Dreadful Stories

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on January 3, 2006 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A member of our church family writes:

“I believe by faith that all of the Bible is God-breathed; but I wonder why some of the accounts were important enough to God that He would ensure them to be recorded for all history. For example, tonight I read Judges 19:1-30, which is the account of the Levite and his concubine. It was such a wicked, horrid and vulgar story. Why do you think that these kinds of accounts are important for us to read and know?”

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Dear friend,

It might not come as a surprise to know that you’re not the first person to ask me about that specific passage. I’ve even heard people mocking the Bible as worthy of an “R-rating” because of passages such as that one. I can’t deny that I find it disturbing too.

I’d like to deal with this in two ways. First, let’s talk about that specific passage and consider it in it’s context. And then, hopefully, suggesting why God saw fit to include this particular story as a vital part of the book of Judges will – I believe – help answer the second matter of why He deemed such disturbing incidents of history to be important for us to read and know.

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Let’s think first about the Old Testament book of Judges itself. It is concerned with the spiritual condition of Israel following the death of its great leader Joshua, and after it had become settled into the land that God promised to it. The book tells us the story of Israel’s history from the death of Joshua to the rise of Samuel – and eventually the birth of King David. (The book of Ruth, by the way, falls into this time frame. Its story is like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise depressing period of Israel’s history; and it closes on a positive note by giving us the immediate linage of King David in 4:18-22).

You could characterize the controlling theme of Judges as “the dreadful consequences of apostasy.” It presents us with a pattern of Israel’s spiritual history during the time before King David – a pattern of ups and downs. Israel would wander away from God and fall into idolatry and increasing sin and rebellion against the one true God. As a consequence of its unrepentance and rebellion, God would raise up enemies to severely oppress Israel. Then, in oppression and bondage, the Israelites would cry out to God; and He would mercifully provide them with a deliverer – a “judge” – who would rescue them and lead them into spiritual reform. In time, that judge would grow old and die; and the people of Israel would then once again slip into rebellion and apostasy, once again become captives of another nation, and once again cry out to God for rescue. This basic pattern is repeated over and over throughout the course of the book of Judges.

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The passage you mentioned is a part of the final and darkest phase in this repeated cycle of apostasy, rescue, reform and rebellion. It’s described for us in chapters 17-21; and the key to this particular section of Judges is the repeated phrase; “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; see also 18:1, 19:1 and the last verse of the book – 21:25).

The Bible’s description of this closing period of rebellion and moral relativism begins with the story of a man from the tribe of Ephriam. He is wished a blessing from God by his mother because he returned the money he stole from her (!). She had dedicated the money to the Lord; and when it was returned to her, she gave it to a silversmith so that it could be used to make a carved image. This image is set up in their home; and the son builds a shrine for it, and sets up one of his own sons to serve as his priest in this shrine. (You have to appreciate that, in another age in Israel’s history, such behavior would have been considered profoundly shocking; and both the man, his mother, and the silversmith would have been put to death for their flagrant violation of so many of the commandments of God. But at this time, people were doing what was right in their own eyes – and were not concerned what was right in the eyes of God.)

And then, along comes a Levite from Bethlehem – that is, a man from the priestly tribe and a descendent of Aaron. He came to this man’s house; and the man invites the Levite to live with him and take on the paid job of being another priest before his shrine. The Levite agreed; and the happy man declared, “Now I know that the LORD will be good to me, since I have a Levite as priest!” (17:13).

Meanwhile, the tribe of Dan was still seeking an inheritance in the land; and several from the tribe of Dan arrive at this man’s house and recognize the Levite. They were on their way to spy out a particular territory for conquest; and they asked the Levite to tell them whether or not God would bless this questionable mission. He (as might be expected) said God would; and so they went to spy out the land, found it to be peaceful and defenseless, and went to get six-hundred Danite soldiers for the conquest. On the return trip, the five spies – backed by the six-hundred Danite soldiers – stepped into the Ephriamite man’s house, seized up his idols as their own, and claimed the Levite as their new priest. They made off with their idols and new priest – with the Ephriamite man weeping and whining behind them. With priest and idols, they returned to that defenseless territory, conquered it and burned it with ease, rebuilt it as their own, and set up the carved image they stole for worship.

And it all gets worse; because in the midst of this setting, we’re given the story you asked about. A particular Levite (another man from the priestly tribe) took a concubine for himself. (A concubine was sort of part-wife, part-’live-together’ girlfriend, part-slave.) The concubine ran off on the Levite and went into harlotry; but he sought her and won her heart back. They then stayed a while at her father’s home. Eventually, they left and travelled to a city of the tribe of Benjamin.

