Monday, January 25, 2021

Lessons from War- Judges 20:1-48

 Last week we took a careful look at a very tragic and horrifying event that occurred between a man and his concubine and a few wicked men in Gibeah. This event involved cowardice, assault, murder, and indifference. News of this relatively isolated episode quickly spread to the twelve tribes of Israel and became a very big deal. This leads us to chapter 20. Here we witness the reaction to the atrocities of chapter 19 and learn how idolatry inevitably leads to division. While in chapter 17 we learned how idolatry can lead one to believe that he can build God or buy him off, and in chapter 18 we learned how idolatry can lend itself to self-importance and entitlement, and in chapter 19 we discovered how idolatry goes hand-in-hand with a reckless pursuit of satisfying fleshly lusts and self-preservation (at the expense of others), in chapter 20 we are going to see how idolatry ultimately breaks people apart and leads to the severing of relationships. Thankfully,  we will also learn how to avoid this trend in our lives as God’s people. All of this we will apprehend as we witness two reasons why the tribe of Benjamin fell in Judges 20:1-48.

a. REASON #1: The Call to War-20:1-17

We reenter the story of Judges immediately after the tribes witness the gory evidence of the crimes committed against the concubine in the previous chapter (see 19:29ff). Offended by what they saw, everyone gathers to learn what has happened that could explain this. The text reads, “all the sons of Israel from Dan to Beersheba, including the land of Gilead, came out, and the congregation assembled as one person to the Lord at Mizpah. And the leaders of all the people, all the tribes of Israel, took their stand in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand foot soldiers who drew the sword. (Now the sons of Benjamin heard that the sons of Israel had gone up to Mizpah.) And the sons of Israel said, ‘Tell us, how did this wickedness take place?’ So the Levite, the husband of the woman who was murdered, answered and said, ‘I came with my concubine to spend the night at Gibeah which belongs to Benjamin. But the citizens of Gibeah rose up against me and surrounded the house at night, threatening me. They intended to kill me; instead, they raped my concubine so that she died. And I took hold of my concubine and cut her in pieces, and sent her throughout the land of Israel’s inheritance; for they have committed an outrageous sin and vile act in Israel. Behold, all you sons of Israel, give your response and advice here.’…”  (20:1-7). Notice that the Levite totally leaves out the fact that he offered his concubine to these perpetrators. Notice too that he fails to mention that he didn’t go out looking for her later that evening, but instead left her outside to die the next morning. Notice also how casual he is in describing the way that he “cut her into pieces.” This man is not sharing the full story. However, the story he does share is successful at propelling those who have gathered at this central location to action.  

“Then all the people rose up as one person, saying, ‘Not one of us will go to his tent, nor will any of us go home. But now this is the thing which we will do to Gibeah; we will go up against it by lot. And we will take ten men out of a hundred throughout the tribes of Israel, and a hundred out of a thousand, and a thousand out of ten thousand to supply provisions for the people, so that when they come to Gibeah of Benjamin, they may punish them for all the vile sin that they have committed in Israel.’ So all the men of Israel were gathered against the city, united as one man…” (20:8-11). This is a rare display of unity for Israel during this period. In the days of the Judges, the tribes behaved more like disjointed factions than a unified family. However, here they rally together to respond to this evil that has befallen one of their own. It is a “you hurt one of us, you hurt all of us” kind of scenario.

United behind their cause of vengeance, they send messengers throughout Benjamin explaining what had happened and demanded that the perpetrators of the crime be handed over for execution— “Then the tribes of Israel sent men through the entire tribe of Benjamin, saying, ‘What is this wickedness that has taken place among you? Now then, turn over the men, the worthless men who are in Gibeah, so that we may put them to death and remove this wickedness from Israel.’ But the sons of Benjamin would not listen to the voice of their brothers, the sons of Israel. Instead, the sons of Benjamin gathered from the cities to Gibeah, to go out to battle against the sons of Israel. From the cities on that day the sons of Benjamin were counted, twenty-six thousand men who drew the sword, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah who were counted, seven hundred choice men. Out of all these people seven hundred choice men were left-handed; each one could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. Then the men of Israel besides Benjamin were counted, four hundred thousand men who drew the sword; all of these were men of war…” (20:12-17). Instead of handing over the guilty parties, the Benjamites respond to the show of force from the other tribes with a show of force of their own. They, like the others, build an army and prepare for battle.

