In his classic work of political theory, Leviathan, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes warns that without stable government, “the life of man [will be] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” This is precisely what occurs in the Biblical book of Judges. After the death of Joshua, Moshe’s successor, tribal rulers from all over the country scramble to fill the void created in his absence. Many of the men and women who step into positions of authority at this time provide for the needs of their people quite capably. Gradually, however, these competent “judges” are superseded by a group of leaders who either struggle or fail entirely to rule in the people’s best interests. Avimelech hires hit-men to murder seventy of his brothers and declares himself king of Shechem; Yiftach seizes the fords of the Jordan and executes forty-two thousand Ephraimites for treason; Shimshon burns Philistine crops in order to settle a personal score and nearly brings ruin upon all the inhabitants of the south. It is one of the darkest eras in the history of ancient Israel.
As the book of Judges draws to a close, the nation teeters on the edge of collapse. Families break apart after wives run away from their husbands. Streets fill up with wayfarers because the locals are too frightened to invite strangers into their homes. A concubine is raped and dismembered, a civil war breaks out, and the tribe of Judah plots genocide against the tribe of Benjamin. In short, anarchy replaces tyranny. “In those days, there was no king in Israel—everybody did whatever seemed right in their eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25). How did this happen?
In transitioning from the reign of the chieftains to the period in which “everybody did whatever he wanted,” the Bible recounts a curious incident colloquially referred to as “The Incident of Micah’s Idol” (Hebrew: פסל מיכה). This episode appears in the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters of the book of Judges. Since it’s fairly unfamiliar, let’s review it together in full:
Micah recruits the Levite (Judges 17:5-13):
Now the man Micah (not to be confused with the prophet Micah) had a house of idolatry… And Micah said to [to a certain Levite], “Dwell with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver for the period, and a wardrobe of clothing with your provisions.” And the Levite came. And the Levite was content to dwell with the man. And the lad was to him as one of his sons. And Micah initiated the Levite, and the lad became his priest, and was in the house of Micah. And Micah said, “Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, because I had a Levite as my priest.”
The Danites scout Laish (Judges 18:1-10):
…In those days the tribe of Dan sought for themselves an inheritance in which to dwell, for until that day there had not fallen to them among the tribes of Israel an inheritance. And the children of Dan sent from their families five men, part of them being men of valor, from Zorah and Eshtaol, to spy out the land and to search it; and they said to them, “Go search the land.” And they came to the mountain of Ephraim, up to Micah’s house, and lodged there. When they were by the house of Micah, they recognized the voice of the lad, the Levite. And they turned aside there and said to him, “Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? And what have you here?” And he said to them, “Such and such has Micah done for me, and he has hired me, and I have become his priest.” And they said to him, “Ask now of God, that we may know whether we shall be prosperous on our way upon which we are going.” And the priest said to them, “Go in peace; the Lord is before you on the path which you are taking.” And the five men went, and arrived in Laish. And they saw the people that were therein dwelling in security, after the manner of the Zidonians, tranquil and secure. There was none in the land to put them to shame for anything; they had few heirs, and they were far from the Zidonians, and had no business with anybody. And the spies came to their brothers, to Zorah and Eshtaol; and their brothers said to them, “What [have] you?” And they said, “Arise, and let us go up against them, for we have seen the land, and behold, it is very good; and you are silent, do not be lazy to go and enter to possess the land. When you arrive, you will come to a secure people, and the land is sufficiently large, for God has given it into your hands; a place where there is nothing lacking of anything which is in the land.”
The Danites raid Micah’s house (Judges 18:11-21):
So there journeyed from there, of the Danite family, out of Zorah and Eshtaol, six hundred men girded with weapons… And they passed from there to the mountain of Ephraim, and came up to Micah’s house. And the five men that went to spy out the area of Laish spoke up, and said to their brothers, “Do you know that in these houses there is a priestly robe, household idols, a graven image, and a molten one? Now, see and know what you must do.” And they turned there, and came to the house of the young man the Levite, in Micah’s house, and greeted him. Now the six hundred men of the children of Dan girded with their weapons, stood by the entrance of the gate. And the five men that went to spy out the land went up; they came in there, and took the graven image, the priestly robe, the household idols, and the molten image. And the priest stood by the entrance of the gate with six hundred men that were girded with weapons…. And the priest said to them, “What are you doing?” And they said to him, “Be still, put your hand over your mouth and go 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 a priest to a tribe and family in Israel?” And the priest’s heart was pleased, and he took the priestly robe, the household idols, and the graven image, and he came in the midst of the people. And they turned and departed, and put the little ones, the cattle, and their property before them.
