The pattern is set in the first chapters of Judges: people sin, and God sends judgment. People repent, and God delivers them from judgment. The figure of the deliverer is a vague pencil outline in the first chapters; but it becomes very clear in Samson. Samson is as frustratingly filled out with real human details as we are. His birth was announced by an angel: he was the one who would deliver Israel. But Samson became cocky about the source of his strength, and negligent about his set-apartness, until he was enslaved by his own lusts. He saved more people by his death than in his life; but he died blind and chained, and that was the end of his deliverances (2:19). Samson is the greatest judge. But when I finished telling his story to a children’s class earlier this year, I was looking into very sad, very serious, crestfallen faces. I had to remind them of another birth announcement by an angel.
The final two stories in Judges come right after Samson’s death, and seem like an abrupt change of theme. Neither of the stories highlights a judge: instead there is a priestly figure. Samson’s death shows us the moderate success and huge failure of the judges. Will the Levites do any better?
The story that takes up chapters 17 and 18 opens with a significant sum of silver: 1100 pieces. It was the same price paid for Samson’s betrayal (16:5). A man named Micah has stolen the 1100 pieces from his mother. She curses the money. Micah, overhearing the curse, is troubled and restores it.
Micah’s mother promptly issues a blessing on him; and what follows reads like a game of hot potato, with each party trying politely to get the other to take the cursed money. At last, it is fashioned into an idol and Micah sets it up in a house of worship.1 Now all he needs is a priest. Where can he get a priest in the hill country of Ephraim? Only Levites could be Yahweh’s priests. But Micah has his own tabernacle, and he ordains his own son. Enter a young Levite, traveling through Ephraim’s hill country.
He has been sojourning in Bethlehem of Judah. Here, it seems, is a genuine emblem of the presence of God: his approach to the false image and the false priest creates a kind of suspense.
But the Levite is seeking a place for himself. Micah offers the Levite less than a tithe of the original stolen sum and a priestly garment, and the Levite is content.
Soon after, five spies from Dan come wandering through. They are seeking a favorable place for themselves, too, because they have not yet conquered their allotted territory. The Danites recognise either the particular voice, or the odd accent of the Levite, and demand an account: “… the Levite, like the tribe of Dan itself, is recognizably out of place.”2 They accept his situation as not only quite natural but advantageous: the priest can get a favorable divine answer for them.
The spies then continue their mission and report back to the tribe; the city of Laish is perfect for them. A contingent of six hundred Danite soldiers set out to conquer the city. On their way they come to the house of Micah, and the spies remember what they have seen. The six hundred stand at the gate, while the spies, familiar with the layout of the house, go in to steal Micah’s gods. Micah’s house is under threat by a military force: the figure who comes to meet the threat is the Levite.
It is another suspenseful moment, but the Levite brings nothing upstanding to it. The Danites merely appeal to his self interest. And he is pleasantly moved by a vision of the entire armed body as a multitude of sons. He had been content to stay with Micah. Now his heart is really glad. He carries off the fake ephod, the silver image, and the other household gods.
So Micah, who started off as a thief himself, has become the victim of theft. The very same silver has been stolen. He musters his neighbors and starts after the Danite warriors. When he catches up with them, the Danites shout, “What is the matter
with you?” And he sputters back in helpless rage,“How can you ask me, what is the matter!”
As a child I loved Hank the Cowdog and the Curse of the Incredible Priceless Corncob.3 In an attempt to cheat Pete the cat out of the best dinner scraps, Hank (a cowdog) tries to convince Pete that a corncob is more valuable than a steak. He winds up convincing himself, and carries off the incredible priceless corncob, shirking his duties and fighting over the corncob with other animals. One of the funniest aspects of this story in Judges is the value all the characters are placing on the religious contraband. Why does Micah want a god he has to pursue, as it is helplessly carried off? Why do the Danites want a deity so unable to keep faith with its devotees? Or a Levite so indisposed to do so? How is it that two bands of men come to arguing over these emptinesses? How is it that Micah considers his life empty without them (18:24)?
But Micah howling after the “gods he made” is iconic.“Do not think the idolater too foolish to know that his god is man-made and breakable. He does know it; that is precisely the sort of god he wants … The essence of idolatry is its attempt to control and enslave the deity.”4
I sometimes do that in my approach to obedience, and prayer. Thucydides said that “The powerful exact what they can: the weak grant what they must.”5 – that is history without Yahweh. Micah goes home, priest-less and god-less. The Danites capture and burn Laish. The city is rebuilt and renamed,“however, the name of the city formerly was Laish” (v.29). Laish, a city that had “no deliverer” (v.28). Dan/Laish becomes a rival center of worship
to the tabernacle at Shiloh.
The story that follows in Judges 19 is not a comedy. It is one of the most harrowing stories in the Bible: it is difficult to write much about. There is also a Levite, taking a journey from Bethlehem of Judah. This Levite had first gone to Bethlehem seeking a wayward concubine, but we catch the echo; and other similarities between these last accounts in Judges are so many as to be complex.6 Both Levites traveling from Bethlehem find hospitality with men from the hill country of Ephraim. Both are beset by a ruthless mob. Both stories have closing references to Shiloh.
When a story arc is told twice with variation in details, we tend to hear the second telling as a sort of echo. God is a master storyteller. When Nathan went to David, he told a story about a stolen lamb that moved David to anger (2 Samuel 12:1–15). When Jesus came, he told a story of a vineyard owner whose son was killed by the keepers. As the hearers mounted in outrage they also came to recognition. They perceived that he spoke about them (Matthew 21:33–46). These stories – the one that makes me laugh and the one that makes me cry, back to back – may be intended to produce similar outrage and recognition.
If the sum of silver at the beginning of Judges 17 is echoed from the story of Samson, we are supposed to recognise that someone has been sold into captivity.7 And Someone is clearly missing from Micah’s retinue, despite the religious emblems, vestments, rites, blessings. Religion without God is a farce: here, he always seems to be lurking behind the next plot twist, but as each scene unfolds, he is not there. The dummies of his presence get dragged along until they are erected as rivals to him.
Jesus is betrayed in type in the story of Samson; but Micah’s Levite betrayed God directly. And then his heart was glad to find an even bigger, more affluent family. The Levite in the second story thrust a woman he was supposed to reclaim out to a sadistic mob. There is “no deliverer” in either story. Both of these Levites from Bethlehem of Judah are out for themselves; abandoning what they are supposed to reclaim. – Wayward and undelivered Israel. Like the story of Samson left the children, the final stories in Judges leave me very sad.
In all this terminal inadequacy of their judges and priests, Israel began to clamor for a king. That history also ends in tears. But the prophet Micah picks up a wavering note from these passages: another priest came out of Bethlehem.
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to me the one to be the ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.
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3 John R. Erickson,
4 Davidman, Joy. 1953. Smoke on the Mountain. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, p. 33.
5 Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Boston: D. Lothrop & Co., p. 5.89.
6 Block, Daniel I. 1999. Judges, Ruth. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, p. 474–475.
7 Jordan, James B. 1999. Judges: A Practical and Theological Commentary. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, p. 281; Alter, Robert. 2013. Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition, Locations 4258–4261.