possible “abuse”6 of this text comes from some feminists who wish to make the oppression of women the principle focus. Now I would agree that the Book of Judges depicts the abuse of women as an indication of Israel’s fallen condition. I believe that as Israel persists in its downward plummet into Canaanite beliefs and practices, her treatment of women deteriorates as well. Having said this, I do not believe that this is the author’s primary purpose. Furthermore, God’s Word never advocates or justifies such behavior; it condemns the abuse of women. But we will have more to say about this at the end of the lesson.
When Did These Events Happen?
Our Western minds are predisposed to look at things from a chronological perspective. It would be easy to view the events described in the author’s dual conclusion as having occurred in the final days of the judges. It is highly unlikely, however, that this is the case. Indeed, all indications are that these events took place quite early in the days of the judges. At the end of the author’s first conclusion, we are told that the young Levite’s name was Jonathan and that he was the “son of Gershom, son of Moses” (18:30). In our text we read:
27 The Israelites asked the Lord (for the ark of God’s covenant was there in those days; 28 Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, was serving the Lord in those days), “Should we once more march out to fight the Benjaminites our brothers, or should we quit?” The Lord said, “Attack, for tomorrow I will hand them over to you” (Judges 20:27-28, emphasis mine).
The author’s two chronological indicators strongly imply that the events described in his dual conclusion occurred early in the days of the judges, rather than late. Our author has therefore chosen not to arrange his material chronologically,7 but thematically. He goes from “bad” in his dual introduction (chapters 1-2) to “worse” in his dual conclusion (chapters 17-21).
The Structure of our Text
The structure of our author’s final conclusion (chapters 19-21) follows the chapter divisions in our Bibles:
Hospitality (19:1-10) to horror (19:11-30)
Civil War: Israel vs. the Benjamites (20:1-48)
Brides for the Benjamites (21:1-25)
It is the mistreatment of the Levite’s concubine in chapter 19 that precipitates the civil war described in chapter 20. And the near annihilation of the Benjamites in chapter 20 prompts the Israelites to bend the rules to find brides for the few remaining Benjamites in chapter 21.
From Hospitality to Horror
Once again the author tells a story about a Levite. This fellow lived somewhere in the hill country of Ephraim. He obtained a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah, and she was unfaithful to him8 and then returned to the home of her father. She had been there four months when the Levite decided to go to Bethlehem and sweet talk9 her into returning home with him.
The Levite’s father-in-law (if that is what one would call his concubine’s father) welcomed the Levite (as did his concubine) and smothered him with Middle Eastern hospitality. The Levite was “wined and dined” for three days, which in the minds of many would be the outer limit for entertaining a guest.10 On the fourth day, the Levite got up early to get on his way, but the father-in-law detained him yet again, encouraging him to have something to eat before he departed. This resulted in him staying on another day. On the fifth day, the Levite was determined to leave; nevertheless the father-in-law detained him with hospitality until late in the afternoon. His host urged the Levite to stay yet another night, but he was determined to begin his journey home. Knowing that he would not be able to make it home before dark, the Levite planned on spending the night in one of the Israelite cities along the way. The only question was how far they would get, and thus, where they would spend the night.
It was already late in the day when the small party approached Jebus. (Jebus is also Jerusalem, only at this point in time it is controlled by the Jebusites, rather than by Israel.) The Levite’s servant suggested that they spend the night here, but his master was unwilling to stay the night in a “foreign” city. He was determined to reach an Israelite town, for only there could he be assured of his safety. He was determined to press on until they reached Gibeah or Ramah.
The sun was beginning to set as they reached the Benjamite city of Gibeah. They entered the city gates and seated themselves in the town square. This was a clearly understood signal that they were passing through the city and needed a place to spend the night, but no one invited them in. As darkness set in, an old man from the remote hill country of Ephraim came in from his work in the field. He saw the weary travelers and inquired where they had come from and where they were going. The Levite explained their plight and made it clear that they needed only a roof over their heads because they had supplies for their own needs, and as well, what was needed for their animals.
