Introduction. Read Judges 19 to 21.

There is very little of comfort in this passage. The only person to emerge with any credit from the entire acount of the atrocity committed by the men of Gibeah and its repercussions is the old Ephraimite. It is a story about human weakness: selfishness, lust, heartlessness, anger, acting in haste, misjudgements, overreacting and compromise. We can find many parallels in the events of the passage and what happens today. In this respect it pays us to study this ghastly, gruesome and gory episode in Israel's history.

It seems likely that the events described in the story took place soon after the conquest of Canaan when the tribes were still free and able to act in concert.

(A) The insensitive father-in-law.

A concubine wasn't quite a mistress. She was a kind of second-class wife. She had marital rights and could expect to be supported along with her children. However her children didn't have rights of inheritance.

The young concubine ran away from her rather cold blooded husband and made her way home from the hill country of Ephraim to Bethlehem in Judah. She was a woman of some spirit! It was in this sense that the concubine was unfaithful. It is unlikely the Levite would seek reconciliation with her if she had committed adultery.

The father of the concubine was pleased that his daughter was reconciled with her husband. Perhaps he was relieved to get rid of a wilful, troublesome girl. Anyway he entertained his son-in-law lavishly for three days. It is pretty obvious the Levite wanted to get away but he allowed himself to be pressured to stop a fourth day. Even then the father-in-law wanted to spend a fifth day in feasting.

The Levite finally managed to get away late on the fifth day with disastrous consequences.

It is selfish and by no means kind to pressure people into doing what they don't want to do. It is wrong to decide on someone else's behalf what is good for them.

There are just so many examples of this sort of behaviour:

(a) When my newly married youngest brother entertained my parents and I to Christmas dinner he piled our plates so high with food that my mother completely lost her appetite.

(b) Fathers decide what sort of career their sons should follow.

(c) Fraser Crane, in the well known comedy about a Seattle psychiatrist, always bought his father, Marty, the Christmas presents he thought he should like. He organised educational trips for his son that he didn't want to go on.

(d) Grandparents who insist on spoiling their grandchildren.

(e) Church members who insist their pastor and wife accompany them on holiday. It is a holiday of their choosing but one the pastor and his wife would never choose.

I could go on and on. I can remember a pastor visiting my father and myself during my father's illness. He always talked non-stop about himself to, in his own words, cheer us up. He would have done us both more good if he had spent some time listening.

(B) The old Ephraimite whose best wasn't good enough.

There is something sinister and ominous about the reaction of the people of Gibeah to the arrival of the Levite and his small company. They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them into his home for the night. Jds19v15.

The Ephraimite knew this was no place for the Levite and his party to remain so he offered them hospitality. His words have a warning chill: "Only don't spend the night in the square."

The Ephraimite was a good host. The travellers were able to wash. The donkeys were fed. They all sat down to a meal. Then there was a hammering on the door and the terrible demand: "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him." Jd19v22. I find this request very odd! The Levite had a young servant with him. See Jds19v19. Why didn't the men demand him?

Indeed, I consider what happened next almost totally inexplicable. I am sure it would be queried if ever the wicked men of Gibeah had been brought to trial in our own day and age. The old Ephraimite appears to offer the men hammering on the door his virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine for their sexual gratification. But we read: The men would not listen to him. Jd19v25. Yet when the Levite bundles his concubine out of the house he appears to satisfy the wicked men. They refused the Ephraimite's offer of the young virgin AND the Levite's concubine but then accepted just the concubine. It doesn't make sense.

One of the problems is that we haven't the men of Gibeah's version of events. It is possible this was a drunken joke that got out of hand. The wicked men were intent on putting the wind up the Ephraimite and his guests. The old man wasn't really one of them anyway.

I can't believe the Ephraimite intended to hand over his daughter and he had no authority to hand over the concubine. He was probably trying to shame the wicked jokers into desisting. They went too far in pretending not to listen. Then the Levite panicked and seized his concubine and threw her to the crowd. He may have done this from the safety of a balconey or roof. It would hardly be safe to open the door if the wicked men were serious in their intention. One thing is certain, the concubine resisted - the Levite had to use force to eject her from the house in one way or another.

I can well imagine the drunken prankster's saying, "Well he has given her to us - let's make use of her." If the woman fought and struggled I am afraid this is likely to have inflamed them further.

So what led eventually to a vicious gang rape may have started out as a wicked, tasteless, practical joke.

I am not at all in favour of practical jokes. They have a tendency to be cruel and can easily lead to very bad unintended consequences.

Someone with no shame had the gall to post on the internet:

My wife and I were talking about our college days and the subject came up of practical jokes we played on people. My favourite was calling my mom at 2 or 3 in the morning pretending to be crying, babbling incoherently and then just hang the phone up. Then I would leave the phone off the hook.

