Clinging to the Threshold
Today’s message is going to be a bit different from the other messages I’ve shared recently. Over the past weeks, we’ve explored a number of the grand themes of the Bible, going from Genesis to Revelation to uncover the foundational truths about God, His love, and His plan and desire for each one of us. I had planned to share another message this week in this series, but a series of circumstances has brought another topic to my attention.
No doubt you are familiar with the story that’s been on the news and across social media, of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. He was guilty of nothing, except going out for a run, but he was black. He was hunted down and murdered in cold blood by two well-respected members of the community. That was in February. No arrests were made. Only last week, the two suspects were finally arrested, after a major public outcry, and an investigation is being made. If you follow my social media, you might know that this week, I dedicated a run of 2.23 miles to Ahmaud Arbery, and the failure of justice that his case highlights for all people of color. You see, it’s one thing for two men to commit a crime. It’s terrible, but almost inevitable that crimes will be committed in the sinful world we live in. Yet it’s quite another thing for a community, and yes a society, to endorse and stand behind those criminals by silence and inaction. The failure of bringing justice makes the crime of the individual into the crime of the society and the nation. We all stand guilty of racial hate and murder by our inaction.
After some prayer I have decided to just share a story with you, which will give us all some pause to think.
Today’s story is not a pretty story. In fact, the details of the story are honestly pretty raw. It’s not the kind of story I would typically like share in church. But considering the importance of the topic, I want to share this story today.
Imagine a time, long long ago. Before coronavirus. Before social media. Before the Internet and telephones, before cars and highways. A time long ago, in a land where there was no big “bad” federal government, or state government, or president or king. Long ago in the time of the judges in the land of Israel.
If you’ve read through your Bible, I’m sure you’ve read this story. It’s found in Judges chapter 19.
And it came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a certain Levite staying in the remote mountains of Ephraim. He took for himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah.
Now, just to give you the setting for this story, this is after the time of Moses and Joshua, but before the time of Samuel, and King Saul and King David. This time of the “judges” was generally a dark period in Israel’s history. Even though there were “judges” or leaders in Israel, often they were unfaithful to God. By and large, much of Israel had forgotten God and His law, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. It was a time of tribalism, anarchy, and unrest.
If you look at a map of Israel from the time of Judges, you can see how the land had been divided according to the twelve tribes, ever since the time of Joshua. The land of Judah covers a large territory in the south. Then you have a smaller strip of territory along the northern edge of Judah that belongs to Benjamin, and to the north of Benjamin is the territory of Ephraim. If you start in Bethlehem in the land of Judah and travel north, you come to Jebus (later Jerusalem) on the border of Benjamin, then to Gibeah and Ramah in Benjamin, and then to Bethel on the border of the land of Ephraim. Continuing on into the land of Ephraim, you would eventually reach Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was at this time. The entire route is a rugged, mountainous country, and in those days was known to be home to dangerous marauding bands.
Remember, the Levites didn’t receive a tribal inheritance with the other tribes. Instead, the lived among the other tribes, and they had a special work to provide for the religious instruction of those tribes, and to work in the tabernacle service.
So, we have this Levite who lived far back in the hill country of Ephriam, but he takes a concubine from Bethlehem. Already, we see a problem with this story. Ever since the garden of Eden, God has designed for marriage to exist between one man and one woman. He created this first family unit, Adam and Eve, and created the marriage as a beautiful illustration of the bond of intimate love and union that exists among the members of the Godhead. It illustrates the bond of union between Christ and His church, and lays the foundation for the family and society.
But this Levite, even though he is supposed to be setting an example of righteousness, is already straying far away from God’s plan. Perhaps he already has a wife, but he takes this concubine in addition to her. He’s not truly married to her, but he finds her pleasing and so he takes her. He wants the benefits of the relationship, without all the strings attached.
But sadly—perhaps predictably—the relationship doesn’t last. Even though he’s gone over a long and dangerous journey to get her, she leaves him.
The Bible says (Judges 19:2): “But his concubine played the harlot against him, and went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there four whole months.”
There’s an interesting note on this verse that we get from the Septuagint reading. The text doesn’t necessarily mean that she was promiscuous—it could literally mean that she had a quarrel with her husband, and simply decided to run away and go back home to her father. Jewish tradition supports this understanding, and as you will see, it makes the most sense as we see the rest of the story play out. Even though we don’t know what went on then, reading between the lines, she may have had a really good reason for running away!
