Today we return to our Judges series—“Broken People, Faithful God”—in chapter 17. I want to reintroduce the context of Judges by drawing several parallels between the days of the Judges and our day today that I think will prove helpful as we look at this text and draw appropriate applications for our lives. You see, Israel in the days of the Judges suffered from a vacuum of godly leadership, leaving people to their own devices and inventing ways to satisfy themselves. In the days of the Judges, the majority of people had forgotten what God revealed in his Word and this ignorance led to all kinds of disruption (both personal and general). If this sounds familiar, it is because this is not unlike our world today. What is interesting is that most people, even those who are far from God, recognize that there is a problem with the way the world is. In fact, many even seek to find a solution. Unfortunately, most end up entertaining the wrong methods/practices/personalities in their pursuit. In today’s passage we are going to witness how this takes place and hopefully draw attention to the only hope for escaping this evil and broken world. In Judges 17 we will learn two important lessons about idolatry that will serve as a helpful reminder to the people of God and a word of correction to those who might find themselves far from the Lord.
1. LESSON #1: You Can’t Build a God-17:1-6
When we last left Judges, we watched God’s people descend to new lows under the leadership (or lack thereof) of Samson. His failure to lead God’s people well was the latest example of many of just how far Israel was from God during this dark period of her history. One might argue that chapter 17 gives us one illustration of the kinds of things that were happening in Israelite homes during this era. In verse 1 we are introduced to an ordinary family from Ephraim that serves as a case study of how NOT to conceive of God or divine favor—“Now there was a man of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Micah” (17:1). Several components of this introduction hint at coming disaster. First, the region of Ephraim and the people from that area have been portrayed negatively by the narrator earlier in the book. Second, the name Micah is a shortened form of “micayehu” which means “who is like Yahweh?” Because the author chooses to use the shortened form of the name, some believe that the reader is being subtly tipped off that this man is going to fall far short of his name’s association in the unfolding story (Block, Judges, Ruth, 478).
Our suspicion about this character receives immediate justification upon reading verse 2—“He said to his mother, ‘The eleven hundred pieces of silver which were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse in my hearing, behold, the silver is with me; I took it…” (17:2). Yes, this man had stolen a great sum of money from his mom and only returned it after she cursed the unknown culprit in his presence. What he stole was not just a few dollars from his mother’s pocketbook. Micah had stolen 1,100 shekels (the same amount each of the Philistine governors had given Delilah as a reward for delivering Samson into their hands). This was a great deal of money. Fearful of the curse coming true, Micah returns the money to his mom and fesses up to his crime. Make no mistake, Micah is more concerned about being cursed than he is contrite and repentant for what he did.
However, his mom does not seem to be able to see through this. In fact, she is impressed by what Micah does, so much so that she seeks to bless him and the Lord in a most peculiar way—“He then returned the eleven hundred pieces of silver to his mother, and his mother said, ‘I wholly dedicate the silver from my hand to the Lord for my son to make a graven image and a molten image; now therefore, I will return them to you…” (17:3). The apple (Micah) does not seem to have fallen far from the mis-informed and confused tree (his mother). Once her fortune is restored to her, she celebrates with dedicating the sum to the Lord (sounds good so far). However, she then hopes that the son would use the silver to make a graven image (not so good).
Let us count the ways that the characters in this story have acted against God’s covenant with Israel as found in the ten commandments. First, Micah had stolen (see commandment 8 in Exod 20:15; Deut 5:19). Second, in stealing, Micah had dishonored his mother (see commandment 5 in Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16). Now here in verse 3, we see the mother violating the prohibition against making a physical representation of deity (see commandment 2 in Exod 2:4-5; Deut 5:8-9). This laundry list of infractions once again reveals the spiritual condition of God’s people in this era. While we might want to blame willful wickedness for these crimes against God, I am not sure if these are not committed more out of ignorance. How else might you explain the mom’s desire to use the very silver she as just dedicated to Yahweh to build an idol? Acute ignorance of God’s revelation can be the only explanation for such an action. This reveals just how important it is to know and be reminded of what God has said.
