Judges 17:1-18:31 – The Origin of the Sanctuary at Dan
SummaryThe migration of part of the tribe of Dan to the north is recounted through the story of the Danites' theft of Micah's idol to account for the establishment of the sanctuary at Dan.
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.