That one time Israel basically destroyed a whole tribe because of injustice.

An uncomfortable story in the bible that uniquely speaks to us today.

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

The book of Judges, especially the end of the book, contains several stories that are, well… very hard to read. They are stories of depravity, a fallen world and people “doing what is right in their own eyes.” They are stories from a different time and a different culture that, honestly, is hard for us to understand or even read them in our culture today. However, there is a particular story in the book of Judges, as grotesque as it may be, that might uniquely speak to the current unrest and unease in our country today.

The story begins in Judges 19 and continues on through the end of the book. I’m not going to quote the whole story for three reasons: 1) you can read Judges 19-21 for yourself to make your own judgements (truly, no pun intended), 2) this post would be unnecessarily long and 3) honestly, the unfamiliar practices, cruelty and gruesome nature of the story would probably blind us from the lesson we might take from it. It is also necessary to say up front that the dominate theme of the last section of Judges is “There was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes”, indicating that these stories are examples of what happens when man does what comes naturally and seems good, as opposed to following a leader (assumedly a righteous king that leads the people by the law of God). So, at the outset, we must remember that these stores aren’t here for us to see and emulate, but rather for us to see and learn from the evil and mistakes of others.1

The Levite and his concubine

Our story begins in chapter 19 with a Levite and an unfaithful concubine. The concubine has deserted the Levite and gone back to her father’s house in Judah. The man decides to go to the concubine’s father’s house to “speak kindly to her and bring her back” (19:3).2 After a cordial exchange with the concubine’s father and a grand gesture of hospitality (though it is hard for modern westerners to fully appreciate this), it seems that the issue is resolved, and the man and his concubine begin their journey home. On the way, they need a place to stay the night. The man insists on staying in Gibeah instead of Jebus3 because Gibeah belonged to the Benjaminites, a tribe of Israel. He wanted to stay with the people of God, his people, instead of foreigners. Ironically, this would turn out to be a bad decision.

If the story has already made you uncomfortable by the unfamiliar culture of concubines, what happens next might make you sick. I will just summarize it here, but you can read 19:22-30 if you want the full details. In short, the man and his concubine enter Gibeah, begin set up camp in the town square because no one took them in. That is until an old man came back from working the field and insisted that they come stay the night in his house (probably knowing what the ‘worthless’ men of the city would do to them if they spent the night in the square). After they go into the old man’s house, the house is surrounded by the ‘worthless fellows’ of the city, demanding, in essence, that the visiting man be given to them so they could rape him. The old man tries to make a (extremely uncomfortable) bargain with them, but they would not have it. Eventually the scene boils to a climax, the concubine is taken, gang raped all night and left for dead on the doorstep of the old man’s house. (Yes, this is in the Bible.) When morning breaks, the man comes out of the house, finds the concubine on the ground and after a little investigation, realizes that she is dead. And no, the story doesn’t stop there.

So what does the man do? Cut the concubine’s body up and sends it throughout all the territory of Israel to incite the people. And this is where the story really begins to speak to our time today (stick with me, my point is coming). When the Israelites saw the body of the raped and murdered woman, they are rightfully out raged. They say “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” and ask, “Tell us, how did this evil happen?” When they learn of the ‘abomination and outrage’ that had been committed in Israel, they take up their arms to fight against the tribe of Benjamin, one of their own.

However, in what might be the best touch point to our current situation, the Israelites first go to the tribe of Benjamin and say:

“What evil is this that has taken place among you? Now therefore give up the men, the worthless fellows in Gibeah, that we may put them to death and purge evil from Israel.”
(Judges 20:12b-13a)

They give them the opportunity to give up the evil men so that those who were responsible for the abomination could answer for it themselves. But the people of Benjamin “would not listen to the voice of their brothers.” And this prideful decision would be a sad turning point for the tribe of Benjamin. To make a long story short, almost the entirety of Israel came out to fight against Benjamin, and after a couple of initial setbacks (and with the apparent approval of the Lord, see footnote 4), wipe out almost the entire tribe, killing men, women and children. The battle ends with only 600 soldiers from Benjamin hiding in a cave, with their city, houses and families all destroyed. The city burned as they fled.

Drawing parallels to our current situation

What does any of this have to do with the cries of injustice, the protests and the riots that we are experiencing now in 21st century America? This is a hard story, but I think it gives insight into human nature and there are some parallels that we can draw and make application to our own situation.

