This post is written by Matt Stewart and is published as a companion to Unit 10, Session 2 of The Gospel Project for Adults Vol. 4 (Summer 2022): From Unity to Division.
When getting to know someone, a person will usually ask at some point in the conversation something like “So, where are you from?” It’s a straightforward question but depending on where you were born and/or raised, it can invoke a lengthy or awkward answer. Such was the case for folks hailing from Gibeah and Jabesh-gilead.
The Sin of Gibeah
On the one hand, Gibeah was the hometown of the king-elect, Saul. Nevertheless, it had a history worth forgetting. As Judges 19-21 records, a certain Levite and his concubine lodged in the city of Gibeah while on a journey. An old man coming back to town after working in the fields discovered the Levite and his concubine and urged them to stay with him instead of in the town square. That night, the men of the city surrounded the house, demanding the old man to deliver the Levite into their hands so that they could have sex with him. Instead, the old man offered up his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine. As the text records, “But the men would not listen to him, so the man seized his concubine and took her outside to them. They raped her and abused her all night until morning. At daybreak they let her go” (Judg. 19:25). When the Levite came to the door the next morning, his concubine lay unresponsive at the threshold. The Levite then took her body, traveled home, butchered her into twelve pieces, and sent her parts throughout Israel. When the people heard (and saw) what had happened, they called Israel to war against the tribe of Benjamin, in which Gibeah was located. So, when someone asked a native of Gibeah where they were from, how do you suppose they answered?
The Sin of Jabesh-gilead
On the other hand, Jabesh-gilead didn’t have a stellar record either. When Israel was summoned to war against the tribe of Benjamin, all the men of war responded…except from the town of Jabesh-gilead (Judg. 21:9). You can understand the irony, then, of Jabesh-gilead seeking help from Gibeah when Nahash the Ammonite laid siege against them (1 Sam. 11:1). How could they expect help from their brothers when they themselves had ignored their tribal responsibilities? Their answer to the “where are you from” question wouldn’t have been much better than that of the citizens of Gibeah.
God Uses Unlikely People
But God has a track record of using unlikely people to deliver His underserving people, and so He raised up Saul to rescue the citizens of Jabesh-gilead. While plowing with his oxen, Saul received word of Jabesh-gilead’s situation. The next moment, “the Spirit of God suddenly came powerfully on him, and his anger burned furiously” (1 Sam. 11:6). So, he did something that would have reminded the Israelites of Gibeah’s history: he took the oxen he plowed with, cut them into pieces, sent them throughout Israel, and declared, “This is what will be done to the ox of anyone who doesn’t march behind Saul and Samuel” (1 Sam. 11:7). The people heard the message loud and clear because 330,000 men met Saul at Bezek to go to war. The army scrambled nearly 15 miles over night, and before the next day grew warm, the Israelites defeated the Ammonites so that “There were survivors, but they were so scattered that no two of them were left together” (1 Sam. 11:11).
Not only was Israel victorious, but Saul had proven himself as a capable leader. Some of Saul’s followers saw this as a perfect opportunity to get rid of the wicked men who had dared to speak against Saul as the future king (1 Sam. 10:27). But even Saul knew that he couldn’t claim the victory for himself, so he extended mercy rather than exacting revenge, “for today the LORD has provided deliverance in Israel” (1 Sam. 11:13). Thus, Samuel urged the people to go to Gilgal, the sight of Israel’s first Passover in the promised land, and there “renew the kingship” (1 Sam. 11:13. Though Saul had been anointed and proclaimed as the future king, he had not yet been installed. The celebration at Gilgal, however, marked the beginning of his rule over God’s people. Saul was, after all, only a steward of God’s special people, a reality implied by the fact that the coronation took place “in the LORD’s presence” (1 Sam. 11:15).
Looking Beyond Our Shame
Why would God rescue descendants of war-dodgers by means of a farmer from a town with a lewd and scandalous past? Then again, why would God save hell-bound sinners by means of a carpenter from the backwoods town of Nazareth? Perhaps the darkness and obscurity serve as backdrops for the one who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and thus, “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). In other words, God is glorified when the grace of Christ is magnified through sinners embracing the “foolishness” of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:18). Thank God that the logic of the gospel doesn’t make sense. Thank God He’s in the business of using the unqualified for His glory. And thank God that, as citizens of His kingdom, we have no need to be ashamed to acknowledge where we came from.
Matt Stewart is the pastor of teaching and care at Christ Community Church in Huntersville, North Carolina, and a ThM candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he also earned an MDiv. Matthew and his wife, Courtney, have six children.