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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Judges 18


Judges 18:1-2. Five Danites are sent out as spies for their tribe. Judges 18:3-6. They are encouraged by the young Levite. Judges 18:7-10. They bring home a favourable report of Laish. Judges 18:11-13. Emigration of six hundred Danites. Judges 18:14-18. They rob the house of Micah of its images. Judges 18:19-21. Jonathan consents to accompany them. Judges 18:22-26. Micah is forced to acquiesce. Judges 18:27-29. They conquer Laish, and (Judges 18:30-31) set up the idolatrous worship.

Verse 1

(1) In those days . . .—The repetition of the phrase does not necessarily prove the use of different documents. It may only emphasise the reason for the occurrence of such disorders and irregularities.

The tribe.Shebet sometimes means a whole tribe, and sometimes apparently the division of a tribe (Judges 20:12).

The tribe of the Danites.—There seems to be a difference between “tribe of Dan” (Shebet Dan) and “tribesmen of the Danites” (Shebet had-Dani). In Judges 18:11 they are called Mishpecath had-Dani; but the distinctions between Mishpecath (“family”) and Shebet (“tribe”) do not seem to be accurately kept. (See Notes on Judges 18:19 and Judges 20:12.)

Sought them an inheritance.—See Judges 1:34; Joshua 19:47-48.

Unto that day all their inheritance had not fallen unto them.—Their inheritance is described in Joshua 19:40-46. The inheritance had been assigned to them; but they had not been able to conquer it, owing to the opposition of the Philistines and the Amorates. The English Version interpolates the words “all their” before “inheritance,” apparently to avoid difficulties. But these glosses, however well meant, are almost always a violation of the primary duty of translation, which is to be rigidly faithful to the* original. The failure of the Danites to conquer their allotment, and the low condition to which they dwindled, are the more remarkable because in the wilderness they were the strongest of all the tribes, numbering 62,700, and because they received the smallest assignment of land of all the tribes.

Verse 2

(2) From their coasts.—Literally, their ends (Genesis 19:4; 1 Kings 12:31). Some explain it to mean “from their whole number.”

Men of valour.—Literally, sons of force (Judges 21:10).

To spy out the land.—As in Joshua 2:1.

They came to mount Ephraim.—It would have been an easier journey to pass along the Shephelah, but that was mainly in the hands of the original inhabitants.

To the house of Micah.—There is no necessity for the supposition that they did not actually lodge in the house, or, at any rate, in the khan which doubtless formed part of the settlement. The centre of a new and gorgeous worship was sure to have places around it where those could lodge who came to consult the pesel-ephod (see Judges 18:18), just as even the ordinary synagogues had lodgings for wayfarers.

Verse 3

(3) By the house of Micah.—Literally, withi.e., lodging in it, as in Genesis 27:43.

They knew the voice of the young man the Levite.—Again the narrative is too much compressed to enable us to fill up its details with any certainty. The youthful Jonathan had lived in Bethlehem. The grandson of Moses could not be wholly unknown. and at this time there was close intercourse between the tribes of Dan and Judah. Possibly, therefore they were personally acquainted with him; nor do they ask (as Micah had done), “Whence cometh thou? They recognised his voice, possibly by some dialectic peculiarity, but more probably by hearing him performing in the upper room his service before the pesel. Cassel renders “voice” by “sound,” and refers it to the bells on the priestly dress, as in Exodus 28:35. We notice that Micah had been reticent about the ephod, &c., perhaps out of suspicion as to their intentions.

Turned in thither.—Not necessarily into the house, but into the room—the oratory (aedicula), or Beth-Elohim (Judges 17:5). It seems to have been a kind of spurious Shiloh.

What makest thou in this place?—The accent of extreme surprise in their queries shows that they knew Jonathan, and did not expect to find a Judæan Levite in Ephraim.

Verse 4

(4) Thus and thus.—Literally, according to this and according to that, as in 2 Samuel 11:25; 1 Kings 14:5.

I am his priest.—See Judges 17:13. Similarly in the dearth of genuine priests Jeroboam was forced to make even Levites out of the lowest of the people (1 Kings 12:31).

Verse 5

(5) Ask counsel . . . of God.—Doubtless Jonathan showed them the glittering ephod. There were no prophets of whom to inquire, as in 1 Kings 22:5; but their unauthorised inquiry was liable to the strong censure expressed in Isaiah 30:1, Hosea 4:12. They might have at least consulted the high priest Phinehas, or some other national representative.

