Because of the utter moral failure of Israel after the death of Joshua, God never allowed portions of the Promised Land to be fully occupied by the Israelites. The Israelites intermarried with Canaanites and adopted the customs and idol-worship of Canaan. Israelites gave their favor to false gods, so God removed his favor from Israel. They broke their covenant with God, and so God has not yet allowed them to receive their covenant promise. Make sense?
Five Danites & A Fake Priest Walk Into an Idolater’s House
The tribe of Dan has had difficulty subduing the native Canaanites in their promised allotment, and at the start of chapter 18, we meet five Danites on a scouting mission to find some land where they can settle. Micah (from chapter 17) welcomes these Danites into his home for some hospitality and rest. The men ask Micah’s Levite who he is and why he is in the land of Ephraim. The Levite informs them that he has been “hired” as Micah’s priest, and everyone seems satisfied by that explanation.
Learning that the Levite is a “priest,” the Danites get excited and ask him to talk to God and give them a foretelling. They want to know if they are going to be successful in finding a new homeland to settle. The fake priest says that God is with them and to go in peace…
…on their unordained mission to find and settle some land after God has withdrawn his favor from them due to idolatry and debauchery and intermarriage with pagans.
I mean, of course the Levite told them this. This is the kind of thing he’s getting paid and housed to say. This should not surprise us, but what should be notable here is the number of Israelites from three different tribes that we have assembled in this one place, and not one of them understands the first thing about God or his laws or his covenant with their people.
These Danites believe they are on a mission to take what God has promised, and they believe they have God’s blessing to annihilate anyone who gets in their way. We can see why they might think this. God has always been with Israel and given them victory. He has always been faithful to his promises. The Danites assume that they’re still on the same program they were operating under back when Joshua was leading them.
But they’re not.
Holy vs. Unholy
If we look back at the story of how Israel entered Canaan, Israel moved where God said to move. They attacked where God said to attack. They made peace where God said to make peace. And they did all of this as a united nation. All 12 tribes participated under a leader who was chosen by God and anointed by Moses. Moving into the Promised Land was never about a free-for-all that Israel would fight and win on their own. They were never allowed to attack whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted. It had to be instigated and led by God, not by the whims of man. All deviations from God’s specific instructions were met with harsh, swift, and deadly consequences.
Under Moses and Joshua, Israel was holy, which means that it was unique. It was a nation living under a unique law in a unique covenant with the unique God. Israel was set apart/different from from all the other nations. That was the key. As a holy nation, they were different from everyone else, and this uniqueness, this holiness, demonstrated to everyone around the Israelites that the God of Israel was holy. Make sense? That was the entire point of everything from Genesis 12 onward. God was establishing a holy nation through whom all the other nations could be blessed.
But now, in Judges, we’re in a situation where Israel is no longer holy. They have not remained set apart for God. They are no longer different from the other nations. They intermarry freely and follow Canaanite and Philistine customs. They are the same as everyone else, now. They are law breakers and they are idolaters, and they are ignorant of God’s will and commands and character. They are so removed from fellowship with God that they believe a Levite can earn his priesthood through a contract with a rich man and then walk around in the sacred clothing of an ordained High Priest while prophesying out of a house full of idols! It is madness. Debauched, unholy madness.
The Good Land of Laish
It was important to frame all of that out so we start this story all together on the same page. For this next bit, I have written out Judges 18:7 from each of my three favorite translations. The subtle differences are interesting and reading all three helped my understanding.
“The five men went on and came to Laish (referred to in Joshua 19:47 as Leshem). They observed the people in it dwelling carefree after the manner of the Sidonians, a tranquil and unsuspecting people, with no one in the land to molest them and with no hereditary ruler. Moreover, they were distant from the Sidonians and had no dealings with anybody.” – Judges 18:7, JPS Tanakh
“So the five men went on to the town of Laish, where they noticed the people living carefree lives, like the Sidonians; they were peaceful and secure. The people were also wealthy because their land was very fertile, and they lived a great distance from Sidon and had no allies nearby.” – Judges 18:7, NLT
“Then the five men departed and came to Laish and saw the people who were there, how they lived in security, after the manner of the Sidonians, quiet and unsuspecting, lacking nothing that is in the earth and possessing wealth, and how they were far from the Sidonians and had no dealings with anyone.” – Judges 18:7, ESV
All three translations note that several of the Hebrew words in this verse have uncertain meanings. That explains the differences in wording, and it is in situations like this that I find multiple translations helpful. Taken in aggregate, we can see the picture developing.
Laish is a lush, fertile place, and the people who live there have a peaceful existence without any trouble from aggressive neighbors. It is a very good land. The Danites see Laish, and they want it. They do not see that the people of Laish are good. They only notice that they are weak and easy to conquer.
