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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Judges 17

III. THE RESULTS OF ISRAEL’S APOSTASY CHS. 17-21

The following two extended incidents (ch. 17-21) differ from the records of the judges just completed (chs. 3-16). They are not accounts of the activities of any of Israel’s judges. They are the record of events that took place during the period of the judges that throw light on conditions in Israel during this era. The purpose behind their inclusion seems to have been to illustrate even more clearly ". . . the low moral standards, . . . the debased religious conceptions and . . . the disordered social structure" in Israel. [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 182.]

"As was the case in the earlier chapters of the Book of Judges [Judges 1:1 to Judges 3:6], these chapters deal with the subject of spiritual apostasy and its effects upon the nation of Israel." [Note: Davis and Whitcomb, p. 143.]

Philip Satterthwaite concluded, from studying the allusions to former similar events in Israel’s history, that all these allusions "have a similar effect, that is, they suggest the theme of ’something going wrong in Israel.’" [Note: Philip Satterthwaite, "’No King in Israel’: Narrative Criticism and Judges 17-21," Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993):85.]

Whereas chapters 3-16 record Israel’s struggles with her external enemies, chapters 17-21 document the internal conditions of the nation that made her so weak. In chapters 17-18 we see Israel abandoning God, and in chapters 19-21 we see her destroying herself.

The town of Bethlehem features in each of three stories. These stories are Micah and the Danites (chs. 17-18), the Levite and the Benjamites (chs. 19-21), and the story of Ruth and the Judahites in the Book of Ruth. Therefore some scholars refer to this section of Scripture as the "Bethlehem trilogy." These stories also share other themes and motifs.

"They concern individuals in more or less private settings whose identities and activities are nevertheless inseparable from and crucial to a full understanding of the Davidic monarchy which followed them. Accounts of actual events that transpired in the days of the judges, they are included in the sacred record for the purpose of tracing the roots of the Davidic dynasty and justifying its existence in opposition to Saul." [Note: Merrill, Kingdom of . . ., pp. 178-79.]

If the writer intended these chapters as a setup for the Davidic line or the monarchy in general, we cannot help but remember that the monarchy ended in chaos as well. The kings also "did what was right in their own eyes." In spite of the form of government and the rulers under which the Israelites lived, they consistently fell short of God’s standard for them.

The first incident in Judges (chs. 17-18) describes the fate of the Danites, and the second (chs. 19-21) the fate of the Benjamites. Both tribes received land in Israel’s heartland, between Judah and Ephraim, the tribes that would, after the monarchy divided, lead the Southern and Northern Kingdoms respectively. By selecting incidents from these tribes, the narrator showed that the degenerating tendency in Israel was not just a problem in the fringe territories. Canaanite influence had infected the heart of the nation.

Both Dan and Benjamin found themselves in dire straits but for different reasons. The Danites could not settle into their allotted inheritance because of Canaanite influence, and the Benjamites could not remain in theirs because of their hostile Israelite brethren. In both instances, a nameless Levite with Bethlehem (Judges 17:7-8; Judges 19:1-2) and Mt. Ephraim (Judges 17:1; Judges 19:1) connections, precipitated the crisis. Both accounts include priestly characters inquiring of God concerning the outcome of a proposed course of action (Judges 18:5-6; Judges 20:27-28), and both conclude with a reference to Shiloh (Judges 18:31; Judges 21:19-24). In both accounts military contingents of 800 men play a crucial role (Judges 18:11; Judges 18:16; Judges 18:25; Judges 20:47; Judges 21:7; Judges 21:12; Judges 21:14; Judges 21:16-17; Judges 21:23), and both contain references to the absence of a king in Israel (Judges 17:6; Judges 18:1; Judges 19:1; Judges 21:25). These parallel phenomena have the effect of making the reader conclude that the Canaanization of Israel had become complete. [Note: Block, Judges . . ., pp. 474-76.]

A. The idolatry of Micah and the Danites chs. 17-18

God undoubtedly included the story of Micah and the Danites in the sacred record because it relates the establishment of image worship in Israel. This was a new and catastrophic departure from Yahweh for the Israelites. Image worship continued, grew, and became an increasing snare to the Israelites from this time on in their history until the Babylonian Captivity. Consequently this incident exposes the extent of the spiritual apostasy of Israel.

