Judges 17 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Judges 17
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Judges 17:1-2. An Ephraimite, named Micah, first steals eleven hundred shekels from his mother, and then restores them. Judges 17:3-5. She blesses him, and uses them, with his assistance, for the establishment of an idolatrous form of worship. Judges 17:6. Anarchy of the times. Judges 17:7-13. A wandering Levite comes from Bethlehem to the house of Micah, and consents to become priest of the new worship.

The two narratives which occupy the five remaining chapters of the Book of Judges are disconnected from one another and from what precedes. They are, in fact, two Appendices, which serve the purpose of showing the social anarchy, religious confusion, and moral degradation to which tribes and individuals were liable during this period. In date they belong to an earlier time than most of the preceding chapters, and they are connected by various terms of phraseology with the preface (Judges 17:1, Judges 2:5). The migration of Dan in Judges 18 (Joshua 19:47-48) is accounted for by the pressure to which the tribe was subjected by the Amorites, as related in Judges 1:34. The story of Micah, so valuable and interesting as a sketch of manners, seems to have been preserved solely from its bearing on the fortunes of this tribe. The fact that Jonathan, the grandson of Moses (Judges 18:30), and Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron (Judges 20:28), are prominent characters in the two narratives shows that the events must have happened (as Josephus states) at a time shortly subsequent to the death of Joshua, and previous to the career of many of the judges. The first narrative (Judges 16, 17) still bears on the fortunes of Dan, the tribe of Samson; and in both the narratives the tribe of Judah—which has been almost unnoticed in the body of the book—occupies an important position (Judges 16:9; Judges 18:12; Judges 19:1-2; Judges 19:10; Judges 20:18). These chapters belong, in fact, mainly to the annals of Dan and Judah. It is somewhat remarkable that both of them turn on the fortunes of a Levite of Bethlehem-Judah (Judges 17:7; Judges 19:1).

And there was a man of mount Ephraim, whose name was Micah.
(1) There was.—The Vulg. has, “there was at that time” which is an error, for these events happened before the days of Samson.

A man of mount Ephraim.—The hill-district of Ephraim, as in Judges 2:9. The Talmud (Sanhedr. 103, b) says that he lived at Garab, not far from Shiloh, but the name (“a blotch”) is probably a term of scorn (Deuteronomy 28:27). Similarly, we find in Perachim, 117, a, that he lived at Bochi. (See Judges 2:1-5.) Most of the idolatrous violations of the second commandment occurred in the northern kingdom (Gideon, Judges 8:27; Micah, Judges 17; Jeroboam, 1 Kings 12, 13). These apostasies were not a worship of other gods, but a worship of the true God under unauthorised conditions, and with forbidden images.

Whose name was Micah.—Scripture does not deem it necessary to say anything more about him. His very name—here Micayehû, “Who is like Jehovah “—seems to show that he had been trained by pious parents. The contraction Micah is adopted throughout the rest of the story.

And he said unto his mother, The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from thee, about which thou cursedst, and spakest of also in mine ears, behold, the silver is with me; I took it. And his mother said, Blessed be thou of the LORD, my son.
(2) He said unto his mother.—The story is singularly abbreviated, and all details as to how she had acquired the money, &c., are left to conjecture.

The eleven hundred shekels of silver.—The value of eleven hundred skekels would be about £136. It is the same sum which each of the lords of the Philistines promised to give Delilah (Judges 16:5), and only six hundred shekels less than the entire mass of the earrings given to Gideon—only that those were golden shekels. It is hard to say whence this Ephraimitish lady could have amassed so large a sum.

That were taken from thee.—This is probably the true rendering. The LXX. (Cod. B) have “which thou tookest for thyself,” and (Cod. A) “those taken by thee,” as though she had stolen them.

