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Commentary on The Book of Judges 6.

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Judges Chapter 17-18.

We now come to the third section of the Book of Judges. The first section in chapters 1 to 2 was introductory to the activity taking place in Canaan after the time of Joshua and described the decline and fall of Israel in relation to the covenant, followed by the statement that God raised up Judges to deliver His people, only for them to decline again. The second section in chapters 3 to 16 described the rise of twelve judges whom God raised up to deliver Israel, the successes and failures of some of them, and the continued ultimate failure of Israel to be faithful to the covenant.

This third section in chapters 17-21 will now use two incidents in order to demonstrate the parlous state of Israel during this time. Its theme is ‘in those days there was no king in Israel’ (17.6; 18.1; 19.1; 21.25). This is not to be taken pedantically. It does not just mean that this was before the time when there was a king in Israel, it also makes clear that the situations came about because they ignored Yahweh their true King. They had neither the one nor the other. They ignored and refused to acknowledge He Who was King over them and that was why in the end Yahweh would reluctantly give them an earthly king.

But they had been warned through the examples of Gideon and Abimelech what that would mean for them. The giving of this king was in itself an indication of their failure. God’s ideal for them was that He should be King, and this principle continued and was recognised for some time in that the first kings were called ‘nagid’ (war leader). Thus the writer supported the kingship, but only on the basis that because of the failure of Israel to fully respond to their King they had to make do with second best. It was not God’s ideal. It resulted from men’s faithlessness. Judges was thus an apology for kings in both senses of the word.

This rejection of Yahweh as King is made very apparent in this third section. The two incidents described emphasise that Yahweh’s commandments were being spurned and ignored. The first majors on the breaking of the sixth and ninth commandments, ‘you shall not steal’ and ‘you shall not covet’, the second on the seventh and eighth commandments ‘you shall not murder’ and ‘you shall not commit adultery’. Furthermore in the first incident the apostasy of Israel is emphasised in the setting up of a rival Sanctuary at Laish by the half-tribe of Dan, and that by a direct descendant of Moses!

Judges 17. Micah and the Levite.

This chapter illustrates the rise of idolatry and disobedience to Yahweh in Israel after the death of Joshua. It is illustrated from an incident which occurred in the hill country of Ephraim, where a man, who had stolen a large sum of money from his mother, returned it and confessed what he had done. Sadly, in a way that revealed how Israel was at this point cold towards Yahweh and His true Tabernacle, it was then converted to an idolatrous use. Two images and a teraphim were made of it, and a private sanctuary set up, over which eventually a Levite was appointed to be priest. Dishonest behaviour had resulted in dishonest worship. But worse was to follow. In the following chapter this priest will then aid the half-tribe of Dan to steal the images from their owner. Thus theft is central to, and emphasised in, the account. Furthermore the second sad final result was the setting up of a rival Sanctuary to the Central Sanctuary already in place. It was set up in Laish (Dan). It was contrary to the covenant with Yahweh, directly as a result of this theft. So in the space of the two chapters we have two acts of dishonesty, and the setting up of two false sanctuaries. Israel was indeed in a parlous state.

17.1 ‘And there was a man of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Micah.’

This incident took place fairly early on in the period of the Judges for it occurred prior to the movement of the Danites from their allotted territory to a city in the north which was called Laish (18.1). Yet it was not early enough to be too much before this event. It is significant because it occurred within reasonable reach of the central sanctuary, demonstrating that the hold and significance of the central sanctuary, and of the Law of God which it upheld, was at this time fairly minimal even within a close range.

The people were now settling down into the land and were prepared to coexist with the inhabitants of the land and imitate their ways. And from this incident and what follows we can see why there was a necessity for Yahweh’s activity as described in the book of Judges.

The name Micah means ‘who is like Yah (Yahweh)?’ It was deliberately ironic that someone with a name like that should be presented as an example of those who turned from Yahweh to their own ways, bringing Him down to the level of other religions. The description of his whereabouts was deliberately vague although it would be some miles north of Jerusalem. He represented in general the behaviour of many Israelites.

17.2a ‘And he said to his mother, “The eleven hundred pieces of silver which were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse, and also spoke of to me, behold, the silver is with me. I took it.”

His story begins with his admission that he was a thief. It would seem that he was moved to confess by the fact that she had put a curse on the silver, so that in order to avoid the curse he admitted his wrongdoing and returned the silver. His mother was clearly an old woman for Micah himself was a father of grown up sons. It speaks volumes of how low Micah had fallen that he felt able to steal from his aged mother. ‘Spoke to me’ may suggest that she had also adjured him under the curse to tell the truth.

17.2b ‘And his mother said, “Blessed be you of Yahweh, my son.” ’

On his owning up his mother reversed the curse, turning it into a blessing.

17.3a ‘And he restored the eleven hundred pieces of silver to his mother, and his mother said, “I truly dedicate the silver to Yahweh from my hand for my son, to make a graven image and a molten image.”

