The corruption of Israel’s religious system had become excessive. The account of Micah is placed in the middle of Israel in the hill country of Ephraim which was at one time the land of great Israelites such as Joshua. But, by the time of Micah (Judges 17-18, 1250-1200 BC) the Tabernacle worship, the priesthood and the Levitical teaching system had completely broken down.
Micah had built his own personal shrine for the household gods and made an ephod to wear while communicating with these gods. Israelites did not follow the Law of Moses, but instead each one did what they thought was religiously and morally correct. This is stated explicitly in two different places in the book of Judges and two more times the stories are recorded that prove this point:
“Everyone did as he saw fit” – Judges 17:6; 21:25 (18:1; 19:1)
Interestingly, a Levite (Levi was the teaching tribe in Israel responsible for instruction in the Law of the covenant, explaining the Word of the Lord, and spiritual leadership in Israel) came by Micah’s shrine looking for work as a priest/teacher. This Levite is going to be identified as a descendent of Moses through his son Gershom in Judges 18:30. There are additional allusions to this possibility in the text and the story line. The Levites name is Jonathan according to Judges 18:30:
“And the people of Dan set up the carved image for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land.” - Judges 18:30
Jonathan the Levite had been “soujourning,” or residing as an alien, within the tribe of Judah, but for some reason his employment as a Levite there had been cut off. When Micah asked Jonathan where he was from, Jonathan replied,
“I’m a Levite from Bethlehem in Judah, and I’m looking for a place to stay.”
The phrase “looking for a place to stay,” is lagur ba’aser yimsa’ and means the Levite is looking for a better place to live with better working conditions for better pay. The Levite is looking for a place to improve his standard of living serving as a priest in some religious setting. Jonathan does not mention the Lord. He mentions living conditions. Jonathan does not feel a sense of responsibility to society and the people of God. He is simply considering his own options for his own well-being. Jonathan has completely compromised his tribe’s calling and is looking for the easiest way to kick back and enjoy life.
But, what a celestial coincidence! What good fortune! Micah, the personal owner of the shrine of idols, is interested in getting a licensed, ordained Levite in position to help legitimatize his family worship center. This is a win-win for these pagan worshippers of the Lord. The Levite has a better contract and the Israelite has his own licensed priest from the tribe of Levi to function in his personal tabernacle worshipping the family gods!
Jonathan, the Levite, is happy with the yearly wages of ten shekels of silver (the typical annual salary for a laborer at that time in Canaan). Plus, Jonathan would snag a new set of clothes and all of his food for each year. Jonathan had just landed a job with solid salary plus benefits and living expenses. On the other hand, the twisted theology of the day assured Micah that since he had hired a real Levite from the priestly tribe in Israel to manage his household shrine of idols, the Lord would bless him! Micah’s pagan theology allowed him to believe that the Lord could be manipulated.
It appears that these two men had no idea how far from the truth and purpose of the Lord they were. But, the story gets worse; men from Dan who refused to engage the Philistines in battle were spying out the land for an easier place to live. As they were passing by, they happened to hear Jonathan singing the daily worship service in Micah’s shrine. They recognized his voice as that of Jonathan the descendent of Moses through his son Gershom. Unfortunately for Micah the men from Dan offered Jonathan a promotion from being a family priest to becoming a high priest for an entire tribe. Score! Jonathan couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that. The men from Dan steal Micah’s idols, hire his Levite and move north.
In those days, “everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 17:6)