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It’s a great pleasure to be with you this morning to share God’s Word. I first want to thank Kevin and the session at Christ Covenant for the invitation to come and speak to you this weekend. It’s been a real delight. Thank you for allowing me to bring my wife with me. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time here, seeing old friends like the Van Dusen’s and others among you. It has been a true delight.
Now as we come to the reading and preaching of God’s Word, let us call on God to illuminate our hearts and our minds. Let us pray.
O Lord God, You are, as we have been reminded already this morning, a transcendent God, a God whose foolishness is so much wiser than our highest wisdom. So as we come now to meet with You in and through Your Word, we would pray, O Lord, that You would send Your Holy Spirit into our hearts once again to illuminate our minds and our hearts, that as we address this, one of the darkest and perhaps one of the more difficult passages of Scripture, yet Lord, You would teach us things from it. Not just about the darkness and terror that lurks within the heart of fallen human beings, but something of the glory and perfection that shines from the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. We pray these things in His name. Amen.
If you’ll turn in your Bibles to Judges 19. Hear the Word of the Lord. It is a long passage. I’m intending to reach the whole chapter because I think it stands very much as a unit. So hear the Word of the Lord.
“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. 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. 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. 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. 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.” 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.” And when the man rose up to go, his father-in-law pressed him, till he spent the night there again. 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. 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.””
“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. 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.” 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.” 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.” So they passed on and went their way. And the sun went down on them near Gibeah, which belongs to Benjamin, 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.”
“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. 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?” 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. 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.” 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.” So he brought him into his house and gave the donkeys feed. And they washed their feet, and ate and drank.”
“And 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.” 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. 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.” 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. 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.”
“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. 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. 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. 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.””
Praise God for His Holy Word.
One of the themes of the talks I’ve given this weekend has been the collapse in many ways in our society of any notion of or respect for external authority. A big question, of course, arises at that point – what will human beings look like? How will they treat each other in a situation where external authority is rejected and repudiated? What will occur in a society or in a church where authority is not acknowledged? Where human beings are free, we might say, to create themselves? To be whatever they desire?
Well, I think this passage in Scripture gives us insight into that. It occurs towards the end of the book of Judges. The book of Judges is in many ways a litany of the tragedy of the people of Israel. Right in chapter 1 there are hints that Israel is impatient with the authority of God. A captured foreign king is not executed as the Lord commanded. Instead they cut off his fingers, his thumbs and his toes, and he makes that comment, “So as I dealt with my enemies, so I have been dealt with.”
Many of us, perhaps read that passage and we think it’s a sort of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It is not, of course. The king was meant to be executed by Israel. What they did was they treated him as the pagans, as he himself had treated the kings that he had conquered. There is a hint right in chapter 1 that Israel is accommodating herself to the nations around.
Then as we move through the book of Judges we see that all of the great heroes in the book are flawed. Gideon comes from a Baal worshiping family and at the end of his career as a judge, leads Israel into worse idolatry then that from which he delivered it at the start of his career.
Jephthah, the sort of strange bandit figure, lives in the wilderness, emerges to judge Israel. Jephthah makes a rash vow, and although commentators are divided on whether he does sacrifice his daughter, I am fairly convinced myself that yes, his ignorance of the Word of God leads him to sacrifice his daughter.
Samson, who is of course the great hero of the last great cycle in the book of Judges that occurs before the spiraling that we have just read in Judges 19, Samson shows contempt for his Nazarite vow from the moment we first hear of him. Ultimately he wreaks vengeance on the Philistines that has only come about because of his own unfaithfulness to God.
That brings us, the end of the Samson cycle, brings us to the last chapters of the book of Judges, where things start to accelerate. If we live in a time where we feel things are accelerating and accelerating in a bad way, in the Church and in the culture, well, that’s the context of the latter part of the book of Judges. We’ve seen flaws and problems and infidelity throughout the book. Now we reach a series of chapters where the collapse just cascades and accelerates.
First, in a previous chapter, we read of the corruption of a family. A man called Micah and his mother have a very dysfunctional relationship, have a household that fosters idolatry. Then we read of Micah hiring himself a priest, a Levite called Jonathan, to set up his own kind of household cult with his own little priesthood. The priesthood is corrupted.