His mother was so pleased that he had owned up and returned the silver that she dedicated sufficient to Yahweh to make a graven image and a molten image. The graven image would be made of wood and covered with silver, while the molten image would be made totally of silver. What these represented has caused endless controversy, and in the end we must admit that we do not know. The descriptions ‘graven image’ and ‘molten image’ (see Deuteronomy 27.15) were the contemptuous descriptions of a writer who thoroughly disapproved of what Micah did and may thus not be fully representative of what they actually were.

But any theory must take into account that there were two different ‘images’ (18.18). Some have therefore suggested a graven wooden silver-coated image with a molten silver decorated base (this would be supported by the use of ‘it’ in verse 4). Furthermore we must take into account the emphasis on the facts that she was seeking to please Yahweh, that Hebrew has no word for goddess (and thus goddesses were unknown in Yahwism) and that images of Yahweh are rarely found, if they occur at all, in archaeological digs, and thus that images of Yahweh were at no stage an accepted norm. Thus neither of these last were seen as acceptable at any stage to an Israelite, even in syncretism, as an aspect of Yahwism.

The graven image was the central feature (18.30, 31). It may be that this was therefore a miniature representation of the Ark of the Covenant as conceived in Micah’s mind, including the cherubim with their wings over the throne. Such would be considered a graven image by the writer as not being the true Ark, and he would not wish to describe it as anything but a forbidden thing, and ‘a graven image’. The molten image could then have been Micah’s representation of a further cherub as bearer of the Ark, the throne of Yahweh, possibly in the form of a base holding the Ark. A cherub is depicted as bearing the throne of Yahweh in 2 Samuel 22.11; Psalm 18.10. Compare also Ezekiel 1 and 10.

It is quite likely that the shape of a cherub was depicted as somewhat similar to those found in excavations at Samaria and in Phoenicia with human face, lion body, four legs and two conspicuous and elaborate wings for in Scripture they are regularly connected with lion, eagle and ox as well as man (1 Kings 7.29; Ezekiel 1.10; 10.14) and represent creation. At Byblos such beings were found supporting the throne of the king.

This would be seen as supported by the fact that when the priest went forward with the tribe of Dan ‘in their midst’ he wore the ephod and carried the graven image and the teraphim, but not the molten image. As he was probably intended to picture Yahweh among His people, replacing the Tabernacle and the Ark, this demonstrated the secondary nature of the molten image and would support the idea that it was only a base.

Alternately the graven image may have been a silver bull seen as the throne of the invisible Yahweh (the god Hadad was pictured standing on a bull), with the molten image again a guardian cherub, possibly represented as a stand made to receive the bull. The golden bull or calf was the symbol that Israel tended to use when replacing the Ark (Exodus 32.1-8; 1 Kings 12.28-30; Hosea 8.6). And a bronze bull associated with a possible Israelite high place from the time of the Judges has been found. But the combination of bull and cherub is not known elsewhere. Elsewhere if the bull was seen as the bearer of Yahweh it replaced the cherubim.

Another suggestion is that the two images suggest a god and a goddess, the wooden one coated with silver possibly representing Asherah, the molten one of pure silver possibly representing Baal, and possibly also Yahweh as well, as being identified with ‘Baal’ (‘Lord’). If this was so it was an indication of the syncretism that had taken place that this kind of hybrid situation was possible. But as the writer is so firm that Micah’s mother was committed to Yahweh and was dedicating it to Yahweh this does not really seem likely. He had no time for the Baalim and the Asheroth. We consider the first option would seem to be the most likely and fits well with the final result.

17.3b “Now therefore I will restore it to you.”

His mother not only dedicated such silver as was necessary for the images to Yahweh but promised her son that he would have it restored to him for his ‘house of God’ (or ‘gods’).

17.4 ‘And on his restoring the silver to his mother, his mother took two hundred pieces of silver and gave them to the smith, who made of it a graven image and a molten image. And it was in the house of Micah.’

At the mother’s request two hundred pieces of silver were turned into a graven image and a molten image. These were then placed in Micah’s house. It should be noted that she dedicated the silver to Yahweh for the purpose of making these two images. That did not necessarily involve the use of all of it, only what was required. Some further of it may however have been used to make the ephod and teraphim. (Such setting aside of things to Yahweh as ‘Corban’, with the use of part of it retained until death, certainly occurred later - Mark 7.11. It does not necessarily mean that she was cheating God of the remainder of the 1100 pieces).

17.5 ‘And the man Micah had a house of God (or ‘gods’), and he made an ephod and a teraphim, and installed (‘filled the hand of’) one of his sons who became his priest.’

The fact that he at this stage installed one of his own sons suggests that this house of God was new, prepared by him to receive the ‘images’. Both Micah and his mother appear to have been genuinely determined to please Yahweh, although in a way that contributed to their own prestige. But they were clearly not well taught in what was necessary, although having some general idea about such things. The fact that Israel had the Law of God at the central sanctuary did not mean that the knowledge of it was satisfactorily disseminated. And they were influenced by what went on around them.

From now onwards the name of Micah (micyhu) is abbreviated (to micah) in the Hebrew text, dropping the name of Yahweh. This may have been the writer’s way of expressing his disapproval of what follows.

