“Now there was a man from the mountains of Ephraim, whose name was Micah.” Judges 17:1
The time period of the book of Judges is famously known as the period when “there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). Sadly, spiritual matters certainly weren’t spared from all the ungodly behavior. The story found in Judges chapters 17 and 18 is a case in point. It involves a man named Micah, his mother, his son, a false priest, and some members of the tribe of Dan. Would you believe that not one single person from this entire cast of characters walks away from this story looking good in the eyes of the Lord? This story is so rich in spiritual lessons that I’m going to devote a couple of posts to it.
The story begins as so many of life’s stories do, with a money issue. A man named Micah, who lives in the mountains of Ephraim (Judges 17:1), confesses to his wealthy mother that he is the one who stole her 1,100 shekels of silver (17:2). Apparently he wasn’t worried about the theft until he heard her pronounce a curse upon whoever robbed her. That threw enough of a scare into him to get him to confess his crime and return the money.
Surprisingly, however, Micah’s mother isn’t angry with him. Rather than scold him, she calls off the curse by evoking the name of the Lord in saying, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my son” (17:3). What the woman does next is fascinating and it’s here that we get our first indication that this story is going to feature an undercurrent of belief in God mixed with out-and-out idolatry. Even though she once named her son “Micah” (which means “who is like Jehovah”), she now says, “I wholly dedicate the silver from my hand to the Lord for my son to make a graven image and a molten image” (N.A.S.V.).
Are you kidding me? Did that mother just dedicate a large amount of silver to God to be used to make false idols for her son? You talk about warped theology! Remember that this family is Jewish (the name Micah actually means “who is like Jehovah”), and the first and second commandments of God’s law plainly say: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image” (Exodus 20:3-4). And this mother stands true to her commitment by taking 200 shekels of the returned silver – a sum worth many thousands of dollars in our currency – to a silversmith and having him fashion a carved image (wood overlaid with silver) and a molded image (solid silver) from them. She then gives both idols to her son to keep in his house (17:4).
Micah, for his part, absolutely loves the idea of having idols under his roof. Judges 17:5 and 18:17-18 mention him having “household idols.” These were probably smaller-scale idols like the ones mentioned in Genesis 31:19,34. Evidently, Micah had these smaller idols even before his mother gave him the carved image and the molded image. Now he adds the two new images to his shrine. (The Hebrew word translated as “shrine” literally means “house of gods.”) Micah even goes so far as to install one of his sons to be the priest over the shrine (17:5) and makes an ephod for the son to wear in his priestly role. (An ephod was a vest-type garment, a breastplate, that a high priest wore over his chest while performing his priestly duties.)
So, Micah now has his own personal “church,” complete with his false idols and his handpicked priest. He either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that all this is a million miles outside God’s will. At this time the center of worship in Israel is supposed to be the Tabernacle (Deuteronomy 12:1-14), which is located in Shiloh (Judges 18:31). There the descendants of Aaron serve as Israel’s God-sanctioned priests. As a matter of fact, if anyone outside Aaron’s line tries to serve as a priest, he is to be put to death according to the law of Moses (Numbers 3:10). But Micah isn’t concerned with any of these obvious contradictions to what he’s doing. He has his own private “worship” set-up and is thrilled about it.
And Micah’s life gets even better when one day, completely unexpected, a young man named Jonathan (18:30), from the tribe of Levi, shows up at his doorstep looking for a place to stay (17:7-8). This young Levite has been living in Bethlehem of Judah and I think it’s fair to say that he’s as confused as a goose in a hailstorm about what he’s supposed to be doing in life. In order to understand the low level to which he has sunk, you need a little background information.
There were three clans that made up the tribe of Levi, with each clan taking its name from one of Levi’s three sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. Each clan had specific duties to perform in service at the Tabernacle. The clan of Kohath included the descendants of Aaron (Israel’s first high priest), and Israel’s official priesthood was made up of males from Aaron’s line. The males from the other two clans, the clans Gershon and Merari, were set apart as caretakers of the Tabernacle and aides to the priests. Summing things up, all the Levite males ministered in some way at the Tabernacle during their appointed times of the year. When they weren’t “on shift” at the Tabernacle, they were free to go about the business of their lives.
When Israel conquered the land of Canaan, the tribe of Levi was not allocated a specific region of the land the way the other eleven tribes were. Instead, the Levites were given 48 Levitical cities that were scattered throughout the land (Numbers 35:1-8, Joshua 21:1-8), with each of the eleven other tribes proportionately contributing certain cities from their territory. The Aaronite priestly division of the Kohath clan was given thirteen cities, while the rest of the Kohath clan was given ten. The Gershon clan was given thirteen cities, and the Merari clan was given twelve.