So, the Levite has gotten a concubine, and now she’s run away from him. Understandably he is upset, and he determines to bring her back.
Then her husband arose and went after her, to speak kindly to her and bring her back, having his servant and a couple of donkeys with him. So she brought him into her father’s house; and when the father of the young woman saw him, he was glad to meet him. 4 Now his father-in-law, the young woman’s father, detained him; and he stayed with him three days. So they ate and drank and lodged there.
No doubt, the father-in-law has heard the whole sordid story of their failed marriage in the intervening months. But, the fact that his daughter has returned has brought shame to his family. It didn’t matter how who was at fault—if the married daughter came back home, it didn’t look good. People were already talking. So despite his feelings for his daughter and his misgivings about the Levite’s character, the father-in-law is glad for a chance at reunion.
So, the father-in-law throws a party. He has a strategy. It’s not a long-term strategy, because he really doesn’t want to send his daughter back to the Levite’s home up in the mountains. But at least he has a strategy to buy some time. Maybe he can figure out a plan—or at the very least, get to know this young man better before he takes his daughter away again. In the meantime, he can save face. After all, hospitality is the most fundamental duty of anyone living in the middle east. If a stranger came to town—even if he was your enemy—it was still your duty to make sure he was fed and cared for. No one, NO ONE would think to pass up the opportunity to extend hospitality.
So, the father in law throws a party. Day after day they feast and celebrate. By day four, the Levite is ready to go. But the father-in-law convinces him to stay for breakfast. Well, breakfast turns into a feast, and by the time this is done, it’s too late and he has to stay another night. Day five, the same thing happens, and by the time breakfast is done, it’s afternoon. The father-in-law begs him to stay, but his patience has worn thin. He knows the road ahead is long, and the places to lodge overnight are few and far between. But he’s tired of this charade. He takes his servant, his donkeys, and his concubine, and together they set out toward home.
As they trudge north, the afternoon shadows begin to grow longer and longer, and they quicken their pace. You have to wonder, what was the man thinking? What ever happened to chivalry and common courtesy? Is this the kind of love a woman would long for, to be stolen away from her father’s house after such a heated argument? To be hurried out to the long and dangerous road, to be carried along in the late afternoon into the mountains, with the man she had so recently escaped from? Who knows that kind of “marriage” she had experienced in those lonely mountains. She had fled to the only man in the world who she knew would protect her—her own father. Now, he, too, had failed her—not willingly, but to avoid embarrassment and shame, he had risked letting her go against his better judgment.
No doubt her heart was heavy after hearing the sharp words, and being rudely torn from her father. This man—her husband—had already proved untrustworthy, and it was with anxious foreboding that she watched the shadows grow long as they neared the city of Jebus.
Judges 19:11-12 They were near Jebus, and the day was far spent; and the servant said to his master, “Come, please, and let us turn aside into this city of the Jebusites and lodge in it.”
12 But his master said to him, “We will not turn aside here into a city of foreigners, who are not of the children of Israel; we will go on to Gibeah.”
It was better to keep pressing forward into the evening, he reasoned, than to risk having to deal with the foreigners who occupied the town of Jebus. Surely, they would have a warm welcome in an Israelite town a little further down the road. So, they pressed on to Gibeah, in the land of Benjamin. The sun was already setting when the reached the turnoff to Gibeah, so wearily they made their way into the town. But, to their surprise, no one seemed ready to welcome them. The gracious hospitality that they had expected so readily from their own fellow countrymen was gone. People passed this way and that, and soon the town square was empty. Still, no one offered a place to stay.
If you could have heard the hushed whispers of the townspeople, you might have heard something like this: “Did you see those travelers there in the market square.”
“Yeah. Really, they should know this isn’t a good place to stay. I mean, we’re nice people and all. I’m not prejudiced or anything, but some people are… And it really isn’t safe! None of us would be safe asking them over. I mean, after all, they could be spies! You never know!”
Finally, an old man found them there. He was also a stranger in the town—he, too, was from the hill country of Ephraim. But he found them there, and graciously brought them to his home and offered them the best that he had.