When they arrived, this “couple” had no place to stay and were prepared to sleep in the town square. But an old man, knowing the danger, invited them instead to sleep at his house. In the night, a group of men from the town surrounded the house and demanded that the old man’s guest be brought out so they could gang-rape – not the woman – but the man! The old man offered that they rape his virgin daughter and the man’s concubine instead; but the men of the city wouldn’t listen. To save himself, the visiting Levite took his concubine out to them and they raped and abused her until morning light came – all while he slept in safety in the home. He awoke, and stepping out the door found her dead body crumpled at the doorstep.

How did he respond to this moral outrage? He took her body, cut it up into twelve pieces, and sent a piece to each of the other tribes of Israel, demanding that the other tribes take action. And indeed they did! All the other tribes gathered together as one man, sent representatives into Benjamin, and demanded that the evil men who did this be turned over to them. A war ensued; and the result was that all but a small handful of the Benjamite men remained alive, and the cities of their tribe became destroyed.

The children of Israel wept over the fact that, now, one of its tribes was nearly extinguished. Those who warred with the Benjamites had taken an oath that none of their daughters would be given to a Benjamite man in marriage; so now, what could be done to secure the future of the nearly-lost tribe? There solution was to examine who among the tribes of Israel had not come out to do battle against Benjamin; and it was found that no one from a town called Jabesh Gilead came. And so, the rest of Israel slaughtered everyone from Jabesh Gilead except for four hundred virgin women; and then they invited the surviving men of Benjamin to come, swoop down on these women unexpectedly, take them as wives, and return to their land to rebuild their inheritance – I suspect with these poor women kicking and screaming!

And what are we to think of all this? Again, this grotesque ‘soap opera from hell’ closes with these chilling words, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). The lesson, by now, should be clear.

We live today in a time when such a phrase – “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” – would be applauded as something good. “After all, shouldn’t everyone do what is right in his own eyes? What’s right for one person may not be right for another. What’s wrong for you may not be wrong for me.” But those who believe this ignore the dreadful reality of the sinful potential of human nature. God was giving us a picture of what happens when even Israel – his chosen people – ignored His laws and instructions for living, and did what was right in their own eyes. We see from this passage the moral and social disaster that resulted!!

It was against the contrasting backdrop of this horrible story that we’re told of how God raised up David to be a king in Israel. And it was through David that God would eventually raise up one who would be both Israel’s King and Savior – Jesus Christ. So this horrible story in Judges illustrates for us how dreadful it is when we go our own way, and do ‘what is right in our own eyes’ independently of God. It illustrates for us how far down into sin we would descend, and how evil we would all prove to be, if we were left to ourselves. It teaches us how desperately we need the salvation and the guidance of the Savior that God eventually sent into the world.

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Now for the second matter of why God would see fit to include such dreadful stories in His Bible. As you can see, the Bible is dreadfully honest. It tells us the truth about human falleness. It doesn’t do an “extreme make-over” on sin, but lets us see it in all its grotesque ugliness and evil. And in doing so, God is really being merciful to us. He’s letting us see the reality of Jeremiah 17:9-10; “The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings”. This is meant to move us to cry out to God for His mercy and help.

When we read such stories, I suggest that one response should be soberness and a sense of horror at ourselves. With respect to the history of Israel as found in the Scripture, the apostle Paul wrote, “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:11-12). I believe that, in response to reading such stories, we should be moved to pray, “O God; how horrible is the potential of my own heart! How far down into the depths of sin I would descend if you ever took your hand away from me! Please fix my wandering heart to your ways; and by the grace of your Son Jesus Christ, help me to live as You would have me to live – because I know that, apart from your help, I would descend into the depths of sin too!”

And along with that, another response should be gratitude. Many in Israel had descended into the depths of sin almost as far as could be possibly imagined – not just once, but repeatedly. And yet, God remained faithful to His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In spite of the dreadfulness of sin, the sons of Abraham remained His own precious people; and He eventually blessed the world through them by bringing forth the Savior from their midst. The apostle John wrote, “My little children, these things I write to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). How grateful we should be that, in spite of our sins and failures, our faithful heavenly Father remains faithful in His love for us in Christ Jesus.

I hope that these suggestions and thoughts help you better appreciate the purpose God has in telling such horrible stories in the Bible. May the Holy Spirit use such ugly stories to perfect the image of Christ in us!

Yours in Christ’s love
Pastor Greg Allen

(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)

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