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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Judges 17

 

 

Introduction

Judges Chapter 17-18.

We now come to the third section of the Book of Judges. The first section in Judges 1 to Judges 2 was introductory to the activity taking place in Canaan after the time of Joshua and described the decline and fall of Israel in relation to the covenant, followed by the statement that God raised up Judges to deliver His people, only for them to decline again. The second section in Judges 3 to Judges 16 described the rise of twelve judges whom God raised up to deliver Israel, the successes and failures of some of them, but the continued ultimate failure of Israel to be faithful to the covenant.

This third section in Judges 17-21 will now use two incidents in order to demonstrate the parlous state of Israel during this time. Its theme is ‘in those days there was no king in Israel’ (Judges 17:6; Judges 18:1; Judges 19:1; Judges 21:25). This is not to be taken pedantically. It does not just mean that this was before the time when there was a king in Israel, it also makes clear that the situations came about because they ignored Yahweh their true King. They had neither the one nor the other. They ignored and refused to acknowledge He Who was King over them and that was why in the end Yahweh would reluctantly give them an earthly king.

But they had been warned through the examples of Gideon and Abimelech what that would mean for them. The giving of this king was in itself an indication of their failure. God’s ideal for them was that He should be King, and this principle continued and was recognised for some time in that the first kings were called ‘nagid’ (war leader). Thus the writer supported the kingship, but only on the basis that because of the failure of Israel to fully respond to their King they had to make do with second best. It was not God’s ideal. It resulted from men’s faithlessness. Judges was thus an apology for kings in both senses of the word.

This rejection of Yahweh as King is made very apparent in this third section. The two incidents described emphasise that Yahweh’s commandments were being spurned and ignored. The first majors on the breaking of the sixth and ninth commandments, ‘you shall not steal’ and ‘you shall not covet’, the second on the seventh and eighth commandments ‘you shall not murder’ and ‘you shall not commit adultery’. Furthermore in the first incident the apostasy of Israel is emphasised in the setting up of a rival Sanctuary at Laish by the half-tribe of Dan, and that by a direct descendant of Moses!

Judges 17. Micah and the Levite.

This chapter illustrates the rise of idolatry and disobedience to Yahweh in Israel after the death of Joshua. It is illustrated from an incident which occurred in the hill country of Ephraim, where a man, who had stolen a large sum of money from his mother, returned it, on which part of it was sadly converted to an idolatrous use. Two images and a teraphim were made of it, and eventually a Levite appointed to be priest. In the following chapter this priest would then aid the half-tribe of Dan to steal the images from their owner. Thus theft is central to, and emphasised in, the account. The second sad final result is the setting up of a rival Sanctuary to that already in place, in Laish (Dan). It was contrary to the covenant with Yahweh, directly as a result of this theft.


Verse 1

Judges 17. Micah and the Levite.

This chapter illustrates the rise of idolatry and disobedience to Yahweh in Israel after the death of Joshua. It is illustrated from an incident which occurred in the hill country of Ephraim, where a man, who had stolen a large sum of money from his mother, returned it, on which part of it was sadly converted to an idolatrous use. Two images and a teraphim were made of it, and eventually a Levite appointed to be priest. In the following chapter this priest would then aid the half-tribe of Dan to steal the images from their owner. Thus theft is central to, and emphasised in, the account. The second sad final result is the setting up of a rival Sanctuary to that already in place, in Laish (Dan). It was contrary to the covenant with Yahweh, directly as a result of this theft.

Judges 17:1

And there was a man of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Micah.’

This incident took place fairly early on in the period of the Judges for it occurred prior to the movement of the Danites from their allotted territory to Laish (Judges 18:1), yet not early enough to be too much before this event. It is significant because it occurred within reasonable reach of the central sanctuary, demonstrating that the hold and significance of the central sanctuary, and of the Law of God which it upheld, was at this time fairly minimal even within a close range.

The people were now settling down into the land and were prepared to coexist with the inhabitants of the land and imitate their ways. And from this incident and what follows we can see why there was a necessity for Yahweh’s activity as described in the book of Judges.

The name Micah means ‘who is like Yah (Yahweh)?’ It was deliberately ironic that someone with a name like that should be presented as an example of those who turned from Yahweh to their own ways, bringing Him down to the level of other religions. The description of his whereabouts was deliberately vague although it would be some miles north of Jerusalem. He represented in general the behaviour of many Israelites.


Verse 2

Judges 17:2 a

‘And he said to his mother, “The eleven hundred pieces of silver which were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse, and also spoke of to me, behold, the silver is with me. I took it.”