Before we choose sides in this coming war, let us remind ourselves of how difficult it is to decide who root for here. On the one side you have the rapists and abusers who are being protected by a people (the Benjamites) who would rather go to war than hand over these wicked criminals. On the other side you have a man who cowardly gave up his concubine to be assaulted and, eventually, killed. He is joined by those who are offended by his version of the story—the other tribes who, up to this point, have not unified around much of anything. Things are bad all-around, and it will be interesting to see how everything unfolds and who is victorious.

b. REASON #2: The Civil War-20:18-48

The civil war that ensues consists of three battles. The first of these is described in verses 18-21. The morning of that day “the sons of Israel arose, went up to Bethel, and inquired of God and said, ‘Who shall go up first for us to battle against the sons of Benjamin?’ Then the Lord said, ‘Judah shall go up first.’…” (20:18). This is a refreshing change compared to what we have witnessed in the majority of the Book of Judges. Here, rather than “jump the gun” and rush to act, the Israelites seek the Lord’s advice on what they should do and how they should do it. The seek the Lord at “Bethel” which means “house of God.” This is where the ark of the covenant was kept and a man named Phinehas served as priest. The scene is similar to how the Book of Judge began. When Judges started, Israel prepared to unite against the common foe of the Canaanites (an outside pagan nation). However, now, at the end of the book, they have joined together to take action against one of their own brothers! What explains this drastic change? Pervasive evil and moral decay (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 502). This civil war is a sad commentary on Israel’s spiritual, moral, and practical condition. They have descended into evil and now stand to tear each other apart.

In response to the Lord’s instructions “the sons of Israel got up in the morning and camped against Gibeah. The men of Israel went to battle against Benjamin, and the men of Israel lined up for battle against them at Gibeah…” (20:19-20). Here, the Israelites return to the scene of the original crime(s) to enact revenge for what came upon one of their countrymen (the Levite). However, things do not go well for them during this first battle on day 1.

The report is given in verse 21—“Then the sons of Benjamin came out of Gibeah and felled to the ground on that day 22,000 men of Israel,…” (20:21).

After their defeat on day one, “the people, the men of Israel, showed themselves courageous and lined up for battle again in the place where they had lined themselves up on the first day…” (20:22). It takes resilience to line up after being defeated the previous day, and line up these forces do.

In addition to regrouping, the Israelites call upon the Lord…again! (Good for them)—“And the sons of Israel went up and wept before the Lord until evening, and inquired of the Lord, saying, ‘Shall we again advance for battle against the sons of my brother Benjamin?’ And the Lord said, ‘Go up against him’…” (20:23).  Perhaps their defeat on day one had shaken their confidence and so they ask the Lord if they should continue the campaign. Perhaps they second guessed their quest given that the tribe of Benjamin consisted of their own countrymen. They want to double-check to see if they are on the right track in their pursuit and God confirms as much when he says “Go up against him” (20:23).

The second day’s fighting is almost as disastrous as the first for the Israelites—“So the sons of Israel came against the sons of Benjamin on the second day. And Benjamin went out against them from Gibeah the second day and struck to the ground again eighteen thousand men of the sons of Israel; all of these drew the sword…” (20:24-25). The total figure from two days of fighting in this civil war has the tribes of Israel down 40,000 men at the hands of the Benjamites. Things do not look too good for Israel here, and yet, God had confirmed their campaign against Benjamin twice. How might one square God’s call with these defeats in battle? The lack of initial victory in this civil war for the Israelites reminds readers that just because God calls you to something does not mean it is going to be a cake walk or that success is immediate. In fact, much to the contrary, many find struggle and delayed results when following God's will.

