(Warning: If you’re squeamish, or dealing with issues of sexual abuse, it might be good to sit this week out.)
This week, we’re working through the truly horrible story found in Judges 19 (if you’re just joining us, you’ll need to read it further to catch up). The Levite and his concubine are in the Israelite town of Gibeah, but instead of receiving hospitality from their fellow countrymen, they receive firstly neglect (no-one offers them accommodation) and then abuse. A gang of local men want to rape the man, as a way of asserting their dominance over him and dishonouring this stranger who dared to come to their town. When that doesn’t happen, they settle for raping and killing his concubine – a woman under his protection, and therefore also dishonouring to him. The next day, the Levite is outraged, and cuts up her body, sending it throughout the land of Israel as a rallying-cry. Israel responds, and almost wipes out the tribe of Benjamin in response, in a bloody holy war.
And again, we’re left asking the question: how is this part of Scripture useful for anything?
Well the obvious reason is what we said at the start. It shows us what happens when God is not king, and everyone does as they see fit. More than any other part of the Bible, it graphically depicts life outside of God’s loving, protective rule.
This is seen in the shocking treatment of women. Not with chivalry and respect and protection – which were the ideals in a patriarchal culture. But treated as objects of exploitation. Perhaps we see it in the Levite prostituting his own wife for money. We certainly find it in how he uses her as a human shield. To keep himself from danger. Just like Abraham used Sarah by pretending she was his sister – Abraham got treated well, but Sarah ended up in Pharaoh’s harem. When God is not king, women get exploited.
We also see it in how sex is treated. It becomes a means of asserting power, rather than the enjoyment of marriage as God intended. It becomes a weapon, not a gift. When God is not king, sex is misused.
We see it in how other people are treated. Instead of offering hospitality – even to one’s own countrymen – there’s a power struggle. A desire to advance one’s own status by demeaning others. When God is not king, hospitality gives way to selfishness. Respect gives way to status-seeking.
This is what happens when everyone does what they see fit. This is what happens when God is not king.
And just in case you thought a human king might fix things, think again. Not long after, in 1 Samuel 11, Saul is the new king. But the tribes still won’t rally to defend each other. So what does he have to do? Well it’s not as grisly as a human body, but he has to cut up a pair of oxen and FedEx them around the country before everyone responds. A sign nothing has really changed since the days of the Judges.
Admittedly, Saul was a bit of a failure. But what about 2 Samuel 11? David, God’s choice for king, the man after God’s own heart. He still uses Bathsheba as an object for his sexual desire. And has her husband killed in the process.
So this story in Judges isn’t just about there being no king. It’s about what happens when God is not king.
And this is where this story in Judges begins to connect with the life of Jesus – the coming of the kingdom, where God’s rule breaks into history. Jesus came firstly to demonstrate what living under God’s rule looks like.
Unlike all the men in this story, Jesus treated everyone with respect – as a person who had significance – no matter what their status in life. He ministered to outcasts like lepers and tax-collectors. He welcomed children, rather than dismissing them. He valued women – even those whose lifestyles made them outcasts in their own society. On a very simplistic level, the stories played out in Judges heighten the contrast between what happens in a world without God, and what happens when God steps into his world.
Not just that: unlike all the men in the story, Jesus didn’t recoil from danger. He didn’t callously throw others in the firing line to save himself. No – he willingly, courageously laid down his life for all those in his care.
But he didn’t just come to give us an ideal – an example of life lived God’s way. He also made that possible. On the cross, he dealt with the effects of human sin once and for all. And by his resurrection, he gives us the power to live God’s way. To choose not to live like the world depicted in Judges. To choose to live under God’s rule, rather than doing what seems right in our own eyes.
But is that all the story’s there for? Seems a lot of horror just to say “hey, this is how bad it can get – be thankful for Jesus!” Is there anything else it has to say?
There is. And this is the one that might come as a bit more of a surprise. Because it only becomes apparent when we notice some parallels with a story from earlier in the Bible. Genesis 19: The story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
We’ll get to that tomorrow.