Today’s reading: Judges 19-21.
“In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” So ends the book of Judges and its downward cycles of abandoning God, suffering oppression, crying out to God for release, and finding deliverance. If you’re wondering what it looks like to live without a moral standard, the final chapters of Judges give a good example. When everyone does what he thinks is right, rather than following a divine standard, the strong determine what is right and the weak suffer for it.
A Levite man travels to reunite with his concubine who has left him and gone back to her childhood home. A concubine was like a wife except that her children would not receive any inheritance from their father. The Levites were the overseers of the religious activities of Israel, but nothing about this man hints at any religious devotion or activity. After days of socializing with his wife’s father, the Levite, his wife, and servant head towards home. They seek shelter in the town of Gibeah among the tribe of Benjamin. Rather than providing hospitality, the Benjaminites ignore them. A man from the Levite’s country finally provides a place to spend the night, but then a group of thugs demands that the Levite be sent out so that they can sexually abuse him. The host offers to send his own daughter out, and the Levite ends up sending his wife. The thugs rape her and leave her dead on the door step. The Levite returns home with her body, which he then cuts into pieces and sends to the tribes of Israel, asking them to avenge his loss.
When everyone does what seems right in his own eyes, it seems no one does what is right. Look at the tally of abuses in the first part of this story:
- a religious leader who shows no signs of devotion to God
- a people that show no hospitality to a stranger
- continual discrimination against women, treating them as objects
- sexual perversion
- misuse of a dead body for emotional effect
The Levite’s action enrages the nation, as he wanted, and leads to war between the Benjaminites and the other tribes. The Benjaminites are given a chance to turn over the guilty men who murdered the concubine, but they refuse. In the ensuing battle 40,000 Israelites and 25,000 Benjaminites die. Only six hundred Benjaminite men out of the whole tribe survive. All the women and children are killed.
Who do we blame for this horrendous loss of life? The Levite who did nothing to foster devotion to God, who failed to protect his wife, and who stoked the anger of his nation? The men of Gibeah who threatened the Levite and then raped and murdered his wife? The tribe of Benjamin who would not hold the murderers accountable? There are plenty who share responsibility, and in each case the guilty party did what seemed right to them rather than following God’s standard. Each one used their position of strength to force their will on the weaker party. Might determined what happened, rather than right guiding their action.
Our time seems more and more like the time of Judges. Objective standards of any sort are criticized as oppressive and outdated. Each man is given liberty to judge what is right and wrong. Absolutes are denied; only the internal feelings of the individual matter. Look around you then, and see how strength and power determine what happens. It may be physical strength that allows one person to abuse another, or political strength that determines what activities are allowed, or economic strength that says who will have opportunity, or the strength of the media that teaches what the current generation will believe.
But we are hopeful, because the philosophy of Judges is not the final word. Grace is coming. Redemption draws near. The book of Ruth will show a better way.
Image by AlphaBetaUnlimited on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0