My Bible reading for today was, well, ugly. I knew what was coming and I was not looking forward to it. I did not want to face it.
Each morning I offer up the prayer of the psalmist: “Lord, open my eyes that I might behold wonderful things out of your law” (119:18). But this morning that prayer was more ritualistic than it was faithful. I really did not expect much from the ugly chapters of Judges 19—21. In fact, I was looking forward to getting through them and was already anticipating reading the book of Ruth tomorrow.
Judges 19 records one of the most shameful events in Israel’s history. A certain Levite, who was living in the mountains of Ephraim, took to himself a concubine from the city of Bethlehem. After some time she left him, engaged in harlotry, and returned to her father’s house in Bethlehem. The Levite travelled to Bethlehem and kindly entreated her to return to him. After some delay, they set off to return to Ephraim. As the day grew long and the sun began to set, they find themselves in the city of Gibeah in the territory of Benjamin. No one showed them hospitality, except for an old man who provided lodging for them. Late in the evening, “sons of Belial” banged on the door, demanding the old man to send out to them the Levite that they might “know him carnally” (v. 22). They were intent on homosexual rape. But it gets even uglier.
The owner of the house pleaded with the perverts not to do so. and offered in exchange for the Levite his own daughter, as well as the Levite’s concubine. The Levite clearly was complicit in the deal. For whatever reason, the concubine was the only one offered up on the altar of the perverse desires of these godless and base men as they “knew her and abused her all night until the morning” (v. 25). But it gets even uglier.
The next morning the Levite left the house with the intention to return home, and he found his concubine lying on the steps of the door. He callously said, “Get up and let us be going” (v. 28). At this point, you want to throttle this heartless man.
The woman did not respond, for she was dead. She had been raped and left for dead. She had been murdered.
The Levite put her on his donkey, went back home and did the unthinkable. He took a knife and literally “divided her into twelve pieces, limb by limb with her bones.” He then sent one piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel (v. 29). He was clearly trying to make a statement that this horrific deed needed to be recompensed.
The result was that the tribes formed a war council and attacked Gibeah in Benjamin. 25,100 Benjamites were eventually put to death by the sword. A tribe of Israel was nearly extinguished. By the end of chapter 21, which marks the end of the book of Judges, you are glad that the next book is Ruth.
Clearly, this is an ugly and confusing episode. Many over the years have enquired concerning its significance: Why is it here? Judges 19 raises many questions concerning human depravity, God’s covenantal faithfulness, and the misogyny that was here evidenced by God’s chosen people. Even in our own culture of death this story is so ugly that it defies imagination. But the fundamental issue behind this story is a phrase found in v. 1, “And it came to pass in those days when there was no king in Israel.” The consequence of this lack of leadership was that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25). It was this unbridled autonomy that produced this ugly episode.
Now, much can be said about this story, but one particular lesson stood out for me: As I picked up my Bible this morning, knowing full well what I was going to read, I was very hesitant to face the ugly. I knew that, once again, I would be confronted with this awful story and, to be frank, I would have preferred a happier narrative. I did not want to face the ugly. But nevertheless, the Lord did indeed enable me to see something wonderful out of this portion of His Law. Namely, that until Jesus returns, I will be often confronted with the ugly. And by His grace I can learn from it and live productively in spite of it.
If you are like me, you don’t want to face the ugly. We would rather live in a fairytale that denies reality. For instance, last night a couple of my daughters were watching What a Girl Wants, one of their favourite chick flicks. (I confess that it is one of my favourites as well!) I watched the ending with them and noted how everything worked out fantastically. Then these words appeared on the screen, “And they lived happily ever after.” I love those endings, and yet after the credits roll I am left feeling manipulated, for I know that this is not true to life. In fact, we are daily confronted with the ugliness of broken relationships, of shattered dreams, of disease, decay and destruction, and of death. We are forced to face the ugly because of the prevailing quest for autonomy. That is, since society does not recognise Jesus as King, everyone is bent on doing what is right in their own eyes. And the results are ugly.
When Adam and Even chose to not listen to Yahweh as King, when they chose to do what was right in their own eyes, ugliness began to spread over the earth. The Garden of Eden became infested with ugly thorns and thistles, and death and decay began to pockmark the land. Such ugly defacing of this world, morally, spiritually and physically, is the reason that almost daily we are forced to face the ugly. And face it we must. We cannot ignore it, for to do so will lead most often to moral and spiritual atrophy. However, if we choose to face it, then we will be on guard to face it biblically. But how is that? I think twofold.
First, we are to face the ugliness with horror. This week our church received news of a young Christian lady who is fighting for her life from an allergic food reaction. I said to my wife, “Sin is a terrible thing.” We spoke of how that, apart from sin, there would be no sickness and no prospect of death. We should be horrified by the ugliness that sin has brought into the world. We must never lose our sense of horror at the ugliness of sin and its consequences. This will go a long way towards guarding our own hearts and hands from adding to the ugliness around us. In other words, we should do all that we can to not contribute further to the ugliness of this presently sin-cursed world. Let us be sure that we do not add any sequels to Judges 19.
Finally, we are to face the ugliness of this world with hope. That is, we are to face the ugliness with the biblical assurance that, one day, all of the ugliness associated with sin will be forever removed. Paul tells us in Romans 8:18-21 that an unending glorious future awaits those who are Christians. He writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
Yes, there is coming a day when we will no longer be required to face the ugly, for there will be no ugliness to face! In fact, tomorrow when I read the book of Ruth I will once again be reminded of this. The end of Ruth records the genealogy of King David; a king that brought much order to an otherwise lawless people. But ultimately the Greater King, King Jesus, would arise through the genealogy of David. And it is because of King Jesus that all of the ugliness of this world will be removed. What a glorious prospect that there is coming a day when those whom Christ has saved will perfectly do all that is right in the eyes of our King and the ugliness that we face today will be replaced with the beauty of holiness.