The old man insisted that they stay with him. He knew all too well, it seems, that spending the night in the city square was not safe, just as Lot was unwilling for his guests to remain in the streets at night in Sodom.11 When they had enjoyed themselves and were about to settle down for the night, the peace and safety the Levite had hoped for was abruptly interrupted:
22 They were having a good time, when suddenly some men of the city, some good-for-nothings, surrounded the house and kept beating on the door. They said to the old man who owned the house, “Send out the man who came to visit you so we can have sex with him.” 23 The man who owned the house went outside and said to them, “No, my brothers! Don’t do this wicked thing! After all, this man is a guest in my house. Don’t do such a disgraceful thing! 24 Here are my virgin daughter and my guest’s concubine. I will send them out and you can abuse them and do to them whatever you like. But don’t do such a disgraceful thing to this man!” (Judges 19:22-24)
Several important observations are necessary at this point in the story. The first observation has to do with what these men demanded – homosexual rape. As stated earlier, this was not the welcoming committee or the Gibeah Chamber of Commerce. This was a group of worthless men – identified by the author as “sons of Belial.” They asked that only one man be sent out to them – the Levite – and their intention was not to “get to know him” in some neighborly way. They wanted to sexually abuse (rape) him. No wonder the old man urged the men not to do such a vile and wicked thing (verse 23). Only the threat of homosexual rape could prompt the old man to offer his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine to be sexually abused and thus to satisfy their deviant sexual desires. To ignore or deny this is to miss the author’s point, which is that Israel has now become so Canaanized that some of them are acting like the citizens of Sodom. As I mentioned in my introduction, Judges 19 is meant to be understood against the backdrop of Genesis 19.
The second observation has to do with a significant difference between what happened in Sodom (in Genesis 19) and what happened in Gibeah.12 While the intentions of the men of Sodom are the same as the worthless men in Gibeah,13 the size of the crowd outside the old man’s door does not appear to be as large as the crowd outside Lot’s door in Sodom. In Genesis, we are told that virtually the whole city (the entire adult male population) of Sodom assembled outside Lot’s door, demanding to have sex with his guests:
Before they could lie down to sleep, all the men – both young and old, from every part of the city of Sodom – surrounded the house (Genesis 19:4, emphasis mine).
In our text, the inference seems quite clear that it was not the entire male population of Gibeah that showed up at the door, but rather a smaller gathering of worthless men. No doubt this was a larger group than the old man, the Levite, and his servant could handle, but it was not the entire city.14
When it became obvious that the crowd would not listen to reason, the Levite compelled his concubine to go out to the men, who abused her the rest of the night. Barely alive, they let her go, and she somehow managed to make her way back to the door of the old man’s house, where she lay grasping the threshold with her hands.
In the morning, the Levite’s mind seems to have been on his return home to safety, rather than on the well being of his concubine. As he walked out the door to depart for home, he encountered his concubine, still clinging to the threshold. This Levite who had traveled to Bethlehem to sweet talk his concubine into returning home with him now gruffly orders her to get up and get going. While the text does not exactly tell us that she was already dead, it does inform us that she was not responsive, for she did not speak to him in reply to his command to get up. It is difficult not to conclude that the Levite loaded his concubine on his donkey like a sack of potatoes. If she was still alive, but gravely ill, this was no way to revive her and restore her to health. Therefore I conclude that she had already died during the early morning hours.15
What happens next is even more shocking. Once safely home the Levite cuts the dead body of his concubine into twelve pieces, sending a portion to every Israelite tribe. Nothing like this had ever happened before, or after. King Saul would later cut his oxen into pieces and send them throughout Israel,16 but the mutilation of this woman’s body was something far more disturbing. The Levite had certainly managed to get Israel’s attention.