About which thou cursedst.—Literally, and thou didst adjure. The LXX. (Cod. B) add, “dost adjure me.” The adjuration was clearly that commanded in Leviticus 5:1 : “And if a soul sin, and hear the voice of swearing, and is a witness, whether he hath seen or known of it; if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity.” (Comp. Ecclus. iii. 9: “The curse of a mother rooteth out foundations.”)

I took it.—Micah is terrified into confession by his mother’s adjuration. He shows throughout a singular mixture of superstition and ignorance.

Blessed be thou of the Lord, my son.—Because of his penitence and confession.

And when he had restored the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, his mother said, I had wholly dedicated the silver unto the LORD from my hand for my son, to make a graven image and a molten image: now therefore I will restore it unto thee.
(3) I had wholly dedicated the silver.—Literally, Consecrating, I consecrated—either, “I have now consecrated it” as a thanksgiving for its restoration, or “I had done so before it was stolen.”

For my soni.e., for your benefit.

To make a graven image and a molten image.—Whether in the universal decadence of religion, the people, untaught by a careless priesthood, had become ignorant of the second commandment, or whether she justified her conduct by the same considerations which have been used even in the Christian Church in favour of image-worship, we cannot tell. The word used for a graven image is pesel, and for a molten image is massecah. They are the very words used in the curse against idolaters in Deuteronomy 27:15. Some suppose the two words to be used by Hendiadys (like “cups and gold” for “golden cups” ) to describe one silver image adorned with sculptured ornament. All that is clear is that the pesel is the more prominent, but the details are left quite vague. It is therefore impossible to determine whether the graven and molten image consisted of one or of two silver “calves,” like that of the wilderness, and those afterwards set up by Jeroboam at Dan and Bethel. This, however, was a form which the violation of the second commandment was constantly liable to take, and it probably involved much less blame than other violations of it—not, as is often stated, because the Israelites had become familiar with the worship of Apis and Mnevis in Egypt, but because the calf was a recognised cherubic emblem, and had consequently been deliberately sanctioned in the symbolism of the Temple. (See Exodus 20:4; Exodus 20:23; Exodus 32:4-5; 1 Kings 7:25, &c.) Some suppose that the massecah was the pedestal of the pesel, and that it was too heavy for the Danites to carry away, since it is not mentioned among the things which they seized.

Now therefore I will restore it unto thee.—Rather, for thee—in which case “I will restore it” may possibly mean “use it for its original purpose for thy advantage.” If not, a slight correction would give us the much simpler reading of the Syriac, “restore it to me.”

Yet he restored the money unto his mother; and his mother took two hundred shekels of silver, and gave them to the founder, who made thereof a graven image and a molten image: and they were in the house of Micah.
(4) Yet.—Rather, And.

Two hundred shekels of silver.—Bertheau supposes that these two hundred shekels were not apart of the eleven hundred, but the trespass-money of one-fifth, which by the law Micah had to pay for his theft (Lev. 5:24). But apart from the sum not being exact, no such impression is given by the narrative. It is left to be understood that the remaining nine hundred shekels were spent in other parts of the idolatrous worship. (It may be mentioned, by way of passing illustration, that when Sir John Hawle was murdered in Westminster Abbey, the £200 paid in penance by his murderers seem to have been expended upon the purchase of a costly image, which was placed in the Chapel of St. Erasmus.)

Gave them to the founder.—An illustration of the folly which Isaiah pursues with such a storm of irony and contempt (Isaiah 46:6-13). These pesîlîm were originally of all sorts of materials (e.g., wood, brass, stone, and clay, Daniel 2:33; Daniel 5:23; Deuteronomy 7:5; Deuteronomy 12:3, &c.), but usually of metal (Isaiah 40:19; Isaiah 44:10, &c.), adorned with plates and chains of precious metal, and embroidered robes (Jeremiah 10:9; Ezekiel 16:18, &c.). (See Excursus I.: Calf-Worship. )



IT may be regarded as certain, from the testimony of Scripture itself, that the calf of Aaron and those by which the rebel king

