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Micah – what’s it about and why was it written?

Micah lived in a time in which there was great exploitation of the middle and lower classes by the ruling, Jewish elite. He is appalled at what is going on, and his book is written largely in response. It contains many different styles of writing, and includes some very well know passages that have become part of the churches lexicon – good thing?

Whilst this is quite a technical paper, I found the opportunity to study a book about which I knew nothing most rewarding. I know it raises some difficult questions, especially the violence motiff – with its usual set of questions, ethical side-steps and misunderstandings… All I’ll say here  is that we need to remember that the bible records the spiritual journey of a people as their understanding, like ours, progresses. I certainly am reflecting at length on this as i write.

Micah preaching gy Gustave Doré

Engraving  of “Micha” by Gustave Doré. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Micha.jpg#/media/File:Micha.jpg

Develop an argument concerning the book of Micah’s central purpose(s) and theological message(s). Engage with secondary literature on the book.

Introduction

This essay seeks to unpack the theological messages of the book of Micah and to understand the purpose for which it was written. In Micah’s time the leaders of Israel are singled out as having seriously failed in their covenantal roles and thus the land is full of injustice, corruption and idolatry. Micah was so concerned by the injustices that he saw that he felt God’s call to warn of the impending judgement. The elite and strong of society were taking the land of the less powerful, and the prophets and judges were operating more for financial reward than out of faithfulness to Yahweh.

Micah describes what the consequences of not taking this seriously are, both in terms of punishment at the hands of other nations, but also the future restoration that Yahweh will bring to pass in order to fulfil the promises to the patriarchs. There is a strong element of ‘latter days’ towards the end of the book which remains at least partially unfulfilled. Some sections of the book may have been added by later editors to enable it to speak to a post exilic audience more powerfully.

 

Who was Micah?

The first verse of Micah says ‘The word of the LORD that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, Kings of Judah.’ Micah lived during the latter part of the 8th century BCE. There is general agreement about the dates of the reigns of these kings: Jotham from 742 to 735 BCE, Ahaz from 735 to 715 BCE and Hezekiah from 715 to 687 BCE. Mason suggests that to place Micah’s ministry as early as Jotham would be unlikely and points out that some scholars have argued that it was only during the reign of Hezekiah that Micah was active.[1]

Uzziah had experienced a long, prosperous reign and thus when Jotham took over as king things must have seemed insecure to the general populace. The Assyrians were beginning to expand their kingdom at just the same time. Thus Micah seems to be speaking into a politically unstable period, when the people would have been concerned about the nature of their new ruler, and the menacing threat on their boarders.[2]

The name Micah is written as mīkāh in 1:1 and mīkāyhā in Jer. 26:18, and is the short form of the Hebrew name that means ‘Who is like Yahweh?’ According to Mays the name is ‘an exclamation of praise’ and an ‘expression of adoration and wonder’ at the God of Israel.[3] Micah, or some future editor, weaves this into the very end of the book, where it says ‘Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity.’ (7:18)

Micah came from Moresheth, probably Moresheth Gath (1:14) which is thought to be modern day Tell el-Judeideh, a rural, fortified town some 25 miles to the south west of Jerusalem[4] and six to seven miles from the town of Gath, which was a Philistine settlement. Thus Micah came from a small, insignificant town, in an area of desert and hills that was close to the Gath.[5]

Mason speculates that since it is unusual to name someone from their place of origin if they live there, it was likely that ‘Micah of Moresheth’ left his home town and went to live in Jerusalem. Waltke unpacks this and adds that Micah’s ‘identification’ with the small-town Moresheth implies that ‘he was an outsider to Jerusalem.’ However, despite this Waltke has him as one of the ‘professional prophets who helped shape the character and policies of Israel.’[6] This would have been an uncomfortable position for Micah, given how he describes the professional prophets as leading the people astray and prophesy good things for payment. (3:5)

It is clear looking at Jeremiah 26:17-19 that Micah’s ministry was effective. In this passage Jeremiah recounts how Micah’s words changed the direction Hezekiah was going in, thus saving the nation from ‘immediate catastrophe.’[7] It is interesting to consider how a man from a small town like Moresheth came to be listened to at highest level within the land. What earned him the right to be heard in such places? In response to this question Wolff suggests that in fact Micah was an elder or head of a clan ‘before and during the time’ that the office of prophet was conferred on him. This seems quite likely, especially as within his writings he uses phrases like ‘Hear now, O heads of Jacob’(3.1, 9) and ‘her heads judge for a bribe’ (3.11) With reference to Waltke’s suggestion that Micah was a ‘professional prophet’ in the Jerusalem court Wolff points out that Micah never refers to himself as a prophet, and neither does the Jeremiah passage. With reference to Micah’s description of his own calling (3:8) Wolff suggests that he knew himself to be an ‘ambassador of a completely different sort’ compared to the professional prophets that he went up against.[8]

