What Is That Story Doing in the Bible?
Let me preface what I’m about to say by noting that I am not a photography expert, especially in light of the fact that we have folks here who know a great deal more than I do about it. That said, my understanding of advanced photography is that if you want to get a picture just right, you have to have the right lens. There are different lenses depending on a variety of different factors. Some lenses are good for distance. Some are good for close-ups. Some are good for low light situations. Some are better in brighter settings. Some are good for capturing fast moving subjects (like children). Others are better for still-life photography. Whatever the scene is you are shooting there is a lens just right for the occasion. What if you don’t have the right lens, though? Well, here you have a couple of options. You can shell out the money for it or you can figure out another way to get the shot you want with what you have. But, the reality is that without the right lens, while you might be able to get a pretty acceptable substitute, someone with a trained eye will know that you didn’t have the right lens for the job. If that eye happens to be yours, you will have to live with taking pictures that just aren’t as good as they could be. That may work for a while, but eventually there’s a good chance you’ll get tired of falling short of the ideal and maybe even walk away from photography altogether.
You know, having the right lens actually applies to just about every area of life. We’re not talking about a physical lens anymore, of course, but if we look at life through the wrong lens, we’re not going to get the right picture. We may get something with which we can live with a mild degree of comfort, but somewhere inside we’re going to know that something’s just not quite right. This all goes double when we get more specific and talk about reading the Bible. The fact is that the Bible is ripe for misunderstanding. Yet for Christians, the Bible is our primary source of revelation about who God is and the kind of life He wants us to live as an indication of whether or not we are right with Him. Getting the Bible right, then, turns out to be not of passing, but of paramount importance. If we get the Bible wrong, we run the risk of missing out on the whole thing. If we are going to get the Bible right, though, we have to have the right lens.
Yet if we’re going to be honest, the places most of us have had the biggest trouble with the Bible are by and large found in the Old Testament. By a quick show of hands, who has read something in the Old Testament that made you want to throw your Bible across the room? I don’t know that I can blame you. There are some really tough places in the Old Testament. God and His people are recorded as saying and doing some things that ring so dissonantly with our culture as to be offensive in their plainest form. Many of the criticisms leveled against our faith have nothing to do with Jesus and everything to do with one difficult Old Testament passage or another. There have been not a few folks looking for a reason to reject God and the lifestyle His word commends for Christians who have found just the “evidence” they were seeking in a story not so unlike the one we are going to examine in just a minute. Not only that, but there are many former believers who turned away from the faith because they couldn’t make sense out of something they found in the Old Testament.
With this in mind, having the right lens to look at the Old Testament has not only apologetic value, but personal value as well. To this end, this morning we are beginning a new series called, He Said What? In this series we are going to explore some principles for how to handle tough texts in the Old Testament. The goal here will be threefold: figure out how to make the most positive sense about them, reassure ourselves that they and others like them present no real challenge to our faith, and to equip us to defend them before critics who attempt to use them to show why following God isn’t worthwhile. We are going to do this by examining some hard places in the Old Testament and putting these principles into practice. Ultimately, we are going to work to find the right lens through which to see these hard places in order that we can grapple with them in the right light. This series is not necessarily going to be an easy one, but it will be a worthwhile journey. Understanding how tough this is going to be, I thought we’d start this morning with a softball. We are going to look at one of the strangest, most disturbing stories in all of Scripture to see exactly why God would want something like this included in His word.
If you have a Bible handy in some form, find your way to the ancient record of a particularly dark time in the history of Israel during which the nation was loosely led by a series of regional leaders called Judges. The record of Judges reports on the period of Israel’s history after Joshua, Moses successful successor, died, and before Samuel, the nation’s last non-royal leader, was born. During this period the people turned away from the Law and started living like everybody else around them. This eventually led to a pattern: fall away from God, get oppressed by a neighboring nation, get rescued by a regional leader, return to God. The thing is, though, the character of the leaders reflected the character of the people. They started pretty good in the immediate wake of Joshua’s death with Deborah, but by the time Samson came along, he was a moral disaster. Gradually, as one generation succeeded another, the spiritual and moral climate of the nation fell further and further from the ideal God set out for them in the Law. By the time you reach the final story in Judges the people have fallen very far indeed. What results is an episode in the history of the people of Israel so unbelievably awful that it’s hard to figure out why God would have allowed it to be recorded in His word in the first place.