Verse 6

(6) Before the Lord is your way—i.e., Jehovah looks favourably upon it. (Comp. Proverbs 5:21; Ezra 8:21.) The answer had, however, some of the oracular ambiguity. Jonathan did not stake his own credit or that of his ephod on any definite details, or even on any distinct promise.

Verse 7

(7) Laish.—It is called Leshem in Joshua 19:47, and is now called Tel el-Kadi, “the mound of the judge,” possibly (though not probably) with some reference to the name of Dan (Genesis 49:16). It is four miles from Paneas and Cæsarea Philippi, and was the northernmost city of Palestine (Judges 20:1). As such, its name recurs in Isaiah 10:30, if our version is there correct. It is sometimes called el-Leddan, because it is at the source of the Leddan, the chief stream of the Jordan. The position of the town, on a round hill girt with trees, is very striking, and fully bears out the description of this chapter (Robinson, Bible Res. 3:392). The name “Dan” in Genesis 14:14 may have been altered from Laish at a later date (Ewald, Gesch. 1:73).

After the manner of the Zidoniansi.e., in luxurious commercial ease. There can be little doubt that they were a colony from Zidon.

Quiet and secure . . . There are three peculiarities in this clause:—(1) Although the word for “people” (am) is masculine, yet the word for “dwelling” (yoshebeth) is feminine, perhaps because the writer had the word “city” in his mind, just as αὺτὴν is feminine in Acts 27:14, though the word for “ship” has been neuter, because the writer has ναῦς in his mind. (2) The word for “careless” and the word for “secure” are from the same root, and are tautological. (3) The clause “no magistrate,” &c., is curiously expressed. It is difficult not to suppose that the text is in some way corrupt.

There was no magistrate . . . This difficult clause seems to mean, “no one possessing wealth” (LXX., “heir of treasure”) “among them doing harm in the land in any matter.” The various versions differ widely from each other, and the text is almost certainly corrupt.

They were far from the Zidonians.—As Josephus says, the town is a day’s journey distant from Zidon.

No business with any man.—The reading of some MSS. of the LXX., “They had no business with Syria,” rises from reading Aram for Adam.

Verse 9

(9) Behold, it is very good.—Comp. Numbers 14:7; Joshua 2:23-24. The beauty of the site well bears out the description—“the rich and beautiful seclusion of that loveliest of the scenes of Palestine” (Stanley). It was by a similar statement that Anaxilaus of Rhegium persuaded the Messenians to seize Zankle (Pausan. 4:23, quoted by Cassel).

Are ye still?1 Kings 22:3; 2 Kings 7:9.

Verse 10

(10) To a large land.—Literally, wide on both hands (Genesis 34:11). This well describes the position of Tel el-Kadi. (See Notes on Judges 18:7; Judges 18:28.)

God hath given it into your hands.—Of this they feel confident, from the interpretation which they put upon the oracular response given them by Jonathan in Judges 18:6.

Verse 11

(11) Appointed.—Literally, girded. This was not a mere raid of warriors, but the migration of a section from the tribe, accompanied by their wives and children, and carrying their possessions with them (Judges 18:21). The numbers of the whole tribe at the last census had been 64,400 (Numbers 26:43).

Verse 12

(12) In Kirjath-jearim.Joshua 9:17. The name means “city of forests.” The modern name is “city of grapes” (Kuriet el Enab). It is nine miles from Jerusalem, on the Jaffa road. Its original names were Baalah and Kirjath-Baal (Joshua 15:9; Joshua 15:60). It was here that the ark remained for twenty years when sent back by the Philistines (1 Samuel 6:20-21; 1 Samuel 7:2). “We found it in the fields of the wood” (Psalms 132:6).

Mahaneh – dani.e., the camp of Dan (Judges 13:25). They must have probably encamped here for some little time, as we can hardly suppose that the place would have received the name permanently from the bivouac of one night.

Behindi.e., to the west of. So “the hinder sea” is the western or Mediterranean Sea (Deuteronomy 9:24; Zechariah 14:8). The site of Mahaneh-dan cannot be identified with certainty, as the position of Eshtaol is unknown.

