Lecture #229: The History of the Divine Service at Altars (XXXIX) – The Prohibition of Bamot (XVI)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

Please daven for a refua sheleima for YHE alumnus
v Daniel ben Miriam Chaya Rut

This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev. 
May the worldwide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.


In this shiur we will examine the continuation of Shoftim chapter 17, featuring the arrival of the young Levite in the house of Mikha. We will discuss the background of the period: "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Shoftim 21:25), in relation to each of the stories that appear at the end of the book of Shoftim. We will try to understand the story of the tribe of Dan, including its theft of Mikha's idol and priest, and the tribe's journey to the north to find its tribal territory.

The arrival of the young levite in the house of Mikha

After the text introduces the house of Mikha, it describes the young Levite from Yehuda who arrives in Mount Efrayim at the house of Mikha, looking for a place to settle. Mikha proposes that he be a father and a priest for him, in exchange for an annual cash payment, clothing, subsistence and housing. The young Levite appears very happy to accept the offer, and he takes residence in Mikha's house and serves as a priest. Mikha recognizes that the events are being directed by Divine providence and that God will do him good, seeing that he brought a Levite as a priest.

There are several noteworthy points in this account:

First, the priestly role was offered for money. This is in contrast to the earlier statement that Mikha consecrated one of his sons to serve as a priest (17:5). This informs us that Mikha and the young Levite saw the priesthood as a mutually beneficial business arrangement. Beyond the economic dimension, Mikha was satisfied because he believed that God would do him good for appointing a Levite as a priest.

Even though the young Levite was not actually a priest, he did at least belong to the tribe of Levi. Despite Mikha’s significant distortion of worshipping God, it was very important to him that someone fill the priestly role at his shrine. This was part of his religious worldview and he firmly believed that God would reward him for his efforts.

These intentions must, of course, be integrated with the broader description of Mikha’s beliefs and actions. These included belief in God, while still possessing of a carved idol, molten idol, an efod, and the terafim as well as the theft, and finally, the consecration, of his mother’s money for idolatry.

Mikha's house was the natural destination of the young Levite, despite the complex reality of Mikha's faith. Taken at face value, his intentions were positive, including belief in the God of Israel. However, the means he employed were connected to idol worship and a corrupt priesthood.

In those days there was no king in Israel

I. Mikha's idol

Scripture states in both parts of the story of Mikha that there was no king in Israel during that time period and that “every man did that was right in his own eyes.” The derisive description of Mikha's shrine exposes him as one who does only what is right in his eyes.

The source of this expression that repeats throughout the end of Shoftim is Devarim 12:8: "You shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatever is right in his own eyes." In this verse, Scripture prohibits offering sacrifices in private, individual contexts.

The book of Shoftim draws a connection between the absence of a king and each person following their own religious practices. Apparently, Scripture assumes that a centralized government would lead to centralized worship, so that all of Israel would come to serve God in the Mishkan in Shilo.

In the absence of a king, Mikha’s private home becomes an important shrine, only a short distance from the Mishkan. Mikha’s shrine included all of the components for a replacement to the Mishkan. In place of a Kohen, there is an acting priest who is not a Kohen, and in place of the vessels of the Mishkan there is the idol of Mikha, an efod and terafim. The service there clearly includes invalid modes of worship, deviating from the guidelines of the Torah.

The narrative in the text is that this religious anarchy stems from the lack of a central government and kingdom. It is quite possible that despite the text only presenting Mikha's shrine in detail, it is merely an example of the mode of worship of God in additional locations across the country.

The lack of centralized authority creates the possibility for the tribe of Dan to steal all of the components of Mikha’s shrine, together with its priest, and migrate to the north. Scripture alludes to the expectation that proper spiritual behavior will only return when a king is appointed to deal with these issues on a national level.

II. The tribe of Dan

As an introduction to chapter 18 which describes the tribe of Dan's search for territory, Scripture states once again that there is no king in Israel.