Israel’s Civil War
The Levite’s action had exactly the effect he had hoped for. The whole nation was shocked and energized to action. Four hundred thousand armed Israelites assembled in unity before the Lord at Mizpah. I get the impression from the text (especially verse 3) that word of this great evil and of Israel’s gathering for military action was sent to the Benjamites, along with all the other tribes, but having heard what happened, they do not seem to have shown up at Mizpah.
The rest of the Israelite warriors gathered at Mizpah and asked the Levite to explain what had happened at Gibeah, prompting him to take such drastic measures to summon them. The Levite does a great job of making himself look good, while at the same time making the Benjamites look bad. In the author’s account, there is no mention of why the Levite was passing through Gibeah (because he had gone to Bethlehem to retrieve his runaway concubine). And while our author has previously informed us that it was only some of the worthless fellows of Gibeah who gathered at his host’s door, the Levite tells the Israelites who had gathered that it was the leaders of the city17 who rose against him, intending to kill him. And for some reason, he does not emphasize the perversion of homosexuality that the author so clearly described. In so doing, does the Levite seek to avoid the fact that the men of the city were primarily interested in having sex with him, while they disregarded the others who were present?18
Why does the Levite fail to mention that those gathered with evil intentions were offered his concubine and the older man’s virgin daughter, if they would not harm his guest? Why does he fail to inform them that he was the one who thrust his concubine out the door into the hands of these vile men – to be abused by them? All of this looks like a very selective and distorted account, designed to make the Levite look good and the Benjamites of Gibeah (all of them, not just the wicked ones who had surrounded the house) look bad. Note, too, that the Levite cleverly concludes his account by avoiding any recommendation of what should be done, instead leaving this up to his audience. Given his distorted version of the story, it is not surprising that those gathered concluded that the entire city should be annihilated.19
Those gathered resolved that they would see to it that this evil was purged from Israel. Since Gibeah was a Benjamite city, the assembled Israelites called upon the other Benjamites to hand over the wicked men of the city for judgment. The Benjamites concluded that “blood was thicker than water,” and thus they chose to stand with the wicked men of Gibeah, rather than against them. In so doing, they precipitated a civil war. Now, more than at any other time in the days of the judges, the tribes of Israel were acting in unity as they went to battle, but they were doing battle with one of their own tribes, and not with the Canaanites.
It seemed self evident that 400,000 soldiers were far more than what the task required, and so it was decided that only one in ten (chosen by lot) would actually be sent into battle. Thus, 40,000 Israelite warriors were chosen to fight the Benjamites. The Benjamites mustered 26,700 men20 to fight their fellow Israelites in defense of the wicked men of Gibeah.
The Israelites appear to be approaching this battle as they should. They went to Bethel to inquire of God who should lead the attack. Notice the similarity of their request to what we read early in the Book of Judges:
17 The men of Israel (not counting Benjamin) had mustered four hundred thousand sword-wielding soldiers, every one an experienced warrior. 18 The Israelites went up to Bethel and asked God, “Who should lead the charge against the Benjaminites?” The Lord said, “Judah should lead” (Judges 20:17-18, emphasis mine).
1 After Joshua died, the Israelites asked the Lord, “Who should lead the invasion against the Canaanites and launch the attack?” 2 The Lord said, “The men of Judah should take the lead. Be sure of this! I am handing the land over to them” (Judges 1:1-2, emphasis mine).
There is also a significant difference between God’s responses to these two requests. In Judges 20:17-18, God does not assure the Israelites of victory against their Benjamite brethren, as He does when instructing the Israelites that Judah should lead in the attack against the Canaanites. God makes no promises that He does not keep. And so we go on to read that the Benjamites prevailed in the first and second battles, slaughtering 22,000 Israelite soldiers in the first and 18,000 in the second.