I can’t help but see the parallels between this story, and the story of Lot in Sodom, in Genesis 19. Like Sodom, this town of Gibeah had grown accustomed to tolerating wickedness.
Ezekiel 16:49 This was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.
In the story of Sodom, two angels appeared as travelers coming into the city. They found no hospitality in the city, except with Lot, who was himself a foreigner. And in this story here in Judges, just as in the days of Sodom, we see the reason for this strange lack of hospitality.
It wasn’t only a fear and prejudice of strangers that prompted this kind of indifference. It was a fear of their own townspeople. It was an unwritten rule. Nobody said it, but everybody knew it. The town mafia targeted foreigners like this, and no citizen was safe who dared to offer protection to someone like this!
Judges 19:22 “As they were enjoying themselves, suddenly certain men of the city, perverted men, surrounded the house and beat on the door. They spoke to the master of the house, the old man, saying, ‘Bring out the man who came to your house, that we may know him carnally!’”
Just the thought is enough to make one’s blood run cold. A gang of angry, perverted men, beating down the door to get to this man who had just come to town? He had no place to go. There was nothing to do. The old man of the house goes to the door and tries to reason with the perverted mob.
Judges 19:23-24 “But the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, ‘No, my brethren! I beg you, do not act so wickedly! Seeing this man has come into my house, do not commit this outrage. 24 Look, here is my virgin daughter and the man’s concubine; let me bring them out now. Humble them, and do with them as you please; but to this man do not do such a vile thing!’”
It’s a bad situation. It’s like a robbery—somebody’s going to get hurt. Everybody is scared. But Wow. Just Wow. I suppose that’s a bit of over-the-top hospitality, to offer one’s own daughter to be abused in order to save your honored guest! But it speaks to the society on several counts. It speaks to the society in showing how terribly they viewed homosexual acts. What shame would that bring, not just to the person but to the whole town—for them to humiliate this man in this way! The old man would rather his own daughter to be abused rather than to have this shame! It speaks, no doubt, to the hospitality of this man, to honor and protect his guest even at the sacrifice of his closest family. But I also think it speaks, too, to the way the whole society viewed women, in general. The fact that he offered his daughter rather than himself, says something of how he loved and valued his daughter. Would he have offered his son, if he had one? Also, wasn’t the Levite’s concubine also a guest in his home? Why would he offer her?
This last point is underscored by what happens next. As these evil men continue their demands, the Levite no doubt is afraid for his very life! He couldn’t have ever imagined being in such a situation—facing a shame and death—yes a fate worse perhaps then death! So he grabs his concubine, pushes the old man back from the door, shoves her out toward the men and bolts the door behind her.
Judges 19:25 “So the man took his concubine and brought her out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until morning; and when the day began to break, they let her go.”
This poor woman. Not even in her worst nightmare could she have imagined this would happen to her. Her husband had betrayed her. Her father had failed her. Every person in her society and her world had failed her. Not everyone, of course, hated her. Not everyone had evil intentions toward her. But those who could have saved her were scared. They were pressured into remaining silent. Into not acting, when an action on their part could have saved her. We stand aghast at the selfish husband who would throw her to the wolves, but what about ever other man in town, who could have stood up for her? What about her father, who could have stood strong and refused to let her return with the Levite? What about every man in society, who taught that it was better to save face, even if it meant allowing a daughter to live in an unjust marriage? What about the men of society who thought it better to sacrifice a woman than to suffer one’s self?
As morning dawned, after endless hours of torture and abuse, bleeding and broken, she inched her way back to the door of the old man’s home—the only place in the world where she could, at last, hope to find some protection, some solace, some healing. Through here tears and pain, she sees the door, and at last her fingers grasp the threshold. But alas, the door is locked. In the house, no one is awake. Her husband—the one who had made the long trip to retrieve her from her refuge in her father’s house—is fast asleep. No one is there to greet her. No one is there to console her, to bandage her wounds. No one is there to comfort her dying breath. No one is there to hear her last mournful words. In agony, she sinks to the ground. She is bleeding from her night of torture, and there, alone, with her fingers grasping the threshold of the door, she breathes her last.
