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Bible Commentaries
Judges 17

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-13


Judges 17:1-13, Judges 18:1-31

THE portion of the Book of Judges which begins with the seventeenth chapter and extends to the close is not in immediate connection with that which has gone before. We read {Judges 18:30} that "Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of Dan until the day of the captivity of the land." But the proper reading is, "Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Moses." It would seem that the renegade Levite of the narrative was a near descendant of the great lawgiver. So rapidly did the zeal of the priestly house decline that in the third or fourth generation after Moses one of his own line became minister of an idol temple for the sake of a living. It is evident, then, that in the opening of the seventeenth chapter, we are carried back to the time immediately following the conquest of Canaan by Joshua, when Othniel was settling in the south and the tribes were endeavouring to establish themselves in the districts allotted to them. The note of time is of course far from precise, but the incidents are certainly to be placed early in the period.

We are introduced first to a family living in Mount Ephraim consisting of a widow and: her son Micah, who is married and has sons of his own. It appears that on the death of the father of Micah a sum of eleven hundred shekels of silver, about a hundred and twenty pounds of our money-a large amount for the time-was missed by the widow, who after vain search for it spoke in strong terms about the matter to her son. He had taken the money to use in stocking his farm or in trade and at once acknowledged that he had done so and restored it to his mother, who hastened to undo any evil her words had caused by invoking upon him the blessing of God. Further she dedicated two hundred of her shekels to make graven and molten images in token of piety and gratitude.

We have here a very significant revelation of the state of religion. The indignation of Moses had burned against the people when at Sinai they made a rude image of gold, sacrificed to it and danced about it in heathen revel. We are reading of what took place say a century after that scene at the foot of Sinai, and already those who desire to show their devotion to the Eternal, very imperfectly known as Jehovah, make teraphim and molten images to represent Him. Micah has a sort of private chapel or temple among the buildings in his courtyard: He consecrates one of his sons to be priest of this little sanctuary. And the historian adds in explanation of this, as one keenly aware of the benefits of good government under a God-fearing monarch-"in those days there was no king in Israel. Every man did that which was right in his own eyes."

We need not take for granted that the worship in this hill chapel was of the heathen sort. There was probably no Baal, no Astarte among the images; or, if there was, it may have been merely as representing a Syrian power prudently recognised but not adored. No hint occurs in the whole story of a licentious or a cruel cult, although there must have been something dangerously like the superstitious practices of Canaan. Micah’s chapel, whatever the observances were, gave direct introduction to the pagan forms and notions which prevailed among the people of the land. There already Jehovah was degraded to the rank of a nature divinity, and represented by figures.`

In one of the highland valleys towards the north of Ephraim’s territory Micah had his castle and his ecclesiastical establishment-state and church in germ. The Israelites of the neighbourhood, who looked up to the well to do farmer for protection, regarded him all the more that he showed respect for religion, that he had this house of gods and a private priest. They came to worship in his sanctuary and to inquire of the ecclesiastic, who in some way endeavoured to discover the will of God by means of the teraphim and ephod. The ark of the covenant was not far away, for Bethel and Gilgal were both within a day’s journey. But the people did not care to be at the trouble of going so far. They liked better their own local shrine and its homelier ways; and when at length Micah secured the services of a Levite the worship seemed to have all the sanction that could possibly be desired.

It need hardly be said that God is not confined to a locality, that in those days as in our own the true worshipper could find the Almighty on any hill top, in any dwelling or private place, as well as at the accredited shrine. It is quite true, also, that God makes large allowance for the ignorance of men and their need of visible signs and symbols of what is unseen and eternal. We must not therefore assume at once that in Micah’s house of idols, before the widow’s graven and molten figures, there could be no acceptable worship, no prayers that reached the ear of the Lord of Hosts. And one might even go the length of saying that, perhaps, in this schismatic sanctuary, this chapel of images, devotion could be quite as sincere as before the ark itself. Little good came of the religious ordinances maintained there during the whole period of the judges, and even in Eli’s latter days the vileness and covetousness practised at Shiloh more than countervailed any pious influence. Local and family altars therefore must have been of real use. But this was the danger, that leaving the appointed centre of Jehovah worship, where symbolism was confined within safe limits, the people should in ignorant piety multiply objects of adoration and run into polytheism. Hence the importance of the decree, afterwards recognised, that one place of sacrifice should gather to it all the tribes and that there the ark of the covenant with its altar should alone speak of the will and holiness of God. And the story of the Danite migration connected with this of Micah and his Levite well illustrates the wisdom of such a law, for it shows how, in the far north, a sanctuary and a worship were set up which, existing long for tribal devotion, became a national centre of impure worship.

