I wanted to start by saying thanks to Pete for sharing with us what's been happening in Jos. It's hard from here to imagine what that might be like. So it's good for us to be reminded of the things that Christians around the world regularly experience simply for being Christians.
The strange irony for us tonight is that what happened in Jos is mirrored in our passage – Judges 18.
In Judges 18 the tribesmen of Dan sweep down on a peaceful and unsuspecting city and destroy it's inhabitants and steal their possessions, even their land, even their city.
When we put it next to the horrors of modern day Jos we see that the behaviour of the tribesmen of Dan is no less than genocide. A horrible, horrible picture of sin coming to full bloom in unspeakable horror – acts of national terrorism and theft, genocide against people who had no reason to expect it.
These closing chapters of Judges dredge the very depths of human behaviour. The passage we'll look at next week steals the headlines – and rightly so, it's appalling what happens.
But even before we get there we're confronted with the horrible truth that Israel is grotesquely sinful. Israel has reached the point of being indistinguishable from the nations she was supposed to displace – and that because of their sin. Now Israel's sin blows out to massive proportions.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here; tonight we have to face some gruesome facts about Israel and about ourselves.
And there are some key questions we need to ask of this chapter if we're to come to a clear understanding of what it means and we should do in response to it.
What questions do we need to ask?
First I guess the question is 'what happened?' – what are the specifics of what Dan did? Then, Second: 'how are we supposed to understand it?';
Third: 'how did it come to this?' and
Finally, 'how can we avoid making the same mistakes?'
As we work out the answers to those questions the issues of the chapter will come into clearer focus.
So let's start with the simple details of the passage – what happened?
Let's take a quick scenic tour of the events of Judges 18. It's a long chapter and we haven't had time to read it all out so let me give you a quick summary. The passage begins with the tribe of Dan with no land to call their own. So they send out spies to find a new patch for them to live in.
On the way they stop in at the house of a certain Micah.
If you were here last week you'll remember Judges 17 tells how Micah came to have a Levitical priest and an image and an idol set up in a shrine in his house. This is the Micah and the house that the spies of Dan come to.
The spies recognise the voice of Micah's Levite priest – they might have known him, or it could just be a case of recognising a misplaced accent – like hearing an Aussie accent in Geordie-land.
He tells them how Micah's hired him as a personal priest and he blesses them, telling them their journey has the Lord's approval.
Their next stop is Laish – a beautiful and abundant city that's conveniently undefended and isolated from any help. They figure that God has brought them to the place he wants them to have – it's ripe for the taking and they were the priest said God was with them.
So they go back and report what they've found in 3 points – 1) the land is good and 2) the people are defenceless and 3) conclusion – God has put this land into their hands.
How could the rest of the tribe argue with that – they go out to take the land, 600 of them armed for war, with their families and all their possessions, just like Israel going out of Egypt.
On the way they pass by Micah's house again. So they drop in to pay a visit to the priest and his shrine. Not a social visit mind, they're there to knock off the place. They take the idols and add insult to injury by taking the priest with them too.
Micah's not best pleased by this turn of events and gets a posse together and goes after them – but the Danites stone wall them – pretending not to know what he's upset about and then pretending to be scandalised by the very suggestion they might be thieves!
Micah can see he's not going to get far with them, so he gives up and goes home.
Finally the Danites get to Laish which they attack with the sword and burn down. Then they rebuild the city under their name tribal name 'Dan' – and set up to live there under the protection of their stolen idols and the instruction of the priest for hire.
That's the story in a nutshell. It's not pretty, but it's told in a strangely dispassionate tone. The massacre at the end hardly gets any attention at all, all the action happens on the way to Laish at Micah's house. Because it's a little obtuse I think this is a good passage to stop and have a close look at how the writer of judges communicates his message.
So this leads us to our second question 'what are we supposed to make of all this?' and 'how do we know?'
This chapter is not unlike the story of Israel entering into the Promised Land, in fact there are striking parallels all through it. Remember Judges began with God's judgement on Israel because they failed to destroy the wicked inhabitants of the Promised Land as they were supposed to. So is this a story of conquest, do we finally come across at least one tribe doing what they're supposed to, here at the end of Judges?
Oh no, no, no, no. This isn't the story of one tribe doing what they're supposed to do, but one tribe doing exactly what they were not supposed to do. The writer gives us clues rather than a straight commentary, but the clues should be enough if we pay careful attention. So what are the clues?
