The Grandson of Moses
The story of the first apostasy
The name of Moses stands out in Israel's history as that of the man who welded twelve unorganised tribes into a nation, brought that nation into covenant relationship with God, and throughout a long life stood firmly in his allegiance to the God of Israel and carried the nation with him in that allegiance. Israel never forgot him. Fourteen hundred years later, in the days of Christ, the words and commands of Moses were still regarded as law. No greater man had ever lived or would ever live, said every pious man of Israel. "There arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face" (Deut. 34. 10) commented the ancient chronicler who closed the story of Moses' life. He was a mighty man and a stalwart for the righteousness of God. "Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day" was his final exhortation to the nation just before his death "which ye shall command your children to observe to do, all the words of this law. For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life; and through this thing ye shall prolong your days in the land" (Deut. 32. 46-47). All the greater tragedy, therefore, that Moses' own grandson and his descendants for six centuries were apostates from the worship of God, serving an idol altar throughout the entire time of Israel's occupancy of the land.
Moses had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, both born to him before the Exodus, during the period of his exile in Midian. One son at least was still a child at the time of the Exodus and they both entered the Promised Land. Neither of them appear to have inherited the outstanding characteristics of their celebrated father and they seem to have been undistinguished members of the Levites, an office theirs by right of descent from Moses, and they probably served as such in some community in Israel. They are not mentioned in the historical narratives and it is evident that no particular honour was paid them in respect of their relationship to the great deliverer of the nation. In the early days we read of stalwart men who rose up to defend and lead the people struggling to consolidate their hold on the land—Joshua, Caleb, Othniel, Ehud, but not Gershom or Eliezer. The mantle of Moses did not fall on his sons; it passed to others.
Four centuries later, in the days of David, there is a brief reminder of these two. David, forbidden by God to build the Temple, was nevertheless commanded to erect an altar to the Lord in Jerusalem and this he did on the summit of Mount Moriah where Solomon's Temple afterwards stood. (1 Chron.22.18-26). To this "house of the Lord" as David termed it, he gathered all the sacred treasures, spoils of war dedicated to the Lord and so on, and placed them under the supervision of Shebuel, descendant of Gershom, and Shelomith, descendant of Eliezer. A few scattered allusions in 1 Chron.23.14-17; 24.20; 26.24-25 tell us this much and preserve a few names and that is all. These two were evidently men of God and honoured with a share in the sacred duties.
The darker side of the picture is displayed in the story of one other member of the family, Jonathan the son of Gershom and therefore grandson of Moses. This Jonathan, born in the land in the very early days of the settlement, occupied a very minor office as a Levite attached to the tribe of Judah in Bethlehem (Judges18). Apparently discontented with his lot, he made his way northward into the territory of the tribe of Ephraim, seeking to better himself, as we might say. There he encountered an Ephraimite named Micah, who, himself infected with the prevalent idolatry of Canaan, had made himself idols graven images, and set them up in his house. He invited Jonathan to enter his service as a kind of domestic priest, to attend upon idols and conduct religious observances on behalf of the family. The terms: board and lodging, necessary officiating robes, and ten silver shekels per year, which since ordinary labourer's wages at the time ranged between thirty and fifty shekels a year was not a very princely sum for a grandson of Moses the conqueror. But he accepted it and entered upon his duties as apostate priest to an idolater. The depths of ignorance into which Israelites like Micah had fallen is well illustrated by his comment upon the situation. "Now I know that the Lord will prosper me because I have a Levite as priest" (Judges 17.13 ESV)
His complacency was rudely disturbed. A roving party of men from the tribe of Dan, migrating northward to seek more suitable territory for themselves, came upon Micah's house and found the idol installation complete with priest. Heedless of any rights Micah may have had in the matter, they took forcible possession of the idols and made a proposition to Jonathan. "Is it better for thee" they suggested "to be a priest unto the house of one man, or that thou be a priest unto a tribe and a family in Israel?". Jonathan saw the point and accepted the offer with alacrity; he journeyed with them to the north, where they found a fertile country, inhabited only by a peaceful and defenceless people whom they unceremoniously slaughtered and established themselves in their place.