The wandering Levite from Bethlehem-Judah is one, we must believe, of many Levites, who having found no inheritance because the cities allotted to them were as yet unconquered spread themselves over the land seeking a livelihood, ready to fall in with any local customs of religion that offered them position and employment. The Levites were esteemed as men acquainted with the way of Jehovah, able to maintain that communication with Him without which no business could be hopefully undertaken. Something of the dignity that was attached to the names of Moses and Aaron ensured them honourable treatment everywhere unless among the lowest of the people; and when this Levite reached the dwelling of Micah beside which there seems to have been a khan or lodging place for travellers, the chance of securing him was at once seized. For ten pieces of silver, say twenty-five shillings a year, with a suit of clothes and his food, he agreed to become Micah’s private chaplain. At this very cheap rate the whole household expected a time of prosperity and divine favour. "Now know I," said the head of the family, "that the Lord will do me good seeing I have a Levite to my priest," We must fear that, he took some advantage of the man’s need, that he did not much consider the honour of Jehovah yet reckoned on getting a blessing all; the same. It was a case of seeking the best religious privileges as cheaply as possible, a very common thing in all ages.

But the coming of the Levite was to have results Micah did not foresee. Jonathan had lived in Bethlehem, and some ten or twelve miles westward down the valley one came to Zorah and Eshtaol, two little towns of the tribe of Dan of which we have heard. The Levite had apparently become pretty well known in the district: and especially in those villages to which he went to offer sacrifice or perform some other religious rite. And now a series of incidents brought certain old acquaintances to his new place of abode.

Even in Samson’s time the tribe of Dan, whose territory was to be along the coast west from Judah, was still obliged to content itself with the slopes of the hills, not having got possession of the plain. In the earlier period with which we are now dealing the Danites were in yet greater difficulty, for not only had they Philistines on the one side but Amorites on the other. The Amorites "would dwell," we are told, "in Mount Heres, in Aijalon and in Shaalbim." It was this pressure which determined the people about Zorah and Eshtaol to find if possible another place of settlement, and five men were sent out in search. Travelling north they took the same way as the Levite had taken, heard of the same khan in the hill country of Ephraim, and made it their resting place for a night. The discovery of the Levite Jonathan followed and of the chapel in which he ministered with its wonderful array of images. We can suppose the deputation had thoughts they did not express, but for the present they merely sought the help of the priest, begging him to consult the oracle on their behalf and learn whether their mission would be successful. The five went on their journey with the encouragement, "Go in peace; before the Lord is your way wherein ye go."

Months pass without any more tidings of the Danites until one day a great company is seen following the hill road near Micah’s farm. "There are six hundred men girt with weapons of war with their wives and children and cattle, a whole clan on the march, filling the road for miles and moving slowly northward. The five men have indeed succeeded after a fashion. Away between Lebanon and Hermon, in the region of the sources of Jordan, they have found the sort of district they went to seek. Its chief town Laish stood in the midst of fertile fields with plenty of wood and water. It was a place, according to their large report, where was no want of anything that is in the earth." Moreover the inhabitants, who seem to have been a Phoenician colony, dwelt by themselves quiet and secure, having no dealings or treaty with the powerful Zidonians. They were the very kind of people whom a sudden attack would be likely to subdue. There was an immediate migration of Danites to this fresh field, and in prospect of bloody work the men of Zorah and Eshtaoi seem to have had no doubt as to the rightness of their expedition; it was enough that they had felt themselves straitened. The same reason appears to suffice many in modern times. Were the aboriginal inhabitants of America and Australia considered by those who coveted their land? Even the pretence of buying has not always been maintained. Murder and rapine have been the methods used by men of our own blood, our own name, and no nation under the sun has a record darker than the tale of British conquest.

