…The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee said Tuesday he’s investigating the finances of six well-known TV ministers. —“Sen. Grassley probes televangelists’ finances,” AP (2007)
The Great Commission is not a marketing manifesto. Evangelism does not require salesmen, but prophets. —John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (2001)
The Root of the Problem
The Book of Judges gives us a repetitive cycle of apostasy, oppression, repentance, and deliverance. Each new generation falls into apostasy and idolatry. Each embraces foreign gods and then feels the full weight of an invading foreign army. Each generation cries out for deliverance and in time receives it. But each generation fails to pass on its covenant faith and conviction to its children. What was Israel’s problem?
At the end of Judges are two appendices, two stories, that help us understand why Israel didn’t maintain cultural continuity from one generation to the next. The stories aren’t pretty. In fact, they are grim and at points revolting. Both involve a Levite, one of the designated teachers of the Law. In the choices and actions of these two men we see the cancers that vitiated and destroyed Israelite society generation after generation. In this essay and its sequel we will consider those cancers and how they live on in our own culture. Here’s the first story:
There Once Was a Levite….
A Levite set out from Bethlehem in Judah to find a new position. Some distance north in Mount Ephraim he came across a man named Micah. Micah had recently set up his own shrine, complete with a graven image, a molten image, an ephod for divination, and a set of terraphim—little household gods. Micah offered the Levite a position as his household priest: the pay would be a change of clothes, his food, and a small salary. The Levite agreed. Micah was quite happy, certain now that God would really bless him: “Now I know that Yahweh will do me good, seeing that I have a Levite as my priest” (17:13).
But after some time a group of strangers came along (18:2). They were spies from the tribe of Dan looking for land to conquer—something easier to deal with than their God-assigned lot to the south. They asked Micah’s priest for counsel and blessing. He told them what they wanted to hear: “Go in peace: before Yahweh is the way you go” (v. 6).
The spies went north beyond Israel’s designated boundaries and found an isolated city called Laish. It was exactly what they were looking for. They hurried home and told their clansmen about the incredible opportunity they all had for conquest. A contingent of 600 Danite warriors set out with their families. Along the way they, too, came to Micah’s house.
The spies, who had come with them, asked a pointed question: “Do you know that there is in these houses an ephod, and terraphim, and a graven image, and a molten image? Now therefore consider what you should do” (v. 14). What God’s law required, of course, was that the idols be destroyed and the idolaters put to death (Deut. 17:2-7). But that wasn’t what the spies had in mind.
The Danite warriors entered Micah’s shrine and commandeered his idols. When the Levite began to object, they told him to be quiet and come along: “Is it better for you to be a priest to the house of one man, or to be a priest to a tribe and family in Israel?” (v. 19). The Levite was glad for the opportunity and immediately joined the emerging Danite church.
As the children of Dan set off, Micah appeared with some men and tried to protest the theft of his gods. The Danites threatened violence, and Micah, seeing he was outmatched, went home. We hear no more of him.
The Danites took the city of Laish and destroyed its people. They established themselves there and named the city “Dan” after their ancestor. And then the Danites set up Micah’s image as their own tribal idol. Scripture tells us that the Levite and his descendants were priests to the tribe of Dan “until the day of the captivity of the land” (v. 31); that is, until it fell to the Philistines centuries later.
The inspired author deliberately withholds the Levite’s name until the end of the story. In the Authorized Version it appears as “Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh” (18:30). But there’s something odd in the Hebrew text. The Hebrew letter for n is suspended above the other consonants in “Manasseh” as if it’s a deliberate addition; without that letter, “Manasseh” becomes “Moses.” And Moses did indeed have a son named Gershom. It seems later copyists wanted to save Moses shame by telling readers to speak the name of Israel’s worst king rather than the name of their greatest prophet when they read this passage.
And the First Lesson Is…
In this story and the next the inspired author uses the generic term “Levite” for the two teachers: each is simply “a Levite.” That says a great deal. The author has no qualms about speaking so generally. In his mind, these Levites stand for all (or most) of the Levites who served Israel during those dark years. In other words, the problem behind the cycle of failure that runs through Judges was the general failure of the Levites to be what they were supposed to be: faithful teachers of God’s word.
We see that the Levite in this first story was moved by two considerations: First, he wanted to turn a profit from his ministry. He was looking for money and power, even if only a little. Second, to obtain these goals, he was willing to give people exactly what they wanted. Did they want an encouraging oracle from God? Did they want a liturgy that appealed to their senses? Did they want a distorted vision of God? Did they want to ignore whole sections of the covenant law? Whatever they wanted to hear, he would provide it… as long as he got paid.
In his first gig, he really got paid very little. In his second, he no doubt got considerably more. But the price isn’t the issue. This man was willing to sell out Yahweh and His covenant for the things of this world. He was willing to make merchandise of the word of God. He was willing to say smooth and comfortable things in order to please the people. He was willing to be a prophet for hire. And his parishioners liked it that way.
As we look at the failure of Christendom, of Western civilization in general, and of our American republic more specifically, we need to remember the failure of the Hebrew republic. Its people repeatedly failed to pass on their faith to their children, and at the heart of that failure were ministers, pastors, who put their own welfare and the emotional comfort of their parishioners above the requirements of God’s covenant Law. Under such conditions, no civilization, no society, should ever expect the blessing of God. God has a greater interest in His truth, in the honor of His name, and in the sanctification of His people than He does in any nation’s political freedom, economic stability, or domestic peace. After all, God repeatedly brought His covenant people under the heel of pagan tyrants until they were ready to abandon their polytheism, their religious pluralism, for whole-hearted, passionate obedience to His covenant. God hasn’t changed. Maybe we need more pastors who will tell us what He’s really like.
For Further Reading:
James B. Jordan, Judges, God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985).
S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, vol. II (St. Catherine’s, Ontario: Paideia Press, 1977).
John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel, When the Church Becomes Like the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001).
John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus: What Does Jesus Mean When He Says, “Follow Me”? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).