“Doubled that sin in Bethel and in Dan,

Likening his Maker to the grazed ox,”

were not idols in the ordinary sense of the word, but were intended as symbols of the one God. The calf-worship was a violation not of the first, but of the second commandment. The main element of the fourfold cherub was certainly an ox, as is clear from the comparison of Ezekiel 10:14 with Judges 1:7-8; and the knowledge of this cherubic emblem was not confined to the Jews, but was spread at least through all Semitic races. That the calf was intended to be an emblem of God seems to be the opinion of Josephus, who in such a matter would represent creditable Jewish traditions (Antt. viii. 8, § 4). Aaron in proclaiming the feast at the inauguration of his golden calf distinctly calls it a feast to Jehovah (Exodus 32:5). It was the well-understood purpose of Jeroboam not to introduce a new worship, but to provide a convenient modification of the old; and it appears from 1 Kings 22:16 that the prophets of the calf-worship still regarded themselves, and were regarded, as the prophets of Jehovah; but the fate of Amos is sufficient to show that they must have sanctioned, or at least tolerated, the use of these unauthorised symbols, against which, so far as we are informed, not even Elijah or Elisha ever raised their voices, though the former was so implacable a foe to all idolatry, and the latter lived on terms of close friendship with at least one of the northern kings. (See the article “Calf,” by the present writer, in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible.)

And the man Micah had an house of gods, and made an ephod, and teraphim, and consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest.
(5) Had an house of gods.—The Hebrew is Beth Elohim, which may mean equally well “a house of God” (Vulg., œdiculam Deo, and so too the LXX.). It is quite clear that Micah did not abandon the worship of God under the names of Jehovah and Elohim, by which He was known to the Israelites. How he coordinated this worship with his grossly idolatrous symbols, or whom those symbols were intended to represent, it is impossible to say. The fact remains that in the Beth-Micah we find “a house of gods”—“whole chapel of idols”—consecrated to Jehovah as a pious act (Judges 17:2; Judges 17:5; Judges 17:13; Judges 18:6).

An ephod.—No doubt the ephod was nothing more than a gorgeous priestly garment, though possibly it may have been used for oracular purposes. (See Judges 8:27.)

And teraphim.—These were Syrian images (Genesis 31:19), the use of which among the Israelites seems to have lasted for a long period, until it was put down by King Josiah in his great reformation (2 Kings 23:34; Ezekiel 21:26; Hosea 3:4; Zechariah 10:2). I have entered upon the interesting question of the use of Teraphim in an article on the subject in Kitto’s Cyclopœdia. (See Excursus II: Teraphim.)

Consecrated.—The curious Hebrew phrase is “filled the hand” (see Exodus 28:41; Exodus 29:24; Leviticus 7:37), i.e., gave him the office by putting certain offerings in his hands. It is rather installed than “consecrated.”


THE Hebrew word Teraphim is always simply transliterated as in our version, or rendered by “images,” with “teraphim” in the margin, except in 1 Samuel 15:23, Zechariah 10:2, where it is represented by “idolatry,” “idols.” The singular of the word, “a teraph,” does not occur in Scripture, although it is clear that only one can have been put into David’s bed (1 Samuel 19:13-16). The LXX. adopt many different renderings, as does the Vulg., but they all point to idolatrous images or the implements of necromancy, as do the two renderings of the Targums, images and (Hosea 3:4) “announcers.”

1. Teraphim are first mentioned in Genesis 31:19, where Rachel steals her father’s “images,” and successfully hides them from his search under the hiran on which she was sitting—the coarse carpet used to cover the wicker-work pack-saddle of her camel. Josephus supposes that she was actuated by idolatrous reverence; Iben Ezra that she expected oracular guidance from them; others that she stole them because of their intrinsic value. She probably shared the superstitions of her father, and regarded them as sacred (Genesis 30:14; Genesis 31:30), as being the figures of ancestral divinities (Genesis 31:53). It is not impossible that they were among the “strange gods” which Jacob ordered his family to bury under “the sorcerer’s oak”—Allon Meonenim (Judges 9:37). But that Jacob’s right feeling in the matter was not permanent is proved only too clearly by the conduct of Micah (Judges 17:5) and the Danites (Judges 18:3), although, unlike Jeroboam, they could not even plead the poor palliation of political motives.