Let's have a more careful look at some of the details of the passage.
The First clue is the first verse: There's a strong parallel between the two halves of verse one.
NIB Judges 18:1 In those days Israel had no king. And in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking a place of their own where they might settle, because they had not yet come into an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.
We saw last week that 'in those days Israel had no king is not just an historical statement – it's saying something about Israel's spiritual state as well. Look up a couple of verse to 17.6 'In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.' It was a lawless place, like the wild west, there was no law, no representative of God's rule. It was every man for himself.
But here 'Everyone did as he saw fit' is replaced by 'the tribe of the Danites was seeking a place of their own where they might settle, because they had not yet come into an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.
This suggests the Danites are going to give us an example of what it looks like when everyone does as they see fit – we expect a story of people running wild. And that is exactly what we get.
If we're familiar with Israel's story we'll know that Israel didn't enter the Promised Land by their own choice, but because God instructed them too. Hundreds of years earlier in Genesis 15 God promised the land to the ancestor Abram, but he said they could not enter until the sin of the Amorites – the locals – reached it's full measure – that is, God wouldn't give them the land until the people living there deserved to be destroyed. Under Moses God commanded them to go in and destroy the people who lived there because their wickedness was so great they now deserved to be wiped out. As they went in God allocated each of the tribes a portion of the land.
But now Dan's looking for a place of their own? Why? Because they didn't drive out the inhabitants from the land, instead they were driven out by the people they were supposed to destroy – we read about that back in Judges chapter one. Now they abandon the land that God had given them and look for an easier option instead.
But what's the result – first they allow the Amorites to continue to live in gross wickedness, and secondly they go and destroy another people who don't deserve it, so instead of fulfilling God's mandate for judgement they instead make themselves worthy of judgement.
The second clue the author gives us is to arrange this chapter as a kind of repeat of the Exodus and the entry into the promised Land.
If you remember, when Israel reached the border of the Promised Land they sent in spies to check the lay of the land before they went in.
So here Dan sends out spies to check out the land.
The Israelite spies were taken in by a prostitute – Rahab - who delivered a message that turns out to be from the Lord.
Here the Danite spies are taken in by a priest who delivers a message that pretends to come from the Lord.
When they take the land Israel's first stop was to surround Jericho to destroy it and it's wicked inhabitants with their idols and carved images.
Here Dan's first stop is to Micah's house with his idols and carved images –not to destroy them, but to steal from them!
The parallels continue throughout the chapter. And they get more and more unflattering to Dan. There is heavy irony is through out – this is an exodus that's going the wrong way – not out of slavery in Egypt, but out of the promised Land and into slavery to idols.
A third clue is the striking repetition of a list of things that the Danites steal from Micah's shrine. They are 'an ephod, other household gods, a carved image and a cast idol'. The list shows up in verse 14, 17, 18 and 20. Why the repetition? I'm not certain, but it encourages us to stop and take note of exactly what it is they're stealing.
And what is it? They're idols, things that God commanded them not to make – the second commandment says 'you shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below'.
But look more closely they're not just idols, but 'a carved image and a cast idol'? Is that significant? Well I went looking for that phrase and I could only find it in two other places in the OT – and one of those is just before Israel went across the Jordan to enter the promised land. Have a listen to Numbers 33:50ff.
50 On the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho the LORD said to Moses, 51 "Speak to the Israelites and say to them:`When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, 52 drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places. 53 Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess. 54 Distribute the land by lot, according to your clans. To a larger group give a larger inheritance, and to a smaller group a smaller one. Whatever falls to them by lot will be theirs. Distribute it according to your ancestral tribes. 55 "`But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. 56 And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.'"
I would never have found that reference except that I was looking for that repeated phrase. I suspect that the idea! The author kept repeating it as a hint that it held some importance for understanding this passage. And so it turns out.
That passage ties the two main themes of Judges 18 together – they were to take the land and possess it; and to destroy the cast idols and carved images that they find there.
If they fail to do these two things they will come under God's judgement. Low and behold in judges 18 Dan is doing precisely the opposite of what they were told to do – they're running away from the inheritance God allocated to them and instead of destroying the carved images and cast idols they take them up to use them in worship.
In verse 27 the writer stops repeating the key phrase and instead calls the idols things 'that Micah had made'. Here's the rub – Micah's gods were weak and powerless. Micah made gods because he wanted protection, but all they do for him is get him robbed – what can we expect them to do for the tribe of Dan?