Perhaps things will be different on day 3 (third time is a charm 😊). The day begins much the same way the others have—“Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel, and they wept and remained there before the Lord, and fasted that day until evening. And they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord…” (20:26). This time around, the Israelites accompany their cry to the Lord with weeping and fasting and offerings for the Lord. Such an expression of dependence and humility is especially rare in the Book of Judges. It marks how God’s people ought to pursue the Lord as they accomplish his will amid adversity—brokenness, prayer, and fasting. All of these demonstrate in their own way human frailty against God’s unlimited strength and provision. As a result, God is please to respond. God is pleased to respond to those who know they need him.

The text continues “And the sons of Israel inquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, Aaron’s son, stood before it to minister in those days), saying, ‘Shall I yet again go out to battle against the sons of my brother Benjamin, or shall I stop?’ And the Lord said, ‘Go up, for tomorrow I will hand them over to you.’…” (20:27-28). Once again, after inquiring of the Lord what they should do, God responds with the affirmative. However, on this occasion he adds a time frame and promises that this time tomorrow they would be successful.

The success this time around occurs in three phases. The first of these is the ambush: “…So Israel set men in ambush around Gibeah. And the sons of Israel went up against the sons of Benjamin on the third day and lined up against Gibeah as at other times. When the sons of Benjamin went out against the people, they were lured away from the city, and they began to strike and kill some of the people as at other times, on the roads (one of which goes up to Bethel, and the other to Gibeah), and in the field, about thirty men of Israel. And the sons of Benjamin said, ‘They are defeated before us, like the first time.’ But the sons of Israel said, ‘Let’s flee, so that we may draw them away from the city to the roads.’ Then all the men of Israel rose from their place and lined up at Baal-tamar; and the men of Israel in ambush charged from their place, from Maareh-geba. When ten thousand choice men from all Israel came against Gibeah, the battle became fierce; but Benjamin did not know that disaster was close to them. And the Lord struck Benjamin before Israel, so that the sons of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day, all who drew the sword…” (20:29-35). There is at least one detail that is important to highlight in this report. In verse 35 it reads “and the Lord struck Benjamin before Israel…”. God ought to be credited for the success of this last campaign. After all, on day one and two the Israelites appeared helpless against the Benjamites. What makes up for the difference on day three? Easy—the Lord does. More than a change of strategy, more than good cooperation, more than skilled execution—the Lord is what turns another defeat into a great victory.

After drawing many of the Benjamites out of the city in an ambush, Israelite forces rush in the town of Gibeah to destroy it from the inside. The report of phase 2 of this battle is given in verses 36-40: “…So the sons of Benjamin saw that they were defeated. When the men of Israel gave ground to Benjamin because they relied on the men in ambush whom they had set against Gibeah, the men in ambush hurried and rushed against Gibeah; the men in ambush also deployed and struck all the city with the edge of the sword. Now the agreed sign between the men of Israel and the men in ambush was that they would make a great cloud of smoke rise from the city. Then the men of Israel turned in the battle, and Benjamin began to strike and kill about thirty men of Israel, for they said, ‘Undoubtedly they are defeated before us, as in the first battle.’ But when the cloud began to rise from the city in a column of smoke, Benjamin looked behind them; and behold, the entire city was going up in smoke to heaven…” (20:36-40).

After the successful ambush and with the city on fire the Benjamites are in quite a bind (and they know it). The third phase of the battle on day three involves the Israelites chasing after these Benjamites who are in full retreat: “Then the men of Israel turned, and the men of Benjamin were terrified; for they saw that disaster was close to them. Therefore, they turned their backs before the men of Israel to flee in the direction of the wilderness, but the battle overtook them while those who attacked from the cities were annihilating them in the midst of them. They surrounded Benjamin, pursued them without rest, and trampled them down opposite Gibeah toward the east. So eighteen thousand men of Benjamin fell; all of these were valiant men. The rest turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon, but they caught five thousand of them on the roads and overtook them at Gidom, and killed two thousand of them. So all those of Benjamin who fell that day were twenty-five thousand men who drew the sword; all of these were valiant men. But six hundred men turned and fled toward the wilderness to the rock of Rimmon; and they remained at the rock of Rimmon for four months. The men of Israel then turned back against the sons of Benjamin and struck them with the edge of the sword, both the entire city with the cattle and all that they found; they also set on fire all the cities which they found…” (20:41-48).

