Now in those days Israel had no king. There was a man from the tribe of Levi living in a remote area of the hill country of Ephraim. One day he brought home a woman from Bethlehem in Judah to be his concubine. ( Judges 19:1 NLT)
If I were the historian of Israel, the book of Judges would have been buried under a pile of dung or thrown into a fiery furnace. The book chronicles the downfall of Israel (you know, Jacob’s twelve sons, those who increased in number and were led by Moses out of captivity into the wilderness, and then led by Joshua into the promised land.) These characters rival the cast of a modern soap opera or mobster movie.
It’s easy to point the finger at them, but I do it warily, as I know that my deceitful heart has the potential for the same dark deeds, if given over to the folly of living my own way.
The last chapters of Judges (17-21) reveal some of the darkest and most foolish choices of the fractured tribes of Israel. They were living in their own designated territory, with the tent of meeting in Shiloh, being their only common place to gather for worship. However, they tended to set up their own places of “worship” for convenience.
A man named Micah meets a young Levite from Bethlehem, who is wandering homeless around the wastelands of Ephraim. Seeing that Ephraim is so far from Shiloh, he establishes the young Levite in his home as his private priest. He even carves some figures to aid them in their worship.
Later the wandering Danites, who had failed to establish their God-given inheritance, covet Micah’s priest and idols. They abduct the priest and the idols, setting up their own town and their center of worship, disregarding the house of God over in Shiloh.
Mostly this little story reeks of foolishness, but the downward spiral continues.
Another Levite, from the outskirts of Ephraim takes for a “wife” a woman from Bethlehem. She runs away from him to return to her father’s home in Bethlehem. He follows her to persuade her to return to the wilderness with him, but her father counters his offer with food and lodging, keeping him delayed for about six days.
On the seventh day, the determined man loads up his belongings and his “wife” on two donkeys. They wander from town to town, not finding any suitable lodging. They refuse to stay in a foreign town. Upon entering Gibeah, a town of Benjamin, no one offers them a room. They are shivering in the night air, when a hospitable man fearing for their safety in the open town square, invites them to his home.
They get settled in. The host’s fear comes knocking on the door. Some men of the city have arrived, looking for some sport. They want the Levite, but the host “graciously” offers his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine. The men don’t want the women, and insist on having the guest. Finally, the guest “valiantly” pushes his concubine out the door. By the next morning, she has been raped and left for dead at the door of the host.
In fact, she is dead, so the Levite bundles her up and takes her back to their home, where he proceeds to cut her into twelve sections to send out to the twelve tribes, as a call to arms and revenge. (Who in their right mind would record this horrific event?) Yet, the writer of Judges has a point and inspired by the Spirit of God offers us a mirror into the depravity of a people and a nation without a king.
War breaks out among the tribes. After high casualties on both sides, the war comes to an end. The conquering tribes vow to never allow their women to marry a Benjamite. With the war over, their foolishness continues. In making the oath, they jeopardize the longevity of the tribe of Benjamin. They go through some convoluted reasoning to provide wives for the Benjamites, just so they don’t break their foolish oath. (You have to read it to believe it.)
The final commentary of the chronicler of Judges summarizes their demise (and seems fairly contemporary, if we were willing to look into our own mirror):
In those days Israel had no king,
so the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.
(Judges 21: 25 NLT)
Little hope surfaces in this dark passage of Israel’s history. God promised that kings would reign in Jacob’s future nation. And later Israel does ask for a king and a kingdom is established, but all this is just the backdrop of a better kingdom and the best King!
Don’t lose heart, there will be a light in the darkness. Tomorrow we will revisit one of the best loved stories in the Old Testament, which just happens to be set in our little town of Bethlehem.