2. The next definite notice of teraphim occurs in 1 Samuel 19:13-16, where Michal, in the dark eastern chamber, conceals her husband’s absence by putting the teraphim in his bed, with a bolster of goat’s hair for a pillow. The use of the article shows that even in David’s family the use of the “teraphim” was perfectly well known. Nor can we rely on the vague conjecture of Thenius, that barren women (Rachel and Michal) were especially addicted to their worship, or on that of Michaelis, that Michal may have possessed them unknown to David. The passage seems to show that they had at least some rude resemblance to the human shape, whence Aquila renders the word by protomai (“busts”), which is used of figures like the ancient Hermae. This is not the place to enter into the curious reading of the LXX. on this verse, by which they seem to connect the worship of teraphim with what the ancients called extispicium—i.e., divination by means of the liver of sacrifices, as in Ezekiel 21:21. Josephus follows the same reading, and dishonestly suppresses all mention of the teraphim.

3. The next important passage is Hosea 3:4, where the primâ facie view of every unbiassed reader would be that the “image” (matsêbah) and the teraphim are mentioned without blame as ordinary adjuncts to religious worship. Hence, perhaps, arose the notion that the teraphim were in some way connected with the Urim and Thummim, which led to the rendering of the word in this passage by δήλοι (LXX., “bright gems”), and by φωτισμούς (“enlightenments,” Aquila), and by “implements of priestly dress” (St. Jerome). This is the theory maintained most unconvincingly, though with great learning, by Spencer in his De Legibus Hebrœ-orum, lib. 3, pp. 920-1038.

But if these passages show that even in religious families teraphim were sometimes tolerated as material adjuncts to an Elohistic worship, on the other hand we find them unequivocally condemned by Samuel (1 Samuel 15:23), by Josiah (2 Kings 23:24), and by the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 10:2 ); and in Ezekiel 21:21 the use of them, is attributed to the heathen Nebuchadnezzar.

The general inference seems to be that the use of the teraphim involved a violation of the second commandment, but that this use of symbols, this monotheistic idolatry, which is very different from polytheism, arises from a tendency very deeply ingrained in human nature, and which it took many years to eradicate. If centuries elapsed before the Jews were cured of their propensity to worship “other gods,”we can feel no surprise that “image worship” continued to linger among them, in spite of the condemnation of it by the stricter prophets. The calf-worship, the toleration of teraphim and consecrated stones (baetylia) and high places, the offering of incense to the brazen serpent, the glimpses of grave irregularities even in the worship of the sanctuary, show that it was only by centuries of misfortune and a succession of prophets that Israel was at last educated into the spiritual worship of the true God.

The reader will find further remarks on this subject in the article on “Teraphim,” by the present writer, in Kitto’s Biblical Cyclopœdia.

In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
(6) In those days there was no king.—This shows that these narratives were written, or more probably edited, in the days of the monarchy. (See Judges 18:1; Judges 19:1; Judges 21:25.)

Did that which was right in his own eyes.—The notice is added to show why there was no authoritative interference of prince or ruler to prevent idolatrous or lawless proceedings. (Deuteronomy 12:8 : “Ye shall not do after all the things which we do here this day, every man what is right in his own eyes.”)

And there was a young man out of Bethlehemjudah of the family of Judah, who was a Levite, and he sojourned there.
(7) A young man.—Later on in the story we, as it were incidentally, make the astonishing discovery that this young man was no other than a grandson of Moses.

Out of Beth-lehem-judah.—So called to distinguish it from the Bethlehem in Zebulon (Joshua 19:15). (See Note on Judges 12:8.) In later times, when Bethlehem was famous as David’s birthplace, and the other Bethlehem had sunk into insignificance, the descriptive addition is often dropped.

