Reading the Bible can be hard work. Well, reading is easy, but making sense of the biblical narrative is often difficult. Then we have the bizarre cases—the stories that make you sit back, scratch your head, and say “huh…why is that in the Bible?”
The Book of Judges is perhaps the best source for these bizarre Bible stories. Most of the book describes the exploits of numerous judges who governed the tribes of Israel between the time of Joshua and Samuel. The last judge described in the book is Samson who dies at the end of Jdgs 16. Samson alone provides a bizarre exemplar of a Nazirite (Num 6) devoted to God who is nevertheless a partying, carousing, rabble-rouser.
The remainder of the book tells a series of unusual narratives depicting the anarchy and chaos in Israel when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Jdgs 17:6). These stories depict the tribes of Israel as so uncivilized, primitive, and backward (judged by the standard of the Torah) that it is difficult to understand why they are even a part of Scripture. Consider the story of Micah and the tribe of Dan in Jdgs 17-18.
As the story opens, Micah is confessing to his mum that he was the one who stole her silver, acknowledging that he heard her curse on whoever was responsible. Rather than scold or punish him for stealing it, she exclaims, “Blessed be my son by YHWH! (Jdgs 17:2). One wonders what the penalty of the curse was or perhaps the curse was on anyone who knew and didn’t confess, so he was trying to avoid the curse. His mother then dedicates the silver to YHWH for her son to make a carved image. (Didn’t they know about Exod 20:4?) Then Micah makes an ephod, recruits a Levite to be his priest (Exod 29:9?), and sets up a shrine to YHWH in his house.
In Jdgs 18, scouts from the tribe of Dan looking for a land for their tribe to possess pass by Micah’s house and inquire of YHWH through the priest there. The Levite blesses their mission and they set their sights on the tranquil city of Laish - “quiet and unsuspecting” (Jdgs 18:7) – in the far north of Canaan but too far from the Sidonians for their protection. In a fit of bucolic idealism, I picture a quiet village nestled peacefully in a fertile valley – secure and unsuspecting.
The scouts bring a positive report back to the tribe and soon 600 armed men from Dan along with their families depart to conquer and settle Laish. On the way, they once again pass Micah’s house in the hill country of Ephraim. This time, they stop to steal Micah’s carved image, the ephod, his household gods, and his priest, convincing the priest that it was better for him to be a priest for a whole tribe (Jdgs 18:19-20. But shouldn’t he be killed for presuming to be a priest anyway? Num 3:10). Micah pursues to recover his property but gives up when the Danites threaten to kill him and his family.
Finally, the Danites get to tranquil and unsuspecting Laish where they kill everyone and burn down the town. Here I picture a hoard of marauding bandits descending on that peaceful little hamlet.
Then they rebuild the city, set up the carved image, and install the Levite as their priest – only now we learn the Levite’s identity, Jonathan son of Gershom son of Moses! (Yes, the grandson of Moses . . . the apple fell far from the tree.)
So what is the purpose of this bizarre story? It seems clear that the purpose was two-fold: 1) to explain why Dan came to have territory in the north when their official allotment was elsewhere (specifically west of Ephraim along the coast) and 2) to discredit the origins of the ancient Yahwistic shrines at Bethel (in the hill country of Ephraim) and Dan by depicting them as illegitimate shrines from a time of chaos and anarchy in Israel (see 1 Kgs 12:25-29). Notice that the account never shows YHWH communicate with the Levite or Micah directly. The Levite’s response to the scouts’ request for divine guidance (Jdgs 18:6) is a “pat” answer similar to the prophets in 1 Kgs 22:6 or Eli in 1 Sam 1:17. The inquiry likely involved tools of divination like the ephod and household gods (teraphim) from Jdgs 17:5.
Are there any redeeming qualities to this story? People take what they want, kill or threaten those who stand in their way, and treat YHWH much like any other deity in the ancient world who needs a shrine with an image and can be sought through the magic of divination.
Every time I read these stories I’m at a loss to explain their value as Scripture except as an account of the sinfulness and disobedience of Israel in the age where everyone did what was right in his own eyes. But when I read the stories, it jumps out that the people involved think they’re following YHWH in some way even as they’re committing the most unspeakable acts against their fellow Israelites or just breaking the Ten Commandments.
For some reason, the paraphrased Bible story books for children skip the bizarre stories like this one and the even more bizarre events to follow in Judges 19-21.
To be continued . . .