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Bible Commentaries
Judges 18

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes



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

The messengers from Dan 18:1-6

This chapter begins with another reference to the fact that there was no king in Israel then (cf. Judges 17:6). The writer reminded us again that the Israelites were living unrestrained lives. Abundant evidence of this follows in chapter 18.

"The nation needs no king to lead them in battle or into apostasy. They will do both on their own." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 491.]

In Judges 18:1 the NASB and NIV translators have implied that the following incident happened before the Danites had received their tribal inheritance (Joshua 19:40-48). If true, this statement would date the incident that follows during the days of Joshua. The AV and NKJV versions imply that the Danites had not yet subdued and fully occupied their allotted tribal territory. In this case the incident probably happened after Joshua’s death. The Hebrew text reads literally, "there had not fallen to them by that day in the midst of the tribes of Israel an inheritance." Many of the commentators prefer the second view. [Note: E.g., Bush, p. 223; Cundall and Morris, p. 187; Wood, Distressing Days . . ., p. 148; Keil and Delitzsch, p. 434; Inrig, pp. 277-78; and Block, Judges . . ., pp. 493-94.] In either case the incident shows the Danites’ dissatisfaction with their condition. They either did not wait for God to give them what He had promised (cf. Joshua 13:1-7), or they were unwilling to fight the Amorites so they could inhabit it (cf. Judges 1:34). They felt that they did not have an adequate inheritance. They then sent a group of five men to investigate the possibilities of other land that might be available to them in other parts of Canaan.

"They clearly felt that the boundary lines had not fallen for them ’in pleasant places’ (Psalms 16:6). Their desire to move revealed a lack of faith in the Lord who had allotted to them their original territory." [Note: Wolf, p. 483.]

The center of Danite activity was then between Zorah and Eshtaol, the area where Samson grew up. However, this incident seems to have antedated Samson’s judgeship. Previously Moses, and later Joshua, had sent spies before them (Numbers 13; Joshua 2). There are many parallels between chapter 18 and Numbers 12:16 to Numbers 14:45 and Deuteronomy 1:19-46 [Note: See A. Malamat, "The Danite Migration and the Pan-Israelite Exodus-Conquest: A Biblical Narrative Pattern," Biblica 51 (1970):1-16; and O’Connell, pp. 235-38.] There is no reference to God’s leading the Danites to send spies, however. In view of what follows, this decision seems to have lacked divine initiative or permission.

When these representatives happened to come to Micah’s house, they recognized the distinctive voice of his Levite (Judges 18:3). After learning what he was doing there, the Danites explained their mission and asked the Levite to inquire from Yahweh whether their journey would be successful (Judges 18:5). The tabernacle was just a few miles from Micah’s house, and the Danites should have gone there if they wanted to know God’s will. The Levite, perhaps using Micah’s ephod, announced God’s approval of their mission (Judges 18:6). In view of his own relationship to God it is doubtful that he really received an answer from Yahweh. Moreover, in view of what the soldiers proceeded to do, their plan was definitely not in harmony with God’s will.

Verses 1-31

2. The apostasy of the Danites ch. 18

Verses 7-10

The report of the spies 18:7-10

The five Danites continued northward about 100 miles and finally came upon an area they felt would be ideal for their needs. They discovered the isolated town of Laish (Leshem, Joshua 19:47) that they believed they could capture fairly easily. [Note: See John C. H. Laughlin, "Dan," Biblical Illustrator 9:4 (Summer 1983):40-46; and "Avraham Biram-Twenty Years of Digging at Tell Dan," Biblical Archaeology Review 13:4 (July-August 1987):12-25.] It occupied a beautiful location on the southwestern foothills of Mt. Hermon.

"Unlike most Canaanite cities of the time, Laish was not defended by stone walls but by huge ramparts consisting of alternating layers of soil from the surrounding region and debris from previous settlements." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 501.]