On day three, the victory that God promised was assured and Gibeah and the surrounding Benjamite towns were destroyed. While I am sure the Israelites rejoiced and were grateful for their win, let us remember what this victory means on a broader level. This civil war significantly compromised the twelve tribes moving into the future. The seeds of division that had been sown throughout the book due to idolatry and self-indulgence have now yielded their full fruit and the unified people of God are fractured in a profound way. In chapter 17 we learned about idolatry’s connection to money. In chapter 18 we saw the relationship between idolatry and entitlement. In chapter 19 we observed how idolatry also can involve a relentless pursuit of self-indulgence. And in chapter 20 we witness how idolatry inevitably leads to division.

So What?

So, what can we do to combat the ugly nemesis of idolatry and other threats of evil in our lives? Interestingly, the Israelites in this chapter help us with an answer. Horribly flawed though these characters may be, in their desperation and tribulation in chapter 20, they reveal how the people of God ought to respond to internal menaces and external threats)—relentlessly seeking the Lord for direction and provision. With the threat of Benjamin starring them in the face, the Israelites call upon the Lord three times, sometimes with weeping and fasting, and after each interaction they line up again to fight another day until the promised victory is given. We ought to respond to the threats we face the same way. With the temptation of idolatry and all of its many expressions starring us down in our world today, we must call up the Lord again and again and again, maybe with weeping and fasting, trusting all the while the promises of God’s Word. Likewise, we must line up every morning to fight another day—regardless of the outcomes the day before and despite what appearance may tell us. This we must do until our day of promised victory is given. You might say, “but I’ve failed too often” or “God has given up on me” or “there is no way God has plans for my life,” etc. However, consider who he grants victory to in this passage. Did the Israelites or this Levite deserve their victory? Did they earn it? Absolutely not! Neither will you. However, God in accordance with his will is pleased to answer those who call upon him in humility and desperation. This does not mean success is immediate or that the path will be easy, but it does mean that God will execute his will on behalf of those who seek him nonetheless in ways that are in keeping with his greater plan.

Monday, January 18, 2021

What Can Happen When God is Forgotten- Judges 19

 The last few weeks in our Judges series have had us examine some of the less-attractive moments in Israel’s storied history. While some of the stops along the way have been less than pleasant to read through, these episodes are important as they help us understand what the world is like (or what can happen to a nation) when God is forgotten and his Word is ignored. The same lesson will be driven home today as we look at one of the lowest moments ever recorded in all the Scriptures. Though our trek in Judges 19 will prove difficult, it is a necessary journey as we learn to avoid the pitfalls that can leave us, or those around us, susceptible to the kinds of behaviors we will read about in these verses.  Today we are going to look at FOUR ACTIONS that illustrate what is possible in a context that has forgotten God in Judges 19.

a. ACTION #1: Hospitality is Extended in Bethelehem-19:1-10

This chapter starts much the same way that chapter 17 and 18 begin, with a reference to the lack of godly leadership in the land—“Now it came about in those days, when there was no king in Israel…” (19:1). Just as this vacuum had paved the way for idolatry in connection with money and power in the previous chapters, here, this vacuum will continue to open the door for more expressions of godlessness. The verse continues with “there was a certain Levite staying in the remote part of the hill country of Ephraim, who took a concubine for himself from Bethlehem in Judah. But his concubine played the harlot against him, and she went away from him to her father’s house in Bethlehem in Judah, and remained there for a period of four months…” (19:1-2). This is not the same Levite who was involved in chapters 17-18. Instead, this new character is introduced as someone who is having some domestic problems. His wife (or at least his concubine—we will use both terms interchangeably given than the scholarship is divided on their relationship) proves unfaithful to him. Other translations suggest that she finds him repugnant or leaves because of some dispute and returns to her father’s home in Bethlehem. Not the best way to begin a story.

