Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

21. Micah’s Home-made Religion (ch. 17)

The story of Samson is the proper end of the Book of Judges. With that the reader is brought almost, if not quite, to the time of Samuel. There are, actually, three appendices to the book:

The indications are that all these three appendices belong to the early days of the judges, but in none is there any mention of a “judge”. From that point of view they are not part of the original purpose and plan of the book at all.

“In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” This expression, which comes four times altogether (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25), implies that the Judges narrative was compiled during the reign of one of the kings. It might be read, also, as indicating a state of anarchy in Israel, when the national organization had gone to pieces. But this was far from being the case, for there are various allusions to a system of ordered government; e.g. 18:2,8; 20:1,2,12,13,18; 21:10,16.

It is often overlooked that identical words are applied to Israel in the wilderness: “(When ye are come into the Land) ye shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes” (Deut. 12:8). When those words were spoken Israel did not lack cohesion or orderly government, but there are indications enough that at that time men served God or disregarded His law as they chose. It is in this sense that the words must be read concerning the period of the judges.

The main point of the narrative in Judges 17,18 appears to be the discrediting of the false sanctuary established by the Danites in their new home in the north. That unauthorised oracle was equipped with stolen cursed silver, instead of gold to show forth the glory of the divine. There was no priest of the line of Aaron. And the tabernacle was sited outside the territory assigned to the twelve tribes. Later, in the time of Jeroboam I, these facts would take on special significance (1 Kgs. 12:28,29).

Improvising a sanctuary of the Lord

There was a woman in mount Ephraim who had lost eleven hundred shekels — more than sixty thousand pounds (1989 inflation). The rabbis, seizing on the coincidence of this sum of money with that paid to Delilah (16:5), supposed that the woman was none other than Delilah herself. This is hardly likely, for wasn’t that amiable lady paid her eleven hundred shekels five times over? In any case, the allusion to Mahaneh-Dan (18:12) implies that this strange episode takes place before the time of Samson (13:25). But there seems to be little ground for Josephus’ assertion that here the history harks back to the generation following Joshua.

Confident that her money had been stolen, this woman in the tribe of Ephraim uttered a dreadful curse which was to come upon the head of the thief. Perhaps it was by design that the imprecation was spoken in the hearing of her son Micah, for he, scared at the consequences which might now ensue, promptly confessed his crime and restored the money. Whereupon his mother cancelled out the curse with an equally glib blessing and in token of her gratitude at its restoration she then dedicated the money to the service of Jehovah.

This Corban was made effective by the expenditure of a portion of it — two hundred shekels — for the manufacture of “a graven image and a molten image”. These were duly installed in a private “house of God”, and this strange home-made religion was made into a going concern by the ordination of one of Micah’s sons as priest.

Jonathan the Levite

By and by there came along a vagrant Levite from Bethlehem-Judah. His name Jonathan is not given at first mention. It may well be that there is a corruption of the text here, for the words “he sojourned there” (17:7) are literally “Gershom”, who is later mentioned as the Levite’s father (18:30). The same verse makes Gershom to be the son of Manasseh. But Gershom was certainly the son of Moses (Exod. 2:22). The explanation of this discordance, fully accepted by all scholars, is not without interest. In an effort to safeguard the reputation of their revered Moses, the scribes wrote into the manuscripts an additional letter nun above the line, thus: MNSH.

In this way it was intimated to the synagogue reader that he was to substitute the name Manasseh for the name Mosheh. That alteration persists in every Hebrew Bible right up to the present day.

This Levite came from Bethlehem, of which city nothing is written concerning Levites. Why then should he be described as hailing from Bethlehem? The question is more easily asked than answered. Possibly, so it has been speculated, he was connected by marriage with a Bethlehem family. It is a curious fact that the next episode (Jud. 19) also concerns a Levite with connections at Bethlehem.

Jonathan the Levite was wandering the countryside, apparently ‘looking for a job’. He seems to have had no means of subsistence. If indeed this were so, it is a sorry commentary on the speed with which the people of God forgot their responsibility to provide by tithes and offerings for those who were set apart as teachers and ministers of God’s Law. On the other hand, it may well be that Jonathan was a restless, worthless character, unworthy of the name of Levite. This seems to be nearer the truth, for there was no lack of hospitality for another Levite in Bethlehem (19:4-9). So Jonathan may even have been expelled from Bethlehem.

Micah leaped at the opportunity to have a full-fledged Levite as priest at his own private chapel and made the man a tempting offer of employment which was gladly accepted. It was an arrangement that satisfied both of them. “The Levite was content to dwell with the man; and the young man was unto him as one of his sons....Then said Micah, Now I know that the Lord will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest.” It seems to have been overlooked, whether ignorantly or wilfully, that the Levite was not qualified to act as priest and that Micah, himself a layman, was unqualified to consecrate Jonathan in that capacity. The explanation is probably ignorance, for there is something strikingly ingenuous, bordering almost on the superstitious, in Micah’s conviction that God was now on his side for sure, because of the priest he had. Before very long he would have occasion to think differently.

Perversions of true religion

It is appropriate to consider here one of the main problems of this incident, namely, the nature of the worship which Micah instituted in his own home. Several times over, there are mentioned four articles of devotion: a graven image, a molten image, an ephod and teraphim (17:4,5; 18:14,17,20).

These accoutrements of Micah’s home-made religion present a strange mixture of the true and the false, the hallmark of apostasy from time immemorial.

It is not unlikely that the graven image and the molten image are the same, one in apposition to the other. The golden calf made by Aaron is described in both ways (Exod. 32:4).

The ephod was, of course, a normal priestly garment. There is some evidence that the high-priest’s ephod was a kind of corselet — linen stiffened by gold wire — made vivid with the divine colours.

Archaeologists have established, by comparison with similar features in contemporary religion, that the teraphim were small objects like children’s dolls. It would appear that in some way they were associated with right of inheritance to the family property; hence the great fuss made by Laban and his sons over Rebekah’s theft of her father’s teraphim (Gen. 31:19ff).

There is little difficulty in harmonizing Micah’s home-made system of approach to God with his evident belief in Jehovah as the covenant God of Israel. The fault lay in the blithe assumption that God would be well-pleased with a self-consecrated priest ministering in a sanctuary which the man himself had fashioned and located in a site convenient for himself, rather than in a place which the Lord his God had chosen. The service and worship in Micah’s private tabernacle might be — doubtless was — both sincere and devout, and in many of its features correct, but in certain big essentials, there was gross departure from the Law given through Moses. “I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me” (Lev. 10:3). “It shall be that the man whom the Lord doth choose, he shall be holy” (Num. 16:7).


Read: house of God, as RVmg: cp. 18:31.
No king in Israel. Contrast Deut. 33:5.
Father, perhaps in the sense of “prophet”: 2 Kgs. 6:21.

Ten shekels, out of 1,100. A bit mean!
Consecrated the Levite. Yet this home-made sanctuary was within easy reach of Shiloh!
The Lord will do me good. 18:20-26 provides a very ironic commentary on this.

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