Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Idolatry and Power: Judges 18:1-31


Our world has, in many ways, championed the individual and the virtue of independence to an unhealthy degree. We are taught from a young age that we can be whatever we want to be and told that we can do whatever we put our minds to. While these sound bites feel good and may prove popular in the focus-group, if taken to their extreme any number of things can be justified. Add social media to this mix and the constant need for attention and approval (or a constant ego stroking), and you get what we see all around us. Many people have placed themselves at the center of their carefully-constructed solar systems of self-importance and in a world that claims to be more connected than ever before many have actually never been more isolated. Not only is this trend unhealthy for the individual, it is potentially harmful to others. In fact, Judges 18 goes a long way in illustrating the dangers associated with idolatry of the self and the pursuit of self-importance/power. It is my prayer that we might learn from this passage how we as God people ought to vigorously insist on keeping God at the center of our universe and not usurp his rightful place in our lives.

1. ELEMENT #1: A People are Found Ambitious-1:1-6

While in chapter 17 we saw the connection between idolatry and money, in the next chapter of Judges we trace the relationship between idolatry and power. Judges 18 begins with the same ominous note introduced in 17:6—“In those days there was no king of Israel.” This again illustrates the vacuum of godly leadership in and around Israel at the time. This vacuum made it easy for Micah to create a god(s) in his own image rather than submit to and obey the one true God in chapter 17. This same vacuum is also going to leave an entire tribe susceptible to all kinds of nefarious behavior in chapter 18. This tribe is introduced in the last part of verse 1—“and in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking an inheritance for themselves to live in, for until that day an inheritance had not been allotted to them as a possession among the tribes of Israel.”

In this introduction we learn that the Danites were a people unsatisfied with their home. In Judges 1:34 we learned that this group was beaten back by the Amorites and confined to the hill country. Even before this event, the Danites occupied a land on the coastal plain, leaving them on the front lines of Philistine attacks. Needless to say, they are looking to relocate to an area where they can really thrive.

To this end, the Danites employ five warriors as spies and request that they scope out a new territory for them to occupy—"So the sons of Dan sent from their family five men out of their whole number, valiant men from Zorah and Eshtaol, to spy out the land and to explore it; and they said to them, ‘Go, explore the land.’ And they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, and stayed overnight there” (1:2). Like the young wandering Levite in chapter 17, these spies stumble upon Micah’s home (and pagan cult shrine) in the hill country of Ephraim. Micah, being the hospitable chap that he is, invites them to stay the night. Little does he know that these same visitors will soon return to wreak havoc on Micah’s household.

However, before we get there, let us observe what else took place upon the first meeting between Micah and these spies—“When they were near the house of Micah, they recognized 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 do you have here?’ He said to them, ‘Micah has done this and that for me, and he has hired me and I have become his priest.’” (1:3-4). The spies recognized the southern accent of this Levite and knew that he was somewhat out of place. After inquiring what he was doing in this peculiar place (so far from where he belonged), they learn that he is a priest serving in the house of Micah.

Immediately, these spies seize an opportunity that they hadn’t expected—”Then they said to him, ‘Inquire of god, please, that we may know whether our way on which we are going will be successful.’” (1:5). What these men request of the Levite is an oracle from God (notice however that the covenant name of God, Yahweh, is not used and it is unclear exactly what god they were hoping to hear from). An oracle involved asking a god a yes or no question and sometimes included the casting of lots or, as in this instance, inquiring of a prophet or priest at a shrine. These spies wanted spiritual confirmation that they were heading in the right direction as they sought a land for their people to inhabit. This young Levite, in their minds, could (and does) provide this confirmation for them when he says, “go in peace; your way in which you are going has the Lord’s approval” (1:6). This proclamation is not given after much prayer and careful consideration as much as it is offered carelessly, perhaps in a quick way to curry favor with these visitors. Also, a more literal translation of what the Levite says is ambiguous. In reality, the Levite simply says that the actions of these spies are in full view of Yahweh (not that God is necessarily blessing their endeavor).