The text continues in verse 4: “So when he returned the silver to his mother, his mother took two hundred pieces of silver and gave them to a silversmith who made them into a graven image and a molten image, and they were in the house of Micah,…” (17:4). While we are not sure what happened to the rest of the silver, at least 200 pieces of it was used in the construction of this idol (roughly five pounds). Though not a large statue, it was important enough for Micah to later refer to it as one of his “gods which [he] had made” (see 18:24). This new object of Micah’s worship was placed in his home. This too (like the laundry list of infractions already mentioned) was in direct violation of God’s law as found in Deuteronomy 12. There, God declares that when the Israelites entered the land and had settled in it, they were to worship only at the place which Yahweh would authorize (see Deut 12:4-7, 11, 13-14, 18;18, 26-27) (Block, Judges, Ruth, 480-81). Here, Micah establishes a cult center for worship of his own choosing.
More details of this cult center are revealed in verse 5—“and the man Micah had a shrine and he made an ephod and household idols and consecrated one of his sons, that he might become his priest…” (17:5). The latest idol used from his mom’s silver appears to be just the latest addition to a collection of false gods Micah had accrued/manufactured as part of his own personal lavish house of pagan worship. Micah’s commitment to his idolatry is not just witnessed in the large number of “household idols” lining his bookshelves and standing in his garden; it is also seen in the employment of one of his sons to serve as a priest! Don’t worry though, Micah had taken the time to consecrate this son for the role (as if that means anything given what we have already learned about this man). This man was devoted to his false worship. He sacrificed time, space, and resources to practice his own brand of idolatry. Micah even drew others around him to participate in the charade. What can explain such a blatant display of ungodliness? Verse 6 reveals the answer.
“In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6). A vacuum of godly leadership left everyone to live according to their own devices and with this autonomy came pervasive idolatry. This verse, in fact, goes a long way in explaining much of what happened in the time of the Judges as recorded in this book. Personal autonomy birthed pervasive idolatry.
The same happens today in our world. Our culture questions all authority (especially God’s authority and the authority of his Word) and has made everyone a king or queen of their own life. As a result, people cherry pick their own objects of worship (or make their own) in an effort to satisfy the spiritual itch every human possesses. What we see placed around many people today, what many give their time to, what many place their hope in, what many spend money on, and what many spend their attention pursuing, is not unlike Micah’s cult worship center—a collection of man-made things accrued to bring meaning, value, and hope in the place of the one true God. However, the point the author of Judges is making here is that you cannot build a god (at least one worth worshiping). Not only is it forbidden in Scripture, it is foolish. Such gods are inept at providing the satisfaction humans are pursuing and offer no ultimate or compelling hope. Though idols might prove comfortable, familiar, and taylor-made to make people feel good, they will inevitably disappoint and most assuredly lead to destruction.
2. LESSON #2: You Can’t Buy Divine Favor-17:7-13
The next lesson concerning God and divine favor involves a new character that emerges onto the scene in verses 7-8—"Now there was a young man from Bethlehem in Judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite; and he was staying there. Then the man departed from the city, from Bethlehem in Judah, to stay wherever he might find a place; and as he made his journey, he came to the hill country of Ephraim to the house of Micah” (17:7-8). Like Micah introduced in verses 1-2, there is something a bit off about the description of this youth from Bethlehem in verses 7-8. First, he hails from the wrong place. In Joshua 21:9-16 we learn that Bethlehem is not one of Judah’s Levitical towns. Also, we discover later (in 18:30) that this man was a descendent of Gershom son of Moses and therefore was supposed to live in Ephraim, Dan, or western Manasseh (Josh 21:4, 20-26). This unnamed character is a man wandering from the wrong place to Lord knows where and Lord knows why and stumbles upon the home and local cult-shrine of Micah while looking for a place to stay.
“Micah said to him, ‘Where do you com from?’ And he said to him, “I am a Levite from Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to stay wherever I may find a place.’…” (17:9). You can hear the opportunism in this man’s voice as he proudly claims his tribal/professional class only to then confess his openness to any opportunity that might come his way (whatever opportunity that Micah might have for him) (Block, Judges, Ruth, 488). What is of special interest to Micah upon this man’s response to his question is this man’s status as a Levite. This tribe was given responsibility for the spiritual leadership of the nation (what a bang-up job they had done). “According to Exodus 32:25-29, because the descendants of Levi had distinguished themselves by standing with Moses against apostasy represented by the gold calf, they were rewarded for their faithfulness to Yahweh by receiving the divine blessing and being dedicated for priestly service” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 486). But oh how the times had changed and how all the tribes had fallen, including the Levites, out of a right relationship with God.
