The Biggest Loser: A Meditation on Judges 17-18

08 Sep

One of the most difficult books to deal with in all of the Old Testament is the book of Judges. It contains the stories of men and women who lived during the “dark ages” of Israel’s spiritual history. These people lived in the time period between Joshua and Samuel. Even though they lived after the Law was given to Moses, they lived in a period of history when the Law was ignored and forgotten. There is almost no mention of the Law in the entire book of Judges. Though God had given them specific instructions in the Law about who He was, how He wanted to be worshipped, and what He expected of His people, the Israelites abandoned those words and did what was right in their own eyes (see Judges 21.25).

The result was a group of people who lacked a moral compass, whose spirituality was off the mark at best, and at times, downright evil. The stories found in these pages are examples of what it looks like when there is a famine of the Word of God.

Most of the book is focused around the stories of the Judges, the charismatic leaders that were raised up by God to deliver Israel from its enemies. A few of them were shining lights (most notably Deborah), but most of them were dim watt bulbs (think Jephthah or Samson). With the death of Samson in chapter 16, the book ends with a collection of stories that are even more bizarre and disturbing than the ones before, as hard as that seems. The story told over the course of the two chapters of seventeen and eighteen is a prime example of the consequences of living without the Words of God. The story takes 44 verses to tell, so allow me to summarize some parts while quoting others.

Judges 17.1-6

1Now a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim 2said to his mother, “The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse—I have that silver with me; I took it.” Then his mother said, “The LORD bless you, my son!” 3When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, “I solemnly consecrate my silver to the LORD for my son to make a carved image and a cast idol. I will give it back to you.” 4So he returned the silver to his mother, and she took two hundred shekels of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who made them into the image and the idol. And they were put in Micah’s house. 5Now this man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and some idols and installed one of his sons as his priest. 6In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.

Micah’s Idols

We are introduced to Micah, an upstanding guy. Eleven hundred shekels of silver were stolen from his mother. His mother had issued a curse on the person who stole the silver, so Micah returned the silver and confessed to the crime, but only to avoid the curse. The amount of money was huge (about a hundred years worth of wages, see Judges 16.10), but Micah’s mother cancels out the curse by blessing her son by the name of YHWH. She then consecrated the stolen amount to YHWH to make a carved image, a specific violation of the second commandment (see Exodus 20.4), a further illustration of how absent the Law was from the consciousness of the people. However, she only used less than 20% of the consecrated money to make the idol. Micah’s mother was the spiritual ancestor of Ananias and Sapphira, the couple who sold a piece of property and presented the proceeds to the apostles to support their ministry. They held back part of the money for themselves, and things did not turn out so well for them (see Acts 5.1-11).

With the newly minted idol, and some priestly garments (the ephod), Micah installed one of his sons as “his priest.” Micah knew enough about YHWH to know that he should worship Him, but not enough to know how to worship the Lord. He was a thief, and idolater, and a peddler of false worship, all in the name of YHWH. The nut has not fallen too far from the tree. There are many today who worship in the name of Jesus, but they are really worshipping the false gods of money, success, or even immorality, all with a Jesus veneer. Sprinkling the name of Jesus or YHWH on top of sin does not cancel out its effects.

Judges 17.7-13

7A young Levite from Bethlehem in Judah, who had been living within the clan of Judah, 8left that town in search of some other place to stay. On his way he came to Micah’s house in the hill country of Ephraim. 9Micah asked him, “Where are you from?” “I’m a Levite from Bethlehem in Judah,” he said, “and I’m looking for a place to stay.” 10Then Micah said to him, “Live with me and be my father and priest, and I’ll give you ten shekels of silver a year, your clothes and your food.” 11So the Levite agreed to live with him, and the young man was to him like one of his sons. 12Then Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest and lived in his house. 13And Micah said, “Now I know that the LORD will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest.”

Micah’s Levite

Micah had his own idol and his own priesthood, but it was not quite the legitimate priesthood that he wanted. For “his priest” to be really effective, he needed someone from the tribe of Levi to serve as his priest. But where could he get one of those?

Fortunately for Micah, the Levites were as lost as he was. Since the tribe of Levi was not give a specific portion of the Promised Land like the other tribes, they were assigned specific cities within the other tribes in which to live and to carry out their duties (see Numbers 18.20). Forty-eight cities were given to the Levites, but Bethlehem was not one of them. This Levite from Bethlehem was not living in accordance to the Law, and it should come as no surprise to the reader that he would not lead Micah to worship the living God in the right way. When this Levite from Bethlehem showed up at Micah’s door, he was looking for a place to stay, a place by the very definition that was outside of God’s will for both him and all of Israel.

Somehow, the Levite agreed to be Micah’s personal priest serving in his home and serving before his idols. And Micah though that all of this was a good sign from YHWH that things would go well for him. In Micah’s mind, he had the world by the tail.

Judges 18.1-6

1In those days Israel had no king. And in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking a place of their own where they might settle, because they had not yet come into an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. 2So the Danites sent five warriors from Zorah and Eshtaol to spy out the land and explore it. These men represented all their clans. They told them, “Go, explore the land.” The men entered the hill country of Ephraim and came to the house of Micah, where they spent the night. 3When they were near Micah’s house, they recognized the voice of the young Levite; so they turned in there and asked him, “Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? Why are you here?” 4He told them what Micah had done for him, and said, “He has hired me and I am his priest.” 5Then they said to him, “Please inquire of God to learn whether our journey will be successful.” 6The priest answered them, “Go in peace. Your journey has the LORD’S approval.”

