In the Days of the Judges (Part 2)
Part 2: Ignoring God's Plan
In Judges 17 we read about the do-it-yourself worship of a man named Micah. In chapter 18 the trend continues, but this time it involves a sizeable clan of one of Israel’s tribes.
Judges 18:1 says that “a territory had not been allotted” to the tribe of Dan. This likely refers to the fact that Dan had been unable to subdue all its assigned portion of Canaan (Judges 1:34). Some of the Danites decided it was time to seek an inheritance elsewhere. So the tribe sent out five spies to find a new place to settle (see Joshua 19:40-48).
Passing through the territory of Ephraim, the Danite spies stopped to lodge at the house of — guess who? — Micah. They saw the shrine and images he had set up. They met his priest-for-hire, the young Levite. They even asked the Levite to inquire of God about their mission, and he assured them they had divine approval. Satisfied, the spies departed to continue their search. But they would not forget what they had seen at Micah’s house.
Eventually, the spies came to the Phoenician city of Laish, near the headwaters of the Jordan River. Peaceful, isolated, and defenseless, Laish was just the prize they were looking for. They eagerly returned home to report their find, and soon 600 Danite soldiers were marching north to take the city.
As the army passed through Ephraim, the spies mentioned what they had seen at the house of Micah. The Danites decided to go there and take Micah’s objects of worship for themselves — I guess they figured what was good enough for Ephraim must be good enough for Dan! They also invited the young Levite to come with them. Why be priest to just one household, they argued, when he could be priest to a whole clan? The Levite gladly accepted the promotion. Micah was outraged, but he was also outnumbered; he had no choice but to watch his priest and his gods be carried off (verses 22-26).
Arriving at Laish, the soldiers of Dan attacked the city, burned it, rebuilt it, and renamed it “Dan.” It became the northernmost city in Israel. As planned, the Danites set up their own religious shrine there, complete with the graven image and the Levite as priest. This arrangement continued “all the time that the house of God was at Shiloh,” i.e., for several generations until the days of Samuel.
Did the Danites have the right to take Laish? Scholars differ on that point. But this much is clear: the reason behind the whole episode was that Dan, like several other tribes, had failed to conquer its entire territory. Contrary to God’s plan, Israel did not completely drive out the people of Canaan — not because of weakness, but because of unwillingness. As a result, God promised that the Canaanite people and their gods would be a snare to Israel (Judges 2:1-3). And that was exactly the case with the unauthorized system of worship set up in Dan. “Israelites had developed a strong desire for local shrines. They apparently believed that the mere possession of sacred objects guaranteed success in their ventures…In these new attitudes the influence of Canaanite paganism is in evidence” (James E. Smith, The Books of History, 201). Wholesale worship of Canaanite gods was not far behind, leading to the cycle of disobedience, oppression, repentance, and deliverance that repeats itself throughout the book of Judges.
Taken together, Judges 17 and 18 show that many Israelites did not view the Lord’s commands seriously, whether the subject was the conquest of the land, the worship of God, or something else.
The lesson for us is clear. The gospel speaks to many aspects of life, and we need to apply it diligently to all of them. In a sense, our very manner of living is a sacrifice of worship to God (Romans 12:1-2). We need to pay attention to what He says about our speech (Ephesians 4:25f), our marriages (Ephesians 5:22f), our jobs (Ephesians 6:5-9), and every other part of our existence. That will make our lives the very best they can be. “He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice, and He preserves the way of His godly ones” (Proverbs 2:7-8).
On the other hand, when we ignore God’s commands, we set ourselves up for frustration, failure and heartache. It often begins subtly in some matter that seems insignificant. But when we dismiss His plan in one area, it becomes easier to justify doing the same in other areas. And the more we turn aside from His way, the more misery we bring on ourselves.
As we will see, Israel learned this lesson the hard way. Stay tuned.