First, we must again note that the story is book ended with the phrases, “In those days there was no king in Israel” and “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” This indicates that the author is trying to show us what happens when we try to do things that seem right in our own eyes, as opposed to being ruled by the Lord. Next, we see that a true injustice and abomination has been committed and telegraphed to all of Israel, not unlike a viral video of an act of injustice that incites, for good reason, the people of America. A cry of injustice goes out, and the people respond.4

And how do the people respond? They stand up and are ready to fight against those who committed the injustice. But first, they give the tribe of Benjamin the opportunity to give up the ‘worthless fellows’ to face justice, similar to the peaceful protests of the recurring injustices that plague our country today. But their offer, like the peaceful protests, is not heard, and Benjamin instead prepares to fight. So war violence and war ensues and the people of Benjamin are destroyed. I think it is important here to point out that chapter 20 has the Lord is fully on the side of those who go out to fight against Benjamin for the injustice, though I think the overall theme of “the people did what was right in their own eyes” speaks to a nuanced view of the position of the Lord here.5

This story teaches us about human nature. When an injustice is committed against our own, we tend not to take that laying down. And when our cries of injustice go unheard, it is not surprising that we turn to violence. And if you know much about the Minor Prophets, you know that one of the main sins of Israel and Judah was injustice against the oppressed and marginalized of their society. This is the prophetic voice that Martin Luther King Jr. tapped into when he said “No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” quoting from Amos 5 in his famous “I have a dream” speech. If you read Amos 5, you will see that Israel is denounced and sent into exile by God because of their actions. They pretended to be righteous, while turning a deaf ear and blind eye (or even overtly participating in) injustice and oppression of their own people.

We live in a broken world, and in a broken world injustices will always occur. And when they occur, people will get upset. And when the cries of the oppressed go unheard, or are dismissed, violence is sure to follow. This is what happened in Israel in the book of Judges. This is what has happened all throughout history. And this is what is happening right now in 21st century America. We should not be surprised.

God’s Ultimate Response to Injustice

It is clear in the Old Testament that God does not idly sit by and turn a blind eye to injustice. Even in the story of the first murder, God confronts the murderer directly and says, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10), before placing a curse of on the murderer. God drives out the inhabitants of the Land of Canaan because of their iniquity (Gen. 15:16, I Kings 14:34, cf. Rom. 1), and does the same to Israel when they commit iniquity (Jer. 32:34, Ez. 5:9-11). God does not tolerate injustice.

However, even this response to injustice did not fully bring it to an end. At most, these are stop gap measures and might curtail symptoms for a while, but they cannot change the heart of mankind. For that, something much deeper and much more powerful had to happen. God Himself had to experience the injustice of His creation, endure it and die at the hands of it. And through the power of the resurrection, Jesus brought forth new creation and a new kingdom. This kingdom is the ultimate response to injustice, because it is a kingdom of righteousness, a kingdom of peace, a kingdom without injustice, pain or strife.

It is only through Jesus’ death and resurrection that sin is defeated. And it is only through Jesus that our hearts can be changed. How do you change the heart of a racist? By yelling at him? By beating him into submission? By telling him to read books written by the academic elite that he will wholeheartedly disagree with? All these tactics have been tried, and all have failed. They fail because they do not reach the heart. They are done from a stance of power (ironically), trying to force someone against their will to change their attitude. Even cool-tempered, purely logical and rational argumentation without yelling and emotionalism seldom does the trick. The only solution is the love of God entering into the hearts of men, softening them and opening their eyes to evil, sin and injustice.

Jesus became part of His creation to experience what we experience. To feel what we feel. To understand our plight, our injustices, our grief. He did not offer vain words of platitude. Nor did He ignore issues. Jesus modeled His mission in His life. And He gave Himself that we might have a change to break free of the bonds of sin, oppression and hopelessness. He came to show us, and give us, the Divine love that is the answer to this broken world. And it is only through Jesus that we will be able to address the issues that we face today.

In a broken world, adding to the brokenness will not fix anything. Ignoring the brokenness will not fix anything. Jesus came to heal us, to show us a better way, and to lead us into the Kingdom of righteous, where injustice, violence and sin have no place. Jesus came to make us one (see John 17), breaking down the barriers of race, class, and culture. Thus the apostle Paul can say with confidence:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
(Galatians 3:27-28)

Conclusion

So, going back to the story in Judges. Is near genocide the answer to injustice? No. But was it a sign of a deeper issue that needed to be addressed? Yes. And why did Israel react this way? Because this is the natural human reaction to injustice against our own people. “There was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Is rioting the answer to injustice? No. But is it a sign of a deeper issue that needs to be addressed? Yes. And why are people reacting this way? Because this is the natural human reaction to injustice against our own people, especially when other ways of reaction are not heard.