Then we get a hint that the tribes are being deeply corrupted as well. The Danites ride into town. They steal Micah’s idols and his personal priest and they formalize idolatry at a tribal level within their own ranks.
Then we come to chapter 19, and chapter 19 I think is arguably the lowest point in Israelite moral history, perhaps in the whole of the Old Testament. It’s certainly in the top five. This is a very dark, bleak chapter.
Before we come to reflect upon what the chapter might mean, it’s worth just summarizing the plot. The plot concerns an unnamed Levite. There’s no hint in the text that this is the same Levite that Micah has hired. Micah’s Levite was called Jonathan; we’re not given the name of this Levite. He seems to be a different one. The plot really focuses upon the relationship between this Levite and his concubine.
Concubine is a very quaint term. We don’t really have a modern equivalent of concubine. Perhaps we might think of mistress, but mistress typically means a sort of a woman on the side, a man’s married and he has a girlfriend on the side who is his mistress. That’s not really what’s going on here. A concubine is effectively like a second-class wife. She has some status but not much status.
Clearly there are problems in the marriage. She has been unfaithful to her husband and then she’s left and gone back to her father. After some months, the Levite heads off to fetch her back.
Then, and this I think is very important though it seems rather tedious if not farcical to us as we read it, we have this very interesting account of the father-in-law delaying the departure of the Levite. I think that’s critical, actually, to understanding what the passage is all about as we shall see.
Finally the Levite sets off home, and as night approaches the party is near the city Jebus, later it will be called Jerusalem. But the Levite won’t stop there because it’s not a city occupied at this point by the people of God. He doesn’t want to risk spending the night in a city that is not under the control of the people of God. So they stay on the road and arrive at the city of Gibeah. Gibeah is a city controlled by the Benjaminites, a tribe of Israel.
What’s interesting, of course, is initially nobody offers him hospitality. You go from this farcical, excessive hospitality of the father-in-law to no hospitality at all in the town center, until this other man, an Ephraimite, himself a visitor to the city, a sojourner, a resident alien perhaps we might say in the city, appears on the scene and invites the Levite, his servant, and his concubine to his house for the evening.
That’s where, of course, the terrible events of that night unfold. Men of the city surround the house and demand that the Levite is thrown out so that they can rape him. It is a brutal scene. But it gets more brutal. The old man correctly refuses. He’s given hospitality to this Levite. He correctly refuses to accede to their request, but makes that horrific offer of his own daughter and of the Levite’s concubine as a way of satiating the lust of these men, placating their anger, whatever. Finally the Levite thrown his concubine out to the men to do with as they wish.
I think there is also one last sort of blood-curdling and horrific note to this story. Clearly at the end of the night when the Levite leaves the house, he’s certainly in the text very unsympathetic to this woman who’s just gone through hell that evening, but one of the things that strikes me about this passage is a detail we’re not given. We’re not actually told when the Levite’s concubine dies. The writer leaves, it seems to me, the question open. Does she die as the result of the attack? Or does she die as a result of the dismemberment? That is a detail we are not given. It is a horrific, unremittingly evil scene that is depicted before us.
So what can we learn from this passage about what true humanity under the sovereignty and the authority of God should look like?
The first thing to note about this passage is that phrase near the start. It occurs a number of times in the latter part of Judges, I think, to drive home a particular point – In those days when there was no king in Israel.
That is a statement that chronologically locates this, of course. It locates it as during a time before the kingdom. Saul will be the first king of Israel. We are dealing with events occurring before the establishment of the kingdom, before the anointing of Saul as king.
I think the statement is making a deeper point than that. It is making a chronological point. I think it is also making a moral point, and the moral point is this – Israel has become a law unto itself. Israel is a law unto itself. Remember when the Israelites under Samuel bristle at Samuel’s leadership, they’re getting worried about the sons of Samuel taking over, they’re getting worried about some foreign policy issues that are bubbling up, and they demand a king, and the Lord says in demanding a king, Samuel, don’t you be offended, they’ve not rejected you, they’ve rejected Me.
In other words, the Lord functions as king of His people. He beats the drum to which they march. Yet, that is not the case here. We are being told something is badly wrong in Israel at this point. There is no king. There should be a king. His name is the Lord. There is no king in Israel.
