Old Testament Adventures: Micah and the Levite (Judges 17-18)

After the death of Samson, Israel has no further Judge to save them for quite some time.  The remaining chapters of the book show what happens to Israel under such conditions.  Spoilers: it’s not good.  It makes for a terrific study in compounding errors, however!

We begin with humor: the story of Micah and the Levite (Judges 17-18).  This is a tough one for catching the tone, but I recommend something along the lines of “1970s British sketch comedy.”  The verse “so they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah” is a comedic refrain of the highest caliber—imagine a still shot of a lonely country cottage on a hilltop and then add a laugh track.  If I were a really dedicated writer I’d pin down a good example and link a YouTube video for you.  Perhaps an enterprising commenter will assist me!

Micah is a good fellow, a properly bourgeois Israelite living in the Promised Land without any sort of guidance from past luminaries such as Deborah, Joshua, or best yet, Moses.  And like any god-fearing Israelite, Micah’s scene begins with him trying to appease his angry mother.  Apparently mom had lost a large quantity of silver in the recent past and, like any god-fearing Israelite matriarch, had called down a curse upon the unknown malefactor.  The god in question of course isn’t God-god, otherwise I’d be capitalizing correctly!  No, this is a good old-fashioned Canaanite death curse courtesy of Baal.

Micah is a bit worried since, ah, he’s the one who stole the silver.  Breaking the seventh and fourth commandments?  Eh, ok.  Baal might come and get you?  Yikes, time to confess!  So Micah stammers out an apology and returns the silver he has not already spent.

What’s a god-fearing Israelite matriarch to do about such a thing?  What is the correct parental response to a back-stabbing, thieving child?  And what to do about making good on threats of calling down Canaanite death gods?  Good parents don’t threaten and then fail to execute, so what to do?  Why, what any god-fearing Israelite would do—melt the silver down and create false idols to worship!  So many birds with one stone!  Such supernatural efficiency!

There’s a really dark undertone to the story at this point, a whiff of suggestion that I want to come back to later.  But take careful note that Micah’s mom plays no further role in the story after the creation of the idols.

Anyway, what’s a god-fearing Israelite like Micah to do with new gods?  In the hill country of Ephraim, in the house of Micah, there can be but one answer: start a new religion!  Micah builds a shrine, installs his son as priests, and erects the latest New Wave Community of Baal Shack.  What could possibly go wrong?

There was a wandering Levite who came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah [laughtrack].  Well this should be good!  These guys became priests when their forefathers picked up swords and hacked idol-worshiping Israelites to pieces!  They’re the leaven to Israel’s bread, the enforcers of proper worship of the Lord.  What’s such a priest going to do when he finds out about Micah’s cutting-edge abomination?

Micah, shameless to the core, displays his gods proudly and pitches the Levite a job offer: be the high priest of my new religion.  The stone-faced Levite listens to Micah’s tale and responds…with whole-hearted enthusiasm!  I love this idea!  I’m excited to be a part of it!  Let’s do it!  What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile the tribe of Dan was looking for a new home far from the growing conflict with the Philistines whom they had failed to drive out of the land.  The Danites sent a small group of spies to scout out a new patch of ground so the whole tribe could relocate.  So these spies found their way…to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah [laughtrack].

When these men learn about the cutting edge abomination and the disgraced Levite, they do what any god-fearing Israelites would do—they ask for prayers and an augury about the success of their mission.  Micah’s anonymous Levite casts the bones and queries the statues and brings back good news from the Magic 8 Ball: this thing is of the Lord!  Go with god!  Your mission will surely be a success!

The spies return to their tribe with news of a perfect spot: an idyllic, fertile land in the far north.  Cue the Bambi music here as we survey Laish, a peaceful town of Sidonians far, far out in the middle of nowhere…where no one can hear them scream.  And since god has blessed this great undertaking—a Levite said so!—the men of Dan saddle up an army of 600 and roll out to execute some divine justice on those filthy, unsuspecting Phoenicians.

But on their way to the far northern village, that army of 600 first comes…to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah [laughtrack].

Upon hearing about the cutting-edge abomination in Israel and the rogue Levite, these rough-riders do what any god-fearing army of Israelites would do—they make a detour to the house of Micah to do violence to Micah…so they can steal his new religion.  When the anonymous Levite tries to stop them, they make him an offer no god-fearing Israelite could refuse: why stay and serve this pitiful little house when you could come north, to Laish, and be the high priest of an entire tribe of Israel?  Our god-fearing Levite, never one to get held up on principles, shrugs and comes along for the ride.

When Micah realizes what is happening, he saddles up his household and rides out to try to stop the Danites.  There follows the most ancient source we have for the expression “You mad, bro?”  Or, as Sacred Scripture records it, “What aileth thee that thou shouldst come with such a company?” (We’ll actually see this again when God asks Jonah if he’s mad, but that’s another day)

Micah stomps his feet and demands the return of his false religion from these ruffians.  At this point one of the Danites, I like to think one of the original spies, pulls Micah aside and gives him a Godfather speech.  “Whoa, easy there my friend.  Let’s keep our voices down, alright?  Talk like that could lead to some angry fellows taking matters into their own hands—hey, not us now, we’re friends of course, but I can’t speak for all my comrades over here.  They don’t know you like I know you, and they might get the wrong idea.  You wouldn’t want them to get the wrong idea, would you?  I would hate for anything bad to happen to you before I could clear things up.  Amirite?”

Micah, dejected and long of face, watches the Danites ride off with the entirety of his cutting-edge abomination.  The Danites descend on Laish in an orgy of blood and fire—maybe slo-motion while a sad break-up song plays in the background? And in the end, we finally learn the name of the anonymous Levite: Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of…erk.  Yes.  That’s a bit awkward, isn’t it?  Jonathan, grandson of Moses.

And…scene!

Remember that dark undertone I mentioned early on?  It revolves around what exactly a teraphim is.  When Micah creates his new religion, after constructing the graven and molten images, he makes an ephod and a teraphim.  Ephod is easy—that’s the linen garment of the priest.  But teraphim is a word we’re a little uncertain about.  One of the very interesting possibilities is that it refers to an object of ancestor worship.  There’s a lot of maybes in this line of reasoning—you do your own research if you want to get deep in the weeds on ancient Syrian religious practices and whatnot—but one line suggests that the teraphim was a preserved body part of an ancestor, probably most often the head, that families would consult for augury—advice from the dead, basically.  Usually that’s going to be a famous male ancestor, obviously.  But that would make this story even more excellent, because Micah’s mom disappears from the story after the new religion gets made…

Anyway, I think this story is riotously funny from start to finish, but there are also some serious take-aways.  The basic idea is to convey the religious-cultic degeneracy of the Israelites at this time.  Their worship is syncretistic and deeply confused, as it will be for many centuries to come.  The tribes have failed in their most basic responsibilities as outlined at the start of the book—drive out the enemy tribes and worship God alone.  And the Levitical system has apparently failed utterly a mere generation after arrival (although that does put us out of time sequence with some of the earlier stories in the book).

Things are spiraling out of control for Israel, and it’s about to get a lot worse.  The next story starts out with a dark humor but quickly turns to the horrific: the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but this time played out inside Israel itself.  Stay tuned.

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