Friday, October 11, 2013

We continue our comments on the Prophets and the Prophetic Literature of the 8th century BCE …

Micah is the last of the four prophets that ministered during the 8th century BCE. The biblical text tells us that he was on duty at least from ca. 740 to 687 BCE, during the kingship of three rulers: Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. [1]  Micah is contemporary with Isaiah (his time in ministry also overlaps with that of Amos and Hosea) and therefore seemed to experience the historical events of the invasion of the Northern kingdom in 721 BCE and the threat Assyria posed to Judah from 701 BCE on. Most probably he lived in the rural areas close to Lachish and Gath. This might explain why his prophetic message focuses more on denouncing how the rulers of the major cities have brought destruction and misery to the common people of the countryside (1:2-2:11; 3:1-12; 6:9-16; 7:17).  
Micah 6:8

Most scholars share the opinion that the book does not have a clear-cut structure and therefore several proposals for an outline have been suggested. I’m not going to try and look for a structure at this time, since even if we read from the beginning with the intent to illustrate the contents of the book and divide it in sections, there are many sudden shifts in focus, making the task somewhat unreliable: even the harshest judgment oracle also delivers verses of hope and vice versa. Moreover, references to the Exile (4:10) and the return from Babylon (7:12, which I always ask my students to explain in the midterm test) show very plausible signs of editorial presence. At least we can say that the book in its final form announces Jerusalem as the seat of YHWH’s world rule, after a period of threat and judgment (7:14-20).

I propose that since Micah’s prophecy has as a backdrop the rural areas of Judah, where most of the disadvantaged and neglected by society live, we find in his message a strong, real and compassionate concern for the downtrodden and therefore, the most important themes of his work would be informed by this sensitivity. Justice is a strong theme in the book, not only in the oppression of the poor but also in the corruption of the leaders: rulers, priests, prophets (3:11). Amos and Isaiah have the same concern regarding injustice, but I see that Micah goes a little bit further than they do.

Micah, as many other literary prophets, employs the indictment/lawsuit (ריב; rîb) structure and language in many of his oracles. These texts begin with a summons of some spectators (people, nations, nature elements) to court. Then YHWH or the prophet in his name testifies against his people, presenting charges worthy of judgment. It follows a report of the blessings and favors YHWH has bestowed on Israel and the ingratitude of his people by breaking the covenant with their transgressions. Then judgment is pronounced upon the guilty and usually a punishment is announced (1:5-7; 2:1-5; 3:9-12; 6:9-15).

In several instances throughout the book, the prophet announces a flagrantly unfair appropriation of land and homes. Micah considers the unjust confiscation of houses and fields as a gravest transgression of the Covenant. As an example, in 1Kgs 21 we have the account of Queen Jezebel plotting to get a hold of Nabot’s inheritance. Recalling this evil action the Micah reminds Judah’s people: “For you have kept the statutes of Omri and all the works of the house of Ahab, and you have followed their counsels”  (6:16). Micah also seems to associate Ex 20:17 and Deut 5:21 to his judgment against this kind of injustice as he uses the verb "to covet" and "inheritance" in this oracle.

This prophet abhorred the idea of the leaders’ neglect of the needy and saw as more gravely the violent abuse of the disadvantaged. Micah also denounces boldly and bitterly the immorality of those in charge, letting the people they should be taking care of fall into chaos and despair. These leaders are incapable of looking for justice, because they don’t even know what justice is. These guides, religious and political, are often accused of greed and corruption. The responsibility of ministering to the people has become instead an obsession for easy money (3:11; 7:3). If these are the ones who are supposed to set an example, what is to be expected from them and the rest of the people in matters of justice and opportunities for the disadvantaged?

The Book of Micah
Idolatry is not an uncommon theme in the PL, so Micah then is no exception. He condemns the unfit worship to Adonai as well as idolatry, and like his peer prophet Hosea, compares it to prostitution (1:6-7). Micah also equals the seriousness of idolatry with the injustice committed against the poor, declaring the same punishment (3:12). For the prophet, improper worship produces injustice against the neighbor. While he condemns such actions, he also exhorts to come back to the practice of justice and kindness in order to restore appropriate sacrifices to YHWH (6:6-8).

On the other hand, not everything is misery and doom for Micah. Throughout the whole book, there are messages of hope and restoration for Zion (4:1-3)[2] where YHWH will set his throne again. There he will forgive his people, those who remain (2:12; 5:7.8), due to his mercy, faithfulness and compassion (7:18-20), and will install a ruler from the house of David (5:2-5). This message of renewal is comprehensive. Nevertheless, whether these texts come from Micah or from later editors, these oracles of restoration present a powerful sense of hope in Israel who will restore her faith in God.

"But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah..." Mic 5:2-5
It is impressive how Micah’s powerful words remained in the conscience of other biblical writers. For example Jer 26:18 makes a reference to the prophet and quotes Mic 3:12 in Jeremiah’s defense against his accusers.  In the NT, the Gospel of Matthew uses the famous reference of Mic 5:2 which he applied to Jesus as the future and eternal ruler of Israel from the Davidic dynasty. Also the woman in labor of 5:3 is seen as a figure of Mary in the Christian tradition, which acknowledges the faithfulness and efficacy of God’s words and the continuity of his saving work.

The “country prophet” compiles very well several important themes of the PL. For him, the Lord is more concerned about justice to others especially to those in need, in the faithfulness to the covenant and in the sincerity in worship rather than ritualistic adoration. The justice that leads to righteousness will be the sign of a society that lives in humility and faithfulness (hesed) to God and to one another and therefore will prepare them to receive the ruler of eternal reign.

Juan Miguel Betancourt
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[1] A century before Micah started his ministry there was another prophet with the same name who served in the Northern Kingdom, during the time of king Ahaz of Israel (ca. 874-853 BCE; 1Kgs 2:8-28; 2 Chron 18:3-27).

[2] This part of the poem is very similar to Isa 2:2-4.

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