Verse 13

(13) Unto the house of Micah.—Probably the precincts of the new sanctuary gave their name to a sort of village—Beth-Micah.

Verse 14

(14) Answered.—Equivalent to they said, as in Job 3:2, Zechariah 1:10.

Consider what ye have to do—i.e., whether, and how, you would possess yourselves of them. We notice in these Danite freebooters the same strange mixture of superstition and lawlessness, robbery, and devotion which has often been observed in Greek and Italian brigands.

Verses 15-18

(15-18) In these verses we have a graphic description of the whole nefarious proceeding. The five spies, knowing Jonathan, salute him, and inveigle him to the entrance of the court to talk to their six hundred companions. While the chiefs of this little army detain him in conversation, without any show of violence the five slip away unobserved to the alîyah, or upper room, which serves as the chapel, and steal all the essentials of the worship—namely, (1) the ephod; (2) the teraphim; (3) the graven image; (4) the molten image. It is true that in Judges 18:20-30 the massecah is not mentioned; but it may be regarded as belonging to the pesel. It is only when he sees them in actual possession of these that Jonathan asks the alarmed question, “What do ye?”

Verse 18

(18) The carved image, the ephod.—In the Hebrew this is pesel ha-ephodi.e., the “pesel-ephod.” Very possibly, however, the ephod may, as a rule, have hung on the carved image, so that to carry off the pesel was also to carry off the ephod, which ordinarily covered it.

Verse 19

(19) Hold thy peace, lay thine hand upon thy mouth.—Comp. Job 21:5; Job 29:9; Proverbs 30:32. The laying of the finger on the lip is one of the most universal of gestures. It is the attitude of Horus, the Egyptian god of silence. (See Apul. Metamorph. 1: at ille digitum, a pollice proximum ori suo admovens . . . tace. tace, inquit.)

A father and a priest.Judges 17:10.

Unto a tribe and a family.—Both to a shebet and a mishpecah. (See Note on Judges 18:1.)

Verse 20

(20) The priest’s heart was glad.Judges 19:6; Judges 19:9; Ruth 3:7. The disgraceful alacrity with which he sanctions the theft, and abandons for self-interest the cause of Micah, is very unworthy of a grandson of Moses. Dean Stanley appositely compares the bribe offered in 1176 to the monk Roger of Canterbury:—“Give us the portion of St. Thomas’s skull which is in thy custody, and thou shalt cease to be a simple monk; thou shalt be Abbot of St. Augustine’s.”

In the midst of the people.—That they might guard his person. It is not necessarily implied that he carried all these sacred objects himself; he may have done so, for the molten image, which was perhaps the heaviest object, is not here mentioned.

Verse 21

(21) The little ones and the cattle.—It is only in this incidental way that the fact of this being a regular migration is brought out. (Comp. Exodus 12:37.) The women are, of course, included, though not mentioned (Genesis 34:29; 2 Chronicles 20:13).

And the carriage—i.e., “the baggage.” (Comp.Acts 21:15; Acts 21:15.) The word is hakkebodah, which the LXX. (Cod. A) render “their glorious possession,” and the Vulg. “everything which was precious,” i.e., the valuables. But as cabîd means “to be heavy,” the rendering of the Vatican MS. of the LXX.—“the weight,” i.e., “the heavy baggage” (impedimenta)—may be right. The word has no connection with that similarly rendered in 1 Samuel 17:22.

Before them.—Because they expected pursuit.

Verse 22

(22) A good way from the house of Micah.—It took some time to raise the alarm and collect a sufficient force. The Beth-Micah was probably strong enough to resist any ordinary robbers, but no one could have expected a raid of 600 men. Yet they would easily overtake the Danites, because their march was delayed and encumbered with women, children, and cattle.

Were gathered together.—See Judges 6:34.

Verse 23

(23) What aileth thee?—There is again a certain grim humour in the narrative, with some sense of irony for the total discomfiture and pathetic outcries of Micah. Dan showed himself in this proceeding like “a serpent on the way, an adder in the path” (Genesis 49:17). (Comp. Deuteronomy 33:22.)