 

Overview of the Book

Before giving an overview of the teaching of Micah it is worth remembering that there have been many attempts to work out the book’s structure. Clearly that there is no consensus about this, and Mason questions the value of ‘looking for such a deliberate shaping of the final form of the book.’ To him the variations suggest just how subjective the various approaches seem to be.[9]

Given the above, several commentators do seem to agree that there are at least two natural turning points in the book, giving us three sections for our overview. The first is at the dramatic junction of 3.12 and 4.1 where the tone moves abruptly from one of ‘doom’ to ‘hope’.[10] Verse 6.1 marks another break point, where the tone again turns, this time from one of visions of Israel’s future to one of God contending with his people.

Equally helpful is Mays unpacking of the pivotal swing between the end of chapter 3 start of 4. Thus Mays believes that the chapters 1-3 lay the foundation for the destruction of Jerusalem and chapter 4-5 expound the promise of the later days found in 4.1-5.[11]

 

Chapters 1 – 3

After the superscription we begin with a legal call for the whole earth to listen –‘Let the Lord God be a witness against you.’ (2) Micah underlines the importance of what is coming by describing a dramatic theophanic manifestation as God comes down to walk upon the high places and the mountains melt beneath him. (3-4) This visitation is due to the ‘rebellion of Israel’ and more specifically to the behaviour of the cities of Samaria in the north and Jerusalem in the south.[12] God has come in judgement, and this passage lays the foundation for much of the rest of the book.

After the judgement oracle there follows a lament (8-16) which describes the movement of a calamity, sent by Yahweh that progresses through the land of Judah, ending at the very gates of Jerusalem. The lament begins with the strikingly translated verse:

Therefore I will wail and howl, I will go stripped and naked: I will make a wailing like the dragons, and mourning as the owls (1:8 KJV)

There is some discussion about whether it is Yahweh or Micah who is speaking here. If the former this sheds light on how God himself ‘feels’ about the impending judgement, if the later then it is worth noting just how strongly Micah identifies with the people. Freedman and Andersen are unable to commit regarding the identification of the speaker, but suggest that it is the ‘usual understanding’ that it is Micah.[13] It does seem that the language would suggest it is a person, rather than God speaking although the contribution to the discussion of God’s view of Israel’s sin and the impending judgement is intriguing.

Chapter 2 begins to unpack exactly what the cities of Samaria and Jerusalem are guilty of. We read how the powerful covet the land of the less powerful, and take it by force (2). There is a lack of justice. Wright tells us that the ‘LORD alone ultimately owns the land’ and thus even a ‘king is but a tenant in the LORD’s land.’ He states that ‘the land was not to be bought and sold commercially but preserved within a kinship framework.’[14] Micah describes how ownership of that most vital of resources, the land, was being allowed to move from the lower and middle classes up to the higher echelons, thereby forcing the dispossessed people into poverty whilst increasing the wealth of the elite. As Wright so powerfully puts it ‘a nation that allowed itself to succumb to the same economic evils as the nations around them could not function as a light to the nations.’[15]

Further, Mays suggests that in 2.10 Micah is still referring to the land.[16] This means that the land itself has become defiled by the actions of the strong as they take it from the rightful ‘tenants’. This echoes back to the Leviticus and it would suggest that the land itself is going to vomit out Israel due to its defiled state, just as it vomited out the nations before. (Lev 18.28)

Micah also attacks the prophets who were supporting the wicked leaders, because they paid them to do so. (2.6-7, 3.5-7) The punishment for this is that there will be no more visions from God. It’s clear that the professional prophets were retaliating to Micah’s sayings, and Freedman and Andersen suggest that this shows that Micah’s messages were rejected by the leaders.[17]

Verses 12 – 13 describe how Yahweh will gather together the remnant of Israel like sheep in a fold. They will then be lead out through the gate, with the Lord at their head. At first reading this does appear to be a passage which could be interpreted as a ‘promise of restoration’ as per Freedman and Andersen, and thus be problematic to those who think of Micah 1-3 is the ‘doom’ section.[18] However, Mays suggests a somewhat more troubling reading which appears to fit the general tenor of chapter 2 more accurately. He says that these verses describe how it is Yahweh himself who leads the people into exile. Nothing that happens to Israel, including the approaching Assyrian army with all that entails, is anything other than a ‘manifestation of Yahweh’s sovereignty.’[19]

In chapter 3 the focus firstly moves onto the leaders, or ‘heads’ as Micah refers to them (3,9,11) who again are accused of injustice. The prophets are also corrupt and the passage arrives at a crescendo in 8 where Micah explains the counter-cultural nature of his own ministry.