As the morning dawns, the Levite man yawns, sits up and looks around. Light is streaming in the window of his cozy bedroom. The events of the night before seem like a bad nightmare. He gets up, has breakfast and prepares for his trip. He has traveled so much of the journey alone, with only his servant and donkeys, that it doesn’t seem to occur to him that his concubine is still outside. It isn’t until he opens the door to saddle his donkey that he remembers. There she is, her broken form slumped down to the ground, her cold hands still clutching the threshold.
“Get up! Let’s go!” he calls to her. But there’s no response. He stoops down and feels her cold, stiff limbs. His heart nearly stops. She was dead. True, he didn’t seem to care much for her the night before. He knew she would have a rough night, but she’d get over it, he thought, and they could go on her way. Perhaps he didn’t truly think they would have killed her.
As he loaded her body onto his donkey and headed back toward him, his blood is boiling. Not so much, perhaps, in grief. He still shows no self-reproach. Just anger at his loss. Anger toward those evil men, and the men of the town who could permit such a heinous act. Had he not trusted to their kindness and hospitality? He had even passed up the town of Jebus on his way here—a place where he would likely have found at least decent hospitality, only to have his concubine raped and murdered. Something would be done. He would have justice. He would make sure that every able-bodied man in Israel was just as angry as he was right at this moment, and then surely justice would be done.
Now remember, this is before the days of Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. If he could, he would have snapped dozens of pictures and started a flaming viral post that would make headlines the next evening: Woman Raped and Murdered by Thugs in the town of Gibeah. He would have security camera footage and body cam footage and witness testimonies, and he would release it all on the Internet. But he didn’t have the Internet, so he used the best social media he had. He would send out messengers all over the land of Israel. He would make sure the story was told. He would gather an army, not of armchair politicians, but an army of real live soldiers, ready to fight to the death to bring justice.
So, he sent the messengers. It a last act of rage and to drive home his message, he sends with each of the messengers a package—a souvenir—a piece of the remains of his murdered concubine. Then, armed with their grizzly burden and an equally horrid tale, the twelve messengers set out to the tribes of Israel, to gather an army for war.
Just like some flaming Facebook video, the message went viral. Men and women heard the story, and when they saw the packages they became just as angry as the Levite himself. Men armed themselves and prepared for war.
The men of Israel sent a stern message to the tribe of Benjamin: turn over the criminal gang who committed this crime. And this is where the story of a man, his concubine, and her gang-rape and murder becomes the crisis of a nation.
Judges 20:12-13 “Then the tribes of Israel sent men through all the tribe of Benjamin, saying, ‘What is this wickedness that has occurred among you? 13 Now therefore, deliver up the men, the perverted men who are in Gibeah, that we may put them to death and remove the evil from Israel!’
It seems like a no-brainier. Under the threat of civil war, the message comes to Benjamin: give us justice. Turn over the criminals. But now, it becomes an “us versus them” game.
More Facebook posts started circulating around between people in the tribe of Benjamin. “Tribes don’t interfere with other tribe’s rules!” Another one probably said, “Levite’s concubine had previously convicted for adultery and abandoning husband!”
The people of Benjamin dig in. “Who gives you the right to tell us what to do?” Nevermind the heinous crime that has been committed. That was a local matter. It needs to be tried in local court. It was a woman, after all, and why risk so many lives over the life of one woman? And so the story goes, and this attitude of indifference carried the day in the tribe of Benjamin, until they were willing to go to civil war to defend their autonomy rather than turn over the criminal gang to justice.
But the children of Benjamin would not listen to the voice of their brethren, the children of Israel. 14 Instead, the children of Benjamin gathered together from their cities to Gibeah, to go to battle against the children of Israel.”
I find it fascinating to read Judges 20:18:
“Then the children of Israel arose and went up to the house of God to inquire of God. They said, ‘Which of us shall go up first to battle against the children of Benjamin?’”
Up to this point in the story, it’s just a story. It tells what happened. And we have to infer the motives, and the guilt, from what we know about God from the rest of the Bible. But was it right for Israel to demand justice for the killing of this woman? Was it right to go to war against the tribe of Benjamin over one criminal act?
“The Lord said, ‘Judah first!’”
It’s as if God says, “Go ahead. You are defending my law and my principles, and I will be with you.” Two words, “Judah first.” Judah—the tribe from whom this woman came, from Bethlehem. Judah would be the first to stand up in her honor and defense. What follows is an account of a brutal and bloody civil war. The armies of Israel suffered terrible losses, but again and again God gave the message, “keep going.” And they kept going until the armies of the tribe of Benjamin were defeated, and the city of Gibeah was destroyed.
