Drifting: Then and Now (Judges 17 and 18)

The story we are studying this week about Jonathan (the Levite personal priest of Micah as related the past two days from Judges 17 and 18) is one that happened about 3350 to 3400 years ago. And I could imagine a modern person asking how in the world something from three millennia ago can have any bearing or wisdom for life today. It was such a different time, and to an extent that is true.

But the nature of man does not change over the millennia. Materialism is the same as it was. One people group dislodging another to take their land is the story of human history. People looking out for themselves rather than others is timeless.

Since the nature of man does not change, we can observe even Old Testament narratives from antiquity and gain from them some timeless principles that are true in any generation. I would make five such observations for your consideration from these two chapters.

Drift from God begins with ignorance of His Word and biblical truth.

We see this in every component of the story, and it is not just with Jonathan, but with all of the characters (who are all Jewish people and part of Israel). The mother is into idols. He son Micah also already had idols. Jonathan agrees to be a priest away from Israel’s center of worship, and he incorporates idolatry in a syncretistic way. The Danites are filled with superstition and readiness to set up a show of religion, devoid of truth. Every one of these people should have known better from their background and affiliation as God’s covenant people. They possessed the truth, but they did not let the truth possess them.

Going through life without knowing the Scripture is like having an owner’s manual on what life is about and how to live it successfully, but paying no attention to it. This would be like never looking at the owner’s manual of your car or taking care to do responsible things like oil changes and maintenance.

But people live life in this careless fashion and then they wonder why they have multiplied problems. Ridiculously, they then blame God like a totally irresponsible car owner would blame Ford or General Motors for manufacturers’ error.

Drift from God is accelerated by the allure of worldly gain.

Jonathan was from the tribe of Levi and was a grandson of Moses; so he had a calling upon his life to serve the nation in religious leadership. This did not include running around the country looking for a place to live as a sort of religious free agent.

The seduction of this world is, of course, that accumulating the securities and joys it offers will bring us satisfaction and security. We never really ever get completely away from this incipient tendency, not in any generation.

Drift from God is sedated and suppressed by merely outward religious symbols and rituals.

The mother of Micah has superstitions about curses and blessings. Micah is sure God will bless him because he sets up his own personal shrine, etc.  The Danites believe the idols will help them, even though these objects did nothing to protect their first owner from this tribal group!

Just because something is religious and is seen does not mean it is accurate or true or real. Within circles of theological liberalism, there is little belief in the Bible, Jesus as divine, objective truth, the need for salvation, and dozens of other truths of Scripture. They just sorta believe in some big, grand ideas about love and kindness. But it looks and sound good!

And whether liberal or evangelical, there are common views that going through the motions of religious duty and putting in the time is a sufficient effort to get “credit.”  It is similar to doing time for something like filling a “community service hours” sort of obligation. It’s a good thing, but more than anything, you just want to get them done and over with.

Drift from God may also be sedated and suppressed by apparent signs of success.

Micah could ask who else in Ephraim had their own personal priest?  And with the Danites, it was a long way to worship where God said to go, so setting up their own system made sense and looked good too.

There is no shortage in our time of folks being satisfied by having the apparent symbols of success. People who have a lot of material gain may think that this is the symbol of God’s blessing and pleasure with them.

And in the religious world we are really into the symbols of success, most often measured in America 2016 by numbers of people, physical structures, and offerings totals. The bigger the better, the bigger being obviously the blessing of God.

Rather, we should look for long-term patterns of faithfulness and consistency in Scripture and the growth of the lives of people connected to a local church family, noting the presence of people oriented to truth, and folks who are walking and growing together through the good and bad of life.

Drift from God may have the long-term result of generational consequences.

The story in Judges ends with the information that for generations there was an alternate worship of idols that took place that rivaled the true worship of God at Shiloh. Generations of Jonathan’s family facilitated this fraudulent activity.

Religious indifference and a lack of valuation for the things of God (due to drift) will surely be seen and felt by rising generations. If faith is nothing more than the thing you do when there’s nothing else better to do at that time, or that you do as an obligation to get it out of the way … this will be noted, and it is highly likely that the next generation will value it even less.