The Wandering Danites

The tribe of Dan that showed up at Micah’s place seems like a pitiful lot. They “had not yet come into an inheritance” in the land of promised, and the reader is tempted to pity them as poor lost souls. But, students of the Bible realize that this is not the case. The tribe of Dan was given an inheritance in the land, the territory between Ephraim and Judah (see Joshua 19.40-48), but they had failed to step into their inheritance. The Amorites confined the Danites to the hill country, not allowing them to come down into the plain (see Judges 1.34). Instead of doing the work to gain deliverance and freedom from the oppression of the Amorites, the Danites went looking for new territory.

The spies sent out from the Danites came across Micah, his idols, and his personal priest.

Micah’s priest told them that the Lord had approved of their journey, but we can have little confidence in the prophetic words of an idol peddling, priest-for-hire. The spies went out and found the town of Laish, a peaceful and prosperous community, but unfortunately for them, a community with no nearby neighbors. Since they were not strong enough to capture the land given to them by the Lord, the Danites decided to steal the land of a peaceful and unsuspecting people (see Judges 18.27).

But before they left Micah’s house, they decided to steal Micah’s idol and priest, too. After all, how much more successful in battle could they be if they had their own personal god and priest? They talked Micah’s priest into abandoning Micah and joining them as “their priest” by appealing to his ego: “Isn’t it be better to serve a tribe and clan in Israel as priest rather than just one man’s household? (Judges 18.19). The priest was glad for the promotion, and the Danites left Micah’s household to steal the city of Laish.

When Micah learned that his god and priest had been stolen, he set out in pursuit. The reader should not miss the ironic and pitiful site of a man chasing a god that was fashioned by stolen money and then stolen from him by thieves. How powerful is a god that can be hijacked by marauders? When Micah realized that he did not have enough force to take his idol back from the armed Danites, he returned home empty handed.

Judges 18.27-31

27Then they took what Micah had made, and his priest, and went on to Laish, against a peaceful and unsuspecting people. They attacked them with the sword and burned down their city. 28There was no one to rescue them because they lived a long way from Sidon and had no relationship with anyone else. The city was in a valley near Beth Rehob. The Danites rebuilt the city and settled there. 29They named it Dan after their forefather Dan, who was born to Israel—though the city used to be called Laish. 30There the Danites set up for themselves the idols, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land. 31They continued to use the idols Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh.

Dan: The Biggest Loser

The initial report was that Dan was successful in their plans. They attacked a peaceful and unsuspecting city who had no allies to rescue them. They burned down the city, and then rebuilt it, bearing the name of their ancestors. They set up the idols they stole from Micah in the city to be their gods, and all seems to be good for the Danites. Until we read the rest of the story.

Before we do, we should note the name of Micah’s personal priest who had become the priest of the new city of Dan. The wandering Levite from Bethlehem, the priest for hire who was either ignorant of the Ten Commandments or negligent of them, was none other than Jonathan, the grandson of Moses himself. Within two generations of Moses, the people had wandered so far away from God’s laws. They had totally failed to pass down the Law from generation to generation.

Passing down the faith from generation to generation is no less critical today than it was 3400 years ago. When one generation fails to teach another generation about the ways of the Lord, the generations that follow are left to devise their own ideas about spiritual things, and man’s ignorance always leads to idols made in the image of mankind. In our own generation, left to our own wisdom, mankind has created a god of tolerance who does not have a holy bone in his body. Sin is of no matter to this god, and any concept of judgment is “so yesterday.” But look what ignorance gets you…

While the tribe of Dan seemed to be successful in their stealing the city of Laish, the future of Dan is not so bright. When the book of Chronicles list the tribes of Israel and their descendants, the tribe of Dan is the only tribe that was ignored. The descendants of Judah, Simeon, Reuben, Gad, Levi, Manasseh, Issachar, Benjamin, Naphtali, Ephraim, and Asher are listed in detail, but there is no mention of the descendants of Dan (see 1 Chronicles 2-7). Dan failed to take what God had given to them, and in the process, lost everything.

But the end result is even worse. In the book of Revelation, the apostle John was given a vision of “what will take place later” (see Revelation 1.19). In chapter 7, John saw a vision of 144,000 from all of the tribes of Israel who will carry out a special mission for God during the Tribulation. The tribes of Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin are listed by name. But there is no mention of Dan (see Revelation 7.5-8). Dan refused to take the land given to them by God, and God refused to give them any portion in the ultimate Land of Promise. In the end, the Danites were the biggest losers.


The disappointing stories of Micah, Jonathan, and the Danites are just another chapter from the book of Judges illustrating what happens to the people of God when the Word of God is neglected and ignored. Morality and spirituality become products of what seems right in our own eyes, and while the initial results might seem good, the end is always destruction (see Proverbs 14.12).

The question that Jesus asked hangs over these stories with a strong warning, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (see Mark 8.36).

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Posted by on September 8, 2010 in Sermons - Judges


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