After four months of separation, “Then her husband set out and went after her to speak tenderly to her in order to bring her back, taking with him his servant and a pair of donkeys. So she brought him into her father’s house, and when the girl’s father saw him, he was glad to meet him…” (19:3). The note about the servant and the donkeys that accompany the Levite in this journey suggest that this man was of some means. This is reiterated, perhaps, by the fact that the concubine’s father was “glad to meet him.” Maybe the father desired that these two reconcile or the father had learned of the concubine’s unfaithfulness. Either way, what we see from the father is nothing but generous hospitality toward the Levite when he arrives to retrieve his wife.

Notice the lengthy description of the Levite’s visit and the extent of the grace shown him by this woman’s father in verses 4-9: “… His father-in-law, the girl’s father, prevailed upon him, and he remained with him for three days. So they ate and drank and stayed there. Now on the fourth day they got up early in the morning, and he prepared to go; but the girl’s father said to his son-in-law, ‘Strengthen yourself with a piece of bread, and afterward you may go.’ So both of them sat down and ate and drank together; and the girl’s father said to the man, ‘Please be so kind as to spend the night, and let your heart be cheerful.’ However, the man got up to go; but his father-in-law urged him, and he spent the night there again. Now on the fifth day he got up to go early in the morning, but the girl’s father said, ‘Please strengthen yourself, and wait until late afternoon’; so both of them ate. When the man got up to go, along with his concubine and servant, his father-in-law, the girl’s father, said to him, ‘Behold now, the day has drawn to a close; please spend the night. Behold, the day is coming to an end; spend the night here so that your heart may be cheerful. Then tomorrow you may arise early for your journey and go home.’...” (19:4-9). What is the purpose of these details in the text? The answer will become clear as the story progresses and another scene of hospitality is considered alongside this description. “This folksy, realistic introduction to the story stresses the father’s hospitable attitude” (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 490), and this will not be the characters’ experience in the future.

Eventually, the Levite and his wife could postpone their journey no longer—"But the man was unwilling to spend the night, so he got up and left, and came to a place opposite Jebus (that is, Jerusalem). And with him was a pair of saddled donkeys; his concubine also was with him…” (19:10). Notice how the man and his entourage is depicted. It is subtle, but it foreshadows something very important about this man’s view of this woman. The man is described first, then his donkeys, and only then his concubine. This order and the cavalier way in which the woman is depicted demonstrates something about their relationship. To this Levite, this woman was a merely one of many possessions and this is something that falls far short of God’s design and instruction elsewhere. This man’s low view of his wife will throw himself open to grave evil later in this story and probably illustrates how many men during this dark period of Israel’s history treated their wives. YIKES!

b. ACTION #2:  A Journey is Taken to Gibeah-19:11-15

While on the way to their next destination, this Levite, his servant, and his concubine make a fateful decision—“When they were near Jebus, the day was almost gone; and the servant said to his master, ‘Please come, and let’s turn aside into this city of the Jebusites and spend the night in it.’ However, his master said to him, ‘We will not turn aside into a city of foreigners who are not of the sons of Israel; instead, we will go on as far as Gibeah.’…” (19:11-12). Note the late hour that this deliberation takes place. Night was the time for danger and crime and this detail sets an ominous tone for what follows (Fields, “The Motif of Night as Danger,” 31). In the dark of night, the Levite is unwilling to stop near Jebus (as he didn’t trust the foreign inhabitants there). Instead, he opts to continue on until they reached what he expects would be a safer place.

“And he said to his servant, ‘Come, and let’s approach one of these places; and we will spend the night in Gibeah or Ramah.’ So they passed along and went their way, and the sun set on them near Gibeah which belongs to Benjamin” (19:13-14). Again note the temporal cues in the story. The sun has set and these travelers have placed themselves in a fairly precarious spot. Night has fallen and this group must rely on the hospitality of those they will meet to be taken in and cared for. Typically in the ancient near east this would not have proven to be a problem (as hospitality was and continues to be a highly valued virtue in this part of the world). However, let us remember what things were like in the days of the Judges where “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (17:6) and pervasive wickedness ruled the day. This is probably not the right time to through oneself at the mercy of strangers. Decency and neighborliness are in short supply.