Men who go forth to steal land are quite fit to attempt the strange business of stealing gods that is appropriating to themselves the favour of divine powers and leaving other men destitute. The Danites as they pass Micah’s house hear from their spies of the priest and the images that are in his charge. "Do you know that that there is in these houses an ephod and teraphim and a graven image and a molten image? Now therefore consider what ye have to do." The hint is enough. Soon the court of the farmstead is invaded, the images are brought out and the Levite Jonathan, tempted by the offer of being made priest to a clan, is fain to accompany the marauders. Here is confusion on confusion. The Danites are thieves, brigands, and yet they are pious; so pious that they steal images to assist them in worship. The Levite agrees to the theft and accepts the offer of priesthood under them. He will be the minister of a set of thieves to forward their evil designs, and they, knowing him to be no better than themselves, expect that his sacrifices and prayers will do them good. It is surely a capital instance of perverted religious ideas.

As we have said, these circumstances are no doubt recounted in order to show how dangerous it was to separate from the pure order of worship at the sanctuary. In after times this lesson was needed, especially when the first king of the northern tribes set his golden calves the one at Bethel, the other at Dan. Was Israel to separate from Judah in religion as well as in government? Let there be a backward look to the beginning of schism in those extraordinary doings of the Danites. It was in the city founded by the six hundred that one of Jeroboam’s temples was built. Could any blessing rest upon a shrine and upon devotions which had such an origin, such a history?

May we find a parallel now? Is there a constituted religious authority with which soundness of belief and acceptable worship are so bound up that to renounce the authority is to be in the way of confusion and error, schism and eternal loss? The Romanist says so. Those who speak for the Papal church never cease to cry to the world that within their communion alone are truth and safety to be found. Renounce, they say, the apostolic and divine authority which we conserve and all is gone. Is there anarchy in a country? Are the forces that make for political disruption and national decay showing themselves in many lands? Are monarchies overthrown? Are the people lawless and wretched? It all comes of giving up the Catholic order and creed. Return to the one fold under the one Shepherd if you would find prosperity. And there are others who repeat the same injunction, not indeed denying that there may be saving faith apart from their ritual, but insisting still that it is an error and a sin to seek God elsewhere than at the accredited shrine.

With Jewish ordinances we Christians have nothing to do when we are judging as to religious order and worship now. There is no central shrine, no exclusive human authority. Where Christ is, there is the temple; where He speaks, the individual conscience must respond. The work of salvation is His alone, and the humblest believer is His consecrated priest. When our Lord said, "The hour cometh and now is-when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth"; and again, "Where two or three are gathered together in My name there am I in the midst of them"; when He as the Son of God held out His hands directly to every sinner needing pardon and every seeker after truth, when He offered the one sacrifice upon the cross by which a living way is opened into the holiest place, He broke down the walls of partition and with the responsibility declared the freedom of the soul.

And here we reach the point to which our narrative applies as an illustration. Micah and his household worshipping the images of silver, the Levite officiating at the altar, seeking counsel of Jehovah by ephod and teraphim, the Danites who steal the gods, carry off the priest and set up a new worship in the city they build-all these represent to us types and stages of what is really schism pitiful and disastrous-that is, separation from the truth of things and from the sacred realities of divine faith. Selfish untruth and infidelity are schism, the wilderness and outlawry of the soul.

1. Micah and his household, with their chapel of images, their ephod and teraphim, represent those who fall into the superstition that religion is good as insuring temporal success and prosperity, that God will see to the worldly comfort of those who pay respect to Him. Even among Christians this is a very common and very debasing superstition. The sacraments are often observed as signs of a covenant which secures for men divine favour through social arrangements and human law.