After their first defeat, the Israelites went up (presumably to Bethel, though this is not plainly stated) where they wept before the Lord and then inquired as to whether or not they should attempt a second attack. The Lord answered in the affirmative, but once again gave no assurance of victory. And so the Israelites encountered the Benjamites who came out of Gibeah to attack them, and once again the Benjamites prevailed, killing 18,000 Israelites this time.21
All Israel gathered again at Bethel, where they wept before the Lord, where they fasted and offered sacrifices. The author mentions somewhat parenthetically that the Ark of the Covenant was there at Bethel, and that Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, was there serving as Israel’s high priest.22 The Israelites inquire of the Lord once again, asking whether they should continue to fight with the Benjamites or whether they should give it up and go home. God instructs the Israelites to again engage the Benjamites in battle, but this time with the assurance that they will prevail.23
The author provides the reader with a two-fold account of this third battle – a short version in 20:29-36a and a longer, more detailed, account in 20:36b-48. The Israelites’ victory here gets greater prominence than their earlier defeats. The Benjamites’ earlier victories over their Israelite brethren made them arrogant and overconfident, setting the stage for their defeat. While the Israelites appeared to attack in precisely the same manner as before, this time they also set an ambush outside the city of Gibeah. The Israelites assumed their positions, and, as before, it was the Benjamites who initiated the battle by rushing out from within the city. About 30 Israelite soldiers died in the initial attack, leading the Benjamites to assume that they were on their way to yet another victory. The Israelites drew back as though they were retreating, drawing the Benjamite warriors away from the city. Those Israelites hiding in ambush rushed into the city, putting all to death, and then setting the city on fire. By the time the Benjamites realized what had happened, it was too late; all they could do was flee for their lives as the Israelites cut them down from the front and the rear. In all, 25,000 Benjamites were killed that day, and only 600 escaped into the wilderness, to the rock of Rimmon. The Israelites then went about burning the other Benjamite cities.
Brides for Benjamites
There is a common phenomenon known as “buyer’s remorse.” This usually takes place after a hasty or poorly considered purchase. (Those of us who have bid for an item on E-Bay have sometimes experienced this shortly after entering the winning bid.) Having purchased a particular item we later wish that we had not been so hasty. “Why in the world did I ever decide to buy this?” We wonder. Having zealously waged war on the Benjamites, they had succeeded in nearly wiping them out. What would they do now – what could they do now – to keep the Benjamites from extinction? This was unthinkable for an Israelite.
In the course of waging war with the Benjamites, the Israelites made two vows, the first of which they have come to regret. They had vowed that they would never allow one of their daughters to marry a Benjamite. The second vow had possibilities of being used to their advantage. They had vowed that they would execute anyone who did not appear for battle against the Philistines.
They cleverly devised a plan whereby they would play one vow against the other. They would diligently keep the second vow, which enabled them to circumvent the first. Their second vow was to execute those who failed to join them in their battle against the Benjamites:
The Israelites asked, “Who from all the Israelite tribes has not assembled before the Lord?” They had made a solemn oath that whoever did not assemble before the Lord at Mizpah must certainly be executed (Judges 21:5).
They inquired and found that no one from Jabesh Gilead had assembled for war at Mizpah. In order to “keep their vow,” they assembled 12,000 warriors and attacked Jabesh Gilead, killing every man and woman, sparing only the young virgins. This left 400 virgins who could be given to the surviving men of Benjamin. (Technically, this was not breaking their vow since none of the men of Jabesh Gilead had assembled for battle, and thus none of them had vowed not to give their daughters to the Benjamites.)
The Israelites’ dedication to keep one vow has enabled them to circumvent the other. So far, they have succeeded in providing 400 wives for the remaining 600 Benjamite men. But there still remain 200 Benjamites who are without wives, and thus they cannot bear offspring to perpetuate their tribe. The Israelites conclude that something else must be done to provide wives for the remaining 200 Benjamites. They shrewdly concocted yet another devious plan. The Israelite men had vowed that they would not give any of their daughters to the Benjamites as wives. Nothing had been said about any virgin being taken from among their daughters.