Verse 24

(24) My gods which I made.—He does not scruple to call the pesel and teraphim “gods” (his Elohim), any more than the idolater Laban had done (Genesis 30:31). The expression seems to be intended to show scorn for Micah; and perhaps it is from missing this element that the LXX. soften it down into “my graven image,” and the Chaldee to “my fear.” “My gods which I made” would be a very ordinary expression for the Greeks, who called a sculptor a “god-maker” (theopoios), but was startling on the lips of an Israelite. Micah pathetically asks “What have I more?” but we may well hope that his present loss was his ultimate gain, and that he found the true God in place of the lost gods which he had made.

Verse 25

(25) Lest angry fellows run upon thee.—Literally, lest men bitter of soul fall upon thee. (Comp. Judges 8:21; Judges 15:12; 2 Samuel 17:8, “chafed in their minds.”)

Thou lose thy life.—Literally, thou gather thy life, as in Psalms 26:9.

Verse 27

(27) Burnt the city with fire.—This was unusual, for we are told that Hazor was the only city which Joshua burnt (Joshua 11:13). Perhaps they had devoted the city by a ban, as Jericho was devoted (Joshua 6:24); or the burning may have been due to policy or to accident. Probably the notion that such conduct was cruel and unjustifiable never occurred to them; nor must we judge them by the standard of Christian times. But Dan was no gainer. His name disappears from the records of 1 Chronicles 4:1, and he is not mentioned among the elected tribes in Revelation 7:0. Blunt (Undesigned Coincidences, pt. 2, 4) conjectures, from 2 Chronicles 2:14, that the cause of their disappearance from Israelite records—the latest mention of them as a tribe being in 1 Chronicles 27:22—was due to their intermarriages with the Phœnicians.

Verse 28

(28) In the valley that lieth by Beth-rehob.—At the foot of the lowest range of Lebanon, and at the sources of the Jordan (Numbers 13:21), north of Lake Huleh. It is probably the Rehob of Judges 1:31, Joshua 19:30; and later it belonged to Syria (2 Samuel 10:6) The name means “house of spaciousness.” Robinson (Bibl. Res. Iii. 371) identifies it with Hunîn, a fortress which commands the plain of Huleh.

Verse 29

(29) They called the name of the city Dan.—Just as the Messenians changed the name Zankle into Messene.

Verse 30

(30) Set up the graven image.If this pesel was in the form of a calf, the tradition of this cult may have given greater facility to the daring innovation of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:30). In any case, it would make the inhabitants more ready to accept a cherubic symbol of Jehovah; for we may fairly assume that the “image” was not dissociated from the worship of God, whether as Elohim or Jehovah. Jonathan and the Danites both acknowledged Him under the name Elohim (Judges 18:5; Judges 18:10), and Micah, in spite of his images, acknowledged God as Jehovah (Judges 17:2; Judges 17:13; Judges 18:6), to whom, indeed, the very name of Jonathan (“gift of Jehovah”) bore witness. Whether this, or rather the smallness of Dan, is the reason for its exclusion from Revelation 7:4 must remain uncertain. The Fathers thought, for this reason, that Antichrist would spring from the tribe of Dan.

Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh.—The extreme reluctance to admit this fact—the disgrace involved against the memory of Moses by this rapid and total degeneracy of his grandson—is probably the reason why up to this point in the narrative the name has been withheld. There can, however, be no doubt that Jonathan was the young Levite who has all along been spoken of. The reading of MANASSEH for MOSES is by the confession of the Jews themselves due to the same cause. Moses is in Hebrew מֹשֶׁה‎, Manasseh is מְנַשֶּׁה. It will thus be seen that (without the points) the names only differ by the letter n (נ). But in what is called the Masoretic text—i.e., the text edited by the Jewish scribes—the נ is not boldly inserted, but is timidly and furtively suspended—thus MSSH—and is called nun thaîûyah (n suspended). This was done to conceal from the uninitiated the painful fact. It was known to St. Jerome, and accordingly the Vulg. reads “son of Moses,” which is also found in some MSS. of the LXX. Theodoret has “son of Manasseh, son of Gershom, son of Moses.” The Jews distinguish between the “text” (Kethib “written”) and the margin (Keri “read”), and Rabbi Tanchum admits that here “Moses” is written, though “Manasseh” is read. The Talmud says that he was grandson of Moses; but “because he did the deeds of Manasseh” (the idolatrous king, 2 Kings 21:0), “the Scripture assigns him to the family of Manasseh” (Babha Bathra, f. 109, 2); and on this a later Rabbi remarks that “the prophet”—i.e., the sacred author—“studiously avoided calling Gershom the son of Moses, because it would have been ignominious to Moses to have had an ungodly son; but he calls him the son of Manasseh, suspending the n above the line to show that he was the son of Manasseh (in a metaphorical sense) by imitating his impiety, though a son of Moses by descent.” The Talmudists account for the distasteful tact by saying that the degeneracy was due to the wife

