Lecture 225: THe History of the Divine Service at Altars (XXXV) – The Prohibition of Bamot (XII)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

In the previous shiur, we dealt with the time period of Mikha's idol. One opinion in Chazal dates the episode to the beginning of the period of the Judges and a second to the splitting of the Sea of Suf.


In this shiur, we will address the longevity of Mikha's idol and the nature of the service at the shrine in Mikha's house.


How long did Mikha's idol remain in existence?[1]


At face value, Scripture itself relates to this question:


And the children of Dan set up the idol; and Yehonatan, the son of Gershom, the son of Menashe, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of Dan until the day of the captivity of the land. And they set up for themselves Mikha's idol, which he had made, all the time that the house of God was in Shilo. (Shoftim 18:30-31)


The second verse defines the period of Mikha's idol by correlating the days of Mikha's idol and "the time that the house of God was in Shilo." According to the author of Seder Olam Rabba, the Mishkan stood in Shilo for 369 years. In the verses themselves the erection of the Mishkan is dated to the period of Yehoshua (Yehoshua 18:1): "And the whole congregation of the children of Israel assembled together at Shilo, and set up the Tent of Meeting there. And the land was conquered before them." We find evidence of the Mishkan's existence during the period of Shmuel in the account of the death of Eli the priest when he hears that the ark of the Lord was captured.[2]


The first verse cited above limits the period of Mikha's idol to "the day of the captivity of the land." What do these words mean? There are two possible explanations: the destruction of the Temple, or the exile of the tribe of Dan together with the rest of the ten tribes. If the reference is to the destruction of the Temple and the ensuing exile,[3] there is a very large gap of more than 460 years between the destruction of Shilo and the destruction of the Temple. Even if the reference is to the exile of the tribe of Dan at the time of the destruction of Shomron and the kingdom of Israel, there is still a gap of 315 years.


Until the days of the exile of Sancheriv


In Rashbam’s commentary to the Talmud (Bava Batra 110a, s.v. sheshav) he cites the author of the Seder Olam Rabba that Mikha’s idol was active, "until the day that the tribe of Dan was exiled." Seder Olam Rabba seems to be referring to the verse in Melakhim that describes the exile of Tiglat Pileser (II Melakhim 15:29), which Chazal identify with the exile of Sancheriv (Sanhedrin 94a).


The Gemara in Pesachim 117a supports this position in its discussion of the authorship of Hallel. According to R. Elazar, Moshe and Israel recited Hallel when they emerged from the Sea of Suf, while the Sages say that Hallel was first recited by David. R. Yose accepts the view of R. Elazar, arguing that it is inconceivable that the people of Israel slaughtered their Paschal offerings and took their lulavim from the day of Moshe until the time of David without reciting Hallel. The Gemara then presents another argument in favor of the view of R. Elazar. Hallel includes a curse pronounced upon idol worshippers: "They who make them will be like them" (Tehilim 115:8). Thus, it is implausible that Hallel would have been composed while Mikha’s idol was active. Rather, argues the Gemara, Hallel was certainly recited for the first time at the Sea of Suf in accordance with the view of R. Elazar. Israel then continued reciting it, even during the period that they worshipped idols.


It follows from this Gemara that Mikha's idol stood even in the days of David, supporting the view of the Rashbam.


Until the destruction of Shilo and the end of the period of the judges


The Radak in his commentary to the book of Shoftim (18:30, s.v. ad) writes:


"Until the day of the captivity of the land" is the day on which the ark was exiled, and about this it is stated: "So that He forsook the Mishkan of Shilo" (Tehilim 78:60). And it says: "And He delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory in the enemy's hand" (v. 61). And it says: "For they provoked Him to anger with their high places, and moved Him to jealousy with their carved idols" (v. 58). And this is said about Mikha's idol. And the other verse stated here also proves this, as it is stated: "All the time that the house of God was in Shilo." It seems that "until the day of the captivity of the land" and "all the time that the house of God was in Shilo" refer to the same time.