2. The spiritual nature and power of religion are not denied, but they are uncomprehended. The national custom and the worldly hope have to do with the observance of devout forms rather than any movement of the soul heavenward. A church may in this way become like Micah’s household, and prayer may mean seeking good terms with Him who can fill the land with plenty or send famine and cleanness of teeth. Unhappily many worthy and most devout persons still hold the creed of an early and ignorant time. The secret of nature and providence is hid from them. The severities of life seem to them to be charged with anger, and the valleys of human reprobation appear darkened by the curse of God. Instead of finding in pain and loss a marvellous divine discipline they perceive only the penalty of sin, a sign of God’s aversion, not of His Fatherly grace. It is a sad, a terrible blindness of soul. We can but note it here and pass on, for there, are other applications of the old story.

3. The Levite represents an unworthy worldly ministry. With sadness must confession be made that there are in every church pastors unspiritual, worldlings in heart, whose desire is mainly for superiority of rank or of wealth, who have no vision of Christ’s cross and battle except as objective and historical. Here, most happily, the cases of complete worldliness are rare. It is rather a tendency we observe than a developed and acknowledged state of things. Very few of those in the ranks of the Christian ministry are entirely concerned with the respect paid to them in society and the number of shekels to be got in a year. That he keeps pace with the crowd instead of going before it is perhaps the hardest thing that can be said of the worldly pastor. He is humane, active, intelligent; but it is for the church as a great institution, or the church as his temporal hope and stay. So his ministry becomes at the best a matter of serving tables and providing alms-we shall not say amusement. Here indeed is schism; for what is farther from the truth of things, what is farther from Christ?

Once more we have with us today, very much with us, certain Danites of science, politics, and the press who, if they could, would take away our God and our Bible, our Eternal Father and spiritual hope, not from a desire to possess but because they hate to see us believing, hate to see any weight of silver given to religious uses. Not a few of these are marching, as they think triumphantly, to commanding and opulent positions whence they will rule the thought of the world. And on the way, even while they deride and detest the supernatural, they will have the priest go with them. They care nothing for what he says; to listen to the voice of a spiritual teacher is an absurdity of which they would not be guilty; for to their own vague prophesying all mankind is to give hoed, and their interpretations of human life are to be received as the bible of the age. Of the same order is the socialist who would make use of a faith he intends to destroy, and a priesthood whose claim is offensive to him, on his way to what he calls the organisation of society. In his view the uses of Christianity and the Bible are temporal and earthly. He will not have Christ the Redeemer of the soul, yet he attempts to conjure with Christ’s words and appropriate the power of His name. The audacity of these would be robbers is matched only by their ignorance of the needs and ends of human life.

We might here refer to the injustice practised by one and another band of our modem Israel who do not scruple to take from obscure and weak households of faith the sacraments and Christian ministry, the marks and rights of brotherhood. We can well believe that those who do this have never looked at their action from the other side, and may not have the least idea of the soreness they leave in the hearts of humble and sincere believers.

In fine, the Danites with the images of Micah went their way and he and his neighbours had to suffer the loss and make the best of their empty chapel, where no oracle thenceforth spoke to them. It is no parable, but a very real example of the loss that comes to all who have trusted in forms and symbols, the outward signs instead of the living power of religion. While we repel the arrogance that takes from faith its symbolic props and stays we must not let ourselves deny that the very rudeness of an enemy may be an excellent discipline for the Christian. Agnosticism and science and other Danite companies sweep with them a good deal that is dear to the religious mind and may leave it very distressed and anxious-the chapel empty, the oracle as it may appear lost forever. With the symbol the authority, the hope, the power seem to be lost irrecoverably. What now has faith to rest upon? But the modern spirit with its resolution to sweep away every unfact and mere form is no destroyer. Rather does it drive the Christian to a science, a virtue far beyond its own. It forces we may say on faith that severe truthfulness and intellectual courage which are the proper qualities of Christianity, the necessary counterpart of its trust and love and grace. In short, when enemies have carried off the poor teraphim and fetishes which are their proper capture they have but compelled religion to be itself, compelled it to find its spiritual God, its eternal creed and to understand its Bible. This, though done with evil intent, is surely no cruelty, no outrage. Shall a man or a church that has been so roused and thrown back on reality sit wailing in the empty chapel for the images of silver and the deliverances of the hollow ephod? Everything remains, the soul and the spiritual world, the law of God, the redemption of Christ, the Spirit of eternal life.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Judges 17". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/judges-17.html.
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