But truly I am full of power by the Spirit of the Lord, and of justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin

Micah expresses certainty that God has filled him with power, might and justice, which whilst it may once have been true to some extent for the professional prophets, it certainly does not seem to be the case now. Micah’s claim reworks 1.5 where Yahweh’s coming is linked to ‘the transgression of Jacob’ and the ‘sins of the house of Israel’. Thus Micah is authenticating his calling by claiming that Yahweh has sent him, and stating that really the leaders would do well to listen carefully to what he has to say. Jerusalem, on which ‘no harm can come’ (11) will become like a ‘ploughed field’, and the temple (or house) like the ‘bare hills of the forest.’ The final destruction of Jerusalem signifies the low point of the ‘book of doom’ as Freedman and Andersen refer to chapters 1-3.

 

Chapter 4-5

This section begins with a total mood change, a glorious vision of the latter days. In Zion God will inaugurate his reign, and the people of the nations will flow to it to learn his ways, there will be peace and an end to war. (1-5) God will gather the scattered remnant, bring them back to Zion and restore their former dominion. (6-8) For the remainder of the chapter 4 there is almost a defiant mood; the exile to Babylon will happen, but the Lord will redeem and deliver them. The ‘daughter of Zion’ will be made strong again.

Mays places together three sayings with the phrase ‘daughter of Zion’ and one with ‘daughter of troops’. (4.8,10, 13 and 5.1) The first describes the future glory of the daughter of Zion, and the others show how this will come to pass.[20] This glory, which is the former glory of Israel restored, will come about by the rule of a new king portrayed in 5.2-5, whose power will extend to the ends of the earth. Freedman and Andersen state that this king is portrayed as a ‘Second David’ but remind us that no name is mentioned.[21] Whilst this oracle clearly has not been fully fulfilled yet it does seem that traditionally that this figure is Jesus Christ.

The remainder of Chapter 5 describes Israel’s invulnerability, and victory over their enemies. In the end all Yahweh’s enemies will be destroyed, and he will eliminate all means of war (10), sorceries (12) and idolatry (13) from among the people. This means that the ‘power and identity’ of Israel is now solely a manifestation of the ‘power and identity’ of Yahweh living amongst them.[22] Through the work of Yahweh, and his Messianic figure of 5.2f Israel will become a light unto the nations once again. Thus the ‘theopolitical reality by which the nations will find peace or punishment’ is established.[23]

 

Chapter 6 and 7

The last section of Micah begins with a court scene, and ends with mercy and forgiveness. The primary focus is with the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, and concerns judgement and salvation ‘as God’s struggle for the soul of his people.’[24]

It is perhaps odd that Micah never actually wrote down the Lord’s complaint more explicitly than the ‘what have I done to weary you’ of 6.3.[25] In the synopsis that Micah records of God’s historic interventions in the life of Israel, the Lord uses the phrase ‘My people’ twice (3, 5) and an individual replies in vs 6f. The individual asks how they can placate God, and shows a rising sense of anxiety as they ‘up-the-anti’ and arrive at the suggestion that the sacrifice of ‘my own child for the sin of my soul’ might be required. (7) The suggestion of child sacrifice to placate an angry God might seem rhetorical at first glance, but perhaps it isn’t given the propensity for such horrors in the surrounding cultures, and even in Israel’s history.[26] The prophet’s answer begins with the reminder that the people already know that the Lord requires that they ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with their God’.(8) Whilst the people should have already know this, it is of course completely counter-cultural to how the nations around them live, and indeed still do.

Chapter 6:9-16 is addressed to the city, and since Samaria has now been destroyed we can assume that it is Jerusalem that the prophet has in mind. Again, the lack of justice is the basis for the upcoming punishment, and at the beginning of Chapter 7, a single speaker laments the lack of loyalty and the violation of justice. Mays explains that the gender of the pronouns in 8-10 is feminine, and therefore identifies this speaker as the personified, female city.[27] Whilst Limburg, and Freedman and Andersen do not mention this, it is in keeping with Lamentations where the female, city of Jerusalem also laments. (Lam 1.1)

In 7.7 the speaker / Jerusalem appears to strengthen herself, and look for the Lord’s salvation and the chapter continues with the divine promise of that salvation for which the city is waiting.[28] The Exodus and conquest of Israel’s early history can be repeated, even as the walls of the city are being rebuilt.[29]  The chapter ends a strong proclamation of God’s forgiving love. The future described at the end of the book is firmly rooted within the ancient narratives of Israel, and underlines that the promises given to the patriarchs will be fulfilled despite the unfaithfulness of Yahweh’s covenantal partner.[30]