The events recorded in these two chapters evidently took place while the Philistines were putting pressure on the tribes of Dan, Judah, and Benjamin. Perhaps the writer included them here because of their connection with the arena of Samson’s activities that he just related (chs. 13-16). Another connection is the mention of "1,100 . . . of silver" (Judges 16:5; Judges 17:2). Shekels of silver are evidently in view. Eleven hundred shekels weighed about 28 pounds. Riches played a significant role in Samson’s downfall, and they played a major part in Micah’s defection. As mentioned previously, the writers of the Old Testament frequently connected events and laws that were similar or had a logical relationship to one another, rather than following a strict chronological sequence. However, this chapter also records another downward step, lower than Samson’s, that the Israelites took in their departure from the Lord. Probably the writer placed this incident before chapters 19-21 because it indicates a basic problem, namely, spiritual apostasy, and chapters 19-21 record the resultant political and social conditions.

It is difficult to determine exactly when during the amphictyony this incident may have occurred. Jonathan, the Levite in the story, was evidently a descendant of Moses (Judges 18:30). The English texts call him the "son" of Gershom the "son" of Moses (Judges 18:30). However the Hebrew word translated "son" (ben) frequently means "descendant" in the Old Testament. If Jonathan was the grandson of Moses, he probably would have been a "young man" (Judges 17:7; et al.) during the wilderness wanderings. So it appears that Jonathan was a later descendant of Moses and that this event occurred many years after the conquest of the land, but how much later is hard to say.

Verses 1-6

Micah’s unlawful worship 17:1-6

The writer told us nothing about Micah’s background, except that he originally lived in the Hill Country of Ephraim, with or near his mother (Judges 17:1-2). Micah’s name means "Who is like Yahweh." As is true of so many details in this story, Micah’s name is ironic. He was anything but like Yahweh. The fact that Micah’s mother blessed him in the name of Yahweh creates a positive impression, but other features of the story demonstrate that her veneer of orthodox Yahwism was extremely thin.

Micah was a thief who stole a fortune from his own mother. The amount of silver he stole could have sustained one person for a lifetime in Israel (cf. Judges 17:10). Apparently he confessed his theft because he feared his mother’s curse (Judges 17:2). Instead of cursing him she blessed him, a very unusual reaction in view of the amount of money involved. Perhaps she believed that her blessing would undo her previous curse. [Note: Wolf, p. 481.] Micah’s mother then claimed to dedicate all 1,100 pieces of the recovered silver to Yahweh. However she gave only 200 pieces to a silversmith to make an image. The Lydians first produced coined money in the sixth century B.C. Therefore these were not 1,100 silver coins but 1,100 measures of silver. The writer did not identify how much silver was in each measure, but this was a fortune by any estimate. [Note: See The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Money," by A. F. Walls.] She stole from God as her son had stolen from her. Micah had evidently learned dishonesty at home.

The "graven image" (Heb. pesel) was apparently the idol, and the "molten image" (massekah) was its base. Both of these words occur at the head of the list of curses (Deuteronomy 27:15) to describe what the law forbade making for idolatrous purposes. The Hebrew word that describes the graven image occurs almost exclusively in relation to the golden calves that Aaron made (Exodus 32:4) and King Jeroboam made (1 Kings 12:28-30). Micah’s mother evidently intended this image to represent either Yahweh or the animal on which pagan people visualized gods standing. [Note: See Amihai Mazar, "Bronze Bull Found in Israelite ’High Place’ From the Time of the Judges," Biblical Archaeology Review 9:5 (September-October 1983):34-40; Hershel Shanks, "Two Early Israelite Cult Sites Now Questioned," Biblical Archaeology Review 14:1 (January-February 1988):48-52; and Amihai Mazar, "On Cult Places and Early Israelites: A Response to Michael Coogan," Biblical Archaeology Review 15:4 (July-August 1988):45.]

