I believe it was Winston Churchill after the decisive victory in North Africa against Rommel who said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” In the same way this passage points to the end of the beginning – the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Law, surviving the wilderness and coming into Canaan. It is a hinge point in the story of Israel because while it is the end of the beginning it is also the beginning of the end – the eventual annihilation of the Northern tribes and the exile of Judah in Babylon. Here we have all the clues of what will in time cause Israel to fall in on itself hundreds of years later. It is like finding the headwaters of their destruction. You could not guess how small and seemingly insignificant it is but the impact is enormous. Like all great failures it begins with the corruption of character.
1. It would be easy to turn this into an allegory or a morality play or to treat this as one of Aesop’s fables. We tend to do that with Biblical characters. They are no longer real but simply a means of teaching lessons. Their lives are not neat and tidy. Like our lives, they are not consistent or simply good and bad. They are a mixture. They are complicated.
2. It’s all one account but in three chapters. Like good television scripts, it is three subplots that converge at the end. The characters in the course of the story “connect the dots” and we end with a tale that manages to weave everything together.
3. Section 1. Chapter 17. We begin with two relationships: the mother and Micah first and then Micah and the young unnamed Levite. This forms the spine of the story.
a. The mother’s confusion and what we would call heterodoxy and syncretism today. She genuinely thinks her dedicating silver to make a carved image is consistent with her religious beliefs. How does that happen? How do people get so confused when the commandment is so clear? Two ways that are still true today. First, it was a time when every man did what was right in their own eyes. They had managed to make every standard relative. If you don’t like it – either amend it or ignore it. You may have read the story this week about Rob Bell’s declaration about same sex marriage and the church. As you know, he has become a spiritual advisor to Oprah and wandered off the path of orthodoxy.
“We’re moments away. I think the culture is already there. And the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense,” he told Winfrey when asked about the Church embracing gay marriage.
His wife admitted that churches across the nation are still split on the issue, but added that those who maintain an orthodox view on homosexuality are “regressing.”
“I think there are a lot of people, who as they see culture moving, their response is to dig in deeper, is to, like, hold their ground, fight against it,” Kristen Bell said. “So I think that there are both things happening. There are churches that are moving forward into that area, and there are churches who are almost regressing and making it more of a battle.”
Second, the mother was completely disconnected to sound teaching. Another part of the text (the last verse of chapter 18 ) says the people continued to use idols all the time the house of God was in Shiloh. In other words, they had allowed something other than the Law to become their source of right beliefs. She was not connected to sound teaching but to practices and beliefs that gradually moved people to distorted theology. We see the same today when people are disconnected from sound teaching and accountability. It’s never sudden. It’s gradual…and always makes sense but ends in confusion.
Read Deuteronomy 29:16-19. Moses’ instruction for the people…and those who follow.
“You yourselves know how we lived in Egypt and how we passed through the countries on the way here. You saw among them their detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold. Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.
When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,” they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry.’
b. Micah is as confused and deluded as his mother. He ordains his son and then we see what happens when faith becomes superstition. It becomes a deal and something to be traded. A relationship becomes a transaction and a formula for success. That is why he says, “I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest.”
c. The Levite is a young and ambitious religious entrepreneur. He has mistaken a calling for a career. I meet donors and ministry leaders who have fallen into the same trap. The ministry leader becomes the lucky charm for the donor and the donor is a meal ticket in return. There is no way to be a priest or prophet this way. All credibility is gone. All ability to hold people accountable is sacrificed. They become what one writer has called “chaplains to power.” This Levite did not want to be constrained by the rules and he found a way to do what he wanted. He was restless in a small town and wanted something more. “I’m being wasted here.” He was not greedy for money but for a position and a relationship with a wealthy man and his family.
As you have heard before, I think Eugene Peterson says it just right in “Working The Angles.” He writes about the vow that people in ministry must make to their people when they are ordained. It is not just ministers. It is all of us in any kind of ministry – like teaching Sunday School. That’s why I keep this copy signed by Eugene in my Bible.