The only answer to injustice that will actually succeed is the love of Jesus emitting from the hearts of his people into this broken world. We are called to be the people of reconciliation (II Cor. 5:11-21), the people of love and mercy (Matt. 5:38-40, Rom. 12:9-21, Cor. 13) and the people of justice (Matt. 23:23). We are called to live out a true religion of visiting the marginalized and oppressed of our society to lift them up (Matt. 25:31-46, James 1:27). We are called to be the light of the world. And we dare not hide this light.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Luke 5:14-16

We cannot fix this problem on our own. We cannot rely on human wisdom and will to soften people’s hearts (or even to beat racist tendencies into submission).[5] This has been tried time and again, throughout all history. It never works. What is needed, rather, is the power of the Spirit, to enter our hearts and soften them according to the love of Christ. And this must begin with Christians. Where else can it? Who else is committed to Christ? Who else can we rely on to show the love of Christ? We should not be surprised at the world’s reaction to injustice. We shouldn’t even expect it to be anything different. We are the ones who follow Jesus, who broke down societal barriers, who went to the marginalized and oppressed, who ate with those that were deemed unworthy to eat with. It must start with us, or rather, Jesus working through us. We cannot fix this problem on our own.

We denounce racism because we are one in Jesus. We call for justice for the oppressed because we are people of the King of justice. And we love our neighbor because we follow the One who died for everyone, even while we were still sinners. In Jesus, barriers are broken, racial lines are crossed, and everyone- men and women, people from different nations, different classes, different socioeconomic status, people from every tribe, race and language under the son- is called to enter the Kingdom of God.

If you are a Christian and that makes you uncomfortable, I challenge you to spend some time in the life of Jesus, and in the teaching of his first disciples. I challenge you to embrace the Kingdom of God that is so beautifully described in the revelation given to John:

“And they sang a new song, saying,
‘Worthy are you to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made thema kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.’”

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
(Revelation 5:8-10, 7:9-10, 22:1-5)

This is the Kingdom that we are longing for and anticipating. And this is the Kingdom of which the people of God are already a part. As we belong to a Kingdom of righteousness, we should seek righteousness. As we serve a King of justice, we should seek justice. And as we follow the Lord who is Love, we too should be people of Love. For now, we groan with all of creation (Rom. 8:18-25) when we encounter sin and evil, and we pray “Come, Lord Jesus” to heal our broken world.

And if you are not a part of the Kingdom yet, please, take a moment to consider Jesus. Consider our broken world, what has been tried, and what has failed. Consider your heart. Consider the hearts of everyone around you. There is a better way, a way of forgiveness and mercy. A way of righteousness and peace. A family that actually breaks down all the dividing walls our society has erected. A family where you are welcome. A family of Divine love. I hope you will consider.

Our world is broken ultimately because our hearts are broken. Jesus is the only one who can change our hearts. And I pray that we all open our eyes and our hearts to see Him.

Hallelujah, come Lord Jesus.

The Love of God, and the God of love, calls out to you.

-Walt


[1] That is not to say that there aren’t hints that God was approving of at least some of the things presented in these stories, as we will later explore. But the overall theme is that these stories are a picture of what happens when humans try to rule themselves, fix their own problems and do what is right in their own eyes.

[2] Though the idea of a “concubine” is both unfamiliar and repugnant to us in our culture, it should be noted here that at the very least, the man going to speak kindly to the concubine instead of taking her back by force is a departure from the cultures around Israel and even the culture of Israel at times. Further, a deeper study of concubines in the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East is warranted if we are to better understand what is going on in passages involving concubines. The concept might turn out very different than what we think it is.

[3] It is noted that Jebus is Jerusalem, before it has become the Jerusalem that would be the capital and key city of Israel. This is interesting, because we see it here not inhabited by Israel yet. The irony, of course, would be that if they had stayed in Jebus instead of with supposedly the people of God, this whole situation might have been avoided.

[4] Later, the people will bitterly weep about what has happened to Benjamin (21:12-3) with no response from God. Instead of waiting for a response, they again take matters into their own hands, and arguably make a bad situation worse, at least by today’s standards. I think you could see this story as divine condensation, where the Lord is interacting with the situation in a way they understood (war was very common, if not expected, in the ancient near east), or even as Israel simply claiming God to be on their side when He had actually been marginalized from their hearts all together. This finds some evidence when the first two times that Israel goes up against Benjamin, even with the Lord’s blessing, they are defeated. Regardless, it is clear that God is not the focus of this narrative, but rather what the people were doing when “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And it is the people’s decision to go up to fight Benjamin, about which they subsequently ask God. At the very least, theological consideration aside, we see that it is human nature to respond with vengeance and violence when wronged.

[5] We cannot even rely on our own vengeance, because our revenge always goes beyond justice. This is why Paul tells us Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). It is only the Lord of justice who can rightfully avenge, and we must leave ultimate vengeance in His hands.

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