Divine Comedy: Judges 17-18

This is a retelling of the story told in Judges 17 & 18, a passage dripping with irony and sarcastic criticism.

Divine comedy Act 1: 7th Heaven
The perfectly religious family

The scene opens on our hero and his mum. The man’s name, Micah, means ‘Who is like Yahweh?’, but if we were to update the story a bit perhaps we’d have to call him ‘Christian’. Mum had lost a very large sum of money. Being religious, she calls in God to do her bidding for her and curses the thief.

The thief is in fact her own son, Micah, whose conscience is pricked by the thought of being cursed. So he confesses and returns the money. Mum is delighted to have her cash back, and she can’t stay mad at junior, so she quickly pronounces Yahweh’s blessing on him to call off the dogs and cancel her divine curse. She is so thankful that God came through for her that she solemnly consecrates the money back to Yahweh. And, of course, how does one make a serious, deeply religious token of devotion to God? Well, Micah’s mum looks at her ‘What Would Jesus Do’ bracelet, and she decides to purchase some high-end idols to add to her son’s personal shrine, his ‘house of gods’.

Now please take note: this is not just any god that this family is devoted to. They are very careful to use God’s proper name, Yahweh. It’s not like they’ve taken to worshipping some false god. C’mon. These are good Christian folk!

So totally devoted is mum to Yahweh that having consecrated all eleven hundred shekels that she got back, only two hundred of those actually made it to the silversmith. Oh well, Micah’s gods are going to be a bit hollow, but they’re still going to be fantastic. At last, Micah ‘s DIY sanctuary is almost complete. He’s got some beautifully carved gods that he made, and he’s got an ephod to help know god’s will. Now he just needs a priest, but his son can do the job for him temporarily. What a remarkably fine religious family this one is!

And so the curtain is drawn on Act 1. A nice religious family in Northern Canaan have developed their own personal temple so as to worship Yahweh in their own way. In verse 6, the author sounds a little chorus so that the slower readers among us can see how upside-down, ridiculous and ungodly this whole mess is. He says, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” Micah’s home temple is typical of Israel’s lack of spiritual leadership, and their complete ignorance of God’s moral leadership. Everyone does exactly what seems good in his own eyes.

This last phrase is a turnaround of De. 6:18: “Do what is right and good in the LORD’s sight, so that it may go well with you and you may go in and take over the good land that the LORD promised on oath to your forefathers, 19 thrusting out all your enemies before you, as the LORD said.” In other words, God’s promise of the land to Israel was conditional upon following God and listening to His word. They were to do what was right in God’s sight, and then He would give them a good land.

Micah claims to be worshipping Yahweh in his replica temple; he’s got the name right, but he’s actually doing his own thing. He’s actually replicating the behaviour of Moses’ generation who made golden calves by which people could worship God, and which famously led Moses to smash the 10 Commandments.

Divine Comedy Act 2: Nuns on the Run
Clergy chasing the cash

Now, all of this despicable behaviour has been taking place in the North of Israel, and this is no surprise. The North was notorious for idolatry in later history. They had false gods from Micah’s time onwards. When North and South split, the North immediately made their own official centralised temple, complete with golden calves. And to top it off, the North was judged and exiled for their idolatry well over a century before the South followed suit. So, the North was no stranger to this kind of behaviour.

Act 2 of this tragic comedy begins with the announcement of the journey northwards of a special man from the South: a Levite. The Levites were especially honoured in Israelite faith, because they were the tribe that refused to tolerate the worship of the golden calves in Moses’ day. So in honour of their zeal for God that day, all of the priests that served God in the official temple were Levites.

This particular Levite was from Bethlehem in the South, and we discover at the end of the story that he was directly descended from Moses himself. So, now, here comes a member of God’s specially chosen, zealous tribe which stood against idolatry, from the faithful half of the kingdom, and descended from Moses, the most honoured man in Israel’s history. Here comes someone who is bound to stand for true worship in the face of horrifying religious decline. Here comes a man on God’s business, if anyone is!

Unfortunately not. We quickly discover that the man is ‘looking for a place to stay’. Levites were set aside for God’s service, but this one has been disconnected from any kind of calling. He’s on his own business, looking for new prospects. He and Micah meet, and immediately each senses an opportunity. Micah is very interested in where he comes from, and the Levite in communicating what he’s after. Micah’s temple is missing the air of authenticity, the soul, that a genuine priest would bring, and the Levite is after a job. Very quickly, a deal is struck. The runaway priest-for-hire gets his cushy job, and Micah boots out his son from priestly duties and gets the real thing.

