“The people of Israel arose and went up to Bethel and inquired of God, “Who shall go up first for us to fight against the people of Benjamin?” And the Lord said, “Judah shall go up first.””
Judges 20:18 ESV
This year (2023) in our reading plan we come to the horrifying events of Judges 19-21 on the Thursday of Holy Week—the day we remember the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples the night before He was crucified. Meditating on those two stories side by side has left me dumbstruck. I will do my best to put it into words:
An early Revolutionary War pamphlet featured a snake cut into eight pieces, each piece labeled with the name of one of the colonies. The slogan “Join or Die” was a call to arms for the colonies to unite in their fight against the British.
At the beginning of Judges, that is the picture we have of Israel. They have settled into the land, and now they are uniting against a common enemy:
“After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” The Lord said, “Judah shall go up; behold, I have given the land into his hand.””
Judges 1:1-2 ESV
In today’s reading, we see almost the exact same verse, but with a HUGE difference:
“The people of Israel arose and went up to Bethel and inquired of God, “Who shall go up first for us to fight against the people of Benjamin?” And the Lord said, “Judah shall go up first.”” (Judges 20:18)
At the beginning of Judges, the people of Israel were united. The only question was who would lead the charge against their enemies.
At the end of Judges, the people are divided. The only question was who would lead the charge against the Benjamites— their own brothers.
There is another parallel. Compare the account of the second battle of Ai in Joshua 8:6-23 to the battle of Gibeah in Judges 20:29-43. The strategy, the outcome, and the language are nearly identical. But again, the difference is that the tribes of Israel were united against an outside enemy in Joshua. In Judges they were united against one of their own tribes. Against themselves.
This is what happens when a nation forgets the Lord. When everyone does what is right in their own eyes, sin spirals down, things fall apart, atrocity is piled upon atrocity, and we turn on each other.
Sin separates. Idolatry divides.
This is the lesson we are supposed to get from the horrific story of the woman whose body was cut into twelve pieces. The twelve tribes of Israel were supposed to be one body. One beautiful bride, beloved and chosen by God. But sin had ripped her apart.
The concubine was both a sacrifice and a symbol. Her broken body was intended to shock the people of Israel into action. The twelve dismembered pieces represented a nation torn apart. But because Israel had fallen so far, the result wasn’t repentance. It was civil war.
Christians are not immune from division and disunity. In fact, we are often some of its chief perpetrators. We look for some cause or issue to unite us, often forgetting that the Great Commission has already given us one (Matthew 28:18-20). But we must remember:
- We are not united because we all hate the same politicians.
- We are not united because we are all outraged by the same news stories.
- We aren’t united because we all indulge in the same sin.
- We aren’t united because we all keep the same secrets.
Christian unity can only be achieved through mutual repentance, shared brokenness, and the freedom that comes from forgiveness.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus presented himself as the remedy for brokenness:
He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)
Today, we call this observance “Communion.”
Communion: Common union. We are brought together by Jesus’ broken body. Reconciliation between ourselves and with God is made possible through Jesus, whose body—like that of the concubine in Judges 19– was torn for the twelve tribes.