Syncing Your Religion (Judges 17:1–18:31)

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Stuart Chase - 2 Aug 2020

Syncing Your Religion (Judges 17:1–18:31)

The closing chapters of Judges (17–21) highlight the state of the nation during the period of the judges. They show us that the threat to God’s people was as much alive within the nation as without the nation. Life in Israel during this time was characterised by religious (17–18) and social (19–21) chaos as every person did what was right in his or her own eyes. Chapters 17–18 highlight the religious chaos in Israel during this period and warn us against embracing similar religious chaos in our lives and churches.

Scripture References: Judges 17:1-13, Judges 18:1-31

From Series: "Judges Exposition"

An exposition of the book of Judges by Stuart Chase.

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Dan Stevenson is a resident of Oakland, California who rose to local fame in 1999 when he used epoxy and rebar to secure a statue of Buddha to a traffic median outside his house. For some time, he had been complaining to local authorities that the median was becoming an illegal dumping site with seemingly nothing being done to stop it. Though he considers himself irreligious, Stevenson believed that Buddha was a somewhat neutral and peaceful figure who might cause would-be dumpers to think twice about polluting the area.

About four months after installing the statue, Stevenson looked out of his window one morning and noticed that someone had carefully painted it white. Over the next few weeks, the paint job became more colourful and elaborate and, before long, he noticed offerings of fresh fruit and flowers left at the base of the statue. Not long after that, a simple wooden structure was constructed to house and protect the statue.

Stevenson learned that Oakland evidently has a sizeable Vietnamese Buddhist community who had turned the statue into a shrine. When worshippers discovered the identity of the installer, Stevenson frequently found gifts left on his doorstep. Over time, the statue’s housing became more elaborate and worshippers installed a statue of Guanyin alongside the shrine. It quickly became a place of daily worship.

A few of Stevenson’s neighbours grew tired of the early morning noise made by the Buddhist worshippers and, in 2012, appealed to authorities to remove the statue but efforts to do so were thwarted by opposition from the community at large and worshippers in particular. By 2014, crime in the neighbourhood had fallen by 82%. Stevenson attributes the decrease in criminal activity directly to the Buddha. Local law enforcement remains uncertain that a direct correlation is possible. Still, no further attempts have been made to remove the shrine.

The account of the Oakland Buddha highlights the fact that human beings are prone to religious expression. There is something intrinsically religious about the human condition, which is bound to find expression in one form or another. The question becomes, will our expression of religion—of worship—be one that honours or dishonours the living God? Judges 17–18 forces us to ask this question.

The story of Samson, which we considered last time were in Judges (chapters 13–16) ends the account of the men and women whom God raised up as judges. Chapters 17–21 shift focus slightly. Rather than focusing on the external threat to Israel from foreign nations, the author shifts attention to the internalthreat within Israel. We saw previously that, during Samson’s judgeship, complacency had set in. Samson’s frustration was that, while he knew that God had raised him as Israel’s deliverer, the people were not willing to rally to his side. They had accepted defeat.

The closing chapters help us to understand that attitude. Because the people had entirely abandoned any allegiance to Yahweh, their society was a mess and their spiritual lethargy prevented them from even asking for or expecting deliverance. In brief, these chapters show us the religious (chapters 17–18) and social (chapters 19–21) chaos that ensued in the days of the judges.

The two, of course, are not unrelated. When God’s people lose sight of true gospel allegiance, it is usually not too long before social chaos ensues. As goes the church, so goes the world. When a people loses its religious moorings, it is but a matter of time before ethical and social chaos follows.

These chapters should not be thought of following chronologically from chapter 16, with 1 Samuel picking up after the events of these chapters. Samson and Samuel were probably contemporaries. The state of Israel as recorded in these chapters was the state of Israel during Samson’s judgeship, and possibly even earlier. This was the state of the nation that the judges wrestled with in their calling to lead God’s people. “If the judges seem unhinged, wait till you hear about the people!”

Our focus in this study will be the religious chaos that the author highlights in chapters 17–18. In our next study, we will consider the social chaos that gripped Israel.

The Unfolding Chronicle

Before we consider the teaching of the text, let’s first consider the basic story. The writer has a particular way of telling this story, which sets it apart from the rest of the book.

In his book on Judges, John Hercus writes, “In all my life so far (and that’s most of it) I have never heard a single reference from the pulpit or song writer or study leader or anybody else at all—never one single tiny whispered sound—that related to the Micah of the Book of Judges.” He suggests that the reason for this oversight is simple: The story is just “so crazy” and “so mixed up” that preachers are too “embarrassed” to address it. Christians prefer to distance themselves from this text. If you know the feeling, be encouraged that the writer himself seems to share it.