His story begins with his admission that he was a thief. It would seem that he was moved to confess by the fact that she had put a curse on the silver, so that in order to avoid the curse he admitted his wrongdoing and returned the silver. His mother was clearly an old woman for Micah himself was a father of grown up sons. It speaks volumes of Micah that he felt able to steal from his aged mother. ‘Spoke to me’ may suggest that she had also adjured him under the curse to tell the truth.

Judges 17:2 b

‘And his mother said, “Blessed be you of Yahweh, my son.” ’

On his owning up his mother reversed the curse, turning it into a blessing.


Verse 3

Judges 17:3 a

‘And he restored the eleven hundred pieces of silver to his mother, and his mother said, “I truly dedicate the silver to Yahweh from my hand for my son, to make a graven image and a molten image.”

His mother was so pleased that he had owned up and returned the silver that she dedicated sufficient to Yahweh to make a graven image and a molten image. The graven image would be made of wood and covered with silver, while the molten image would be made totally of silver. What these represented has caused endless controversy, and in the end we must admit that we do not know. The descriptions ‘graven image’ and ‘molten image’ (see Deuteronomy 27:15) were the contemptuous descriptions of a writer who thoroughly disapproved of what Micah did and may thus not be fully representative of what they actually were.

But any theory must take into account that there were two different ‘images’ (Judges 18:18). Some have therefore suggested a graven wooden silver-coated image with a molten silver decorated base (this would be supported by the use of ‘it’ in Judges 17:4). Furthermore we must take into account the emphasis on the facts that she was seeking to please Yahweh, that Hebrew has no word for goddess (and thus goddesses were unknown in Yahwism) and that images of Yahweh are rarely found, if they occur at all, in archaeological digs, and thus that images of Yahweh were at no stage an accepted norm. Thus neither of these last were seen as acceptable at any stage to an Israelite, even in syncretism, as an aspect of Yahwism.

The graven image was the central feature (Judges 18:30-31). It may be that this was therefore a miniature representation of the Ark of the Covenant as conceived in Micah’s mind, including the cherubim with their wings over the throne. Such would be considered a graven image by the writer as not being the true Ark, and he would not wish to describe it as anything but a forbidden thing, and ‘a graven image’. The molten image could then have been Micah’s representation of a further cherub as bearer of the Ark, the throne of Yahweh, possibly in the form of a base holding the Ark. A cherub is depicted as bearing the throne of Yahweh in 2 Samuel 22:11; Psalms 18:10. Compare also Ezekiel 1, 10.

It is quite likely that the shape of a cherub was depicted as somewhat similar to those found in excavations at Samaria and in Phoenicia with human face, lion body, four legs and two conspicuous and elaborate wings for in Scripture they are regularly connected with lion, eagle and ox as well as man (1 Kings 7:29; Ezekiel 1:10; Ezekiel 10:14) and represent creation. At Byblos such beings were found supporting the throne of the king.

This would be seen as supported by the fact that when the priest went forward with the tribe of Dan ‘in their midst’ he wore the ephod and carried the graven image and the teraphim, but not the molten image. As he was probably intended to picture Yahweh among His people, replacing the Tabernacle and the Ark, this demonstrated the secondary nature of the molten image and would support the idea that it was only a base.

Alternately the graven image may have been a silver bull seen as the throne of the invisible Yahweh (the god Hadad was pictured standing on a bull), with the molten image again a guardian cherub, possibly represented as a stand made to receive the bull. The golden bull or calf was the symbol that Israel tended to use when replacing the Ark (Exodus 32:1-8; 1 Kings 12:28-30; Hosea 8:6). And a bronze bull associated with a possible Israelite high place from the time of the Judges has been found. But the combination of bull and cherub is not known elsewhere. If the bull was elsewhere seen as the bearer of Yahweh it replaced the cherubim.

Another suggestion is that the two images suggest a god and a goddess, the wooden one coated with silver possibly representing Asherah, the molten one of pure silver possibly representing Baal, and possibly also Yahweh as well, as identified with ‘Baal’ (‘Lord’). If this was so it was an indication of the syncretism that had taken place that this kind of hybrid situation was possible. But as the writer is so firm that Micah’s mother was committed to Yahweh and was dedicating it to Yahweh this does not really seem likely. He had no time for the Baalim and the Asheroth. We consider the first option would seem to be the most likely and fits well with the final result.

Judges 17:3 b

“Now therefore I will restore it to you.”

His mother not only dedicated such silver as was necessary for the images to Yahweh but promised her son that he would have it restored to him for his ‘house of God’ (or ‘gods’).


Verse 4

And on his restoring the silver to his mother, his mother took two hundred pieces of silver and gave them to the smith, who made of it a graven image and a molten image. And it was in the house of Micah.’

