Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Judges. Day 58, Micah's Idolatry

Chapter 17 is about a man named Micah, an Ephraimite. (He is not to be confused with the prophet Micah.) Some scholars believe the story of Micah took place much earlier than where we find it in the Bible, stating that it occurred perhaps as early as the days of Joshua or during the days of Othniel the judge. However, other scholars argue that this chapter and the following chapters are being used to lead up to the coronation of Israel's first king. We will read the refrain, "In those days Israel had no king," several times. If the book of Judges was written by the judge and prophet Samuel, as is generally accepted, then it makes sense he would include the events leading up to his term in office and to the day in which he will anoint Saul as the first king of Israel. In looking at our current chapter and our following chapters, I personally feel that the story of Micah is exactly where it belongs chronologically. 

Micah was apparently not one of the judges but his story is provided to us as an example of a type of idolatry that was taking place in the nation. He will set up a shrine, in violation of the word of God, within his territory of Ephraim. Our chapter serves as an introduction to Chapter 18 in which we find the establishment of an unauthorized center of worship by the men of the tribe of Dan. The Israelites were commanded in the book of Deuteronomy to bring offerings and sacrifices only to the place the Lord would choose---and that place is at His tabernacle at this point in the Old Testament. Later on, when King Solomon builds the first temple, the location of the temple is to be the national center of worship.

"Now a man named Micah of the hill country of Ephraim said to his mother, 'The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you and about which I heard you utter a curse---I have that silver with me; I took it.' Then his mother said, 'The Lord bless you, my son!' When he returned the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, she said, 'I solemnly consecrate my silver to the Lord for my son to make an image overlaid with silver. I will give it back to you.'" (Judges 17:1-3) The amount of silver Micah stole from his mother weighed about twenty-eight pounds. At the average price of silver per ounce in January 2022, it would be worth over $10,000. Upon finding that so much silver had been stolen from her, Micah's mother pronounced a curse upon whoever took it. In the original Hebrew, the word translated into English as "curse" means "to pronounce" or "to adjure" or "to put under oath". So the word "curse" is not being used here to mean the use of foul language. The reason he returns the silver to her is because he doesn't want a curse to fall upon him. 

Micah's mother immediately forgives him of his crime and takes back her curse and offers a blessing in its place. She wants to thank the Lord for the return of her silver but she proposes a use for the silver that goes directly against a commandment of the Lord: the creating of an image/idol. It doesn't matter whether she intended that image to represent the Lord; such a thing was not to be done. "You shall not make for yourself an image of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below." (Exodus 20:4) No object of worship was to be fashioned by the hands of man, not even if that object was intended to represent the Lord Himself. The Lord cannot be represented by anything made by the hands of man. Any attempt to represent Him in any fashion is an insult to Him, for His great glory can't be comprehended by human minds, much less be duplicated in art or sculpture by human hands. 

If Micah's mother had chosen to dedicate all or part of the returned silver to the tabernacle as an offering to the Lord, that would have been an acceptable use of it. If she had chosen to dedicate it to good works, that would have been admirable of her. But instead she instructs her son to fashion an idol to be plated by some of the silver he returned to her. It's interesting to note that although she vows to dedicate the returned silver to the Lord (in her misguided way), she actually only devotes two hundred shekels of the eleven hundred shekels to this purpose. "So after he returned the silver to his mother, she took two hundred shekels of silver and gave them to a silversmith, who used them to make the idol. And it was put in Micah's house." (Judges 17:4)

Micah didn't grow up in a home where a godly example was set for him. His mother sees nothing wrong with having household shrines or household idols or a center of worship that is not the one prescribed by the Lord. Micah himself will not set a godly example for anyone. But we can't lay all the blame for Micah's behavior on the bad parenting he received. He's not a child or teen who is still living under parental authority. He's a man old enough to have grown sons of his own. He unlawfully ordains one of his grown sons as a priest at his unauthorized shrine. "Now this man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and some household gods and installed one of his sons as his priest." (Judges 17:5)

