Judges 19-21, Psalm 78:40-72, John 13
How is your serve?
Judges 19 – 21
Chapter 19 is the Bible’s most painful and brutal episode. It mirrors the worst horrors that we read in the newspaper, watch on television or see at the cinema. My wife and I avoid movies with much violence or sadness. Life has enough challenges without paying to see more for entertainment.
In trying to fathom what occurred in this story it is important to note that a concubine was an additional or secondary wife engaged by a husband. She would have come into the marriage without a dowry. Her children may receive a portion of her husband’s estate, but only if he chooses to acknowledge them publically. Concubines were arranged when the primary wife was infertile or for another sexual partner.
Levites were members of the priestly tribe. Leviticus 21:7 tells us that Levites “shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled; neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband. For [the Levites] are holy to God…” Because this concubine may have been his sexual partner, the Levite seemed in no rush to return to his home.
What is tragic is that her father seemed in no way protective of his daughter. She had fled from her husband and probably for good reason. Rather, her father encouraged the Levite to stay day after day. Finally, the Levite decided to leave late in the day when there was no chance of making the estimated 30-mile journey back to Jerusalem before nightfall.
The hill country where they traveled was not a far distance. The trek could possibly have been made in a day’s time, but only by setting out early in the morning. Since they departed late, the Levite and his concubine had to stop in a town that scholars now agree was Gibeah at Jaba, about four miles northeast of Jerusalem. It was a local that sat upon a hill in a canyon pitted with caves.
What happened next was tragic. No one offered hospitality as they approached the city. This forced the weary travelers to enter the rehob or public square. This was the place of last refuge, a place where no one wanted to spend the night. Imagine sleeping at the Greyhound Station in the middle of a big city.
In high school, when a friend and I were traveling by train across England, we arrived in Chester late at night. The youth hostel was closed and the only bed and breakfast that we could find was full. A man talking with the owner of the bed and breakfast offered to let us stay with him. I looked at my friend and thought, “This is either going to be a fortuitous great opportunity or a bad experience.”
We followed this elderly gentleman for a long walk that led into an increasingly poor area, where we finally entered an old apartment building and walked up four or five flights of stairs to a one-room apartment, with a single bed and a sink. My friend and I begged off gracefully and trekked back to the city, where he climbed a fence and slept in the back of a U-Haul rental truck until it started to rain and water flooded the truck bed where we were sleeping on corrugated metal. We returned to the train station, which was now locked, and climbed the wall and slept in a train car. In the morning, we awoke to find the train pulling out and had no idea where we were headed! It was a night to forget. Travelers depending on the hospitality of others can run into dangerous and lonely situations.
What is clear is that the inhabitants of Gibeah at Jaba failed to exercise the customary hospitality that all Israelites were commanded to perform. The author of Judges tells this story to depict the ultimate chaos that existed in Palestine at this time. Throughout Judges we have read of violence, war, anarchy and rebellion. No law was above breaking. The Israelites constantly failed to obey God’s law. In this case, Israelites failed to provide hospitality for a priest and his concubine. As the Levite’s concubine, she was a legal extension of her husband and was due the same protection that he was due.
Normal hospitality would have called for anyone and everyone in the city to offer to take them in for the evening and provide water, food, shelter and foot washing. The washing of feet offered a chance to cool, clean and sooth the hot, dusty, dirty sore feet of a weary traveler. Having walked over 500 miles along the Camino de Santiago de Campostela this fall, I know how vital good foot care is for a trekker.
In this episode, the Ephraimite host balks completely in his role as host to the stranger and callously offers his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine to appease an angry mob looking to sodomize his guest. This is not a request for gay sex. This is human depravity and bestial behavior and the most abhorrent use of people as complete objects. The host did this to save his honor or possibly to save his own life. Desperation brings out the worst in each of us.
This scene is reminiscent of Genesis 19:9 when the mob threatened to assault Lot who was standing outside his home trying to protect his two guests from being sodomized by the mob that surrounded his house. In both Genesis 19 and in Judges 19, it is the guest who saves the host. In Genesis the two angels visiting Lot open the door and pull him suddenly into the house to spare his life. In Judges the Levite thrusts his concubine out to appease the sexually aroused mob.