Yes, drift is drift. Whether it is from the descendants of Adam and Eve, the period of the Judges in Israel, or the Tri-State area in 2016, drifting from God looks pretty much the same. And you don’t want to look like this.

The Lack of a Compass Leads to Drifting (Judges 18)

Though there is a chapter break between chapters 17 and 18 of the book of Judges, it is really one extended story that features this character we introduced yesterday named Jonathan. And again, this entire story is the beginning of a sort of appendix in the book of Judges, where the writer gives several illustrations of the lawless conditions that so often prevailed during this time of Israel’s history.

In fact, the first verse of chapter 18 is again an editorial remark by the writer about the prevailing problems of that era. 18:1 – In those days Israel had no king.

It is not actually that an earthly king was an end-all solution. More often than not they brought a new set of problems, and in fact every last one of the kings in the eventual northern kingdom after the reign of Solomon (when the united kingdom split, north and south) was evil in the sight of the Lord. God himself wanted to be their king, desiring them to live under his prescribed law and covenant.

The story now goes on to talk about one of the 12 tribes of Israel, the tribe of Dan. Named after the 12 sons of Jacob, Dan was the fifth of the boys, born next after Judah. Again, this story happens in the very early years of the occupation of the Promised Land, and this tribe was not yet truly settled into a geographically-defined place of their own.

And in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking a place of their own where they might settle, because they had not yet come into an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. 2 So the Danites sent five of their leading men from Zorah and Eshtaol to spy out the land and explore it. These men represented all the Danites. They told them, “Go, explore the land.”

The two towns of Zorah and Eshtaol were west of the area where Jerusalem is in Judea. The Danites needed a more spacious place to be, and in the vein of the 12 spies who went from Moses into the Promised Land, five men were sent to head far north to find a place to live. One of the first regions they would go through on their journey was the hill country of Ephraim …

So they entered the hill country of Ephraim and came to the house of Micah, where they spent the night.

Let me share today the same illustration I used on Sunday to describe what is happening here. This is like some people from Montgomery County, Maryland, being tired of living in the D.C. suburbs, sending some representatives north to explore if Maine might be a place they could live. Passing through the hill country of Ephraim would be sort of like these guys passing through Allentown on the way to the northern border of the country.

3 When they were near Micah’s house, they recognized the voice of the young Levite; so they turned in there and asked him, “Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? Why are you here?”

4 He told them what Micah had done for him, and said, “He has hired me and I am his priest.”

5 Then they said to him, “Please inquire of God to learn whether our journey will be successful.”

6 The priest answered them, “Go in peace. Your journey has the Lord’s approval.”

On their journey these five men hear an accent they recognize as from where they’ve just come from. It is this fellow Jonathan. Surprised by this, they hear his story about what he is doing in being away from the place he more appropriately should be. What an opportunity for them to find out if God will bless their journey! There is no mention that Jonathan actually sought the Lord on the matter; it does not appear so. But, being a positive fellow, he assured them of blessing and God’s approval.

So the five men go to the northernmost borders of the Land, and come to what is essentially Caribou, Maine … in this story a place called Laish …

7 So the five men left and came to Laish, where they saw that the people were living in safety, like the Sidonians, at peace and secure. 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.

The five research spies find a town in a fantastic location that is rich in natural resources, isolated and relatively safe, populated by people who were enjoying life without any alliances with other peoples … like the Sidonians – a city to the northwest of them that was just beyond the Promised Land. On one hand, these people were living the life of Riley; but on the other hand, their isolation made them vulnerable to attack.

8 When they returned to Zorah and Eshtaol, their fellow Danites asked them, “How did you find things?”

9 They answered, “Come on, let’s attack them! We have seen the land, and it is very good. Aren’t you going to do something? Don’t hesitate to go there and take it over. 10 When you get there, you will find an unsuspecting people and a spacious land that God has put into your hands, a land that lacks nothing whatever.”

11 Then six hundred men of the Danites, armed for battle, set out from Zorah and Eshtaol. 12 On their way they set up camp near Kiriath Jearim in Judah. This is why the place west of Kiriath Jearim is called Mahaneh Dan[c] to this day. 13 From there they went on to the hill country of Ephraim and came to Micah’s house.

