Judges 17-18: Of opportunistic priests and silver idols

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So there’s this guy, Micah, living in the hill country of Ephraim. This Micah is not such a cool guy. He also has a very strange, meandering story.

You see, he stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother. Not knowing who had stolen it, his mother cursed the thief. Micah, presumably getting a little hot under the collar, confesses and returns the money. To withdraw her curse, his mother dedicates 200 of the pieces of silver to God, melting it down into an idol.

The amount of silver stolen is familiar – it is the same amount that each Philistine elder promised to pay Delilah in exchange for the secret of Samson’s strength (Judges 16:5). I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, or if the stories are supposed to be related somehow, or if 1,100 was just a way of saying “a large amount.”

Micah’s mother disappears from the story at this point, and it is Micah’s turn to make idols. He builds a shrine, and he makes “an ephod and teraphim” (Judges 17:5) to go in it. But what’s a shrine without a priest? To fill the void, Micah installs one of his own sons as the priest to his household shrine.

Unfortunately, Micah’s son apparently disappears because there’s another young man, called a Levite despite being from the tribe of Judah, who leaves his home town of Bethlehem to find himself some employment. When he comes upon Micah’s house, Micah offers him a job as his personal household priest, in exchange for ten pieces of silver a year, room and board, and clothes.

When the Levite accepts, Micah is overjoyed, thinking to himself: “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest” (Judges 17:13).

The key portions of this story are (1) There was a man named Micah, (2) He was from the hill country of Ephraim, (3) He had a shrine, (4) He was directly involved in the shrine’s construction, and (5) He had a priest. It seems that various storytellers embellished these key points in different ways, and our poor editor just didn’t know how to fit them all together.

It seems important, too, that Micah is not seen as a particularly good guy, but more on that later.

Dan’s “migration”

The text doesn’t give a reason for it except that “there was no king in Israel” (Judges 18:1) – and therefore no real order to society – but Dan is on the march to find a place to call home.

Judges 17 - Micah's IdolAccording to Collins, they had to find a new home after they “lost their original territory to the Philistines” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.114). Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain how this is known, so I have no idea if it’s just extrapolation or if there’s some sort of material archeological evidence to suggest this explanation.

My study Bible does agree, though, citing Joshua 19:40-46 and Judges 1:34 to put Dan’s original territory in the southwest, close to Philistine territory. This also helps to explain Samson’s focus on the Philistines, as Samson was a Danite (Judges 13:2).

So the Danites are looking for land, and, like Moses, they send out five scouts to find them a nice spot to settle. These spies set out from Zorah and Eshtaol, where the Danite people are located, which was listed among their inheritance in Joshua 19:40-46, and between which Samson was buried in Judges 16:31.

In their travels, the Danite spies lodge with Micah. While there, they recognize the Levite’s voice (Judges 18:3), asking him what he’s doing there. There’s no reason given for why/where/how they might have encountered the Levite before. It’s a very strange detail.

When the Levite explains that he’s been hired as Micah’s household priest, they ask him to consult with God on their behalf and tell them whether or not they will succeed. It’s implied that the Levite does so (presumably using the ephod and teraphim, which seem to be related to divination in some way), and he gives the Danites God’s blessing, saying that “the journey on which you go is under the eye of the Lord” (Judges 18:6).

Eventually, the spies make it to Laish, where they find the land fertile and the people weak (they are allied with Sidon, but too far away for the Sidonians to protect them). So they return to the Danites and tell them to go after Laish.

Which they do, with an army of 600 soldiers.

When the army passes Micah’s house, the spies mention the lovely shrine there. So the army stops to steal it. They are caught by Micah’s Levite, who asks them what they are doing. The Danites, in response, invite him to come and be their priest instead. After all, they argue, wouldn’t it be better to be the priest of an entire tribe rather than just one man? The Levite is so enthusiastic about the deal that he grabs Micah’s sacred objects and follows the Danites.

Micah gives chase, but realizes that he is outmatched and gives up.

When Dan takes Laish, they rebuild the city and name it Dan, in honour of their founding patriarch. It’s interesting to note that there was already a place named Dan in Genesis 14:14.

In closing, we’re told of a priest named Jonathan, son of Gerson, son of Moses (or Manasseh, my Bible doesn’t seem sure), who served the Danites as priest and was followed in the office by his sons “until the day of the captivity of the land” (Judges 18:30) – presumably the Assyrian conquest. They set up Micah’s idols, suggesting that this Jonathan is the same as the unnamed Levite we’ve been hearing about. Except that our Levite was from the tribe of Judah, not Moses (nor Manasseh). Unless that’s just the name of his grandfather, recycled from the patriarch, and not a tribal designation at all.

The moral of the story

There are a few possible morals that I can see. There’s the repetition that this all happened while there was no monarchy in Israel (Judges 17:6, Judges 18:1), which makes these chapters (and the ones to follow) seem to be a set up to explain just why having a king is such a fantastic idea.

Another possibility is that the story was included to explain the origins of a shrine in Dan. According to Collins, “during the monarchy, Dan was the site of one of the temples set up by King Jeroboam I of the northern kingdom of Israel, in opposition to Jerusalem” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.114).

Certainly, it’s true that no one in the story is presented in a particularly flattering light. From Micah the thief, to the mercenary/thieving Levite, to the aggressive and thieving Danites, all of the characters are, to put it kindly, morally questionable.