Find Judges 19 and take a look at this story with me as I tell it. The story begins when a Levite man travels to the home of his concubine’s father to reclaim her and take her back to his home. The girl’s father tries to keep her home as long as he can, but eventually the Levite loads her up and they leave.
Well, when the Levite finally leaves with his party it is late in the day. They only travel a short distance before it is time to find a place to stop for the night. Although they are near some towns controlled by non-Israelites where they could stop the Levite remarks in 19:12: “We will not turn aside into the city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel.” The subtext here is that he doesn’t want to stay with foreigners because he’ll get a better reception if he stays with his own people. He eventually arrives in the town of Gibeah in the territory of Benjamin where, forebodingly, he waits far longer for someone to invite him to stay with them than the hospitality rules of the day should have allowed. At last an old farmer on his way back home from his fields invites the Levite and his party to join him. Things really go south from here. Look at v. 22: “As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, ‘Bring out the man who came to your house, that we may know him.” Somewhat disturbingly, if you look back to Genesis 19, there is another instance of hospitality-gone-wrong, when the men of a city surround the house of a man graciously playing host to a pair of travelers and say, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” The name of this other city? Sodom.
Just as Lot did in Sodom, the old farmer goes out to the men to try and dissuade them from their course of action, but they continue to press. Finally the Levite takes matters into his own hands. He goes to the door…and shoves his concubine out into the hands of the mob. When the Levite goes to leave in the morning, he nearly trips over her body which was lying at the door with her hands reaching toward the threshold as if pleading for help. He doesn’t realize she is dead and commands her to get up and load up so they could hit the road. When she doesn’t respond, he straps her to his donkey and heads home. As if that weren’t bad enough, he then uses her body to send a message to the people of Israel, but the description is so graphic that I will leave you to read it on your own. You’ve got to read your Bibles, there’s some wild stuff in here.
And if you are sitting there thinking, “Wow! That’s awful. What a terrible story!” I’ve got some news for you: it isn’t over yet. When the rest of the tribes of Israel receive the…message…they gather at a place called Mizpah in order to decide what to do. The solution? Wipe out the tribe of Benjamin as a punishment for the crimes of the men of Gibeah. And so a civil war begins. Benjamin isn’t going down without a fight, though, and in the first two major battles the combined army of the eleven other tribes loses badly. Finally on the third try they devise a better battle strategy and wipe out the whole tribe with the exception of 600 hundred men who manage to escape the carnage.
After this victory—and I use that word loosely—the people gather back at Mizpah and, in a moment of clarity, weep together over what has happened. From 21:2: “And the people came to Bethel and sat there till evening before God, and they lifted up their voices and wept bitterly. And they said, ‘O Lord, the God of Israel, why has this happened in Israel, that today there should be one tribe lacking in Israel?’” They decide to have mercy on the Benjaminites and let them repopulate their tribe. There’s just one problem…they have all sworn an oath to not give their daughters to the men of Benjamin in marriage. This means that while they are open to Benjamin rebuilding, their hands are tied as far as a way to help with the process. And since Israelites aren’t allowed to marry outside the nation, things aren’t looking good. Eventually they devise a plan. They do a quick survey of who did and didn’t come to this national pow-wow and discover that a sub-tribe living at Jabesh-Gilead was missing. They decide the punishment for this offense will be to kill every man and woman who either is or has been married in the town. The remaining 400 young women are given forcibly to the surviving Benjaminites. The remaining men are given permission to go to the town of Shiloh and kidnap 200 young girls and make them their wives. The rest of the tribes apologize to the men of Shiloh and explain how a technical loophole exempts this wife-taking from their earlier oath. And with that, the story ends. Once all of this is settled, the people return to their homes as if nothing has happened. The record ends with the rather ominous note, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
So then, the question of the day, the question of the next few weeks is this: What on earth are we supposed to do with a story like this? Why is something like this in the Bible? Or perhaps to put that another way: He said what?!?
