Biblical illiteracy is not just tragic and unfortunate, it is dangerous. This is exemplified in the terrible history of the children’s crusades, which took place in the 12th-13th centuries. The entire history of the crusades is an ugly part of Church History in and of itself, but the particular history of sending masses of children to their deaths as part of the campaign to retake the Holy Land is horrible. How could leaders allow this to happen? How could parents send their kids off to battle? To be sure, the answers to those questions are long and complicated, but one factor that seemed to play a major part is the simple fact that people did not know what the Bible actually said. Most did not own a Bible and even if they did they could not read it since it was written in Latin. Thus, if a charismatic leader stood up and talked about the importance of securing the Promised Land (quoting some passages out of context to support the notion) and then told you that God wanted your children to fight (perhaps promising their safety from other misused passages), then you might be willing to send them off. It seems crazy today because it is a crazy idea. One that is easily dismissed with a basic knowledge of the Old and New Testaments. But without such knowledge…
We see an example of the dangers of Biblical illiteracy in the book of Judges as well. The time of the judges was one of darkness for the people of Israel. They had repeatedly sinned against God by worshipping the gods of the nations around them. They did not completely abandon God, they just ignored the instructions that He had given them for being His people. They simply did what was right in their own eyes (17:6, 21:25).
The author of the book tells us the story of Micah and the Levite to illustrate this approach. Let me summarize their story found in Judges 17. Micah stole some money from his mom and confessed to the theft when she spoke a curse against the thief. The mom was so excited about his confession that she decided to take some of the money and dedicate it to the Lord by having it made into a carved image. Micah set up a shrine to the image and made one of his sons a priest. Then a Levite came to town and Micah offered him money (10 shekels and a shirt) to be his personal priest. He was after all from the tribe of Levi, those assigned the task of being priests. The chapter concludes with Micah’s celebration: “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest.”
Although the author of the book offers no comment on Micah’s actions, anyone familiar with the Law of Israel should see the glaring problem. In fact, you don’t even have to know that much about the Law. Even if all you know is say the 10 Commandments you can see the problem. Just a knowledge of the first two will do. For what is the second commandment? “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…” (Exodus 20:4). That seems fairly straight forward. So why did Micah, Micah’s mom, his son, and the Levite, all seem to miss it?
Really, only two options seem plausible. Either they were completly ignorant of the ten commandments or they simply ignored them. Perhaps they thought: ‘As long as you get the first one right, who cares if you keep the other nine? Nobody wants to be that radical, right?’ Or maybe they thought: ‘God wants us to be accepting of other forms of worship, so He will be pleased with our carved images.’ Or maybe they just didn’t care that much anymore and just wanted to look like everyone else. We cannot be precise with their motives since the text does not say, but either way, lack of obedience to the Word was costly.
In fact, the next chapter tells us how what began in one man’s house actually spread to an entire tribe. By the end of Judges 18, you have a whole tribe ignoring the second commandment. It is a tragic tale.
How do we avoid these mistakes? How do we see through the errors? How do we keep from worshipping a graven image and sending our children off to a pointless war? Simple, we must know the Word of God. The book of Judges describes a people who have forgotten their God, forgotten His commands, and forgotten how He rescued them from slavery (see the book of Exodus). And the truth is, we are not above such forgetfulness. We must hold fast to the story of our redemption, the story of a humble son of a carpenter living a perfect life, dying on a cross for our sins and being raised again for our forgiveness. The images that lure us away may not be carved out of silver but they are still lined with gold (have I heard that somewhere?) And they still draw us away from faithful worship of God. May we see them for what they are through the Word and may we be delivered from their appeal through the Word who became flesh.