They seemingly did not recognise that to have their own house of God, their own ephod and their own throne of Yahweh was contrary to Moses’ teaching, and that teraphim especially were frowned on as linked with divination and idolatry (1 Samuel 15.23). Nor, seemingly did they recognise that to have their son as their own family priest was not acceptable, although the fact that when the opportunity came to appoint a Levite, he did so, demonstrates that he was aware of this defect (someone may have pointed it out to him). We must not necessarily assume that the son acted as a full sacrificing priest. His responsibilities might have been limited to using the ephod to discover the will of God and offerings not of a sacrificial kind.

Micah was a religious innovationist and demonstrated how the Israelites were developing forbidden forms of worship contrary to the Law of Moses. They did what was right in their own eyes due to their failure to let Yahweh have His rightful place as King by honouring the covenant and the central sanctuary. To ‘fill the hand’ meant ‘to appoint as priest’ - Numbers 3.3. We note that David also appointed his sons as priests, but this would be as priests of the order of Melchizedek in Jerusalem, as recognising their authority there, but not as sacrificing priests (2 Samuel 8.18).

The ephod was a priestly metallic robe worn by ‘the priest’ in the Tabernacle which among other things was involved with the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28.30; Numbers 27.21) , which were used for discovering the mind of Yahweh. In the case of Laban, teraphim were described as ‘gods’, divine objects (Genesis 31.30 with 35). But they were used for divination (2 Kings 23.24; Ezekiel 21.21). Otherwise we know little about them. Thus Micah was wanting to doubly ensure that he could discover the mind of Yahweh, although his means were unacceptable to the pure Yahweh worshipper.

In all this there is no mention of an altar. Worship in this house of God may well have been by offering other things than sacrifices.

Micah and his mother would have been familiar with the idol shelves found in Canaanite houses, and which soon found their way into some Israelite houses. They were seeking to have something similar but dedicated to Yahweh. But such was the state of Yahwism, of the central sanctuary and of the teaching of the Law at the time, that they did not realise that they were doing wrong. Yahwism was at a low ebb.

17.6 ‘In those days there was no king in Israel, every man did what was right in his own eyes.’

Here is now the reason for their questionable behaviour. It was because in Israel every man did what was right in his own eyes. This in the writer’s view was the sad state of things. The first stress here was that the people were lawless and acknowledged no one over them. They did what they wanted and they ignored their true King Who was Yahweh (Deuteronomy 33.5). They did not submit to His kingship or seek to know His laws. So it was their attitude of heart which was in question, not the lack of One to rule over them. Because of this they were not submissive to the central sanctuary and to the covenant and to the religious authorities appointed by Him. The theocracy was failing because of the unresponsiveness of the people. And this was seen as illustrated by Micah.

Perhaps, however, it also had in mind the coming ideal king as depicted in Deuteronomy 17.14-15, who would not multiply wives to himself, but would sit on his throne and study Yahweh’s Laws and keep them. Such a king was not here as yet, for there was clearly no one to guide Israel in the way of truth. To make this phrase simply a comparison with and justification of the monarchy is just too glib and pedantic. The writer has earlier made quite clear his views on that kind of monarchy in, for example, chapter 9. It may, however, have been a wistful look forward to when such an ideal king as is described in Deuteronomy might come. This might suggest that it was written when such a king was theoretically still in prospect in the time of Samuel, without having been marred by the reality.

17.7 ‘And there was a young man out of Bethlehem-judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite, and he sojourned there.’

There were two Bethlehems, one in the tribe of Zebulun, (Joshua 19.15), and this in the tribe of Judah. This Bethlehem occurs twice in the narrative, as a source here of a dishonest Levite and in 19.1 of a faithless concubine (see also Ruth 1.1). They were not good advertisements for the moral state of Bethlehem-judah.

From there came a young man who was a Levite with connections with Judah. The Levites were scattered throughout the whole of Israel and ‘adopted’ into their various tribes, but only as sojourners. Thus this man had become a member of the family of Judah while retaining his Levite identity. The fact that he ‘sojourned’, took up residence among them there (compare 19.1 of another Levite), when it was not a Levitical city, was a further sign of the state of affairs in the country, although the Levites may have had a ministry of guiding the people (‘to bless in His name’ - Deuteronomy 10.8). ‘Sojourner’ strictly referred to a resident alien. But Levites were seen as sojourners because they belonged to God, owning no land and not being as one of the people.

God’s theoretical blueprint as described in the Law of Moses would have produced a strong and fair nation, avoiding the excesses of kingship, satisfying its religious needs, always united and powerful, looking to Yahweh for guidance and deliverance, the perfect theocracy. But unfortunately human beings were involved. Thus the blueprint was in process of time adapted and altered to suit man’s convenience, desires and local customs, until it was only partially recognisable and very much distorted, with the result that it failed in its purpose due to the weakness of its participants.

And this affected no one more than the Levites, men set aside for the service of the Tabernacle and for the purpose of making the Law known, who retained respect and deference in the community as men of God, but who came far short of the ideal. Indeed, as with this man, many took advantage of their status to advance their own wealth and position and were not too particular about the legal requirements of the Law.

17.8 ‘And the man departed out of the city, out of Bethlehem-judah, to sojourn where he could find a place, and he came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, as he journeyed.’