"The Bible refers to the country as Phoenicia only in the New Testament (Mark 7:26; Acts 11:19; Acts 15:3; Acts 21:2). The Old Testament regularly uses merely the name of either or both of its principal two cities, Tyre and Sidon. These two cities, both prominent in merchandising activity, continue to the present day and are only twenty miles apart. They never seem to have enjoyed any real political cohesion, however, which means that the country never did either. In fact, the boundaries of the country, at any given time, are difficult to fix because this was true. The people often are called simply ’Sidonians’ in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 3:9: Joshua 13:4; Joshua 13:6; Judges 3:3; Judges 18:7; 1 Kings 5:6; etc.). This is because Sidon was more important than Tyre in early history." [Note: Wood, Distressing Days . . ., p. 79.]

Encouraged by the Levite’s report these spies persuaded their fellow Danites to believe that God would give them this new "promised land." Its advantages were three (Judges 18:7). It was a "quiet and secure" site (cf. Judges 18:27). There was no dominating ruler under whom the Danites would have to submit; they could continue to do as they pleased. Third, it enjoyed an isolated location that also suggested no interference from people who might object to the Danites’ practices. Obviously the Danites wanted to continue to live as they chose rather than submitting to God’s will for His people. The name "Dan" is similar to the Hebrew word that means "justice." How ironic it was that the tribe that was to judge Israel (Genesis 49:16) should participate is such a miscarriage of justice.

One writer suggested the following translation of Judges 18:7 on the basis of the Arabic cognate of the Hebrew word translated "humiliating" in the NASB: "there was no one speaking with authority in the land, no one in possession of control." [Note: A. A. MacIntosh, "The Meaning of MKLYM in Judges XVIII 7," Vetus Testamentum 35:1 (1985):76.] This translation is possible but probably not as accurate as the NASB marginal reading that suggests that there was no ruler who exercised restraining influence in that area.

The spies’ use of the phrase "to possess the land" (Judges 18:9) appears to have been a pious ploy to convince their brethren that this self-seeking plan was God’s will. Moses and Joshua had repeatedly urged the Israelites to "possess the land," but only the land that was God’s will for them to possess. The Danite spies were trying to provide security for their tribe contrary to God’s previous directions. Likewise the phrase "for God has given it into your hand" (Judges 18:10) had previously been Joshua’s battle cry (cf. Joshua 6:16; et al.).

"Although the use of spies recalls Numbers 13, the report of the spies in Judges 18 differs significantly. Whereas the spies in Numbers 13 had encountered intimidating giants, the spies in Judges 18 suggest that the inhabitants of Laish are a pushover. The effect of the report in Numbers 13 is to affirm the people’s need for God’s help against a superior opponent. There is no such need in Judges 18; and this difference is in keeping with the Danites’ orientation throughout the story." [Note: McCann, p. 123.]

"There are a number of elements common to the two accounts: the sending of spies; the mustering of fighting men; the named places where the Danites camped along the way; the capture and renaming of a non-Israelite city at the end. But everything about this exodus and conquest is wrong: the Danites are unscrupulous plunderers, their cult is corrupt, and they destroy an innocent people." [Note: Satterthwaite, p. 84.]

The Danites were unable, or unwilling, to claim their God-appointed territory in which no city was larger than Laish. But they were eager to march miles north and battle other Canaanites for a town that suited them better. The fact that Laish lay within the Promised Land, the full extent of the land that God had said He would give the Israelites, does not justify the Danites’ action. It was God’s will for His people first to settle in their appointed tribal allotments. Then He would give them the rest of the land later.

Verses 11-20

The theft of Micah’s images and Levite 18:11-20

An army of 600 Danites proceeded from Zorah and Eshtaol eastward up the Kesalon Valley to Kiriath-jearim and then northward into the Hill Country of Ephraim. They stopped at Micah’s house, noted his images and ephod, and pondered what they should do (Judges 18:14). What they should have done was execute Micah and the Levite since they were idolaters (Deuteronomy 13:6-11), but they too had departed from God. Instead they stole Micah’s images and his priest. They convinced his Levite that it would be better for him to serve a whole tribe than just one family. They made him an offer that this upwardly mobile apostate could not refuse. Here was an opportunity for a larger ministry. It did not matter to him that it involved violating God’s will concerning ordinary Levites serving as priests.