 

Central Purpose and Theological Messages of Micah

The book of Micah was written in response to the sins of the leaders, variously describe as heads, judges and prophets. The argument that Micah himself was a clan elder is convincing, and it seems appropriate that as such he was shocked by the injustices that he saw going on around him. The leader’s syncretism and apostasy contributes to them exploiting the middle and lower classes by taking their land, certainly by violence and perhaps by economic exploitation too. The prophets were corrupt, offering their supportive oracles to those who would pay, and the judges accepted bribes. So perhaps Micah interpreted his sense of outrage at these injustices as ‘God’s call to prophesy against the leaders in the land.’[31]

That such failure to fulfil their covenantal role would lead to judgement is a central theme of the book. Micah laments that this judgement is coming, but he would have said that ‘Yahwism’ had to affect the ‘political and social life of society’ or it meant nothing.[32] Theologically, the land was defiled, the Godly ethics of the economy challenged, and the covenant broken. Israel was unable to be a witness to the nations.

The book of Micah teaches that God will not allow Israel to remain in this state – they have to be cleansed of their unjust practices, of their idolatry and of their corruption. The contrast between the destruction of Jerusalem and the ‘latter day’ state of Zion is breath-taking and shows that God could and would do away with the religious and cultic institutions if necessary in order to bring about the required cleansing.[33] However, the compassion and mercy of Yahweh comes through, the promises to the patriarchs are remembered. The remnant is gathered together, and Israel is restored to its former glory. The nations are offered peace and are punished or blessed.

In the book of Micah ‘diametrically opposed aspects of the activity of God’ are held together in tension. Thus for example we read about how Yahweh is ‘majestic in wrath and astonishing in compassion’ and how he threatens the nations and offers them peace.[34] We learn that ‘destruction and restoration are works of Yahweh’.[35]

Wolff begins his section on the ‘Message of Micah’ by saying that the message of Micah can be stated as:

Yahweh is bringing inexorable doom on Samaria, Jerusalem and the cities of Judah. The guilt for this rests with the authorities and the leading citizens, such as judges, prophets and priests.[36]

This statement is true, but it is not the whole story of the book of Micah as it does not mention the future restoration at all. Wolff, like others, would suggest that generally only material in chapters 1-3 can be attributed to Micah of Moresheth.[37] Mason, for example, believes that much of the book of Micah was written long after Micah of Moresheth had died, after the exile.[38] This means that the editors of the book ‘re-read’ it and added in substantial passages. Mason explains that these editors took the sayings of Micah and put them together in an exilic framework, thereby making them freshly relevant to the situation of the exiles in Babylon.[39]

In the early part of Micah we have the Assyrians described as destroying a list of towns in Judah, but stopping at the gates of Jerusalem (1.9) and yet later we read of the total destruction of Jerusalem (3.12) and the reaction to it (7.1f) which we know did not happen in Micah’s time. This speaks to the nature of prophesy and its relation to ‘forth-telling’ or seeing the future. Generally, the impression can be given that seeing is minimised within the outlook of the commentators. Thus, rather than think that Micah was both seeing the Assyrian invasion and much later Babylonian exile, it is suggested that there are later editors adding in whole sections to Micah’ original text to fit the new situations. Undoubtedly there are editors, scribes and redactors behind the text but it would seem that they have been given a lot of leeway. The debate about just how much Micah himself wrote continues.

Recently this amount of material in Micah that can be attributed directly to the 8th century BCE has come into question again. For example 5.13 describes how Yahweh will remove the sacred pillars or asherim. The mention of these objects was always taken as being suggestive of a post exilic authorship since ‘no Israelite would have offended by…asherim, in pre-Deuteronomistic times.’[40] Jeppesen describes recent archaeological evidence which shows that ‘Asherah’ played a role in the Jewish religious practices of the 8th century BCE. These inscriptions suggest that 5.13 ‘explicitly criticizes an observance’ which was occurring at the time of Micah himself [41]thus placing 5.13 back into the time of Micah. Jeppesen also reviews a number of works that even assert the authenticity of practically the entire text as we have it.[42] Thus, the position of authorship, and so purpose is in flux and Jeppesen concludes that the ‘evolution of the Hebrew text…will never be unravelled.’[43]

 

Conclusion

Micah from Moresheth was appalled at the state of leadership within Israel and the injustice that this lead to for the middle and lower echelons of Jewish society. As a tribal elder he was well aware of the hardship that was occurring as a result. His message to the leaders is firstly one of doom – a judgement is coming as a result of your lack of care with your covenantal responsibility. Interestingly the disaster, at least as far as Jerusalem is concerned, seems to have been averted for a time.