But let’s not miss the absurdity and irony of the story as this superstitious mess reaches its crescendo. This Levite is described as ‘young’, which probably means that he’s not yet thirty, the legal age at which one could become a priest. But this is especially silly when you picture Micah, the father of adult children, looking down upon the boy and saying, ‘Please will you be my father?’

So, the Levite replaces Micah’s son as priest and father, and also becomes like one of Micah’s sons. The fact that Micah’s so-called ‘father’ becomes a son to him probably reveals two things. Firstly, it’s probably pointing out what is always true of idolatry. Micah treats his gods as a hobby, something to collect and use and control. He might speak as though he submits to his religion, but he’s actually keeping his religion, his ‘father’ and his god under his control. Secondly, it clearly shows that Micah has opened his heart to the boy-priest, and everything has finally fallen into place for him. Micah is happy and prosperous.

Micah now has a complete collection of religious good luck charms: shrine, idols and now a flesh and blood priest. This, he feels sure, will guarantee God’s blessing. He says, ‘Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, seeing as I now have a Levite for a priest.’

It would be hard to break more of the laws governing worship than Micah did if it was your goal to try, but here we have a sincere Israelite thinking that his worship trinkets will somehow guarantee good luck from God’s hand.

At the beginning of chapter 18, we get the author’s chorus again, ‘In those days, Israel had no king,’ which signals the curtain on this the second act. And, of course, it’s at this point, just as Micah is predicting an improvement in his luck, that his luck ends.

Divine Comedy Act 3: The 300 Spartans
Really, really tough guys facing the odds

In the final movement of the story, we’re introduced to the tribe of Dan. At the beginning of Judges, we’re told that Dan was not able to defeat the Amorites that occupied their corner of the Promised Land. And so here we meet them having given up altogether. They’re now a wandering people again, like Israel of old and the Levite in this story, looking for a better place to stay. They’re sick of God’s difficult unyielding Promised Land. So now they’re off looking for a more promising land.

This Act in the story is a parody. When describing the Danite campaign the author of Judges carefully mimics the language of the Jericho story. Israel, a wandering nation, marching forth to claim a land of God’s choosing, chose two spies and sent them to scout out the land, especially Jericho. The Israelite spies came to the house of a prostitute and they lay down there.

The Danites, a wandering tribe, looking for a land of their own choosing, choose five spies and send them to scout out the land and explore it. The Danite spies come to the house of Micah and lodge there. The author is giving a wink to those who know Jericho well that the Danite spies have also landed in the house of a prostitute, albeit a spiritual and religious prostitute.

Dapper Dan’s brave conquest is interrupted by the coincidental meeting of the Danites with an old friend, the Levite. They know him from back in the day (or at least recognise the accent), and they learn that he is now a priest. So, eager also for God’s blessing, they ask the priest to tell them what God says about their upcoming mission. God is nowhere to be seen or heard in the story, yet, quick as a flash, the priest has got an answer for them. He literally replies, ‘God is watching your steps,’ which is actually terrifically vague, although it is usually meant positively, and pleases the spies.

Sure enough, they travel to the very border of the land and find a fantastic city cut off from help, with poor defences, and no tight political alliances to create problems later. The spies are extremely excited, and they rush back to base camp saying, ‘Let’s go and attack them, quickly, now, what are you waiting for? Are you just going to sit there? It’s beautiful, prosperous, spacious, badly defended, they won’t see it coming, and God has given it to us. Let’s go!’ So, the valiant, fearless 600 warriors head off to battle the odds against an obscure, unsuspecting village.

Now, on their march to battle, the spies mention to the rest of the tribe that a chap called Micah has set up his own flashy carved gods and even an ephod. And they say, ‘Now you know what to do…’

At this point everyone answers, ‘What? False religion in Israel? We most certainly do know what to do. We’ll cut it out, as the law says.’ No, not at all. For Israel in these days, the obvious answer was to steal the gods, give the priest a cushy promotion with them, and to follow Micah’s example by setting themselves up with their own temple. Obviously. And so that is what they do. The priest who was like a son to Micah is very happy to betray his new family and prostitute himself for a bit more cash, and so he and the merry band hurriedly leave Micah’s house.

Of course, Micah hears of the god rustlers, and he rounds up a posse to get the gods back, once again in the most comical way. Micah catches up with them, but they act all surprised. ‘What on earth is the matter with you? Why have you come out looking for a fight?’