"The question the Danites posed to him is asked every day by pastoral search committees: ’Which is better, to be the pastor of a small family or to be the pastor of a megachurch?’ The contemporary problem of ambition and opportunism in the ministry has at least a three-thousand-year history." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 515.]

"His fickle and mercenary attitude reflects the state of the priesthood during this period. Equally deplorable is the fact that one tribe would steal from another with apparent impunity. The treacherous behavior of the tribe of Dan in dealing with Micah and the city of Laish illustrates the ’serpent’ nature predicted by Jacob in Genesis 49:17." [Note: Wolf, p. 486.]

The Danites’ theft and intimidation were actions contrary to God’s will (Exodus 20:15). Apparently the writer wanted to highlight the theft since he referred to it five times in this chapter (Judges 18:17-18; Judges 18:20; Judges 18:24; Judges 18:27; cf. Judges 17:2; cf. Judges 17:4). The bullying tactics of the soldiers further identify their selfishness (cf. Judges 18:25).

Verses 21-26

Micah’s attempt to recover his losses 18:21-26

Micah gathered some of his neighbors and pursued the Danites, hoping to force them to return what they had taken from him. However the Danites proved stronger than he anticipated, and he had to withdraw without a fight (cf. Genesis 14). Here is another example of the Israelites fighting among themselves rather than uniting to combat their common foe.

It is comical to read Micah’s sniveling complaint that the Danite soldiers had taken his gods "which I made" (Judges 18:24). Obviously they had no power to protect him from his enemies. The fact that he had made them should have made this clear to him. His pathetic question, "What do I have besides?" reflects the emptiness of idolatry.

"His failure is in marked contrast to the stunning victory gained by Abraham and his small army when they overtook the coalition of kings who had captured Lot and the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 14:10-16). The God of Abraham proved stronger than the idol deities fashioned by Micah. Like the gods of Babylon, Micah’s gods were taken captive, unable to effect their own escape (cf. Judges 6:31; Isaiah 46:1-2)." [Note: Ibid., p. 487.]

Likewise Micah’s priest, whom he had treated as a son, turned against him. None of the characters in this story shows any integrity.

Verses 27-31

The establishment of idolatry at Dan 18:27-31

The Danites’ defeat of the inhabitants of Laish appears cruel and unjustified (cf. Judges 9:45-49), though Laish was a Canaanite village. The town that seemed so desirable to the spies was really vulnerable and isolated. Its advantages proved to be weaknesses. Since God had adequate territory for the Danites in southern Canaan this whole expedition was displeasing to God in spite of the Levite’s blessing (Judges 18:6). Some of the Danites remained in their original southern tribal allotment and did not move north. The new Danite territory in the north was really a section of the Promised Land that Joshua had formerly apportioned to the tribe of Manasseh or possibly Naphtali (Joshua 13:29-31; Joshua 19:32-33).

Note in Judges 18:27 that the Danites took three things: the "gods" that Micah had made (cf. Judges 18:14), a priest whom they could buy, and a town that its inhabitants could not defend. On these flimsy foundations the Danites built their future in the North.

Definitely contrary to God’s will was the setting up of Micah’s graven image in their newly named town. Jonathan was the Levite the writer referred to previously. Only now did the writer identify him by name, probably as a final forceful shock for us, the readers. He was, of all people, a direct descendant of Moses (marginal reading, Judges 18:30)!

"It is universally agreed that the reference [to Manasseh] was originally to Moses. The reason for the amendment may have been to safeguard the reputation of this great leader by excluding him from the pedigree of this time-serving and idolatrous Levite." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 191.]

The revelation of the identity of this apostate Levite as Moses’ descendant at the end of this already shocking story brings it to an almost unbelievable climax. A direct descendant of the man most responsible for securing Israel’s unswerving commitment to Yahweh played a major role in leading the Israelites away from God!

"The problem of religious syncretism is so deeply rooted it has infected the most sacred institutions and the most revered household. . . . If ben means ’son’ rather than ’grandson’ or ’descendant,’ then these events must have happened within a hundred years of the arrival of the Israelites." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 512.]

