Judges 18 A World Where Might Makes Right

Micah and the Danites. Woodcut by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695

Judges 18

In those days there was no king in Israel. And in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking for itself a territory to live in; for until then no territory among the tribes of Israel had been allotted to them. 2 So the Danites sent five valiant men from the whole number of their clan, from Zorah and from Eshtaol, to spy out the land and to explore it; and they said to them, “Go, explore the land.” When they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, they stayed there. 3 While they were at Micah’s house, they recognized the voice of the young Levite; so they went over and asked him, “Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? What is your business here?” 4 He said to them, “Micah did such and such for me, and he hired me, and I have become his priest.” 5 Then they said to him, “Inquire of God that we may know whether the mission we are undertaking will succeed.” 6 The priest replied, “Go in peace. The mission you are on is under the eye of the LORD.”

7 The five men went on, and when they came to Laish, they observed the people who were there living securely, after the manner of the Sidonians, quiet and unsuspecting, lacking nothing on earth, and possessing wealth. Furthermore, they were far from the Sidonians and had no dealings with Aram. 8 When they came to their kinsfolk at Zorah and Eshtaol, they said to them, “What do you report?” 9 They said, “Come, let us go up against them; for we have seen the land, and it is very good. Will you do nothing? Do not be slow to go, but enter in and possess the land. 10 When you go, you will come to an unsuspecting people. The land is broad — God has indeed given it into your hands — a place where there is no lack of anything on earth.”

11 Six hundred men of the Danite clan, armed with weapons of war, set out from Zorah and Eshtaol, 12 and went up and encamped at Kiriath-jearim in Judah. On this account that place is called Mahaneh-dan to this day; it is west of Kiriath-jearim. 13 From there they passed on to the hill country of Ephraim, and came to the house of Micah.

14 Then the five men who had gone to spy out the land (that is, Laish) said to their comrades, “Do you know that in these buildings there are an ephod, teraphim, and an idol of cast metal? Now therefore consider what you will do.” 15 So they turned in that direction and came to the house of the young Levite, at the home of Micah, and greeted him. 16 While the six hundred men of the Danites, armed with their weapons of war, stood by the entrance of the gate, 17 the five men who had gone to spy out the land proceeded to enter and take the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim. The priest was standing by the entrance of the gate with the six hundred men armed with weapons of war. 18 When the men went into Micah’s house and took the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim, the priest said to them, “What are you doing?” 19 They said to him, “Keep quiet! Put your hand over your mouth, and come with us, and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be priest to the house of one person, or to be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel?” 20 Then the priest accepted the offer. He took the ephod, the teraphim, and the idol, and went along with the people.

21 So they resumed their journey, putting the little ones, the livestock, and the goods in front of them. 22 When they were some distance from the home of Micah, the men who were in the houses near Micah’s house were called out, and they overtook the Danites. 23 They shouted to the Danites, who turned around and said to Micah, “What is the matter that you come with such a company?” 24 He replied, “You take my gods that I made, and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? How then can you ask me, ‘What is the matter?'” 25 And the Danites said to him, “You had better not let your voice be heard among us or else hot-tempered fellows will attack you, and you will lose your life and the lives of your household.” 26 Then the Danites went their way. When Micah saw that they were too strong for him, he turned and went back to his home.

27 The Danites, having taken what Micah had made, and the priest who belonged to him, came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, put them to the sword, and burned down the city. 28 There was no deliverer, because it was far from Sidon and they had no dealings with Aram. It was in the valley that belongs to Beth-rehob. They rebuilt the city, and lived in it. 29 They named the city Dan, after their ancestor Dan, who was born to Israel; but the name of the city was formerly Laish. 30 Then the Danites set up the idol for themselves. Jonathan son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the time the land went into captivity. 31 So they maintained as their own Micah’s idol that he had made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh.

Israel is in a precarious state. They have had judges who were able to rally individual tribes or groups of tribes to confront the crisis of the moment but there has not been a political leader who could unify the tribes since Joshua. The individual tribes have had very different experiences of this time, and the current story unfolds with Dan being a weak tribe without a territory. The religious landscape has also devolved to the point where the worship of the LORD is indistinguishable from the practices of the nations that the people of Israel live among. Israel is a group of unconnected tribes that may share some common stories of their path and may remember some aspects of the covenant faith of their God, but increasingly they have lost their identity as a people of the LORD.