The tribe of Dan, the last tribe to draw a lot for its territory in Shilo, failed to take possession of the coastal plain all the way to the sea. Already at the beginning of the book of Shoftim (1:34-35) we read: "And the Emori forced the children of Dan into the mountain: for they would not allow them to come down to the valley: but the Emori persisted in dwelling in Mount Cheres in Ayalon, and in Sha'alvim; yet the hand of the house of Yosef prevailed, so that they became tributaries."

The Emori do not allow the people of Dan to take possession of their territory in the valley of Ayalon, forcing them into the mountain. This attests to Dan's military inability to conquer its territory, but just as much to the indifferent attitude of the other tribes towards their plight.

When each tribe is exclusively occupied with taking possession of and settling its own tribal territory, and does not give or receive help from its neighboring tribes, there is a lack of mutual responsibility. This reflects the lack of leadership in general and the absence of a king. The lack of overall political and social order leads the tribe of Dan to migrate to a different region and brutally conquer a city of "a quiet and unsuspecting people."

Therefore, Scripture describes the hope for a kingdom that will rule and direct the settlement of the land in a comprehensive manner. This sense of mutual responsibility and action would allow the central government to give each tribe the ability to take possession of its territory.

III. The concubine in Giv'a

The introduction to the story involving the concubine in Giv'a also emphasizes that "in those days there was no king in Israel." In addition to the bloodshed and sexual licentiousness that are manifest in their full ugliness in this story, the account strongly emphasizes the discord between the tribes. The readiness of the other tribes to unite and decimate the tribe of Binyamin reflects a very sad spiritual, national and social reality.

Once again, this demonstrates the ramifications of the lack of a kingdom and central government. Scripture assumes that rule by a king would bring unity among the tribes, enabling them to conquer and settle their inheritances, and eliminate fighting among them.

The Tribe of Dan

I. Worship of Mikha's idol in the wilderness

According to Chazal there is evidence that the tribe of Dan worshipped Mikha's idol in the wilderness. Thus we find in Pesikta Rabbati for Parashat Zakhor:

"Remember what Amalek did to you… and smote the hindmost of you, all that were feeble in your rear" (Devarim 25:17-18). Our Rabbis said: The cloud cast out the tribe of Dan who worshipped idols, as it is stated about them: "They shall go hindmost with their standards" (Bemidbar 2:31).

This is a general statement about the tribe that its members worshipped idols.

The Targum of Shir Ha-shirim reads:

The wicked Amalekites kidnapped members of the tribe of Dan from under the wings of the clouds of glory, and killed them, because they had Mikha's idol in their hands. (2:15)

We already saw that at the time of the crossing of the Sea of Suf, members of the tribe of Dan worshipped Mikha's idol. Thus the Mekhilta states:

"And the children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea" (Shemot 14:29) and the ministering angels wondered and said, “Those who worship idols walk on dry land in the midst of the sea?” From where do we derive that even the sea swelled with anger against them? As it is stated: "And the waters were a wall (choma) to them" (ibid.). Read not "choma," but rather "cheima" (anger). (Beshalach, Parasha 6, 14:29)

The Turim adds in his commentary to Shemot (14:29):

"Choma" is written in a defective manner (without a vav), for the Holy One, blessed be He, swelled with anger against them, because of Mikha's idol that crossed the sea with them. This is what is written: "And he shall pass through the sea with affliction" (ve-avar ba-yam tzara) (Zekharya 10:11). The last letters of these words are resh, mem, heh, which has a numerical value equal to that of "Mikha's idol" (pesel Mikha).

II. The tribe of Dan seeks a territorial portion

A delegation leaves from among the people of Dan, consisting of men of valor from Tzor'a and Eshta'ol, to spy out the land and search it. Scripture describes their arrival at the house of Mikha on Mount Efrayim as a natural stop on the main road.

