Read the Bible features devotional commentaries from D.A. Carson’s book For the Love of God (vol. 1) that follow the M’Cheyne Bible reading plan. This podcast is designed to be used alongside TGC's Read The Bible initiative (TGC.org/readthebible).
Ruth 2; Acts 27; Jeremiah 37; Psalm 10
The narrator has already told us that when Naomi and Ruth arrive back in Bethlehem it was the time of barley harvest (Ruth 1:22). Now (Ruth 2) the significance of that bit of information is played out.
It was long-standing tradition, stemming from Mosaic Law, that landowners would not be too scrupulous about picking up every bit of produce from their land. That left something for the poor to forage (cf. Deut. 24:19-22; see meditation for June 19). So Ruth goes out and works behind the proper reapers in a field not too far from Jerusalem. She could not know that this field belonged to a wealthy landowner called Boaz — a distant relative of Naomi’s and Ruth’s future husband.
The story is touching, with decent people acting decently on all fronts. On the one hand, Ruth proves to be a hard worker, barely stopping for rest (Ruth 2:7). She is painfully aware of her alien status (Ruth 2:10), but treats the locals with respect and courtesy. When she brings her hoard back to Naomi and relates all that has happened, another small aside reminds us that for a single woman to engage in such work at this point in Israel’s history was almost to invite molestation (Ruth 2:22) — which attests her courage and stamina.
Naomi sees the hand of God. From a merely pragmatic perspective of gaining enough to eat, she is grateful, but when she hears the name of the man who owns the field, she not only recognizes the safety that this will provide for Ruth, but she realizes that Boaz is one of their “kinsman-redeemers” (Ruth 2:20) — that is, one of those who under so-called levirate law could marry Ruth, with the result that their first son would carry on the legitimate rights and property entitlements of her original husband.
But it is Boaz who is, perhaps, seen in the best light. Without a trace of romance at this stage, he shows himself to be not only concerned for the poor, but a man who is touched by the calamities of others, and who quietly wants to help. He has heard of Naomi’s return and of the persistent faithfulness of this young Moabitess. He instructs his own workers to provide for her needs, to ensure her safety, and even leave behind some extra bits of grain so that Ruth’s labor will be well rewarded.
Above all, he is a man of faith as well as of integrity, a point we hear in his first conversation with the woman who would one day be his bride: “May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (Ruth 2:12). Well said — for the Lord is no one’s debtor.
Ruth 1; Acts 26; Jeremiah 36; Psalm 9
There is scarcely a more attractive figure in all of Scripture than Ruth.
She is a Moabitess (Ruth 1:4). She lives in troubled times, and faces her own terrible grief. She and another Moabitess, Orpah, marry two recent immigrants called Mahlon and Kilion. These two men and their parents had arrived in Moabite territory to escape famine back home in Bethlehem. Some years pass, and the men’s father — Elimelech — dies. Then both Mahlon and Kilion die. That leaves the three women: the Moabitesses’ mother-in-law Naomi, and the two Moabitesses themselves, Orpah and Ruth.
When Naomi hears that the famine back home is over, which was the original reason for their migration to Moab, she decides to go home. Families often worked in extended clan relationships. She would be looked after, and the pain of her loneliness would be mitigated. Wisely, she encourages her two daughters-in-law to stay in their own land, with their own people, language, and culture. Who knows? In time they might even find new mates. Certainly they cannot reasonably expect Naomi to produce them!
So Orpah accepts the counsel, stays home in Moab, and nothing more is heard of her again. But Ruth clings to Naomi: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17). She even puts herself under the threat of a curse. “May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:17).
Ruth does not mean this to sound heroic. She is simply speaking out of her heart. Had she come to a genuine and consistent faith in the Lord God during her ten-year marriage? What kind of solid and subtle links had been forged between Ruth and the Israelite members of this extended family, and in particular between Ruth and Naomi?
Our culture makes all kinds of snide remarks about mothers-in-law. But many a mother-in-law is remarkably unselfish, and establishes relationships with her daughters-in-law that are as godly and as deep as the best of those between mothers and daughters. So, apparently, here. Ruth is prepared to abandon her own people, culture, land, and even religion, provided she can stay with Naomi and help her.
She could not have known that in making that choice she would soon find herself married again. She could not have known that that marriage would make her an ancestor not only of the imposing Davidic dynasty, but of the supreme King who centuries later would spring from it.
