Chapter 18

                                                 The shameful history of Micah’s temple


Whether one accepts the notion that chapter 17 was composed to ridicule the temple that King Jeroboam of the northern nation Israel built in Dan[1] or not, it seems that the origin of Micah’s temple is disgraceful, although this is not certain, because like much in the Bible, the chapter is filled with ambiguities and obscurities.

  • Chapter 17 seems to set the stage for a negative interpretation of Micah’s behavior by first calling him by his full name Micahu, which means “who is like God,” but later naming him Micah, without the ending signifying God, perhaps hinting at the un-godly circumstances of the story.[2]
  • Micah’s initial behavior in the story was reprehensible and may indicate that we should judge all of his acts unfavorably. He stole 1100 shekels from his mother[3] who not knowing who stole her funds cursed the thief and promised the 1100 shekels to God if the money is returned.[4]
  • Micah admits the theft and returns the money to his mother. She blesses him and gives the 1100 back to him to build an image and other objects for his home sanctuary. Micah uses only 200 shekels of the 1100 to build his sanctuary and sacred items and pockets the rest of the money that belonged to God’s sanctuary. This was Micah’s second theft.[5]
  • In chapter 18, we read that Micah’s temple implements was stolen from him by the Danites and taken by them to use in their temple in the city of Dan. Thus the temple in Dan is associated with three thefts.
  • Micah made his son the priest of his home sanctuary, but later, for unknown reasons, replaced him with a Levite, perhaps because he was a professional, for a stipulated annual sum. The Pentateuch states that only descendants of Aaron’s family may function as priests and Levites only help the priests. Scholars believe that during the early Israelite history, anyone, even a person who is not of Aaron’s family or a Levite could be a priest at an altar.[6] The author of chapter 17 may have seen the appointment of a son and Levite as a priest as another improper act.[7]
  • This Levite seems to be described as an unsuccessful temple functuary who was itinerant and looking for any job he could pick up. He was unreliable, as seen in chapter 18 when he abandoned Micah and joined the Danites and helped them build their temple in the north. Like Micah, he was part of the sordid history of the Dan temple.
  • Beside this problem, Rashi writes that the man was only a Levite from his mother’s side, but from the tribe of Judah on his father’s side. Thus he even lacked the status of being a Levite. However, Ehrlich, Martin, Boling, and others suggest that the term Levite applied to him may not have been his tribe, but a description of his occupation.[8] These ideas conflict with 17:7 which states that the Levite lived (gar sham) in Judea, suggesting that he was only a visitor to the tribe of Judah but not a tribal member.It also seems to conflict with an interpretation of 18:30 that states that he was “Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Manasseh.” The name Manasseh is spelt with a suspended letter nun. Kimchi quotes the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud[9] who state that when the nun is not read, the name is Moses who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. The nun was added, although suspended above the name, to try to hide the embarrassing fact that Moses’s grandson violated the Torah and led Israelites to worship idols.[10]  
  • This chapter is also obscure in that it is unclear whether Micah’s sanctuary was devoted to God or an idol. The obscurity arises because the chapter uses the phrase “temple of God (Elohim)” and calls God by the divine name[11] y-h-v-h, but also states that Micah placed within it a pesel, which could denote a representation of God, an idol, a fetish, or even a golden calf. Rabbis and scholars differ as to whether Micah’s temple was devoted to God or to an idol.[12] Those who see Micah doing wrong, interpret the tale as the building of a temple for an idol. They say that the pesel, the “molten image,” set in the temple was a calf that was worshipped there, and refer readers to the calves that King Jeroboam set in his temples. They also note that Micah placed teraphim in his temple,[13] and while we no longer know what teraphim are, many people suppose they were “household idols.”[14] Those who say Micah dedicated his temple to God refer to 17:13 where he says, “Now I know that y-h-v-h will show me favor, because I have a Levite as a priest.”Soggin solves the problem by saying the temple had a syncretistic character, serving both the Israelite God and idol.
  • The Aramaic translation of Judges called Targum Jonathan also seems to treat Micah and his sanctuary in a mixed manner. When the five spies asked Micah’s Levite priest to inquire of God whether they will be successful in 18:5, the translator treats their question as being directed to y-h-v-h and the Levite responds that y-h-v-h answered they will succeed. Yet, the translator treats “god” in 17:5 – Micah’s “house of god” – as “house of idols,” and in 8:24 – when Micah complains to the 600 Danites, “you have taken my god” – as “idol.” And whenever chapter 17 and 18 mention priest, the translator uses a word indicating a priest of idols. With this understanding, an additional negative element is added to the history of the Dan temple: perhaps the originators intended to worship God, but their temple included idols and superstitious items such as the teraphim (which Rashi wrote, they were used for magic, and Gersonides said the magic did not work.)[15]
  • The city of Laish[16] that the tribe of Dan captured and made their own was taken from “a people who were quiet and secure[17]… that had no dealings with any man” (18:27-28), apparently describing a fourth robbery associated this time with murder, the improper seizing of a city from honest people who harmed no one and killing them.[18] Martin writes: “This is the very antithesis of the heroic deeds of earlier figures in the book of Judges.”



