(Warning: If you’re squeamish, or dealing with issues of sexual abuse, it might be good to sit this week out.)
This week, we’ve looked at Judges 19, wondering what on earth it might have to say to us. Yesterday, we looked at how it’s a picture of a world without God – a world into which Jesus stepped in order to put it right. But is that the only way it’s relevant to us?
One thing we haven’t looked at yet is the connection between this story, and an earlier one in the Bible. A slightly more famous story, found in Genesis 19. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is living in Sodom. But the city has become utterly evil, and God’s about to destroy it. But Abraham begs God to spare the city if he can find 50 righteous people in it. Or even 45. Or 40. How about 30. Maybe 20. What if there were only 10? (Funnily enough, that’s about the size of Lot’s family.) So God agrees to spare Sodom if he can find ten righteous people there. And immediately God dispatches a pair of angels, disguised as humans, on a fact-finding mission to Sodom. Here’s where we pick up the story.
The angels arrive in the town square to check out whether anyone will take them in for the night. They want to find out how the town of Sodom treats travelling strangers. But the first one to offer is Lot, Abraham’s nephew. It makes it harder for them to search for any more righteous people, but he insists and welcomes them with a generous display of hospitality. So far so good.
But the arrival of two strangers in town sparks a welcome party just like the story in Judges. Everyone surrounds Lot’s house, wanting to show him the same brand of “hospitality” mentioned in Judges 19.
And here, too, Lot does the unthinkable, and offers his two unmarried daughters in place of his male guests. But the crowd refuses, and tries to break down the door.
The difference in this story is that the angels use their powers to rescue the situation – making everyone blind. They then tell Lot and his family to get out of the city at first light, because God is going to destroy Sodom.
I think you can see the parallels with the story in Judges, cant you? In fact, it’s like our narrator in Judges is deliberately framing the story so that we see the parallels. Why? What’s he trying to achieve by connecting the story about the Levite and his concubine with the one about Sodom?
But this is the whole point of the story. Do you remember why the Levite pressed on to Gibeah for the night? It’s because he wanted to be with his fellow countrymen, rather than stay with some foreigners who might have mistreated him. The irony is – Gibeah treated him in the same way Sodom treated the angels.
That is, Israel has become Sodom. They’ve become like the Canaanite tribes they were supposed to drive out. The tribes whose behaviour so repulsed God he wanted to wipe them off the face of the earth. God’s special people have become like everyone else. Even like the infamous Sodom which God destroyed with burning sulphur.
This story is a slap in the face to Israel, telling her what she’s become. In fact, it’s the culmination of the plotline running throughout Judges: the progressive Canaanization of Israel. Israel had failed to drive them out like God had told them, and instead they’d started worshipping their gods. They’d intermarried with them. So that little by little, they’d become like them in their behaviour. Until now, something so repulsive that before could only have happened in Sodom – among the Canaanite peoples – now such an atrocity was committed among the people of God!
And then after this story, we see a holy war (Judges 20) to purge the evil from within Israel! A holy war not waged on foreigners, but one of their own. How messed up is that!
In fact, this story isn’t just about what happens out there in the world when God is not king. One that we can look at from a safe distance and say, “we’re not like that – thanks be to God!” No. It’s far more biting than that. Far more confronting.
It’s a story about what can happen to us as God’s people when we stop living with him as king. It’s what happens when each of us starts to do as we see fit. And little by little, we become what we’re supposed to be separate from. We become like the people around us.
We’ve seen it, haven’t we? Throughout the history of the church, and still today. Places where God rules in name only. And women and children are used and abused. Sex is devalued, and becomes a weapon of power. And people who claim the name of Jesus are more interested in status and control than looking after their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. We know what the people of God can be like, when we stop living with God as king.
How does it happen? How does it get to that point?
Same as with the Israelites. They didn’t get rid of the evil influences. They tolerated sin and the sources of temptation. And they reaped the consequences. Which is what can happen when we resist God’s holy war in our lives. A holy war not on the tribes and nations around us, but on the sin within us. It’s what happens when we get comfortable with sin. When we tolerate it. When we allow it to live nearby and don’t run in the opposite direction. When we don’t co-operate with the work of the Spirit in making us like Jesus. When we resist him.
This ugly, distressing story in the book of Judges ultimately reminds us of the kind of evil that can exist in us all, when we stop living by God’s rule. When we start doing as we see fit. When we, as the people of God, end up behaving just like the people of Sodom.