of Moses, who was a Midianite, so that there was a taint in the blood of the family. It is not, however, the sacred author who is guilty of this “pious fraud,” but the Masoretic editors. The rarity of the name Gershom (which means “a stranger there,” Exodus 2:22) would alone be sufficient to betray the secret. The extravagant and superstitious letter-worship of the scribes did not suffice to prevent them from tampering with the letter, any more than it prevented the Rabbis from entirely explaining away the obvious spirit of the Law which they professed to adore. The only uncertainty in the matter is whether this wandering Levite, this young Jonathan who for less than thirty shillings a year becomes the priest of an idolatrous worship, was the actual grandson, or only a later descendant of Moses, since the Jews often omit steps in their genealogies. There is, however, no reason why he should not have been the actual grandson, since he is contemporary with Phinehas (Judges 20:28), who was, without any question, the actual grandson of Aaron. This rapid degeneracy may perhaps account for the obscuration of the family of Moses, which never seems to have subsequently risen into any importance, and of which no more names are preserved. Jonathan’s name is excluded, perhaps deliberately, from 1 Chronicles 23:15-16. Or is he indeed Shebuel, as St. Jerome avers, probably from Jewish tradition?—and has his name been purposely altered? It is probably from a similar dislike to reveal the disgrace which thus fell on the family of the great law-giver that Josephus entirely omits the story. It is impossible that he should not have been perfectly acquainted with it. The identity of Jonathan with Shebuel in 1 Chronicles 23:16 is asserted in the Targum, which says that “Shebuel, that is, Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Moses, returned to the fear of Jehovah, and when David saw that he was skilful in money matters, he appointed him chief over the treasures.”

Until the day of the captivity of the land.—(1) If the expression meant “the captivity,” as ordinarily understood, the meaning could only be that these descendants of Moses continued also to be priests of the calf-worship for nearly two centuries, until the ten tribes were carried captive by Shalmaneser and Tiglath-pileser. (Comp. 1 Chronicles 5:22.) If so, there would be a strong additional reason for identifying this worship with the calf-worship, and the fact might then be supposed to account for there being no mention of non-Levitic priests at Dan, but only at Bethel (1 Kings 12:33). (2) Some suppose that we should read “ark” (aron) for “land” (arets). (See 1 Samuel 4:21-22.) But this conjecture of Houbigant is not supported by a single MS. or version. (3) It is far from impossible that “the captivity” may mean the Philistine captivity, which resulted from their terrible sack of Shiloh after the battle of Aphek (1 Samuel 4:11; 1 Samuel 4:22). It is called “a captivity” in the passage which so graphically describes the scene in Ps. 88:58-61. Otherwise we may suppose (4) that “the land” has here a circumscribed sense, and that “the captivity” alluded to is one inflicted on the Danites by the kings of Zobah. or some other Syrian invasion (1 Samuel 14:47). The third explanation is, however, rendered almost certain by the following verse.

Verse 31

(31) And they set them up Micah’s graven image.—Rather, entrusted to them, i.e., to Jonathan’s descendants. The phrase “set them up” can only have been used by inadvertence by our translators in this verse, since the verb used, yasîmo (LXX., etaxan heautois; but Vulg., mansitque apud eos, i.e., there remained with them the descendants of Jonathan), is wholly different from the verb yakîmû, rendered “set up” (LXX., anestésan) in Judges 18:30.

All the time that the house of God was in Shilohi.e., till Samuel’s early manhood, when the Philistines sacked Shiloh, to which place the Ark and Tabernacle never returned (1 Samuel 4:3, 1 Samuel 6:21, 1 Samuel 7:1). This verse may probably have been added by a later hand to prevent any mistake in the interpretation of the former. It may have been written in Saul’s reign, when the Tabernacle and ephod had been removed to Nob for greater safety. The last mention of the town of Dan is in 2 Chronicles 16:4

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Judges 18". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.