The Prosperity Gospel Unmasked in Early Form (Judges 17)
If the central section of Judges offers us flawed heroes caught in a depressing cycle of oppression and deliverance, the final chapters portray a fallen people seemingly beyond the hope of redemption. Judges 17 opens with almost a parody of idolatry. A man named Micah has lots of money, his mother uses the money to make an idol, and Micah hires a free-lancing Levite as his personal priest. It is not surprising that Micah’s tawdry home-grown cult features an equally abysmal theology. “Micah said, ‘Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because the Levite has become my priest’” (Judges 17:13). In other words, by getting a religious authority to bless his idolatrous enterprise, Micah believes that he can co-opt God into churning out the goods he craves. Human creativity is here wasted in the worst possible way, in the manufacture of make-believe gods as a cover for greed and arrogance.
The impulse to turn God into a prosperity machine has never died away. A notorious form of it today is the so-called “prosperity gospel” or “gospel of success” which claims that those who profess faith in Christ will necessarily be rewarded with wealth, health, and happiness. With respect to work, this leads some to neglect their work and descend into licentiousness while waiting for God to shower them with riches. It leads others—who expect God to deliver prosperity though their work—to neglect family and community, to abuse co-workers, and to do business unethically, certain that God’s favor exempts them from ordinary morality.