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Sefer Shoftim Chapter 17
Michah's House of Idolatry

From Chapter 17 until the end of Sefer Shofetim, the stories are different to those that have come before. No longer is the focus on the enemy nations who persecute us, rather the focus is on our internal troubles and strife. Our Sages explain that this is not written in the chronological order in which the events happened (Seder Olam Rabba). Instead, it is written in this way to emphasise the negative consequences of not successfully driving the Canaanite nations out of the Land of Israel. Their continued presence influenced the Jewish people towards immoral and idolatrous practices, as will be seen in the coming chapters.


Chapter 17 tells of Micha who stole money from his mother and returned it on hearing her curse on the thief. She had consecrated the money for God and returned it to her son to be made into an image. Micha handed the money back to his mother, leaving her to have this image made. It appears Micha did not initially want to take part in this questionable practice.


The French biblical commentator Ralbag (1288-1344) explains that she originally intended to use this image to serve as an intermediary between her and God. However noble her initial objective may have been, it was sinful in reality. The text clearly states that “Michah had a house of idolatry” (17:5). Until now, he has been called “Michayehu” in the text, with the letters of God’s name attached to his name. From here onwards, he is called only “Michah” to signify that God’s presence has left him due to his sins of idolatry.


If the reader has forgotten why this state of lawlessness is occurring, the text provides a parenthetical reminder: “in those days there was no king in Israel; a man would do whatever seemed proper in his eye” (17:6). This oft repeated verse is to remind us of the anarchy that defines many of the stories within Sefer Shofetim and the importance of strong leadership to combat this.


Michah set up one of his own sons as a priest in his house of idolatry. Soon, a Levite man, travelling looking for work, found his way to Michah’s house. Overjoyed at the presence of a true Levite Michah offered him a good salary to become the priest for him. The chapter ends with Michah’s belief this was a sign that God was pleased with him and would be good to him.


The importance of our environment

Both Micha and the Levite priest initially refuse to take part in the idolatrous practices before them. However, they are both influenced by their environments and end up taking active roles. After Michah refused to have the idol made for his mother, the presence of the idol in his house had a negative influence on him, causing him to take an active role. Similarly, according to the 19th century biblical commentator Malbim (1809-1879), the Levite originally refused to become an idolatrous priest. The text states that “he left” following Michah’s job offer (17:10). However, Michah encouraged him to stay and recuperate from his journey for a short while. Following this, the Levite was negatively influenced by the idolatrous surroundings and accepted the job offer.


This serves to emphasise the importance of our surroundings and the potential influence it can have on us. In the coming chapters we will see the continued disastrous impact of such environments on the Jewish people.

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