One of the things I think this passage therefore teaches us is this – once each of us rejects the Lord as their king, everything is up for grabs. Made in God’s image, we are made to respond to God’s Word and to God’s commands. In rejecting God, in rejecting God’s kingship, we reject that which ultimately makes us truly human. We dehumanize ourselves. This passage is a passage shot through with dehumanization, is it not?
These men treat the Levite’s concubine as subhuman. In treating her that way, they behave as subhumans themselves. In dehumanizing her, they dehumanize themselves, and the root for this is what? “In those days there was no king in Israel.”
So that’s the first point to make. Judges 19 shows us the terror, the disorientation, the moral vortex, that his human life without God.
The second thing this passage teaches is this. It teaches us about the nature of sin as defacing the image of God. I want to focus particularly in this passage on hospitality. I think the thing that binds this passage together from beginning to end is this – hospitality, an excess thereof in the first half, a complete absence thereof in the second half. Hospitality, of course, is central to biblical ethics, central to near Eastern culture.
When I was 19 a friend and myself, we caught the bus in London, got the bus to Athens in Greece. It’s a long three day, three night journey. We spent two months backpacking through Greece and Turkey. I think my parents must be mad. In those days you didn’t arrive in Athens and text mum to let her know you were safe. You sort of vanished off the face of the earth for two months and your parents just hoped that you got back from eastern Turkey in one piece.
One of my memories of backpacking through Turkey was this everywhere we went we met people who opened their houses to myself and my friend. Hospitality pervaded the culture. It was seen as a kind of moral obligation that when a stranger walked into your town or village, you were to show kindness to them.
It’s central, of course, to the Old Testament biblical ethics. The Lord your God is a God who loves the widow and the orphan and the sojourner. So you, too, should love the sojourner for you were sojourners in Egypt. In some ways that’s the key text of Old Testament biblical ethics. What is to characterize Israel, how is Israel to be a light to the nations? In the way she acts, in the way she treats her own people and other people, she is to reflect the character of God. At the heart of that is caring for the widow, the orphan, the sojourner, at the heart of that vision is hospitality.
It’s one of the marks in the New Testament of the genuine people of God. Matthew 25 – on that day the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed Me. I was naked and you clothed Me. I was sick and you visited Me. I was in prison and you came to Me. You were hospitable,” is what the king is saying there.
Hebrews 13, verse 2 – Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.
God is a hospitable God. Those made in His image, those redeemed by the blood of His Son, are to be hospitable people. It is to be one of the marks of who we are.
This whole chapter, as I’ve said, is about hospitality and its lack.
First, we have the farcical over-hospitality of the father-in-law. Poor guy can’t get away from his in-law’s house because they kept throwing parties for him. They keep being hospitable. His father-in-law is doing what he should do, but in an excessive way. Then, of course, there is no hospitality in Gibeah. The point I think in this chapter where you know something is going wrong is the point where no hospitality is offered to this man when he first arrives in the town of Gibeah.
Reading this chapter, I think, perhaps for the first time, should be a bit like watching one of those movies. Maybe you’ve seen a movie and you misjudged the genre. You found it on Amazon streaming, it looks like a great comedy, you put it on, you’re watching it, and certain the first 20, 25 minutes it’s comedy, it’s farce, then suddenly something happens and you realize, wow, I got the genre wrong. The music suddenly changed. Something’s occurred that makes you think actually this isn’t a comedy at all, this is heading in a dark and sinister direction. That’s the moment when this man is all alone in the town square with his concubine and his servant and nobody offers him hospitality. At that moment you know this is not a hospitable city, and that is not a theologically inconsequential thing. These people have lost their mirroring of God, the image has been defaced.
That’s a real challenge for us. One of the things I’ve not addressed in my two talks much so far is this – one of the ways we respond to the chaos of the world around us is we need to be hospitable. I made the point last night we haven’t got to where we’ve got to because people have listened to arguments and found them compelling. It’s more complicated than that. There’s a lot of intuition, there’s a lot of imagination involved.
