Thibble Thursday: Graven Images (Judges 17–18)

Whoops, got this one out a bit late.

Short, snarky summary: Danites are bad people and God is totally right to desert them.

These two chapters are a bit weird, in that they don’t really seem to tell a particularly self-contained story. I have a feeling there’s some sort of historical myth here, explaining the quasi-mythical origins of soem Danite shrine, but without that context it feels more like a bunch of individual things that happen than, y’know, an actual story.

So, the actual story: an Ephraimite named Micah stole a lot of silver from his mother, which maybe already makes him a villain, and for which theft his mother (unwittingly) cursed him. For no obvious reason, he confesses his crime, but his mother decides to praise him for his honesty, and consecrates the silver to God and contributes it to construct idols.

I reckon part of this scene-setting is to highlight the lawlessness of the era of the Judges. I’ve sort of suggested previously that the narrative overall of the Book of Judges is one of descent from the military discipline of Joshua’s reign into a state of anarchy, as the leadership gets more ineffectual and the people less observant of the Torah laws. So already in the first four verses, we have a man robbing his own kin, and—horror of horrors—the financing of the building of an image to be worshipped. That’s two commandments broken at least; three if one considers robbing someone as a way of dishonoring them.

Verse 17:6 (and later verse 18:1) emphasizes my anarchy-theory by explaining the whole higgledy-piggledy state of affairs with the fact that Israel has no king. It’s worth noting that Judges is attributed to the Deuteronomists, who were supporters of the kingdom of Judah and generally pro-monarchical, so the bias in favor of monarchy isn’t very surprising. But, anyways, chapter 17 continues with Micah building up the shrine around his brand new idols: having built the idols, his next act is to pull in a wandering Levite and hire him to serve as the shrine’s resident priest. The last sentence of this chapter I can only assume is meant to point up Micah’s naiveté, as he smugly predicts that God will bless him now that the shrine has a priest, too; to the intended reader this story would pretty much have to be setting Micah up for a fall, since by the time that all these texts were redacted together the idea of worshipping God through an idol was a big no-no.

In Chapter 18, then, we’d expect Micah to get his comeuppance. He kind of does, although hardly in an unambiguous manner. The focus shifts to the tribe of Dan, which apparently has no tribal portion (one was explicitly described back in Joshua 20:40–48, but apparently they lost it. Oops), so they’re sending a scouting expedition into their old territory to see if they can reconquer it. The scouts overnight with Micah, and ask his priest if their mission will work out. The priest tells them they’ll succeed, and sure enough they do, finding that the residents are unwarlike and easy prey for the Danite army. So the Danites march to war against the Sidonians who are occupying their territory. Incidentally, we get a number attached to their warlike host, which is six hundred men. As elsewhere in the Book of Judges, this number is way, way less than what is reported elsewhere as the mustering strength of the tribe (for reference, the second census in Numbers reports upwards of 64,000 Danites of military age).

On the way there, however, the scouts mention Micah’s shrine, and the entire army turns off the road to visit Micah, and the scouting expedition pops in to steal the gods (presumably so that they, instead of Micah, can earn God’s favor). The priest objects, but the scouts win him over with the offer that instead of being the household priest for one Ephraimite, he could serve as the priest to an entire tribe.

Of course, Micah and his neighbors (who I guess we are to assume worship at his shrine, although it’s never mentioned explicitly) take offense and run after the Danite war-host, and ask for their idols back, in response to which the Danites, in the true spirit of diplomacy, suggest Micah go home before someone gets hurt. And then the Danites go on and reconquer their old territory.

There the story pretty much ends. It’s weirdly unfinished, since there’s something of an expectation of a justice that’s never really delivered, and no real sense of plot progression. The worst thing that happens to Micah is that his idols get hauled off, and there’s no intimation in the story that the Danites themselves are going to end up suffering for their sins of theft and serving false gods. The priest himself doesn’t even get a name, and nothing bad happens to him either. There’s no real sense of moral self-containedment in this story, which is why I can only read it as an origin story, some sort of explanation about a shrine in the territory of Dan. Reading this story in iso0lation, one might not even get the impression that Israelite culture frowned on idols.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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