"The gods were often depicted as standing, or more rarely sitting, on the back of a bull, which by its strength and power of fertility well represented the essence of the nature cults." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 184.]

Obviously Micah and his mother were either ignorant of, or more probably chose to disregard, God’s law against making graven images (Exodus 20:4; Exodus 20:23; Deuteronomy 4:16). They also seem to have been unaware of, or unconcerned about, Israel’s tragic experience with the golden calf at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32:19-35).

"Micah and his mother are sharply distinguished from Samson and his mother [and even more from Samuel and his mother] by their materialism and idolatry. Here there is no evidence of the presence or call of the Spirit in their lives." [Note: Lewis, p. 88.]

God commanded the Israelites not to multiply sanctuaries in Canaan (Deuteronomy 12:1-14), but Micah built one in or near his house (Judges 17:5). He did not need to do this because he lived close to Shiloh, where the tabernacle stood (cf. Judges 17:1; Judges 18:31). In his convenient shrine Micah kept an ephod that he had made, probably for divination (cf. Gideon’s ephod, Judges 8:27). This was evidently an imitation of the high priest’s ephod (cf. Judges 8:27). He also kept household gods that probably had some connection with ancestor veneration and divination (cf. Genesis 31:19). [Note: Davis and Whitcomb, p. 144.] He also disregarded the Aaronic priesthood by ordaining his son as the family priest.

"The by-passing of the Levitical priesthood by Micah may be due either to a breakdown in the distribution of the Levites amongst the community or to an overlooking, wilful [sic] or ignorant, of the provisions of the law." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 185.]

The writer explained editorially that there was no king in Israel at this time and everyone did as he pleased (Judges 17:6). That is the reason Micah could get away with such flagrantly disobedient behavior. Even though there was not yet a human king, Yahweh reigned as Israel’s monarch from heaven. Since His people paid no attention to His authority by disregarding His Law, Israel was practically without a king. Kings enforce standards, but in Israel the people were setting their own standards.

Verses 1-13

1. The idolatry of Micah ch. 17

The story of Micah (ch. 17) introduces the account of the setting up of image worship in the North (ch. 18).

Verses 7-13

Micah’s Levite 17:7-13

Judges 17:1-6 stress the sin of self-styled worship. Judges 17:7-13 emphasize the folly of self-determined service.

The writer did not call the young Levite who came to live with Micah a priest. He was evidently not a descendant of Aaron, though he was from the tribe of Levi. The Levites were, of course, living throughout Israel having received no tribal allotment of land but only cities within the territories of the other tribes. This young man had been living in Bethlehem of Judah, which was not a Levitical city (Judges 17:7). His disregard for God’s will is obvious in his choice to live somewhere other than where God told the Levites to live (cf. Judges 17:6).

"Unlike Abraham, who also set out for an unknown destination but who went with a keen sense of the calling of God, this person is shiftless. He has no passion for God, no sense of divine calling, no burden of responsibility. He is a ’laid back’ professional minister following the path of least resistance and waiting for an opportunity to open up." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 487.]

This young Levite decided to move elsewhere and during his travels met Micah who, desiring to "upgrade" his priesthood, invited him to live with him and become a priest to his family. Micah had been content to have his son function as his family priest, but a genuine Levite would be even better, Micah thought. Family priests had passed out of existence in Israel since God had set the tribe of Levi aside for priestly service (Exodus 32:28-29; cf. Numbers 3:12-13). Since Micah promised to support him financially, the Levite agreed to the arrangement that Micah proposed, which involved being a spiritual adviser to his patron. Micah proceeded to set the young man apart to his service (Judges 17:12) and superstitiously concluded that Yahweh would bless him since he had a Levite as his priest (Judges 17:13). He was wrong, as the following chapter shows.

"The apostasy of the Judges period, according to this chapter, was characterized by three observable trends. 1. Religious syncretism (Judges 17:1-5). . . . 2. Moral relativism (Judges 17:6). . . . 3. Extreme materialism (Judges 17:7-13)." [Note: Davis and Whitcomb, pp. 143-45.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Judges 17". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/judges-17.html. 2012.