At first, they do not stumble upon anyone and the citizens do not seem to be concerned in the least about the time-honored principle of hospitality that was so wonderfully extended by the Levite’s father-in-law earlier in the story. The text reads, “They turned aside there to enter and spend the night in Gibeah. When they entered, they sat down in the public square of the city, for no one took them into his house to spend the night…” (19:15). It makes no difference that this was not a “foreign city” and that the inhabitants were “from the descendants of Israel” like the travelers. Though, as the Levite probably expected, they should have been welcomed warmly, they are left in the streets (maybe he should have listened to his servant earlier). These details are, among other things, an indictment on God’s people during this time. So distant from the Lord and his word are the Israelites that they don’t even seem to be able to extend common cultural courtesies to their own people!

c. ACTION #3: Hospitality is Extended in Gibeah-19:16-21

However, out of the darkness emerges “an old man…coming out of the field from his work at evening. Now the man was from the hill country of Ephraim, and he was staying in Gibeah, but the men of the place were Benjamites. And he raised his eyes and saw the traveler in the public square of the city; and the old man said, ‘Where are you going, and where do you come from?’…” (19:16-21). Perhaps our first impression about the lack of hospitality in this city were wrong and there is still a small sliver of humanity in this town. However, if your “spidey senses” are tingling and you don’t have a good feeling about this, you probably aren’t alone. Can anyone say “stranger danger!”? 😊 What is interesting about this character is that he, like the travelers, is not from Gibeah. He, like the travelers, is not native to this town and yet, he is the only one in the town that extends any courtesy.

With no one else paying them any attention, the Levite answers this old man’s question in verses 18-19 with “And he said to him, ‘We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote part of the hill country of Ephraim, for I am from there, and I went to Bethlehem in Judah. But I am now going to my house, and no one will take me into his house. Yet there is both straw and feed for our donkeys, and also bread and wine for me, your maidservant, and the young man who is with your servants; there is no lack of anything.’…” (19:18-19). The Levite makes a case that while he had expected to receive some hospitality in Gibeah, they had everything they needed in the public square and could manage for the night. They are, after all, just passing through and would be gone in the morning.

Upon hearing this, “the old man said, ‘Peace to you. Only let me take care of all your needs; however, do not spend the night I the public square.’ So he took him into his house and fed the donkeys, and they washed their feet and ate and drank” (19:20-21). Again, the only person willing to take in these travelers and care for them is himself not from the city. That said, take care of them he does. That said, what appears to be a lucky break soon turns into terror. While they might be safe and cared for in the apartment of this elderly man from Ephraim, the lack of hospitality from those native to Gibeah will soon prove to be a symptom of a far greater evil present in the town (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 491).

d. ACTION #4: Atrocities are Committed-19:22-30

What follows is one of the sickest and most grotesque scenes in this book, if not the entire Bible (viewer discretion is advised). “While they were celebrating, behold, the men of the city, certain worthless fellows, surrounded the house, pounding the door; and they spoke to the owner of the house, the old man, saying, ‘Bring out the man who entered your house that we may have relations with him.’ Then the man, the owner of the house, went out to them and said to them, ‘No, my brothers, please do not act so wickedly. Since this man has come into my house, do not commit this vile sin…” (19:22-23). The town of Gibeah quickly reveals its true colors under the cover of darkness as men of the city surround the house and pound on the door, insisting that the old man release the young Levite so that they might sodomize him. No doubt those who read this immediately draw parallels between these men from Gibeah and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. The demand of these men represents a clear violation of three fundamental social/moral laws: the law of hospitality, the law against any intercourse outside of marriage, and the law against homosexual relations (Block, Judges Ruth, 536). The pounding of the door and demands made suggests that the men outside were seeking, like ravenous wolves, to satisfy their fleshly lusts and were willing to transgress what was both holy and culturally proper to accomplish this. Such is expected in a world where God is forgotten and people do what is right in their own eyes.

