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The band of five Danites received the blessing from the idolatrous priest in the house of Micah, so they continued their journey north to find a vulnerable city to conquer. Judges 18:7 says,
7 Then the five men departed and came to Laish and saw the people who were in it living in security, after the manner of the Sidonians, quiet and secure; for there was no ruler humiliating them for anything in the land, and they were far from the Sidonians and had no dealings with anyone.
Laish means “lion.” It was an independent city-state that was not subject to a greater power in the area such as Sidon or Damascus. Laish was situated in a beautiful area at the southwest base of Mount Hermon, where three streams from the mountain form the source of the Jordan River.
The five spies liked what they saw and returned to give their good report. Judges 18:8-10 continues,
8 When they came back to their brothers at Zorah and Eshtaol, their brothers said to them, “What do you report?” 9 And they said, “Arise, and let us go up against them; for we have seen the land, and behold it is very good. And will you sit still? Do not delay to go, to enter, to possess the land. 10 When you enter, you shall come to a secure people with spacious land; for God has given it into your hand, a place where there is no lack of anything that is on the earth.”
Keep in mind that their mandate had been given to them by an idolatrous priest and that this was one of Samuel’s examples of everyone doing right in his own eyes. The fact that the Danites had not possessed the inheritance that God had given them was due to God’s test to see if they would follow Him (Judges 3:1).
God Himself had never given that city to any of the tribes, for it lay outside the border of the Promised Land. Laish, then, represented an alternative inheritance, one that was easier for the flesh to attain, as it required less faith than trying to conquer the Philistines, and further, their faith was rooted in heart idolatry.
We saw earlier how Samuel’s purpose in writing the book of Judges was to reveal the origin of lawlessness that was to manifest later on a greater scale in King Saul, who was from the lawless town of Gibeah. But by giving us this brief history of Zorah and Eshtaol, we see the root of Samson’s problem and the reason he was unable to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.
Here we see a prophetic connection between Samson and Saul, both of whom were types of the church (Pentecost). Saul was crowned on the day of wheat harvest, or Pentecost (1 Sam. 12:17), and Samson set fire to the ripe wheat of the Philistines (Judges 15:4, 5). As a Pentecostal, Samson was unable to deliver Israel from captivity, and, likewise, Saul was unable to establish a righteous Kingdom. Samson and Saul probably knew each other, because the death of Samson occurred just a few years before Saul’s coronation.
Samson’s family was from Zorah, but the estate was actually between Zorah and Eshtaol. This was where Samson was buried (Judges 16:31). Zorah means “hornet,” and Samson was surely a “hornet” to the Philistines. Eshtaol means “entreaty” and comes from sha’al, “to ask.” This is also the root of the name Saul, or Shaul. Saul’s name prophesied of the day that the people would ask for a fleshly king to rule them, rejecting the rule of their true King.
Hence, even as Saul was an alternate king, so also was Laish an alternate inheritance. Origins do make a difference, for Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” Whatever is not built upon the foundation stone of Christ will eventually fail, even if it enjoys temporary success.
Judges 18:11-13 says,
11 Then from the family of the Danites, from Zorah and from Eshtaol, six hundred men armed with weapons of war set out. 12 And they went up and camped at Kiriath-jearim in Judah. Therefore, they called that place Mahaneth-dan [“Camp of Dan”] to this day behold, it is west of Kiriath-jearim. 13 And they passed from there to the hill country of Ephraim and came to the house of Micah.
Kiriath-jearim was a Gibeonite town (Joshua 9:17) that lay within the borders of Judah. When the Philistines returned the Ark of the Covenant at Pentecost, the Israelites placed the Ark at Kiriath-jearim, where it remained for 20 years (1 Sam. 6:21; 7:1, 2). The Philistines had destroyed Shiloh, so the Ark never returned to Shiloh.
When the 600 Danites camped at Kiriath-jearim, the Ark was still in Shiloh, for this took place long before the battle with the Philistines. Camping there, however, must have been a significant event, because the place became known from then on as the Camp of Dan. We are not told how long they prepared for war at that camp, but from there they returned to the house of Micah, the idolatrous priest in the hill country of Ephraim.
Judges 18:13, 14 says,
13 They passed from there to the hill country of Ephraim and came to the house of Micah. 14 Then the five men who went out to spy out the country of Laish answered and said to their kinsmen, “Do you know that there are in these houses an ephod and household idols and a graven image and a molten image? Now therefore, consider what you should do.”
The five men thus recommended that the rest of the troops participate in the idolatrous inquiry. Judges 18:15, 16 continues,
15 They turned aside there and came to the house of the young man, the Levite, to the house of Micah, and asked him of his welfare. 16 The six hundred men armed with their weapons of war, who were of the sons of Dan, stood by the entrance of the gate.