The ambition of the Danites and these spies is unmistakable. They are looking to move up on the world’s stage and are taking dramatic steps to that end. Ambition, on its own, is not necessarily a bad thing, however, ambition in those who are far from God is a breeding ground for gross idolatry and certainly this seems to be the case here as the story unfolds.

2. ELEMENT #2: A Parcel is Discovered-1:7-13

With the Levite’s blessing “the five men departed and came to Laish, and saw the people who were in it living in security, in the way of the Sidonians, quiet and unsuspecting; for there was no oppressive ruler humiliating them for anything in the land, and they were far from the Sidonians and had no deals with anyone” (1:7). Poor Laishians, just sitting there minding their own business like an ancient Switzerland in both beauty and neutrality without a care in the world. Now these Danites 100miles away from where they are supposed to be see what these unsuspecting people have and want to take it away from them (for all the obvious reasons). Here is where ambition turns into entitlement. Here, the Danites conclude, “Why shouldn’t this prime real estate be ours, especially if we can easily acquire it?”

The text continues by saying, “When they came back to their brothers at Zorah and Eshtaol, their brothers said to them, ‘What do you say?’ And they said, ‘Arise, and let’s go up against them; for we have seen the land, and behold, it is very good. And will you sit still? Do not hesitate to go, to enter, to take possession of the land. When you enter, you will come to an unsuspecting people with a spacious land; for God has handed it over to you, a place where there is no lack of anything that is on the earth.’” (1:8-10). What is worse than feeling entitled to something that is not yours? How about believing that you have a divine right to something that is not yours. Here, the Danites invoke God (borrowing from their experience with the Levite earlier) to justify their conquest of this land. Sounds crazy, but this is the kind of rationality that can result from unchecked ambition and entitlement both in the ancient world and today. The Danites are bent on gaining a substitute land for what was already given them and nothing appears able to stop them in their pursuit.

The next thing they do is assemble and equip an army for conquest—“Then from the family of the Danites, from Zorah and from Eshtaol, six hundred men armed with weapons of war set out. They went up and camped at Kiriath-jearim in Judah. Therefore they called that place Mahaney-dan to this day; behold, it is west of Kiriath-jearim. And they passed from there to the hill country of Ephraim to the house of Micah” (1:11-13). After collecting their ranks together, they advance to this new area for conquest, only to make a pit stop (like the Levite in chapter 17 and the five spies earlier in chapter 18) at Micah’s home (he must have been set up on the interstate).

Micah’s home does not appear to be the kind of pit-stop that encourages godly behavior. Even still, these troops probably pull in Micah’s driveway given the relatively positive experience that the five spies had earlier.

3. ELEMENT #3: A Prize is Stolen-1:14-26

However, after grabbing their soft drink and chips at the pit stop outside Micah’s home, “the five men who went to spy out the country of Laish said to their kinsmen, ‘Do you know that there are in these houses an ephod and household idols, and a carved image and a cast metal image? Now then, consider what you should do’…” (1:14). Like the region of Laish, Micah’s stash of idols caught the eye of these Danites and, their ambition and entitlement began to take over. After all, if one is able to feel entitled to land that isn’t his, what is stopping him from feeling as though he is entitled to items that don’t belong to him?

But why? Why was there interest in Micah’s stash of pagan relics? Some believe that a light may have clicked on in the minds of the spies upon seeing this religious shrine at Micah’s house. They may have believed that they would need to set up a similar cult site in their new land (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 458). Rather than make their own, it would have been far more convenient to just steal Micah’s and relocate it to the place of their choosing.

“So they turned aside there and came to the house of the young man, the Levite, to the house of Micah, and asked him how he was doing. Meanwhile, the six hundred men armed with their weapons of war, who were of the sons of Dan, were positioned at the entrance of the gate. Now the five men who went to spy out the land went up and entered there; they took the carved image, the ephod, the household idols, and the cast metal image, while the priest was standing at the entrance of the gate with the six hundred men armed with weapons of war” (1:15-17). Picture this. The Levite wakes up in his cottage outside of Micah’s home near the cult shrine to 600 armed men who are standing guard while the five spies you met earlier are hauling away Micah’s personal property without blinking. What is the young Levite to do? All he seems to be able to do is stand and watch this unfold. The ambition and entitlement of these Danites had led to robbery. Clouded by their idolatrous pursuits, the Danites don’t seem to be bothered by this in the least and others seem powerless to stop it.