So the Danites determine to make Laish their own, to attack it and claim it. They put together a large force that heads north, once again passing through the area in Ephraim where Micah and his precious personal pet priest Jonathan lived.

14 Then the five men who had spied out the land of Laish said to their fellow Danites, “Do you know that one of these houses has an ephod, some household gods and an image overlaid with silver? Now you know what to do.” 15 So they turned in there and went to the house of the young Levite at Micah’s place and greeted him. 16 The six hundred Danites, armed for battle, stood at the entrance of the gate. 17 The five men who had spied out the land went inside and took the idol, the ephod and the household gods while the priest and the six hundred armed men stood at the entrance of the gate.

18 When the five men went into Micah’s house and took the idol, the ephod and the household gods, the priest said to them, “What are you doing?”

19 They answered him, “Be quiet! Don’t say a word. 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?” 20 The priest was very pleased. He took the ephod, the household gods and the idol and went along with the people. 21 Putting their little children, their livestock and their possessions in front of them, they turned away and left.

As a warm-up exercise for conquering Laish, they hear about the good luck charms within the shrine of gods and objects in the home of Micah. So they decide to steal them. At first, Jonathan protests … that is, until they make him an offer he can’t refuse. This is a mega-promotion, from serving a family as priest, to being the priest over an entire tribe of Israel – the Danites. This would be like being a bookkeeper for a local gas station to being offered the job as Chief Financial Officer of Exxon.

22 When they had gone some distance from Micah’s house, the men who lived near Micah were called together and overtook the Danites. 23 As they shouted after them, the Danites turned and said to Micah, “What’s the matter with you that you called out your men to fight?”

24 He replied, “You took the gods I made, and my priest, and went away. What else do I have? How can you ask, ‘What’s the matter with you?’”

25 The Danites answered, “Don’t argue with us, or some of the men may get angry and attack you, and you and your family will lose your lives.” 26 So the Danites went their way, and Micah, seeing that they were too strong for him, turned around and went back home.

Micah and his mighty men … well, maybe not so mighty … went after the Danites to retrieve his possessions. Catching up to them, Micah quotes Elvis and says, “There goes my EVERYTHING!”

Ah … Micah my man … if your everything (idols) could be taken, doesn’t that mean that they really aren’t very powerful to help you out?

Ah … Danite dudes … if you think these gods are going to help you out, why weren’t they strong enough to keep you from stealing them? They sound defective!

27 Then they took what Micah had made, and his priest, and went on to Laish, against a people at peace and secure. They attacked them with the sword and burned down their city. 28 There was no one to rescue them because they lived a long way from Sidon and had no relationship with anyone else. The city was in a valley near Beth Rehob.

The Danites rebuilt the city and settled there. 29 They named it Dan after their ancestor Dan, who was born to Israel—though the city used to be called Laish. 30 There the Danites set up for themselves the idol, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land. 31 They continued to use the idol Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh.

The Danites are successful in their attack and conquest. They establish their tribal home there, which would exist for generations. Naming it “Dan,” it would be the northernmost establishment in Israel. Throughout the Old Testament you read the phrase “from Dan to Beersheba.”  This was the OT writers’ way of saying “from the farthest north to the deepest south” … or like saying “from Caribou to Key West.”

And then we get to the climatic purpose of the story being told:  Jonathan is named, it is revealed he is the very grandson of Moses, and the generations of his family would lead the Danites in a pagan worship of idols for generations that would rival the true work and worship of the God of Israel. Unbelievable.

This was a long story to tell, and let’s just make one point here now. Where do you see anywhere in this story where anyone at all has a moral compass? Where is anyone even trying to obey God and live in accord with his covenantal word and law?

But that is how most people honestly live. They are like being on a raft in the middle of a large body of water beyond view of land … and without a compass. Where are they drifting? Toward land? Away from land? Toward danger? It would be nice if an albatross or something would fly by and drop a compass and map upon them.

Since we have a compass and map for life – the Scriptures – why would we allow ourselves to just drift?  Don’t be a dope and do that.