Notice, for example, that the writer writes entirely as a third party. He does not interject commentary at all. There is no mention of Micah’s acts displeasing the Lord, though clearly they did. The writer offers no commentary whatsoever. Yahweh himself remains similarly distanced from the events here. In fact, the only time that we read of Yahweh is from the lips of the characters; the writer does not try to bring Yahweh’s opinion to bear on the story.

Let’s briefly consider the story before we draw any lessons from it.

The account opens in “the hill country of Ephraim” (17:1). This region plays a significant role in Judges. Joshua was buried in this area (2:9). Ehud sounded his trumpet here (3:27) and Deborah held court here (4:5). Gideon called men from this region to join him in battle against the Midianites (7:24). This region has played an important role in some of God’s most significant saving acts in Judges. Now, it becomes the source of deep idolatry.

The story introduces us to a man named Micah confessing to his mother that he had stolen 1,100 pieces of silver from her. When she had discovered that the silver was missing, she had uttered a curse on the thief. With this confession, however, she hurriedly transformed her curse into a blessing and dedicated two hundred pieces of silver to be used for the construction of a carved image in honour of Yahweh. This image was placed in Micah’s house, where he constructed a shrine and added an array of religious objects to aid in worship. He even ordained one of his sons as a priest.

Before long, a young man passing through the hill country of Ephraim happened to stop at Micah’s house. Micah was delighted to learn that the young man was a Levite. He quickly made him an offer that could not be refused: generous financial compensation, free clothing, and rent-free accommodation in exchange for priestly service. Micah’s son was suddenly forgotten with the arrival of the Levite.

Around the same time, the tribe of Dan was still searching for inheritance in the land. The leaders of the tribe appointed five scouts to go and survey the land to identify possible inheritance. These five scouts happened to pass through the hill country of Ephraim. Securing accommodation at Micah’s AirBnB, they heard a voice they recognised. It turned out to be the voice of the young Levite, who regaled them with the story of how God’s providence had led him to Micah’s house. The scouts asked him to “enquire of God” about their prospects of success and, with no note that he actually did enquire of God, he assured them that they were on the right path.

The scouts moved on from Micah’s house and identified the perfect city to attack: unguarded, unsuspecting, unallied Laish. They returned home to report to their tribal leaders that they had found an inheritance to grasp. The leaders arranged a small force to go and seize the inheritance before them.

As the small army of Danites passed again through the hill country of Ephraim, the five scouts informed them of the religious centre set up in Micah’s house and of the Levite who led the worship there. The armed force turned aside to procure the idols and religious artefacts for themselves and to persuade the Levite to leave Micah and to join them instead. Micah tried to object but quickly realised that he was no military match for the Danites and so returned home, leaving he Levite to follow the Danites into battle with his gods.

The small army marched to Laish, attacked the city, and seized their inheritance. The Danites rebuilt the city, renamed it Dan, and relocated Micah’s shrine to their own city, where the Levite and his descendants continued to serve as priests “until the day of the captivity of the land.”

The Unspoken Commentary

As I have said, the writer in this story remains aloof from the events he records. He seems to want to maintain his distance and offer as little commentary as he can. But we must not mistake his aloofness for approval. We must not mistake his silence for solidarity. In fact, as you carefully read the story, his unspoken commentary of events becomes obvious.

Dale Ralph Davis suggests that the author’s critique can be seen in at least three ways. “Our writer, then, is no impartial observer but a hostile critic. He hints at this by the way he uses contrast, depicts characters, and maintains distance.” Let’s consider each of these underlying critiques.

Contrast Employed

First, it is clear that the writer intends the reader to observe the contrast between God-honouring worship and idolatry. This is most clear in the closing verse of the account: “So they set up Micah’s carved image that he made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh” (18:31).

Shiloh was also in the hill country of Ephraim. After the Israelites first secured territory the Promised Land, Joshua immediately set up the tabernacle in Shiloh (Joshua 18:1). It was at Shiloh that he divided the tribal inheritance (18:8–10). The tabernacle and the ark of the covenant were in the very same region that Micah’s house of gods stood. A starker contrast could not be made!

But the writer also intends the informed reader to pick up on more subtle contrasts.

For example, the informed reader cannot miss the contrast between biblically regulated worship and human creativity. The silver was dedicated to Yahweh and the carved image was intended to aid worship of Yahweh (17:3) but, of course, that was strictly forbidden in the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).

