Pastor Louis Prontnicki Maple Glen Bible Fellowship Church
We’ve all seen it in a cartoon: a man starts painting the floor, only to find that he has painted himself into a corner, with no escape, until the paint dries. How foolish! If he had only thought ahead, he could have avoided this dilemma.
In Judges 20-21, we read of the eleven tribes of Israel painting themselves into an awful ethical corner with respect to the fate of the 12th tribe, Benjamin.
We saw last Sunday how the 11 tribes of Israel were extremely upset that the men of Gibeah, a clan of Benjamin, had committed a vile act against the wife of a Levite. The men of Israel came to the leaders of the tribe of Benjamin and demanded that they hand over to them the wicked men of Gibeah, so that these unrepentant offenders could be purged from Israel, as the Law of God required.
But the men of Benjamin chose tribal affiliation above God’s laws, and refused to give these sinful men over to Israel. Therefore a war broke out between Benjamin and the other 11 tribes, a war in which not only were 65,000 men killed in battle, but which also saw all the women and children of the tribe of Benjamin wiped out. What a horrendous tragedy!
When the dust settled, there were only 600 men of Benjamin left… and not one wife for them.
The problem was that the tribes of Israel had made a solemn oath that they were not going to give any of their daughter in marriage to the men of Benjamin. What that meant was that without any wives for these 600 men, there would be no marriages for them, and therefore no children, and the tribe of Benjamin would die out.
This is when Israel realized they had painted themselves into an awful ethical corner. They were caught in a Catch-22 dilemma: They had all made a vow not to give any of their women to the men of Benjamin, but without any wives for them, one of their tribes would die out. So what should they do? Break their solemn vow before God? Or watch the slow death of the tribe of their brother Benjamin?
Judges 21 revolves around this dilemma between Israel’s fresh sorrow and Israel’s previous oath. As Dale Davis notes in his commentary, “Israel now had pity for Benjamin, his brother, but has no power to revive him.” One day Israel is full of fury, seeking to exterminate Benjamin for his refusal to listen; the next day Israel is moved with compassion, seeking to preserve Benjamin.
It might be helpful to look at Judges 21 in two, parallel outline forms:
Dilemma caused by their oath (1-7)
Possibility for a solution (8-9)
Instructions to the aggressors (10-11)
Provision of women for Benjamin (insufficient) (12-14)
Response of people (15)
Israel’s first thought is that their war-oath (4-5 – death to any no-shows in their battle) might be the solution to the wife-oath (no brides for Benjamin). Sure enough, the town of Jabesh-Gilead, even under the threat of death, had refused to send troops to fight Benjamin. Here, Israel thought, was a justifiable loophole. Since they refused to join in battle, they had not been in the assembly where Israel vowed not to give their daughters to Benjamin, and therefore their daughters were exempt from the oath! Brilliant! Israel can wipe them out – men, women and children – and spare only their virgin daughters (10-11). The result was the provision of 400 brides for the men of Benjamin.
But this was not sufficient (14b); the people of Israel grieved for Benjamin (15), because of this anticipated gap or breach in the 12 tribes of Israel…so a second solution was needed… and found. Here in vv. 16-24 we see the second parallel outline:
Dilemma caused by their oath (16-18)
Possibility for solution (19)
Instructions to the aggressors (20-22)
Provision of women for Benjamin (sufficient) (23)
Response of people (24)
Israel remembered that there was an annual festival at Shiloh, and the girls there always came out dancing in the vineyards – and they would be an easy catch for the remaining 200 men of Benjamin. And if their fathers or brothers complain about this kidnapping of their daughters or sisters, Israel would tell them that they were not responsible for giving these girls to Benjamin, for these girls were taken or stolen from them, so they didn’t break their oath not to give their daughters to Benjamin! How clever! Another legal loophole to exploit! And that was their final solution, which provided the total of 600 brides for the single men of Benjamin. The tribe o Benjamin would not die out, and Israel be not missing one of its 12 tribes. And everyone went home, to live happily ever after… right? (Wrong.) “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (25)
What are we to make of this chapter?
When you paint yourself into a moral corner, any possible solution – of the flesh- is always going to be messy and harmful.
So on the one hand we see Israel trying to be faithful to the oaths they made (which is usually commendable), but on the other hand, they resort to fanciful and often fatal loopholes to keep these oaths! On the one hand Israel shows compassion on the tribe of Benjamin, doing everything it can to keep this tribe, their brothers, from dying out (as these 600 men had no wives, no women, they could marry and raise up another generation). Yet on the other hand Israel resorts to slaughtering all the men, women, and sons of Jabesh-Gilead, sparing only the virgin daughters (imagine what they saw and felt!) in order to find brides for Benjamin; and then they devise a plan whereby 200 young women will be kidnapped to provide the remaining brides needed. (Like Boko Haram kidnapping the Chibok girls.)
