What the Bible describes does not mean it excuses. Sometimes scripture is simply painting a sad picture for us of what happens when God is marginalized in our thoughts, feelings and actions. Bad behavior is never justified; rather, it is pictured for us as a warning sign of what life will be like when we put our needs, wants and interests ahead of God’s purposes and plans.
Going Deep // Focus: Judges 21:4-5, 25
Early the next morning the people built an altar and presented their burnt offerings and peace offerings on it. Then they said, “Who among the tribes of Israel did not join us at Mizpah when we held our assembly in the presence of the Lord?” At that time they had taken a solemn oath in the Lord’s presence, vowing that anyone who refused to come would be put to death….In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.
Let me get this straight: Israel has just basically wiped out one of their own tribes (Judges 20); they then vow to never allow their daughters to marry any of the remnant of that tribe, Benjamin (Judges 21:1); they feel really bad about it (Judges 21:2-3,6); they call a sacred assembly to offer sacrifices before the Lord (Judges 4); and then they make another vow to kill anyone who doesn’t show up to this worship service (Judges 21:5). Now there’s a great way to increase church attendance!
What a mess! Then they discover that the people from Jabesh-gilead had not attended church that day, so they ordered their execution: “So the assembly sent 12,000 of their best warriors to Jabesh-gilead with orders to kill everyone there, including women and children.” (Judges 21:10) But wait, someone then comes up with the idea that if they spare the unmarried woman of that city, they can then force them to become the wives of the left-over Benjamite men, making it possible for that tribe to repopulate so Isreal won’t lose one of its tribes after all, and technically, they will not have violated their vow not to let their daughters marry anyone from Benjamin. Wait, what? .
Problem was, there were only 400 of these girls from Jabesh-gilead, and there were gobs of guys from Benjamin needing wives. So someone comes up with the idea that sanctions kidnapping brides from Bethel for the rest of the Benjamite men who didn’t get a bride from Jabesh-gilead as the Bethel girls are leaving one of their annual festivals. (Judges 21:19-22) Wait, what?
Then everyone went home and lived happily ever after—not! Why not? Because as the last verse of Judges observes, “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25) They had no controlling moral authority to keep them between the lines of civility with their neighbor and righteousness before God, so they kept on coming up with social solutions—assuming they were being guided by God—that only made their national mess bigger and bigger.
Now as you read this chapter, and plenty of other chapters like it in the Old Testament, you, too, can assume that since it was recorded, and you find no condemnation of what is recorded, that God must have approved of what they are doing. But notice in Israel’s crazy plan to get brides for Benjamin that there is no use of the phrase, “the Lord commanded.”
God didn’t tell the nation to annihilate their fellow tribe. God didn’t order them to make a rash vow. God didn’t instruct them to kill off the city of Jabesh-gilead for not showing up to church. God didn’t show them how to devise a dumb plan to kidnap child-brides for the Benjamites. God wasn’t talking in this chapter. They had pushed God to the margins, then blamed him for whatever they did next.
So what does this have to do with how you read the Old Testament? Simply this, what the Bible describes does not mean it excuses. The writer is simply painting a sad picture for us of what happens when God is marginalized. Moreover, rather than justifying unrighteous behavior, these kinds of stories are to stand as warning signs to us when we put our needs, wants and interests ahead of God’s purposes and plans.
Without God at the center and circumference of our thoughts, feelings and actions, life will ultimately stink! With him at the core of everything we do, we have his eternal promise to bless us with success, prosperity and his smile. (Joshua 1:8)
Never forget: when you obey God blesses! When you don’t—well, just re-read Judges.