Over the last three weeks, I taught a series of lessons on the Book of Judges. It is a terrible book. But here is my last my lesson. If you are interested, here are the first two:
“During that period, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what seemed right to them” (Judges 21:25, The Voice).
Do you have a period in your family history that you would rather remain hidden? Is there a period in your personal history that you would rather remain hidden?
Whether we like it or not, those dark periods of our stories also help define who we are. When Rheannon was born, we had a slight scare. As it turned out, nothing was wrong and she was completely healthy. But she spent five days in the NICU. She had tubes and wires and all sorts of beeping things attached to her.
I only remember taking one picture: Xavier, 2 years old at the time, kissing his sister. But even that picture was taken after many of the wires had been disconnected. At the time, we didn’t want to remember anything from that week.
Looking back on it, though, that was one of the most love and encouragement-filled weeks of our lives. We were bombarded with visits, calls, gifts, prayers, and other expressions of love. We learned to have empathy for parents in a way we never had before.
Sometimes, it is the dark chapters of our lives that teach us lessons that will last a lifetime.
Which brings us to Judges. This is one of the most vile collections of stories about evil and the failings of humanity.
However, in the midst of the garbage, there are some good lessons:
Deborah teaches us that even the less privileged are important in the sight of God.
Gideon teaches us that He can work, even in the midst of our fear.
Ehud teaches us the value of being left-handed (look it up!).
Samson teaches us that it is good to grow one’s facial hair out during the hockey playoffs.
The book of Judges teaches us that God is still present, God is still moving in the lives of His people; yet it also teaches that when the people do not turn to God as their king stuff falls apart.
In Judges 17, we are introduced to a couple of stories that justify the Bible being a banned book in many school libraries.
The first story is about a guy named Micah and a Levite—a priest.
Micah is one of those heartwarming characters. He stole 1100 pieces of silver from his mom and after hearing curse the person who did it decided to return it. And then Micah’s mom has a great idea: they use the silver to make an idol.
After the idol is made and a shrine is built in Micah’s house, a traveling Levite comes to town. Micah sees a great opportunity: he has a shrine and an idol, now all he needs is a priest. So he hires the Levite to be his personal priest as he continues worshipping his idol. Because, “In those days of the judges, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what seemed right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, The Voice).
But that’s not where the story ends. People from the tribe of Dan decide they need a new home. So they are traveling throughout the land and they come through Micah’s town. They ask Micah’s priest if they will be successful. The Levite says, “Sure!” So the Danites go and without mercy attack and kill a people who were “quiet and without suspicion” (Judges, 18:27, The Voice). After all, “During this period, Israel had no king” (Judges 18:1, The Voice).
And one last point about this story. The Danites hire the Levite away from Micah, because if God’s priests are defined by anything it’s by the highest bidder, right?
Then we come to the really bad story. This one is introduced in Judges 19:1: “During this period, when there was no king in Israel….”
A Levite has a mistress. The mistress cheats on him and runs back to her home. The Levite pursues her and convinces her to come back home with him. On their way back home, they reach the city of the Jebustites. This city will eventually become Jerusalem, but at this time it is a city of foreigners. The Levite says it is not safe to stay in a foreign city so they travel on to Gibeah, a city of the tribe of Benjamin.
So they should be safe, right?
The first sign of trouble is when they arrive in the city square and no one invites them home. This is a sin. The people of Israel were supposed to inviting and hospitable. But the people of this city were not. Finally, an old man who was not even a Benjamite sees them and invites them to his house.
And then the story completely falls apart.
The men of the city pound on the door and demand the old man send out the Levite so they can rape him. This isn’t a story about homosexuality, either. It is a story about dominance and hedonism. The old man and the Levite cry out against the call for the Levite to be sent outside, but they send out the Levite’s mistress. Who is raped. And beaten. And left for dead.
The Levite takes her home. He cuts her body into 12 pieces and sends a piece to each tribe. The tribes are infuriated and all decide to wage war against Benjamin. After the war, Benjamin is almost completely wiped out. One tribe of Israel is almost erased from existence. Even worse is the plan that is hatched to make sure the 600 men from Benjamin don’t die out as a tribe. The final chapter of Judges tells of more slaughter and kidnapping in order to find 600 wives so that the tribe of Benjamin can continue. Because, “During that period, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what seemed right to them” (Judges 21:25, The Voice).
Remember how I said I don’t like the book of Judges?
In the most troubling aspect of this story, God tells the Israelites three times to go in battle against the tribe of Benjamin. The first two times, they are defeated. The third time, they wipe out all but 600 men from Benjamin. Why is God talking at all in this story? Why is He sending some of His people against others of His people? Why does He seem to be participating in the slaughter of more than 65,000 Israelites?
Before I try to answer that question, notice one more thing.
When the Israelites entered the Promised Land back in the beginning of Judges, they were told to drive everyone out. They were told to make sure their worship was of Yahweh alone.
But they didn’t obey completely. They don’t drive everyone out, they end up worshipping idols. They did not do everything exactly like they were supposed to and they paid the price. They ended up looking like everyone else in the world around them.
And I say like I have in the last two weeks: this is a lesson we need to hear today. If we look like the rest of the world around us, why should we be surprised when everything falls apart?
I don’t say that to make you think that if you speed or watch R-rated movies you are going to Hell. But what are some ways we have allowed evil to exist in our lives? What are some ways we have been pulled away from the holiness of God because of the impurities we have allowed to become a part of who we are?
The poor being neglected.
The lonely being ignored.
Listening to jokes that demean, dehumanize without saying anything.
Witnessing bullying and saying, “boys will be boys.”
Thinking that abortion and the death penalty are a political debate and not a discussion about life.
Seeing racism in social structures and just accepting it.
Seeing women devalued in social structures and just accepting it.
Allowing our children to think sports and other extra-curricular activities are more important than fellowship with Christian family.
Equating political affiliation or patriotic pride with spirituality.
When we allow our identities to be formed more by the world around us than the Spirit within us we cannot be upset when our outcomes leave us empty and hurting.
Which brings me back to the question I asked a moment ago: why is God even present in this story? Why does it appear that He is sanctioning so much of this activity? Is God really that cruel of a puppet-master, just watching his creation try and destroy one another?
There is a lot I don’t have the answers for. I don’t know why the Old Testament is so violent. I don’t know why there are so many stories that are so far out of touch with how the world is today. I don’t know why God comes across as angry and vengeful.
But I do know this: throughout the history of His people, God is always present.
There is one more judge talked about in the Bible. His name is Samuel. During Samuel’s time as judge, the people ask for a king. Samuel is discouraged. But God tells Him, “It is not a rejection of you—it is a rejection of My rule over them” (I Samuel 8:7, The Voice).
The story of Judges is that dark story in the family history. It is the time we all wish we could forget. It’s the story we want to remain hidden. It’s the episode we want no pictures of. We don’t want to remember it.
But in the midst of the evil, in the midst of the despair, there is a message of hope. The book of Judges tells us the story of how the people moved from entering the Promised Land following Yahweh to turning to an earthly king. It is a story of a people turning their backs on God. Repeatedly.
But it is also a story of God acting. God raising up deliverers. God anointing a king. God providing for His people. God being angry yet still being present.
It’s not pretty. It’s not always easily understood.
But it is life. And even when we mess up at life, God is still active.