Judges 21; Acts 25; Jeremiah 35; Psalms 7-8
The last wretched step in the violence precipitated by the rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine now plays out (Judg. 21). In a fury of vengeance, the Israelites have swept through the tribal territory of Benjamin, annihilating men, women, children, and cattle (Judg. 20:48). The only Benjamites left are 600 armed men who have holed up in a stronghold at Rimmon (Judg. 20:47). But now the rest of the nation is entertaining second thoughts. As part of their sanctions against Benjamin, they had vowed not to give any of their daughters to a Benjamine. If they keep their vow, Benjamites will die off: only male Benjamites are left.
Their solution is as nauseating, cruel, and barbaric as anything they have done. They discover that one large town in Israel, Jabesh Gilead, never responded to the initial call to arm. Partly as punishment, partly as a way of finding Israelite women, the Israelite forces destroy Jabesh Gilead, killing all the men and all the women who are not virgins (Judg. 21:10-14). This tactic provides 400 wives for the 600 surviving Benjamites. The ruse for finding a further 200 is scarcely less evil.
The remaining 200 Benjamites are given sanction to kidnap suitable women at a festival time in Shiloh, their fathers and brothers being warned off (Judg. 20:20-23). So the tribe of Benjamin, greatly reduced in numbers, survives. One can scarcely imagine the multiplied levels of bitterness, grief, fear, resentment, loneliness, retaliation, furious rage, and billowing bereavement that attended these “solutions.”
By now it is clear that the Israelites face two kinds of problems in the book of Judges. The presenting problem, as often as not, is enslavement or repression from one or other of the Canaanite tribes that share much of the land or that live not far away. When the people cry to him, God repeatedly raises up a hero to rescue them. But the other problem is far deeper. It is the rebellion itself, the chronic and persistent abandonment of the God who rescued them from Egypt and who entered into a solemn covenant with them. This issues not only in more cycles of oppression from without, but in spiraling decadence and disorientation within.
For the fifth and final time, the writer of Judges offers his analysis. “In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as he saw fit” (Judg. 21:25). How this nation needs a king — to order it, stabilize it, defend it, maintain justice, lead it, pull it together. But will he be a king who solves the problems, or whose dynasty becomes part of the problem? Thus a new chapter in Israel’s history opens. A new, royal institution soon becomes no less problematic — until he comes who is King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16).
Judges 20; Acts 24; Jeremiah 34; Psalms 5-6
One might have expected that only the guilty would be hunted down and executed (Judg. 20). But the Levite is stirring up the nation (without, of course, disclosing his own disgraceful behavior). So far as our records go, Gibeah does not offer to hand over the offenders. If they had, that would have been the end of the matter. Nor do the tribal leaders of Benjamin offer to intervene and ensure that justice is done. Instead, they close ranks and offer to take on all comers, doubtless expecting that the rest of the nation will be unwilling to pay too high a price to capture a few rapists at a time when the entire nation has slid into violence.
For their part, the rest of the tribes foam at the mouth but act stupidly. Instead of embarking on a massed assault, initially they decide to send the troops of only one tribe at a time. When we are told that the Israelites inquired of God which tribe should go first, probably this means that they went through the Urim and Thummim procedure with a priest of the sanctuary. The Israelites lose twenty-two thousand men the first day (Judg. 20:21), and eighteen thousand the next (Judg. 20:25).
Finally the Lord does truly promise that he will give Gibeah and the Benjamites into the hands of the rest of the Israelites (Judg. 20:28). The third day, the Israelites set up an ambush, and at last they are victorious. Vast numbers of Benjamites die.
That is the sort of thing that happens when the rule of law dissolves, when people start acting out of tribal loyalty and not principle, when vengeance overtakes justice, when superstitious vendettas displace courts, when brothers no longer share a common heritage of worship and values, when government is by fear and not by the consent, it can ignite a Bosnia, it can start a world war. It is the stuff of dictators and warlords, the lubricant of gangs and violence.
The sad reality is that every culture is capable of this. The ancient Israelites sink into this quagmire not because they are worse than all others, but because they are typical of all others. A society that no longer hangs together, whether on the ground of religion, shared worldview, or at least agreed and respected procedurals, is heading for violence and anarchy, which, sooner or later, becomes the best possible breeding ground for the ordered response of tyrants — power authorized by sword and gun.
That is how secular historians see it. We see all this, too, and discern behind the blood and evil the just hand of God, who intones, “So far will you go, and no further.”
