Judges 17 follows on the heels of the tragic story of Samson, the failed judge. By now in the book, we fully expect that this chapter will be introducing us to a new judge. Israel will again be oppressed (or rather, they were still oppressed by the Philistines, since Samson did not accomplish his work), they will cry out (although in the story of Samson, they did not cry out, but rather were complacent with their rulers), and God will send a judge (although He refused to do so in chapter 10). As is evidenced by the plethora of parentheses in the last sentence, as the book has progressed, the cycle has become more and more diluted, with more and more detours, exceptions, and failures. In keeping with the downward spiral, Judges 17 is the beginning of the end. There is no reference to the cycle, not even a hint of anything we are familiar with. Everyone was doing what was right in his own eyes; the land was in a state of chaos. From Samson on, we are working toward the explosive climax of the book in bloody civil war and pervasive sin.
Judges 17 starts out in the middle of a domestic incident. There is no introduction. Rather, this chapter sets out to show, not tell. A man named Micah from Ephraim had taken 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother. When his mother noticed that the money was missing, she uttered a curse. The son returned the money to his mother, confessing his sin. This was not true repentance. He was just avoiding the curse. We often repent in the same way Micah did, because we are afraid of getting caught.
In her joy over the returned money, Micah’s mother responded by saying “blessed are you.” The aforementioned curse was turned into a blessing, and not just any blessing, but a blessing in the name of the LORD. These are good words, but they show a wrong view of blessing and cursing. “Yesterday I cursed you, today I blessed you, so now it all goes away and everything is better.” It also shows their wrong view of sin. They thought that they could make it right and there would be no repercussions. As long as Micah returned all the stolen money, it was okay. Mosaic law said that if you steal and then confess (as Micah did), you were supposed to give back what you stole, along with twenty percent interest, as well as all the appropriate sacrifices for confession of sin. Micah’s mother blessing Micah in the name of the LORD was a mistake, because the LORD would obviously not approve of their actions. Micah and his mother figured that the money was back, so all is well that ends well. Too often, we view sin in the same way that Micah and his mother did. They basically said that sin was no big deal. We do not talk about sin anymore in church; we talk about “mistakes.” We always talk about Jesus as our Savior, but never go so far as to acknowledge the sin from which we claim He has saved us.
In verse 3, Micah’s mother continued her response. Her joy over the returned money was so great that she dedicated it to the LORD. So far, so good. In fact, this is excellent. However, she planned to honor the LORD by making an idol. She explicitly said that she “dedicated the money to the LORD to make a carved image.” You do not have to be a Bible scholar to know that this will not work. Her lack of knowledge of the basic laws of God, even the laws as important and basic as the Ten Commandments, shows how base and sinful the nation was. Her heart was in the right place (she wanted to honor the LORD) but she did not give any respect to His law.
In verse 4, Micah’s mother uses only two hundred pieces of her money to make the idol. What happened to the other nine hundred? She had said she would dedicate it all to the LORD. She made a bold statement, but then only gave part — kind of an Old Testament version of Ananias and Sapphira. But we do not know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, she should have given it all to the LORD as she said she would. On the other, she should not have been making idols. What a terribly confusing narrative this is; it can only lead to more trouble.
Micah put the idol in his house, in his conveniently located shrine. What was an Israelite doing with a shrine and a pile of household gods? He, too, obviously either did not know the law or just did not care. He also made an ephod (reminiscent of Gideon’s idolatry) and ordained one of his sons as priest. Only sons of Aaron were to be ordained as priests, and Micah was a Danite, not a Levite. These acts embodied everything that Israel was supposed to avoid.
Deuteronomy 12 clearly says that the Israelites were supposed to worship God in the specific place where He commanded. At that time, the Ark of the Covenant was at Shiloh, which was not very far away from where Micah lived. The narrator states the obvious: everyone in those days was doing what was right in his own eyes. He also points out that there was no king in Israel. Micah did not have a Baal or an Asherah or anything else we have come into contact with so far. He had a “kosher” idol, an idol that was dedicated to the LORD. This is false worship of the LORD and a false priesthood, a mockery of the LORD.
In verse 7, we are introduced to a young Levite from Bethlehem. Levites did not have their own territory but lived among the people. Typically they were identified as belonging to other tribes, not as descendants, but as residents. Bethlehem, however, was not one of the Levite towns. Levites were supposed to be taken care of by the tithes of the tribes with whom they were living. Tithing probably did not happen very often during this lawless time. This Levite was probably having a hard time making it financially in Bethlehem, so he started traveling.