It could also be an accurate snapshot of the popular/folk religion, as opposed to the high religion of Jerusalem. As Victor Matthews puts it:

Why did a Levite, a man charged with teaching and maintaining the law, consent to serve a group of sacred images? Why did Micah set them up in the first place, and why did the Danites jump at the chance to steal them for themselves? The answer almost certainly is that popular religion, the religion of the local villages, was not the pure monotheism required by the law at Sinai. Recent excavations at Tell Qiri, a settlement dating to the period of the judges, revealed a similar household shrine with incense burners and a large number of animal bones. A substantial percentage of the bones proved to be the right foreleg of goats. This is reminiscent of the law in Exod 29:22, which calls for the sacrifice of the “right thigh” of the ram. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.76)

You’ve also probably noticed that characters are getting called “Levite” without actually being from the tribe of Levi. It seems that the term originally just meant a priest, and either the office was taken over by one particular line or perhaps they simply unionized, forming a new tribe.

 

Judges 13: Stirrings of the Lord

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Once again, the people mess up so God gives them over to an enemy – this time choosing the Philistines. On this new enemy, Collins explains:

The people with whom Samson interacts are the Philistines, who were emerging as a power at the same time as Israel. It is unlikely that they had dominion over all the Israelite tribes, but they controlled the coastal plain and came into conflict with the neighboring tribe of Judah. The story of Samson implies that there was considerable coming and going between Judah and Philistia, and a major feature of Samson’s career is his involvement with Philistine women. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 112)

Israel is annoyed by the Philistines for forty years before God, in his angel form, appears to the wife of a man named Manoah – a Danite from Zorah who has no children. God tells this unnamed woman that she will have a son, but that she mustn’t drink wine or any other strong drink, nor eat anything unclean. Once her son is born, she is never to shave his head because he will be a “Nazirite to God from birth” (Judges 13:5).

While the rules given to Manoah’s wife bear some resemblance to the rules regarding Nazirites in Numbers 6, the differences are quite significant. For one thing, the Nazirite vow in Numbers is explicitly a temporary and voluntary condition – taken on, for example, by Manoah’s wife or even Manoah himself, as a way to conceive the child they have so far been unable to have. It would not be a condition imposed upon the child produced by the vow. Nor would its restrictions apply to anyone other than the Nazirite, though Manoah’s wife is the one told that she may not drink alcohol.

Nor – *spoilers* – does the Numbers 6 version have anything to do with strength, though Samson’s superhuman strength is said to have something to do with his uncut hair.

In trying to understand the discrepancy, Collins suggests two possibilities:

It may well be that Samson’s long hair was a folkloric motif related to his strength, and that he was called a nazirite to bring him within the categories of biblical law. Or it may be that the significance of the nazirite vow evolved over time. Originally, it may have pertained to the status of special warriors, related to their exceptional strength. Later it became a way of expressing a particular type of piety. Samson does not seem to be concerned with holiness, but he does seem to channel divine power, which is somewhow associated with his hair.  (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 113)

Back to the story, Manoah’s wife tells her husband about her encounter with the angel of God who, at this point, she doesn’t seem to know is god.

Manoah and his wife give a sacrifice, from the Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

Manoah and his wife give a sacrifice, from the Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1250

Manoah’s motives aren’t explicitly stated, but he seems rather disconcerted by the fact that God has spoken to his wife and not to him. Apparently in an attempt to establish primacy in the relationship between his family and God, he prays for another visitation, using as an excuse that he needs more instruction regarding what to do with his son-to-be. But God bypasses him yet again, appearing to wife while she is sitting alone in a field.

Dutifully, she rushes to fetch her husband, who comes out to meet with God. Only now is he able to interact with God without his wife’s mediation.

There have been several times that I’ve sensed hints of older stories, stories that seem to have been about priestesses or perhaps even goddesses. God telling Sarah about Isaac, Sarah bedding with the kings of two nations (Pharaoh and Abimelech), Rebekah bedding with a third king, Miriam’s song of praise, Zipporah’s circumcision of her son, Deborah’s song, etc. Here, we have another that I would put in the same category – though she is given no name, it is clear that it is through her that God wishes to communicate with Manoah’s family. I suspect that the latter portion of the chapter, where he switches to speaking directly to Manoah, may have been a later edit, because coming the second time to Manoah’s wife while she is alone just seems far too deliberate to me.

In the field, God confirms all that he has told Manoah’s wife, adding only that she can’t even eat anything from a vine (the prohibition extended from just being against consuming wine).

Manoah, apparently pleased with the news, wishes to thank his visitor by offering him a kid. God, however, says that he will not eat the offering in the ordinary way, but that it should instead be offered as a burnt offering instead. Manoah seems confused, and asks for God’s name. On the one hand, it seems that Manoah does not yet realize that he is speaking to a god, though he summoned the second visitation through prayer. Another interpretation is that he doesn’t know which god he is speaking to and wants to know which god to thank once the prophecy is fulfilled.

To this, God rebukes him for asking, saying that his name is either too wonderful or too secret for him to know (depending on the translation). Abbie at Better than Esdras claims that the word used here “actually appears nowhere else in the Bible. So I’m pretty sure they’re just guessing at the meaning.” The episode mirrors Moses’s question in Exodus 3:14, except that God chooses here not to reveal his name.

As per God’s instructions, Manoah prepares a kid for a burnt offering. When he sets the meat aflame, the angel steps onto the altar and ascends with the flame. Predictably, Manoah and his wife fall on their faces.

Seeing that their visitor really is God, Manoah grows very anxious. As per Exod. 33:20, he believes that he must die now that he has seen God’s face. His wife comforts him, arguing that if God had wanted them to die, they’d be dead already. He wouldn’t have accepted their offering. And though she doesn’t say so, it wouldn’t make much sense. If they were to be stricken dead by seeing God, how could they bear the son he predicted?

Closing off the chapter, their son, Samson, is born and we are told that the “Spirit of the Lord began to stir in him” (Judges 13:25) in Mahanehdan.