Judges 19; Acts 23; Jeremiah 33; Psalms 3-4
By the time we reach Judges 19, the law of the jungle has triumphed in the fledging nation of Israel.
The Levite introduced to us at this point takes on a concubine. (Levites were supposed to marry only virgins; see Lev. 21:7, 13-15.) She sleeps around and moves out, returning to her father’s home. In due course the Levite wants her back, so he travels to Bethlehem and finds her. Owing to a late start on the return trip, they can’t make the journey home in one day. Owing to a late start on the return trip, they can’t make the journey home in one day. Preferring not to stop in one of the Canaanite towns, they press on to Gibeah, a Benjamite settlement. A local homeowner warns the Levite and his concubine not to stay in the town square overnight — it is far too dangerous. And he takes them in.
During the night, a mob of lusty hooligans want the homeowner to send out the Levite so they can sodomize him. That is stunning. In the first place, by the social standards of the ancient Near East, it was unthinkable not to show hospitality — and they want to gang rape a visitor. And as the account progresses, it is very clear that they will happily rape males or females — they don’t really care.
But perhaps the ugliest moment in the narrative occurs when the homeowner, remembering the rules of hospitality and doubtless frightened for himself as well, offers them his daughter and the Levite’s concubine. The account is crisp and brief, but it does not take much imagination to conjure up their terror — two women not defended by their men but abandoned and betrayed by them and offered to a howling mob insists that even that isn’t enough, so the Levite shoves his concubine out the door, alone. So began her last night on earth in a small town belonging to the people of God.
The morning dawns to find the Levite ordering this woman to get up; it’s time to go. Only then does he discover she is dead. He hauls her corpse back home, cuts her up into twelve pieces, and sends one piece to each part of Israel, saying, in effect: When does the violence stop? At what point do we put our collective foot down and reverse these horrible trends?
“In those days Israel had no king” (Judg. 19:1).
Yet what about his own profound complicity and cowardice? The sheer horror of the dismembered body parts was bound to stir up a reaction, but by this time it could not be the righteous reaction of biblically thoughtful and restrained people. Only the naive could imagine that the outcome would be anything other than a descent into a maelstrom of evil and violence.
Judges 18; Acts 22; Jeremiah 32; Psalms 1-2
Perhaps an innocent reader might have hoped that yesterday’s reading (Judg. 17) reflected a minor aberration among the people of God. Today’s (Judg. 18) makes that hope less sanguine: one entire tribe of Israel is off the rails, and doubtless others as well.
The historical setting is still early enough that not all the tribes have captured all the land that is to be theirs. That is certainly true of Dan (Judg. 18:1). So the Danites send out five soldiers to spy out the terrain, and eventually stumble across the house of Micah. There they find the young Levite, and either recognize him from some previous encounter, or else recognize him for what he is, perhaps by over-hearing his praying or study (which was often done out loud). They inquire of him whether their trip will be successful. Perhaps the “ephod” Micah has made (Judg. 17:5) includes something like the Urim and Thummim for discerning, ostensibly, the will of the Lord. In any case, he reassures them and they go on their way.
The soldiers spy out the town of Laish, which was not part of the land that had been assigned to them. But it looks like a soft and attractive target, and they report accordingly. When six hundred armed Danites return, they interrupt their military raid to walk off with all of Micah’s household gods, not to mention the young Levite priest and the ephod, for clearly they think of this as a way of bringing “luck”or at least direction to their enterprise, The Levite himself is delighted: to him, this feels like a promotion (Judg. 18:20). But can “bought” clergy ever exercise a prophetic witness?
When he and his men catch up with this warrior band, Micah frankly sounds pathetic: “You took the gods I made, and my priest, and went away. What else do I have? How can you ask, ‘What’s the matter with you?’” (Judg.18:24). He detects no irony in his own utterance, the sheer futility of attaching so much to gods you have made.
The Danites threaten to annihilate Micah and his household, and that settles the matter. Might, not justice or integrity, rules the land. The Danites capture Laish, attacking “a peaceful and unsuspecting people” (Judg. 18:27), and rename the place Dan. There they set up their idols, and the young Levite, now identified as a direct descendant of Moses (Judg.18:30), functions as their tribal priest, and passes on this legacy to his sons, even while the tabernacle still remains in its rightful place in Shiloh (Judg. 18:30-31).
The levels of covenantal faithlessness in the religious realm are multiplied by increased violence, tribal selfishness, personal aspirations of power, ingratitude, crude threats, and massive superstition. It is not uncommon for these sins to grow together.