Essentially, this story explains how the tribe of Dan ("He judged") moved from its allotted territory in the central part of the coastal plain to the far north of Galilee (Joshua 19:40-48). The story itself revolves around Micah, who built himself a shrine with money stolen from his own mother and then fills it with an "idol of cast metal" (cast from the stolen silver), an ephod, and teraphim or household gods often used in divination (Judges 17:1-6). All this is explicitly condemned (Exodus 20:3-4; Judges 2:1-5). To make matters worse, Micah ("Who Is Like Yahweh"), conveniently ignoring the last part of his name, installs his own son as priest of this abomination until an itinerant Levite happens by and is cajoled into service (vv. 7-13). Unbelievably, his mother is complicit in all this. After Micah confesses his theft and returns the 1100 pieces of silver, she consecrates it and returns it to her son in the form of an idol and with a blessing; well…she returns 200 pieces of it, anyway (compare vv. 3-4).
Chapter 18 brings the tribe of Dan on the scene. Acting upon information obtained by spies, the Danites steal Micah's bogus liturgical paraphernalia and convince the Levite to become their tribal priest instead of Micah's family priest (vv. 11-20). After destroying the town of Laish and settling there, they install the Levite as their priest who sets up the shrine with its stolen liturgical appurtenances (vv. 21-31).
A charitable reading of these shenanigans would see a description of how Dan settled in the north. But the trenchant critique of the sanctuary constructed in Dan (1 Kings 12:28-30) and the pray-for-pay priesthood that served there can hardly be missed. The story thus serves as a caustic illustration of the refrain that peppers these chapters, "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 17:6; compare 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). This, says Judges, is what you get when you don't serve the Lord and you have no central government.
17There was a man in the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Micah. 2He said to his mother, The eleven hundred pieces of silver that were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse, and even spoke it in my hearingthat silver is in my possession; I took it; but now I will return it to you.* And his mother said, May my son be blessed by the Lord! 3Then he returned the eleven hundred pieces of silver to his mother; and his mother said, I consecrate the silver to the Lord from my hand for my son, to make an idol of cast metal. 4So when he returned the money to his mother, his mother took two hundred pieces of silver, and gave it to the silversmith, who made it into an idol of cast metal; and it was in the house of Micah. 5This man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and teraphim, and installed one of his sons, who became his priest. 6In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
7 Now there was a young man of Bethlehem in Judah, of the clan of Judah. He was a Levite residing there. 8This man left the town of Bethlehem in Judah, to live wherever he could find a place. He came to the house of Micah in the hill country of Ephraim to carry on his work.* 9Micah said to him, From where do you come? He replied, I am a Levite of Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to live wherever I can find a place. 10Then Micah said to him, Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, a set of clothes, and your living.* 11The Levite agreed to stay with the man; and the young man became to him like one of his sons. 12So Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah. 13Then Micah said, Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because the Levite has become my priest.
18In those days there was no king in Israel. And in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking for itself a territory to live in; for until then no territory among the tribes of Israel had been allotted to them. 2So the Danites sent five valiant men from the whole number of their clan, from Zorah and from Eshtaol, to spy out the land and to explore it; and they said to them, Go, explore the land. When they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, they stayed there. 3While they were at Micahs house, they recognized the voice of the young Levite; so they went over and asked him, Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? What is your business here? 4He said to them, Micah did such and such for me, and he hired me, and I have become his priest. 5Then they said to him, Inquire of God that we may know whether the mission we are undertaking will succeed. 6The priest replied, Go in peace. The mission you are on is under the eye of the Lord.
7 The five men went on, and when they came to Laish, they observed the people who were there living securely, after the manner of the Sidonians, quiet and unsuspecting, lacking* nothing on earth, and possessing wealth.* Furthermore, they were far from the Sidonians and had no dealings with Aram.* 8When they came to their kinsfolk at Zorah and Eshtaol, they said to them, What do you report? 9They said, Come, let us go up against them; for we have seen the land, and it is very good. Will you do nothing? Do not be slow to go, but enter in and possess the land. 10When you go, you will come to an unsuspecting people. The land is broadGod has indeed given it into your handsa place where there is no lack of anything on earth.
11 Six hundred men of the Danite clan, armed with weapons of war, set out from Zorah and Eshtaol, 12and went up and encamped at Kiriath-jearim in Judah. On this account that place is called Mahaneh-dan* to this day; it is west of Kiriath-jearim. 13From there they passed on to the hill country of Ephraim, and came to the house of Micah.
14 Then the five men who had gone to spy out the land (that is, Laish) said to their comrades, Do you know that in these buildings there are an ephod, teraphim, and an idol of cast metal? Now therefore consider what you will do. 15So they turned in that direction and came to the house of the young Levite, at the home of Micah, and greeted him. 16While the six hundred men of the Danites, armed with their weapons of war, stood by the entrance of the gate, 17the five men who had gone to spy out the land proceeded to enter and take the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim.* The priest was standing by the entrance of the gate with the six hundred men armed with weapons of war. 18When the men went into Micahs house and took the idol of cast metal, the ephod, and the teraphim, the priest said to them, What are you doing? 19They said to him, Keep quiet! Put your hand over your mouth, and come with us, and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be priest to the house of one person, or to be priest to a tribe and clan in Israel? 20Then the priest accepted the offer. He took the ephod, the teraphim, and the idol, and went along with the people.
21 So they resumed their journey, putting the little ones, the livestock, and the goods in front of them. 22When they were some distance from the home of Micah, the men who were in the houses near Micahs house were called out, and they overtook the Danites. 23They shouted to the Danites, who turned around and said to Micah, What is the matter that you come with such a company? 24He replied, You take my gods that I made, and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? How then can you ask me, What is the matter? 25And the Danites said to him, You had better not let your voice be heard among us or else hot-tempered fellows will attack you, and you will lose your life and the lives of your household. 26Then the Danites went on their way. When Micah saw that they were too strong for him, he turned and went back to his home.
27 The Danites, having taken what Micah had made, and the priest who belonged to him, came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, put them to the sword, and burned down the city. 28There was no deliverer, because it was far from Sidon and they had no dealings with Aram.* It was in the valley that belongs to Beth-rehob. They rebuilt the city, and lived in it. 29They named the city Dan, after their ancestor Dan, who was born to Israel; but the name of the city was formerly Laish. 30Then the Danites set up the idol for themselves. Jonathan son of Gershom, son of Moses,* and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the time the land went into captivity. 31So they maintained as their own Micahs idol that he had made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh.
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