So when she would show up 6 hours later, still in her pajamas and still in panic mode, I would just look at her like she was losing her mind.

I got her like 4 times with that one.

I must say, I do not find this remotely clever or funny. It is a horrible, heartless, cruel trick to play on someone who loves you. The idiot student made his mother suffer six hours of intense anxiety.

Guy de Maupassant captures the sheer inhumanity of practical jokes in his short story, 'The Blind Man'. Here is a short extract to illustrate the sadistic nature of practical jokes:

It is easy to imagine all the cruel practical jokes inspired by his blindness. And, in order to have some fun in return for feeding him, they now converted his meals into hours of pleasure for the neighbors and of punishment for the helpless creature himself.

The peasants from the nearest houses came to this entertainment; it was talked about from door to door, and every day the kitchen of the farmhouse was full of people. Sometimes they placed before his plate, when he was beginning to eat his soup, some cat or dog. The animal instinctively perceived the man's infirmity, and, softly approaching, commenced eating noiselessly, lapping up the soup daintily; and, when they lapped the food rather noisily, rousing the poor fellow's attention, they would prudently scamper away to avoid the blow of the spoon directed at random by the blind man!

Then the spectators ranged along the wall would burst out laughing, nudge each other and stamp their feet on the floor. And he, without ever uttering a word, would continue eating with his right hand, while stretching out his left to protect his plate.

Another time they made him chew corks, bits of wood, leaves or even filth, which he was unable to distinguish.

The standard defence of bullies who torment other children beyond the point of endurance - driving them in some instances to suicide is: "We were only joking." This in itself is an admission of guilt. Most practical jokes are downright cruel.

(C) The Levite in a no win situation.

The Levite didn't want to lose his concubine. He had travelled a good distance to fetch her back. But he couldn't bear the thought of being the object of a homosexual rape. He couldn't countenance giving his young servant up for it either. Perhaps his revulsion is best illustrated by the fact that he couldn't even testify to the assembled leaders of the 11 tribes that this is what he had been threatened with. Instead he claimed that the men of Gibeah had threatened him with death. It was a terrible dilemma.

Many people experience similar awful dilemmas - especially in places where virtual anarchy prevails. In the mountains of Columbia where private armies exist villagers have a stark choice. The men of the village can either join a private army or their wives and children will be executed.

It has to be said the Levite had a callous streak. He was able to sleep through the night while his concubine suffered outside. He obviously intended to depart without her. The Levite stumbled on his concubine as he left the house. His first act as dawn broke was not to go out looking for her. When he discovered his wife lying in the doorway of the house the Levite didn't kneel beside her and inquire how she was. He said to her, "Get up; let's go." Jd19v28.

The ordeal of the woman does not bear thinking about. The description of her condition as fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold, are some of the most pathetic words in the whole Bible. She managed to crawl back to the house of the old Ephraimite, reached out to knock on the door and died of blood loss and exhaustion.

When we read of such atrocities the question arises: "Why does God allow such terrible things to happen?" If only the Levite had left a few hours earlier the tragedy would have been averted.

The answer is that God is prepared for mankind to pay the highest possible price for the gift of freedom. Jesus paid the ultimate price because God respects man's freedom. He will only rarely intervene to limit that freedom. If he stepped in every time wickedness was afoot then men would not be free.

If God is willing to put up with such horrific events as described in the last three chapters of Judges for the sake of freedom how can Calvinists claim that when it comes to accepting Jesus as Saviour we are no longer free. If God values it so much - to the extent of not stopping the holocaust in Germany - then of course he will leave men free to accept or reject his Son. it would be obscene to think otherwise.

(D) The Levite's flawed strategy.

None of us can blame the Levite for wanting justice. However he went about it the wrong way. When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, "Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came out of Israel. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do. Jd19v29and30.

The gruesome exhibition of the Levites concubine in bits reinforced the sense of outrage members of the 11 tribes felt. It stirred the people up. They were united in a kind of self-righteous abhorrence for what had been done.

There are several evil consequences of stirring people up into a paroxysm of frenzied fury:

(1) You don't let the other side put their case. The Benjamites didn't send representatives to the assembly at Mizpah. They had received their bit of the Levite's concubine and realised how inflammatory this was. The gathering at Mizpah was not just a meeting of leaders but the mustering of a great army. The Benjamites probably thought the Israelites had made up their minds about the atrocity at Gibeah. The presence of the army hardly made it safe for them to attend, feelings were running that high.

(2) The Benjamites were not given the opportunity of dealing with the wicked men of Gibeah themselves. They were given an ultimatum: Now surrender those wicked men of Gibeah so that we may put them to death and purge the evil from Israel. Jd20v13.

