Self-Serving Saints and the Substitute Faith
The Story of Judges 17-18
Starring: Mike the Rich Kid, Jon the Preacher, and Dan the Cowardly Bully
Rev. Steven D. Griffing - International Worship Symposium
The book of Judges covers the 350 year period in Israel's history between the death of Joshua, who had led them into Canaan, and the emergence of a unified Hebrew kingdom, eventually ruled by David. It describes a period of political and spiritual instability summarized by the book's final verse; "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes." (ch. 21:25) These exact words also appear as a quasi-preamble to our story (vs. 6), emphasizing that during this era humanistic self-determination guided the people of God, instead of the absolute, God-ordained authority of a king. Thus, the book of Judges stands as a perpetual indictment against any value system that places the convenience of personal relativism above the absolute principles of Divine law.
The Path to Deviation
Our story begins in the hills of Ephraim, northeast of where Jerusalem would later be built, with a man named Micah, whom we will call Mike the rich kid. We know he was rich because his initial act was to restore to his apparently widowed mother eleven hundred shekels of silver, which he had stolen, or probably, embezzled. Later on, we discover that this amount was equivalent to more than a century of good wages. She dedicates this recovered fortune to God; and out of a part of it has graven and cast images made, setting them up in Mike's house. Their intention was to make a domestic chapel replicating Israel's official sanctuary, in which they proposed to engage in worship of the true God.
At this point the only thing Mike's improvised chapel lacks is a qualified clergyman who had been trained in the authentic performance of Hebrew liturgy and music. But this specialized training was not available in Mike's territory. In fact, these skills could only be found among the Levite clan. But, serendipitously, Jonathan, a young Levite whom we will call Preacher Jon, soon wonders into Mike's territory, and agrees to serve as Mike's chapel priest for an annual salary of ten shekels of silver, plus food and clothing. Now, Mike's improvised chapel is complete, both looking and sounding almost exactly like true tabernacle located at Shiloh.
Next, a five-man envoy from the neighboring tribe of Dan arrives at Mike's house. Although God has given them a large parcel of choice land as their inheritance, they are searching for an easier place to live that is free from the constant attack by the hostile Philistine inhabitants. They ask Preacher Jon to seek counsel of God for them. He inquires, and promises them success with divine blessing. Encouraged, they depart, traveling north to Laish, where they find the inhabitants secure, yet defenseless. Returning home, they report to their Danite leaders recommending the conquest Laish. Then, a regiment of six hundred men is deployed, which, passing through Mike's land, enters his compound, and carries off Preacher Jon and Mike's consecrated images. Mike and a local posse pursue Dan the Cowardly Bully; but, being threatened, they retreat empty-handed. The Danites then continue north to Laish, and destroy it, and build a city there, which they re-name Dan. They make Preacher Jon their high priest, and set up the images in a shrine at this new city.
The Culture of Substitution
Sadly, there are no "good guys" in our story. Mike, Jon, and Dan each have deviated from God's grace and provision, replacing it with a substitute plan of their own invention. Mike offered a substitute sacrifice. Instead of accepting the God-ordained atonement which could only be offered on God's terms, Mike placed his faith in his own piety on his terms. (See Lev. 17:11, and Deut. 12:13-14, for example.) Preacher Jon should have never strayed from the tabernacle at Shiloh, and the Ark of the Covenant, according to Numbers 8:14-15, (and many other places). His was a substitute ministry based upon market-driven service to people instead of divinely-ordained ministry to God himself. Finally, God's purpose for Dan the Cowardly Bully was for him to drive the Philistines out his allotted territory. (The Philistines were not native to that area.) But Dan "wimped out", choosing rather to bully weaker targets with his marauders in pursuit of a substitute purpose.
The Generational Results of Substitution
Sadly, they lived "happily ever after", and died without salvation, having no legitimate covenant with God. Their principle city, Dan, became a center for idolatry. Five hundred years later King Jeroboam built a shrine to the golden calf there.
Abandoning their divinely appointed inheritance did not only affect them, however. Their abandoned land was soon annexed by Israel's archenemy, the Philistines, effectively land-locking the southern Israelite clans by denying them access to their principle seaport, Joppa. Control of this fertile region gave the Philistines a huge economic and military advantage over Israel, allowing them to oppress, and at times enslave Israel for the next 350 years. Certainly the Dan the Cowardly Bully could not have anticipated these consequences.
Throughout the centuries, the region abandoned by the Danites continued as an economic powerhouse because of its fertile soil and proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. By contrast, the northern region which these bullies stole was conquered some 600 years later by an even bigger Assyrian bully named Pul. The Assyrians deported them into captivity as prisoners of war, and they have never been heard from since. Short term, the move made life easier for the tribe of Dan. But ultimately, they would have been safer had they remained in the land God ordained for them.
Today, ironically, the land abandoned by the Danites is home to Tel Aviv, Israel's most prosperous and secure city, while the land these bullies conquered is located immediately east of Kiryat Shemona, and was under constant attack by Hezbolla rockets during the recent conflict.
Preacher Jon was spectacularly successful. Beginning as an unemployed assistant clergyman, he became a full-fledged priest, endowed by a very prominent family. Finally, he became Primate over an entire tribe. Doubtless, his descendants enjoyed status and wealth, perhaps for several generations, as a privileged priestly caste.
However, one can only speculate what may have become of Jonathan's progeny had he remained in his home town of Bethlehem. Since the future King David came from the same town, Preacher Jon's descendants almost certainly would have enjoyed favored status among King David's Levitical aristocracy. Furthermore, they would have acquired even greater wealth had "Grand Daddy Jon" remained orthodox, since a vast endowment of land was later given to the Levites, as recorded in I Chronicles 6.
As it turned out, Preacher Jon's descendants, along with their Danite congregants, were swept into eternal obscurity by the Assyrian invasion. By contrast, descendants of the orthodox Levites who remained close to the Ark survive to this day as an identifiable subset of the Hebrew people. Just ask actor, Eugene Levy, for example, about his historic ancestors. His surname attests to the legacy of steadfast faithfulness.
In the biblical account, Mike the Rich Kid appears to have been the biggest loser. We may never know for sure, but I wonder if his misfortune may have turned him around spiritually. Perhaps he saw the ironic futility of his actions when, for example, he protested to the Danite raiders that they had taken "my gods which I have made." Hopefully he began to see that while his malleable, self-made religion was convenient for the moment, it was powerless in eternity.
Maybe Mike began to understand that not even endorsement by certain clergy could substitute for the enduring power of Divine authorship. Motivated by this realization, he may have returned to the orthodox faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, relying only on the atoning blood offered on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant at Shiloh.
What We Learn
Similar choices confront us today in our society that resists absolutes. We fashion a faith of convenience to accommodate what seems "right in our own eyes". We try to improve God's perfect plan, but we only render it powerless. Since we human beings cannot create something that transcends our own limitations, we are eternally insecure in a world that is psychically anchorless.
Furthermore, we fool ourselves into thinking that religious faith is entirely personal. But from this story we learn that while our faith begins as a personal experience, its ramifications extend beyond our time, space, and understanding. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a totally personal faith.
I, for one, prefer a faith that relies on a Divine Covenant, the terms and conditions of which were determined in eternity, written down "by holy men of old as they were breathed upon by the Holy Spirit", and delivered in tact to this generation through the orthodox tradition of the church - in other words, the Bible. Sometimes, I may wish I could alter the absolute terms of the Covenant to fit my perceived interests, or at least adjust the definitions in God's dictionary. But ultimately greater solace comes through resignation to an unchanging Covenant, authored in eternity by my King, the "rock that is higher than I."