Hospitality shapes how we think about other people. When you’re hospitable to somebody, what are you doing? You’re treating them as another human being who’s worth something. This passage is all about the Levite and his concubine. This concubine, she’s a person to her father; hence the hospitality. She’s a piece of garbage to the men of Gibeah; hence the lack of hospitality.
Hospitality, I think, has to be key to a Christian strategy of spreading the Gospel in our current climate.
I was asked last night, Kevin asked me why are you a Presbyterian? And I gave a number of reasons, but those who are here will remember one of the reasons was I said because the first time I went to the Aberdeen congregation of the Free Church of Scotland, my first weekend all alone in a city where I knew nobody, somebody tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to lunch at her house, an old lady invited me to lunch at her house. That was 35 years ago. I still remember her name, Effie Morrison.
Last year I was invited to give a talk in London and the person setting it up said to me, “I notice from your resume that you were on faculty at the University of Notthingham in 1993.” He said, “I was on faculty there but I don’t think we ever met.” And I said to him, “Do you drive a red sports car?” And he said, “Yeah, I did drive a red sports car then.” I said, “Well, we did meet.” He said, “Did we? In what context?” And I said, “Well, first Sunday I was in Nottingham while my wife was teaching her contract out in Scotland, all alone in a strange city, I went to your church and you and your wife invited me back for lunch.” I’m not surprised he doesn’t remember me. If you extend hospitality to lots and lots of people, the likelihood is you don’t remember all their names. But you always remember the name of the person who gave you hospitality when you needed it.
Hospitality is powerful. It’s one of the reasons, of course, why hospitality is one of the qualifications for eldership. Yes, we tend to focus in Presbyterian circles on the doctrinal stuff, which is right. We must take doctrine seriously. But hospitality is important, too. Why? I think the elder is to model in his life that to which all believers would aspire in their lives. If you have children and your children say to you, “What should I be like when I grow up, Dad, Mom?” You should be able to point to your elders and say, “You ought to be like that guy over there. Loves the Lord, knows the Lord, doctrinally solid, hospitable and kind to outsiders and other people.”
Hospitality critically important.
How do we as a people show our holiness? Partly through hospitality. That’s one of the big issues in this passage, I think. This passage tells us if you honor the Lord, hospitality is part of that. An inhospitable world, an inhospitable community, is one where the Lord, where there is no king, where the Lord is not king.
Next point. Notice Sodom is alive and well, but it is alive and well in Israel. The obvious analog to this passage is Genesis 19. Righteous Lot, trapped in Sodom. The men of Sodom surrounding his house, wanting to rape his daughters. Well, what’s interesting, of course, is their plans are foiled. But this passage has clearly been put together by the writer in a way that demands that the reader who knows their Old Testament connect the two. Roughly 25% of Genesis 19, the language of Genesis 19, is used in Judges 19. Clearly there is a literary dependence. That is not to say this didn’t happen, not at all, but it’s to say that as the writer thinks about how to talk about these terrible events, he draws directly upon Genesis 19 to give him the idioms to express it by.
But that was Sodom. Genesis 19, that was them out there. In Judges 19, it’s among the people of God. That’s the real sting in this tale. After 18 chapters where we get that little hint of accommodation in chapter 1, after 18 chapters of Judges we reach the point where the people of God are indistinguishable from the worst of the pagan nations outside.
It raises the question, of course, well, it raises a couple of questions. One, I think it’s a reminder to us that as we face the craziness of the world around us, our first response should not be, “We thank You Lord that we are not like other men.” Our first response should always be, “Is it I, Lord?”
I hinted last night when I talked about how we consume music today. That individualism that marks a society is not something that only occurs out there, the sovereign self is alive and well within the Church. The first question should be, “Is it I, Lord?”
Second question that comes up is intriguing of course. This is tangential to my main argument, but isn’t it interesting that God does not wipe the Benjaminites off the face of the earth at this point? You could imagine if you were that girl’s father, the concubine’s father, you would just be praying for the Benjaminites to suffer the same fate as the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible doesn’t tell us why, but it hints, perhaps, as to why the Lord does not wipe out the Benjaminites.
I say this is really as an aside, but I think it’s interesting. Why should the Benjaminites be allowed to continue? Listen to Philippians 3 – If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more. Circumcised on the eighth day of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin.