Micah is understandably upset, with all of his talismans stolen, all of his hopes for a prosperous life dashed. He spits out short harassed sentences: “My gods, my priest, you’ve taken them and gone! What else have I got? How can you ask ‘What’s wrong with me?'”

The Danites show themselves to be big-talking bullies, but at least with a good sense of action-movie menace. “Don’t argue with us, or some hot-tempered men will attack you, and you and your family will lose their lives.” They couldn’t win a fair fight, but they do enjoy beating on the small and helpless. Micah, caught thieving in Act 1, has lost his lucky charms to daylight robbery.

What’s especially laughable about the scene is again what is true about all false religion. Fake gods are rubbish in a fight. Israel’s God was always His nation’s warrior, defeating Pharaoh without their help, defeating Jericho without their help. Here we have Micah trying pathetically to rescue his god, ‘Hey! That’s my god. I made it. Give it back!’ It’s ridiculous.

And so the bullies and their newfound gods continue on their glorious campaign, and eventually reach the place that the spies discovered. Now, here again, the Danite mission reads like a sequel to the battle of Jericho. Jericho was also an attractive city, and it was the entry point to the beautiful, prosperous land of Israel. But Jericho was a fortress, impossible to penetrate, with huge walls and famous defences. There was no way that a novice army could defeat them, and so it was only by God’s intervention that the Israelites won. God had them circle the city for 7 days, and with a mere blow of the trumpet, God Himself marched on the city and demolished it. Laish, the Danite target, was exactly the same. A terrifying prospect it was! Undefended, unsuspecting. No enemies, no reputation for war.

There have been a few great battles in history about as evenly matched as this one. For instance, on Mauritius, boatfuls of sailors with clubs faced a whole army of… Dodos. Trusting, flightless birds with no natural enemies. It was a dangerous mission undertaken by the sailors to rid the world of the deadly, fiendish scourge of the Dodo, and it was similarly brave of the Danites, who trusted their gods enough to take on the devilish Laishites.

And so Dan managed to win a famous battle that day, wiping out men, women and children from the far border town of Laish and taking their land. You can picture them roaring and handing at the high-fives and doing the touchdown dance. Man! They’re tough. They didn’t want the land that God had given to them, and that didn’t want God either. So they made their own way, and created their own religion, and set up their own rival shrine. They had their own priests and temple until the whole Northern Kingdom was destroyed in 722BC, and they used the idols from Micah’s house of gods all the time that the true House of God was at Shiloh.

This then is the story that represents the religious decline in Israel perhaps as little as two or three generations after Moses. A family in the North, a priest from the South, and an entire Israelite tribe all buy into complete lawlessness and idolatry. The living God is noticeably missing from the story, and noticeably forgotten by His chosen people in His chosen land. There was no King in Israel, and everyone did as he saw fit.

Act 4: Back to the Future
Micah’s malady in modern minds

Well, it’s a cracking story, and quite funny if you’re in the mood, but what has that got to do with us today? Does Israel’s religious decline have anything to do with us, because while there’s no king in Israel, there is a Christian in the White House?

Unfortunately, this passage has everything to do with us. Let’s take a look at what passes for Christianity around the world. First, let’s make a general observation about all of the characters in the story. They all claim to be worshipping Yahweh, the living God, but their faith is hollow. They have the right names and forms, but there is a catastrophic hypocrisy about their worship.

Now consider the hypocrisy that lies behind the following Christian quotes collected together by Richard Dawkins:

A response to Brian Flemming, author / director of ‘The God who wasn’t there’: “You’ve definitely got some nerve. I’d love to take a knife, gut you fools, and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you. You are attempting to ignite a holy war in which some day I, and others like me, may have the pleasure of taking action like the above mentioned. However, GOD teaches us not to seek vengeance, but to pray for those like you all. I’ll get confort in knowing that the punishment GOD will bring you will be 1000 times worse than anything I can inflict. The best part is that you WILL suffer for eternity for these sins that you’re completely ignorant about. The wrath of GOD will show no mercy. For your sake, I hope the truth is revealed to you before the knife connects with your flesh. Merry CHRISTMAS!!! PS. You people really don’t have a clue as to what’s in store for you… I thank God I’m not you.”

