On Easter Sunday we will celebrate and sing Hallelujahs. But in the season of Lent, we are invited to face that our world still is not how it should be. We are invited to face the parts of our world where there is ugliness, hatred, evil, and pain, because we believe God is in those places too. We are invited to face them because those are realities people still know today.
Our scripture reading for this Sunday is one of those places. In reading the Bible on your own, you might be very tempted to skip over this passage, to get on to something far more pleasant. And I wouldn’t blame you if you did. This passage is an ugly scene, maybe the ugliest and most painful in all of scripture. And as you hear it, it is okay if you are troubled by it. It is a text that is meant to trouble us. But it is not a text we are meant to ignore.
The scene begins with a woman from Bethlehem. She is a concubine or second-wife to a Levite, a priest. After going back home, her husband picks her up and the two are traveling together back up north to his home in Ephraim, in northern Israel. Along the journey, they stop in the town of Gibeah to find a place to sleep. They are about to go asleep in the city square, when a local man finds them. He welcomes them into his home and offers exceptional hospitality.
If only the story had ended there.
Let us read and hear what happens that night according to the Book of Judges:
22 While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. 24 Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. 26 As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.
27 In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 “Get up,” he said to her, “we are going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey; and the man set out for his home. 29 When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. 30 Then he commanded the men whom he sent, saying, “Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, ‘Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.’”
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks Be to God.
What we just read is a hard scripture passage to face.
It is first and foremost the story of a woman. It is the story of a woman who is horribly mistreated, abused, attacked and killed. Her own husband pushes her out the door to be raped. He does nothing to protect her, instead giving her up to save his own skin. He sleeps through the night while she is being attacked, and then cuts her up into pieces after she is dead. We don’t even know her name – in one translation she is simply referred to as the “second wife,” not even given enough respect or dignity to be a first wife. Her story is one of terrifying pain and marginalization.
This is also the story of a people, of God’s chosen people who have turned to the most vile, despicable acts. And sadly, the rape and murder of this woman is only the beginning of this story. From this, a war rages, with neighbors killing each other in the tens of thousands. Other women are stolen and kidnapped, and entire towns are murdered and wiped out. If there is a lower point in the history of God’s people I don’t know what it is.
So why is this passage here? Why is it part of our Bible, part of what we call God’s Word to us? Why couldn’t this passage just be left out, torn from the pages? Surely, something so dark and painful, so full of depravity and sin should be left out of the Bible. Couldn’t this story just be forgotten? Can’t we just jump ahead?
I believe that it is a part of our scripture, part of our Bible because God and God’s people did not want this story to be forgotten. This suffering, this evil should not be forgotten. While I believe there is beauty, joy, and goodness in this world that our creator made, the truth is that our world is still very much full of sin, corruption, abuse, and darkness.
And if we take out stories like this one, we are silencing the voices of those who are suffering, ignoring the fact that they too are God’s beloved creation, sons and daughters made in God’s image. We would be hiding from our own sinfulness and our own pain. We would not know the true extent of our need for a Savior and for God’s kingdom to reign here on earth. If ever you think that we are fine on our own, I urge you to read this passage. We have, and always will, need God to come and be Immanuel, God with us.
The fact that this is part of the story of God’s people also speaks to something pretty incredible about God and what God did over 2000 years ago. Knowing the full depravity, the full sinfulness, the full darkness and evil present within God’s people, God still chose to become human, to live among us, to know our full suffering and to be one of us. Christ was even born in the same town where this woman is from – Bethlehem. Yes, this woman was born probably just a short walk away from where Jesus was born.
Instead of removing himself from the horrors, the brokenness, the pains of this world, our Lord and Savior chose to break into it, to take on our flesh, to redeem it and to bring light into darkness. God chose to work healing and redemption for a people as broken as these people. And for a people as broken as us.
As much as you may feel that your suffering, your past, your own fault, sins, and problems in life may leave you out of God’s story, God never forgets you. God includes even those of us who are most broken and tortured.
There is nothing you could have done, nothing you can be going through that leaves you out of God’s story. God has not run from our darkness. God has chosen to be born into it, to be Immanuel, to be God with us.
This season of Lent is a season to remember. It is a season to remember our sin. It is a season to remember God’s grace and newness of life. But it is also a season to remember the people in our world everyone else wants to forget.
I remember going through the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC for the first time. The images, pictures, and numbers of those murdered are disturbing. But what I remember most of all is being handed a card at the beginning with a young person’s name on it. And going through each room with that name and background and story, and realizing at the very end that this was a real person’s name, someone who lived and also died in the Holocaust. Someone whose story and life, no matter how painful or disturbing it may be for us to face, should never be forgotten. Because they mattered to God. Because they had value and worth. Because they can never be wiped out fully from the story of our world.
That is why this woman and her story are here. Because she can never be forgotten. Because she can never be wiped out from this world, no matter what anyone did to her. Because she is still a part of God’s great story.
Jesus came into this world knowing the horrors of it, knowing its pain and trouble. Jesus did this, not because it was comfortable or easy, but because Jesus wanted to redeem it and make it whole again. Because Jesus loved this woman and those like her that much. Because Jesus loves you that much. Because no one is left out of God’s story.
During communion today, I invite you to remember. After you receive the bread and the cup, come to one of the two tables up front and write down a name (or if you don’t know their name, a description of a person or group) that the world may have forgotten but that God and you still remember. Write down someone who, like this woman, has a story that needs to be told, that cannot be silenced out. And pin it to the window so that light will again shine on that name. For even as we face these darkest moments of humanity, there is still a light coming in, claiming you and claiming me. Amen.