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Sefer Shoftim Chapter 18
Idolatry in the Tribe of Dan

This chapter begins (like the previous chapter) with the phrase “in those days there was no king in Israel”. This is to remind us of the reason that the Jewish people were in a state of chaos. The text continues to explain that the tribe of Dan was still looking for their portion of land. The 19th century biblical commentator Malbim (1809-1879) states that the local Canaanites did not allow them to settle comfortably in the land originally apportioned to them. Thus, several men from Dan were sent to spy out the land, to find somewhere to conquer.


They came to the house of Micha and stayed there overnight. They questioned the Levite priest when they saw the idolatrous practices taking place there. However, they did not criticise the idolatry itself. Instead, they asked the priest to inquire of God if they will be successful in their mission, indicating their acceptance of these sins.


The Danite spies travelled to Laish and saw that it could be easily conquered. According to the French biblical commentator, Rashi (1040-1105) in Sefer Yehoshua (19:47), this was the same as the city Leshem which was in the territory of Dan. They travelled back home and reported to their tribe that they had found a place to conquer. 600-armed men journeyed forwards to wage war on the city. They were so confident of success that they travelled with all their women, children and possessions (18:21).


On the way, they decided to go to Micha’s house to take the priest and idols to use for themselves. The Da’at Sofrim commentary (written by Chaim Dov Rabinowitz, 1909-2001) explains that in their new territory they would be far from the Mishkan in Shiloh and wanted to establish their own local sanctuary to worship in. The Levite priest questioned them, and they encouraged him to come with arguing that it was better to be the priest of a whole tribe than the priest of one man.


Micha pursued the tribe of Dan, hoping to retrieve his idols, but did not fight them as he realised that they were stronger than him. The Danites successfully battled with the people of Laish and burnt down the city. The French biblical commentator, Radak (1160-1235) states they burnt the city to rid it of idolatry. They may have brought Micha’s idols with them, but they thought this was different. They mistakenly intended to use them in the service of God.


The chapter ends by revealing the identity of the Levite priest: “Yonatan ben Gershom ben Menashe” (18:30). The letter “nun” of the name Menashe is written raised above the other letters in the text. Without the nun, the word reads “Moshe”. Rashi explains that this is because he was Moshe’s grandson. The name is changed out of respect for Moshe, to avoid linking him to this idolatrous priest.


This links back to the concept discussed in our last chapter: the importance of our environment. It is shocking that a grandson of Moshe, the greatest leader in the history of the Jewish people, could become involved in idolatry. We saw in Chapter 17 that originally he resisted, but he slowly became impacted by his environment. Ultimately, he became the priest of idolatry for the whole tribe of Dan.


The story of Chapters 17-18 ends here, with a note that this house of idolatry remained in the tribe of Dan until the exile of the northern ten tribes.

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