Ashkelon was never known for its godliness. It was one of the five major cities in Philistia, and it seems always to have been a wicked place.
Most of the references to Ashkelon in the Bible are prophecies of judgment. The Philistines were enemies of God. They often attacked his people, as they did in the days of Goliath. Thus Jeremiah promised that Ashkelon would be silenced (Jer. 47:5). Zephaniah prophesied that the city would be left in ruins (Zeph. 2:4). Zechariah said it would be deserted (Zech. 9:5).
Archaeologists have found something horrific in Ashkelon. There is a building there that can clearly be identified as a bathhouse, apparently built some centuries after the biblical prophets. It contains both a tub and a hypocaust, which is an under-floor furnace used in those days to heat water.
What archaeologists wondered was whether the bathhouse also served as a brothel. Mixed bathing often led to sexual immorality. Besides, the inscription on the side of the bathing area was suggestive. It read "Enter, enjoy and… "
Then came a startling discovery. The alley behind the bathhouse contained a sewer. The sewer was filled with rubbish. In the rubbish there were nearly one hundred tiny skeletons, all discarded within a day or two of birth. Closer examination revealed that these infants had been drowned.
Then came a further discovery. DNA testing revealed that nearly all the infants who had been exposed were males. This was a major surprise. Infanticide was an accepted practice in many ancient cultures, but only for girls. They were usually considered expendable, but no one ever got rid of their baby boys.
In a letter dating from the time of Christ, one man wrote to his wife, "I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son… If you are delivered of child [before I get home], if it is a boy keep it; if a girl, discard it" [Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 744, in Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt under Roman Rule (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 54].
Why, then, were there so many boys left out in the alley in Ashkelon? The most likely explanation is that the bathhouse doubled as a bordello. Boys would not be kept, you see, but girls could learn the trade.
What the archaeologists found, therefore, was a scene of unspeakable squalor: a back-alley brothel where courtesans dumped human beings in the sewer. But then, there really is no pretty way to get rid of newborns, is there? Our own country has its own places of unspeakable squalor, such as the dumpster behind the abortion clinic, just to name one.
Every year at this time we pause to lament the deadly and barbaric evil of abortion. I really have little new to say on the subject this year. The reason I have little new to say is because little has changed. In fact, little has changed in the last 2000 years. We are still Philistines.
In America, as in Ashkelon, there are people who believe it is okay to kill as long you stay in business. That is why abortion is so common in America. The abortion rate has started to decline, but only slightly. In Pennsylvania abortions are down by two percent. However, nationwide nearly a million and a half abortions are still performed each year.
Another thing that has not changed is that abortion is still wrong. Not long ago Greg Koukl observed, "If the unborn is not a person, no justification for abortion is necessary. However, if the unborn is a person, no justification for abortion is adequate" [Journal of Christian Apologetics, Summer 1997, p. 89].
An unborn child is a person. We know this because the Bible teaches that God's work in a person's life begins in the womb, if not earlier. In fact, there is a reference to this in our sermon text tonight (Gal. 1:15). A fetus is a person, made in the image and likeness of God, living in relationship to other persons. Therefore, to take the life of a fetus is to take the life of a human person.
Another thing that has not changed is that we are still a long way away from eliminating abortion in America. Efforts to legislate morality are proving to be as ineffective as efforts to protest against immorality. Out of frustration, some Christians now advocate the use of violence to stop doctors from performing abortion. But that is not the biblical answer. God's way is the way of the cross, not the sword.
We must recognize that there are some wrongs we cannot right. God does not enable us to make a just society in our own strength or in our own time. There are times when the church seems powerless in the face of social evil. But even wrongs that cannot be righted can be lamented.
A culture which refuses to weep over its sins will eventually cry out in the pains of judgment. Some day God will judge America the way he judged Ashkelon. Those who take life will have life taken from them.
But the people of God will cry before that day comes. We will shed a tear for the unwanted pregnancy and the unwelcomed child. We will mourn the terminated pregnancy and the partial-birth abortion. We will weep with the mothers—and the fathers—who later have remorse for what they have done to their unborn children.
We will lament all the wrongs we cannot make right. And we will wait for God, somehow, to make things right in the end.
[Archaeological details come from Lawrence Stager and Patricia Smith, "DNA Analysis Sheds New Light on Oldest Profession at Ashkelon," Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August, 1997), Vol. 23, No. 4, p. 16]
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