The unnamed woman becomes the most tragic victim of the entire Bible. She is never given a name for she represents every woman and person who has ever been assaulted and abused by others who use power and force to degrade, hurt, harm, shame and torment another. She is a victim of a father who failed to protect her, the victim of a husband who misused and abused her, the victim of a host who treated her like a worthless object and the victim of citizens of Gibeah at Jaba who gang-raped her. This chapter depicts humanity at its worst hour.
This unnamed victim is subjected to one final indignity when her husband cuts her body into 12 pieces and sends the parts to each of the tribes of Israel summoning them to do something in retaliation, but why? He, after all, did nothing to protect her. What kind priest was he? What kind of man was he? What human being would allow this to happen? The scene is reminiscent of 1 Samuel 11:7, when Saul cut an ox into 12 pieces and sent them to each tribe of Israel hoping to summon them to arms.
The Israelites were now summoned to meet at Mizpah, which may had been a fortress. Mizpah was an assembly point in premonarchic Israel. (See Josh. 18:26; 1 Sam. 7:16) Its name means “to watch,” and it may have been a border outpost. Archeologists believe it to be Tell en-Nasbeh, which is located six miles from Jerusalem.
We are told that 400,000 Israelite foot soldiers assembled here. The word translated as “thousands” may actually mean “divisions.” Scholars believe that the total inhabitants of this region ranged between 200,000 and 250,000. Hence, the number of warriors is greatly inflated. What matters is that a civil war broke out among the Israelites and the casualties on both sides were extremely high.
The Benjaminites mustered 26,000 armed men, including 700 ambidextrous warriors who could sling a stone with incredible accuracy. These elite troops were like Green Berets, who could turn the day and win a battle. In chapters 20 and 21, no one truly wins. All experienced losses and suffering. The chapter concludes with a prophetic statement that sets the tone for the books to follow, especially 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles – the historical books of the Old Testament, which tell us about the establishment and growth of the monarchy.
For now we are left in a country full of anarchy. Without a strong central authority, the judges were not able to control and unify Israel, to carry out social reform or adjudicate tribal disputes. The priests were part of the problem, not part of the solution as this point in the evolution of Israel. We shall see in 1 Samuel 8-12 that establishing a strong monarchy has its own problems. Social and moral problems cannot always be addressed with a strong political response. That is why the Church and creating a moral order, teaching and upholding values and ethical conduct will always be vital for any community.
The concluding half of Psalm 78 recounts a wonderful sweeping history of God’s efforts to bring the Israelites through the Exodus and provide for them as they journeyed through the wilderness. We are told that the Israelites, however, disobeyed Yahweh. When Yahweh abandoned Shiloh it had served as a site where Israel convened assemblies in the hills of Ephraim.
Archeologists have uncovered extensive ruins that existed in the eleventh century B.C. and continued throughout the Iron Age. Verse 61 tells us that Yahweh “delivered his power to captivity, his glory to the hand of the foe.” God’s glory was the Ark of the Covenant, which was taken into captivity. We will learn about this in 1 Samuel 4-6. The psalm closes out with David being selected as a shepherd to tend ewe lambs and become the shepherd of Israel, which he tended and “guided with skillful hand.” (Ps. 78:72)
Three things are especially worth noting in this chapter. First, Jesus offers one of the great symbols of his ministry by washing the feet of his disciples. As we have already read, the washing of feet was an act of hospitality common in the ancient Near East and very important for Jews in showing hospitality. Today we might think of it as welcoming friends into our home, fixing them a drink and offering something light to enjoy before dinner and making them feel completely at home in our living room.
