If you’re still with me in Judges, welcome back! We are in the home stretch, now. This First Reading series on Judges just keeps getting longer. I would apologize if I weren’t enjoying it so much. The act of going over it all and looking at my notes and taking the time to sit and write everything down is quite helpful to me.
Verses 1-5: Micah & His Mother Mess Up Absolutely Everything
In Chapter 17, we are introduced to an Israelite from the tribe of Ephraim named Micah, and we are told that he has taken 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother without her permission or knowledge.
Remember that 1,100 silver pieces is the price each Philistine soldier paid Delilah for her participation in capturing Samson in Chapter 16. I don’t know what the symbolism of 1,100 pieces of silver might be, yet, but it’s worth noting.
Micah’s mother casts a curse on the thief who stole her money, not realizing that her curse would land on her own son. In these first two verses, we learn that Micah had no compunction about stealing from his own mother, and we also learn that his mother has no compunction about working magical spells. Theft and witchcraft are extremely serious crimes under Mosaic Law, and any contemporary Israelite reading this Scripture would recognize that immediately. The author wants us to know that we’re looking at two very ungodly people here.
Micah confesses his theft and repays the money to his mother, but it’s worth noting that he makes this confession neither from remorse nor concern for his mother’s distress. It was only the fear of supernatural consequences from her curse that brought him to return her money. Apparently, spells were more frightening to him than the supernatural wrath of God. Sigh.
Surprisingly, however, Micah’s mother reacts very differently than one might expect after finding out her son had done this horrible thing. She doesn’t fuss at him or ask him to explain himself. No, she thanks him, praising his honesty, and then she separates 200 silver pieces from the 1,100 that were stolen and “dedicates it to the Lord in honor of her son.”
Instead of donating the money to the priests of the temple or giving it over for the care of widows and orphans (which are both lawful and prescribed ways to dedicate money to God), Micah’s mother takes the 200 coins to a silversmith and has “an image and an idol” made from them. Micah receives this gift from his mother with apparent pride and joy. He makes a shrine for the idol in his home, gathers some more smaller idols around it, and fashions a sacred ephod, which is a vestment piece worn by the High Priest of Israel. But wait, there’s more! Micah gives this ephod to his own son and declares him a personal priest for Micah’s household.
There is so much to unpack here. If you haven’t studied the priesthood and laws of Exodus and Leviticus, some of this might not stick out, so I’ll try to briefly break it down.
1.) Micah and his mother are both participating very casually and unrepentantly in sins that are considered quite serious crimes under Mosaic Law. (theft, Exo 20:15, Lev 19:11 and witchcraft, Lev 19:26, Deut 18:9-14)
2.) Offerings of money or property to the Lord for the dedication of a child or family member have rules laid out in Leviticus, chapter 27. Micah’s mother is doing some random sort of self-made variation on this, making a grotesque distortion of offerings to God. That she seems unaware of any wrongdoing further illustrates how far removed the Israelites are from a right understanding of who God is.
3.) There are so many injunctions, warnings, and threats of punishment about idolatry in the Torah/Pentateuch that I cannot even begin to list them all here. Just know that idolatry is the number one, most often-repeated sin that Israel has been warned to avoid. It’s in Exodus 20, of course, as part of the 10 Commandments. It is repeated and expounded upon in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy at length. Joshua mentions idolatry several times, as well. There is just no excuse for Israelites to be having anything whatsoever to do with idols and graven metal images for worship.
Only profaning the priesthood and sacred temple objects brings down a kind of wrath that could compare to the wrath for idolatry. Naturally, Micah does this, as well.
4.) Micah’s fabrication of a sacred ephod is wrong in several ways. An ephod is a sort of overgarment worn over a linen robe, and the ephod is only worn by the High Priest. What Micah has done here is create a garment that is not only sacred to priests, but to the High Priest. Micah is not even a Levite, must less from the line of Aaron. No one in the tribe of Ephraim is supposed to be touching priestly vestments, much less making them, wearing them, and calling themselves priests. Micah has no authority and no right to name his son a priest. His son, by participating in this farce, will be just as guilty. On top of all this, there is the utterly blasphemous nature of using such an ephod in conjunction with idols and household shrines. It is beyond the pale. For more context on what the vestments and proper ordination of priests would look like, see Exodus 39 and Leviticus 8-10.
Make no mistake, Micah’s fashioning of the ephod and shrine was more than just a little bit wrong. These were fantastically, galactically, and horrifyingly blasphemous distortions. That was a lot of adverbs. I know. But they were necessary. This introduction to the chapter is a truly epic failure on the entire family’s part.
Verse 6: The Beginning of the End of Judges
Here we see the thesis statement of the book of Judges for the first time, and it will be repeated three more times before the end. After the death of Samson, Judges begins a swift crescendo toward the end, getting darker and uglier and more extreme in the evil events it lays out before the reader. 17:6 will repeat in the first line of chapters 18 and 19, and it will be the last line of the entire book of Judges, closing out chapter 21. Whenever something is repeated in Scripture, you can be sure that it is important, and this verse is strategically repeated and placed to make sure that none of us can miss it.
