What does Judges 18 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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).
Verse Context:
Judges 18:1–13 finds five scouts from the tribe of Dan seeking a new place to live. They stop at Micah's house in Ephraim and get to know his Levite priest (Judges 17:1–5). They continue north and identify Laish as a soft target, as well as a good place to live. Before long, six hundred armed Danite men set out with their families and belongings. The entire company arrives at the home of Micah in Ephraim to camp for the night.
Judges 18:14–31 describes how the migrating people of the tribe of Dan steal from Micah (Judges 18:1–5). They take his collection of expensive idols and religious totems. His hired Levite priest accepts the Danites' invitation to come along with the raiders. Micah and his neighbors desperately chase, but the Danite forces are too large to risk attacking. The Danites arrive at Laish, in the north, and slaughter its peaceful, unprepared Sidonian occupants. They take possession of the town, rename it Dan, and establish a nexus of false worship.
Chapter Summary:
The people of the tribe of Dan want to relocate because they failed to take their allotted territory in the Promised Land. They send five scouts to find land. The men stop at Micah's home (Judges 17:1–5, 13) and meet his priest before continuing north. They find Laish and realize it's a soft, vulnerable, peaceful town. A six hundred-man army and their families stop at Micah's home to steal his house gods and hired priest. When they arrive at Laish, the Danites slaughter the Sidonians living there, burn the city, rebuild it, and move in. Dan becomes a center of false worship.
Chapter Context:
In the prior chapter, Micah hires a personal cleric for his family religion. Judges 18 describes how he loses all his religious objects and that priest to raiders from the tribe of Dan. That convoy continues north to their target, the town of Laish. This town was selected, in part, for being helpless against attackers. The raiders rename the city "Dan." The people and the priest establish a center for false worship which lasts for centuries. Joshua 19:40–48 describes how Dan moved from their allotted land into this unapproved territory (Joshua 17).
Book Summary:
The Book of Judges describes Israel's history from the death of Joshua to shortly before Israel's first king, Saul. Israel fails to complete God's command to purge the wicked Canaanites from the land (Deuteronomy 7:1–5; 9:4). This results in a centuries-long cycle where Israel falls into sin and is oppressed by local enemies. After each oppression, God sends a civil-military leader, labeled using a Hebrew word loosely translated into English as "judge." These appointed rescuers would free Israel from enemy control and govern for a certain time. After each judge's death, the cycle of sin and oppression begins again. This continues until the people of Israel choose a king, during the ministry of the prophet-and-judge Samuel (1 Samuel 1—7).
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