In the discussion between the delegation of Danites and the young Levite, the latter describes the behavior of Mikha, who hired him to serve as a priest. The Danites ask the Levite to inquire of God whether they will be prosperous in their mission. The Levite answers: "Go in peace: the way you go is before the Lord," in the way that a priest might answer after consulting God through the Urim and Tumim in the Mishkan. Thus, the Levite was treated as a priest in every way. His inquiries of God were treated as if they were presented in holiness and purity. Apparently, this was the normal form of Divine service during this period.

From there the Danite delegation arrived in Layish, which Scripture emphasizes was a quiet and unsuspecting town. The delegation then returned to their brothers in Tzor'a and Eshta'ol, and encouraged them to join them. The families of the Dani then go out with six hundred men in total girded with weapons of war. On the way from the territory of Dan to Mount Efrayim, they pass through Kiryat-Ye'arim.

Kiryat-Ye'arim, which is located in the area of Telz-Stone, is apparently the first place that a person coming from the coastal plain reaches when he arrives in the mountains. Thus, it is a natural place to pass through when traveling from the coastal plain to Mount Efrayim.[1]

When the Danites reach Mount Efrayim, they once again go to the house of Mikha. This time they forcibly seize the carved idol, the molten idol, the efod and the terafim, and convince the young Levite to serve them as a father and priest. He is persuaded to go with them by their proposition to promote him from local priest to priest for the entire tribe, and he himself takes the efod, the terafim and the carved idol.

When Mikha and his neighbors realize the theft of the Danites, they set out in pursuit. When they overtake them, the Danites ask Mikha: "What ails you that you come with such a company?" He replies:

And he said, “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?’” (18:24)

The mockery in the verse is striking: Mikha made gods that were stolen. The irony of a divine entity being stolen is also overwhelming. Mikha stole money from his mother, and after returning it to her, it was consecrated to God for the purpose of making idols, "my gods which I have made." The gods were made from stolen money, and now those gods were stolen!

Furthermore, we must clarify Mikha’s attitude and beliefs during this episode. He serves a god that he himself fashioned, makes inquiries of it, and in the end is greatly distressed when it is stolen. Whom does he serve – the God of Israel or an idol? Does worshipping such an idol mean essentially worshipping himself?  

Scripture's mockery is very clear in portraying the worship that was conducted in the house of Mikha. Therefore, Scripture says that the Danites take the very objects of worship that Mikha fashioned and the priest that he appointed. They easily persuade Mikha that they are stronger than he is, despite the supposed sanctity of his shrine, and therefore, there is no point in resisting the theft.

From there the Danites go to Layish, inhabited by a quiet and unsuspecting people, conquer it, and burn it to the ground.

III. The Danites' conquest of Layish[2]

The Emori, a general term that refers to the Canaanite inhabitants of the land whom Israel did not yet conquer, forced the Danites out of their territory in the coastal valley and the Ayalon valley.

Territory in the north had originally been designated for the tribe of Dan in Moshe's blessing: "Dan is a lion's whelp that leaps from the Bashan" (Devarim 33:22).[3] The subsequent conquest of Layish implies that the Danites sought to begin settling their inheritance, according to the tradition that they had from the house of Yaakov.

Before Israel's conquest of the land, the Upper Galilee (between Tyre and the headwaters of the Jordan river) was in the hands of the Tzidonites (the Phoenicians), and Layish was one of the Tzidonite cities. With the conquest of the land, the tribes of Israel settled the strip of cities in the Upper Galilee. The land of the Tzidonites was restricted to a coastal strip in the west, and the Tzidonite city of Layish was left cut off and isolated, interrupted by the Israelite territory. The members of the Danite army who were sent to spy out the territory understood this:

And they came upon Layish, upon a quiet and unsuspecting people; and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and burnt the city with fire. And there was no deliverer, because it was far from Tzidon, and they had no business with any man; and it was in the valley that lies by Bet-Rechov. And they built a city, and dwelt in it. (Shoftim 18:27-28)

As mentioned, Rashi and the Radak, in his first explanation, describe that Layish was part of the land that was initially allotted to the tribe of Dan. According to this understanding, Dan received a split territory from the outset. Part of its territory was to be in what is called today Gush Dan, in the coastal plain in western Eretz Israel, and partially in the north.

