“…and they gave the sense”1
Preached by Pastor Jason Abbott
There’s a scene in the book of Nehemiah, after the Israelites have returned from exile, in which Ezra gathers the people together and for hours! reads to them from “the Book of the Law of Moses”—likely a large portion of the first 5 books of the Bible. Now how did he do this?
Well, the text tells us that he read it to the people so they could understand with Levites among the people in order to help make the point of the reading clear. The author explains, “…and they [these Levites] gave the sense” of the reading—thus, this sermon’s title.
Today, we’re going to do something similar. I’m going to read aloud the end of the book of Judges (chapters 19-21) and then hopefully give you the sense of it. In this way, we will be biblical about our reading of the Bible. In this way, we will, like Timothy, “devote [ourselves] to the public reading of Scripture.”2
Allow me one final word before we begin. The Bible is an amazing book. We must read it as the masterpiece which it is. There are times when its authors, inspired by God’s Spirit, leave scenes (even incredibly sordid scenes like this one!) for us to ponder without telling us the why. Without revealing the thoughts of God, the judgments of God, on what takes place.
Friends, in this passage, you will notice that God isn’t mentioned that much. But, friends, we must never wrongly assume that that means God is largely absent. He’s not. Rather, his frowning disposition stands over much of this sordid scene. Instead, as Paul says, “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity… For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:24-25).
No, God is very present here, and his discipline upon his people is present—handing them over to the wages of their sin. Therefore, as we listen to this scene, we must recognize how very susceptible we are to these same depravities today. We must recognize what lies in our rebellious hearts; we must own our sinfulness; we mustn’t stand arrogantly far off but close, and gaze upon the horrors of which we too are so very capable—but for God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
So listen now as I read:
19 1 In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. 2 And his concubine was unfaithful to him, and she went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months. 3 Then her husband arose and went after her, to speak kindly to her and bring her back. He had with him his servant and a couple of donkeys. And she brought him into her father’s house. And when the girl’s father saw him, he came with joy to meet him. 4 And his father-in-law, the girl’s father, made him stay, and he remained with him three days. So they ate and drank and spent the night there. 5 And on the fourth day they arose early in the morning, and he prepared to go, but the girl’s father said to his son-in-law, “Strengthen your heart with a morsel of bread, and after that you may go.” 6 So the two of them sat and ate and drank together. And the girl’s father said to the man, “Be pleased to spend the night, and let your heart be merry.” 7 And when the man rose up to go, his father-in-law pressed him, till he spent the night there again. 8 And on the fifth day he arose early in the morning to depart. And the girl’s father said, “Strengthen your heart and wait until the day declines.” So they ate, both of them. 9 And when the man and his concubine and his servant rose up to depart, his father-in-law, the girl’s father, said to him, “Behold, now the day has waned toward evening. Please, spend the night. Behold, the day draws to its close. Lodge here and let your heart be merry, and tomorrow you shall arise early in the morning for your journey, and go home.”
10 But the man would not spend the night. He rose up and departed and arrived opposite Jebus (that is, Jerusalem). He had with him a couple of saddled donkeys, and his concubine was with him. 11 When they were near Jebus, the day was nearly over, and the servant said to his master, “Come now, let us turn aside to this city of the Jebusites and spend the night in it.” 12 And his master said to him, “We will not turn aside into the city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel, but we will pass on to Gibeah.” 13 And he said to his young man, “Come and let us draw near to one of these places and spend the night at Gibeah or at Ramah.” 14 So they passed on and went their way. And the sun went down on them near Gibeah, which belongs to Benjamin, 15 and they turned aside there, to go in and spend the night at Gibeah. And he went in and sat down in the open square of the city, for no one took them into his house to spend the night.
16 And behold, an old man was coming from his work in the field at evening. The man was from the hill country of Ephraim, and he was sojourning in Gibeah. The men of the place were Benjaminites. 17 And he lifted up his eyes and saw the traveler in the open square of the city. And the old man said, “Where are you going? And where do you come from?” 18 And he said to him, “We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, from which I come. I went to Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to the house of the Lord, but no one has taken me into his house. 19 We have straw and feed for our donkeys, with bread and wine for me and your female servant and the young man with your servants. There is no lack of anything.” 20 And the old man said, “Peace be to you; I will care for all your wants. Only, do not spend the night in the square.” 21 So he brought him into his house and gave the donkeys feed. And they washed their feet, and ate and drank.
22 As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. 24 Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine. Let me bring them out now. Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing.” 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. 26 And as morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.
27 And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 He said to her, “Get up, let us be going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey, and the man rose up and went away to his home. 29 And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. 30 And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.”