(3) The Benjamites closed ranks. They had heard the men of Gibeah's version of events. We can imagine what they said, "It was just a joke. We like putting the wind up that pompous old Ephraimite. Then the Levite handed his concubine over to us for sex. We were not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. She was perfectly all right when we left her." Another point the men of Gibeah could have made was that they could easily have killed the Levite, his servant, the Ephraimite and his daughter to cover up their crime. But they didn't because they hadn't done anything so wrong that it had to be hidden.

(4) The other bad consequence of the self-indulgent, self-righteous indignation was that policy was agreed that was later deeply regretted. The Israelites vowed to slaughter any clan who did not volunteer soldiers for the campaign against the Benjamites and further vowed never to give their daughters in marriage to a Benjamite.

It would have been much better if the Levite had asked the leaders of Ephraim, the tribe where he lived, to convene a meeting of all the tribal elders to discuss his case. If the leaders of Benjamin had received a polite request to investigate the incident and to send delegates to put their side of the story they doubtless would have put in an appearance. It should have been possible to punish the wicked men of Gibeah without engaging on a full scale war.

I am afraid that many aspects of the sorry saga outlined above happen over and over again. Something like it happened recently in East Anglia. An animal rights activist got work on a pig farm. The activist worked there for several months and used his mobile phone to record another employee cruelly mistreating the pigs. The footage was eventually given to the BBC for broadcasting. After the broadcast animal rights activists were in a terrible fury and made threatening and abusive phone calls to the farmer. He hadn't been cruel to the pigs but he was the one who received the violent threats. After a few days the farmer shot himself.

The activist could have dealt with things entirely differently. At the first sign that one of his fellow workers was being cruel he could have gone to the farmer and shown him the footage on his mobile phone. He could have given the farmer the opportunity to sort things out. But that wasn't the activist's concern. He wanted to inflame passions and produce a sense of outrage. He wanted the farmer to pay for producing pigs for slaughter. Doubtless he is pleased with the outcome.

I used to serve on a committee that organised camps for young people. There were two camps. At one of them the leader was introducing increasingly charismatic worship. This was drawn to the attention of the elders of one of the churches in our association that sent children to camp. They were outraged. They were up in arms. But they didn't communicate with our camp committee and ask its members to consider whether it was appropriate for the charismatic leader to remain. No, these elders, with a measure of self-righteous, highly enjoyable indignation, brought the matter up at the Sunday school committee of our association. The delegates who attended were stirred up - they were incensed - and issued an ultimatum - either the secretary of our camp committee who was at their meeting agree to the instant dismissal of the offending camp leader, notwithstanding his 30 years of service, or they would write to all the churches in our association telling them not to send their children to our camps. This high-handed approach resulted in half the camp committee, including myself, resigning. It was probably time for the charismatic camp leader to move on - but he should have been allowed to do so in a dignified way in recognition of his many, many years of service.

(E) The Israelites reached a decision without consulting God.

The tribes of Israel made up their minds to attack Gibeah without consulting the LORD. So all the men of Israel got together and united as one man against the city. Jd20v11. They were so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they only asked God who should lead the attack. The LORD replied, "Judah shall go first."

The 11 tribes were resoundingly defeated and lost many men in the first two battles. I believe that they were so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they thought victory was assured. The Israelites were taught hard lessons: never to take victory for granted in a righteous cause and never to take God's support as a matter of course.

It was only when the Israelites fasted and presented burnt offerings to the Lord and thought carefully about their strategy that God gave them an emphatic victory.

There is a valuable lesson here for us all. We must never think that victory is assured because our cause is just or that success automatically follows doing what is right.

Elijah's cause was just. He was jealous for the LORD God of hosts. He wanted Baal worship to be eradicated in Israel. The prophet thought that after the fire fell on Mt Carmel and the priests of Baal were massacred things would be different - but they were not and he fled for his life into the wilderness. Elijah had to learn that God had more than one way of preserving the true Faith in Israel.

My association of churches makes a condition of fellowship a commitment to a doctrinal statement in its entirety. I have fought long and hard against this. Nowhere in the New Testament is Christian fellowship made conditional on agreeing to a list of doctrines. No such is list is given to us. Jesus gave NOTHING even approximating to a list. Nor even did Paul. Jesus taught only one kind of unity. We are united in him. The only condition for fellowship is that we believe in Jesus: we trust him for salvation and we dedicate ourselves to his service. My campaign has been a total failure. Perhaps I should have prayed more!

William Wilberforce had to fight many battles and endure several defeats before Parliament outlawed the slave trade.

(F) The Israelites went too far in their anger.