Micah confronts the Danites (Judges 18:22-26):
They were at a distance from the house of Michah, when the men that were in the houses which were near Micah’s house were gathered, and they overtook the children of Dan. And they called to the children of Dan, and they turned their faces. And they said to Micah, “What is with you, that you are gathered?” And he said, “My god which I made you took away, in addition to the priest, and you have gone away. What else have I? How then can you say to me, ‘What is with you?’ ” And the children of Dan said to him, “Let not your voice be heard among us, lest men of embittered souls assail you, and you will lose your life, and the lives of your household.” And the children of Dan went their way. And Micah saw that they were stronger than he, and he turned and went back to his house.
The Danites conquer Laish (Judges 18:27-31):
And they took that which Micah had made, and the priest whom he had; and they came to Laish, to a people tranquil and secure, and they struck them with the edge of the sword. And the city they burnt with fire. And there was no one to save them, because Laish was far from Zidon, and they had no business with any man, and it was in the valley that lies by Beth-rehob. And they built the city and dwelt therein… And they accepted for themselves the graven image of Micah which he had made, throughout the period that the house of God was in Shiloh.
There’s obviously a lot going on in this passage. At first glance, we might even say that it contains two distinct stories. In the first story, Micah and his followers establish their idolatrous shrine; in the second story, the Danites conquer Laish. Only because both groups solicit the same Levite “priest” do they interact in any meaningful way. Yet the significance of this Levite in the broader context of the narrative remains an enigma.
When Micah recruits the Levite, he promises him that “if you dwell with me, then you will be to me as a father and a priest.” Apparently, Micah is searching for a mentor to guide him in matters both personal and religious. But that is not how the relationship between these two men actually develops. Shortly after the Levite begins working for Micah, “the lad became to Micah as one of his sons.” Something has clearly gone awry. Despite whatever official arrangement may have been agreed upon, the Levite is no “father” to Micah; Micah is a “father” to the Levite. Why, then, did Micah hire the Levite in the first place?
The answer to this question, it turns out, lies in those few revealing words uttered by Micah at the end of the chapter: “Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, because I have a Levite as my priest.” Micah does not need a mentor. All he needs is a mashgiach: somebody whose presence in his establishment announces to the world outside that “everything is kosher here.” “Nobody is willingly evil” claimed Socrates. Micah is no exception to this rule. He wants to worship idols but he wants to do so with a clean conscience. That is why he pays off a Levite—a member of Israel’s priestly caste—to preside over his cult. Now that Micah has the Levite’s stamp of approval, he can delude himself into believing that his operation is legitimate. No longer need he feel any guilt: “the Lord will be good to me because of the Levite.” Micah breathes easy. He has finally found an authority figure ready to tell him everything that he wants to hear.
It so happens that the Danites are in the market for a similar service. The men of this tribe wish to attack the peaceful population of Laish, but no Israelite leader has given their plan the green light. Then the Danite scouts stumble upon a wayward Levite. “Inquire now of God if we shall be prosperous on the way that we are going,” they demand. That “we are going,” the scouts present as a given. They do not request permission; they merely seek validation. Fortunately for them, the Levite obliges. “Go in peace,” he replies. “The Lord is before you in the way in which you shall go.” These words seal the deal. Now the Danites can annihilate Laish, and do so with the priest’s blessing.
However, this is not the last that the Levite hears from these Danites. When the armed men of Dan set out to conquer Laish, they stop over at Micah’s house with the intention of stealing his idols. The Levite catches them in the act and attempts to reprimand them for their crime. But this Levite had long ago forfeited whatever moral authority he might have claimed over the Danites. A man who sanctions the murder of innocents should hardly be surprised when his protests over petty theft go unheeded. “Be still,” the Danites order brusquely. Gone is the deferential tone of a few verses earlier. Nevertheless, the members of this tribe are not ready to part ways with the Levite just yet. “Put your hand over your mouth,” they insist, “and come with us, to be our father and our priest. 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?”
What the Danites are proposing in this exchange is absurd. Yet the Levite is blind to the irony. All he sees is that he has received the prestigious offer of serving as spiritual adviser to an entire Israelite tribe. That his employers expect him to silence himself whenever they are uncomfortable with what he has to say does not appear to trouble him in the slightest. “Keep your mouth closed, and lead us” the Danites command, in effect—and the Levite “was pleased in his heart.” Thus the group “turned and departed, putting their little ones, their cattle, and their property before them.” The symbolism here is clear. Dan is not being led by a “father” or a “priest,” as its members claim. The tribe is being led by a “child;” by a “sheep;” by “property”—by a man who can be purchased.