The author of Judges offers the opinion that the reason people were neglecting the centralized house of worship in Israel is because there was no centralized house of government in Israel. "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit." (Judges 17:6) The Lord was supposed to be Israel's king and if all the citizens had honored Him as king in their hearts, we would not find anyone setting up household shrines and making offerings and sacrifices before graven images (whether or not those graven images were intended to represent the Lord). The Lord authorized only one location for offerings and sacrifices and He did this for their own good. People who separate themselves from the main body of believers are prone to drifting from the truth. Those who were choosing to worship at home or in their own villages weren't hearing the public reading of the law that took place every seventh year at the tabernacle. They weren't being exposed to the godly examples of those who were worshiping in accordance with the regulations given by the Lord. As a result, men and women began making up their own rules and rituals, which began to differ more and more from true worship. This is something we still have to guard against in our own times because we are in danger of drifting from the Lord when we aren't worshiping Him with other believers.

We've seen that Micah didn't grow up with a mother who set a godly example for him. We don't know anything about his father. His father isn't mentioned and that could be because he died young, leaving Micah's mother to raise her son alone. Some commentators speculate that his mother was a descendant of the "mixed multitude" who came out of Egypt with the Israelites. If that's the case, she may have retained some idolatrous elements from the religion of her forefathers and she may have mixed those with the worship of the Lord. Micah may have grown up seeing this in his mother's home and that may be why he continued these traditions in his own home. Regardless of whether his mother set a godly example for him, we would expect a man of the priestly tribe of Levi to be able to influence and advise him on proper and acceptable worship, but when a traveling Levite shows up at his home, this man not only doesn't take Micah to task for his household shrine and idols but accepts a job from Micah where he will act as priest at this sinful shrine.

"A young Levite from Bethlehem in Judah, who had been living with the clan of Judah, left that town in search of some other place to stay. On his way he came to Micah's house in the hill country of Ephraim. Micah asked him, 'Where are you from?' 'I'm a Levite from Bethlehem in Judah,' he said, 'and I'm looking for a place to stay.' Then Micah said to him, 'Live with me and be my father and priest, and I'll give you ten shekels of silver a year, your clothes and your food.' So the Levite agreed to live with him, and the young man became like one of his sons to him. Then Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest and lived in his house. And Micah said, 'Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest.'" (Judges 17:7-13) It may be that, since Micah was an Ephraimite, some of the people of his town found fault with him installing his son as a priest since priests had to be Levites. Hiring this Levite to be a priest was intended to provide a semblance of legitimacy to what Micah was doing: setting up a center of worship to rival that of the tabernacle at Shiloh. Micah congratulates himself for his shrewd creativity in appointing this man as a priest and erroneously assumes that the Lord is pleased with him and will bless him. Micah says the Lord will be good to him "now", indicating that perhaps he didn't feel particularly blessed while his son performed the duties of priest. He thinks the reason the Lord didn't shower abundant prosperity upon him while his son was priest is because his son is not a Levite. It's like Micah has blinded himself to the fact that he should not have the shrine, or the idolatrous image, at all. 

Chapter 17 illustrates the spiritual decay that was taking place during the era of the judges. The author will continue in this theme in Chapter 18, where he will again make the statement, "In those days Israel had no king." He will continue to repeat this statement throughout the remainder of the book of Judges, adding, "Everyone did as they saw fit." He's suggesting that if Israel had a king to crack down on these unauthorized locations of worship, everyone would not be doing as they see fit. As we move on through the Old Testament we'll see that whenever a godly king is on the throne of Israel, it tends to bring about religious revival. This doesn't mean there is ever a time when every citizen is living a life fully committed to the Lord, but there can be no doubt that godly leadership encourages godliness in the general population. There can also be no doubt that having an idolatrous king on the throne emboldens the citizenry to commit idolatry. The author of Judges is not necessarily wrong that having a king will help prevent people from straying from the Lord---if that king is a king who loves the Lord. But, human nature being what it is, there will still be those who do as they see fit. This is because, as King Solomon will later say, there is a way that seems right to man but "in the end it leads to death". (Proverbs 14:12) The way that seems right to man is often a sinful way. Micah has deceived himself into thinking he's doing something right. His own form of religion looks okay to him. Because it looks okay to him, and because he is pleased with it, he expects the Lord to be pleased with it too. But sin never leads to anything good. Micah's sin in Chapter 17 will lead to more sin in Chapter 18.

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