The City of Dan: A Legacy of Apostasy

The City of Dan: A Legacy of Apostasy

High place outside the gate of the City of Dan
High place outside the gate of the City of Dan

Did you know that the end of the story of the conquest of the city of Dan holds a very interesting surprise? In my previous article on Tel Dan, we looked at the fascinating archaeological discoveries that have been uncovered, while noting that only about 10% of the site has been excavated. This article will focus on the biblical history of the city of Dan and its sad legacy.

The conquest of the city of Dan (formerly known as Laish), as recorded in Judges 18:27-31, is an inglorious affair from its inception. The story is narrated in two parts: 1) The story of Micah, his house of false worship, and his Levite (Judg. 17); and 2) the story of the conquest of the city of Dan. In short, the Danites, who don’t have the faith to take the territory allotted to them (Judg. 1:34), steal the gods and priest of a fellow-Israelite named Micah and then attack a peaceful, unsuspecting people in the northern part of Canaan (Judg. 18:7-9). A real surprise is saved for the end of the story when the name and genealogy of the previously unnamed Levite is revealed. We are told his name is Jonathan and that he descended from none other than the great lawgiver himself, Moses! (Judg. 18:30).

A Levite, an Embarrassed Scribe, and the City of Dan

At this point you might be saying, “Wait a minute, my version reads ‘Manasseh,’ not ‘Moses'”. In Hebrew the only difference between the names Moses and Manasseh is the letter “n”.

The letter in the middle row raised above the line is the inserted nun
The letter in the middle row (4th from the end) raised above the line is the inserted nun

At some point in the history of the Hebrew text, it appears that some well-meaning scribe was embarrassed by the fact that this unscrupulous Levite could be a descendant of Moses (which is one of the shocking points of the story). As a result, the Hebrew letter nun (pronounced “noon” and equivalent to an “n” in English) was halfway inserted into the name of Moses, turning it into the name Manasseh. Although the scribe was probably embarrassed that the text read “Moses,” his reverence for the text did not permit him to totally change it. Thus, he only inserted the nun part way into the name. This is why the NKJV and other versions read “Manasseh” instead of “Moses.”

It is possible that this Jonathan is a grandson of Moses because he is said to be “the son of Gershom, the son of Moses,” but the word “son” can mean “descendant” and so it is difficult to be certain. Either way, the city of Dan gets off to a very inauspicious start with its first priest being an idol-worshipping pay-for-hire descendant of Moses! The story of the founding of the city of Dan ends with the sad words, “So they set up for themselves Micah’s carved image which he made all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh” (Judg. 18:31). In other words, from the very beginning the Danites set up a false house of worship to compete with the true worship of God. The story only gets worse as we move on to the time of King Jeroboam I.

The City of Dan Under Jeroboam I

Jeroboam was a young man on the rise in Solomon’s administration (1 Kgs. 11:28) when the prophet Ahijah told him that God would give him the ten northern tribes (1 Kgs. 11:29-31). This leads to a text that I find quite intriguing, not to mention surprising. God continues by telling Jeroboam that if he will be faithful, “then I will be with you and build for you an enduring house, as I built for David, and give Israel to you” (1 Kgs. 11:38). An enduring house like David’s? Wow! As king over the northern tribes, Jeroboam has the opportunity to end the idolatrous history of the city of Dan (as well as the rest of the northern tribes), and lead the people in following the Lord. Jeroboam does indeed become king, as Ahijah said he would (1Kgs. 12:15-19), but unfortunately, if you know your Bible history, he does not lead the people in following the Lord. Instead, Jeroboam reasons that if he allows the people to worship in Jerusalem “then the heart of this people will turn back to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and go back to Rehoboam king of Judah” (1 Kgs. 12:27).

Unknown artist
Unknown artist

Even though he had seen the fulfillment of God’s word in making him king, he did not believe that God could fulfill the rest of His promise! Instead, Jeroboam inaugurates a new religion of sorts (Yahweh worship, but with a twist – golden calves!) and establishes temples at Bethel and Dan (1 Kgs. 12:28-30). This act was devastating to the house of Jeroboam, of whom it was said, “And this thing was the sin of the house of Jeroboam, so as to exterminate and destroy it from the face of the earth” (1 Kgs. 13:34). But sin never simply affects one person or household. The sin of Jeroboam was also devastating to the ten northern tribes. It became known as the “sin by which he had made Israel sin” (e.g., 1 Kgs. 15:34; 16:19; 22:52). When Israel is finally carried away into Assyrian captivity more than 200 years later, it is the sin of Jeroboam that is credited with leading them astray (2 Kgs. 17:21-23).

A look at the remains of the temple complex in Tel Dan a reminder of Jeroboam and "the sin by which he made Israel sin."
A look at the remains of the temple complex in Tel Dan a reminder of Jeroboam and “the sin by which he made Israel sin.”

The Legacy of the City of Dan

In both of these stories involving the city of Dan, the word legacy comes to mind. In the first story it is the ruined legacy of Moses by a descendant who cares more about money, power, and prestige than honesty and truth. In the second story the legacy of Jeroboam I sadly continues generation after generation until Israel is destroyed. How ironic that the legacy of Moses, Israel’s greatest prophet and leader is quickly overturned, while the legacy of Jeroboam I continues unbroken eventually leading to the ruin of the nation. Sadly sin has corrupted humankind to the point where it is much easier to follow a bad leader than a good one. That is a truth well worth bearing in mind during these times in which we live.

These stories also prompt us to ask what sort of legacy do we want to leave to future generations? Meditating on the legacy of the city of Dan teaches us that whether we live for good or for ill, our lives not only affect us and those around us, but have a powerful impact on the future. This is a sobering truth and should cause us to pause and ask ourselves about the choices we are making. What kind of world do we want to leave to the next generation and beyond? Our choices today, and for the rest of our lives, will play a major role in molding the future that we bequeath to them.

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