An annual festival was soon to be celebrated by the Israelites at Shiloh. At this celebration, there would be dancing by the virgin daughters of Shiloh. The unwed Benjamites were commanded24 to hide out in the vineyards, and when the Israelite virgins came near to dance, they were to seize one of them for a wife. And so it happened. The Benjamite bachelors did as they were instructed. They each seized an Israelite virgin and “made her his wife.” Two hundred young women were taken, thus providing every Benjamite with a wife. With this accomplished, everyone returned to his home. With this, the book closes with this now familiar statement:
In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right (Judges 21:25).
It is possible that we may read these final verses of chapter 21 with a wink. How clever these Israelites were to provide wives for the Benjamites without technically violating the Law; indeed, while appearing to zealously keep the Law. But such is not the case. I am assuming that these “marriages” would be based upon a text like this one in Deuteronomy 22:
28 “Suppose a man comes across a virgin who is not engaged and overpowers and rapes her and they are discovered. 29 The man who has raped her must pay her father fifty shekels of silver and she must become his wife because he has violated her; he may never divorce her as long as he lives” (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).
In other words, these 200 virgins were seized, raped, and then (“lawfully”) kept as wives – because they had been raped as virgins. Having physically become “one flesh” with these Benjamite men, there was nothing that could be done to reverse what had happened. And so the forced marriages were allowed to stand. The fathers of these virgins were at least consoled by the fact that they had not been a party to this conspiracy before the fact.
Think of how this final episode in Judges began in chapter 19. Some worthless men in the city of Gibeah took the Levite’s concubine and gang raped her, which resulted in her death. Rape and murder (accentuated by the cutting up of this concubine) were the crimes which had so incensed the Israelites. And so they went to war with their Benjamite brethren, coming very close to bringing this tribe to extinction. And now, those who were so offended by the rape of this concubine conspire to bring about the rape of 200 Israelite virgins. The irony and hypocrisy of this can hardly be missed. Surely, the Benjamites and the Israelites were all “doing what was right in their own eyes.” They were certainly not living according to the spirit of the law.
Our text is filled with implications and applications for today. Let me conclude this message (and this series) by suggesting a few of them.
Hospitality or Homosexuality? There are those who would seek to convince us that this text (along with Genesis 19) has nothing to do with homosexuality. They would have us believe that the great sin of Sodom, and of Gibeah, was that of the neglect of hospitality. While I have no doubt that homosexuality is a major focus of the author, I do not believe that we must see one sin (whether it be the lack of hospitality or the practice of homosexuality) here and deny the other. I believe that both sins are evident in our text.
So let me speak first about the lack of hospitality described in our text. Hospitality is commanded and commended in both the Old Testament and in the New. Both Abraham and Lot practiced hospitality toward the strangers who were on their way to Sodom.25 Abraham’s servant used hospitality as a test for the wife he went to secure for Isaac.26 In a broader sense, the Israelites were to show hospitality to foreigners.27 In the New Testament, hospitality is also commanded.28 Gibeah’s failure to show hospitality to the Levite and his traveling companions was an early indication that something was wrong.
Having said this, Gibeah’s lack of hospitality is not the only sin in our text. We are surely intended to read Judges 19 in the light of Genesis 19. The sin of Sodom is now a sin within Israel. Things have gotten that bad. It does not appear to me that the entire population of Gibeah practiced homosexuality, but a portion of their citizens did. And those Benjamites who did not practice this sin somehow were willing to tolerate it, much as our culture does today – embracing it as an alternative lifestyle. The Bible speaks very clearly about homosexuality as sin, and our text is but one passage where it is portrayed in a very negative light. If I have not said it clearly enough, homosexuality is an abomination to God.29
I believe the author has chosen to end this book with a two-part conclusion not only because of his two-part introduction, but so that we can look at these two conclusions side-by-side in order to compare them. In this second conclusion, we find the sins of homosexuality, rape, and murder. Thanks to the dramatic actions of the Levite, the Israelites were shocked and horrified by his report of what had happened. Their response was so zealous that they went back into battle with their Benjamite brethren even after suffering defeat twice at their hands.