At the mother’s request two hundred pieces of silver were turned into a graven image and a molten image. These were then placed in Micah’s house. It should be noted that she dedicated the silver to Yahweh for the purpose of making these two images. That did not necessarily involve the use of all of it, only what was required. Some further of it may however have been used to make the ephod and teraphim. (Such setting aside of things to Yahweh as ‘Corban’, with the use of part of it retained until death, certainly occurred later - Mark 7:11. It does not necessarily mean that she was cheating God of the remainder of the 1100 pieces).


Verse 5

And the man Micah had a house of God (or ‘gods’), and he made an ephod and a teraphim, and installed (‘filled the hand of’) one of his sons who became his priest.’

The fact that he at this stage installed one of his own sons suggests that this house of God was new, prepared by him to receive the ‘images’. Both Micah and his mother appear to have been genuinely determined to please Yahweh, although in a way that contributed to their own prestige. But they were clearly not well taught in what was necessary, although having some general idea about such things. The fact that Israel had the Law of God at the central sanctuary did not mean that the knowledge of it was satisfactorily disseminated. And they were influenced by what went on around them.

From now onwards the name of Micah (micyhu) is abbreviated (to micah) in the Hebrew text, dropping the name of Yahweh. This may have been the writer’s way of expressing his disapproval of what follows.

They seemingly did not recognise that to have their own house of God, their own ephod and their own throne of Yahweh was contrary to Moses’ teaching, and that teraphim especially were frowned on as linked with divination and idolatry (1 Samuel 15:23). Nor, seemingly did they recognise that to have their son as their own family priest was not acceptable, although the fact that when the opportunity came to appoint a Levite, he did so, demonstrates that he was aware of this defect (someone may have pointed it out to him). We must not necessarily assume that the son acted as a full sacrificing priest. His responsibilities might have been limited to using the ephod to discover the will of God and offerings not of a sacrificial kind.

Micah was a religious innovationist and demonstrated how the Israelites were developing forbidden forms of worship contrary to the Law of Moses. They did what was right in their own eyes due to their failure to let Yahweh have His rightful place as King by honouring the covenant and the central sanctuary. To ‘fill the hand’ was to appoint as priest - Numbers 3:3. We note that David also appointed his sons as priests, but this would be as priests of the order of Melchizedek in Jerusalem, as recognising their authority there, but not as sacrificing priests (2 Samuel 8:18).

The ephod was a priestly metallic robe worn by ‘the priest’ in the Tabernacle which among other things was involved with the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30; Numbers 27:21) , which were used for discovering the mind of Yahweh. In the case of Laban, teraphim were described as ‘gods’, divine objects (Genesis 31:30 with 35). But they were used for divination (2 Kings 23:24; Ezekiel 21:21). Otherwise we know little about them. Thus Micah was wanting to doubly ensure that he could discover the mind of Yahweh, although his means were unacceptable to the pure Yahweh worshipper.

In all this there is no mention of an altar. Worship in this house of God may well have been by offering other things than sacrifices.

Micah and his mother would have been familiar with the idol shelves found in Canaanite houses, and which soon found their way into some Israelite houses. They were seeking to have something similar but dedicated to Yahweh. But such was the state of Yahwism, of the central sanctuary and of the teaching of the Law at the time, that they did not realise that they were doing wrong. Yahwism was at a low ebb.


Verse 6

In those days there was no king in Israel, every man did what was right in his own eyes.’

Here is now the reason for their questionable behaviour. It was because in Israel every man did what was right in his own eyes. This in the writer’s view was the sad state of things. The first stress here was that the people were lawless and acknowledged no one over them. They did what they wanted and they ignored their true King Who was Yahweh (Deuteronomy 33:5). They did not submit to His kingship or seek to know His laws. So it was their attitude of heart which was in question, not the lack of One to rule over them. Because of this they were not submissive to the central sanctuary and to the covenant and to the religious authorities appointed by Him. The theocracy was failing because of the unresponsiveness of the people. And this was seen as illustrated by Micah.

Perhaps, however, it also had in mind the coming ideal king as depicted in Deuteronomy 17:14-15, who would not multiply wives to himself, but would sit on his throne and study Yahweh’s Laws and keep them. Such a king was not here as yet, for there was clearly no one to guide Israel in the way of truth. To make this phrase simply a comparison with and justification of the monarchy is just too glib and pedantic. The writer has earlier made quite clear his views on that kind of monarchy in, for example, chapter 9. It may, however, have been a wistful look forward to when such an ideal king as is described in Deuteronomy might come. This might suggest that it was written when such a king was theoretically still in prospect in the time of Samuel, without having been marred by the reality.


Verse 7

And there was a young man out of Bethlehem-judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite, and he sojourned there.’