This doesn’t appear to matter to Micah. All he hears is “Levite” and immediately associates this man with all things religious and spiritual. Never one to pass on an opportunity himself, Micah makes this Levite an offer—“Micah then said to him, ‘Dwell with me and be a father and a priest to me, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, a suit of clothes, and your maintenance.’…” (17:10). Here, Micah offers the Levite a salaried position as a spiritual advisor in his cult complex of pagan idolatry. He promises the man payment, cool clothes, and regular provisions. Not only does Micah desire a companion, he wants a father-figure of sorts and someone to serve as his representative before God and to see to it that religious practices are performed at his shrine on his behalf.
You might be wondering to yourself, “I thought Micah had already enlisted his son as his priest?” You would be right. This quick change suggests that Micah is understandably ambivalent about his spiritual practices (and rightfully so given that they are all out of whack). This Micah obviously has daddy issues (and I mean that both in a literal and spiritual way) and cannot seem to find real rest in the manufactured religion he has constructed for himself on a compromised foundation of syncretism (the mixture of the one true God with the paganism of the world). You see, when your spiritual foundation is precarious, you are always having to repair whatever is on top. Micah believes that hiring an actual Levite as a priest will go a long way in stabilizing the shaky worldview he is endorsing. However, as we will eventually learn, this Levite will only serve a crude band aid for a much more desperate flaw.
The text continues, “The Levite agreed to live with the man, and the young man, and the young man became to him like one of his sons,…” (17:11). While the Levite agrees to live with him as requested, immediately the intended roles are reversed. Instead of the Levite becoming to Micah like a father, he is treated like a son. Let’s be honest, Micah doesn’t really want to place himself under the authority of someone else (even if it is on his own terms). No one does in their flesh. Micah has been too comfortable for too long calling his own shots. Why give that up now when he can have the feeling of being spiritual and the mirage of being close to God without any of the submission?
Just like he did his son, “Micah consecrated the Levite,” and again I ask, one what authority (moral or otherwise) does Micah do this? Nevertheless, “the young man became his priest and lived in the house of Micah,…” (17:12). Take a moment and just digest how backwards this situation (and all the people therein) is. You have a child of the one true God erecting a makeshift pagan shrine out of his own home that would make a polytheist blush who turns it into a family business and then implicates an actual Levite in the farce by paying him off to abandon his actual calling and duties. This Micah does to again scratch the spiritual itch all humans possess. It may not make any sense and on its face and it may prove to be utter nonsense; but it made Micah feel good.
Just note the tone deaf comment from Micah that ends the chapter—“Then Micah said, ‘Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, seeing I have a Levite as priest’…” (17:13). Oh really Micah, is that what you “know” now? What do you know? Very Little! This stupid conclusion that Micah reaches betrays his whole prerogative in this second half of the chapter—buying divine favor. Micah believed that if he had the right assortment of idols and the right people employed in his pagan practice, he would somehow be able to purchase divine favor.
Before we write Micah off as crazy, we must recognize just how typical this is in our world today. You see, our culture is not too different from the world of the Judges in which people do what is right in their own eyes. This includes what is right in connection to the divine. As made in the image of God, human beings have a bent toward worship. However, because of sin in the world, this inclination is directed at the wrong things—things that are ultimately unsatisfactory and only give way to personal anxiety and destruction. Like Micah, misinformed people will pursue any number of things or a collection of things for purpose, meaning, hope, and blessing. While they know they need these, they are unwilling to embrace the only One who can provide them. Rather than submit to the authority God has over their lives, they make themselves the authority over their lives and scramble aimlessly to satisfy their cravings for wholeness, going to great lengths to construct their version of god and seeking to earn/purchase divine favor. Sometimes, like Micah, these same people drag others around them into their charade and end up living woefully inconsistent and incomplete lives.
The good news is that there is another way. There is one God who alone provides satisfaction for the soul, purpose for life, truth, and hope in all things. He is knowable for those who are willing to surrender their lives over to him—those who are willing to take off their embarrassing god-costume and stop looking foolish. Also, there is one Way—Jesus Christ—to enjoy divine favor with God. He purchased this favor when we never could and offers it in grace through repentance (turning away from yourself and your vain pursuits) and faith (trusting in who he is and what he has accomplished).