Compare the response of the Israelites to sexual perversion and murder in chapters 19 and 20 to Israel’s response to the Danites’ idolatry in chapters 17 and 18. There, they did absolutely nothing, and yet God’s Word gave very clear instructions about what they should have done:
12 “Suppose you should hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you as a place to live, that 13 some evil people have departed from among you to entice the inhabitants of their cities, saying, “Let’s go and serve other gods” (whom you have not known before). 14 You must investigate thoroughly and inquire carefully. If it is indeed true that such a disgraceful thing is being done among you, 15 you must by all means slaughter the inhabitants of that city with the sword; annihilate with the sword everyone in it, as well as the livestock. 16 You must gather all of its plunder into the middle of the plaza and burn the city and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It will be an abandoned ruin forever – it must never be rebuilt again. 17 You must not take for yourself anything that has been placed under judgment. Then the Lord will relent from his intense anger, show you compassion, have mercy on you, and multiply you as he promised your ancestors. 18 Thus you must obey the Lord your God, keeping all his commandments that I am giving you today and doing what is right before him” (Deuteronomy 13:12-18).
These two conclusions (the idolatry of the Danites in chapters 17 and 18, and the immorality of the Benjamites in chapters 19-21) reveal Israel’s inconsistency at best, and her hypocrisy at worst. The murder of a young woman was inexcusable; the blatant practice of idolatry was met with a yawn.
Before we begin to look down our spiritual noses at Israel, let us consider our own failures. Let’s face it, there are certain sins that we evangelical Christians love to hate – homosexuality (at least until lately) being one of these sins, even though other sins receive a great deal more attention in the Bible. Those who name the name of Jesus as Savior and Lord need to be very careful not to be hypocritical about sin. God hates all sin, not just those sins we love to hate (because they don’t happen to tempt us). All sin falls under God’s condemnation and makes men worthy of eternal judgment – not just homosexuality, or adultery, or murder. Let us be careful not to be selective about those sins which we hate. Let us hate all sin, especially our own. We must not be like this Levite, who amplifies the sins of others, but overlooks or minimizes his own sins. Let us be as merciless with our sins as we are with the sins of others.
One of the ways our author exposes the spiritual and moral breakdown of the nation Israel in this period of her “dark ages” is by calling attention to the deterioration of the nation’s attitude and actions toward women. Early on in the book, we are introduced to brave and noble women like Deborah and Jael, women who stood apart from – even above – the men of the day. But then we read of Jephthah’s folly and its consequences for his daughter.30 We see the way in which Samson despises Israelite women and uses (or is used by) Philistine women.31 And finally we come to our text, only to be told that the Levite throws his concubine out to the worthless men of the city, to abuse as they choose, and then to die with her hands on the threshold of the house. Her “grieving” husband dispassionately orders her corpse to get up and resume their journey, and when he finds she is dead, he cuts her body into twelve pieces, which he distributes throughout Israel, to the horror of the nation.
In recent days, Bible-believing Christians have been accused of demeaning women. I will regretfully acknowledge that some men have twisted the Scriptures so as to justify the unbiblical and ungodly treatment of their wives or other women. But let me remind you that our Lord elevated women to a position of honor and dignity that the world had never before witnessed. He did not do so by making women apostles or church leaders, but by giving them very significant places of service in the home and in the church. It is not our culture that is enhancing and enriching women; it should be – and often is – the Christian (individually) and the church (corporately).
I must say a word about violence here, for there is a great deal of hypocrisy in regard to this matter. Today I hear many decrying cruelty to animals and also the abuse of women and children. This is rightly so, for the Bible does not sanctify animal cruelty,32 nor does it justify the abuse of women and children.33 God has a special interest in the helpless and the vulnerable, and He expects His people to be like Him in this regard.