The text continues with, “When these men entered Micah’s house and took the carved image, the ephod, household idols, and the cast metal image, the priest said to them, ‘What are you doing?’ And they said to him, ‘Be silent, put your hand over your mouth, and go 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 to be priest to a tribe and a family in Israel?’ The priest’s heart was glad, and he took the ephod, the household idols, and the carved image, and went among the people” (1:18-20). Is there any limit to what these Danites are willing to take? It was not enough that they were on their way to steal a land that was not theirs or take idols that did not belong to them. Now, they are after this young Levite—Micah’s employee. After all, if they planned to erect a cult shrine in their new land, they probably reasoned that they would also need a priest to go along with it. Why not just take this guy?

They tempt the Levite with increased power and responsibility—the kind that would not have been possible if he stayed in Micah’s employ. The Levite takes the bait and reveals that like these Danites, he too is teaming with selfish ambition, willing to go anywhere with anyone to climb the latter of self-importance. If he had any sense, he would stop to consider who he was joining—entitled thieves bent on unjust conquest. This does not appear to matter. If they had a better job for him, he would take it.

Notice how this has all unfolded. Unchecked ambition led to entitlement which has grown and given way to idolatry. Make not mistake, while the Danites and the Levite seem to promote the worship of these idols, ultimately they themselves are at the center of their universe, taking the place of the one true God on the throne of their own lives. Everything about these characters is about what they want, what they believe they are entitled to, and what would advance their cause.

4. ELEMENT #4: A Power-grab is Executed-1:27-31

The final element of this chapter in Israel’s story is found in verses 27-31—a power grab is executed. “Then they took what Micah had made and the priest who had belonged to him, and came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, and struck them with the edge of the sword; and they burned the city with fire. And there was no one to save them, because it was far from Sidon and they had no dealings with anyone, and it was in the valley which is near Beth-rehob. So they rebuilt the city and lived in it” (1:27-28). The writer is careful to highlight just how “unsuspecting” and vulnerable the poor people of Laish were against the Danite takeover, making the Danites look like bullies picking on a much younger and smaller kid on the playground. After being totally caught off guard and with no one to team up with, Laish falls to the Danites.

The chapter concludes with the following note in verses 29-31—"And they named the city Dan, after the name of Dan their father who was born to Israel; however, the name of the city was previously Laish. The sons of Dan set up for themselves the carved image; and Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. So they set up for themselves Micah’s carved image which he had made, all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh.” Here we see the fruition of the Danite’s vision for themselves. They had relocated to a better area, had settled in a new city, and had established a means to worship the idols they had stolen. In a very worldly sense, they proved successful in their endeavor, and yet, all of this is just the latest expression of idolatry of the self fueling a misplaced pursuit of power and self-importance.   

So What?

Can we really expect that these Danites would be satisfied for long in their new digs, in their new arrangement, with their new ornaments? After all, how much power is enough? How many things are enough? When is the monster of entitlement ever satisfied? When is unchecked ambition ever silenced? The Danites and the Levite they steal away from Micah were placing their value and purpose in the next big thing instead of the only thing that mattered—a relationship with the one true God. As a result of their selfish pursuits, they justify offenses against others, even stealing and murder. Though this is an extreme example of what can happen, make no mistake, when anyone places themselves at the center of their universe, others around them ultimately pay a price. Unchecked pride and the selfish ambition and entitlement that comes with it inevitably causes collateral damage. People can prove to be casualties of our idolatrous pursuit of self-importance. Such was the case with the Danites and is often the case today.

To curb this, we must surrender our agendas to the Lord’s greater plan for our lives. We must recognize that the One we follow, God the Son, did not consider what he was entitled to, but instead, emptied himself to sacrifice and serve others. We must remember that God stands at the center of the universe—not you, not me. We are in his orbit, not the other way around.

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