However, what is perhaps even more shocking than the demand made by these men is the response of the old man and the Levite. In fact, their response reveals that these characters are not so different from those pounding on the door outside. The old man says, “Here is my virgin daughter and the man’s concubine. Please let me bring them out that you may ravish them and do to them whatever you wish. But do not commit such an act of folly against this man. But the men would not listen to him…” (19:24-25a). What?! Which is worse: wanting to have your fleshly needs satisfied in an unbiblical way or treating those made in the image of God (the young virgin and concubine) as though they are expendable? Certainly both are far removed from anything encouraged by God in his word.

The unthinkable happens in verses 25-26—“So the man seized his concubine and brought her outside to them; and they raped her and abused her all night until morning, then let her go at the approach of dawn. As the day began to dawn, the woman came and fell down at the doorway of the man’s house where her master was, until full daylight” (19:25b-26). This Levite, in a shameless act of self-preservation, throws this woman to the wolves and she experiences the most horrifying night of her life. “In the morning the battered and dehumanized concubine stumbled back to the house and fell down in the doorway” (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 494).  There she remained until the door was opened later that same morning. It is a tragic and terrifying episode betraying just how far God’s people had descended into godlessness in this period.

Later that same morning “when her master got up…and opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, then behold, his concubine was lying at the doorway of the house with her hands on the threshold. And he said to he, ‘Get up and let’s go,’ but there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey; and the man set out and went to his home…” (19:27-28). Can you imagine? First, there is no indication that this man was going to go looking for this woman after sending her out to these abusers. He seems intent on leaving. He only stops when her body is blocking the doorway as he exits the home. Upon seeing her, he coldly calls out to her “get up, let’s go” only to finally discover that the girl he had so cavalierly discarded the previous night was dead. Is indifference like this even possible? However, this is, unfortunately, not the end of the story.

The chapter concludes with an especially gruesome note: “When he entered his house, he took a knife and seized his concubine, and cut her in twelve pieces, limb by limb. Then he sent her throughout the territory of Israel. All who saw it said, ‘Nothing like this has ever happened or been seen from the day when the sons of Israel came up from the land of Egypt to this day. Consider it, make a plan, and speak up!’…” (19:29-30). As if the spectacle could not be any more morbid, the Levite cuts up this woman into twelve pieces—one for each tribe—and sends these throughout the territory of Israel as a kind of object lesson/testimony to what had happened. Even in death there is no respect for this woman. Seized for a second time, she is subjected once again to male violence (this time post-mortem).

So What?

Why does such a story exist? Why does God permit such acts to occur? What function does this chapter in Judges possibly serve (other than to offend and disgust)? Attention to the context will offer some help as we draw an application for today from this passage. Consider the kinds of things that were taking place during the days of the Judges—days in which people did what was right in their own eyes and idolatry ruled. First, God was considered something that could be built and divine favor was something you could buy (Judges 17). Ambition and a sense of misplaced entitlement to places, things, and people drove entire tribes to unjust behaviors against unsuspecting people (Judges 18). And here, self-preservation and seeking to satisfying one’s earthly lusts overwhelms decency, holiness, and respect for those made in the image of God (Judges 19). These are the signposts of a people/nation that has forgotten God. This is what one can expect in a godless context. In such a place, God becomes a trinket, self-importance rules, and people become objects that can be used and discarded at will. This is not how God intended his people to live and yet, this is the level all people are capable of descending to when they leave God on the outside looking in.

Unfortunately, evidence of these trends is all around us today. Idolatry is pervasive, entitlement reigns, seeking to satisfy all kinds of lusts is priority number one, and people are mistreated or devalued as tools rather than as precious in the eyes of God. Our world of paganism, self-centeredness, promiscuity, and human trafficking. God’s people must stand out in such a world and not give in to these tendencies like the Israelites had in their ancient context. We must stand for and extend worship to the one true God. We much get over ourselves and seek to serve and sacrifice for others. We must pursue purity and holiness in all things and consider our fellow man or woman as fearfully and wonderfully made. These ought to be the hallmarks of God’s people. These are the signposts of heaven, pointing the way to a better kingdom in a world that has settled for far less.

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.

Monday, January 4, 2021

God is Not For Sale- Judges 17

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.

So What?

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).