Sefer Shofetim Chapter 17
The last five chapters of the Book of Shofetim comprise a kind of concluding section of the text. The fact that there is no king in Israel is mentioned four times, twice in each of the last two narratives we read. The upcoming stories will present us with a picture of Israel at its spiritual low-point – the breakdown of religious worship and its admixture with paganism as well as the terrifying loss of any sense of morality or decency among the Jewish people. Both of these phenomena can be traced to the fact that there is no king in Israel – the Jews lack a central authority to guide and direct them, and therefore are subject to the influence of the culture around them and are overpowered by the temptation to assimilate.
This chapter is the first half of a famous story known as “Pesel Mikha” or the graven image of Mikha. Mikha lives in Har Ephraim. His mother had stashed away a significant amount of money (1100 pieces of silver) and found them missing; she cursed whoever it was who had misappropriated them. Mikha informs her that he was the one that took the money and returns it. Regretting the curses she unwittingly heaped upon her own son, she reassures him that he is blessed to Hashem and that, in fact, she has dedicated the funds in honor of Hashem. Ironically, however, she has actually consecrated them to become a graven image.
Sponsored by his mother’s generous donation, Mikha establishes a “house of God” at his residence, which includes various items typically associated with pagan religion (“teraphim” or statues and an ephod which apparently serve some fortune-telling function). He appoints one of his sons to serve as officiant in the new sanctuary.
One day, a Levite from Bet Lehem is passing through and visits the house of Mikha. Mikha enthusiastically invites this Levite to become a Kohen/priest in his temple, offering him a handsome salary, new wardrobe and a stipend for food and other necessities. The Levite accepts the deal and Mikha feels blessed that God has provided him with a genuine priest to lead services in his sanctuary.
There is an obvious element of tragic irony in this story. Mikha and his mother see no contradiction between pagan worship and idolatry on one hand and the service of Hashem on the other, combining them in their ungodly “House of God”. The Levite, who is expected to be a representative of Hashem and Torah wisdom and who should have rebuked the family of Mikha for their waywardness, is in reality a mercenary who is willing to sell his religious services for a price.
The tale of “Pesel Mikha” illustrates to us the extent to which living among the Canaanites has influenced and distorted Judaism even among the purported spiritual leaders. Indeed, it seems that even the Levites, who had historically been the most outspoken against idol worship and most fervent in their devotion to Hashem, have themselves fallen victim to the allure of paganism and materialism.