So it was that Jonathan the grandson of Moses became the first High Priest of the first organised system of idolatry to be established in Israel. There in the town of Dan centre of the northern territory of the tribe of Dan, most northerly point of the land of Israel and not far from modern Damascus, he administered the ceremonies of a pagan faith, he and his sons after him, seven hundred years until the Assyrians came and took Israel away into captivity. During all that time these sons of Moses stood for all that their illustrious forebear had so consistently and sternly condemned.
The story is told in the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters of Judges. It must have taken place during the first century in the land. At the same time that Jonathan was leaving Bethlehem for a life of infamy in the north, Ruth the Moabitess was coming into Bethlehem to yield her life in devotion to Israel's God, joining in association with Boaz the God-fearing Israelite to forge another link in the line that led to Christ, the 'greater prophet' of whom Moses spoke. The line of Jonathan ended in captivity and ruin and is now lost in obscurity; that of Ruth and Boaz is immortalised by the event which happened later at Bethlehem when the angels sang "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward men".
The story was set down faithfully in the Book of Judges but in later manuscripts the transcribers, reluctant to perpetuate the association of their great Lawgiver's name with that of his apostate grandson, added the letter 'n' to the name in Judges 18. 30 thus making it Jonathan the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, instead of Moses. This is the A V rendering; in the Hebrew text the 'n' is above the line, indicating that the original reading is Moses. Most modern translations, including RSV and NEB, render it Moses.
Four centuries later Jeroboam, the first king of the Ten Tribes, installed two golden calves as objects of worship, one at Bethel and the other at Dan (1 Kings 12.25-33). At Bethel he created an order of non-Levite priests; of Dan nothing is said and it is obvious on the strength of Judges 18.30-31 that the sons of Jonathan continued to serve that sanctuary with the golden calf added to the original idols. Jehu, another two centuries on, destroyed Baal worship out of Israel but left the golden calves and their worship untouched (2 Kings 10.29) and this for a definite reason. These golden calves, like their prototype at the time of Sinai, were visible emblems of the God of Israel. Oft-times in the O.T. God was likened to the wild ox on account of its strength and irresistible power. Heedless of the commandment against making graven images of God and bowing down and worshipping such images, these golden calves, which were likenesses of the wild ox, were set up in the sight of Israel so that they could worship God in the same way as other nations worshipped their gods, before a visible object made according to their own ideas. Hence Jehu, whose object was to destroy idol worship and preserve the worship of Jehovah, in his ignorance left the golden calves intact, and the result was that Bethel and Dan remained centres of idolatry throughout the whole of Israel's national existence, ending only with the great Captivities which cured Israel of that particular sin for all time. In much of their idolatry the Israelites believed they were worshipping the true God, the one whom Moses had revealed to them, when all the time they were worshipping false conceptions of God.
In the final analysis all idolatry comes down to that. Christians, Jews and Moslems worship and serve the same God, but under so widely differing views of his character and attributes that there can be little or no reconciliation. Christians, in their various outlooks, see God sometimes like Moloch, demanding human sacrifice by fire for his appeasement, sometimes like Baal, the impersonal force of Nature to which man is subject, sometimes like Ashtaroth, permitting every self indulgence and gratification of animal passions without thought of higher things, sometimes like the Hebrew wild ox, merciless to his enemies and a fierce partisan to his own people. All these false gods are found amongst us today, even within communities of Christians; so many have failed to realise the depths of meaning in Jesus' words to the woman at the well "they that worship God must worship him in spirit and in truth". Not for nothing was Israel forbidden to make graven images of God; we in our own minds are apt to set up such graven images and, like Jonathan the grandson of Moses, worship them under the impression that we are worshipping the God of our fathers when in reality we are doing nothing of the sort. The Apostle John was aware of that when he said "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 3.21). Only in constant heed to the words of Jesus and realisation of our union through him with the Father, he tells us, can we really know God. "We know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true. This is the true God, and eternal life."