“It’s all correct and it’s all wrong! It’s all faithful and it’s all unfaithful! It’s a mucky mixture of consistency and confusion.” – Dale Davis. This ambivalence pervading chapter 21 simply fits the pattern of incongruities throughout the story of Judges 19-20….
“We marvel as Israel is as urgent to preserve Benjamin as they were determined earlier to destroy him; all the while resorting to loopholes, injustice, and wickedness to maintain their own consistency and self-righteousness. Therefore the author of Judges surely intends to include this fiasco of chapter 21, this painting by Israel into this awful ethical corner, as another exhibit of how “each man was doing whatever was right in his own eyes,” because there was no righteous king in the land. (v. 25). What a picture of our own lives, our churches, and our nation! How much we need to weep and repent and cry out to the Lord for His solution to our problems!
God gives us a hint of hope
But there’s something else that caught my eye in this chapter; perhaps you noticed it as well?
Look at v. 15: “The people grieved (or “had compassion”) for Benjamin, because the LORD had made a gap (or “breach”) in the tribes of Israel.”
What is the author of Judges saying here? We understand the idea that if the tribe of Benjamin was not able to produce another generation, they would become extinct, and there would be a gap, a breach, in the wholeness of the 12 tribes of Israel… and that couldn’t be!
But why put the blame for this on the LORD? “Because the LORD had made a gap.”
The Hebrew word for gap or breach is peretz, and it’s found less than 20 times in the Old Testament. It’s used of gaps in the city wall (1 Kings 11:27; Nehemiah 6:1); of breaking out against your enemy (2 Sam.5:20; 1 Chrn. 14:11); and also of the Lord’s wrath breaking out, like the time Uzzah touched the Ark of the Covenant, and was struck down by the Lord (2 Sam. 6:8).
But we also see this word used to describe a person who stands in the gap to save the day… like the Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike to keep a flood from breaking out.
Let me show you two passages in Scripture where this idea of a gap or a breach gives us a hint of hope. The first is hopeful, pointing us to a greater Moses; the second shows us that apart from Jesus Christ, the ultimate Savior who stood in the gap for you and me, there is no hope:
Psalm 106:19-21, 23 “At Horeb they made a calf and worshipped an idol cast from metal. They exchanged their Glory for an image of a bull, which eats grass. They forgot the God who saved them…So he said he would destroy them— had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them.”\
Ezekiel 22:30-31 “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. 31 So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.”
You might also consider two other passages that use this theme of a gap or breach, and see how God eventually fills the gap left by the unbelieving Jews with raising up Gentiles whom He calls to Himself in the gospel:
Amos 9:11-12 11 “In that day I will restore David’s fallen tent. I will repair its broken places restore its ruins (literally: “I will close up the gaps”), and rebuild it as it used to be, 12 so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name, declares the Lord, who will do these things.”
Acts 15: 13-19 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first showed His concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for Himself. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 16 “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17 that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things 18 that have been known for ages. 19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
So when we read in Judges 21:15 “Because the LORD had made a gap in the tribes of Israel,” we need to ask: “Why does the Sovereign Lord allow sinful Israel to paint herself into such an awful ethical corner, to make such a gap, among themselves? I believe there are two reasons.
The first is to see how badly Israel responded when they painted themselves into this ethical corner. That is, they tried to get out of it, they tried to “fill the gap” by using all sorts of wicked and manipulative methods. This is what King David tried to do when he found out that Bathsheba was pregnant with his child: he tried to get himself out of the corner with all sorts of manipulations and plans… but none of them worked. It was only after the prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin that he sought the Lord and found forgiveness. (See Ps. 51).
And this is what we all do when we find ourselves in the corner, trapped by our own choices, weeping over sin but still resorting to more sin to get us out, to somehow stand in the gap. It never really works, does it?
The second reason the Lord allowed Israel to get in such a corner, to see the gaping hole they had created, was so that God would demonstrate His power, His pity, His wisdom, and His righteousness in getting us out of the corner, by standing in the gap in our place… so that we would acknowledge our helplessness and sinfulness, and that we could confess His glory and power and amazing rescue!
For the Lord Himself stood in the gap for us. Jesus Christ came down from heaven and become a human being, like us, so that as the perfect God-Man, He could take our place on the cross, and set us free.
God devised a perfect plan, a righteous and glorious plan, one that would not only get us out of our trapped corner of sin, guilt, and shame, but a plan that would also demonstrate to the universe how His love and holiness, His mercy and righteousness, His grace and wrath upon sin, would meet perfectly together… at the cross of Jesus Christ. when the Incarnate Son of God stood in the gap for sinners.
“Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned He stood; sealed my pardon with His blood; Hallelujah! What a Savior!”