Before reviewing the events of the first story, it would help if we remembered the attitude that the Israelites had to maintain toward the Canaanite religion. “Thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn down their carved images with fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen
you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:5-6).
The differences between the Israelite and Canaanite religion are more than just monotheism and polytheism, the complete lack of images and the frequent use of images. For the Israelites, Yahweh’s holiness is predominant. As we have seen in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, His holiness is devastating, and the Israelites must fear it and joyfully submit themselves to His law in order to walk in a privileged relationship with Him and avoid destruction. They must be holy as He is holy. But for the Canaanites, their gods exist to be manipulated, flattered and
calmed in order to follow the agenda that the worshipper proposes for his own
prosperity and protection. If he finds the right “holy man” at the right price (as Balak intended to hire and persuade Balaam in Numbers 22 – 24), he can manipulate blessings and curses for the advancement of his personal or national agenda. Sexual activity serves the same purpose (in the case of Baal-peor in
Numbers 25:1-3, for example) and so does violence. Instead of living by the law that directs them to holiness, the Canaanites use images, sex, violence and money to promote their personal agendas.
Therefore, there are fundamental differences between Yahweh’s holiness and the self-centered manipulation that dominates Canaanite spirituality, and it is impossible to mix them. Either Yahweh’s holiness will destroy Canaanite religion or Canaanite religion will penetrate and degenerate devotion to Yahweh. And if someone tries to combine them, the result will be like Judges 17 – 18: an invented religion, personally created and searching for legitimacy, prosperity and influence, calling on Yahweh’s name to sanctify one’s own desires.
A religion like that would be absurd and laughable if not for its power to deceive. Incredibly, “The people of Dan set up the carved image for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites” (Judges 18:30). The personal chapel of a deceived man eventually deceived an entire tribe of Israel.
And the consequences will reach national proportions, because they will continue to worship it: “until the day of the captivity of the land” (Judges 18:30). In future readings we will see this illegitimate religion expand itself in Jeroboam’s reign, contaminate all of Israel and cause the exile of the ten tribes from the Promised Land… all beginning with one person who tried to combine Yahweh’s holiness with Canaanite manipulation as if the second commandment didn’t exist: “I dedicate the silver to the LORD from my hand for my son, to make a carved image and a metal image” (Judges 17:4). Therefore Yahweh insisted that they destroy all evidence of the Canaanite religion, not only from the land but from their hearts also, for the protection of His people from His devastating holiness.
The portrayal of the second Levite in the reading is not favorable, either. He is an insensitive man who lives to gratify his carnal desires and protect himself even at the expense of his concubine. But when his insensitivity and self-gratification is surpassed by the men of Gibeah of Benjamin, he responds with zeal: “And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel” (Judges 19:29). Is he motived more by a sense of his own rights being violated or by zeal for Yahweh’s holiness? Whatever his motivation, his message is impactful: “And all who saw it said, ‘Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak” (Judges 19:30). Israel just woke up… but for what purpose?