”One more thing: We are going to ordain you to this ministry, and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment, but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you.
We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of Word and Sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices.
There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world, and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing – God, kingdom, gospel – we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.”
In this first chapter you see all the basic themes in the rest of the story: disloyalty, confusion, isolation and people deciding themselves what is right and wrong – and then covering it with all kinds of God language.
4. Section 2: Chapter 18:1-26
a. The Danites are unsuccessful in conquering the Canaanites in the territory assigned to them and are looking for an easy way out. They are looking for easy prey and a hostile takeover.
b. They find an accommodating Levite who will tell them what they want to hear. They ask him to inquire of God and he immediately tells them they have God’s approval. He is completely independent of God and a free agent. They are not looking for guidance but for permission and they have come to the right place. “He has hired me and I am his priest.” He encourages them to take advantage of these “unsuspecting people” and to think God has put them into their hands. More God language. What else do they find in this ambitious young man? They find someone they can seduce with a bigger opportunity and more influence. They find someone whose loyalty is for sale.
When they are leaving they say to him: “Come with us, and be our father and priest. Isn’t it better that you serve a tribe and clan in Israel as priest rather than just one man’s household?’ Then the priest was glad. He took the ephod, the other household gods and the carved image and went along with the people.”
c. The Danites find people who are unsuspecting and secure and, like everyone else, isolated and cut off from others. “And since their land lacked nothing, they were prosperous. Also, they lived a long way from the Sidonians and had no relationship with anyone else.” Later, we read that “there was no one to rescue them because they lived a long way from Sidon and had no relationship with anyone else.” They find people who instead of living on the top of a hill that is easily defended they are living in the valley and open to enemies. They had stopped believing they had enemies. They had stopped believing they needed anyone because they had become prosperous and self-sufficient. They had become used to comfort and convenience.
5. Section 3: Chapter 18:27-31
a. For me, this is the saddest irony in the story. Who is the young ambitious and accommodating Levite? He is the son of Gershom, the son of Moses. His grandfather is Moses.
b. Read Deuteronomy 31:24-29:
“After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord: “Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God. There it will remain as a witness against you. For I know how rebellious and stiff-necked you are. If you have been rebellious against the Lord while I am still alive and with you, how much more will you rebel after I die! Assemble before me all the elders of your tribes and all your officials, so that I can speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to testify against them. For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall on you because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord and arouse his anger by what your hands have made.”
He could not have known it would be his own grandson he was describing. He could not have imagined it would be his own family that would destroy what he had accomplished.
c. The end result of Jonathan’s lack of character is the destruction and enslavement of Israel. As we know, the ten tribes go into captivity and completely disappear from history. The ultimate effect of the grandson’s life is the unraveling of his grandfather’s life work. It was not intentional. Still, it was a tragedy. The combination of so many small elements leads to the end of a nation – self-indulgence, isolation, disloyalty, pride, misuse of power, distorted theology, and ambition over time brings down an entire country. It was not obvious. It’s beginning seemed like such an insignificant thing – a mother’s confusion and a spoiled son. But, as in our own lives, one thing leads to another that we could never predict.
2 Kings 17:15: “They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.”
We are all, to some extent, susceptible to the mother’s confused beliefs, Micah’s superstition and manipulation, God-talk that masks selfish motivations, the Danites rationalizing, the Canaanites prosperity that leads to unsuspecting independence and Jonathan’s self-serving ambition. We all are prone to define God the way we would like and to wander from what He desires for us. The life with a memory of God but without a relationship with Him is true for every generation. As you know, there is another Micah in Scripture and through him God speaks to all of us. “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
We are each one of us in some part described in this account. We all struggle with these temptations.
Like the mother, we are tempted to exchange the truth of God for a lie.
Like Micah, we try to manipulate God into blessing us.
Like Jonathan, we want a larger opportunity and more influence and better associations.
Like the people of Lachish we forget that “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” and we grow comfortable and soft.
This week think about what safeguards you need to work into your life to avoid these things. It might be far more than you imagine is depending on your personal integrity.