Of the family of Judah.—It may be doubted whether this refers to the “young man” or to Bethlehem, or whether it ought not, as in some MSS. and versions (LXX., Cod. B, and Syriac), to be omitted. If it applies to the young Levite, it must mean that he did not live in one of the Levitic cities, which belonged to his own family (the family of Gershom), which were in the northern and eastern tribes (Joshua 21:6), but in Judah, and therefore was ranked in civil matters as belonging to that tribe. Homes in the tribe of Judah were assigned to the priests alone (Joshua 21:9-42).

He sojourned there.—Comp. Judges 19:1. The curse had been pronounced on the tribe of Levi: “I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:7).

And the man departed out of the city from Bethlehemjudah to sojourn where he could find a place: and he came to mount Ephraim to the house of Micah, as he journeyed.
(8) To sojourn where he could find.—Or, as we should say, to get his living. It may easily be supposed that in the disorganisation of these days, the due support of the Levites would be much neglected. The same neglect occurred in the troubled days of Nehemiah: “I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them: for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field,” &c. (Nehemiah 13:10-11).

To the house of Micah.—Probably he was induced to go there by the rumour of Micah’s chapel and worship.

And Micah said unto him, Whence comest thou? And he said unto him, I am a Levite of Bethlehemjudah, and I go to sojourn where I may find a place.
And Micah said unto him, Dwell with me, and be unto me a father and a priest, and I will give thee ten shekels of silver by the year, and a suit of apparel, and thy victuals. So the Levite went in.
(10) Be unto me a father and a priest.—The title “father” is here ecclesiastical, like “papa,” “pope,” &c, and this title was given to spiritual directors, as we find in several other passages in the Bible (2 Kings 2:12; 2 Kings 5:13; 2 Kings 6:21; Isaiah 22:21, &c.). Micah knew enough of the law to be aware of the extreme irregularity of his conduct in making one of his own sons his priest.

Ten shekels of silver.—Thus the grandson of Moses became priest of an idolatrous worship at a salary of 25s. a year!

By the year.—Literally, by days. (Comp. Leviticus 25:29.)

A suit of apparel.—The Vulgate renders these words “a double robe.” It seems to mean either “an order of garments” or “the value of garments,” i.e., “your clothes.”

And the Levite was content to dwell with the man; and the young man was unto him as one of his sons.
(11) Was unto him as one of his sons.—The words are added by way of reflection on his subsequent ingratitude.

And Micah consecrated the Levite; and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah.
Then said Micah, Now know I that the LORD will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest.
(13) That the Lord will do me good.—In this anticipation we find a very little further on that he was rudely undeceived, and we are hardly in a position to know whether it was due to hypocrisy or to mere ignorance. So far as Micah was devout and sincere, we must feel that the Lord did him good by stripping him of his gorgeous instruments of superstition and humbling his pride.

I have a Levite to my priest.—Rather, the Levite. The article may be generic, meaning “one of the Levites;” but Jonathan, as a son of Gershom, has a special right to be called “the Levite,” as a representative of the tribe. It is at least doubtful whether the priestly functions expected of him in this instance included sacrifice; but, in any case, Micah could hardly have been entirely unaware that the Levites were incapable of priestly functions (“Seek ye the priesthood also?”—Numbers 16:10), or of the fact that the authorised worship of the nation was to be confined to the place which God should choose, which in this instance was Shiloh. In any case, however, the passage furnishes us with a fresh proof of the utter neglect of the Mosaic law, as represented in the Book of Leviticus, from a very early period. His “house of God” seems to have resembled the high places, which even the faithful kings of Israel were unable or unwilling to clear away. They were ultimately cleared away by Hezekiah, but not without so great a shock to the then established custom, that Rabshakeh actually appeals to the fact in proof of Hezekiah’s impiety, and as a sign that he has forfeited the favour of Jehovah (2 Kings 18:22).

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