Isn’t it interesting to observe how many bristle at the violence of our text, and especially the cutting up of the corpse of the Levite’s concubine? It was a terrible thing, and I do not wish in any way to minimize the evil that is so graphically depicted in our text. Remember, though, that it was a dead body that the Levite cut up, and yet it galvanized the entire nation into action. In our world, every single day thousands of living human beings – children – are being chopped up in their mother’s womb in the process of abortion. Few dare to call this murder, though it is so in nearly every case. These precious human lives are euphemistically referred to as fetal tissue or the like. And it is all done so that people (men and women) can live an immoral lifestyle and not suffer the consequences. May God have mercy on our nation for legalizing this horrible sin, and on Christians for failing to raise so much as a word of protest against it. May God deal justly with any government that seeks to have its citizens pay for such a holocaust.
Why is it so important to our author that several times in our text (and in our text alone) he points out that Israel had no king, and that everyone did what was right in their own eyes? It is because righteousness never comes from the “bottom up;” it can only come from the “top down.” Throughout Israel’s history, the nation was godly only when they had a godly king. If the Old Testament teaches us anything, it is that man is a sinner and cannot live up to God’s standards of righteousness. By human efforts at law-keeping, man will never achieve righteousness; he will only demonstrate his lack of righteousness (sin), and his need for salvation that comes from outside of himself. Salvation can only come from above, from Him who took on human flesh so that He might die in the sinner’s place:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – 22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:19-23).
God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
How vastly different is God’s way of salvation from man’s! As I reflected on our text, I had to marvel at how the Israelites sought to “save” the Benjamites from their sins. They sought to save this tribe from extinction by circumventing and twisting God’s law. They sought to perpetuate the Benjamites by counseling them to forcibly seize other men’s daughters and then rape them so that they would become their wives. Man’s efforts at achieving salvation (our own, or that of others) are so pathetic, so disgusting.
God’s salvation came about in a very different way. God took pity on fallen men, sending His Son in human flesh so that He might identify with man, live a sinless life, and then die in the sinner’s place, bearing the punishment for our sins. God’s promised salvation finally and fully came in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is Christ alone who is righteous. It is Christ alone who has lived a life free from sin. And it is He alone who willingly took the sinner’s place on the cross of Calvary, bearing the guilt and punishment we deserve. Trusting in Him alone is what saves sinners, not self-help programs and human striving after righteousness and God’s approval.
It is not just the Book of Judges that was given to make man look bad; it is the entire Bible. The Bible shows us how ugly our sin is and how desperately lost we are. It shows us that we cannot be saved by our own efforts, but only by the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as the Bible shows us how bad we are, and how much we need to be saved apart from our own efforts, it portrays a beautiful Savior who came to earth to bear the sinner’s guilt and punishment, so that men might be saved and live forever in His presence. Have you trusted in Him? If not, I urge you to do so today.
Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 17 in the series, The Dark Days of Israel’s Judges, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on December 13, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
1 For a more extensive comparison of Genesis 19 and Judges 19, see D. I. Block, Judges, Ruth (NAC 6; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), pp. 532-535.
2 In Genesis 19, Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the men of the city. In Judges 19, the host offers his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine, but only the concubine is actually handed over to the wicked men who have assembled at his door.
3 Having said this, I believe that it is also necessary for the reader to distinguish an important difference in these two accounts – one on which a correct understanding of this text is based. We will talk more about this later in this message.
4 See also verse 25; Genesis 4:1; 1 Kings 1:4.
5 It is most interesting to note Lot’s exact words here in Genesis 19:8. In offering his two virgin daughters to the men of Sodom, he tells them that they can do to them “what is good in their eyes,” the same statement that is repeatedly made in the final chapters of Judges. What is “good in men’s eyes” is perversion to God (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9).
6 For a more thorough treatment on these two “abuses” of our text, see K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges and Ruth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 359-362.
7 “We should note that the events of Judges 19-21 occurred quite early in the judges’ period, for, according to 20:27b-28a, Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, was (high) priest at the time (see also Num. 25:1-15; 31:6; Josh. 22:20-34). Because an event is narrated at the end of a book does not mean it occurred later than the other events in that book; biblical writers sometimes arrange their materials topically rather than chronologically.” Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation: Expositions of the Book of Judges (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 2ll, fn. 1.
