Then Micah said, ‘Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, seeing I have a Levite priest.’ Judges 17.13
Judges is a sad book. It comes on the heels of the conquest of the land and of God’s giving his instruction to his people. God had given them the land and they were to follow his instructions and take it and put everything under the ban (i.e. to be destroyed). Judges informs us that even though they had taken much of the land, they didn’t take it all. Subtly in Joshua we get a picture that the conquest was incomplete. The wealthy parts of Canaan, the fertile valleys and mountain strongholds were still in Canaanite hands. They let some Canaanites live because the Israelites were deceived. It was an ugly picture.
Where does this all come from? Why are things in such shambles? It is because they had forgotten the Lord. The oft’ repeated line in Judges is this: ‘In those days, there was no king of Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.’ We as readers should say to ourselves, ‘A human king won’t make things much better.’ We know the biblical storyline, and we know that the Israelite kingship of latter years was a failure.
What were the Israelites doing instead? They were looking in every other place for deliverance. In Judges 17.13, a man Micah decided that if he had his own priest, God would receive him. So even though the tabernacle was right down the road, Micah decided he needed his own shrine. A man did what was right in his own eyes, and it wasn’t in accord with what God had told Israel to do even if it had a religious appearance. The man was looking out for himself individually and so he set up his own priest, a Levite, so that he would prosper.
There is something missing on so many levels here. God’s law hadn’t been passed down from the previous generation. The priests hadn’t been trained, and it seems like this priest is just trying to make a living by serving Micah. The picture of prosperity from the conquest has already been lost. Remember that God promised to prosper them if they kept his instruction. But instead, Micah thinks the best way to prosper was to set up his own high place. This isn’t peculiar to just one man in Israel, it is a systemic problem with the whole people. Israel didn’t take any of the land that had been allocated for the tribe of Dan. They had an assigned land, but it was inhabited by Canaanites. So they take land from somewhere else in the far north, and they take Micah’s priest and his idols, which become the long-standing high place in the city of Dan in the north until the day of the captivity of the land.
Micah isn’t the only problem at the end of Judges. Things continue to spiral downward throughout the whole land, and the problem stems from another Levite. In including this story in Judges, the author is displaying the failure of the priesthood itself at the earliest of times. Although this is only around two generations removed from Aaron and Moses, the worship of Yahweh was lacking completely. So the Levite is traveling with his concubine and decides it is better to find refuge in an Israelite city than a Canaanite city. He was sorely wrong to think this was a good thing. The Israelite town comes out against him like Sodom and Gomorrah. The only problem is that they are worse than Sodom and Gomorrah and they end up ravaging his concubine and murdering her. Israel has become Sodom and Gomorrah. But the rest of Israel does not seek the Lord in seeking vengeance and nearly destroys the whole tribe of Benjamin and then tries to repopulate Benjamin by depopulating Jabesh-Gilead. Everyone did right in their own eyes according to their own wisdom.
How should we respond to such a terrible story? First, Judges teaches us the results of doing what is right in our own eyes. In fact, we see how it is a part of the fallen human condition, and it is disastrous. The great tragedies in our world can be described as such, ‘So and so did what was right in his own eyes.’ But we must also reflect about ourselves. We also share in this nature. We do what is right in our own eyes, but we don’t want to consider the morality of our actions. Culturally, actions are often thought to be amoral. What I choose to do is not right or wrong. Any moral value is determined by our feelings of fulfillment. As a Christian, this must not be the way our actions are interpreted. All that we do ought to be lived in light of the cross. Whatever we do, whether we eat or drink, we do all to the glory of God. Moral value is actually determined by the end or goal of the action along with the intrinsic value of the action. Do we eat a certain foods to get approval from others? Do we avoid certain drinks because others would look down on you? Do we make our purchases to make us happy? Paul says that we must consider our end: giving glory to God. It is in this that the greatest fulfillment is found. Doing what is right in our own eyes ultimately is an empty pursuit because it goes against what we were created for, and the results are vanity and vapor. In contrast, all that is done to the glory of God, according to the living and abiding word of God, will not be in vain because it builds on a firm foundation. May we seek to live giving glory to God as we rest in what Jesus has done.