The informed reader will also immediately detect a contrast between God-honouring faith and empty superstition. “Now I know that the LORD will prosper me, because I have a Levite as a priest” (17:13). Was Micah really naïve enough to believe that God’s blessing could be secured by ticking a few of the correct boxes? Apparently. He seems to have believed that God could be fooled by a veneer of orthodoxy.

The writer wants his reader to read this story and come away unimpressed. He wants his readers to be incensed at the flagrant idolatry of Micah and the Danites. He wants the reader to long for someone to step in and stop this distortion of worship. “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; cf. 18:1). If only there was a godly king who was concerned about correct worship. He would quickly put an end to this all.

Characters Depicted

Second, the comical way in which the author depicts the characters in the story highlights the reality that they should not be taken seriously. Micah’s mother scrambled to turn her curse into a blessing when she realised that she had, in fact, cursed her son. Micah, whose name means “who is like God,” was nothing like God. He gladly erected an idolatrous shrine in his own home but then tried to slap a veneer of orthodoxy onto his homemade religion by securing the services of a genuine Levite. And, speaking of the Levite, how seriously can we take this young man who was willing to not only perpetuate idolatry in the land but to sell his services to the highest bidder? And let’s not forget the brave and capable Danite warriors—“five able men” (18:2)—who looked for the weakest possible city to attack as an inheritance.

Observe, also, the glaring shortsightedness of these characters. There is tremendous rejoicing in the providence of God throughout these chapters. The characters all seem to assume that providence is a sure sign of divine blessing. How coincidental that a Levite would visit Micah just when he was looking for a priest. How fortunate that the Danite scouts would encounter this same Levite just when they were looking for encouragement on their mission. And was not the easy victory at Laish a sure sign that God was with his idolatrous people? That is how the characters in the story seem to interpret providence. The reader should be shaking his head thinking, “How blind are these people?”

Everything about this story screams of satire. We cannot possibly take these characters seriously. We’re not meant to. The writer skilfully portrays them in such a way that they do not stand as examples to be emulated.

Distance Maintained

Third, the very obvious aloofness of the writer testifies to his disapproval. He does not want to be tainted by the events he records. He does not insert himself into this story. The reader should likewise be reluctant to do so.

The Unmistakable Condemnation

If we consider the story before us and the writer’s implicit critique of events and characters, what should we come away with? What does the writer want to teach us?

Clearly, the writer is saying something to us about false worship. Idolatry was (and is) to have no place among the people of God. The teaching of this text all centres on this matter of false religion. We see at least four warnings in this regard.

The Folly of False Religion

First, the writer wants us to dwell on the utter folly of false worship. It should strike us as foolish that Micah and the Danites believed that their own form of worship was sufficient to please Yahweh.

Now, notice carefully that the false religion here envisaged is not rank paganism. It is instead a syncretistic form of worship. Syncretism is a mixture of two contrasting religions. Here, syncretism was seen when Micah and his mother introduced elements of idol worship—the graven image, the religious artefacts, the superstitious reliance on “authorised” clergy—with worship to Yahweh. They did not set out to worship Baal. Their intention was to worship Yahweh. “I dedicate the silver to the LORD from my hand for my son, to make a carved image and a metal image” (17:3). The image constructed was meant to aid in worship of Yahweh. The problem was, images used in worship were a pagan invention. They were blending their paganism with Judaism, but that made it no better than rank idolatry.

Ed Stetzer says that syncretism

dilutes dependency on Christ, changes the gospel, creates a mix of multiple gods, and thereby denies Christ his rightful place as the one and only Lord in the life of the believer. Those who would mix these practices, if not moving away from them, end up with a false, syncretistic gospel, not the gospel of Jesus.

A 2016 community survey revealed South Africa to be 79.8% Christian. That means that there are 35.8 million Christians in South Africa, if the community survey is to be believed. No biblically instructed Christian living in South Africa will for a moment buy those statistics. 35.8 million South Africans may profess faith in Christ, but the fruit of the Spirit does not match that profession.

What is the problem? As in most of Africa, Christianity in South Africa has been so blended with traditional religions that the gospel held by the majority of professing Christians is no gospel at all. Ed Stetzer again captures it well: “When anything is added to the message of the gospel, the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ is compromised, and another gospel is created that is not actually the gospel.”

Religious syncretism breeds religious compromise. Micah and the Danites made all sorts of compromises because they tried to marry their religious expression to God-regulated worship but they quickly found that their expression became more important than God’s revelation. This always happens. As Mark Rushdoony argues, “A syncretist believes in God when it suits him, and will obey his word when it is useful. In reality, he serves himself and obeys his own self-will.”