[1] He built a second one in Beth El.

[2] Abarbanel ignores this hint and opines that Micahu was Micah name when he was a child.

[3] Micah and his mother form a contrast to Samson and his mother.

[4] The 1100 shekels is the exact amount of money the Philistines gave Delilah to seduce Samson into revealing the secret of his strength. Some scholars suggest that Micah’s mother was Delilah, but Rashi and Abarbanel reject this idea. I will discuss Abarbanel’s unusual interpretation of parts of this story in the next chapter. Gersonides thought that by giving the blessing after she had cursed the thief, she was able to cancel the curse. This is unlikely. See the discussion in chapter 12 which describes how the ancients were convinced that once uttered, a vow, curse, or blessing could not be annulled. It should be recalled that Isaac also mistakenly gave his son Jacob a blessing he intended for his other son Esau. The effect of Isaac’s blessing is the same as Micah’s mother’s curse. When he realized his mistake, he said he could not cancel it.

[5] This is only one of several interpretations of a rather difficult text. Although there is no hint of it in the chapter, Rashi and Kimchi supposes that the passage means that Micah paid 200 shekels as the worker’s fee and 900 for the material. Martin writes: The payment of only part of the consecrated funds “may be (an additional) pocking of fun.”

[6] II Samuel 8:18 states that King David’s sons were priests, and they were not from Aaron’s family or Levites.

[7] Olam Hatanach offers a contrary view: the chapter is describing how the ancients worshipped God. Each family set an altar in their home and appointed one of their sons to minister in it.

[8] Ehrlich notes that the young man is called a naar. This is the same name given to the men who offered sacrifices before the function was handed to the priests (Exodus 24:5).

[9] Bava Batra 109b and 110a.

[10] Olam Hatanach suggests that the desire to protect Moses’s honor also explains why I chronicles 23:15-16 and 27:24 deleted Jonathan’s name from the list of Moses’s descendants.

[11] Actually “name” in the Bible often means “essence.” In relation to God, y-h-v-h denotes that God can be seen acting through the laws of nature.

[12] Rashi and Targum Jonathan and others suppose the temple was for idol worship. See Babylonian Talmud Shavuot 35b.

[13] 17:5.

[14] See Genesis 31:17-35 and I Samuel 19:13. In the former they were small, in the latter large. See also II Kings 23:24; Ezekiel 21:21; Hosea 3:4-5; and Zechariah 10:2. Gersonides supposed that they were not idols but items that people used to foretell the future, but he adds that despite the people’s belief that the teraphim worked, they were unable to predict the future.

[15] As previously stated, the chapter is filled with ambiguities. Kimchi, for example, understood that the Danites thought the ephod was used to communicate with God and did not know that it was used for idolatrous purposes.

[16] In Joshua 19:47, Laish is called Leshem. The city is named Laish only here. This situation of the Bible using different place names is not unique, it happens often. In Genesis 14:14, the city is anachronistically called Dan even though it was not given this name until years after Moses’s death. This too is characteristic. The Bible often gives a place the name it does not have until years later.

[17] This passage has another of many obscurities. It states that the people of Laish dwelt securely as the tzidonim. This word is obscure “either because of an error or because we no longer know the word’s meaning” (Olam Hatanach).

[18] Cohen takes a different approach. He writes that the Danites burnt Laish because it was defiled by idolatry, to strike fear in the hearts of surviving inhabitants so they would not counter-attack, and to terrorize the surrounding villages to stop them from seeking revenge.