20 1 Then all the people of Israel came out, from Dan to Beersheba, including the land of Gilead, and the congregation assembled as one man to the LORD at Mizpah. 2 And the chiefs of all the people, of all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, 400,000 men on foot that drew the sword. 3 (Now the people of Benjamin heard that the people of Israel had gone up to Mizpah.) And the people of Israel said, “Tell us, how did this evil happen?” 4 And the Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered, answered and said, “I came to Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to spend the night. 5 And the leaders of Gibeah rose against me and surrounded the house against me by night. They meant to kill me, and they violated my concubine, and she is dead. 6 So I took hold of my concubine and cut her in pieces and sent her throughout all the country of the inheritance of Israel, for they have committed abomination and outrage in Israel. 7 Behold, you people of Israel, all of you, give your advice and counsel here.”
8 And all the people arose as one man, saying, “None of us will go to his tent, and none of us will return to his house. 9 But now this is what we will do to Gibeah: we will go up against it by lot, 10 and we will take ten men of a hundred throughout all the tribes of Israel, and a hundred of a thousand, and a thousand of ten thousand, to bring provisions for the people, that when they come they may repay Gibeah of Benjamin, for all the outrage that they have committed in Israel.” 11 So all the men of Israel gathered against the city, united as one man.
12 And the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What evil is this that has taken place among you? 13 Now therefore give up the men, the worthless fellows in Gibeah, that we may put them to death and purge evil from Israel.” But the Benjaminites would not listen to the voice of their brothers, the people of Israel. 14 Then the people of Benjamin came together out of the cities to Gibeah to go out to battle against the people of Israel. 15 And the people of Benjamin mustered out of their cities on that day 26,000 men who drew the sword, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah, who mustered 700 chosen men. 16 Among all these were 700 chosen men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. 17 And the men of Israel, apart from Benjamin, mustered 400,000 men who drew the sword; all these were men of war.
18 The people of Israel arose and went up to Bethel and inquired of God, “Who shall go up first for us to fight against the people of Benjamin?” And the LORD said, “Judah shall go up first.”
19 Then the people of Israel rose in the morning and encamped against Gibeah. 20 And the men of Israel went out to fight against Benjamin, and the men of Israel drew up the battle line against them at Gibeah. 21 The people of Benjamin came out of Gibeah and destroyed on that day 22,000 men of the Israelites. 22 But the people, the men of Israel, took courage, and again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day. 23 And the people of Israel went up and wept before the LORD until the evening. And they inquired of the LORD, “Shall we again draw near to fight against our brothers, the people of Benjamin?” And the LORD said, “Go up against them.”
24 So the people of Israel came near against the people of Benjamin the second day. 25 And Benjamin went against them out of Gibeah the second day, and destroyed 18,000 men of the people of Israel. All these were men who drew the sword. 26 Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD. 27 And the people of Israel inquired of the LORD (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, 28 and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, “Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?” And the LORD said, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.”
29 So Israel set men in ambush around Gibeah. 30 And the people of Israel went up against the people of Benjamin on the third day and set themselves in array against Gibeah, as at other times. 31 And the people of Benjamin went out against the people and were drawn away from the city. And as at other times they began to strike and kill some of the people in the highways, one of which goes up to Bethel and the other to Gibeah, and in the open country, about thirty men of Israel. 32 And the people of Benjamin said, “They are routed before us, as at the first.” But the people of Israel said, “Let us flee and draw them away from the city to the highways.” 33 And all the men of Israel rose up out of their place and set themselves in array at Baal-tamar, and the men of Israel who were in ambush rushed out of their place from Maareh-geba. 34 And there came against Gibeah 10,000 chosen men out of all Israel, and the battle was hard, but the Benjaminites did not know that disaster was close upon them. 35 And the LORD defeated Benjamin before Israel, and the people of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day. All these were men who drew the sword. 36 So the people of Benjamin saw that they were defeated.
The men of Israel gave ground to Benjamin, because they trusted the men in ambush whom they had set against Gibeah. 37 Then the men in ambush hurried and rushed against Gibeah; the men in ambush moved out and struck all the city with the edge of the sword. 38 Now the appointed signal between the men of Israel and the men in the main ambush was that when they made a great cloud of smoke rise up out of the city 39 the men of Israel should turn in battle. Now Benjamin had begun to strike and kill about thirty men of Israel. They said, “Surely they are defeated before us, as in the first battle.” 40 But when the signal began to rise out of the city in a column of smoke, the Benjaminites looked behind them, and behold, the whole of the city went up in smoke to heaven. 41 Then the men of Israel turned, and the men of Benjamin were dismayed, for they saw that disaster was close upon them. 42 Therefore they turned their backs before the men of Israel in the direction of the wilderness, but the battle overtook them. And those who came out of the cities were destroying them in their midst. 43 Surrounding the Benjaminites, they pursued them and trod them down from Nohah as far as opposite Gibeah on the east. 44 Eighteen thousand men of Benjamin fell, all of them men of valor. 45 And they turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon. Five thousand men of them were cut down in the highways. And they were pursued hard to Gidom, and 2,000 men of them were struck down. 46 So all who fell that day of Benjamin were 25,000 men who drew the sword, all of them men of valor. 47 But 600 men turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon and remained at the rock of Rimmon four months. 48 And the men of Israel turned back against the people of Benjamin and struck them with the edge of the sword, the city, men and beasts and all that they found. And all the towns that they found they set on fire.