“I must follow my people, for I am their leader,” Ghandi once remarked. Our Levite fancies himself as this sort of leader, but he misses the mark. The man cares about being liked more than he cares about being listened to. Popularity means more to him than influence. That is not the mark of true leadership.
Until now we have studied the story of “Micah’s Idols” without venturing outside the text of Judges 17-18. If we listen carefully to the language of these two chapters, however, we cannot help but hear echoes resonating from someplace much earlier in Tanakh. Those echoes originate in the speech that Moshe delivers to the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion:
See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your God, but veer off the path I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know… These are the statutes and ordinances that you shall keep to perform in the land which the Lord God of your fathers gives you to possess all the days that you live on the earth. You shall completely remove the places where the nations worshiped their gods… You shall cut down their idols… But only to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there… You shall not do as all the things that we do here this day, every man doing whatever seems right in his eyes. For you have not yet come to the resting place or to the inheritance, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall cross the Jordan and settle in the land the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, and He will give you rest from all your enemies surrounding you, and you will dwell securely. And it will be, that the place the Lord, your God, will choose in which to establish His Name there you shall bring all that I am commanding you: Your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and the choice of vows which you will vow to the Lord. And you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God you and your sons and your daughters and your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levite who is within your cities, for he has no portion or inheritance with you… But only in the place the Lord will choose in one of your tribes; there you shall offer up your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you. Beware, lest you forsake the Levite all your days upon your land (Deuteronomy 11:26-12:19).
In this passage, Moshe implores the Israelites not to succumb to the temptation of idolatry once they enter into the land of Canaan. There are several compelling points of comparison between his address and the text of the “Micah’s Idol” narrative. Consider:
|DEUTERONOMY 11-12||JUDGES 17-18|
|11:26-8: “See [ראה] I place before you today a blessing and a curse… Do not follow other gods which you do did not know [לא ידעתם].”||18:14: Before the Danites steal Micah’s idols, the scouts announce: “Do you know [הידעתם] that in these houses there is a priestly robe, household idols, a graven image, and a molten one? Now, see and know [דעו וראו] what you must do.”|
|11:28: “Do not veer off of the path [וסרתם מן הדרך] that I have commanded you this day, by following other gods which you did not know.”||18:3, 18:15: Each time the Danites stop in Micah’s house of idolatry, they are described as “veering” off course [ויסורו]. Yet when the Danites inquire, “Will the Lord make prosperous the path [דרכנו] that we are on?” the Levite replies: “Go in peace. The Lord is before you on the path [דרך] which you are taking” (18:5-6).|
|12:3-4: “You shall cut down their idols… But only to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there…”||Micah establishes an idolatrous shrine in his own home.|
|12:8: “You shall not do as all the things that we do here this day, every man doing whatever seems right in his eyes [עושים… איש כל הישר בעיניו].”||17:6: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did whatever was right in his eyes [איש הישר בעיניו יעשה].”|
|12:9: The Israelites have not yet taken possession of their נחלה: “For you have not yet come to the resting place or to the inheritance [נחלה], which the Lord, your God, is giving you.”||18:1: The Danites have not yet taken possession of their נחלה: “In those days the tribe of the Danites sought for themselves an inheritance [נחלה] in which to dwell, for until that day there had not fallen to them among the tribes of Israel an inheritance [נחלה].”|
|12:10: The Israelites will “dwell securely” among foreign peoples: “And you shall cross the Jordan and settle in the land the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, and He will give you rest from all your enemies surrounding you, and you will dwell securely [וישבתם בטח].”||18:7: A foreign people “dwells securely” among the Israelites: “And they saw that the people of Laish were dwelling securely [יושבת לבטח], after the manner of the Zidonians, tranquil and secure [בטח]…”|
|12:19: Moshe notes: “The Levite who is within your cities has no portion or inheritance with you” (12:12). He returns to this theme in the final verse of his address: “Beware, lest you forsake the Levite all your days upon your land.”||17:7: The plot revolves around the Levite’s attempts to find a permanent post: “And the Levite went out of the city… to sojourn wherever he could find a place. And he came to the mountain of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, to commence his journey.”|
The parallels between Deuteronomy 11-12 and Judges 17-18 are pointed and pervasive. Ostensibly, the purpose of these parallels is to underscore “how [low] the mighty have fallen” (II Samuel 1:27). Moshe beseeches the Israelites to remain loyal to Hashem. Yet a few generations after his death, the people become incorrigible idolaters. They have forgotten their core values, the Bible laments, and they must return to them. That is one lesson we can draw from the connection between these two texts.
