Bible Commentary: Judges 17

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Judges 17

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History Out of Sequence

The last five chapters of Judges are interesting as a group for, in addition to making no mention of particular judges, they appear to be incidental notices of Israelite history that do not follow the general theme or time line of the rest of the book of Judges. Indeed, The Nelson Study Bible notes: "The book of Judges closes with two appendixes, the first in chs. 17-18 and the second in chs. 19-21. They seem to be unrelated to the material preceding them and to each other. For instance, these chapters do not describe the cyclical pattern of sin, servitude, [supplication] and salvation seen in the earlier chapters of Judges. While chs. 2-16 describe foreign threats to Israel, these last chapters show an internal breakdown of Israel's worship and unity. Furthermore, the events in these chapters appear to have taken place early in the period of the judges" (note on 17:1-21:25). That these chapters are out of chronological sequence with the rest of the book is attested to by several facts.

First, Judges 18:1-3 Judges 18:1-3 [1] In those days there was no king in Israel: and in those days the tribe of the Danites sought them an inheritance to dwell in; for to that day all their inheritance had not fallen to them among the tribes of Israel. [2] And the children of Dan sent of their family five men from their coasts, men of valor, from Zorah, and from Eshtaol, to spy out the land, and to search it; and they said to them, Go, search the land: who when they came to mount Ephraim, to the house of Micah, they lodged there. [3] When they were by the house of Micah, they knew the voice of the young man the Levite: and they turned in thither, and said to him, Who brought you here? and what make you in this place? and what have you here?
American King James Version×
inform us that the Danites had not received their inheritance in the land—"the tribe of the Danites was seeking for itself an inheritance to dwell in; for until that day their inheritance among the tribes of Israel had not fallen to them." This could be interpreted in two ways: either it had not "fallen to them" by lot, or it had not "fallen to them" by conquest. Joshua 19:47 Joshua 19:47And the coast of the children of Dan went out too little for them: therefore the children of Dan went up to fight against Leshem, and took it, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and possessed it, and dwelled therein, and called Leshem, Dan, after the name of Dan their father.
American King James Version×
informs us that when Dan received its territorial allotment the Danites found the land too small for their numbers, and hence they undertook the conquest of Laish. The settlement of Dan's territory must have taken some time, and so the conquest of Laish must be put either late in Joshua's time or very early in the period of Judges.

Second, 18:30 identifies the priest who officiated at the shrine in Dan (formerly, Laish) as "Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh." The Hebrew text of this phrase is remarkable for the fact that the name Manasseh is spelled with a small superscripted nun (letter N), as MNSH. The Masoretes—scribes who compiled the Hebrew text into its present form—were scrupulous not to disturb the position of the individual letters of the text, even to the point of developing a vowel system of "points" which fitted above and below the letters, but never between the letters. Thus, this small superscripted nun is a clue that it was not part of the original text. If the nun is removed the name becomes MSH or Moshe, i.e., Moses. Now we know that Moses had a son named Gershom (Exodus 2:22 Exodus 2:22And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.
American King James Version×
). Therefore, many scholars believe that the nun was a scribal insert into the text to direct the reader of the text to read "Manasseh" rather than "Moses," thereby sparing Moses the dishonor of having Israel's first apostate and idolatrous priest in his lineage. Jonathan would be the grandson of Moses. If this is correct, then the transactions mentioned in connection with Micah and the Danite conquest of Laish must have occurred late in the period of Joshua, or early in the period of Judges, the likely lifespan of Jonathan.

Third, Joshua 20:1 Joshua 20:1The LORD also spoke to Joshua, saying,
American King James Version×
and verses 27-28 inform us that when Israel was roused to action against the Benjamites they assembled before the Lord where Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, was still serving. Phinehas was thus the grandson of Aaron, and hence of the same generation of Jonathan, who seems to have been the grandson of Aaron's brother Moses. Phinehas was old enough to slay the fornicating Israelite (Numbers 25) and would have survived into the period of Joshua and perhaps the early part of the period of Judges, and hence would put the war against the Benjamites in the period of Joshua or early in the period of Judges.

