Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
January 30, 2011
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading,
but there is available a
The Book of Micah
This text is one of the most well known passages in the prophets. Unlike some of the other prophetic passages that have layers of Christian interpretation surrounding them that often tend to obscure the meaning of the text itself, this reading has been more or less consistently interpreted since the early history of the church. That does not release us from the responsibility of dealing carefully with the text to avoid reading extraneous ideas back into it that are not there, such as an anti-liturgical or anti-sacramental stance. And it does not mean that the message can be easily abstracted from its context into either Christian doctrine or application without first hearing the text against the historical background of eighth-century Israel facing the immanent crisis of Assyrian invasion. But it does suggest that the passage fits into a much broader theological framework of the Old Testament than simply the word of a prophet to eighth century Judah concerning military threat.
As is usually the case, we should keep in mind from the beginning of our study of this text that there is a difference between a prophet and a prophetic book. That is, the book of Micah is not the same thing as the person Micah. Micah was no doubt a prophet of God in eighth century Israel. Yet, the book of Micah reflects the ongoing tradition of Micah within the community, as they reflected upon and digested Micah's words in light of changing history, and then reapplied that message in new ways within the community in later times. This dynamic can be seen graphically in one passage in Micah (4:1-3) that is almost exactly duplicated in Isaiah (2:2-4). Since Isaiah of Jerusalem and Micah were contemporaries and shared many of the same perspectives, we simply do not know the origin of these verses, whether Isaiah or Micah. While we might want to know, it was simply not an issue in ancient Israel, because it was the word from and about God that was being preserved, not just the writings of individual people. This means that the best avenue for interpretation is not from the perspective of the man Micah but from the book of Micah (most of the references to Micah in the interpretation will refer to the book).
Acknowledging this dynamic will also help us avoid becoming stuck on the issues raised about the origin, collection, and editing of the book of Micah (for a survey of this process in relation to the book of Isaiah, see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah). There are various suggestions about which material in the book is from Micah and which is from a later editor. Some suggest that little of the book is from the prophet, while others defend that it must be all Micah's to carry his name. While those debates are important in some contexts, for our purposes in dealing with this passage for proclamation, it is sufficient to know that there are various opinions, and then move on to asking about the meaning of this text within the canonical book as we have it. We may never know the origins and process of compilation of the book. But we can hear its message about God, because that message is not finally dependent on those factors.
It is very likely that the present form of the book of Micah dates to the post-exilic period. Yet, the immediate historical setting of the book is during the ministry of Micah of Moresheth, a younger contemporary of Isaiah active in Judah around 722-701BC (see Prophets Date Chart; for the historical background of this era, see Old Testament History, especially on the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah). That context is important for Micah, not because the message of the book depends on the historical details, but because the crises of history were the arena that precipitated searching and penetrating examination of who Israel was as people of God that forms the heart of the book. As the Assyrians threatened the very survival of the Southern Kingdom, the questions were more than idle speculation. They took on an urgency in light of the prophetic preaching that drove to the very core of Israel's existence. What exactly did it mean to be God's people in history? What kind of God did they serve and what exactly did God expect of his people? And, of course, in the background were always the questions of whether they would survive as a nation, and what they should become if they did.
Micah was certainly not the only prophet to struggle with those questions. Both Amos and Hosea had tackled the same questions in the Northern Kingdom. Their answer had been that the Northern Kingdom would not survive, even as they emphasized different aspects of relationship with God. By the time Micah began his ministry, Isaiah of Jerusalem had already been addressing the same questions for 20 years. The Northern Kingdom had already been destroyed, or would be in a matter of months. And as both prophets looked at the Southern Kingdom of Judah, they saw much the same conditions as had existed in the Northern Kingdom. Judah's future was not certain. But both Isaiah and Micah consistently proclaimed that a change, a return to faithfulness to God, was essential if the Southern Kingdom was to have any future.
The book of Micah falls into three sections (chs. 1-3, 4-5, 6-7). As noted, these may represent different traditions and may come from different time periods, but there is little sound evidence beyond assumptions and speculation by which to sort out these layers of tradition. The first section opens with the example of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom as a warning to Judah of the peril of continuing to ignore living faithfully is response to God while still claiming to be God's people (1:2-9). Micah then addresses the evidences among the people of their lack of faithfulness: a lack of sense of social justice (2:1-5), a complacency that prevents them from hearing God's message (2:6-13), and irresponsible leaders (3:1-8). The climax of this section is the prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem as a consequence (3:9-12).
