What does Judges chapter 18 mean?This chapter completes the story of Micah and his hired family priest (Judges 17:13).
The people of the tribe of Dan don't have enough space in their allotted territory (Joshua 19:40–46). This is because of their failure to follow God's command to take it from the depraved nations living there (Judges 1:34–36). They've been forced to live in the hill country between the territories of the tribes of Judah and Ephraim. So, the Danites decide to find a new place to live. They send five scouts to search for land they can conquer and claim (Judges 18:1–2).
Those five "spies" set out north, stopping for the night at Micah's estate. While there, they recognize the voice of Micah's priest. This probably means they hear his accent and identify him as someone from Judea. They ask if their mission will be successful, implying they want to know what God thinks. The priest quickly tells them that the Lord will have His eye on their journey. This doesn't mean anything, really, but the five spies take it as a positive sign (Judges 18:3–6).
Next, the Danite scouts travel to the far north of the Promised Land. They find a town called Laish, 100 miles, or 160 kilometers, from their current home and beyond the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. They return home with their report: the Sidonian inhabitants of Laish are easy targets. They realize the town is too far from neighbors to call for help, the people are peaceable, and have no idea they are in danger. The Danite spies insist this land is their destiny, eventually convincing their kinsmen to agree. This is a tragic mirror image of Israel's failure at the borders of the Promised Land (Numbers 13—14). There, most of the Israelite scouts claimed they could not defeat the Canaanites, though God guaranteed them victory. Here, the Danite scouts plead to attack a territory which God has not given to them. So, six hundred warriors take their families and possessions and begin to migrate (Judges 18:7–11).
As the caravan moves, the five scouts lead it to Micah's estate. When they arrive, they quickly find and greet the priest, only to steal Micah's religious objects from his personal shrine. This includes the household gods, the carved and metal images, and the ceremonial ephod. The young Levite priest protests, at first. The men of Dan tell him to shut up, yet also offer to take him with them. They say he'd be better off as priest to an entire tribe of Israel. The Levite is thrilled at this prospect and helps the men take Micah's cultic worship objects (Judges 18:12–20).
The Danites break camp and continue their journey north. The armed warriors remain at the back of the procession; civilians and livestock are in front. Micah realizes what they have taken, gathers some neighbors, and chases after the Danites. When he catches up to them, he complains that he's lost everything. The Danites tell Micah they will kill him and his family if he doesn't leave. This is exactly why they arranged their forces in the rear, to make it clear Micah has no hope of stopping them. Rather than risk total annihilation, Micah gives up and goes home. It's not likely he sees the mercy God extends him in this moment, or that he repents of his idolatry. As far as Scripture is concerned, this is the end of his story (Judges 18:21–26).
The people of Dan arrive in Laish. As hoped, the people there are helpless and unprepared for war. So, Dan's warriors slaughter the Sidonians living there and burn the city. Then they rebuild and occupy the town. They change the name of the place to Dan, after their ancestor, the son of Jacob, and the same name given to their tribe (Genesis 30:5–6). Finally, they establish a center of false worship with a focus on Micah's carved image. Tragically, the spiritually bankrupt young Levite man is revealed to be the grandson of Moses (Exodus 2:22). He and his sons serve as the first false priests in a pattern lasting until Dan's invasion by the Assyrians centuries later (Judges 18:27–31).