In order to answer this—and I think we can find a good answer to this question in most instances—there are several things we need to keep in mind. For the rest of our time together this morning I want to walk through these with you step-by-step, apply them to the story at hand, and discover two things: why a story like this would be included in the Bible, and to craft a big idea that we can take and apply to any hard passage in the Old Testament.
The first step should seem obvious, but often gets overlooked: Read the text and its surrounding context carefully to make sure you don’t miss any important details. At first read this just seems like a terrible story. But, upon closer examination there start to appear some clues that point to something bigger happening. Think back to the beginning of the story with me. Remember what we saw right out of the gate? The Levite man had a concubine. This man who was supposed to be specially dedicated to serving God is living in a situation that the Law never sought to allow. Generally, you can figure out the spiritual and moral climate of a people by looking at their leaders. If this supposed spiritual leader is not living rightly, how likely do you think it is that the people are on track? Furthermore, if you examine the broader context, the prior story features a young Levite who actively agrees to become a personal, pagan priest for this random Israelite man who builds an idol for his household. There are other clues as well. The Levite won’t stay in a town of non-Israelites (presumably because of the way they would have treated him), and then gets treated terribly by his own people. The men of Benjamin replay a scene used to show how Sodom was evil enough to warrant getting wiped out by God. On the other side, though, Judges leads right into Ruth which takes place during the time of judges and is this wonderfully positive love story. The story of Ruth sets up the rise of King David and the Golden Age of Israel.
Putting all this together, it appears now that this is no random bad story. It instead seems to have a couple of different purposes. First, it shows how far the people had fallen absent good, strong moral, spiritual, and political leadership. Second, its broader context reveals that in spite of how bad things were, they were still not as bad as they could have been. There were still God-fearing people in the nation. And, God was actively working during this time to bring to prominence the man (David) who would brilliantly fill that leadership void and lay the ancestral foundations on which His plans for the ultimate salvation of His people would rest. But, without a close reading, you wouldn’t be able to see any of this.
The second and third principles can be taken as a pair. If we are going to make sense out of hard places in the Bible, we need to work hard to understand to the best of our abilities and the resources available to us the culture and circumstances of both the writer and the original audience. The reason this is important is that a text cannot mean something now that it never could have meant in the past. This mistake is often made by people trying to interpret biblical prophecy or apocalyptic writings through a modern cultural lens. Nothing in the Bible is making reference to specific modern nations or modern technology because they didn’t exist back then and were never envisioned by the authors. More importantly for our purposes, though, our culture thinks very differently about some things than the various Old Testament authors did. If we come at a text solely through the lens of our culture there is no way we are going to understand some parts of it as they were intended.
The third point, then, is related to this: the Bible often reports bad behavior uncritically without condoning it. With the two exceptions that the men of Gibeah are called worthless (a moral criticism in that culture) and the old farmer’s plea to them to not do the wicked things they had planned, there is not a word of judgment in this story regarding any of the obviously wrong behaviors. Does this mean the Bible is condoning them? Of course not! The guys who contributed to the Bible made certain moral assumptions which were not always made explicit because their primary audience made the same ones and didn’t need to be reminded of them. This would be like when someone today writes a history of the Third Reich without making an overt statement about how evil Hitler and his Nazi followers were. Are future generations to think the author is tacitly approving of them? No, because his target audience doesn’t needed to be reminded that Hitler was evil.
