PERHAPS AN INNOCENT READER might have hoped that yesterday’s reading (Judg. 17) reflected a minor aberration among the people of God. Today’s (Judg. 18) makes that hope less sanguine: one entire tribe of Israel is off the rails, and doubtless others as well.
The historical setting is still early enough that not all the tribes have captured all the land that is to be theirs. That is certainly true of Dan (Judg. 18:1). So the Danites send out five soldiers to spy out the terrain, and eventually stumble across the house of Micah. There they find the young Levite, and either recognize him from some previous encounter, or else recognize him for what he is, perhaps by over-hearing his praying or study (which was often done out loud). They inquire of him whether their trip will be successful. Perhaps the “ephod” Micah has made (Judg. 17:5) includes something like the Urim and Thummim for discerning, ostensibly, the will of the Lord. In any case, he reassures them and they go on their way.
The soldiers spy out the town of Laish, which was not part of the land that had been assigned to them. But it looks like a soft and attractive target, and they report accordingly. When six hundred armed Danites return, they interrupt their military raid to walk off with all of Micah’s household gods, not to mention the young Levite priest and the ephod, for clearly they think of this as a way of bringing “luck”or at least direction to their enterprise, The Levite himself is delighted: to him, this feels like a promotion (Judg. 18:20). But can “bought” clergy ever exercise a prophetic witness?
When he and his men catch up with this warrior band, Micah frankly sounds pathetic: “You took the gods I made, and my priest, and went away. What else do I have? How can you ask, ‘What’s the matter with you?’” (Judg.18:24). He detects no irony in his own utterance, the sheer futility of attaching so much to gods you have made.
The Danites threaten to annihilate Micah and his household, and that settles the matter. Might, not justice or integrity, rules the land. The Danites capture Laish, attacking “a peaceful and unsuspecting people” (Judg. 18:27), and rename the place Dan. There they set up their idols, and the young Levite, now identified as a direct descendant of Moses (Judg.18:30), functions as their tribal priest, and passes on this legacy to his sons, even while the tabernacle still remains in its rightful place in Shiloh (Judg. 18:30-31).
The levels of covenantal faithlessness in the religious realm are multiplied by increased violence, tribal selfishness, personal aspirations of power, ingratitude, crude threats, and massive superstition. It is not uncommon for these sins to grow together.