The Levite went out on his travels as a religious adventurer, looking for opportunities, his first concern his own advancement and prospects. This may have been partly forced on him by the partial failure of the system of tithing as a result of syncretism. Micah was of a wealthy family whose obvious wealth would attract men like this Levite, and he may well have heard on his travels about Micah’s religious innovations Thus the two came together.

17.9 ‘And Micah said to him, “From where have you come?” And he said to him, “I am a Levite of Bethlehem-judah, and I go to sojourn where I may find a place.” ’

Micah would be providing hospitality and thus politely enquired as to where the man had come from as a fellow Israelite. And when he learned that the man was a Levite, and was looking for an opportunity to exercise his ministry, he recognised that here was an opportunity to make his house of God more significant and more orthodox.

17.10 ‘And Micah said to him, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, and a suit of clothing, and your keep.” ’

This confirms that his religious aims were Yahwistic, and that he sought to conduct his worship in accordance with the Law as he saw it. Indeed he wanted further guidance from an expert who could direct him and guide him and fulfil priestly functions.

Ten pieces of silver, a suit of clothing and keep each year was probably a very satisfactory wage for such a position. Certainly the Levite thought so. The clothing may have been of a priestly nature, although such clothing may have been provided separately, along with the ephod, as belonging to his house of God. Strictly the Levite should have pointed out that he was not qualified to exercise priestly functions (unless of course he was of a priestly family) but he was not going to lose this opportunity over a mere trifle. His dishonesty and opportunism come out all the way through.

17.11 ‘And the Levite was content to dwell with the man, and the young man was to him as one of his sons.’

The Levite accepted the offer and was welcomed into the household at the level of a son of the house. Thus he was well treated and shown due respect. He had no reason for showing anything other than loyalty in return.

17.12 ‘And Micah installed (filled the hand of) the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah.’

The Levite was installed as priest in Micah’s house of God. Strictly of course he should have pointed out where Micah was going amiss, but instead he appears to have gone along with the arrangements, thus confirming to Micah’s satisfaction that Micah was on the right lines. However there are grounds for thinking that the rigid requirements of Yahwism were being softened by the syncretism of the age which may well have affected the Levite’s views.

17.13 ‘Then said Micah, “Now I know that Yahweh will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to be my priest.” ’

Micah was now even more satisfied with his house of God. He was sure that Yahweh would bless him now because he had a genuine Levite, one set aside as Yahweh’s, as his priest. He was a mixture of piety and self-opinion, but his basic idea was selfish, to make himself prosperous.

Micah comes over as someone wanting to please God, possibly out of worldly motives, but not concerned enough to visit the central sanctuary in order to find out how to go about it. He wanted convenience and prestige. He had not deserted Yahweh for Baalism, but did not want to become too involved with the central sanctuary, and was prepared to introduce idolatrous ideas which would in the end distort the pure religion of Yahweh. The writer sees him as an illustration of what was going wrong with Israel in its downward slide.

Chapter 18. The Sanctuary of Dan.

This chapter now describes how the Danites, being unsuccessful in their allotted inheritance, sent out spies to search the land, and discover if they could find a better place to settle and expand. These spies returned discovered Laish in the north, a town at peace and unprepared for invasion. Thus they returned and reported that Laish was just the place that they were looking for, and encouraged the Danites to go with them in order to possess it. For that purpose they sent six hundred men to capture it, who on their way called at the house of Micah, and stole his priests and his gods. Having captured Laish, they then set up Micah's graven image there.

18.1 ‘In those days there was no king in Israel, and in those days the tribe of the Danites sought for themselves an inheritance to settle in, for up to that day their inheritance had not fallen to them among the tribes of Israel.’

The reference to the king is of special importance here. It refers to the fact that Dan ignored the Kingship of Yahweh and His official allotment of territory to the tribe of Dan, and without consulting Him went to seek something new. It was an act of unquestioned disobedience. Here the king must be Yahweh unless the statement is a platitude.

Dan had had a hard time in trying to settle their allotted inheritance. The Amorites had combined to keep them out of the best parts of the territory (1.34-36) and then the Philistines had infiltrated among them and were seeking to seize power over them. Had Israel been united, and concerned for every member of the tribal confederacy, things might have been different, but as it was they were languishing. Thus a large part of the tribe of Dan opted on their own cognisance to find somewhere else to settle.

18.2a ‘And the children of Dan sent from their family five men from their whole number, men of valour from Zorah, and from Eshtaol, to spy out the land, and to search it. And they said unto them, “Go, and search the land”.’

The five men each probably represented a clan. They were specially picked men of outstanding ability and courage sent out to find an area where they might conveniently settle, where there were no Philistines or Amorites, and where they would have no difficulty in establishing themselves. It would necessarily have to be outside the allotments of the other tribes. Zorah and Eshtaol would later be the hunting ground of Samson, who was of those Danites who did not take advantage of this movement.

18.2b ‘And they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, and lodged there.’

The men shortly afterwards on their journey arrived in the hill country of Ephraim and were offered, and provided with, hospitality by Micah. Sadly it was a bad move. Things were such in Israel that it was no longer safe to offer hospitality because of the moral state of the nation.