21 1 Now the men of Israel had sworn at Mizpah, “No one of us shall give his daughter in marriage to Benjamin.” 2 And the people came to Bethel and sat there till evening before God, and they lifted up their voices and wept bitterly. 3 And they said, “O LORD, the God of Israel, why has this happened in Israel, that today there should be one tribe lacking in Israel?” 4 And the next day the people rose early and built there an altar and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. 5 And the people of Israel said, “Which of all the tribes of Israel did not come up in the assembly to the LORD?” For they had taken a great oath concerning him who did not come up to the LORD to Mizpah, saying, “He shall surely be put to death.” 6 And the people of Israel had compassion for Benjamin their brother and said, “One tribe is cut off from Israel this day. 7 What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since we have sworn by the LORD that we will not give them any of our daughters for wives?”
8 And they said, “What one is there of the tribes of Israel that did not come up to the LORD to Mizpah?” And behold, no one had come to the camp from Jabesh-gilead, to the assembly. 9 For when the people were mustered, behold, not one of the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead was there. 10 So the congregation sent 12,000 of their bravest men there and commanded them, “Go and strike the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead with the edge of the sword; also the women and the little ones. 11 This is what you shall do: every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall devote to destruction.” 12 And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead 400 young virgins who had not known a man by lying with him, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.
13 Then the whole congregation sent word to the people of Benjamin who were at the rock of Rimmon and proclaimed peace to them. 14 And Benjamin returned at that time. And they gave them the women whom they had saved alive of the women of Jabesh-gilead, but they were not enough for them. 15 And the people had compassion on Benjamin because the LORD had made a breach in the tribes of Israel.
16 Then the elders of the congregation said, “What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since the women are destroyed out of Benjamin?” 17 And they said, “There must be an inheritance for the survivors of Benjamin, that a tribe not be blotted out from Israel. 18 Yet we cannot give them wives from our daughters.” For the people of Israel had sworn, “Cursed be he who gives a wife to Benjamin.” 19 So they said, “Behold, there is the yearly feast of the LORD at Shiloh, which is north of Bethel, on the east of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.” 20 And they commanded the people of Benjamin, saying, “Go and lie in ambush in the vineyards 21 and watch. If the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and snatch each man his wife from the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin. 22 And when their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Grant them graciously to us, because we did not take for each man of them his wife in battle, neither did you give them to them, else you would now be guilty.’” 23 And the people of Benjamin did so and took their wives, according to their number, from the dancers whom they carried off. Then they went and returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and lived in them. 24 And the people of Israel departed from there at that time, every man to his tribe and family, and they went out from there every man to his inheritance.
25 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Let me make four brief observations so that we can, I pray, grasp the sense of this ugly scene—grasp some of what God might teach us here!
1. No one is righteous, no not one.
If you wanted to argue that there’s a hero, a good guy or gal, in the narrative, I think I could shoot you down. Pretty sure! Oh, you could likely find a character about whom the narrator tells us almost nothing (i.e. the old man’s virgin daughter) and argue she’s good. However, that’s weak because it’s an argument that’s based on what we don’t know, not on what we do know.
Nope. If we find anything substantive out about a character, it’s not pretty. We find out the concubine isn’t faithful; the Levite is brutal and compassionless; the town of Gibeah is inhospitable and sexually deviant; and, so on and so forth. And, that’s basically how it is when we really start to know other people; isn’t it?! The more we get to know them the more we get to see their flaws, their sinfulness. No one is righteous.
This is why we need Jesus; we need his righteousness upon us and within us. This is why we need the church; we need a family to help us battle our sinfulness. We need deeper know-each-other’s-ugly, share-each-other’s-burden relationships so that we may avoid simply doing what’s right in our own eyes (v. 25).
2. People aren’t products.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing in the story is the repeated objectification of people—powerless and vulnerable people. The Levite treats his wife like a tool. Her father basically does the same. The old man in Gibeah tries to strike a bargain, with the mob of men, by offering them his virgin daughter and Levite’s concubine. The Israelites quickly use women and children in the towns that they’ve conquered as commodities to be traded for gain. On and on it goes!