It is perhaps one of the most difficult stories in all the Bible. The story of a man who would throw a woman that he loved outside to be abused and murdered. The story of a man who would intentionally desecrate her body to make a point. And perhaps most troubling, to some of us, is the fact that when God steps in, He authorizes a civil war to impose justice on the perpetrators.
But the most vivid picture that I can’t shake from my mind, is the picture of this bleeding and broken women, clinging to the threshold of the home in Gibeah. Forsaken by all who could have protected her. Ignored by her society and even by the ones who loved her. Her own door—the only place she could call home for the night—shut and barred. Her own husband, peacefully sleeping, oblivious to her suffering and death.
I like to think we’ve come a long ways since those days, so many centuries ago. I like to think that we no longer treat women like cattle—to be had and traded, and used, and ignored and trampled upon. I like to think we live in a society where we recognize women as human beings, equal in importance and ability with men. I like to think that we as a church recognize the dignity of every human being as created in the image of God, and that we foster and cherish and honor this human dignity regardless of a person’s race or gender or beliefs. I like to think that if there were bad people in this world—and there always are—that we as a society would be quick to recognize the injustice, to make it right, and to punish the perpetrators.
But my friends, today, just as in the land Benjamin so many centuries ago, it is not just one woman, but whole groups of our society who are left, as it were, clinging to the threshold of our doors. Through countless small prejudices, their lives have been hedged in. The bad actions of some are justified by our collective prejudice, or just our desire not to get involved. They go on until their lives are broken, and they come searching for the only place to find rest and hope, only to find the door shut and barred. Those of us on the “inside” oblivious, indifferent to the suffering and death. My friends, how many of us may one day open the door, only to find cold, dead fingers clinging to the threshold?
I mentioned the story of Ahmaud Arbery. I could tell the story of a member here in this district. A lovely young man of color, who grew up in south Georgia. Through a series of miracles, our church was able to help him go to college—only to have his college career abruptly ended when he went to prison, and was sent home to await trial for nearly a year. His case was ultimately dismissed. His crime? Walking while black.
In thinking about this story of he Levite and his concubine, I can’t help but think how all the attitudes about women in her day had hedged her in, and led up to her ultimate victimization and murder. How many of these attitudes are still prevalent in our society today? How many women are forced into difficult situations today because of the limits society puts upon them? How many feel pressured to stay in an abusive relationship because of what church members might say if they were separated or divorced?
I know a young woman who was working for God, going out into the community to share God’s word. Tragically, while doing this great work she was molested. She went immediately to those whom she could trust the most—to her church leaders, only to receive a response that made the abuse she suffered far worse. It became evident that the church leaders thought of her in the same way as her abuser. Are we, as Christians, prepared for the day when God’s children come to us for comfort and hope? Are we learning to love as God loves?
What about the fact that now, technology makes it possible for women, men and children to be sexually exploited from thousands of miles away, in the privacy of our homes, bathrooms, and bedrooms? Today, Internet pornography is a $12 billion dollar per year industry—a business sanctioned by our society that destroys the dignity of both its consumers and producers. The porn industry fuels a growing worldwide crisis of human trafficking of catastrophic proportions. Yet how many Christians are addicted? How many, even of church leaders, are secretly watching? How does this shape our attitudes toward the “real” women we interact with in our lives? Would you click that picture if you knew it was your daughter, your niece, your neighbor, who was being trafficked and exploited to make it?
What are we doing as Christians—as individuals and as a church, to stem the tied of suffering and woe? Will we open the doors of our hearts? Will we become a voice for those who have no voice? Will we open our purse strings, yes open our homes if need be, to provide shelter and hope to some child of God whose fingers are clinging to our thresholds?
Jesus summarized the whole law of God in these two simple thoughts: to love God supremely, and to love ones neighbor as one’s self. But who is my neighbor? Jesus told the story of a man who went down to Jericho, and fell among robbers. As the man lay there, bleeding and dying, a priest and a Levite both passed by. Neither of them offered to help. It wasn’t until the Samaritan came—a man whose race was hated by the Jews—that this poor man found help. So I ask you, my friend: who is your neighbor?