The book ebbs and flows between oracles of disaster and restoration, laments, liturgy, legal dramas and so forth. The sovereignty of God is emphasised, and even the Assyrian and Babylonian horrors are seen as a manifestation of it. To counter this there are long sections about the future glories of the restored Zion under Yahweh and his coming Messiah, and his rule over the nations. Central to the theme is the oracle concerning the placation of God and the response that what is required is a holy lifestyle rather than offerings and sacrifices. The book ends with a worshipful liturgy which includes the name of Micah ‘Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage.’ (18)  All that has occurred in the book is linked to God’s promises to the forefathers, and thus the book of Micah expresses continuity with the larger story of Israel.

 

 

Bibliography

Andersen, Francis I; Freedman, David Noel. Micah. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Baker, David W; Alexander, T. Desmond; Waltke, Bruce;. Obadiah, Jonah and Micah. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Edited by D J Wiseman. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Jeppesen, Knud. “Micah V 13 in the Light of a Recent Archaeological Discovery.” Vetus Testamentum XXXIV, no. 4(1984): 462-466.

Jeppesen, Knud. “New Aspects of Micah Research.” JSOT 8(1978): 3-32.

Laetsch, Theo. The Minor Prophets. Saint Louis: Concordia, 1956.

Limburg, James. Interpretation. A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Hosea – Micah. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988.

Mason, R. Micah, Nahum, Obadiah. Edited by R.N Whybray. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991.

Mays, James L. Micah Old Testament Library. Chatham: W & J Mackay Limited, 1976.

Wolff, Hans Walter. Micah. A Commentary. Translated by Gary Stansell. Augsburg Fortress, 1990.

Wright, Christopher J H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Nottingham: IVP, 2004.

 


[1] R Mason, Micah, Nahum, Obadiah (ed. R.N Whybray; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 18.

[2] Mason, Micah, Nahum, Obadiah, 18.

[3] James L Mays, Micah Old Testament Library (Chatham: W & J Mackay Limited, 1976), 1.

[4] Mason, Micah, Nahum, Obadiah, 23.

[5] Theo Laetsch, The Minor Prophets (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1956), 245.

[6] Baker, David W; Alexander, T. Desmond; Waltke, Bruce;, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 137.

[7] Baker, Alexander and Waltke,  Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 137.

[8] Hans Walter Wolff, Micah. A Commentary (Augsburg Fortress, 1990), 6.

[9] Mason, Micah, Nahum, Obadiah, 16.

[10] James Limburg, Interpretation. A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Hosea – Micah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 159.

[11] Mays, Micah, 4.

[12] Mays, Micah, 4.

[13] Andersen, Francis I; Freedman, David Noel, Micah. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 190.

[14] Christopher J H Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Nottingham: IVP, 2004), 95.

[15] Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 98.

[16] Mays, Micah, 5.

[17] Andersen and Freedman, Micah, 9.

[18] Andersen and Freedman, Micah, 9.

[19] Mays, Micah, 5.

[20] Mays, Micah, 7.

[21] Andersen and Freedman, Micah,12.

[22] Mays, Micah, 8.

[23] Mays, Micah, 7.

[24] Mays, Micah, 9.

[25] Limburg, Hosea – Micah, 161.

[26] Andersen and Freedman, Micah, 532f.

[27] L Mays, Micah, 9.

[28] Mays, Micah, 11.

[29] Andersen and Freedman, Micah, 13.

[30] Andersen and Freedman, Micah, 14.

[31] Mason, Micah, Nahum, Obadiah, 24.

[32] Mason, Micah, Nahum, Obadiah,25.

[33] Mason, Micah, Nahum, Obadiah, 25.

[34] Mays, Micah, 1.

[35] Knud Jeppesen, “New Aspects of Micah Research,” JSOT 8 (1978), 8.

[36] Wolff, Micah, 14.

[37] Jeppesen, “New Aspects of Micah Research,” 4.

[38] Mason, Micah, Nahum, Obadiah, 43.

[39] Mays, Micah, 44.

[40] Knud Jeppesen, “Micah V 13 in the Light of a Recent Archaeological Discovery,” Vetus Testamentum XXXIV (1984), 463.

[41] Jeppesen, “Micah V 13 in the Light of a Recent Archaeological Discovery,” 463.

[42] Jeppesen, “New Aspects of Micah Research,” 13.

[43] Jeppesen, “New Aspects of Micah Research,” 14.

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