And when Eli died, and the ark, along with many Israelites, was exiled and many fell by the sword, the idol was abolished. This is what is stated: "Until the day of the captivity of the land." For it is far-fetched to think that the idol existed until the day of the captivity of the land [by Sancheriv], or even until the [earlier] exile of the people of Gad and the people of Reuven. How could David and Shlomo have ruled as kings of Israel and not destroyed it? Reason does not allow us to believe that.


The Radak argues that it is impossible to understand "the day of captivity of the land" as referring to the exile of Israel during the time of Sancheriv. Mikha's idol could not have remained in existence until such a late date, since Shmuel, David and Shlomo destroyed all the idolatry found in Eretz Israel in their times, and they would certainly not have spared Mikha's idol.


In addition, the Radak cites the verse in Tehilim (78:28), which describes the destruction of Shilo: "For they provoked Him to anger with their high places, and moved Him to jealousy with their carved idols." Perhaps, the Radak understands that Mikha’s idol was among those that aroused God's jealousy. Therefore, it was one of the causes of the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo, forging a direct connection between the destruction and the timing of Mikha's idol.


Rabbi Avraham son of the Rambam raises the question (Responsa, no. 31):


What is the reason that the people of Giv'a emerged victorious after they caused this great abomination? The victory of the people of Giv'a over Israel was a punishment meted out against Israel for the idolatry that they practiced. As they said: "You were jealous for the concubine in Giv'a, but you were not jealous for My great name in Dan." And we know by tradition that after they fought against the people of Dan, and obliterated the memory of Mikha's idol and fasted and wept and repented, they were promised victory.


According to him, Israel was punished for their failure to protest against Mikha's idol, and their later victory came only after destroying it.


R. Avraham's responsum suggests that the story of Mikha took place at the beginning of the period of the Judges. The incident involving the concubine in Giv'a along with the destruction of the idol, occurred at the end of that period. This is similar to the position of the Radak, who maintains that Mikha's idol could not have been standing during the days of Shmuel and David.

This is in contrast to the Rashbam, as we mentioned, who holds that the idol lasted until the time of the exile in the days of Sancheriv.


Until the days of Menashe


There is yet another opinion on this matter. The Seder Olam Rabba says that the idol stood until the twenty-second year of the reign of King Menashe.


Let us summarize history of Mikha's idol. It came into existence either at the time of the splitting of the Sea of Suf, or at the beginning of the period of the Judges.  It remained active until the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo (Radak), until the days of Sancheriv (Rashbam), or until the twenty-second year of Menashe's reign (Seder Olam Rabba).


However we date the era of Mikha's idol, it extended mimimally 345 years and possibly more than 700 years. We are dealing with a long and important stretch during which a central idol stood in the heart of Eretz Israel. We must consider the significance of the idol’s longevity.


The Nature of the service at the shrine in Mikha's House


The story about Mikha's shrine, told in Judges Chapter 17, takes place on Mount Efrayim. We have no information about Mikha or his family. The prophetic author tells of money that Mikha stole from his mother, and of a curse that his mother pronounced upon him. After he returns the money to her, she blesses him and tells him that she dedicated the money to God to make a carved idol and a molten idol. She then takes two hundred shekels of the money and gives them to the blacksmith who makes both of the idols, which are then set up in Mikha's house. To complete his shrine, Mikha makes an efod (a holy vestment) and terafim (idols used to predict the future), and designates one of his sons as priest.


This account describes the defective reality of the generation. A son steals from his mother, which leads to a curse, which is then followed by a blessing following the discovery that the thief was the woman's son. The money is dedicated, on the one hand, to God, and on the other hand, to make idolatrous images.


The story gives rise to the following question: who do the people worship through the carved and molten idols? Mikha has a shrine, a beit elohim ("house of god"). Rashi (ad loc.) emphasizes that does not refer to the God of Israel: "Every instance of elohim in this story is secular, except for 'all the time that the house of God was in Shilo' (Shoftim 18:31)." The Mishkan stands in Shilo only a very short distance away from the house of Mikha. Yet the shrine established by Mikha is called a "house of god" where the service appears to be directed toward the God of Israel, but it has two idols, and an efod and terafim. What is more, one of Mikha's sons is appointed priest despite the fact that he is not of the priestly tribe. Was this a site of idol worship or the site of the worship of the God of Israel? Scripture does not offer a clear and decisive answer.


