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Judges 17:1-18:31
December 5, 2004

We have completed the account of the judges of Israel. That account, beginning with Othniel and ending with Samson, is the main body of the book. The account of the judges themselves was preceded, if you remember, by a prologue in two parts, that contained both a summary of Israel’s previous history in the Promised Land and a prospective summary of the period of the judges. The prologue serves as a thematic introduction to the book as a whole and tells what to expect and what the following narrative will demonstrate. What remains in the book of Judges is an epilogue, also in two parts. The first part we take this evening: 17:1-18:31. Each of the two parts of the epilogue concerns a Levite whose conduct triggers outrageous behavior by the Israelites. In these cases, no judge arises to deliver the people from themselves. In fact, there is no mention of any judge in the final five chapters of the book. The epilogue, in this way, concludes the book by demonstrating the extent of Israel’s descent into a Canaanite way of life and the misery that she brought upon herself by her defection from the covenant that God had made with her. In the account of the judges themselves not much attention was paid to the spiritual life of the people themselves. That lack is made up in the epilogue which focuses on the spiritual condition of the people of Israel in general.

There is a refrain in the epilogue. It occurs twice in the first part of the epilogue and twice in the second. We have it first at 17:6: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” You have it in a shorter form in 18:1 and 19:1 and in a complete form at 21:25, the last verse of the book. The two longer statements, that is the first instance of this sentence and the last, form an inclusio, framing the entire epilogue, and telling the reader what to think about the events that are narrated in it. The people were leading themselves into sin. There was no positive covenantal discipline; there was, instead, moral anarchy.

It is interesting to note that there are some other literary and thematic connections binding the two parts of the epilogue together. For example, the Levite in the first section of the epilogue hailed from Bethlehem in Judah and traveled to the territory of Ephraim. The Levite in the second part of the epilogue hailed from Ephraim and traveled to Bethlehem in Judah. That is striking because Bethlehem was only a village, not a place many came from or traveled to. As I said, in both cases, the personal behavior of these two men triggered larger events. What is more, the first section of the epilogue ends with a reference to the sanctuary at Shiloh and the second part ends with events that take place at Shiloh. Still more, the first part concerns the people of the tribe of Dan and the second the people of the tribe of Benjamin. Both tribes were located in the middle of Israel between the two more influential tribes, Judah and Ephraim. The problems described lie in the very heart of the nation. [Block, 474]

Text Comment

17:2 Micah enters the narrative as a self-confessed thief, a man who stole money from his own mother. We don’t know why he returns it. The only suggestion in the narrative is that when he heard his mother had cursed the unknown thief he became afraid and brought the money back. He was superstitious. There is irony at the outset. Micah’s name means “Who is like Yahweh?” Well a thief is not like Yahweh! [Webb, 183] And a superstitious thief even less like the Lord.

v.3 His mother was a wealthy woman – 1100 shekels of silver is what each ruler of the Philistines promised to give Delilah! – and she is so glad to have the money back that she doesn’t reproach her son. She had cursed the thief, not knowing who he was, but now she forgets that and utters a blessing instead. Indeed, she goes further and dedicates the money to make an idol to Yahweh.

v.4 The reader notices that of the 1100 shekels of silver, only 200 were given to the silversmith for the purpose of making an idol. Remember also the silver would remain in the family’s hand even in the form of an idol. The money was only reshaped; not lost. This is something like the lie that Ananias and Sapphira would later tell. Someone is making herself look a lot more pious than she really is.

v.5 The result of all of this is repeated violations of God’s commandments. He makes an idol which is forbidden; he sets us his own shrine (literally, “house of God”), which is forbidden; and appoints his own son, as a priest, a violation of the hereditary priesthood descending from Aaron. We have a picture of Canaanite superstition being overlaid with a very thin veneer of Mosaic faith and practice. Micah’s mother openly confesses her devotion to Yahweh and then betrays her loyalty to him by doing precisely what he has forbidden his people to do.

By the way, the word translated “idols” by the NIV, is teraphim. This may indicate that these objects were used for divination, interpreting the future. In 18:5, Danites who visit this sanctuary ask for an oracle, intelligence about the future.

v.6 The negative assessment of these two people and their behavior is confirmed by the narrator himself in a statement we have learned to call the narrator’s “evaluative viewpoint.” Usually he lets you draw your own conclusion from the facts as he reports them, though he may give you subtle indications of his point of view; but sometimes he tells you straightaway what to think about what you have just read. Sometimes scholars have read this line as the expression of pro-monarchy sentiment, as if this was written when the question of whether Israel should have a king was still being debated or as if a royal partisan is defending the royal house against criticism. However, the narrator who put this book together has seen enough of Israelite royalty to know that having a king is no guarantee of spiritual fidelity. In fact, the Book of Judges was written or at least it received its final form after the destruction of the northern kingdom in the later 8th century B.C. We know that because of a remark this narrator makes in 18:30 which we will get to in due time. So he was well aware that kings were no answer to the problem of Israelite apostasy. The people didn’t need a king to set them to sinning; they were doing that very well on their own.