The Levite eventually made it to Micah’s neighborhood. Once Micah found out that this man was a Levite, Micah offered him a place to stay, asking him to “be as a father to him, and a priest.” This is ironic, because the first thing we heard of the Levite in verse 7 was that he was a young man. Micah offered him ten pieces of silver a year, a suit of clothes, and room and board; the Levite accepted and moved in. The Levite was content to live with Micah. Micah once more took it upon himself to ordain someone, this time the Levite. At the end of the chapter, Micah contentedly told himself that the LORD would bless him since now he had his very own Levite.
The days of Judges 17 can be suitably summed up by that old Broadway show tune, “Anything Goes.” The narrator aptly points out over and over again that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And sadly, our culture is the same way. One of the most popular songs of my generation screams out: “It’s my life, it’s now or never! I ain’t gonna live forever. I just want to live while I’m alive, ‘cause it’s my life” (Bon Jovi). Like Frank Sinatra, we pride ourselves on the fact that we “did it my way.” Our culture praises individuality in all things — worship included. “Whatever works for you” is the rule of the day when it comes to worship. The regulative principle of worship is considered to be some stuffy old puritan doctrine. We would rather make it up as we go. The worst part is we think that God will be pleased with it. We think that as long as our hearts are sincere, as long as we are happy, God will be too. We show a blatant lack of knowledge and disregard for God’s law. This shows the lack of a King in our own hearts.
God does have rules that are meant to be followed. Breaking the law, breaking the covenant, results in death and eternal suffering in hell. We can give thanks that God has sent a King, the ultimate Judge into our world to keep perfectly all of His commandments in our place. We are free from the burden of the law because we have the ultimate priest (after the order of Melchizedek, not Levi) who did not do what He wanted, but rather submitted Himself to God’s will so that we might be free. But this does not give us liberty to go out and do whatever we want. Rather, we should be abounding in thanksgiving for this great salvation! We should desire to keep His laws; we should delight in worshipping Him in the ways that are pleasing to Him; we should learn and teach His law so we may better thank Him for His miraculous gift! And we should seek the transformation of our hearts away from singing “It’s my life” to “Take my life and let it be / Consecrated, Lord to Thee!”
For this transformation to happen, look to Christ! You will never be able to initiate (let alone carry out) such a transformation by using only your own faculties. If we look to ourselves, we will only end up like Micah and his family. It is looking to Christ, rather than ourselves, that will transform our lives.
Micah’s whole motivation throughout chapter 17 was the search for blessing. He gave the money back only because he did not want to be cursed. He hired the Levite in order to secure a blessing from God. Micah had idols, ephods, Levites, all sorts of things so that the LORD would prosper him. He thought that blessing came from having the right religious stuff, the right activities, that if he bought the right religious furniture, God would bless him. We do the same thing, except not with real idols or Levites. We think that by wearing a cross, having seventeen cutesy religious bumper stickers, wearing “clever” Christian t-shirts, we will be blessed. We think that because we were baptized and confirmed into the church, because we get involved with the church, because we go to church activities, we are guaranteed a blessing. Our mentality is “I did my devotions today, so I am set.” These things may not necessarily be bad but they are easily turned into activities that we think force the LORD to bless us.
We can never do anything to merit blessing. We were born under a curse and merit God’s wrath. Even when we repent, like Micah, we fail to repent appropriately. Our problem is not only the wrong things that we do; our problem is also that the best things we do are still tainted with sin. We are all desperately seeking blessing, but it is a blessing we can never achieve. We all tend to seek blessing in something other than God. Christ is the one who came to bring us blessing. We need His works and righteousness. It is only in Christ that we can say, “Now I know that God will bless me because I know that Christ is my high priest, and also my sacrifice.” By the time we finish Judges 18, every one of the Ten Commandments will have been broken by Micah. We are all under the same curse. The LORD did not just lift the curse; He placed His own Son under the curse that we deserved. He died for our stealing, our idolatry, our self-righteousness, our religiosity, for all our sins. Because Christ has earned true righteousness, because we are in Christ, we are now able to say truly what Micah said falsely, “Now I know that God will bless me.” Peace is to be found only in Christ.
Judges 18 continues the story of Israel’s failed search for this true peace and blessing. In verse 1, we find the Danites searching for land, because “until then no inheritance among the tribes of Israel had fallen to them.” But that was not entirely true. The Danites were given an inheritance, but they were not assertive enough to take it away from the Amorites. They were not able to possess the land, so they decided to go out and choose their own.