The captivity referred to (Judges 18:30) may be that of the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:11; 1 Samuel 4:22) or the Arameans (2 Chronicles 28:5). [Note: Lewis, p. 93.] Some scholars believe that it was the Assyrian Captivity of Israel that began in 734 B.C. (2 Kings 15:29), [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 513; and Bush, p. 232.] but if so this statement was a later editorial insertion in the text. Idolatry that centered in Dan did plague Israel for over 600 years, and the Danites were initially responsible for it.

"In the book of 1 Chronicles, when the list of the tribes and families of Israel is given, Dan is the only tribe which is totally ignored. Zebulun’s genealogy is also not chronicled, but it is mentioned elsewhere (1 Chronicles 6:63; 1 Chronicles 6:77; 1 Chronicles 12:33; 1 Chronicles 12:40). Dan appears only as a geographical name, not as a tribe. They had vanished into obscurity, probably because of intermarriage with the Philistines. (E.g., 2 Chronicles 2:14.) Dan did not take what God had given to them, and they took what God had not given them. In the process, they lost all that they had." [Note: Inrig, p. 279.]

The last verse of the story makes the most important point. The writer contrasted "Micah’s graven image that he had made" with "the house of God" that He had ordained.

"I suggest the writer places these two sanctuaries [Micah’s house of gods, translated "shrine" in Judges 17:5, and the tabernacle], the false and the true, over against one another. There is the true house of God at Shiloh and then there is Micah’s collection of cultic Tinkertoys." [Note: Davis, p. 201.]

"The narrator’s point is that throughout the period of the judges the cult site at Dan functioned as an apostate challenge to the true worship of Yahweh." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 514.]

The Danites were the first tribe to establish idolatry publicly in Israel. Perhaps this is why their tribe also does not appear in the list of 12 tribes that will each produce 12,000 godly Israelite witnesses during the Tribulation Period (Revelation 7:5-8).

". . . the tribe of Dan was one of the first to go into idolatry, was small in number, and probably was thereafter classified with the tribe of Naphtali . . ." [Note: John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, p. 141. See also Walter Scott, Exposition of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, p. 166.]

This whole story of Micah and the Danites illustrates the terrible spiritual apostasy that corrupted Israel during the age of the judges. Even the grandson (or descendant) of Moses took leadership in it. It was no wonder that Israel had trouble with her external enemies (chs. 3-16) since she was so spiritually corrupt internally (chs. 17-18).

"The general theme pervading the whole narrative is its concern over false religion . . ." [Note: Dale Ralph Davis, "Comic Literature-Tragic Theology: A Study of Judges 17-18," Westminster Theological Journal 46 (Spring 1984):162.]

"Indeed, things are so wrong in Judges 18, and the Danites’ behavior is so repulsive, that it is hard not to conclude that Judges 18 is an intentional polemic against Dan, probably because Dan and Bethel became the two northern cultic sites that rivaled Jerusalem." [Note: McCann, pp. 124-25.]

There may be a polemic against Bethel in the reference to Ephraim in Judges 17:1. [Note: See Yairah Amit, "Hidden Polemic in the Conquest of Dan: Judges XVII-XVIII," Vetus Testamentum 40 (1990):4-20.]

These two chapters teach us important lessons. We should obey God’s Word, not disregard it, as Micah did. We should serve God faithfully as He directs, not advance ourselves at the cost of disobedience, as Jonathan did. We should also wait for God and engage our spiritual enemy, not rush ahead or run away to establish our own security, as the Danites did. Micah’s error was self-styled worship, Jonathan’s was self-determined service, and the Danites’ was self-seeking security.

"In this portrayal of the events the narrator provides another challenge to the traditional scholarly understanding of Deuteronomism, which insists that sin brings on the curse, but blessing follows obedience. Here sin succeeds! Ironically, and perhaps tragically, the agendas people set for themselves are sometimes achieved-which sends a solemn warning to the church at the close of the twentieth century. Success is not necessarily a sign of righteousness or an indication that we must be doing something right. It may in fact be the opposite. God does not stifle every corrupt thought and scheme of the human heart." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., pp. 514-15.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Judges 18". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/judges-18.html. 2012.
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