It appears that the five Danite spies deliberately led the troops to the house of Micah in order to give the idolatrous Levite a better offer. Judges 18:17-20 continues,
17 Now the five men who went to spy out the land went up and entered there, and took the graven image and the ephod and household idols and the molten image, while the priest stood by the entrance of the gate with the six hundred men armed with weapons of war. 18 And when these went into Micah’s house and took the graven image, the ephod and household idols and the molten image, the priest said to them, “What are you doing?” 19 And they said to him, “Be silent, put your hand over your mouth and come with us, and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be a priest to the house of one man, or to be priest to a tribe and a family in Israel?” 20 And the priest’s heart was glad, and he took the ephod and household idols and the graven image and went among the people [i.e., the Danite army].
The five Danites, backed by an army of 600 men of war, went to the house of Micah to bribe his priest and steal his idols. Remember that the idols had been made from silver that Micah himself had stolen from his mother. It appears that the spirit of theft was behind these idols. The idolatrous Levite was bribed with a better offer, for why should he remain a mere priest in a local parish when he could be the bishop of an entire diocese?
With his talent being recognized, ambition took over, “and the priest’s heart was glad.”
The local Ephraimite community where Micah lived quickly learned that their priest had run off with the Danites and had deprived them of their idols, so they ran after them and appealed for justice. Judges 18:21-24 says,
21 Then they turned and departed and put their little ones and the livestock and the valuables in front of them. 22 When they had gone some distance from the house of Micah, the men who were in the houses near Micah’s house assembled and overtook the sons of Dan. 23 And they cried to the sons of Dan, who turned around and said to Micah, “What is the matter with you, that you have assembled together?” 24 And he said, “You have taken away my gods which I made, and the priest, and have gone away, and what do I have besides? So how can you say to me, ‘What is the matter with you?’”
The name Dan means “judge.” The tribe of Dan thus represents the Justice Department in Kingdom government, even as the other tribes represent other departments of government. The corruption of the tribe of Dan prophesies of the corruption of the entire Justice Department in what was supposed to be the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the theft and bribery in the Justice Department was backed up by the army and law enforcement in general.
They were supposed to be under the rule of law—God’s law—but actually, they ruled by force, for we read in Judges 18:25, 26,
25 The sons of Dan said to him [Micah], “Do not let your voice be heard among us, lest fierce men fall upon you and you lose your life with the lives of your household.” 26 So the sons of Dan went on their way; and when Micah saw that they were too strong for him, he turned and went back to his house.
The problem with idolatry is that lawlessness breeds more lawlessness. Micah should have understood that idolatry is its own punishment. When godly integrity breaks down, force replaces the rule of law, and might makes right. Micah did not have the power to enforce justice for himself, because the Danite SWAT team threatened both him and his household.
Judges 18:27-29 says,
27 Then they took what Micah had made and the priest who had belonged to him, and came to Laish, to a people quiet and secure, and struck them with the edge of the sword; and they burned the city with fire. 28 And there was no one to deliver them, because it was far from Sidon and they had no dealings [davar, “word,” in this case, a (written) contract, or defense treaty] with anyone, and it was in the valley which is near Beth-rehob. And they rebuilt the city and lived in it. 29 And they called the name of the city Dan, after the name of Dan their father who was born in Israel; however, the name of the city formerly was Laish.
Samuel obviously disapproved of the Danite conquest of Laish, reminding us that the city was inhabited by “a people quiet and secure.” In other words, they did not deserve this war. The Danites were acting according to the blessing of an idol made of silver—not according to the word of the Lord. It was a clear case of injustice, brought about by the fact that everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Judges 18:30, 31 concludes the story, saying,
30 The sons of Dan set up for themselves the graven image; and Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. 31 So they set up for themselves Micah’s graven image, all the time that the house of God was at Shiloh.
We finally learn now the identity of this idolatrous Levite. His name was Jonathan (“given by God”). His father’s name, Gershom, means “foreigner,” which perhaps implies that he was born in a foreign land, much like Moses’ son, Gershom, who was born in the land of Midian (Exodus 2:22).
Jonathan’s grandfather was not really Manasseh but Moses himself, as we read in Dr. Bullinger’s notes on Judges 18:30,
Manasseh. This word is one of the four that has a suspended letter. Here the letter nun is written partly in the line and partly above the line to show that originally it formed no part of the word, but was put in to make it spell “Manasseh” instead of “Moses”; Jonathan was the grandson of Moses… This was done for two reasons: (1) to spare the honour of Moses’ memory and name; (2) to put the sin upon one who committed so gross a sin. The Talmud gives this latter as the reason.
Manasseh means “causing to forget.” The prophecy in these names shows that although the Levites had been “given by God” to serve as magistrates, judges, and assistants to the priests, some of them would turn to idolatry as if they were foreigners, and they would cause the people to forget God.
The tribe of Dan was the first to be caught up in this deception. Hence also, Jonathan was “forgotten” in 1 Chron. 23:15, 16, where his name was changed to Shebuel, and Dan was "forgotten" in Revelation 7, where the tribes are listed.