8 The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, says that she was angry with the Levite, but I see no reason to set aside the Hebrew text here.
9 Literally the text says that he went after her to “speak to her heart.” From what we see of him later in the story, I can only imagine what his “sweet talk” was like.
10 Most of us have heard the old saying, “A guest is like a fish; after three days, he stinks.”
11 See Genesis 19:1-3.
12 There is yet another difference. No one in Sodom was raped, thanks to the action of the angels at Lot’s house – blinding the men of the city. But someone is raped in Gibeah.
13 Pardon me for being so graphic, but in my opinion when we are told that those who had gathered at the old man’s door abused the Levite’s concubine, I believe this means that they raped her in a manner that was consistent with their sexual perversion. Bluntly put, I believe that they sodomized her.
14 My position will surely be disputed by some. A number of translations (NASB 95, CSB, ESV, KJV) can be read as though all the men of Gibeah turned out for this dreadful event. Other translations (NKJV, NET Bible, NIV, NJB, NLT) render the text in a way that refers to a smaller group of men gathered at the door. The Hebrew text has no article before “men” and thus it can (and in my opinion should) be rendered “some men of the city. . . .” It is the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint – that includes the article, thus pressing the translator to render “the men of the city.” I would point out that the wording in Genesis 19 emphatically indicates that all the men of Sodom appeared at Lot’s door, while our text inclines us in the opposite direction. One reason why the translators may render our text in a more inclusive (“all the men”) way is that this seems to better conform to the Levite’s account of events in chapter 20 (verses 3-7). I will shortly contend that the Levite’s account is less than truthful.
15 No doubt the Levite was eager to get out of town, for he did not wish to face this same group of worthless men again. But in all of this, it seems clear that the man is looking out only for himself, and no one else.
16 See 1 Samuel 11:1-11.
17 It is difficult for me to understand why a number of translations render the Hebrew term used here in such a way as to refer to the men of Gibeah in general, rather than to the leaders of the city. I believe the text is clear in indicating that the Levite accused the leaders of the city of leading this mob who attacked him.
18 I am a bit perplexed as to why the Levite was singled out by the wicked men of the city when he was not the only one present. Indeed, the Levite’s servant was a young man. Why did they express no interest in him?
19 Given the instruction of Deuteronomy 13 (especially verses 12-18), it may well be that the entire city of Gibeah should have been destroyed, but not until after careful inquiry was made, and not until the city leaders had been given the opportunity to deal with the wicked men who committed this terrible act.
20 The author informs us that 700 of these warriors were left-handed and highly skilled with a sling.
21 The combined deaths (22,000 from the first attack and 18,000 from the second) now equaled the number of Israelites who went to battle in the first attack (and presumably in the second attack as well).
22 As noted earlier, the mention of Eleazar here as Israel’s high priest at this time, along with the earlier mention of Jonathan the Levite in 18:30, inclines the reader to see these events described in the author’s conclusion as taking place early in the period of the judges, rather than late in this period.
23 One can hardly help but wonder why God allowed the Israelites to suffer defeat twice before giving them the victory over their Benjamite brethren. Truthfully, the author does not tell us why. We should be careful to note that God had not promised victory until the third battle. From other biblical texts, we can also learn that such defeats may be God’s judgment upon Israel (compare 2 Samuel 24 with 1 Chronicles 21).
24 This was not a suggestion, but a command, which makes the Israelites bear the guilt of what is about to take place.
25 See Genesis 18:1-8; 19:1-3.
26 See Genesis 24:10-27.
27 See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:34; 23:22.
28 See Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 5:10; Hebrews 13:2.
29 Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1Timothy 1:9-10.
30 See Judges 11:30-40.
31 See Judges 14-16.
32 See Deuteronomy 25:4; Proverbs 12:10.
33 See Ephesians 5:25-30; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12.