It turns out then that on Mount Efrayim, in close proximity to each other, stand two houses of God. At the Mishkan in Shilo, the service is conducted by priests who are the descendants of Aharon and sacrifices are offered exclusively to the God of Israel, free of any traces of idol worship. There, it would appear, the service is performed in a pure and fitting manner. A short distance away, in the house of Mikha, stands a second house of God where the service of the God of Israel and the worship of foreign gods are intermingled.


In view of this, it is interesting to note the words of the Gemara in Shevuot (35b) regarding the names of God mentioned in the story of Mikha:


R. Eliezer said:… [The Names mentioned] in connection with Mikha, some are secular, and some holy: [the Name beginning] alef lamed is secular, yod he is holy.


This gemara highlights the confusion of the holy and the profane in Mikha’s shrine.


Let us now discuss the objects that were used in the service at Mikha's shrine.[4]


• Carved idol – a human form made of stone or wood, with the form wearing an efod for the purpose of telling the future. This understanding is supported by the verse: "And these went to Mikha's house, and fetched the carving, the efod, and the terafim, and the molten image. Then said the priest to them, What are you doing?" (Shoftim 18:18-19).


• Molten image – As in "you shall make you no molten gods" (Shemot 34:17). Additionally, the verse stated immediately after the Ten Commandments reads: "You shall not make with Me gods of silver, neither shall you make for yourselves gods of gold" (Shemot 20:20). This refers to a small image, as it were, of God, made of molten silver. The word masekha comes from the root nasakh – melting the material.


• Efod – a magnificent holy vestment that served as a means of communicating with God. This was similar to the efod of the High Priest that held the breastplate and the Urim and Tumim to direct questions to God.


• Terafim – idols that were used to tell the future. Presumably these had the form of angels, in accordance with the mythology of the ancient world.


All of these were found in the shrine in Mikha's house, located in close proximity to the Mishkan in Shilo.


As mentioned, the reality described here paints a bleak picture of the period in general, and of the worship of God at the time.


"My GOds which I made"


Later in the story, the people of Dan steal the carved idol, the molten idol, the efod, the terafim, and the Levite who served as a priest. Mikha then exclaims: "You have taken away my gods which I made, and the priest, and you have gone away; and what have I more? And how then do you say to me, What ails you?" (Shoftim 18:24). In other words, the service at Mikha's shrine was a ritual that Mikha had created, "my gods which I made."


Rabbi Yehuda Halevi states in his Kuzari (IV, 13):


The worshippers of the first calf, the party of Yerav'am, and the worshippers of Mikha's idol thought that they were serving the God of Israel, though they transgressed in doing so and were deserving of death. This is comparable to a man who marries his sister either under compulsion or from lust, and yet observes the marriage regulations as commanded by God. Or if one would eat pig's flesh, but carefully observe the rules concerning slaughtering, blood and ritual.


First, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi draws a connection between those who worshipped the golden calf, the calves of Yerav'am, and Mikha's idol. According to Chazal, there is a connection between Mikha himself and the sin of the golden calf, mentioned in the Gemara in Sanhedrin (101b). The Gemara there continues:


A Tanna taught: Nevat, Mikha, and Sheva the son of Bikhri are one and the same. [He was called] Nevat, because he beheld (nibat) but did not see; Mikha, because he was crushed (nitmakhmekh) in the building; and what was his real name? Sheva the son of Bikhri.


Without going into the details of this passage, the gemara explicitly associates Mikha with Yerav'am ben Nevat, in addition to Mikha's connection to the sin of the golden calf (discussed in the last shiur).


Second, the author of the Kuzari compares the calf of the wilderness to the calves of Yerav'am and Mikha's idol. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi sees worship of the God of Israel in these three cases, not pure idolatry. Mikha identified the idol that he had fashioned with the Creator of the universe.