According to the Radak's second explanation, Layish was not included in the lottery that distributed land to the seven tribes. Since Dan had such a large population it became necessary to add to their territory in the far north. This turn of events highlights the problems in inter-tribal relationships during the period of the Judges.[4]

During this time period, shortly after the division of the land, each tribe was concerned only about solidifying its hold on its own territory. We might have expected the other tribes to mobilize to help the tribe of Dan take possession of its inheritance. Alternatively, each of Dan’s neighboring tribes could have ceded a small portion of its territory. However, due to the lack of inter-tribal unity and no centralized authority, no such solution was put in place. Instead, war with a peaceful people ensues.

In light of this, we can well understand the juxtaposition of the story of Dan’s search for more territory in the north and the terrible story of the concubine in Giv'a. It seems that the inter-tribal tensions described in the first story resulted in the suspicions, xenophobia, and outright hostility that would ultimately lead to civil war in Giv’a.

After the conquest of the city of Layish, the Danites rename it the city of Dan, and the chapter concludes:

And the children of Dan set up the carving: 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 carving, which he had made, all the time that the house of God was in Shilo. (18:30-31)

As mentioned in earlier shiurim, Mikha’s idol was active in Dan for hundreds of years. Even though it is not explicit in the text, the idol undoubtedly served as an attraction for the entire tribe of Dan, and possibly even for neighboring tribes.

IV. The tribe of Dan's grip on its territory in the land of Israel

In addition to the other tribes' failure to help Dan take possession of its territory in the Gush Dan, we must also understand the significance of its failure to properly settle its territory.

The tribe of Dan was the second largest among the tribes of Israel, and it retained its numerical strength until the fortieth year in the wilderness. In contrast to its quantitative size, it later showed no signs of qualitative strength. In the wilderness, Yehuda was the leading tribe whereas Dan brought up the rear of the camp. In the land of Israel, Yehuda was first and foremost in taking possession of the land, while we hear nothing about Dan.

The process of settling the land depended primarily upon motivation and skill. The people of Yehuda and Yosef, especially the tribe of Menashe, were strong and filled with a desire to take possession of the land.  The tribe of Dan served only as a rear guard, without taking initiative, and was therefore left without an inheritance. It is possible that the neighboring tribes allowed Dan to settle in the coastal hills section of their territories because of the Danites’ failure to conquer their own territory.

This background may explain the phrase "from the family of the Dani," which refers to the six hundred men and the spies from the tribe of Dan who went north. Tzor'a and Eshta'ol were cities of Yehuda where one Dani family each was given permission to share the land of these cities with the people of Yehuda.

This proposal explains why Dan is missing from the list of the cities of the Levites in Divrei Ha-yamim. Dan was actually a subtenant of Yehuda and Efrayim, and did not have their own exclusive cities.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] It is not by chance, that many years later, when the ark was returned from Sadeh-Pelishtim, it was brought from Bet-Shemesh to Kiryat-Ye'arim. It is possible that, through this parallel, Scripture highlights the stark difference between the two routes. David brought the ark from Kiryat-Ye'arim to the City of David in preparation for the building of the Temple. In contrast, the Danites camped in Kiryat-Ye’arim while they were on their way to Mikha's shrine in Mount Efrayim, where they steal the young Levite and move him to Dan in the north.

[2] This is taken from Prof. Yehuda Elitzur (Atlas Da'at Mikra, p. 174).

[3] Bashan is assumed to be in the north of the land.

[4] This suggestion was made by Tzvi Lifshitz in his article: "Ba-Yamim ha-Hem Ein Melekh be-YisraelTeguva le-Ma'amaro shel Yonatan Feintuch," Megadim 41 (Tevet 5765), pp. 95-98.