18.3 ‘When they were by the house of Micah, they knew the voice of the young man the Levite, and they turned aside there, and said to him, “Who brought you here? And what are you doing in this place? And what have you here?” ’

We may have here an explanation as to why they obtained hospitality from Micah. It was because by some chance they personally knew the Levite, and he had spoken up for them. And on hearing his voice on their arrival, they recognised it, and went to renew their acquaintance. Or it may have been because they recognised the dialect or priestly accent and were intrigued as to what he was doing there, (but ‘voice’ would not naturally signify that). They wanted to know how he had got there, what he was doing there, and whether he had an advantageous position. He then probably introduced them to Micah who generously offered them hospitality. As so often in this type of literature something is described (verse 2b) and then the more detailed explanation follows. This was their way of writing.

18.4 ‘And he said to them, “In this way and that has Micah dealt with me. And he has hired me, and I have become his priest. ” ’

The Levite explained to his friends how fortunate he had been, with the result that he had been employed and made a priest in a private house of God, which included enquiring of Yahweh on behalf of his patron.

18.5 ‘And they said to him, “Ask counsel, we pray you, of God, that we may know whether our way in which we go will be prosperous.” ’

When they heard what his position was they asked him to make enquiry of God on their behalf whether they would prosper in what they were trying to do. It is noteworthy that they accepted his position without demur. Such was the state of Israel’s response to the covenant and its stipulations at the time. Note also that they spoke of ‘God’. The writer would not use Yahweh because the venture they were on was contrary to the covenant and they were not seen as godly.

18.6 ‘And the priest said to them, “Go in peace. The way in which you go is before Yahweh.” ’

Having used his methods of divination the priest supplied an answer. But we have already been warned by the writer not to take it at its face value. He assured them that Yahweh was watching over their progress. But their way would lead them outside the covenant land and result in their setting up a false sanctuary. There was no way in which this was God’s doing.

The priest’s reply was typical of a false oracle. It could have two interpretations. If they prospered he could say that that was what Yahweh had meant. If they failed he could say that He had watched what they were doing and had disapproved. The oracle could never be wrong.

18.7 ‘And the five men departed, and came to Laish and saw the people who were in it, how they dwelt in security, after the manner of the Zidonians, quiet and secure. For there was no one in the land possessing power of restraint who might harm them, and they were far from the Zidonians and had no dealings with any man.’

The men came to Laish and thought that they had found a Paradise. It was inhabited by an isolated people. They kept themselves to themselves, there was no one to restrain them or make demands on them or seek tribute from them, they considered that they enjoyed similar security to the Zidonians in their coastal fortress and were Zidonians themselves. But they were foolish They were far from their fellow-Zidonians, separated by a mountain range, and because they felt quite at peace and secure, did not feel any need for treaties with anyone. Thus they were ripe for plucking, for they were full of optimism and totally unaware of the dangers that were looming, and yet were mainly defenceless.

It has been suggested that ‘with any man (adam)’ should be ‘with Aram’ to the north (‘r’ and ‘d’ are very similar in Hebrew) but such an emendation, while always possible, is unnecessary.

Laish (Leshem - Joshua 19.47) was at the foot of Mount Hermon by the source of the River Jordan, on the northern borders of Israel. Even at that time it was four thousand years old. It was seemingly wealthy for it had well furnished tombs. It was a prosperous urban centre with an arched three metre high gateway (found intact) and earthen ramparts, but not walls. And it thought that it dwelt securely. But the men from Dan had surveyed the city, assessed its population and fighting ability and would report back their recommendations to their tribal leaders.

18.8 ‘And they came to their brothers, to Zorah and Eshtaol, and their brothers said to them, “What have you to report?”

Having surveyed Laish and recognised that it was just what they were looking for they reported back to their tribe, who questioned them about what they had discovered.

18.9 ‘And they said, “Arise, and let us go up against them, for we have seen the land, and, behold, it is very good. And are you still? Do not be slothful to go, and to enter in to possess the land.”

They gave the strongest encouragement to their tribal leaders to act at once and go and take possession of the land they had surveyed, and when they noted hesitation, pressed the need to act quickly. They pointed out that the land was very suitable for their needs, and all that was needed was to possess it. This was no time for hesitation.

18.10 “When you go, you will come to a people living securely, and to a land that is ample, for God has given it into your hands, a place where there is no want of anything that is in the earth.”

They pointed out that there they would be both secure and able to expand and prosper for it was a land of plenty and large enough to contain them all. Further, they stressed, God had given it into their hands. Had not the priest told them so? Note again that it is God and not Yahweh. Yahweh was not in this venture. They were going in disobedience to His will.

18.11 ‘And there set out from there of the family of the Danites, out of Zorah, and out of Eshtaol, six hundred men armed with weapons of war.’

The decision having been made a powerful contingent of ‘six hundred’, that is six fighting units of armed men, set out in order to accomplish the conquest of the land in mind. They were accompanied by their wives, children and possessions, for their object was to secure a permanent settlement (see verse 21). Thus they would be accompanied by oxcarts carrying all that they needed. A similar migration of people is described in the temple of Medinet Hebu where Raamses III described the approach of invaders accompanied by their wives and children in two-wheeled oxcarts, only in their case to face total defeat.