The Kuzari addresses this issue in another passage as well (I, 97):


Many views and opinions were expressed, till at last some [of the Israelites] decided to do like the other nations, and seek an object in which they could have faith without compromising the supremacy of Him who had brought them out of Egypt. On the contrary, this was to be something that they could point to when relating the wonders of God, as the Philistines did with the ark when they said that God dwelt within it… This sin was not on par with an entire lapse from all obedience to Him who had led them out of Egypt. In the sin of the golden calf, Israel only violated one commandment, the injunction not to make images.


It would appear that the same may be said about Mikha's idol. Thus, Mikha did not violate the commandment: "You shall have no other gods beside Me" (Shemot 20:3), but rather: "You shall not make for yourself any carved idol, or any likeness" (ibid. v. 4).


We saw the threefold appearance of the sin of the golden calf. First, the sin of the calf itself, then, the calves of Yerav'am, where it also says: "These are your gods, Israel," and Mikha's idol. The problem is not the address to which Israel turned, but the means that they used and paths that they took to serve God. The need for the constant presence of a tangible object to worship God is problematic.


Later in the chapter, the representatives of the tribe of Dan pose an interesting question to the Levite lad (Shoftim 18:5-6):


And they said to him, “Ask counsel, we pray you, of God, that we may know whether our way which we go shall be prosperous.” And the priest said to them, “Go in peace: the way you go is before the Lord.”


 The Radak relates to this matter (ibid. 18:5, s.v. she'al na):


[This inquiry was] According to what they thought, for this efod was for the sake of idol worship fashioned in the form of an efod. And the terafim were to ask through them about the future, and God had no part in this. But they thought that they were accessing the word of God through these terafim. Therefore they said to him: "Ask counsel, we pray you, of God." And so Yonatan translated: "Ask counsel, we pray you, of the word of God." If so, [this appearance of the name of] "God" may not be erased, because it is holy. But Chazal say: "Every instance of elohim stated in connection with Mikha is secular, except for 'all the time that the house of God was in Shilo' (Shoftim 18:31)." If so this "God" is secular, and may be erased. Thus, the matter is in doubt, and in a case of doubt I say that it may not be erased. I am astonished about [the verse]: "For God has given it into your hands" (Shoftim 18:10). How could they say it is secular? And even R. Eliezer who said about Mikha: "Some are secular, and some holy: [the Name beginning] alef lamed is secular, yod he is holy, except for one that begins alef lamed and is holy: 'All the time that the house of God was in Shilo.'"…


To summarize Radak’s main points: The people of Dan asked counsel of God in an unacceptable manner, using the efod for idol worship. Asking counsel through the terafim was aimed at knowing the word of God about the future, yet God rejects this approach. Radak then discusses whether this appearance of the word "God" is holy or secular.


In this shiur we considered the length of Mikha's idol’s activity. We then examined the nature of the service at the shrine in Mikha's house. In the next shiur we will continue our study of Mikha's idol.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] In this part of the shiur we will make use of the sources cited in Rav Eitan Sandorfi, "Pesel Mikha ve-ha-Oskim bo mi-Yetzi'at Mitzrayim ve-ad Galut ha-Aretz," Nitzanei Eretz 7, 5750.

[2] It should be noted that there is only brief mention of the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo, and no mention of it after Shmuel chapter 4. Later, the Mishkan is found in Nov, the city of the priests. The destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo is described in Tehilim 78:59-67, with the central verse stating: "So that He forsook the Mishkan in Shilo, the tent where He made His dwelling among men." The destruction is also described in Yirmeyahu 7:11-15 and in Yirmeyahu 26:6: "Then I will make this house like Shilo, and will make this city a curse to all the nations of the earth."

[3] This is true even if we are dealing with the exile of Yehoyakhin which took place 11 years before the destruction of the Temple.

[4] These definitions are taken from Yehuda Elitzur's Da'at Mikra commentary to the book of Shoftim.