To the editor of Freethought Magazine (advocating separation of church and state):

Hello cheese-eating scumbags. There are way more of us Christians than you losers. Their is no separation of church and state and you heathens will lose… Satan worshipping scum… Please die and go to hell… I hope you get a painful disease like rectal cancer and die a slow painful death, so you can meet your God, SATAN… [It gets very obscene and bigoted for a while]. You are without excuse. Creation is more than enough evidence of the LORD Jesus CHRIST’S omnipotent power. We will not go quietly away. If in the future that requires violence just remember that you brought it on. My rifle is loaded.”

The American Taliban: Ann Coulter:

“We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Congressman Bob Dornan: “Don’t use the word ‘gay’, unless it’s an acronym for ‘Got AIDS yet?’”

And there are even worse examples listed of outright hatred for certain kinds of non-Christians. Not only is such behaviour towards outsiders expressly forbidden by scripture, but it goes against the most fundamental moral dictum in scripture: love your enemy as yourself.

It’s easy to dismiss the American Taliban as a bunch of fringe right-wingers who have found a way to make their hatred sound holy, so let’s get mainstream.

Consider Micah’s reason for collecting religious trinkets. He said, ‘Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest.’ Micah’s religion was all about having a better life, getting luckier and richer. Let’s take a look around the church today and see whether we can spot any evidence of people who are in it for what they can get out.

We don’t have to look too far, do we? Consider this quote from a very widely distributed TBN pamphlet:

“Here is the KEY to YOUR PROSPERITY… Abraham gave God a tithe of all his victory spoils from the heathen kings. God gave Abraham his own son, the whole land of Israel and several million acres of real estate. The record also shows, “And Abraham was very rich in cattle, in silver and in gold.” Would God have blessed Abraham so greatly had he not given to him? You tell me! We still love to quote Jesus’ own words: “Give and it shall be given unto thee…” But don’t forget the main KEY: “And Abraham believed in the LORD, and God counted it to him for righteousness.” And never forget: the beginning of your miracle is your gift to God! Make your gift known by returning the enclosed coupon or by making a pledge on our Website…”

A woman near a friend’s church in Ballito in Natal claims to be a prophetess. If you want a word from the Lord for yourself, she writes a sum of money on the outside of an envelope, which you must fill for her before she’ll tell you.

I watched TV for 10 minutes Sunday morning, and this is what I heard: Firstly, Joyce Meyer was on, and she had this gem to share with us. She said that people don’t resent other people who drive the same car and have the same stuff. So, if people who have less than you resent you, it is only their jealousy that motivates them. It’s their problem, not yours. Furthermore, the have-nots don’t have what you do, because they’re not prepared to work for it like you did (she really is a master of insensitivity, isn’t she?). Then she used King David as an example, because God apparently gave him wealth and position because he was most devoted to God, and Joseph as an example, because he endured prison with a remarkable attitude and was raised to wealth and prominence. So, the implication is that wealth is a reward from God for those who are especially deserving, and those who ‘have not’ are in some way to blame for their lack of prosperity.

Next up was ‘Higher Life’, where Pastor Chris informed us that people experience frustration because they don’t have the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit that made Jesus what he was, because the Spirit anointed him as Christ, and so if you have the Holy Spirit you will have absolute success in every sphere, whether it be financially, in business, anywhere. If you have the spiritual quality that he’s offering, you too can say, ‘now I know the Lord will prosper me.’

These are popular Christian media examples, followed by millions, and they’re all concerned with getting cash or success or power. It’s nauseating.

But what about the less televised, cash-conscious circles? Are our good evangelical churches exempt from Micah’s thinking? I doubt it. How quickly do we descend into religious trinket collecting? How often do we do things because we think God will owe us a good deal later on? Perhaps we have prayer times twice a day for a week before exams? Perhaps we take part in all-night meetings or long fasts to show how zealous we are? Perhaps you sing in the choir, or maybe you went to church instead of the big rugby game. Now God will definitely be happy with you. We don’t have to collect relics or make silver idols to construct our own laughable private religious shrines. We can do it in all sorts of respectable evangelical ways.

What we can say with much certainty is that all of the characters in Micah’s story had long since forgotten God’s Word in the scriptures, and they had no idea how to do what is right in the Lord’s eyes. They had no king, and they didn’t know how to please God.  We have a great advantage over Israel, because we can all afford to have a Bible of our own, and we are intelligent enough to learn how to interpret it. The only thing that prevents us is complacency. As more of our churches care less about teaching and interpreting the bible carefully, you can be sure that we will increasingly misunderstand and forget God’s Word too.

Let’s take our worship of God seriously enough to make careful study of scripture a part of our Christian lives.

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