18.12 ‘And they went up and pitched in Kiriath-jearim in Judah, which is why they called the name of that place Mahaneh-dan to this day. Behold, it is behind Kiriath-jearim.’

We came across this place in the story of Samson (see 13.25) as the place where the Spirit first stirred up Samson, possibly as a result of remembering this great trek of his forefathers. Mahaneh-dan means ‘the camp of Dan’. It was near Kiriath-jearim (city of forests) on the Judah/Benjaminite border.

Interestingly Kiriath-jearim is where the Ark of the Covenant would rest when it was recovered from the Philistines, after its capture at the Battle of Aphek (1 Samuel 4). It was there for twenty years. From Kiriath-jearim the Danites went out to establish a rival Sanctuary, and there Yahweh would re-establish the Ark of the Covenant.

18.13 ‘And they passed from there to the hill country of Ephraim, and came to the house of Micah.’

Coming to the house of Micah was no doubt by deliberate design of the five guides. But this was a breach of hospitality. They had eaten at Micah’s table which was a profession of friendship. Now they were betraying him. All decency had ceased because every man was doing what was right in his own eyes.

18.14 ‘Then answered the five men that went to spy out the country of Laish, and said to their brothers, “Do you know that there is in these houses an ephod and teraphim, and a graven image, and a molten image? Now consider what you have to do.”’

The five spies had previously taken full note of the situation and had recognised that they would need a Sanctuary when they established themselves in a new home. And they had realised that here was a God-given opportunity to provide for it fully, even with a priest thrown in, and a priest who had (or so they thought) prophesied their success. Where else would they obtain the accoutrements for a sanctuary with so little effort? And they would need one, for they would be far from the central sanctuary. The tribal confederacy was losing its significance in their eyes, and that meant that the true covenant with Yahweh was being spurned.

‘These houses.’ Micah’s house and his house of God, and perhaps dwellings of his servants, as well as his neighbours (verse 22).

‘Now consider what you have to do.’ The words were ominous for Micah and his house of God. All knew what they meant.

18.15 ‘And they turned aside to it, and came to the house of the young man the Levite, even to the house of Micah, and asked him of his welfare.’

So they made a diversion and came to Micah’s house and pretended that they had come to see the young Levite. Micah would happily receive them They had eaten at his table, thus he knew them to be friends. Once they were with the Levite, they asked him how he was faring. His reply would determine their next move.

18.16 ‘And the six hundred men armed with their weapons of war, who were of the children of Dan, stood by the entering of the gate.’

Meanwhile the six units of warriors were waiting at ‘the entering of the gate’. This may have been the gate of the city, so as not to frighten the inhabitants, or possibly a gate leading to Micah’s property which would thus seem to have been fairly extensive, a small township in itself, for we note that no name of a town is given in the narrative. The six hundred wanted their presence to be noted in case of any trouble.

18.17 ‘And the five men who went out to spy the land went up and came in there, and took the graven image, and the ephod, and the teraphim, and the molten image, and the priest stood in the entering of the gate, with the six hundred men who were armed with the weapons of war.’

The five men then went up to the house of God and entered it and stole the ephod, the teraphim, the graven image and the molten image. Meanwhile the priest stood at the gate with the six hundred. The five men had taken him and introduced him to the leaders of the six hundred and they had detained him there talking. He probably thought that the five were going up to worship or to thank God for his good oracle.

It is significant that the Danites do not appear to have had their own means of worship. This would confirm that they used the central sanctuary. But now they were going north, outside the promised land, and felt that they would need their own sanctuary. This would seem to confirm that, while non-orthodox, these religious objects of Micah’s were to some extent compatible with Yahwism.

18.18 ‘And when these went into Micah's house, and fetched the graven image, the ephod, and the teraphim, and the molten image, the priest said to them, “What are you doing?” ’

Up to this point the priest had been innocent and when he saw on their arrival that they were carrying the religious objects from the house of God he was surprised. He asked them what they thought they were doing. Note the repetition of ‘the graven image, and the ephod, and the teraphim, and the molten image’ emphasising what their main purpose was and bringing out their sacrilege.

18.19 ‘And they said to him, “Hold your peace. Put your hand on your mouth and come with us, and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be a priest to the house of one man, or that you be a priest to a tribe and a family in Israel?” ’

Their reply to his question was that he should say nothing and come with them to act as spiritual father and priest to them. They pointed out how much more important and significant he would be as priest to a sub-tribe, that is ‘a clan’ in Israel, than to just a family home, however large.

This reply is very significant. It firstly stresses that while they were a substantial clan (although not the whole tribe of Dan) they had no priest with them. Even in those days of apathy no priest had been willing to leave the land of promise and the central sanctuary to accompany them. For outside that land they would lose their priestly privileges. It confirms the centrality of worship even in days of laxness.

Secondly it brings out the low level of morality of the times. They seemed to have no thought of the fact that they were stealing the very things through which they aimed to worship God. It is clear that God’s command ‘you shall not steal’ meant little to them. Every time they came to the house of God they would see the religious objects they had stolen. What kind of worship could that be? It was a rejection of Yahweh.

