Thursday, July 10, 2014

Judges 17-18: When there was no king in the land

The text of Judges 17-21 repeats several times that at this time there was no king in the land and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.  The stories are meant to show the kinds of things theat were going on because there was no formalized system of meting out justice to offending groups or powerful individuals or even to corrupted religious leaders.  When the offenders were too many, it required the collective will of the people to get together and fight to set it right.  That required a leader people could get behind, preferably one who had been chosen and raised up by God.

It was probably hard to tell when it was appropriate to rise up and do this, so the people would seek out more efficient ways of administering justice to larger groups and powerful individuals, someone who would have power to call on and command an army so that things wouldn’t get so bad that the whole society had to destroy a town for some terrible atrocity the town committed against visitors, like in Judges 19-20.

Ultimately, the deeper message isn’t “this is the terrible state of society that doesn’t have a king,” but instead “this is the terrible state of society that doesn’t have God as their king.”

In Judges 17-18 we get a story about some powerful individuals and the religious error they perpetuate because of their riches.

It starts with an Ephraimite named Micah who steals 1100 shekels from his mother.  This is an immense sum of money, and since his mother had intended to dedicate it to the Lord (though in the wrong way) that indicates there is still plenty of money left afterward, so theirs must be a powerful family.

If you read through Judges17 and Judges 18, you’ll find so many instances of breaking commandments that it is almost like a game to find them all.  So let’s play.

--Micah stole 1100 shekels from his mom. (theft)
--He restored the 1100 shekels without adding the fifth part, according to the Law of Moses. (That he restored them at all indicates he was more afraid of her cursing him than of how the evil deed would spiritually affect him.)
--His mother completely dedicated the 1100 shekels to the Lord, but it was to make a graven image with.
--They use 200 shekels to make the graven image.
--Micah had a house of gods with idols and an ephod (priestly robe?)
--Micah had consecrated one of his own sons to be a priest, yet Micah doesn’t have authority.  (He’s an Ephraimite, not a Levite.)
--Next we get a Levite who is looking for a place.  This man is “out of Bethlehem-judah of the family of Judah,” yet he is a Levite?  How can a descendent of Judah be a Levite?  (Hint: He can’t.  He’s breaking the Law of Moses, taking the office to himself.)
--Micah hires the “Levite” to be his priest, paying him an allowance, room, board, and clothing.  Helloooo priestcraft!
--Micah consecrates the “Levite,” yet he doesn’t have authority to do so.
--Micah bears testimony, saying, “Now know I that the Lord will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest.”   (Sounds like a false testimony, huh?)

In the next chapter, we see Micah is himself not immune to being despoiled and suffering injustice, though in a larger perspective it is kind of a poetic justice.  The Lord can’t allow him to rest comfortably in this situation.

The tribe of Dan decides to go look for another inheritance they can actually conquer and they send out some spies to find land.  The spies run into Micah’s priest, the “Levite” and find out he’s priesting for Micah.  For some bizarre reason, they take it for granted that he’s legitimate and ask him to inquire of the Lord for them if they will succeed in their mission.  The “Levite” tells them they will.

They find a nice defenseless land in Laish and gather a strike force to take it.  On the way there, they pass Micah’s place again and decide to steal all Micah’s shrine stuff.  When the “Levite” objects, they recruit him with the argument that it would clearly be better for him to be priest for a tribe than to be priest to a single man, rich as that man might be. (Yup, priestcraft is for sale to the highest bidder.)  Put that way, the “Levite” becomes okay with their theft of Micah’s religious accoutrements, since it will ultimately benefit him.

Micah, however is understandably not okay with this and gathers a group of men together to help him protest.

The next verses are too fascinating not to reproduce.

23 And they cried unto the children of Dan. And they turned their faces, and said unto Micah, What aileth thee, that thou comest with such a company?
 24 And he said, Ye have taken away my gods which I made, and the priest, and ye are gone away: and what have I more? and what is this that ye say unto me, What aileth thee? (Judges 18:23-24)

The idea of a man protesting because someone forcibly took away his gods highlights the ridiculousness of idol worship.  A true God can’t be stolen.

Micah’s sentiment “What have I more?” is commendable in its devotion, but it is wrongly applied to idols.  As a rich man, he may have felt that his shrine and his priest were the all-important part of his life, but even so he set his heart on tangible things that were of no real value because they were, after all, counterfeits for the real God.

In a way, Micah’s predicament can challenge us to look at our lives to see if we set our hearts on something tangible that would make us completely bereft if it were taken away.  I have often wondered how I would act if my blog were taken away.  Would I feel I couldn’t be good and serve God without it?  If we’re released from a highly visible calling, do we feel we can’t worship and serve God anymore?  I have heard at least one woman share that she saw raising her children as the way she worships God and when her children left home she felt completely at sea.  (Naturally, an empty nest will make a great void in the home, heart, and schedule, but is raising children the only way to serve God?  It’s not.  But I will also acknowledge it takes some painful time to figure out what to meaningfully fill that empty schedule with instead.)

Okay, so Micah had major problems in his life and he didn’t even know it.  Just about everything he did was wrong, but let’s try to look and see if we can derive something good from his experience.

I thought about Micah and I asked myself, “What would have cleaned up this situation?”

I realized that the best thing would have been for Micah to have his own copy of the scriptures—the Law of Moses—and read them every day.  If he was reading every day, he would have discovered all the commandments he was breaking, and if he were honest in heart, he would have realized he needed to repent and keep them.

That’s the neat thing about reading the scriptures every day.  We may be making all kinds of mistakes too, but if we read our scriptures every day with an honest heart, we will find out what we are doing wrong, which gives us an opportunity to repent through Christ’s atonement and learn to keep the commandments.

I don’t know if Micah had his own copy of the scriptures.  He was rich enough that he could have paid for his own copy to be made.  But I feel very thankful that we live in an age when every person can have their very own copy of the scriptures and read them every day.