But while we can easily cast aspersion on the religious syncretists out there, let’s bring this a little closer to home. The truth is, we always wrestle with the temptation to syncretism. God has clearly revealed how he is to be worshipped. He has clearly revealed the basis of our acceptance before him. But we are frequently tempted to blend God’s requirements with our own inventions.

One manifestation of syncretism is legalism. We are tempted to believe that God will be pleased with our own efforts. Micah believed that God would accept his worship if only he could get a few technicalities right. He made an ephod (17:5) because he knew that God had given instructions for an ephod (Exodus 28:4). He ordained a priest because he knew that someone needed to intercede between him and God. And at the first possible opportunity, he appointed a Levitical priest to secure God’s favour!

Micah was putting into place forms of worship that he believed would secure divine favour. The forms of worship were not wrong in and of themselves, but he came to trust in the forms rather than in the God who instructed those forms to be put into place.

Do you know the temptation? Do you know what it is like to trust in the things God has commanded rather than in the God who has commanded them? Do you know what it is like to be confident that you are pleasing God because you read your Bible this morning, said your prayers, gave your tithe, or ministered to the needy? Is your confidence in life and death the fact that you were baptised, or that you are a member of the church, or that you went through the ritual of a baby dedication? These are all good things, and God has commanded many of them. They have their place in the Christian life. But if you trust in those things rather than in Jesus Christ as the one mediator between God and men, you have bought into a syncretistic gospel. Your allegiance to God should absolutely produce acts of obedience, but obedience is the result of, not the root of, your allegiance to Jesus Christ.

Another form of syncretism we see in this text was Micah’s individualism. The house of God was at Shiloh (18:31), which was also in the hill country of Ephraim. But Micah saw no need to go to the house of God. He could worship just as well in his home. All he needed was an image to focus on, some religious artefacts to guide him, and a priest to intercede for him. (And an added bonus if that priest was a Levite!)

Do you know the temptation? As I write these words, we are in the midst of a nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Churches are restricted by government legislation to no more than fifty congregants at any given service. Right now, the bulk of our church membership is sitting at home, guided in worship by an image on a screen, their own religious artefacts (e.g. a Bible) on their lap, with a “TV preacher” to guide them. Livestreamed worship is a temporary necessity. The danger is that we will become comfortable with this temporary necessity and grow complacent in our worship. Spending the Lord’s Day in your living room in front of your TV is necessary right now, but it won’t be forever. It is not normal, and we must guard our hearts from allowing it to become normal for us. We should be sensing that this is not right—this is not corporate worship, this is not church—and longing to be back in the gathering of God’s people for worship as God has ordained.

Don’t get me wrong: There is nothing sacrosanct about a building. We can do with or without the building. Meeting inside a building with heaters, comfortable chairs, and an expensive audiovisual setup is not a biblical mandate. But gathering with other believers on the Lord’s Day to worship together is. Micah’s shrine was no substitute for the tabernacle in Shiloh. Your living room is no substitute for the gathered people of God.

A third form of syncretism seen here is what we might call reflectionism. Israel was supposed to oppose pagan culture, not to imitate it. But Micah’s worship, with his household gods and self-appointed priest, was nothing more than a reflection of the paganism that Israel was supposed to root out.

If we are not careful, we will also find ourselves reflecting our culture in our religion rather than opposing it. The rallying cry of the world today is precisely what was happening in the times of the judges: Everybody must be permitted to do what is right in his or her own eyes. True worship stands opposed to that. Christianity calls us to do what is right in God’s eyes, not in our own eyes. But if we are not careful, we can easily find ourselves tailoring our gospel message to accommodate non-Christian and even anti-Christian philosophies.

We see this in the ecumenical movement where the message that is preached does not matter. We are encouraged to put aside silly squabbles about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and instead just work together. Biblical Christianity tells us that we stand or fall on our view of Jesus Christ. The church growth movement often reflects worldly reasoning more than biblical Christianity. In far too many churches, having names on the membership role is far more important than expecting actual Christian behaviour from those members.

Reflectionism often shows up when we are excited about the things of the world but not about the things of Christ. If all our talk when we get together centres on sport or technology or fashion or schooling, how is a church gathering any different to any other social gathering?

The Tragedy of False Religion

The tragedy of false religion is that it doesn’t stop at its source. Our text opens with “a man of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Micah” (17:1). This man constructed a shrine and implemented false worship in his own house. He soon invited the young Levite into his false worship and, by the end of the story, an entire tribe had fallen prey to this false worship. How utterly tragic!