At first glance, this Danite scouting mission sounds a lot like the scouts (including Joshua and Caleb) who were sent into Canaan back in Exodus. That similarity is intentional, and so is the stark difference: God personally commanded Joshua and Caleb’s group to go and instructed them every step of the way. These Danites do not have God’s favor, and they do not have His permission to go into Laish. In Joshua 19:40-46, it becomes even clearer that what these Danites are about to do will be an abominable sin. In verses 40-46, the towns in the land that was allotted for the tribe of Dan are listed. The town of Leshem/Laish is not on that list. This town was never a part of the covenant promise.
Theft and Betrayal
Danites go back to their relatives and tell them about this beautiful land they’ve found and make hasty plans to go back and attack Laish. In verse 18:10, they say, “God has given us a spacious and fertile land, lacking in nothing!” Like Micah in chapter 17, this part breaks my heart. These people are up to their noses in a pit of sin, but they don’t even know it. They have convinced themselves that what they’re doing is righteous…and that it was actually God’s idea. Of course, the fake priest at Micah’s house didn’t help with his fake blessing, now, did he?
Sin begets sin. Amen?
Our five Danites get 600 men together and travel back toward Laish. On the way, they stop at Micah’s home again, only this time, they’re not interested in breaking bread with him. This time, they’re after his gods. Remember that in the last chapter, Micah and his family felt extremely satisfied with their spiritual position in life because they had every material marker of religious faith. All their bases were covered. They had the best idols that money could buy, an impressive shrine, and a sacred ephod with an actual, real life Levite man to wear it. Micah was absolutely confident that God would bless him because he had all of his religious ducks in a row.
The Danites had confidence in this, too, and they decided to take God’s blessings for themselves.
When they reach Micah’s house, the Levite goes out to the gate and greets them. The five scouts boldly march into Micah’s shrine and take all of his idols and images and religious objects. When the Levite asks them what on earth they think they’re doing, the Danites convince him that serving a whole tribe is better than serving one man. The Levite agrees to play priest for them. He goes into Micah’s house, packing up the ephod and household idols before joining the Danites on the road to Laish.
Micah soon learns what has happened and gathers up all of his friends and neighbors for aid. They run after the Danites and catch up to them on the road. The men turn around and feign ignorance about why Micah has come to attack them.
“You’ve taken away all the gods I have made, and my priest, and I have nothing left!” – Judges 18:24, NLT
How profoundly sad is that? I mean, sure, it’s infuriating. We as readers know how ridiculous this is, and we’ve been wanting to shake some sense into Micah since chapter 17, but stop and think about this for a moment. Micah honestly believes, as the pagan Canaanites and Philistines do, that without his idols and without his priest, he cannot communicate with God. He believes that these items–the very things that have cut him off from God–are the only means by which he can gain blessing and favor from God or make his prayers heard.
That is tragic, and I feel such pity for Micah reading this. I still want to shake him, but seeing him bereft in the street, facing 600 thugs threatening to kill him, wondering what on earth he’s done to deserve being abandoned by his priest, betrayed by his own countrymen, and punished by God is just tragic.
Mass Murder and Idolatry
The last four verses of chapter 18 tell us that the Danites reached Laish. They attacked with sword and fire, slaughtering and burning Laish “to the ground.” I cannot think of any other word for it than mass murder.
The Danites renamed the town “Dan,” and they installed the Levite, named Jonathan,* as their priest. They set up Micah’s idols, and they worshiped the carved silver image that Micah’s mother had bought for him.
These people needed Jesus, amen?
We’ll come back next time in Chapter 19 with what I consider the darkest, most disturbing story in Scripture. It is a story about a different Levite and his concubine, and it is the most crushing condemnation of Israel’s failure in all of Judges.
A Tidbit about Jonathan,* the Levite “Priest”
The identity of the fake Levite priest in chapters 17 and 18 has been a point of scholarly contention. I found a marvelous article on this topic here. I will summarize here what I found pertinent:
In the Masoretic text, the priest is called Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Manasseh, but one of the letters on the original looks like an edit added later, and that called into question what the name actually was. Rabbis have debated for centuries about whether the name was actually Moshe (Moses) instead of Manasheh (Manasseh). Because of this confusion, some later Hebrew texts and the Latin Vulgate went ahead and translated the text as Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Moses.
But this is virtually impossible. The Levite is described in both chapters as a young man. If he were the grandson of Moses, he would have to be over 150 years old. That was never considered “young.” In addition, there is the issue of no grandson of Moses named Jonathan being listed in any of the genealogies in the Bible.
My Bible calls the idolatrous Levite priest of Judges 17 and 18 “Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Moses,” but that cannot be so if we’re talking about the Moses. This doesn’t mean that the Bible has an error. It means that the translators and scribes who copied it made the error, and they made it because of a very odd edit scrawled into the original (likely made for political reasons many, many, many centuries ago). My Bible also lists the Manasseh confusion in my footnotes.
Whatever your English translation calls his grandfather, Micah’s Levite priest was named Jonathan, and he started a priestly dynasty in the tribe of Dan based on unholy conquest and idolatry.