Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

22. The Danite Migration (ch. 18)

Micah’s consecration of Jonathan proved to be the prelude to an episode unique in the history of Israel. The tribe of Dan, although apparently one of the largest tribes at the time of the entering of the Land, had not proved strong enough for the task of both winning and holding its inheritance from the indigenous races. “And the Amorites forced the children of Dan into the mountain: for they would not suffer them to come down to the valley” (1:34). The reference here to Amorites where one would expect the word Philistines is interesting. Can it have been between the time of Joshua and Samson that the Philistines first migrated to Canaan from their original home in Crete? On the other hand, it may have been Philistine pressure from the west on the Amorites which caused them to expand eastwards at the expense of the tribe of Dan.

Wrong solution to a pressing problem

Whatever the explanation, it became a matter of urgent necessity that the portion of the Danite inheritance already occupied by speedily enlarged. So, after solemn conference, they proceeded to do the wrong thing. Instead of asking counsel of the Lord, instead of rallying their brethren of the other tribes of Israel to their aid, instead of strengthening themselves in the unfailing promises that had been made to their fathers, instead of going forth against both Amorite and Philistine in faith that God would give them the territory assigned to them under His leader Joshua — instead of any of these good alternatives, the men of Dan coveted another inheritance in a region where the divine lot had not fallen to them, and which was, indeed, outside the borders of the Promised Land as it had been measured off by Joshua. And there they planned to blot out a peaceful unsuspecting people rather than turn their weapons against legitimate and detestable foes on their own doorstep.

In pursuance of this aim they first sent out five spies to find new land for settlement. In the course of their journey, these men came to the house of Micah where they recognized the young Levite from Bethlehem. ‘They knew his voice’ (18:3). There seems to be an implication here that the wanderings of this worthless Levite had taken him into Zorah and Eshtaol. Perhaps they readily recognized his voice because he was singing psalms in the “sanctuary” at the time they came to the place.

Faith or superstition?

The men used this opportunity to ask counsel (somewhat belatedly!) of the Lord. How like human nature, to decide on the course to be followed, and then as an afterthought, when fully committed to it, to ask divine blessing on it!

The Levite was, of course, unable to give them any genuine communication from the Lord. That was only to be had through the high priest. Nevertheless his ready wit was fully equal to the occasion and he gave them a message in the best Delphic tradition of ambiguity: “Go in peace: before the Lord is your way wherein ye go.” What better than this most platitudinous of all truisms? It would apply perfectly to any circumstance that might befall them. But the men of Dan, with the naivete of so many who enquire of God in the wrong way, read into the words an assurance that their project would prosper, and they went off highly satisfied. Whatever bloody deeds they might plan hereafter, they were sure of divine approval — or so they thought.

In due time they came to the extreme border of the Land, at the very edge of the northern territory assigned to Naphtali. Exploring there the fertile, remote valleys of the Anti-Lebanon, they lighted upon the quiet prosperous city of Laish. The people were Zidonians by race but out of touch with the main body of their people, being cut off from them by difficult mountain ranges: “They were far from the Zidonians, and had no business with any man (or — probable reading — with Syria).”

The description of that quiet life of these people, as given either in the AV or RV, is not at all according to the original, and indeed scarcely makes sense. Yet it requires only the alteration of one letter to give the much more coherent reading: ‘There was no one to restrain (i.e. to exercise political control over) any in the land.’ In the eyes of these spies from Dan, this would be a factor of some considerable importance.

They hastened back home to report to a conclave of elders of their tribe. Their enthusiastic urgent story reads as though it had been their early intention to make an onslaught on this particular locality. It may be that from the first, this Danite migration was a deliberate move to rejoin Naphtali. Dan and Naphtali were both sons of Bilhah, and the two tribes shared the same encampment in the wilderness and were both in the rearguard when on the march. The returned spies reinforced their own favourable impression with Jonathan’s oracular utterance — or rather their interpretation of it: “God hath given it into your hands; a place where there is no want of any thing that is in the earth”.


Immediate action was taken. A body of six hundred well-equipped men set out accompanied by their families. En route the additional scheme was hatched of persuading Jonathan the Levite to accompany them, to be their spiritual guide and helper in their new land of promise.

This plan was expeditiously carried into effect. Whilst Jonathan was kept talking at the gate, others of the party boldly entered the “sanctuary” and brought forth the ephod and all the other appurtenances of priestly office. Jonathan felt bound to remonstrate, but there was little he could do about it, and when his own self-interest was coolly expounded to him, he speedily threw all scruples to the winds. Forgetting his commitment to Micah, and quite oblivious of the moral principles associated with the service of Jehovah, to whom he claimed to minister, he readily threw in his lot with these marauders.

It was only to be expected that there would be pursuit by Micah, so the women and children were put in front, out of harm’s way. But Jonathan, immediately assuming the authority due to his new office, insisted on the observance of the religious proprieties and arranged for the holy equipment to be carried “in the midst of the people”, that is, in the centre of the long caravan, just as the furniture of the Tabernacle had travelled during the wilderness journey (Num. 10; esp. v. 21).

Micah rebuffed

Micah and the neighbours who rallied to help him made immediate pursuit and soon came up with the slow-moving host. At first the men of Dan feigned innocence and surprise: “What aileth thee that thou comest with such a company?” Micah made bitter and reproachful reply (there is a superb realism about the narrative here): “Ye have taken away my gods which I made (see how the man confesses here his own folly!)....and what have I more? and how then say ye unto me, What aileth thee?” There was little strength of character behind these words. Why did he not insist that these men had earlier accepted his hospitality (v. 2) and therefore should now maintain the covenant of peace by returning his property?