“In those days, Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” Judges 17:6, NLT
“In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did as he pleased.” Judges 17:6, JPS Tanakh translation
The people have rejected their heavenly king and they have no earthly king to lead them, either. Israel has fallen into profound moral and spiritual decay, separated from God, ignorant of God’s laws, and bereft of anointed leadership. This is the core of the message of Judges.
Verses 7-13: The Theme of this Chapter Emerges
The final verses of chapter 17 tell of a young Levite who travels into Micah’s area from Bethlehem in Judah. All we know of him is that he left Judah to find another place to live. Micah is delighted to make this Levite’s acquaintance and offers him a handsome salary along with room, board, and clothing allowance. The young man, of course, agrees to this sweet deal, and verse 11 tells us that he “became like one of Micah’s sons.”
So, why did Micah take this young man into his household, give him money and clothing and a place at the table? Why did he take on the full support of this Levite stranger? Verses 12 and 13 give the answer. He did it so that he could say he had a Levite serving as his personal priest and living in his home.
Never mind that this young man is not a priest (nor are we told he’s even a descendant of Aaron). For Micah, none of that matters. All that matters is being able to say he has gotten himself a Levite. Micah will just call him a priest. Ordination doesn’t matter. The law doesn’t matter. God’s will doesn’t matter. The authority of the priesthood doesn’t matter.
Micah doesn’t actually feel any need to be circumcised (set apart for God) in his heart. He’s circumcised on the outside. He’s got a Levite. He’s got the ephod for the Levite to wear. He’s got a silver idol that his mother made to “dedicate” him to God. It all looks great on the outside. Anybody who sees Micah’s shrine and “his” Levite will know that he is a righteous and godly man.
For Micah, that is enough.
“I know the Lord will bless me now, for I have a Levite serving as my priest.” Judges 17:13, NLT
What My Husband Suggested…And I Think He’s Right
I’ve mentioned this in other posts, but when I am studying Scripture, my husband is usually right next to me. I do my studying while sitting up in bed just before sleep, and as Mr. Nix is drifting off, I sometimes read aloud or chat back and forth with him about what I’m reading.
When we got to this chapter, he said that what he saw in this story is the picture of a person who wears the outward trappings of faith, someone who revels in showing off his piety and devotion to the public. He said that Micah and his family were a set of people who play godly on the outside but have no humility, no fear of God, and no heart for worship on the inside.
I think he’s really onto it here. What we have is a picture of people who want to dedicate each other to Yahweh, who want to put up visible and impressive outward signs of piety in their home, and who want to be associated with signs and personages of religion. But they are idolaters. They have no understanding of God’s will. They have no love for God or any desire to know him.
It’s all an ugly, gaudy, and empty false front.
We’ve met people like that, haven’t we? Maybe some of us have been that person for a season in our lives. I know that in my years of unbelief, I put on a good show from time to time so that people wouldn’t see what a non-believer I really was. I didn’t take pagan idols and call them dedications to God, but I allowed people to believe that I was a church-going Christian believer, even when I was not. I didn’t do it for God. I did it to avoid conflict and to avoid having people think bad things about me.
Sounds a lot like what Micah was doing, doesn’t it? I tried really hard not to make this “application” of the text to my own life, but part of my First Reading project is to share with you the thoughts I have while reading the Bible. I was pretty convicted by that when my husband shared his perspective on Micah, so I felt it was worth writing down. There are so many things “that will preach” from this chapter. Legalism and False Piety are both objects of Christ’s teaching in the New Testament. I mean, these lessons come in red letters later on, so to see them here in the Old Testament, right from the beginning, reinforces that the Father and the Son are united in what is good and what is wrong. When we allow the letter of the law or our doctrinal customs to overshadow true love and obedience and righteousness, we fail.
Micah, his mother, and his son are a magnified image of the worst extreme I can think of in this way. They represent empty religion devoid of faith, belief, or worship. It’s all a public show. They look like good Israelites on the outside, but if you scratch the surface, it is totally hollow and meaningless. The worst part is that Micah actually believes that God will bless him for this. He honestly doesn’t realize that his outward piety is not actually godly. The poor lost soul doesn’t even know that he is lost. It’s tragic.
In the Gospels, we can find several places where Christ himself warned against showy, empty displays. In Matthew, Jesus tells us not to make impressive public prayers to elevate ourselves in front of others. Rather, he told us to go into a room by ourselves and pray to the Father in private. Jesus said that God will see our hearts and know what we do for him when we are alone. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus explaining that the Pharisees’ showy legalism and public piety are meaningless because they have no love and they have no true faith.
I believe that we’re seeing that same message here with Micah.
What do you think?