But guess which city wasn’t one of the 48: Bethlehem of Judah. This raises the question of why this young Levite had recently been living there. I don’t want to drift off into wild speculation here, but there just doesn’t seem to be any God-approved reason for him to have been living in a city that wasn’t on the list of the 48. This indicates that this young man was in a spiritual fog himself, backslidden, and far outside God’s will as he hiked into the nearby mountains of Ephraim looking for a new life. One thing we know for sure: When he knocked on Micah’s door, he was about to go from bad to worse spiritually.
As soon as Micah learns who Jonathan is, he starts concocting a plan to install this young Levite as a priest over his “church.” In Micah’s way of thinking, at least Jonathan is a member of Israel’s priestly tribe, even if he isn’t a member of the Kohath clan from which the actual priests come. This would be like someone today favoring or handpicking a person simply because that person is from a certain family. It’s unclear whether Micah plans to demote his son as priest or if he simply wants to add Jonathan to the ministerial staff, but Micah’s offer to Jonathan is simple: “Live with me, be a father and a priest to me, and I will pay you ten shekels of silver per year, plus new clothes, food, and lodging” (17:10).
Well, since young Jonathan is currently homeless and destitute, he jumps at the offer, and Micah quickly installs him as his own live-in priest over his little “church” (17:11-12). The foolish, undiscerning, quasi-religious Micah even says, “Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since I have a Levite as a priest!” Talk about spiritually clueless! He’s stolen money from his mother, initially lied about stealing it, accepted false idols from her, brought the idols into his home, built a shrine to them, installed his son as a priest, and has now installed another unqualified young man as priest. Yikes!
Here again we find this family trying to sprinkle God over their ungodly behavior. Notice that Micah doesn’t say, “My idols will be good to me because I have a Levite as a priest.” No, he says, “The Lord will be good to me….” Oh sure, Micah, you and God are just fine! Don’t you hate it when people do things of which God couldn’t possibly approve and then try to get all spiritual by talking about how good He has been to them? You just want to look at them and say, “Stop it. Just stop it.”
And that’s where we will leave off the story until next time. It’s like those movie cliffhangers from the old days. “What will become of Micah and his ‘church’?” “Will young Jonathan come to his senses and repent of his sins?” “What will become of the false idols?” “Tune in next time for the exciting conclusion of Micah’s Church.” Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. I saw too many reruns of the old Buck Rogers serial featuring Buster Crabbe when I was little.
But before I close this post, let’s ask the question, “What lessons have we learned so far from this story?” Well, first, we’ve learned that some people try to blend idolatry and walking with the Lord. Micah, his mother, Micah’s son, and Jonathan all tried to play this unwinnable game. Trust me, if you have undeniable, obvious sin and wrongdoing in your life, you and God aren’t fine. No way. And that sense of so-called “peace” you have about whatever your idol happens to be is either the devil lying to you or you lying to yourself. Beware of believing your own rationalizing.
Second, we’ve learned that some people try to dictate the terms of their worship and religion. Do you know where you will find Micah today? You’ll find him serving on a pulpit committee, treating the whole process of finding his church’s next pastor like a business decision rather than a spiritual one and working hard to get “his” man in as pastor. Or, you’ll find him lording over a deacon board ensuring that the church goes in the direction in which he wants it to go. Or, you’ll find him holding an influential office in his denomination, making important decisions based upon his personal likes, preferences, and mindsets rather than honest spiritual discernment.
And, of course, all the while as these modern-day Micahs are out there creating their personal shrines and staffing them, they are praying, making a show of religion, and talking about how right they are with God and how much He is blessing them. If you want to know what’s wrong with our churches and denominations these days, look no further than all the Micahs who are currently reeking havoc on God’s will and God’s plans.
And then, third, we’ve learned that just because someone is in the ministry, that doesn’t mean they are in God’s will being there. Just as there are many modern-day Micahs, there are plenty of modern-day Jonathans too. How many uncalled people are in the ministry right now? How many unqualified pastors are in pulpits right now? How many preachers would preach for free if that’s what it took to preach? How many pastors would serve without what they considered to be an adequate salary package? How many evangelists would stick with it if there were more bills than converts? How many missionaries would remain in foreign lands if the persecution hit hard? How many chaplains would keep ministering if they became despised and rejected for being too narrow minded, politically incorrect, and in tune with the Lord? I truly believe that if God peeled back the curtain and allowed us to know the answers to these questions, we would be shocked and saddened. You see, the fact is that we are not nearly as removed from the days of the book of Judges as we like to think.