As we pick back up with our story, the young Levite named Jonathan has just been hired to serve as the priest of the “church” that Micah has set up at his home. This “church” is a shrine Micah has built to house his two false gods – a carved image and a molded image. Micah’s son has previously been serving as the shrine’s priest, complete with wearing a priestly ephod, but it’s Jonathan who now becomes the lead priest.
Jonathan is a young man completely out of God’s will for his life. Even though he is from Israel’s priestly tribe of Levi, he is not from the line of Aaron and therefore has no business serving as a priest anywhere. Furthermore, whatever form of ministerial service he is qualified to perform, he is supposed to be doing it at Israel’s Tabernacle in Shiloh, not some idolatrous shrine that Micah has erected at his home in the mountains of Ephraim. To make matters worse, Jonathan allows a bond to develop between Micah and himself, a bond that causes him to become like a son to Micah (Judges 17:11). And, as always, whenever someone finds himself in the wrong place doing the wrong thing, eventually trouble will ensue.
In Jonathan’s case, the trouble takes the form of five men from the tribe of Dan who come knocking on Micah’s door. These men are on a reconnaissance mission to spy out the surrounding area for their tribe. And why is the tribe of Dan doing such recon work? It is because that tribe, even though it is 64,000 strong (Numbers 26:43), has been unable to completely drive out the Amorites and thus hold the territory it has been allotted following Israel’s conquering of Canaan (Joshua 19:40-48, Judges 1:34, Judges 18:1).
The main problem is that the Amorites continue to possess the lowlands of Dan’s inheritance. That forces the Danites to live in the hill country, and hill countries aren’t conducive to planting and harvesting crops on a scale large enough to feed over 60,000 people. So, the tribe is now seeking to conquer other lands further north and settle them. But are these expansion efforts God approved? Not a chance. God wants the Danites to trust Him to help them drive out the Amorites rather than search out lands that are easier pickings.
Perhaps the five Danites know about Micah’s home as they make their way northward, or perhaps they just happen upon it, but either way the house becomes a lodging place for them (Judges 18:2). While they are there, it doesn’t take them long to ask Jonathan why he is living there. Verse 3 says “they recognized his voice,” which most likely means they realized that his dialect wasn’t from those parts. When Jonathan tells them that he is Micah’s priest, they excitedly ask him to inquire of God for them whether or not their mission will be successful (18:5). Jonathan answers, “Go in peace. The presence of the Lord will be with you on your way” (18:6). Here again we see evidence of these people’s strange mix of belief in idols and belief in the one true God of Israel.
But is this a genuine word from God through Jonathan? Please. Let’s not forget that if God had His way Jonathan wouldn’t be at this house and these Danites wouldn’t be on this mission! So, for Jonathan to tell them, “The presence of the Lord will be with you on your way” is about like a preacher saying the same thing to a husband about to meet his mistress in a hotel. Did you notice that no mention is made of Jonathan inquiring of the idols, let alone him inquiring of God? No, as J. Vernon McGee says, “This is the sweet talk of a hired preacher who says what people want to hear.”
Well, the five Danites head off on their mission and eventually come upon the city of Laish, which is located about 100 miles from Dan’s territory and is actually outside the territories the people of Israel occupy. The surrounding land is large and lacks nothing (18:10), and the people of Laish are a quiet, peaceful people who all get along with one another and have no official alliances or treaties for protection (18:7). In other words, Laish is exactly what the Danites have been hoping to find. Taking land from these people will be a cakewalk compared to claiming the full inheritance of their portion of Canaan from the Amorites.
So, the five spies go back to their tribe, which is spread out over the territories of Zorah and Eshtaol, and convince the tribe to march against Laish (18:8-11). 600 of Dan’s finest soldiers then head out armed with weapons of war (18:11). Their families travel with them (18:21) on the assumption that Laish will be defeated and the city will be ready for immediate resettling.
After first camping at Kirjath Jearim, the army moves into the mountains of Ephraim and comes to the house of Micah (18:12-13). There the five spies basically say to the rest of the group, “You won’t believe what’s going on at this place.” After being greeted at the site’s gate by Jonathan, the army remains at the gate with him while the five spies go in and loot the place by taking the carved image, the molded image, the ephod, and Micah’s other household idols (18:16-17). Imagine the absurdity of stealing “gods” that weren’t even powerful enough to keep themselves from being stolen!