We find this phrase: “do what is right in one’s own eyes” first in the Books of Moses – for example, in Exodus 15:26 we read, “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes…” and in Deut. 6:18 we read, “Do what is right and good in the Lord’s sight…” – and then we find it later often in the evaluation of a king’s reign in the Book of Kings. Such a king did evil in the eyes of the Lord or did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.

Now we shift to a new scene.

v.13 Both men are opportunists rather than principled men of the covenant. The Levite stays for the salary and benefits. The Law of Moses had made very specific and elaborate provision for the maintenance of the Levites but all of this is forgotten by these men. Micah sees the opportunity to better his prospects by hiring a real priest in place of his son who, obviously, was a poor substitute for a man with Levitical credentials. Micah is insecure. He wants to ensure that he has the best possible chance to secure the Lord’s favor. He tempts the Levite not only by offering him a salary, room and board, and clothes, but asks him to be his “father.” He’s offering him a substantial place in the family. He will be Micah’s “good luck charm.” [Block, 489]

18:1 This sums up what has gone before and the story that is now to be told. The statement is given in its shorter form but the reader is to assume that the narrator also means: “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Now we move from the corruption of an Israelite family to the corruption of an entire tribe, the tribe of Dan.

According to Judges 1:34-36 the Danites had been repulsed by the Amorites in their effort to take control of the land that Joshua had allotted to them. They lived in isolated settlements in the hill country. But instead of confessing their sins to the Lord and seeking his help, they take matters into their own hands and go looking for land they can acquire and control. This is not the first and will not be the last war that originated in a desire for Lebensraum.

v.3 The narrator does not tell us how Danites might have previously known a Levite from Judah, but the original territory of the tribe of Dan was next to that of Judah. In any case, Micah’s superstitious desire to have his own Levitical priest will turn out to be his downfall. We are being reminded again and again that when Israel rejects God’s covenant they lose his favor and protection.

v.6 This is, of course, divination, another violation of God’s law that substitutes for it the ways of the surrounding religious culture. The reader knows full well that this so-called priest had not received any such message from the Lord, nor would the Lord had approved of such a faithless venture. But none of the characters has the spiritual wit to know the difference between a real message from God and this Levite’s guess. The Levite is in the oracle business for the money – we already know that – and he provides the prediction he knows his customers want. The fact that it will turn out to be true proves nothing; he had a 50/50 chance no matter what.

v.7 Laish lay at the northernmost extremity of the Promised Land. Later in the chapter we will learn that Laish was renamed Dan. Later the northern and southern extremities of the Promised land would be designated by two cities: Dan and Beersheba. So the phrase, “from Dan to Beersheba” would mean from one end of the Promised Land to the other. It was a prosperous city and, at a distance from any other power, was easy pickings.

v.12 Dan’s Camp. The name would have been known to the readers of Judges and so the narrator explains how it came to have that name. The number of Danite soldiers seems small and suggests that the narrator’s reference to “a clan of Dan” is meaningful. The whole tribe does not respond to the call, only one clan. The rest of the tribe, apparently, will disappear from history.

What follows, however, indicates that the narrator is not really that interested in the Danite migration. He will conclude the story at the end of the chapter. But what really interests him is the spiritual bankruptcy of this clan of Israel. They are thieves, idolaters, and cruel and brutal thugs.

v.14 The scouts had noticed the valuable religious icons when they stopped there before. Obviously, they never intended simply to leave them with Micah.

v.19 They were taking the idols whether the Levite wanted them to or not. But they persuade him to go with them. They know their man. They offer him a promotion. He will be no longer just a family priest, but a clan’s bishop, perhaps even archbishop! It will not be the last time a priest betrays his trust for a miter.

v.21 They put their children and livestock on the march first because they anticipate that Micah will try to get his valuables back. But following the Danites he will come to the soldiers first and they will be free to offer riposte without having to worry about their caravan.

v.26 There is no concern for justice here. The Danites are stronger than Micah’s small force of neighbors and they know it. When the Danites taunt Micah there is nothing he can do about it but turn and go home. Of course, there is irony in Micah’s reference to “the gods I made.” Those gods couldn’t defend themselves, much less Micah. Obviously they won’t be of any use to the Danites either.