My guess is that most of us in this room owe our salvation to the mission to the Gentiles somewhere way back when. Very few of us in this room are probably ethnically Jewish in background. How did the Gospel come to the Gentiles? Its first major iteration was through Paul of the nation of Israel of the tribe of Benjamin. I think just as an aside there’s a reminder in this passage that sometimes our own hearts cry out to see justice done here and now. It’s right and appropriate that we cry out for that.
I heard Kevin praying for that this morning in his pastoral prayer, but we also need to remember that God’s foolishness is greater than our wisdom and God is, to use a very human terminology, God is engaged in the long game, not the short-term game. That, I think, is why the Benjaminites are allowed to remain.
Then finally, notice in this chapter the nature of true love. The Levite, the Levite was obliged as this woman’s husband to sacrifice himself for her if necessary. Yet, he sacrifices her to save his own skin.
I don’t know if it’s the nature of the British Parliament that does this, but the nature of the British Parliament throws up a lot of great speeches because it’s this sort of mortal combat across the floor with a lot of great quotations. One of my favorites is this. It’s from a man called Michael Foot in the 1980s. Michael Foot was actually leader of the Labor party. In the 1960s he was a young backbencher. Early in the 1960s the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, to save his own Prime Ministership, sacked his entire Treasury team in a day. The chancellor of the Exchequer, the first secretary of the Treasury, and another guy, all gone, in what became known in British political history as the Night of the Long Knives. In responding to this, Michael Foot, who was in opposition, made a speech and he said about Macmillan this. He said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life.”
That’s a powerful statement, isn’t it?
That’s what the Levite does. Greater love hath no man than this, then he lay down his wife for his life.
What do we see in this passage? We see an absolute desecration of what marriage is supposed to be. Why do I say desecration? Because marriage is meant to be, as I said earlier, the analog of the relationship between Christ and His bride. How is the love of God in that marriage between Christ and His bride reflected? The self-giving, self-sacrificial love of God Himself for His people.
Human love properly demonstrated in marriage should be demonstrated by the husband giving himself up for his wife as and when necessary. What we see in this passage is the exact opposite of that.
That points us then I think to this. The qualitative difference between human love and divine love. The thing about human love is it’s always to some extent reactive.
I like to play this joke on students sometimes, particularly if there’s an engaged couple in the class, I will ask them, I’ll ask the guy, “So why did you fall in love with your fiancee?” The great thing is because it’s me asking the question, they think it’s a trick question, so they hesitate for like five seconds before answering, which is about ten seconds longer than they should have hesitated. They should have just gone like that. I always say to them, “Look, have in your pocket that she’s beautiful. That works, generally speaking.” But it makes the point, doesn’t it? Why do we fall in love with our partners? Because there’s something beautiful in them. There’s something intrinsically beautiful about them that draws our love out.
Well, Martin Luther makes a powerful point in one of his Heidelberg Disputation Theological theses. Talking about love, he says this – God’s love does not find but creates that which is lovely to it.
What is he saying there? God’s love does not find but creates that which is lovely to it.
There is a sense in which we read this passage and hopefully we are rightly horrified by the lack of love shown by this Levite for his concubine. Yet we must remember that our love for our dear ones is but a pale shadow in quantity and in kind of God’s love for us. Why does God love us? Why does God sacrifice His Son for us? He does not do so because we are intrinsically lovely. Quite the opposite. He does it even though and despite the fact that we are intrinsically unlovely. In many ways in the eyes of God, we are not far off the Levite in this passage. All of us in our lives who’ll have treated other people at some point as objects, all of us in our lives will have sacrificed others to some extent for our own well-being to get us ourselves off the hook for something.
The glory of God is this – that His love shown towards us is not only quantitatively different to ours, it is qualitatively different as well. The love of God involves the self-giving of God for the unlovely in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Praise God for the glories of His Gospel. Amen.
O Lord God, we do thank You for this passage of Scripture, as dark and terrifying and terrible as it is. Lord, teach us to treat it as a mirror held up by which we can see our own hearts if they were not restrained by You and Your grace. Let us see in the despicable behavior of the Levite the very antithesis of the love of God shown for us in Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. May we use this darkness to understand Your light and Your perfection and Your glory in even deeper terms than we have ever done before, for we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.