But, of course, we think, we are stronger than that. We have good teaching and a legacy of faithful Christianity. We will not fall prey to the same syncretistic idolatry. The writer wants to warn us against such prideful thinking: “And the people of Dan set up the carved image for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land” (18:30).

There is a bit of a textual debate here, so that some translations (e.g. NKJV, NASB) read “Manasseh” instead of “Moses,” but I am persuaded that “Moses” is the correct reading. Even the faithful legacy of Moses was not sufficient to immunise Jonathan the son of Gershom against idolatry. This young Levite’s grandfather was the lawgiver whose law he was so boldly breaking! Be careful of thinking that the faith of your parents or your grandparents will automatically safeguard you against idolatry! Syncretistic worship must be cut off at its source or it is sure to spread like a cancer.

In fact, that is precisely what God warned of in the second commandment.

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

(Exodus 20:4–6)

Notice: the false worship of the fathers will be visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate God. The warning is not that God will punish your children for your false worship but that you will teach your children to worship what you worship. How tragic!

The Judgement on False Religion

Third, there is a strong hint about the judgement on false religion. This is a bit of a technical point, but it is important.

The Hebrew words translated “carved image” and “metal image” in 17:3, which describe Micah’s image, are the same words used in Deuteronomy 27:15: “Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the LORD, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.” A divine curse had been pronounced against anyone who made precisely what Micah made in this text. The informed reader immediately recognises that the creation of this image placed Micah under a divine curse. We are meant to understand that the judgement of God had already fallen on him.

This is important to understand because it should be contrasted with the seemingly favourable providences that are scattered throughout this text. Micah seems to have believed that God was okay with his idolatry because everything was going so well with him. If Yahweh was displeased, surely he wouldn’t have sent him a Levite, right? Jonathan, the Levite, might have reasoned along the same lines: If this was not of God, surely providence would not have smiled on him as it did?

But the author is inserting his silent commentary once again. Providence should not be understood to overrule direct commands of God. Don’t we sometimes fall into the same trap?

“I know I’m not supposed to work seven days a week, but business is booming, so this must be of God.”

“I know I’m not supposed to marry an unbeliever, but I’ve never been happier, so this must be of God.”

“I know I made a lifelong commitment to her, but I’ve never been so miserable, so surely it is of God to pursue a divorce.”

When God has spoken, we dare not let our interpretation of providence override his clear commands. To do so will invite his chastening hand.

The Cure for False Religion

Finally, our text says something about the cure for false religion: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; cf. 18:1). The solution was a king, and not just any king, but the right kind of king. If only there was a king who knew and cared about the commands of God! He would put things right. He would end the idolatry.

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. It wasn’t terribly long before Israel did get a king. But Israel’s first king—Saul—did very little to stem the tide of false worship. Under Saul, there was a king in Israel, and yet everybody still did what was right in his or her own eyes. But then another king came. King David knew and cared about God’s laws, and he corrected much of the idolatry in the land.

Even David, however, could not permanently put an end to idolatry. After David, a series of kings followed. Most of them led the people deeper into idolatry. A few sought to end it. But even the influence of the godly kings had only a temporary effect. Another solution was needed.

That solution, of course, was provided in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was God’s final King—the King of kings. He came to fully and finally deal the death blow to idolatry. And he could do so because he did not correct only external behaviour. Jesus Christ, the great King of kings, changes our heart. When we submit to him, he gives us a new heart that no longer pursues other gods. While we still sin, and while we may still temporarily and periodically pursue other gods, he works in us a change of heart that causes us to increasingly abandon other allegiances as we pledge allegiance to him.

Astonishingly, he did this by taking God’s curse, which we deserved for our idolatry, on himself. He took the penalty for our sins on himself when he died on the cross. And God clearly displayed his acceptance of that sacrifice by raising him from the dead and then, forty days later, seating him as King at his right hand. There is now a King in heaven, so that there is no excuse for us to do what is right in our own eyes.

Micah’s story is a lesson in syncretistic religion. Before we are tempted to be too critical, let’s admit that we ourselves have a tendency to struggle with the same. We have a tendency to want to synchronise our own ideas of how to worship God with his revelation of how we should worship him. We must avoid that temptation. To give into the temptation to syncretism is to embrace idolatry and to fall under divine displeasure.

The solution to this temptation is to keep our eyes and hearts fixed firmly on our King, who will give us the ability to do what is right in his eyes, rather than our own. May we look always to our King of kings and therefore live lives and offer worship that is honouring to him.

AMEN