Thirdly, they clearly expected the priest to feel the same, and to sell out his faith for promotion and privilege. And sadly they were right. His honour, his obedience to Yahweh and his loyalty to the man who had treated him as a son were all forgotten in the light of this wonderful offer. He may not have been able to prevent them from stealing the objects, but he did not need to go with them and acquiesce in what they were doing. But he coveted honour and prestige.

18.20 ‘And the priest's heart was glad, and he took the ephod, and the teraphim, and the graven image and went in the midst of the people.’

The priest did not go because he was forced or because he had no alternative. He was glad. These people got the priest that they deserved. And he picked up three of the stolen objects and carried them happily. He was a thief, and covetous, and an ingrate. Such were the morals of Israel, and such was the obedience to the covenant. Who carried the fourth, the molten image, we are not told. (But he only had two hands).

‘He went in the midst of the people.’ Probably as the representative of God among them! This may point to the graven image as representing the Ark, with him carrying it forward among them as they went forward to meet the enemy (Numbers 2.17; 10.33-34), wearing the ephod and also bearing the teraphim, in imitation of the Tabernacle of God among them. This was being represented as a new exodus.

As mentioned previously the fact that he did not carry the molten image instead of the teraphim demonstrates that the former was of the least importance, and therefore possibly a decorated base.

18.21 ‘So they turned and departed, and put the little ones, and the cattle, and the goods before them.’

They put the vulnerable ones in front of them because they anticipated that any danger would be from behind, from any forces that Micah could gather. The wives are not mentioned but can be assumed.

18.22 ‘When they were a good way from the house of Micah, the men who were in the houses near to Micah's house were gathered together, and overtook the children of Dan.’

Once Micah discovered that his sacred religious objects had been stolen he gathered as many of his servants and neighbours as he could and gave chase. He did not know for certain how many were in the party who had stolen them and carried off his priest. When he overtook them he probably had a very unpleasant surprise. He had not been expecting such a large force. He would gradually overtake them because they were hindered by their families and flocks and herds.

18.23 ‘And they called out to the children of Dan, and they turned their faces and said to Micah, “What ails you that you come with such a company?” ’

When they got near enough to the Danites Micah’s force called out to them. The Danites then sent representatives to find out their purpose, pretending total innocence. They wished to give the impression that they could not understand why anyone should wish to challenge them. Their question was, what should such an obviously belligerent group want with them? What was their problem?

18.24 ‘And he said, “You have taken away my elohim that I made, and the priest, and you have gone away, and what have I more? And how then do you say to me, ‘What ails you?’ ” ’

Micah’s reply was bitter. He felt that he had lost everything. ‘Elohim’ probably means here ‘holy religious objects’. We remember how Laban called his teraphim ‘elohim’ (Genesis 31.30), but it is doubtful if he saw them as strictly ‘gods’ in the strict sense. They were probably means of divination. We must also recognise that the writer disapproved of these religious objects of Micah’s, whatever they were, and would thus convey the idea of them in this way as false gods.

Micah also mentioned the priest. He felt as though he had lost a son. He probably did not know that the priest had betrayed him and left of his own accord. And he was annoyed at their provocative and nonchalant challenge.

It is clear that his house of God had been his whole life, even though he would shortly recognise that there was more to life than that. It is a warning that we should never let anything possess us but God Himself.

18.25 ‘And the children of Dan said to him, “Do not let your voice be heard among us, lest angry fellows fall upon you and you lose your life, with the lives of your household.” ’

The Danites made no excuses. They were unashamed. They merely pointed to their strength and suggested he be careful in case some of them lost their tempers. They had been patient up to now. Let him be grateful for that. For there was little doubt who would win if there was a fight. It was a case where might was right. Not that they probably wanted a fight for they would want to preserve themselves for the coming invasion.

18.26 ‘And the children of Dan went their way, and when Micah saw that they were too strong for him he turned and went back to his house.’

The thief had been outdone by greater thieves. They all deserved each other. So the children of Dan carried on, and Micah returned chastened to his house. He had not bargained on so strong a company.

18.27-28a ‘And they took the things which Micah had made, and the priest which he had had, and came to Laish, to a people who were quiet and secure, and smote them with the edge of the sword. And they burned the city with fire. And there was no deliverer, because it was far from Zidon, and they had no dealings with any man.’

So the people of Dan reached Laish and found it unprepared and weakly defended, totally unsuspecting. The people of Laish had no one to turn to because they had no treaties, and their fellow-Zidonians were far away across the mountains. There is a strong hint here of the importance of the covenant relationship. This too was why Israel were having such problems, because they neglected the tribal confederacy. Let them learn a lesson from these people. Without allies they were vulnerable.

‘They took the things which Micah had made, and the priest which he had had.’ Notice the emphasis on this. The writer had nothing but contempt for the Sanctuary at Dan, and wants his readers to know it. Their religious objects were merely one man’s creation, and the priest one man’s priest, in contrast with the Yahweh given Ark, Tabernacle and priesthood. And they were also stolen objects which belonged rightly to Micah, stolen by men who had accepted hospitality, and by a priest who had betrayed his ‘father’. What kind of worship was this going to be? And yet it would last for over a hundred years.

