Judges 17

                                                     The Lawless years


The final five chapters of Judges consist of what scholars call two appendices. One deals with the tribe of Dan (chapters 17 and 18) and the last three (18-21) with the tribe of Benjamin. They are called appendices because they do not mention any judges. Both refer to a Levite who is connected with Bethlehem (17:7 and 19:1), although each Levite was a different person. They tell of terrible events that occurred during the period of the judges, when apparently no judge judged, when there was “no king in Israel” (18:1 and 19:1), when “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6 and 21:25).

Commentators on these five chapters differ as to when the events occurred. The general consensus, including Rashi and Gersonides, is that they describe episodes just after the death of Joshua and before the judgeship of the first judge Othniel.[1] They say the chapters were placed at the end of the book because they do not deal with judges, just occurrences that occurred during the period of the judges, and the horrendous stories of lawlessness serve as a good introduction to the book of Samuel and its story of the first Israelite king, Saul who tried to resolve this problem, which comes next in the Hebrew Bible.  However, others, such as Abarbanel insist that the events in the five chapters occurred after the judgeship of Samson.


Was chapter 17 composed to mock the kingdom of Israel?

Many Bible commentators argued that the Israelites during the time of Moses who worshipped the golden calf did no wrong. They present many imaginative views to support their conclusion, such as Rashi who believed in the existence of corporeal demons. Rashi relied on the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 16a, and writes in his commentary to Genesis 6:19 that Noah saved the demons in his ark along with his family and animals. In regard to the golden calf, he elaborates on a view mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 89a, and Midrash Exodus Rabbah. He suggests that the Israelites were misled by the demon Satan, who scared the people by creating frightening turmoil in the heaven and anxiety producing darkness, and who told the people that Moses was dead. The demon even showed them Moses’ bier. The non-Israelite mixed multitude, which accompanied the Israelites during the exodus, were the first to be misled. They, in turn, enticed some, but not many, Israelites to join them. They threatened Aaron with death. Aaron tried many tricks to delay them from carrying out their plan to substitute a calf for God. However, Satan harried the people. Aaron was assisted by magicians among the people, who produced the golden calf instantly though magic. This was Rashi’s view in his commentary to Exodus 32.


Later use of calves in worship

The calf was worshipped for centuries by the Israelites in a later period. I Kings 12:26ff tells the story of Jeroboam I of the kingdom of Israel, the nation that split off from Judea after the death of King Solomon around 922 BCE. He erected two golden calves in the two temples he constructed in Beth El and Dan. Some scholars state that he relied on Israelite history, the Israelite use of a calf in the Exodus story, which seemed to indicate that calves have some sanctity. The calves were placed in the physically accessible courts of the temples where the people could touch them. It is uncertain whether the calves were meant to represent God or were seen as the seat or pedestal upon which the invisible God was thought to stand.


Mocking the temples in Israel

Some scholars, but of course not all, offer an interesting interpretation of Judges 17 and 18 – the story of Micah’s molten image. They contend that the story is “essentially negative, with marked ironical thrusts.”[2] It was written in the southern kingdom of Judea to mock and reproach the temples of the northern kingdom of Israel, a polemic against the Dan sanctuary and its priesthood who claimed noble descent from the family of Moses.[3] They claim that these two chapters were composed sometime after 722 B.C.E., when the temples at Beth El and Dan were destroyed by invaders. The chapters, according to them, relate what they considered the repugnant origin of the golden calves that Jeroboam placed in his temples. The story in Judges shows that the golden calf at Dan existed for some time before Jeroboam and it came to Dan under disgraceful circumstances.[4]

Micah is called Micahu in the opening part of chapter 17. The name means “who is like God.” Later, he is called Micah, without the ending signifying God, perhaps alluding to the un-godly circumstances of the story.

Micah in Judges 17 stole a huge amount of money from his mother who had promised the funds to God. After some time, Micah admitted the theft and returned the money to his mother. She gave it back to him to build a golden image and other objects for his home sanctuary. Micah used part of the funds to build these items, but pocketed the rest of the money that had been dedicated for God. Although the text does not describe the image that was constructed, some scholars state that it was a golden calf. Micah made his son a priest of his home sanctuary, but later, for unknown reasons, replaced him with a Levite for a stipulated annual sum.

Meanwhile, the tribe of Dan in chapter 18 was searching for a settlement and dispatched five spies to northern Canaan to reconnoiter the land. The spies happened to spend the night at Micah’s estate, met the Levite priest and saw the golden calf and other sanctuary articles.

They left in the morning and found an unprotected peaceful non-Israelite city in the north of Canaan that was easy to conquer. They returned to their brethren and brought a band of 600 warriors to take the unprotected city from its unsuspecting inhabitants.[5]

The warriors passed Micah’s estate and stole the golden calf and other property belonging to Micah. They sordidly persuaded the Levite priest to breach his contract with Micah and become a priest to their tribe when they conquered the peaceful city. When Micah requested that they return his property, they threatened to kill him and his family if he continued to bother them. The warriors successfully captured the city, killed its inhabitants, burned it, rebuilt it, and named it after their tribe, Dan.

The scholars contend, as I said, that the Judean author of this story was mocking and disparaging the origin of Jeroboam’s golden calf at Dan. It was no wonder, the author is saying, that the temple was destroyed around 722 B.C.E.: it was punished for such a despicable past.

I will give some more details of this sordid history in the next chapter.



[1] One proof for the view that the events occurred at an early period is that chapter 18 tells how the tribe of Dan moved from the coastal region to the far north of Canaan, while in the story of Deborah in chapters 4 and 5, the tribe of Dan is already located in northern Canaan.

[2] Soggin.

[3] As seems to be indicated in 18:30.

[4] Jeroboam led ten tribes and seceded from the empire of Kings David and Solomon around 926 or 922 BCE, made himself king over the ten tribes and built two temples in Dan and Beth El so that his people would worship there and not need to travel to the southern land of Judea from which they seceded.

The rabbis differ about the calves installed by Jeroboam, as do critical scholars. Soggin, for example, states that Jeroboam’s calves were not deities, but “the pedestal on which the God of Israel was raised, though this time invisibly, just as the ark in the Temple of Jerusalem was his throne.” Kaufman felt that Micah’s temple was devoted to the Israelite God – there is no mention of Baal. Micah included for objects in his sanctuary – a pesel, maseicha, ephod, and teraphim, about which we really don’t know how they were used, but they were most likely not idols, but fetishes. Kaufman adds that this was a time when there were many sanctuaries among the Israelites in Canaan, many of which were family temples.

According to 18:30, Moses’s descendants served as priests at the Dan temple “until the day of the captivity of the land,” while 18:31 states “all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh,” a seeming contradiction. Rashi understands the two verses to refer to the exile of the ten northern tribes by Sennacherib, mentioned in II Kings 15:29. Kimchi suggests an earlier period, when the ark was taken by the Philistines from Shiloh, mentioned in I Samuel 4:11, when the Philistines probably destroyed the city. Gersonides opts for a still earlier period, the exile of the Danites during the time of Jabin, king of Canaan, in Judges 4:2. And there are many other views, including that the two verses conflict and are two different traditions, both preserved by the editor of Judges.

[5] This was land in the extreme northern part of Canaan, land that Joshua did not divide among the tribes.