The book of Judges ends with yet another classic example of a nation where everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Though Israel was a nation chosen by God, delivered by God from bondage in Egypt, ushered into a covenantal relationship with God, brought by God into the land of promise, and blessed by God, the people of Israel had abandoned God. They turned their back on His ways and His will, both of which were clearly revealed in the Law given to Moses and ratified by the people on Mt. Sinai. With their moral compass in their rear view mirror, the people were left to do what was right in their own eyes. Their resulting morality and spirituality are demonstrated in one dark story after another.
The last three chapters of the book paint another picture of the depravity of mankind. An unnamed Levite and his concubine (or wife?) were traveling through the area of Gibeah. They were put up for the night by an old man from the hill country. The men of the town surround the old man’s house in the middle of the night demanding that he hand over the Levite so that they might have sex with him. To appease the angry mob, the Levite gave his concubine to them so that they might use her and do to her as they wished. In the morning, the Levite found the woman dead on the old man’s doorsteps. The Levite called the tribes of Israel together to tell them of this horror, and the tribes decided to give to Gibeah what it deserved. Since the tribe of Benjamin would not hand over the men of Gibeah who were responsible for the death of the concubine, the other eleven tribes of Israel declared war on the entire tribe of Benjamin. In the course of battle, the eleven tribes of Israel destroyed not only the town of Gibeah, but also all of the other towns in the territory of Benjamin. They burned the towns and put everyone and everything to the sword. Only 600 men from the tribe of Benjamin escaped the massacre.
Chapter 21 begins with the recounting of an oath that the men of Israel had taken against the tribe of Benjamin: “Not one of us will give his daughter in marriage to a Benjamite.” After the anger of war subsided, the people realized that the consequences of the last few days events was that one of their twelve tribes would be completely removed from Israel. With only 600 men left, and with no one for those 600 men to marry to produce offspring, the tribe of Benjamin would cease to exist with the passing of this one generation.
There are three basic responses to the conviction of sin. When we come to our senses in the pig pen of our own wasteful living (see Luke 15.17), we either accept responsibility for our sinful choices and the resultant pain in our lives, or we blame someone else for the pain in our lives (see Adam in Genesis 3.12), or we make every effort to avoid the consequences by covering up our sin with even more sinful and foolish choices. Israel opted for choice #3. They honestly wept before the Lord at Bethel and cried out, “Why has this happened to Israel?” They were in complete and utter denial about the role that their sin had in creating the situation. They were not able to see that their murderous rampage and wholesale destruction of town after town had anything to do with the problem. It seems that they wanted God to protect them from the consequences of their sinful choices, and were quite shocked when He failed to do so. Even worse, they refused to even consider the fact that their oath, taken in the heat of war, might have been foolish and ill advised (see the oath of Jepthah in Judges 11.31 for another example of such an oath). Instead of retracting the oath, they had to seek out a solution to the problem.
It all reminds me of the words of the apostle Paul to the church in Rome. Writing of what happens when mankind refuses to acknowledge God, he wrote,
28Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1.28-32)
The men of Israel were a living illustration of Paul’s words. They did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, and so God gave them over to a depraved mind. As a result, they did what not ought to be done. They were senseless, ruthless, heartless, and full of murder, deceit, and strife.
In their minds, the problem had nothing to do with their actions against Benjamin nor their hastily taken oath. Seeking a scapegoat, they found one in Jabesh Gilead for this region did not send a representative to the pre-war gathering at Mizpah. Armed with that information, they came up with a plan to avoid the consequences of their sinful and foolish choices. And outlandish as it seems, their plan to get out of their mess was to repeat the actions that got them into the mess in the first place. Yes, their plan was to send armed troops into the region of Jabesh Gilead and to kill everyone except the unmarried women of marriageable age. If deceit and murder got you into a mess, then surely murder and deceit can get you out, right? Only a depraved mind would think like that.
After executing their plan, only 400 young women were stolen from Jabesh Gilead to give to the 600 men of the tribe of Benjamin as wives. This caused the men of Israel to grieve for Benjamin “because the Lord had made a gap in the tribes of Israel.” Unbelievable. Now they were blaming God for the consequences of their sin. It had nothing to do with the Levite tossing his concubine to the crowds to save his own neck. It had nothing to do with the overreaching vengeance of an angry mob. It had nothing to do with the massacre of an entire people group. It had nothing to do with their foolish oath. No, it was all God’s fault because He made a gap in the tribes of Israel. What a senseless and wicked people.
Their next plan was just about as reprehensible as their first plan. They decided to kidnap 200 women from another town. They knew that a “annual festival to the Lord” was about to take place in Shiloh. We should not be fooled by the phrase, “annual festival to the Lord.” A festival in a vineyard with dancing seems to have more to do with pagan worship than it does the worship of YHWH. Again, their man made spirituality is off the mark. Regardless, they would use this event as an opportunity to allow the 200 remaining Benjamites to kidnap a wife. This is what they said to them,
20So they instructed the Benjamites, saying, “Go and hide in the vineyards 21and watch. When the girls of Shiloh come out to join in the dancing, then rush from the vineyards and each of you seize a wife from the girls of Shiloh and go to the land of Benjamin. 22When their fathers or brothers complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Do us a kindness by helping them, because we did not get wives for them during the war, and you are innocent, since you did not give your daughters to them.’” 23So that is what the Benjamites did. While the girls were dancing, each man caught one and carried her off to be his wife. Then they returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and settled in them. (Judges 21.20-23)
Not only did they premeditate the kidnapping of 200 innocent young women, but they also premeditated the cover-up. Their reasoning went something like this: “We made an oath not to let our daughters marry a Benjamite, but the men of Shiloh have made no such oath. So, they will be innocent of breaking the oath we took when their daughters are kidnapped. That way, they won’t have to feel guilty of breaking the oath we took without their knowledge.”
How does such a convoluted, selfish, and morally reprehensible thought process actually seem like a good idea to a group of leading Israelites? The words of Romans 1 make it very clear,
28Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice….they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1.28-32)
The book of Judges, difficult to read as it is, is a glaring reminder of the foolishness of mankind. With all of our advancement in science and technology, our moral wisdom is rooted in the same sin nature as it has been since the dawn of time. We can explain the inner workings of DNA and at the same time explain away the murder of an unborn baby. We can explore the amazing design of the cosmos and at the same time dismiss the idea of a Creator. We can work hard to find a cure for the horrible disease that is AIDS and at the same time defend all types of sexual immorality.
How is it that such depravity can come from such smart people? When we do not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, our depraved minds become foolish and darkened even as we think we are getting wiser and wiser. If the front page of the newspaper doesn’t make that painfully clear, then we can read the stories found in the book of Judges. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21.25). May God help us all.