‘They burned the city with fire.’ Presumably in the fierce battle that ensued, or as a warning for any neighbours to keep away. But as they were going to live there they would want to preserve it as far as possible. Perhaps the phrase is in order to emphasise the greatness of the victory.

18.28b ‘And it was in the valley that lies by Beth-rehob. And they rebuilt the city and dwelt in it’

In Numbers 13.21 we learn that Rehob was ‘at the entering in of Hamath’ (or ‘near Lebo-hamath’), on the farthest northern borders of Canaan.

Then the Danites rebuilt the city, possibly enlarging it, and took up their dwelling there. They had found their new home. Their crime here was not so much the capturing of a peaceful city, they had seen that happen all their lives and had of necessity participated in it, but that they had opted out of the covenant and would set up their own Sanctuary.

18.29 ‘And they called the name of the city Dan, after the name of Dan their father, who was born in Israel. However, the name of the city was Laish at first.’

They renamed the city Dan after the name of Jacob’s son Dan, their ancestor, although previously it had always been called Laish. It is interesting that Laish means ‘a lion’ and that Dan was ‘a lion’s whelp’ (Deuteronomy 33.22) although the word for lion is different demonstrating that the two are not directly connected.

‘Born in Israel.’ There may be a hint here that they were seeking to opt out of Israel.

18.30-31 ‘And the children of Dan set up for themselves the graven image, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, the son of Moses, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. And they set up for themselves Micah's graven image, which he made, all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh.’

Presumably Dan built a house of God or erected a Tabernacle and in it they set up the graven image. This demonstrates that the graven image was the central object. Thus, as suggested at the beginning (17.3), it may well have been a miniature replica of the Ark of the Covenant, the throne of Yahweh, with the covering cherubim.

It was set up ‘all the time that the house of God was at Shiloh’. This suggests that this sub-tribe of Dan did not see themselves at that time as still part of the tribal confederacy. Rather they worshipped at their own rival sanctuary. These were the depths to which they had sunk. They were no longer part of the covenant. It may be that this reference to Shiloh signifies that they did later return to the covenant and loyalty to the central sanctuary after Samuel’s great victory over the Philistines. Certainly they were later a part of Israel.

‘Jonathan the son of Gershom, the son of Moses, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land.’ We probably learn here who the Levite was who had been installed as priest by Micah. His name was Jonathan and he claimed direct descent from Moses. In view of the shortness of the time that had passed this could probably be verified. Thus the Danite sanctuary claimed Moses as the source of their priesthood. It was a sad reflection on the state of things when a descendant of Moses could behave as he had done, setting up as a priest, contrary to the Law of Moses, aiding the theft of the religious objects, and deserting his patron.

‘Son of Gershom’ means ‘descended from Gershom’ in accordance with ancient usage. He may not have been directly his son, possibly his grandson or great grandson, for this was early in the Judges period. Compare how Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, seems to have been still living (20.28) around this time. But he was not a young man.

‘Until the day of the captivity of the land.’ This probably refers to the Philistine invasion when the house of God at Shiloh ceased (1 Samuel 4 see Jeremiah 7.12) and the Philistines for a time controlled large parts of Israel west of Jordan. If this is so it confirms the idea that they at that stage, or not long afterwards, rejoined the tribal confederacy.

Other suggestions have been the destruction of the north by Tiglath Pileser around 734 BC (2 Kings 15.20) or the Assyrian invasion which resulted in the capture of Samaria in c. 721 BC. But this is unlikely. It is very questionable whether David would have allowed the Sanctuary to continue, for the sake of unification if nothing else, once he established Jerusalem as the central sanctuary, and even less so Solomon in his early years, although it may be that it would have been allowed to continue as a local sanctuary. And it is clear that Dan did again become a part of the tribal confederacy for it featured as part of Jeroboam’s kingdom when Israel split from Judah.

The setting up in Dan of a sanctuary by Jeroboam when Israel split from Judah (1 Kings 12.29-30) may have been the taking over, and improvement, of this sanctuary. That may then explain the reference to the captivity of the land as relating to the end of the sanctuary as relating to the one continued and improved by Jeroboam. (The comment about the captivity of the land would then be an interpolated note). But it is far more likely that the reference was to the time when they returned to the covenant.

‘All the time that the house of God was in Shiloh.’ The Philistine invasion and capture of the Ark would signal the end of Shiloh as the central sanctuary, combined with the death of Eli, the judge of Israel and priest of the Tabernacle (1 Samuel 4.12-18). After the Ark was later returned it was in Kiriath-jearim for twenty years (1 Samuel 7.1), with Eleazar, the son of Abinadab, as priest. But eventually, after Samuel’s great victories over the Philistines, the Tabernacle and the central sanctuary, together with the Ark, were established at Nob (1 Samuel 21.1). This may have been when Dan rejoined the covenant.

So the chapter ends with the setting up of a rival to the central sanctuary, the withdrawal of a sub-tribe from the covenant, the establishment of an official priesthood not descended from the Aaronic priesthood, and all based on theft and disloyalty. Truly there was no King in Israel. It did not bode well for the future of Israel or the tribal confederacy.

The Book of Judges: Contents



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