In any case, the man Micah, who was introduced to us as a thief is plundered by thieves himself. What was stolen from him was, in part, what he had stolen from his mother.

v.28 In a striking reversal of viewpoint, the narrator evokes our sympathy for Canaanites of all people. They are a people who represent everything that is abominable and are supposed to have been exterminated by Israel. Now Israel has become so Canaanized that the Canaanites are viewed sympathetically in relation to the thuggish Israelites! What is more the Danites are portrayed as soldiers incapable of taking any city but an unfortified and unsuspecting one. When they had to deal with real enemies in the land that Joshua had allotted to them, they had been trounced.

By the way, the valley mentioned is apparently the Beka Valley that has figured so prominently in the conflict between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.

v.31 In other words, these Danites showed no concern whatsoever for God’s law so emphatically laid down in Deuteronomy 12 that Israel was to worship at “the place which the Lord would choose.” They were not to make that choice themselves. In the same spirit they set up idols for their worship in violation of the second commandment. They were to worship at the sanctuary at Shiloh, where the tabernacle had been situated and, in all likelihood, by this time a more permanent sanctuary had been built. But they did what was right in their own eyes.

We are surprised only here, at the end, to be told the name and lineage of this Levite. He is the Bible’s first “Jonathan.” There will be some 20 more in the OT.

In any case, though it would be centuries later, we are given an ominous verdict on the behavior of the Danites. They would be part of the northern kingdom that the Assyrians destroyed in the later 8th century B.C. As it turns out, they would never be heard from again. God would judge them for what they became. Given the fact that this was written after the fall of the northern kingdom, the Book of Judges was intended to be a warning for the southern kingdom, Judah.

A key statement for the interpretation of the two chapters we read comes at 17:13 where Micah, having secured the services of a real, Levitical priest says, “Now I know that Yahweh will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest.” Micah still worshiped Yahweh, but he thought about his relationship to the Lord in precisely the same way the Canaanites around him thought of their gods and their relationship to their gods. Micah’s faith is superstitious and manipulative. He expects that by doing certain cultic things he can secure the favor of the Lord. The term for what Micah does and believes is “magic.” We think of magic as entertainment – a magician who can levitate his pretty assistant or cut her in two and put her back together again. But the older, more important sense of the term is the belief in a supernatural force, real or imagined, that is wielded in isolation from the ethical demands of God’s law and covenant. In this sense, magic was a constant temptation to God’s people in the ancient world and still today, for it includes all efforts to manipulate God apart from submission to his will. It is most obviously not always a trick or sleight of hand, as both Satan and the Egyptian magicians could testify! Magic is, in fact, the theology of a great many people, both within and without the church.

Israel had lost touch with the evangelical, covenantal faith of Abraham and Moses. They were not trusting themselves to the Lord and his promises and offering their hearts and lives in obedience as their sacrifice of love and praise. They were seeking to manipulate the Lord into doing what they wanted without regard for his redemption and without regard for his commandments. That is their first theology, the default theology of the human heart and as it was the theology of everyone around them, and aggressively so, it was doubly easy for Israel to yield to it.

That mistake has been made by vast multitudes of so-called Christians through the ages. You find it being made by many liberal Christians who go to church on Sunday, participate in worship, invoke the Lord’s name in prayer, and then go out to conform to the world in every way that matters – abortion, the normalization of homosexuality, and the universalistic acceptance of all religious faiths and philosophies as legitimate ways to God and heaven. How is that different from what Micah did or the Danites – who invoked the Lord’s name and then did precisely what he forbids and believed in defiance of what he reveals to be the way of life.

But the mistake is made by evangelicals as well. They invoke the Lord’s name and more convincingly, because they continue to confess truths the world denies and the liberal church denies. They are not so much Canaanites as other so-called Christians. They still believe that you must be a Christian to be saved. They still believe that we are supposed to keep the commandments of God. But in this way or that they ignore or they betray the plain-spoken commandments of the Lord and are, somehow, sure that because of everything else they say and do these violations will not count. Of course they do not consider them violations; they read the Word of God in such a way that justifies their behavior, but in fact they are ignoring God’s covenant and any honest person knows that they are. What is this, finally, but Micah’s magic and the Danites’ after him. We are not talking about a believer who stumbles and who knows he has done wrong and repents; we are talking about those who do not want to live according to God’s covenant and fashion a different way for themselves all the while claiming the biblical faith for themselves.