Image bearers (Genesis 1:27) into objects, over and over and over again!
Yet, in the 21st century, we’re not any better (even in the church!); are we?! No. There’s some objectification of God’s image bearers taking place in our hearts. There’s caring for pretty people over ugly people, rich people over poor people, smart people over dumb people. They’re valuable for what they have to offer us!
Moreover, we commodify those made in God’s image for entertainment. Whenever we watch movies and are thrilled when human beings are often depicted as tortured or stabbed or shot or blown up then we must quickly admit that we are, in no way, fit to judge Israel here. Whenever we look at women or men as objects for our own sexual gratification, we must admit that we are, in very many ways, much like the men of Gibeah here.
We must not pass over this last section of the book of Judges too quickly. God might have something to teach us from it.
3. Sodom is significant.
When we read of the Levite and his concubine staying the night at Gibeah, we should be reminded of a previous, horrifying overnight in the town of Sodom. Our narrator is begging us to see it. The out of town visitors, a show of hospitality, a sex-crazed mob, the offer of virgin daughters to protect the guests from the mob, there are many, many similarities. But, why? Why the parallels?
To me, they’re highlighted by our narrator to make a horribly powerful point about Israel. You see, throughout the Bible, Sodom becomes the poster community for human depravity run to its awful limits and of God’s judgment upon the sinful. It’s the iconic warning of the visitation of God’s wrath upon an unrighteous world. And now (in Judges 19) we see Sodom’s unholy resurrection in Israel.
In fact, there’s an ironic moment that highlights this point in the narrative. As the Levite and his servant and his concubine are traveling, they pass Jerusalem (or Jebus) which is under the Jebusites’ foreign occupation. The day is getting late. The Levite’s servant suggests they should stop in Jebus for the night—for safety. What is the Levite’s response?
We will not turn aside into the city of the foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel, but we will pass on to Gibeah (19:12).
It’s better (safer and more wholesome) to stay among God’s people than among those dirty, dishonest pagan people! Who knows what they might do to us!
Is it safer to stay in the towns of God’s chosen people rather than the towns of those idol worshipers? No. But it should be!
Perhaps we should honestly ask ourselves whether there’s more hospitality in the homes of Christian families than in the homes of non-Christian families. There should be!
Or maybe we need to seriously consider whether a stranger or an outsider would feel any more welcome stepping in our church’s door than into the DMV’s. They should!
Friends, Israel in this passage has become the people of God in name alone. We must not become Christians in name only!
4. Names are important.
Did you notice as we read those 3 chapters that only one character is named? Many characters are described—the Levite, the concubine, the concubine’s father, the old man, the virgin daughter. There are plenty of characters who are described but only one named. And, he’s named in an aside—almost in passing! In the midst of Israel’s civil war, we find our name:
…the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days…(20:27-28).
We might be tempted to zip too quickly past this one name, but shouldn’t! It’s significant. It’s there to warn us of danger—to teach us of our sinful capacities. How so?
Well, this is the very same Phinehas who had heroically turned God’s wrath away from Israel when it had pursued sexual-idolatry with Midian (Numbers 25). This is the very same Phinehas who had, as a capable young priest, known Moses and been sent by him to serve God’s purposes in the heat of battle (Numbers 31). This is the very same Phinehas who, as a child, would have sat on Aaron’s knee (Moses’s brother’s knee!) and called him granddad.
Friends, we must not think such depravity, such sin run rampant, is far off. It’s not a long way off from us. It’s always just a step away from us, without Jesus. D. A. Carson has noted that a church is only ever one generation from extinction—one generation from death.3 Phinehas—looking at this depraved, horrid scene—could readily testify to how quickly triumph can turn to tragedy!
We live in a world where severed human limbs cause a stir but not a change. We live in a world where men and women and children are still bought and sold—still objectified and commodified. We live in a world where might makes one right. We live in a world not at all unlike the world of the Judges where:
Everyone [does] what [is] right in his [or her] own eyes (21:25).
It’s worth noting that the book of Judges is a kind of apologetic for a king. David for the book’s original readers would have been the obvious, godly choice. Yet, those readers would soon find that even David isn’t the king they really need. He, like the Levite with his concubine, would kill another so as to protect himself. He would treat Bathsheba and others as objects not image bearers.
Whether the author of Judges knew it or not, his narrative ultimately argues for a better king than David. It argues for a king who would treat us as people made in the image of God—and even see that image reclaimed and restored in us. It argues for a king who would never have his subjects die in order to protect him but would, rather, die to protect and save his subjects.
It argues for great David’s greater Son—for Jesus. Amen.