Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bizarre Bible Stories: Judges 17-18

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 . . .


  1. Douglas,

    I wonder if the purpose of these final stories in Judges has more to do with monarchy, or lack thereof. The refrain is repeated several times, "In those days Israel had no king." Also notice the geography. These stories involve characters from Ephraim, Bethlehem, Gibeah, as well as the idol at Dan.

    These stories certainly make the case that things are not right, and they might be setting up the tension between David (of Bethlehem) and Saul (of Gibeah in Benjamin), and the later conflict between Judah and Ephraim as the Southern and Northern kingdoms.


  2. I suppose you could also throw Jabesh Gilead into the mix. It is connected to Benjamin both in ch. 21 and via Saul in 1 Sam 31.


  3. A.D., I think you're on to something with the subtle way Judges is setting up (or perhaps retrojecting) later conflicts between Judah and Benjamin especially reflected in the conflict between Saul and David. You've anticipated somewhat where I was heading with part 2, so I'll save the rest of my thoughts for my next post.

  4. One head-scratcher I found is in 2 Kings 22:8, where the high priest says to the secretary, "I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord." Why did the high priest go to the 'secretary' first? What was the high priest working from before finding the 'Book of the Law'?

  5. Nik,
    Yes, one has to wonder . . . where was the Law all that time? They appear to have forgotten all about it after Joshua. Notice for example Nehemiah 8:17 about celebrating the Feast of Booths for the first time since Joshua. Interestingly, the NIV got around the problem by saying they hadn't celebrated "like this" since Joshua, leaving open the possiblity that they had celebrated it. One more reason to commend the ESV for not going with the "cover-up" translation.

  6. Douglas,
    I also use the ESV, but are you completely sure that is what the NIV implies? After studying a lexicon in order to give my honest opinion, I still agree with the NIV. And do not read where NIV clearly disagrees with the ESV. Not to offend, but could you be splitting hairs?

    Have you brought that point up at Better Bibles Blog? I'd be interested in hearing their opinion(s).

  7. Nik,

    I think the distinction is subtle but important. It potentially reveals the translator's perspective on ancient Israelite religion. Did they have the Law before the exile? If it existed, how widely was it known or enforced? Whichever way you read Neh 8:17, it's clear the Law wasn't very well known at that time. But the translation can downplay the disconnect. This is what I think NIV does. I don't know if it was intentional, and maybe it is just splitting hairs in the end.

    I intended my comment about the NIV to show how a subtle difference in perspective can have a big implication. But I'm not just picking on the NIV. NLT and HCSB are with the NIV in qualifying "like this." They aren't completely wrong, but they are making a choice to translate in a way that (in my reading) implies some kind of continuity with the Law before and after the exile. I'm not sure if you can read the Hebrew since I'm not sure what "studying a lexicon" implies for a question like this. Honestly, the lexicon is not much help.

    The problem hinges on how one takes the little Hebrew word "ken." It means "so, thus" but could also mean "like so." The Hebrew says "which they had not done from the days of Joshua son of Nun, so (ken) the sons of Israel (did) on that day." If you read "ken" with what comes first, you get "which they had not done ... like so." Implying I think that they hadn't done it correctly but may have tried.

    In this type of construction, it's more usual to take "ken" as introducing what comes next - "what had not been done . . . so they did." I think this translation carries more of the force of the disconnect. ESV, NASB, NRSV and the LXX took it this way.

    Whatever way you read it, it's clear something had gone very wrong somewhere along the line with the proper understanding and practice of the Law.

    I hope this helps show the subtle disagreement between the NIV and ESV here. Many translation differences boil down to hair-splitting sometimes.

    As far as Better Bibles Blog goes, I have to confess I don't regularly follow them. I don't see a lot of posts on Old Testament passages, so I don't know if any of them read Biblical Hebrew enough to comment anyway.

    Thanks for your comments, Nik. I'd actually discovered what the NIV said in Neh 8:17 quite by mistake when I used to look up the verse this morning. I hadn't even looked at the Hebrew yet when I made my first comment.

  8. As we look at the accounts in Judges 17-21, it begins to explain King David and Solomon's Psalms and Proverbs concerning the "fear of the Lord."

    Somehow we get caught up in linguistics (it is relevant) but we fail to look at how this view into the cultural setting will affect our understanding of the words recorded by David and Solomon.

    For example: "Fear of God" is often explained as reverence or worship of God. Again that is true, but it falls far short of the implied meaning of "fear." There was not FEAR of God and His commands that they had been given through Moses. Had they forgotten it? Probably. But the Levitse were around and succumbed to the social/cultural pressure that around.

    Judges implies that, "there is no excuse."

    Why did the people act in this manner? They had no "King" even though God insisted that He was their God. They did what was right in their own mind... To H___ with God. We will do what we want.