So let's ask our third question as we try and understand this passage 'how did it come to this?'
Dan has fallen a long way. How did they come to this - running around the country stealing idols, adopting strange religions and killing innocent people in the name of God?
Well part of the problem is that the tribe of Dan were lying to themselves – dressing their disobedience up in religious dress. But they were all the time rejecting the true worship of God. The final verse of the chapter subly tells us that –
Have a look at verse 31:
They continued to use the idols Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh.
All the time they were off looking for their own land and seeking God at idol shrines, there was a true house of God in Shiloh – that's where the altar and the ark of the covenant were before the building of the temple. They talked about seeking a blessing from God, but they weren't interested in listening to what God had to say because they were being disobedient.
Instead of listening to the true priest of God and obeying what had been revealed and recorded in the books of Moses, they went looking for a priest who would tell them only what they wanted to hear. A priest who would bless their disobedience and call it good. But that sort of a priest is just as useless as man made idols. And when we bless evil and call it good we end up as lost as those men were – doing evil and calling it good, doing evil and patting ourselves on the back for being so pleasing to God.
This tribe and their wandering serve as a living illustration of the truth that Jesus taught. 'everyone who sins is a slave to sin'.
When we sin we exchange the truth that God reveals about himself and his world for a lie that justifies our behaviour. And when we exchange the truth for lies we become enslaved by lies and deception so that we're even able to tell ourselves that what we're doing is good, acceptable, pleasing to God even. What the heart wants, the will chooses and the head justifies'. That's what we're seeing in Judges 18 – the men of Dan don't want to do what God commands, so they choose not to, they choose to something easier, more attractive, but they justify it in the name of God. So they become slaves to sin and their sin grows and grows to the point that day light robbery is the least of their sins.
So how do we avoid making the same mistakes?
We need to remember that obedience is at the heart of following God and sin is deceptive. Sin twists our hearts and our thoughts so that we can justify just about anything. In Nazi Germany the national church supported Hitler. In our country people brazenly do wrong and call it right. You know the issues I'm sure – Bishops blessing gay marriages; abortion freely available simply a matter of what a woman does with her body; and so on – we need to stand up and speak clearly so that people are confronted with the hypocrisy of their claims – knowing full well that they will likely ignore us, but they need to hear it all the same.
But that's out there – what are the temptations for us to dress up our sin in religious dress? Do we perhaps have a critical spirit, always looking to play the role of the prophet telling others off – do we need to remember Jesus words to take the log out of our own eye before we criticise others. Or are we secretly indulging in things we know we shouldn't, pretending that it's no big deal? Have we made idols out of our careers, or our houses, or out of getting married, finding that perfect someone, or even out of having children? Do we believe the lies that without these things we'll be somehow incomplete?
I don't know what it might be for you but I want to encourage you to hear the warning of this passage. One of our challenges in our day and age is understanding God's guidance. And the scary thing about this passage is the reminder that it's possible to convince ourselves that God is guiding us to do something because the circumstances appear good, or we find someone to tell us it's OK, even though our conscience is uneasy about it. Now I want to tread lightly here, but there are dangers in seeking God's guidance through our circumstances and our feelings – because sin so easily leads us astray. Often we're able to find support for the thing that we want to do, and then call it God's guidance.
Lots of the time we need to learn obedience, not look for guidance. I've heard of people who were sure God was leading them to leave their husbands or wives for someone else. People who were convinced that God was moving them on from their church even thought they had no where else to go. God guided them to pursue careers that took their time and energy and made it impossible to see their families, let alone get involved in church. God has apparently guided many people into a gradual fall away from relationship with Him. We need to be honest with ourselves and pursue obedience, often without guidance as to the specifics of our decisions. God doesn't promise to make our decisions for us, he commands us to obey, and he gives us wisdom to be wise. Within the boundaries of obedience there is freedom to express our selves etc. whilst pursuing the goal – godly living and lives won for Christ.
The reality that is clearly revealed in this chapter is that we will never get closer to God while we're running away from him. And no matter how we dress it up to ourselves, sin is always rebellion against God. All of us need to keep watch on ourselves and examine our hearts before God because we can be so easily deceived, as the men of Dan were. I want to let the Bible have the final word, so let me finish with these reflections on Israel's experience from 1 Cor 10:
Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: "The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry." 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did-- and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did--and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did--and were killed by the destroying angel. 11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! 13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. 14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.