When the spies get back to the gate with their stolen goods, Jonathan initially objects to the theft (18:18). But when the Danites ask him to come with them and serve as the priest to their entire tribe, he shows his true colors as nothing more than a hireling shepherd by gladly accepting the offer and taking his place in their ranks (18:19-20). After all, a fake preacher will go with the higher offer every time.
And so, the Danite army resumes their trek to Laish, this time with false gods and false priest in tow. Meanwhile, back at the house, Micah rounds up a group of his neighbors and they manage to catch up to the army (18:22). In a funny exchange of words, the Danites ask Micah, “What’s the matter with you?” Micah answers, “You took my gods and my priest and now you ask me, ‘What’s the matter with you?'” But since Micah and his little group are vastly outnumbered, he can’t actually do anything to stop the Danites. So, when the Danites threaten to kill him and his entire household, that settles that, and Micah and his group return to their homes (18:25-26).
All that is left now is for the Danites to lay waste to helpless Laish, and they accomplish that in short order by attacking unexpectedly and burning the city (18:27-28). Following the slaughter, the tribe of Dan rebuilds the city, renames it Dan, and relocates there (18:29).
And what becomes of Jonathan and the idols? The Danites erect the carved image as their god and make Jonathan the priest of their new religion (18:30-31). Over the course of time, Jonathan marries and has sons and those sons also become priests to the Danites (18:30). In other words, Jonathan’s family illegitimately becomes to the tribe of Dan what Aaron’s family legitimately is to Israel. The whole story even closes out by noting that all this took place while the house of God (the Tabernacle) was in Shiloh (18:31). That reminder serves to show the stark contrast between God’s will at Shiloh and the whole sordid mess at Dan.
Now, as I bring this two-part study to a close, I’d like to leave you with three more spiritual lessons that we learn from this fascinating story. First, we learn that any so-called “spiritual” work that is done apart from God and His will simply won’t produce genuine, lasting fruit. Micah acquired his false idols, built his shrine, hired his personal priest, and said, “Now I know that the Lord will be good to me.” But everything he did was done according to human logic, planning, and ingenuity, and God wasn’t the least bit impressed by it. And we are left to wonder just how much supposedly “spiritual” activity going on in our churches, denominations, Christian schools, and para-church organizations today is genuinely God’s will and thus able to produce the right kind of lasting fruit for Him.
Second, we learn that most people, when faced with difficult times, will grab onto the easy way out when it presents itself. This is what the homeless, jobless Jonathan did when he happened upon Micah’s place and was offered a job as the priest of Micah’s little “church.” As soon as he heard the salary package of ten shekels of silver per year, new clothes, and room and board, he was sold on the idea. This is also what the tribe of Dan did when they couldn’t easily drive out the Amorites from that section of Canaan that God had allotted to the tribe. Rather than keep warring against the Amorites and trust in God for the victory, the Danites bailed on God’s will, aborted the spiritual lessons that God was trying to teach them through their difficulties, and took the easy way out of conquering Laish instead.
Finally, third, we learn that when an individual misses God’s will, it can have consequences that are so far ranging as to be almost inconceivable. Follow along with me here. Approximately 400 years after this story in which the tribe of Dan embraced idolatry, the nation of Israel went through a civil war as the ten northern tribes broke away from the two southern tribes, formed their own new kingdom, and installed a king named Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:1-24). Jeroboam then promptly plunged the northern kingdom into full-blown idolatry by erecting two golden calves for worship (1 Kings 12:25-33). One calf was at Bethel, which was located in the mountains of Ephraim. Sound familiar? That’s where Micah had lived. The other calf was at Dan. Sound familiar? That was the city that had formerly been known as Laish. You see, the idolatry that came to characterize Israel’s northern kingdom can be traced all the way back to Micah’s false gods and his false priest Jonathan. By the way, do you know what ultimately happened to the northern kingdom? In 721 B.C., the Assyrians conquered it and carried the people away as captives. Why did God allow that to happen? He did it as a judgment against the northern kingdom’s idolatry. Wow.
So, just to put a period on this whole study, let us be careful not to make the same mistakes as Micah, his mother, his son, Jonathan, or the tribe of Dan. Nothing we do that goes against God’s will can be considered harmless, and we would all be scared to death if we knew the long-range damage that our poor choices can create. In the end, Micah’s little “church” played a foundational role in leading the ten northern tribes into idolatry, and that in turn eventually led to their downfall. And if that isn’t enough to convince us that big doors swing on little hinges when it comes to spiritual matters, I don’t know what would be.