The book of Judges begins with an overview of each tribe’s success in occupying the land promised to them. While several tribes are not completely successful in claiming their new homes, only the Danites are completely driven away by the Amorites in the area and forces to live in the hill country. The book of Joshua also points to the claiming of the city they will rename Dan in Joshua 19:47 and the two stories share a common background.[1] The sending of the spies also is similar to the sending of spies into the land of Canaan in Numbers 13, although the reaction to the spies’ report is different in this story. The five men take shelter in the house of Micah and recognize the young Levite. It is possible that they merely recognize the way he speaks as different from the native Ephraimites of the region but the identity of the Levite later in the narrative probably indicates that this Levite may have been well known and recognizable. The Levite’s explanation of his presence in Micah’s household as, “he hired me,” may indicate a different understanding than the “consecration” that Micah did for the priest in the previous chapter, but it also may reflect the reality that this wandering Levite had looked for work and Micah provided work that was fitting with his family and gifts. The shrine with its idol, ephod, and teraphim and, as we shall soon learn, a priest with a famous ancestor probably made the house of Micah a place of local prominence to seek the will of God (or the gods). The request for an oracle of God’s intention and the seeking of a divine blessing on their mission is sought and received as this priest sends the spies on their way.

The spies discover a city which is both prosperous and unprotected which becomes the target for this weak clan. The city may have some affiliation with Sidon, but they are geographically isolated from them and have no other alliances with groups like the Arameans who could provide them protection. There is no indication, other than the Levite’s blessing, that God has ordained this city for the Danites, but the spies present this as an appealing option for immediate action to their clan. Six hundred armed men,[2] along with the families that will resettle the land, depart the hill country in route to Laish.

This cluster of armed men stops at the house of Micah and seizes the idol, ephod, and teraphim and convinces the priest to come and minister to their group rather than remaining with Micah. There is no intertribal loyalty. In a time without a king, might seems to make right. The priest accepts the offer and departs with the group. It is possible that the Levite viewed the ministry to the Danites as an upgrade, but it is also possible that he viewed this as the way to survive the threat of violence. Regardless of motive the priest participates in the removal of the objects of worship from the house of Micah and sets off with the Danites. When Micah pursues the Danites with the men he can gather to try to reclaim his gods and his priest he is met with the threat of violence and retreats before a larger and more violent force. The corrupted religious practices and the employment of a Levite as priest have not led to Micah’s prosperity in the long term but instead to his humiliation.

The Danites conquer and raze the peaceful city of Laish and rebuild it as Dan. There is no indication of God’s activity on their behalf and the text remains neutral about the implications of this conquest. Yet, the text leaves space for one final bombshell. We learn that the Levite is a grandson of Moses and that they maintain a shrine in Dan until the exile under the Assyrians (734 BCE) even though the idol of Micah may have been removed after the house of God (tabernacle) at Shiloh fell in the eleventh century BCE. (Webb, 2012, p. 449) The shrine starts as a place of worship practices that seem very distant from the ideal laid forth in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy and continues to reflect the decentralized and disparate practices that future kings will struggle with (or embrace).

The identity of Israel as a people is in question. As Berry Webb can state, “In such a confused environment religion becomes merely a means of self-advancement, and provides fertile soil for a host of other evils to take root and flourish.” (Webb, 2012, p. 452) The lack of any type of moral center or covenant identity among the people lays the groundwork for the near dissolution of Israel that will occur in the final narrative of Judges. In a world where ‘might makes right’ the tribes of Israel are indistinguishable from any other group. They are violent and ‘hot-tempered’ men (and women) who are attempting to force their will on a violent world without the guidance or protection of their God. A world where ‘everyone does what is right in their own eyes’ and where the way of the LORD has been forgotten is a dangerous place for women and the vulnerable. Israel may have lost sight of their identity and may have forgotten its God, but in the view of Judges it is only by the steadfast love of God that Israel has any chance at a future beyond the violent present which they are creating.

[1] In Joshua 19:47 the town they fight against is Leshem instead of Laish but it is clear that this narrative in Judges is an expanded telling of the same beginnings of the territory the Danites occupy. As mentioned in the previous chapter the narrative of Micah, the Levite, and the Danites probably does not come chronologically after all the Judges but is placed thematically at the end to show the desperate situation of Israel prior to the time when the people ask for a king.

[2] Although the men are ‘armed for war’ it is important to differentiate that these are not professional warriors. There may be men who have experience as bandits and raiders but there is no organized military force in Israel at this time.

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