Once the Benjamite army had been defeated: The men of Israel went back to Benjamin and put all the towns to the sword including the animals and everything else they found. All the towns they came across they set on fire. Jd20v48.

Most commentators say we shouldn't judge the Israelites by the values of our own age. However, I think it is excessive in any age to kill the women and children of your own people for the failings of their men folk. The innocent suffered for the folly and intransigence of their leaders.

It is just so easy to over-react in anger, disgust or abhorrence. There are many examples of this:

(1) The destruction of the twin towers in New York by Al Queda was an appalling atrocity. But President Bush's decision to invade Iraq was a probable over-reaction. Mr Bush decided someone had to pay. Saddam Hussein for all his faults was not a supporter of Al Queda but he was chosen as a convenient fall guy. The tragedy is that the group of people who have suffered most from Mr Bush's decision, a group that experienced a measure of protection under the secular rule of Hussein, are the Christians of Iraq.

(2) The murder of two Soham schoolgirls by a school caretaker produced widespread revulsion in Britain a few years ago. It was a dreadful crime. However, the government's decision to make everyone who was remotely linked to children, from cricket club tea ladies to Sunday school teachers, to undergo a criminal records check was in my view an over-reaction.

(3) There have been many instances through the centuries of a son or daughter doing something that angers their parents. In the Victorian era it was a daughter getting pregnant outside marriage. A father in such circumstances might over-react and say to the offender, "I never want to see you again. As far as I am concerned you no longer belong to my family." This led to permanent estrangement - a terrible consequence of acting in anger and repenting at leisure.

(4) There are innumerable instances of church members getting highly indignant over issues that arise in the church who resign in protest. If they resign in anger - in the heat of the moment - it is highly likely that they have over-reacted and erred in their judgment.

The terrible and tragic story of the Levite and his concubine in one way or another is played out over and over again. It is very dangerous to act with a sense of outrage - in righteous indignation and fury. The Jews acted in this fashion - AND CRUCIFIED JESUS.

(G) A messy solution to a problem of their own making.

The story of the Levite and his concubine illustrates the well known expression: 'Act in haste, repent at leisure.'

The Israelites grieved because their blood thirsty slaughter of women and children and their vow never to give their daughters in marriage to Benjamites meant that although 600 Benjamite men survived the tribe was faced with extinction. We read: The people went to Bethel, where they sat before God until evening, raising their voices and weeping bitterly. "Oh LORD the God of Israel," they cried, "why has this happened to Israel? Why should one tribe be missing from Israel today?"

The answer is obvious! They, themselves, produced the situation by needlessly killing the Benjamite women and children.

The solution the Israelites come up with seems worse than if they had just asked God's permission to revoke their vow. The LORD does not appear to have made any contribution to the strategy they devise.

The men of Jabesh Gilead had not sent volunteers to fight in the Israelite army against the Benjamites. The leaders of the 11 tribes had vowed to put to death any clan that did not send soldiers to the army at Mizpah. So Jabesh Gilead can conveniently be attacked and everyone killed except 400 virgins who were preserved alive to provide wives for the 600 Benjamites who survived the war and were holed up on the rock of Rimam.

So one vow is but partially kept to keep the Israelites from breaking the other vow about marrying their daughters to Benjamites.

To provide another 200 wives the Israelites told the Benjamites to help themselves to the dancing girls of Shiloh - virgins dancing amongst the vineyards to celebrate one of the festivals to the LORD. It doesn't seem as though the girls had much say in the matter. If their fathers or brothers complained the tribal leaders were to fob them off.

It seems to me that a more straightforward and honest solution to the problem would have been a proclamation to the effect that if any girl from the 11 tribes ran away from home to marry a Benjamite she would not be pursued.

The fact remains that the Israelites arrived at a solution without consulting God.

Sometimes when we are angry and act in haste there are unforeseen consequences that we come to bitterly regret. It is by no means easy to repair the damage we have caused. I know a teacher, for example, who got highly indignant with his headmistress for what he considered was sexist behaviour. So, in anger, he wrote a very intemperate letter to the school governors. The irate teacher hadn't thought his actions through! The head teacher was supported by her governors! The unions got involved!! The teacher who had levelled accusations against the head eventually had to apologise and was demoted. His relationship with the head teacher never recovered and he took early retirement to his regret.

(H) Conclusion.

The writer of Judges concludes his strange book with the words: In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit. In the author's opinion the waywardness of the Israelites during the period following the conquest of Canaan was down to the lack of a strong authority figure. The solution was the appointment of a king. But we know that the rule of kings did not necessarily bring about moral reformation or devotion to the one true God. What was of far greater significance was the arrival of prophets - men who had a message from the LORD. That was God's solution. Today we are fortunate to have God's written word to inform our minds and guide our conduct.

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net