There were two Bethlehems, one in the tribe of Zebulun, (Joshua 19:15), and this in the tribe of Judah. This Bethlehem occurs twice in the narrative, as a source here of a dishonest Levite and in Judges 19:1 of a faithless concubine (see also Ruth 1:1). They were not good advertisements for the moral state of Bethlehem-judah.

From there came a young man who was a Levite with connections with Judah. The Levites were scattered throughout the whole of Israel and ‘adopted’ into their various tribes, but only as sojourners. Thus this man had become a member of the family of Judah while retaining his Levite identity. The fact that he ‘sojourned’, took up residence among them there (compare Judges 19:1 of another Levite), when it was not a Levitical city, was a further sign of the state of affairs in the country, although the Levites may have had a ministry of guiding the people (‘to bless in His name’ - Deuteronomy 10:8). ‘Sojourner’ strictly referred to a resident alien. But Levites were seen as sojourners because they belonged to God, not as being one of the people.

God’s theoretical blueprint as described in the Law of Moses would have produced a strong and fair nation, avoiding the excesses of kingship, satisfying its religious needs, always united and powerful, looking to Yahweh for guidance and deliverance, the perfect theocracy. But unfortunately human beings were involved. Thus the blueprint was in process of time adapted and altered to suit man’s convenience, desires and local customs, until it was only partially recognisable and very much distorted, with the result that it failed in its purpose due to the weakness of its participants.

And this affected no one more than the Levites, men set aside for the service of the Tabernacle and to make the Law known, who retained respect and deference in the community as men of God, but who came far short of the ideal. Indeed, as with this man, many took advantage of their status to advance their own wealth and position and were not too particular about the legal requirements of the Law.


Verse 8

And the man departed out of the city, out of Bethlehem-judah, to sojourn where he could find a place, and he came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, as he journeyed.’

The Levite went out on his travels as a religious adventurer, looking for opportunities, his first concern his own advancement and prospects. This may have been partly forced on him by the partial failure of the system of tithing as a result of syncretism. Micah was of a wealthy family whose obvious wealth would attract men like this Levite, and he may well have heard on his travels about Micah’s religious innovations Thus the two came together.


Verse 9

And Micah said to him, “From where have you come?” And he said to him, “I am a Levite of Bethlehem-judah, and I go to sojourn where I may find a place.” ’

Micah would be providing hospitality and thus politely enquired as to where the man had come from as a fellow Israelite. And when he learned that the man was a Levite, and was looking for an opportunity to exercise his ministry, he recognised that here was an opportunity to make his house of God more significant and more orthodox.


Verse 10

And Micah said to him, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, and a suit of clothing, and your keep.” ’

This confirms that his religious aims were Yahwistic, and that he sought to conduct his worship in accordance with the Law as he saw it. Indeed he wanted further guidance from an expert who could direct him and guide him and fulfil priestly functions.

Ten pieces of silver, a suit of clothing and keep each year was probably a very satisfactory wage for such a position. Certainly the Levite thought so. The clothing may have been of a priestly nature, although such clothing may have been provided separately, along with the ephod, as belonging to his house of God. Strictly the Levite should have pointed out that he was not qualified to exercise priestly functions (unless of course he was of a priestly family) but he was not going to lose this opportunity over a mere trifle. His dishonesty and opportunism come out all the way through.


Verse 11

And the Levite was content to dwell with the man, and the young man was to him as one of his sons.’

The Levite accepted the offer and was welcomed into the household at the level of a son of the house. Thus he was well treated and shown due respect. He had no reason for showing anything other than loyalty in return.


Verse 12

And Micah installed (filled the hand of) the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah.’

The Levite was installed as priest in Micah’s house of God. Strictly of course he should have pointed out where Micah was going amiss, but instead he appears to have gone along with the arrangements, thus confirming to Micah’s satisfaction that Micah was on the right lines. However there are grounds for thinking that the rigid requirements of Yahwism were being softened by the syncretism of the age which may well have affected the Levite’s views.


Verse 13

Then said Micah, “Now I know that Yahweh will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to be my priest.” ’

Micah was now even more satisfied with his house of God. He was sure that Yahweh would bless him now because he had a genuine Levite, one set aside as Yahweh’s, as his priest. He was a mixture of piety and self-opinion, but his basic idea was selfish, to make himself prosperous.

Micah comes over as someone wanting to please God, possibly out of worldly motives, but not concerned enough to visit the central sanctuary in order to find out how to go about it. He wanted convenience and prestige. He had not deserted Yahweh for Baalism, but did not want to become too involved with the central sanctuary, and was prepared to introduce idolatrous ideas which would in the end distort the pure religion of Yahweh. The writer sees him as an illustration of what was going wrong with Israel in its downward slide.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Judges 17:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/judges-17.html. 2013.

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