They had been given the task of defeating the Amorites, but they decided to go with an easier task. Like Joshua and Caleb, they sent out spies. Their spies went into the hill country of Ephraim — that was Micah’s neighborhood. The spies went into Micah’s house and recognized the voice of the Levite. The Levite told them that he was serving as Micah’s priest. He was there for business reasons — for money — not for ministry. We often think the same way. We always think of ministry and the church in terms of “what’s in it for me?” “I go to this church because this is where all my friends go.” “I love our church’s young people’s group because of the food.” “I’m a thirty year old single. I love our church, but I’m going to a different one because there are more people my age to hang out with, and more single ladies for me to meet. I know that their ministry is not as strong, that they have weak elders, but . . .” We need to examine our motives in church-related decisions. We need to subordinate ourselves to God’s Word and what He commands us, not what we selfishly want. Our feelings can easily lead us astray, making us think that we are really called to something, even if it is wrong (as the Danites really thought they were called to search for a new inheritance). We should question our motives. Why did you sign up for that mission trip? Were you shamed into it by your parents or pastor? Was it because you thought God would give you some “kingdom points” if you did? Was it because a girl you really like was going on it? We need to really sit down and figure out what our motives are, for if our motives are wrong, even the best of actions can be sinful.
Eventually, the spies found a place to stay in the land of Laish. Six hundred Danites set out. On their way, they passed through the hill country of Ephraim, the area where Micah lived. The five scouts mentioned that Micah’s house was full of nice idols, including that nice silver one. They told the Danites to “consider what you will do.” According to Deuteronomy, they should have destroyed the idols and put the whole household to death. Instead, the men of Dan showed up at Micah’s door and chatted with the Levite while the five spies went into the house and “liberated” the idols.
The Danites also offered the Levite a better ministry: “Come and be to us a father and a priest.” This was just like Micah’s offer. The priest gladly accepted. Would it not be better to be a priest to a whole tribe instead of to one family? The priest certainly felt led to this ministry, helping them take all the plunder. The man he was robbing from was one who had treated him like a son.
Micah and his neighbors came in pursuit. The Danites taunted him, asking “What is the matter with you? Are you missing something?” Micah’s answer is pitiful. “You took the gods that I made, and now I have nothing.” He had nothing before. Any gods that can be stolen from you and cannot protect themselves (let alone protect you) are worthless. The Danites responded, “Shut up or you might get ‘damaged.’” So Micah left, dejected, and the Danites returned to their conquest of Laish.
In verses 27–31, we find out that the Danites were quite successful in their conquest. Three times the citizens of Laish are described as “quiet and unsuspecting people.” We almost feel bad for these Canaanites; we like them better than the Israelites. But this raises a question. If it was as easy as this to kill the Canaanites, why was no one else out there killing them? All of Israel was supposed to be conquering the land, but no one was.
Conquering the Canaanites was supposed to protect Israel from idolatry and corruption. But the Israelites did not need any Canaanites anymore. When they captured their city, they set up their own idols and set up their newly-acquired priest. Finally at the end of the chapter, the Levite’s name is revealed. He is Jonathan, son of Gershom, the son of Moses. This is a shocker! So much so, that a number of Hebrew manuscripts and English translations insert “Manasseh” pointing ahead to the wicked king of 2 Kings 21. Such wicked worship would have been compatible with King Manasseh, but not with Moses. Godliness is not genetic. The grandson of Moses was now ordained as a false priest, the founder of a false priesthood. His sons were priests for the people of Dan until the captivity of the land, a long time. Then we get the final irony of ironies. The Danites set up Micah’s idol at Shiloh, where the proper ark and tabernacle were located. Shiloh was where one was supposed to seek the LORD, and now it became a center of idolatry.
When we read that Israel sinned “because there was no king in Israel,” it is a temptation to think that a king would be the answer to their problems. But if you read the rest of the Old Testament, you know that a king does not help. What was the very first thing that Jeroboam did as king? He set up two new temples and put golden calves in them, golden calves that he said represented the LORD. And he then ordained his own priesthood to serve them. The pattern of Micah obviously was not broken by an earthly king. We need a better King, a better Savior, and a better Priest than anyone on this earth has ever had.
Lesson 17: Points to Ponder
- What spiritual anarchy is going on in Micah’s house even before the Levite arrives?
- Give examples of false repentance. How does this lead to a false confession and a false understanding of sin? How does this lead to a false understanding of why Christ came?
- How does ignorance of God’s Law lead to doing evil while seeking to serve Him? How does Isaiah 5:20 address this? Can we see this happening in our own society (i.e. abortion, etc.)?
- What kind of idols and religious relics do we dedicate to the Lord? How can we avoid seeking out blessings from God by using such idols and religious relics?
- Does “T-shirt/bumper sticker theology” have any benefit?
- How did the self-promoting upward mobility of the Levite lead him deeper into apostasy and sin?