What is unusual was that Jesus, the rabbi and teacher, was down on his knees washing the disciples’ feet. The disciples were moving in a sort of nether world trying to discern if Jesus was or was not the Messiah and if so, what did it mean for him to be the Messiah and what did it mean for them to be followers and companions of the Messiah. He had become like a rock star. Crowds surrounded him. They hung on his every word and searched for signs. They threw palm branches at his feet and cried, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” (John 12:13)
Now, he girded himself with a towel and began to wash their feet. Peter refused to participate. Jesus said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” (John 13:8) Peter was always petulant and responded, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Peter was always a little different and a little hard to lead. Jesus replied, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean…” (John 13:10) The foot washing like everything in John’s Gospel is more than foot washing. Bread is more than bread. Wine is more than wine. Water is more than water. Sleep is more than sleep.
Just as the bread and wine constitute more than a meal, the water of life quenches our thirst eternally and Lazarus’ being asleep was actually death, so, too, the washing of feet can be read on at least two levels. In addition to the significance of hospitality, it is about service. A Christian leader is among us as one who serves. I am constantly growing in my ability to learn this, and I have much still to learn. It’s not an intellectual challenge. Rather, it’s a challenge to live this among way among other people.
Our church recently lost a fabulous Associate Rector, who truly knew how to serve. Service was her mission. She was among us as one who serves. I learned more from her than from any other priest with whom I have served. It was not academic learning that I found inspirational from her, even though she was very smart. It was how she related to me and to other people and how she served as Christ among us that taught me and others so much while we shared ministry together.
In contrast, while trying to fill her position and interviewing clergy from across the country, I can usually determine within a few minutes whether someone is worth pursuing further in a conversation. When I ask them what the ideal position for them would look like, most clergy or soon-to-be graduating seminarians say, “I really love to preach and teach and I really enjoy celebrating the Eucharist and I like leading worship, and it gives me a lot of pleasure to offer spiritual direction and I get a lot of our leading adult classes.” The word “I” pops up constantly, and it often sounds like we will be paying someone to pursue their spiritual joy. What I almost never hear are words about service. That is what I long to hear.
Whether we are ordained or not, each of us was put on the planet to serve. I once saw a Christian bumper sticker that showed a tennis request and simply said, “How good is your serve?” That is the question that each of us must ask ourselves. We are only as effective a Christian as our “serve” permits us to be. If we are constantly seeking our own joy, even religious joy or spiritual high, we have missed something. When we get to a point of focusing on our serve, great joy comes with it, but it is not our intention to get joy and use Christian service as a means to obtain it. Joy simply comes from serving.
In his first year as Pope, Pope Francisco made a major change. On Maundy Thursday when we commemorate Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, the Pope normally washes the feet of seminarians who come to visit St. Paul’s Basilica in Rome. The Pope is in “his house” so to speak and soon-to-be-ordained church leaders come to him. Pope Francisco, however, left “his house” last Maundy Thursday and went to a juvenile detention center in Rome and washed the feet of young offenders, including the feet of a Muslim. The world instinctively knew that there was something right – something very Christ-like – about this. This is what Jesus would have done. He would not limit himself to washing the feet of those who were safe and sound in the Church. He constantly reached out to the margins, to the poor and the outcast and he knelt down and served them. So, how is your serve? What is your mission?
Second, Judas left to betray Jesus. The dark hour will soon be approaching. Third, Jesus offered a new commandment that we must love one another. It’s so simple, yet the work of a lifetime to learn how to do right. Loving and serving go hand in hand.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)
How important is hospitality to you? Are you willing to welcome the stranger or to speak to someone who you do not know as you walk city streets? Do you look the homeless and the poor in the eye or pretend as though they do not exist? If you were to review the great acts of God in your life, where you were blessed by God and by life, what moments would you recount? How is your serve? What is your mission? Are you passionately offering yourself to God and to others? Have you found true joy is serving God and those in need?
Holy God, Forgiving God, forgive us who so often turn our homes into fortresses and collect a sinfully large amount of possessions while pampering ourselves yet denying hospitality to others and failing to watch out for those who need our warm embrace. We do not even know the names of our neighbors anymore. Help us to focus outwardly and to live human lives and not just cyber lives with emails careening across the universe while human hearts die of loneliness. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania