As I read the story of Micah and his idol, I was bowled over by this man’s sheer audacity. According to Jewish tradition, Micah established a house of idolatry a mere three miles from the Tabernacle in Shiloh. Micah’s house of idolatry was so close to God’s holy Tabernacle, “the smoke of the two altars mingled on account of their proximity” (Talmud Sanhedrin 103b).
Given Micah’s arrogance and the severity of the sin of idolatry, one would surely expect God to bring His wrath down upon Micah, in both this world and the next. Surprisingly, however, the sages do not include Micah on their list of evil people who do not have a portion in the world to come. Though Micah was clearly a sinner who caused thousands of others to sin, he does not qualify for “God’s most wanted list”!
Why is Micah spared from eternal punishment?
The answer can be found in a short conversation between Micah and a poor Levite from Bethlehem who was looking for a new beginning.
“‘Stay with me,’ Micha said to him, ‘and be a father and a Kohen to me, and I will pay you ten shekalim of silver a year, an allowance of clothing, and your food.’ The Levite went. The Levite agreed to stay with the man, and the youth became like one of his own sons” (Judges 17:10-11).
Yes, Micah was an idolater who led the masses of Israel astray. But he was also, it seems, a very warm and welcoming guy.
The sages powerfully capture Micah’s complexity: “The angels wished to throw down [Micah’s] idol; but God said to them, ‘Leave it alone; for Micah offers bread to travelers’” (Talmud Sanhedrin 103b). In other words, despite Micah’s terrible sin of idolatry, God was willing to bear with Micah’s failings because he excelled at hospitality!
Micah’s hospitality stood in sharp contrast to the way people were treated at the Tabernacle, only three miles away. There, the sons of the high priest, Hofni and Phineas, treated the Israelite pilgrims who traveled great distances to the Tabernacle with disdain:
“Now Eli [the high priest’s] sons were scoundrels; they paid no heed to God. This is how the priests used to deal with the people: When anyone brought a sacrifice, the priest’s boy would come along with a three-pronged fork while the meat was boiling, and he would thrust it into the cauldron, or the kettle, or the great pot, or the small cooking-pot; and whatever the fork brought up, the priest would take away on it. This was the practice at Shilo with all the Israelites who came there” (I Samuel 2:12-14).
The contrast between the corrupt and inhospitable priests in the holy Tabernacle and the idolatrous but welcoming Micah – only three miles apart! – could not have been starker. And whereas Micah was spared God’s wrath, the evil priests of the Tabernacle would soon meet their end in a disastrous battle against the Philistines.
What are we to make of this strange situation? I believe the Bible is teaching us acritically important lessons for life.
By tolerating Micah and punishing Hofni and Phineas, God demonstrated that He cares more for the well-being of His children on earth than He cares for His own glory. I am deeply moved by God’s awesome humility.
At the same time, we learn that devotion to God is meaningless if our devotion does not transform the way we interact with others. Yes, we must study the Bible, pray with great fervor and attend services regularly. But if our religious devotion does not make us kinder and more loving to our fellow man, we are missing the point.
“Love your fellow as yourself: I am Hashem.” (Leviticus 19:18).