Are there any others?
Before he retires from pubic office, Moshe blesses each of the twelve Israelite tribes. In the blessing to the tribe of Levi, Moshe declares:
The priestly garments shall go to the pious man… who said of his father and his mother, ‘I do not see him.’ Neither did he favor his brothers, nor did he know his children. For the Levites observed Your word and kept Your covenant (Deut. 33:9).
Moshe here is referring to an incident that took place approximately forty years earlier, after the sin of the Golden Calf:
And the Lord said to Moses: “Go, descend [Mount Sinai], for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly. They have quickly veered off from the path that I have commanded them to follow; they have made themselves a molten calf… Moses said to Aaron: “What did this people do to you that you brought such a grave sin upon them?” Aaron replied: “Let not my lord’s anger grow hot! You know the people, that they are disposed toward evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we do not know what has become of him.’ I said to them, ‘Who has gold?’ So they took it the gold off and gave it to me; I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.” And Moses saw that the people were out of control—for Aaron had let them get out of control—and that they were ready to harm anybody who opposed them. So Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said: “Whoever is for the Lord, let him come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said to them: “So said the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Let every man place his sword upon his thigh and pass back and forth from one gate to the other in the camp, and let every man kill [the violent idolaters]—even if he is your brother, your friend or your kinsman.” The sons of Levi did according to Moses’ word; on that day some three thousand men fell from among the people. And Moses said: “Initiate yourselves today for the Lord for each man with his son and with his brother so that He may bestow a blessing upon you this day” (Exod. 32:7-29).
This passage explains why Hashem appointed the Levites to serve as the nation’s religious leaders. In Moshe’s absence, the Israelites petition Aaron the Levite to fashion a golden calf. Aaron, for his part, finds it too difficult to say “no.” Like the Levite who worked for Micah, he caves to popular pressure and ends up endorsing idolatry. It is because he fails to set clear boundaries that the people “veer [סרו] quickly off the path [דרך] that God had commanded them to follow.”
Yet when Moses cries “Whoever is for the Lord, to me!” the Levites are the ones who rally around him. To be sure, these Levites realize that the idolaters “are ready to harm anybody who opposes them.” Instead of backing down, however, the members of this tribe step up; rather than condoning the mob’s behavior, they confront it. The Levites understand that evil cannot be appeased—it must be opposed. They recognize that wrong is wrong, and that this equation does not change even if the guilty party happens to be “your brother, your friend, or your kinsman.”
By no coincidence does the narrator of Judges 17-18 repeatedly refer to his protagonist as “the Levite,” instead of using the character’s first name. This story is about more than one man at one particular point in Jewish history. It is about leadership in the broadest sense of the term. Israel is overcome by anarchy in the period of the Judges because its leaders have ceased to fulfill their Levitical mandate: no longer do they proclaim “this is pure” and “this is impure.” “When leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity,” wrote the great political theorist Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, “their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people.” That is what the leaders, in the book of Judges, have become.
Leaders must possess the courage to fight for what is right even when it is not convenient and the integrity to defend what is true even when it is not popular. The Levites displayed these qualities in the aftermath of the Golden Calf, and Moshe—the Bible’s most famous Levite—built his career on these qualities. R. Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, served in the British parliament roughly three centuries after Edmund Burke. Here is what he says of Moshe in his essay on this week’s Torah portion:
Moses’ vision is deeply political, but in a unique way. It is not politics as the pursuit of power, or the defense of interests, or the preservation of class and caste. It is not politics as an expression of national glory and renown. There is no desire in Moses’ words for fame, honor, expansion, empire. There is not a word of nationalism in the conventional sense. Moses does not tell the people that they are great. He tells them that they have been rebellious, they have sinned, and that their failure of faith during the episode of the spies cost them forty extra years of delay before entering the land. Moses would not have won an election. He was not that kind of leader.
“To accuse requires less eloquence than to excuse,” observed Hobbes in his Leviathan. He was correct, of course. But good leaders like Moshe know how to inspire others without accusing or excusing them. These leaders say what people need to hear, not what they want to hear—yet they do so with tact, patience, respect and humility. When they call on those around them to be better, they don’t remind them of their faults—they remind them of their potential. Most of all, their words are motivated not by conceit, but by concern; not by contempt, but by love.
That is why they are effective.