Fourth, the war against the Benjamites was so devastating to Benjamin that it was feared the tribe would vanish in Israel (Judges 21:1-3 Judges 21:1-3 [1] Now the men of Israel had sworn in Mizpeh, saying, There shall not any of us give his daughter to Benjamin to wife. [2] And the people came to the house of God, and stayed there till even before God, and lifted up their voices, and wept sore; [3] And said, O LORD God of Israel, why is this come to pass in Israel, that there should be to day one tribe lacking in Israel?
American King James Version×
). Only 600 Benjamite men are said to have survived (Judges 20:47 Judges 20:47But six hundred men turned and fled to the wilderness to the rock Rimmon, and stayed in the rock Rimmon four months.
American King James Version×
), all the other Benjamites—men and women—being put to death (Judges 20:48 Judges 20:48And the men of Israel turned again on the children of Benjamin, and smote them with the edge of the sword, as well the men of every city, as the beast, and all that came to hand: also they set on fire all the cities that they came to.
American King James Version×
) so that these 600 men could find no Benjamite wives. Yet at the division of the kingdom under Rehoboam, the Benjamites were considered a full tribe (although the smallest, see 1 Samuel 9:21 1 Samuel 9:21And Saul answered and said, Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? why then speak you so to me?
American King James Version×
) and contributed in some significant way to the fighting force of 180,000 men at Rehoboam's command. If the story of the war against Benjamin is correctly placed in the chronology of the book of Judges, that would mean that in a period of 120 years (the time from Saul to Rehoboam) the Benjamites recovered their numbers. This is extremely unlikely. It is far more reasonable to believe that these events happened late in the period of Joshua or, more reasonable still, early in the period of Judges, in conjunction with the evidence above, and that Benjamin therefore had about 400 years to recover their position and numbers.

The same is true for the story of the Danite conquest of Laish, as it probably happened within a short time of the war against Benjamin. That would mean that the history of these transactions has not been placed in chronological sequence within the book of Judges.

This, however, should not be viewed as a mistake. Much of the Bible is not in chronological sequence. Likewise, these accounts were appended to Judges intentionally and purposefully, and it is instructive to search out why. As the study Bible note quoted earlier goes on to state: "There is a certain logic to placing them at the end of the book. For one, the structure highlights the theme of the disintegration of Israel. The last chapters emphasize that 'every one did what was right in his own eyes' (Judges 17:6 Judges 17:6In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
American King James Version×
; Judges 21:25 Judges 21:25In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
American King James Version×
). The general tone of these last chapters is satirical and understated. The many violations of Mosaic law receive only minimal comments. However, a muted note of disdain for Israel's wanton behavior is evident in places."

Micah's Household Shrine

Micah was an Ephraimite. This man built what appears to have been a personal shrine to God in his house. The context leads us to believe that neither Micah nor his mother intended open rebellion against God. Micah's mother invoked the name of God in blessing her son ("May you be blessed by the Lord, my son," verse 2) and she had originally dedicated the silver to God (verse 3). Also, the name Micah itself meant "Who Is Like the Eternal?"

As for Micah, notice the "shrine" he had in his house. The Hebrew phrase that the New King James Version renders as "shrine" (verse 5) is beth Elohim.While the original King James translates this "house of gods," it should perhaps more properly be rendered "house of God." Thus, it may have been some kind of miniature representation of God's tabernacle. Micah also had, as is mentioned in verse 5, an ephod, a garment worn during worship and probably in imitation of the ephods of the tabernacle priests. And then, mentioned in the same verse, were his teraphim (translated "household idols"), small figures either representing gods or some devices associated with a god—in this case perhaps even a miniature Ark of the Covenant. He was pleased to hire the Levite as his priest, at least showing he had some sort of respect for the God who had appointed the Levites to certain religious service. Furthermore, he sought instruction from the priest ("father" being a term for one who teaches and provides counsel). And Micah believed that the Lord (the same Lord invoked by his mother) would bless him for these measures (verse 13).

While certainly not wholly in line with God's instructions, neither was this meant to be wholesale apostasy. It was the worship of God united to idolatry—the sin of syncretism, blending pagan practices into their own religion, which the Almighty had expressly forbidden (see Deuteronomy 12:29-32 Deuteronomy 12:29-32 [29] When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations from before you, where you go to possess them, and you succeed them, and dwell in their land; [30] Take heed to yourself that you be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before you; and that you inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. [31] You shall not do so to the LORD your God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. [32] What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
American King James Version×
) but which the Israelites often fell into. Moreover, it was doing what seemed right rather than following God's explicit commands—a recipe for disaster as this is the path that leads to death (see Proverbs 14:12 Proverbs 14:12There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
American King James Version×
; Proverbs 16:25 Proverbs 16:25There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
American King James Version×
). Though not intended to be apostasy and rebellion against God, it was apostasy and rebellion nevertheless. Sincerely attempting to please God is no excuse for breaking His direct commands. We must all remember this in our own worship of God.