As it was, the men of Dan speedily recognized that here was no formidable enemy. They knew now that they could bluff their way out of this situation without difficulty: “Let not thy voice be heard among us, lest angry fellows run upon thee, and thou lose thy life, with the lives of thy household”; as who would say: ‘These men are desperate; you would be wise to cut your losses, or worse things might befall.’ Which thing Micah did, for he loved his life more than his religion and its appurtenances.

Moses had made a prophecy about this strange change of policy by the tribe of Dan: “Dan is a lion’s whelp: he shall leap from Bashan” (Deut. 33:22). From this it may be inferred that from Ephraim the migrants crossed Jordan and travelled north round the east side of Galilee. Their target Laish means ‘a lion’, so there is fair likelihood that it was an understanding of Moses’ prophecy which led them to this remote place in the north.

The capture of Laish

The onslaught took place according to plan. A people “quiet and secure” were smitten with the edge of the sword, and their city burned with fire, “and there was no deliverer, because it was far from Zidon”. This burning of the city was a strangely illogical thing, for to save it intact would surely have furthered their plans considerably. Can it be that this was a conscious imitation of the burning of Jericho, the utter devoting to the Lord of the firstfruits of a new ‘Land of promise’? More likely, they contented themselves with firing a few of the houses to help terrorise the inhabitants.

With the city rebuilt and the area fully settled, “Jonathan, the son of Gershom the son of Moses” now came into his own as a priest of considerable consequence. Wordsworth comments aptly: “They glossed over their sin by the specious varnish of a holy name!”

A difficulty resolved

“He and his sons were priests to the tribe of Dan until the day of the captivity of the Land.” This statement about their priesthood is usually taken to mean that this Danite sanctuary continued right up to the time when Shalmaneser V, king of Assyria, took the north-ern tribes into captivity. And to this is often added the inference that therefore the Book of Judges must have been written after that date and probably after the Babylonian captivity.

Both of these conclusions must be rejected because of two fairly plain indications that this unofficial priesthood ceased before the end of the reign of David — as indeed might be expected from a knowledge of David’s zeal for the sanctuary of the Lord in Zion. There was a Shebuel, a contemporary of David in the line of Moses-Gershom-Jonathan who was not a false priest in Dan but a faithful treasurer in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 26:24). Also, the words of the wise woman of Abel to Joab were, according to the Septuagint version:

“They were wont to speak in old time, saying, They shall surely ask counsel in Abel and in Dan” (2 Sam. 20:18). The allusion is clearly to Judges 18, and she spoke as though of a custom now discontinued. So it may be safely inferred that by the end of David’s reign the worship at Dan had ceased.

A further detail in Judges 18 suggests a different “captivity” than the Assyrian or Babylonian: “And they set up Micah’s graven image, which he made, all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh”, i.e. until the days of Samuel. This time indication is precisely what would be expected, for it is difficult to believe that Samuel, with his stern sense of duty, would tolerate even in remote Dan the existence of an apostate priesthood. The true “house of God was in Shiloh”.

The Hebrew words for ‘land’ and ‘ark’ are very easily confused in Hebrew script. This alternative removes all difficulty: “Jonathan and his sons were priests until the day of the captivity of the ark (that is, until the time of Samuel: 1 Sam. 4:17,22); and Micah’s oracle continued its vogue all the time that the house of God was at Shiloh.

The first secession from true religious loyalty left its mark. In the days of Rehoboam, when upstart Jeroboam was seeking to wean the northern tribes from service to the House of David, he revived in Dan and Bethel the ancient worship of the golden calf. Dan was hardly a good centre to choose, because of its remoteness. Some site immediately north or south of Jezreel would surely have been better. But Dan already had a reputation as a place of worship. The memory of the sanctuary there still lingered.

Further, it is interesting to observe that whereas at Bethel “he made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi”, the same is not written concerning Dan, for Dan already had its own tradition of priests descended from Moses.

Thus it can be seen that the doom of the Northern Kingdom is to be dated from the day that Jonathan, the restless Levite, joined forces with the men of Dan. From that time also there began to be fulfilled the prophecy: “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path” (Gen. 49:17).

In Dan, apostasy was first fully organized. For this reason, probably, the name of Dan has been omitted from the roll of the tribes of Israel in Chronicles, and from the catalogue of the spiritual Israel who are sealed in their foreheads as the servants of God (Rev. 7). “Without are....idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.”


Five men. Why five? Joshua had been content with two. Is this an emulation of the Philistines and their five lords?
Quiet and secure. It would have been more to Dan’s credit had they stayed south and tackled the warlike Philistines. They applied Deut. 20:10-18 where it should not have been applied, because outside their specified boundaries.

No business with (any) man. Since the distinction between ADaM and ARaM (Syria) is so very slight (see Psa. 119:25,153), the change is quite likely. There are plenty of examples of this accidental switch between D and R.
My gods. Is it possible that elohim was used also to describe holy objects? Cp. Exod. 32:4.
Son of (Manasseh) Moses. Is this bad streak in Moses’ family to be attributed to the early influence of Zipporah?

Next Next Next