Fourth, and now we’re getting closer to the heart of the matter. We need to keep in mind the whole character of God and the fact that His character does not change. I have said it before here but let me say it again because this is really important: if we get the character of God wrong, we aren’t going to be able to get the Bible right as a whole, let alone the hard places. We serve a God who is holy, just, and loving. If in a certain place it seems like God is something other than holy, just, and loving, we’ve taken it the wrong way. We’re not getting the story right. In this story for instance, God seems to be letting the gross injustices and moral evil going on in Israel happen without consequence. No enemy nation rises up to conquer them this time. Has God thrown up His hands and walked away in frustration? Has He finally said, as so many fed-up parents do, “Whatever! Do what you want. I don’t care anymore.” By no means! Seen through the lens of God’s character of justice, Israel just about destroys itself by civil war before having a moment of conscience (which even then served to show how far they had fallen off the moral cliff). What was that? It was an act of judgment. It was an indication that God was not going to simply let this go. Furthermore, the smooth lead into the story of Ruth and especially the genealogical ending of Ruth’s story reveals that even in this ultra-dark time God was still at work behind the scenes to bring righteousness and salvation to His people—a clear display of His love. He neither let their sins stand without statement nor did he abandon them to their plight. He is just and loving and in this holy. If we understand God’s character well then we don’t miss it and we can make a lot more sense out of what’s going on in something like this.
Last piece and we’re out of here: we have to view everything in the Old Testament through the lens of Christ. Jesus made very clear in the Sermon on the Mount that He was by no means taking anything in the Old Testament off the table as applicable to the lives of His followers. But, He was creating a new pathway of application, one that ran through Himself. In His words, He fulfilled the Law. This means that He is now the chief interpretive authority for the Old Testament. As Jesus followers we are to take the text of the Old Testament, filter it through Jesus’ teachings, and apply it thusly. In other words, Jesus is the lens we need to understand the Old Testament.
In doing this, though, we have to keep in mind that Jesus is fully God and not forget principle four. What I’m getting at is this: sometimes people try to paint Jesus as only loving. But this is not the case. His loving sacrifice on the cross to satisfy the righteous wrath of God did bring forgiveness into reach for anyone who seeks it, but Jesus is fully just and holy as well as being loving. He is not even once seen tolerating sin in the Gospels. When He refuses to pronounce judgment on the woman caught in the act of adultery what does He say? Neither do I condemn you…love. But He also says, “Now go and sin no more.” That’s justice. Jesus embodies both of these even as God the Father does. Indeed, Jesus is the lens we need to understand the Old Testament.
But, if Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, this means that it all points to Him. And indeed, this is the case here. With the help of the surrounding context as we saw just a minute ago we can see that this story is a microcosm of the larger story being told in the Scriptures. Even as pulling back the darkness of Judges 19-21 reveals the light of the story of Ruth and the triumph of that light in David, when the darkness that was the history of Israel gets pulled back we can see the light of God’s working to bring salvation to His people and the triumph of those plans in Christ. We can go even bigger than this though to the larger narrative of human history as a whole. On the whole, human history has been a dark affair. But, when you pull back the curtain just a bit, even when things are at their darkest, God is still present and active. His light is shining—through the church now—to bring human history to a glorious conclusion that will see Him properly honored for who He is and all of His followers able to properly enjoy the spoils. Jesus was the trumpet call announcing the coming of this time which will come in full when He returns.
And so, yes, this is a hard, dark text. But with just a bit of work and the proper lens we can see that in it shines a greater light pointing the way to the more important truth that God is alive and well in His world, working to the favor of His people, no matter what things seem like in a given moment. And the proper lens to see this is Jesus. Jesus is the lens we need to understand the Old Testament. So when you encounter a hard place—and we’re going to see some more together in the coming weeks, don’t sweat it. Follow these simple steps and make sure you have on the right lens. Jesus is the lens we need to understand the Old Testament.