Do you see how the emphasis falls on precisely this distinction between appearance and substance, between a veneer of covenantal faith and life and the real thing. The passage begins with one name – Micah: “Who is like Yahweh?” – and ends with another – Jonathan: “The Lord has given” – but each name is worn in hypocrisy. Micah is a thief and an idolater. Jonathan is a priest who sells his ministry for money and has no compunction, though a descendant of Moses – to violate every canon of the Israelite priesthood. Their names suggest a covenantal faith; their lives are lived in defiance of that covenant.

Micah and Jonathan still use the Lord’s name. They still offer sacrifices to him. They still think of themselves as his subjects and servants. They seem very pious in a certain way. But their piety is the piety of Canaan, not of the Word of God, not of the redemption that God accomplished for his people, not of faith in the Lord, not of love for his Law. They are no longer people of the covenant. They have a different religion, one they have constructed for themselves without regard to the Word of God. There is all of this appearance, all this utterance of spiritual sounding words, and all of this Canaanite thinking and living.

And the result is not admirable. There is not an admirable character in the entire cast of characters. No one shows any concern for the honor of the Lord, for obedience to his commandments. No one behaves with integrity. They are foolish, greedy, selfish, and thuggish. They live by the law of tit for tat, of might makes right. They are Canaanites, pure and simple, no matter that they still use Yahweh’s name.

What is more, and in some ways, more terrifying, to a great degree they get away with it. Micah loses his priest and his silver idols. But, he might have thought when he reflected on it, “Well, into every life a little rain must fall.” But the Danites fall on unsuspecting Laish and not only take possession of prime property for themselves but set up Micah’s shrine with their own priest and settle happily into a more prosperous and comfortable life than they enjoyed before. No doubt they thought that Yahweh was looking down with favor on what they had done. The priest had told them that their journey had the Lord’s blessing and, sure enough, they attacked Laish and won a complete victory. Only many years later, many generations later indeed, would it become entirely clear that the Lord had departed from them, that he was displeased with them and what they had done, and that they were, in all of their prosperity, storing up wrath for themselves. Meantime, the people of Dan would have moved inexorably further and further from the Lord as citizens of the northern kingdom. They became like the members of so-called Christian churches that haven’t believed, preached, or practiced the gospel for generations and don’t have the ghost of an idea how utterly they have rejected the covenant of God and replaced it with a religion that, for all its Christian sound, is as unlike the true faith as the paganism of Canaan was unlike the covenant God revealed through Moses. So long as there remains this sense of success and prosperity why not believe that the Lord is blessing you and that he approves of your life?

Success as success is measured in this world is not necessarily the proof of anything. It may, in fact, be a sign of delayed but impending judgment, as it was in this case. God left his people to grow comfortable and complacent in their apostasy and their worldliness. It was, in fact, their death sentence and that of their children.

We are given here a picture of a creeping apostasy. The words are still there but the substance has departed. Faith has become magic, redemption has become cultic manipulation. Obedience is no longer the glad surrender of one’s life in gratitude for the grace and mercy of God. It has been reduced to buying God’s favors as if Yahweh were a god like any other pagan deity. But there are still many similarities to the real faith that has been left behind. Worship is still being offered to Yahweh himself. Enough remains of the old faith to beguile them into thinking that the changes are all form and not substance, that they are still God’s people and that he will still treat them as such. But it is not so.

That is the message of the epilogue of the Book of Judges and the warning of the book. Appearances to the contrary this people had forsaken the Lord. Whatever they imagined, what they had lost by their betrayal of God’s covenant was his favor, his protection, and his salvation for themselves and their children. The fact that this warning is repeated so many, many times in the Bible; the fact that we are treated to lengthy narratives of this same apostasy occurring time and time again, is proof that we need to heed this warning, take it to heart, guard ourselves against the same thing happening to us. The world is always tempting; the Devil disguises himself as an angel of light. He has killed vast multitudes of people in the church by convincing them to adjust their religious ideas to conform to those of the culture round about. The last thing we are to think is that it couldn’t happen to us. And how will we know if it is happening; if we are in danger of making the same fatal error? This is how we will know. If we are not, as these people were not, still gladly, willingly, conscientiously living our lives in fidelity to the covenant the Lord has revealed in his Word.

It is precisely and only at those points where these men think and do what they were forbidden to think and do in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy that we know they no longer have a living faith in God; they are no longer counting on a salvation the Lord had already provided for them; and they are no longer living their lives day by day and making their decisions in the way that the covenant law shows us grateful believers will always aspire to do.