Judges 17-18: An Ephod and Teraphim


The next Judge is… uh… well, nobody. The rest of the Book of Judges is judgeless. They really did forsake Yahweh this time, huh? Chapters 17 and 18 are a weird amalgamation of several stories about Micah the Ephraimite, his nebulously identified priest, and some homeless Danites.

I’ve tentatively identified several source texts possibly integrated at some point by a hypothetical editor, and I will number them as I go.

The first story (vv. 1-4) is simple: Micah had stolen some money from him mom, and when he repaid her she used the cash to buy some household idols. Specifically, we’re told she bought a “carved idol and a cast image”. So that’s #1.

The next verse (17:5) is rather anomalous: the text is redundant, it uses strikingly different vocabulary, and its content contradicts what’s to come. I’m labelling it source #2, even though it’s just one line.

17:4 He returned the money to his mother, and she took two hundred pieces of silver and handed them to a silversmith, who made them into an idol and an image, which stood in Micah’s house.
17:5 This man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and teraphim and installed one of his sons to be his priest.

The following verse (17:6) is the Deuteronomist’s familiar “omg their was no king so Israel was totally lame” refrain, which is proof of editing. This creates an editorial divide between stories #1 and #3.

I’m wondering if perhaps story #1 (17:1-4) was added to explain the meaning and origin of the “ephod and teraphim” mentioned later. An ephod is supposedly a type of image (here, at least) and “teraphim” were household gods. These esoteric words are transliterated from Hebrew instead of directly translated.

Next, story #3. Out from Jerusalem comes a Levite priest named Ben-gershom. He is looking for a pad to crash at, and Micah offers him his digs.

17:10 Stay with me and be priest and father to me. I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, and provide you with food and clothes.’ The Levite agreed to stay with the man and was treated as one of his sons. Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest and a member of his household. Micah said, ‘Now I know that the LORD will make me prosper, because I have a Levite for my priest.”

You’re probably wondering: what happened to Micah’s son? This is why I said verse 5 contradicts. Micah’s son is mentioned once, and never again.

This story (#3, the bulk of chapter 17) was written specifically to say something about Levites. What, exactly? I’m not sure. An interesting question is whether “Levite”, as used here, refers to the priestly class (ya know, Leviticus, and all that) or is simply a word meaning “priest”. I am leaning towards the later, because, quite simply, Levites and idol worship seem mutually exclusive. The OSE editors raise the possibility that the object of this story is to simply point out to the reader that “Levite” once meant “priest”. Which it did.


This story continues the tale of Micah, but the main focus is on the actions of tribe of Dan. If you’re keeping track, this is source #4, heavily edited to line up with both #1 and #3.

I gotta tell you about a tribe named Dan. Remember Samson? He was a Danite. Its territory was down in the southwest of Canaan, bordering the Philistines Samson loved to slaughter. Sometimes after Samson’s adventures, the tribe uprooted itself and moved north. (No real reason is given in this story, but it’s thought to be because the Philistines were kicking their asses.)

So the tribe sends “five fighting men” up north to scout out new grounds. They pass through Ephraim and knock on Micah’s door.

18:3 They came to Micah’s house in the hill-country of Ephraim and spent the night there. While they were there, they recognized the speech of the young Levite; they turned there and then and said to him, ‘Who brought you here? What are you doing? What is your business here?’ He said, ‘This is all Micah’s doing: he has hired me and I have become his priest.’ They said to him, ‘Then inquire of God on our behalf whether our mission will be successful.’ The priest replied ‘Go in peace. Your mission is in the LORD’s hands.’

I have strong suspicion that this entire episode in Micah’s house is an embellishment. (Possibly related to source #3? An invention of the Deuteronomist?) First of all, this is the only mention of “Levite” in chapter 18. More importantly, this event contradicts the actions of the Danites later on.

So the five Danites go to Laish (which is way up in the north, above the Sea of Galilee), find it spiffy, and return to report this to their people. The tribe musters six-hundred men and they set off north. And again they come to Ephraim.

18:14 The five men who had been to explore the country round Laish spoke up and said to their kinsmen, ‘Do you know that in one of these houses there are now an ephod and teraphim, an idol and an image? Now consider what you had best do.’

I think the redundant wording “ephod and teraphim, idol and image” is later editing to link this story to the previous ones, which, taken together, used varying terminology.

So they take the army to Micah’s house and steal his shit. See how this contradicts? Their last visit to the house made no mention of the ephod and teraphim. They were suprised to see a Levite priest, asked him their fortune, and left. Why are they only now so concerned with idols?

It gets weirder. We’re used to Israelites tearing down pagan idols. I expected them to steal the ephod, etc. and smash them or something. But this isn’t what’s going on. They’re taking the idols… for their own use. They steal the idols and the priest, only to install them all in Laish!

18:19 ‘Be quiet; not a word. Come with us and be our priest and father. Which is better, to be priest in the household of one man or to be priest to a whole tribe and clan in Israel?’ This pleased the priest; so he took the ephod and teraphim, the idol and the image, and joined the company.

Micah runs after them and asks, basically, “what the fuck are you assholes doing?” And they reply, basically, “Do not mess with us unless you want a world of hurt.” So the Danites go north and kill the Laish and steal their land and set up the priest (who’s name is finally revealed: Jonathan. Which contradicts #2 and #3!) and the idols in their new territory. And Micah is out an ephod and a teraphim. Poor Micah 😦

Honestly, I have no idea what to make of this story. It is fascinatingly heathenistic; we have a vision of Israelite culture where idolatry is standard practise. It seems a bit odd the Deuteronomist let this slide.

So, that’s the story of Micah. The three or four stories of Micah.

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4 Responses to Judges 17-18: An Ephod and Teraphim

  1. I’m fascinated that you, as an agnostic, are doing the really hard work of digging through Scripture. Keep digging. It’s worth it.
    Thanks for the post.

  2. t. h. says:

    One has to think about the culture of that time, which one has to read and search hard for these cultural practices. Here for example, in these verses, it is telling of a story (read in-between the lines as well if one has studied the culture and remembers it) of young men–600 strong, young men–looking for land. It was the culture of the time that the first born male inherited the parent’s land, and their daughters went off to be married into other families. Well, what happened to son number two, and son number three, and so forth if they were not inheriting their parent’s land? With these many sons, they had to live somewhere, and that somewhere was to go and kill other people and take over their land. However, they did try to not kill the kin within the 12 original tribes of folks. When setting up their new land and homes they desired to have the gods of silver to show their own worth to their other brothers in other valleys, mounts, lands, as many people would do today to “show off”, and say, “See, we are doing O K with our lives.” It has always been the culture of the land in that area to marry women within their own family to keep the land within the family. This is the only difference between a concubine, and a woman that the men married that were their cousin or other type of kin; most times being their half sister (having a different mother, and the same father). Concubines were wives, but could not inherit land or cattle, nor could their children that they bore to a man because real estate had to be among blood only women. In this story, a Levite was born a Levite. This is not a position of appointment, but by a position of birth, and it was formed to keep priests within the culture. Remember, the land of all the tribes (after all the wars) was given spots within these cities for the Levites to live in since this was a birth of position, and not a tribe.

  3. reyjacobs says:

    “An ephod is supposedly a type of image” — no, an ephod is a priestly vestment.

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