The second section turns to the future restoration of the people after the coming destruction (4:1-5:1), including the expectation of a new Davidic king who will replace the flawed rulers of the present (5:2-9) and bring an era of peace and security (5:7-15). The third section of the book, some of which dates to the exilic period, circles back over the themes of the first two sections, denouncing the people for theirs sins and failures (6:6:1-7:6), promising a restoration in the future in the form of a prayer (7:11-20), linked by a confession of sin from the people (7:8-10).
Given this flow within the book, the third section functions as a reflective theological summary of the previous material. In fact, some have suggested that Micah encapsulates the preaching of previous prophets, using the major themes of God's judgement on injustice from Amos (3:2, 5:24), love and devotion from God and due God from Hosea (6:6), and the need for faith in God and faithfulness to him from Isaiah (Isa 7:9, 30:9, 15). Our reading, as the introduction to that third section, not only presents the theological theme of Micah, but concisely summarizes in a few verses much of eighth century prophetic preaching.
This reading is a complete literary unit that divides into two basic parts. The first part (vv. 1-5) is God's confrontation of the people with their failures, and the second part (vv. 6-8) is a dialogical response to God's accusations.
The first verses are in the metaphor of a trial in which God brings a lawsuit against his people and calls witnesses to hear the evidence. Since this same metaphor occurs in other prophet books (e.g., Amos 3:1-8, Hos 4:1-5, Isa 3:13, Jer 2:9, 12:1, etc.) some scholars have suggested that this is a particular literary form drawn from the culture of the day. It is often called a covenant lawsuit or a prophetic rib (pronounced reev, the Hebrew word translated controversy or contention, v. 6b). However, we should not recast this passage into strictly legal thinking.
The idea of covenant has sometimes been interpreted in terms of a legal treaty, which can lead us to conceptualize the whole relationship of God with Israel as a legal transaction governed by forensic concepts of violation of law and punishment. That reflects far more the legal thinking prevalent in the Roman Empire of the early church than it does the background of these metaphors in the Old Testament. While the literary form of a covenant likely had its origins in the culture of the ancient world, a covenant defined relationships in terms of mutual responsibilities rather than in strictly legal proscriptions. The covenant formula often used in the Old Testament, "I will be your God and you shall be my people" (e.g., Jer 7:23; cf. Exod 6:7) reflects much more a relationship than it does legal requirements.
In that light, the lawsuit language here is likewise metaphorical to highlight the failure of the people and the consequences they face because of that failure. The perspective that underlies much of the Old Testament is that disrupted relationships create consequences that work out in the lives of the people involved (e.g., Genesis 3:14-19 where the curses serve to highlight the disruptions and its consequences). Micah is convinced that disruption of relationship with God would have devastating consequences in the lives of the people of Israel and the nation. In this sense, the lawsuit metaphor is a way to focus attention on the actions of the people that have violated that relationship.
What the people have done to precipitate this lawsuit is not directly mentioned here. There are certainly some generalizations in the verses that follow, mainly attitudes that might lie behind certain actions. But no specific actions are listed. However, the earlier chapters of the book have dealt very specifically with the sins of the people. Beginning in chapter 2, the accusations against the people have revolved around injustice perpetrated against the poor and powerless (2:1-3, 8-9, 3:9-11, cf. 6:10-12), a complacency that pretends nothing is wrong (2:6-7, 11), and abuse of power by both political and religious leaders (3:1-3, 5; cf. 7:2-6). For Micah, these are fundamental violations of the people's relationship with God, so serious, in fact, that the consequences would destroy the nation (3:12).
The witnesses called in this case are the hills and mountains and the "enduring foundations of the earth" (vv. 1-2). By referring to the highest and the lowest, the intent is to include all of creation, as in other metaphors where naming two extremes is a poetic way to name the whole (e.g., "from Dan to Beersheba" as a way to refer to the entire land). This is a matter that God is bringing into the open before the whole of his created order so that Israel would answer for her actions.
Rather than presenting evidence, a list of crimes committed or acts of disobedience, the case opens with rhetorical questions (v. 3). While one would expect the question "what have you done?" to be directed at the one standing trial, here the question is directed back at God. The implication is that Israel is acting in a way that reveals an attitude of weariness with God, which in turn implies some cause that prompted such an attitude. Malachi would use the same technique of a dialog, casting into statements from the people the meaning of their actions (Mal 1:13). The question to the people is direct. Is there anything that God had done that would justify what their present actions are saying about him? What had God done, or failed to do, that would lead them to become weary of serving him?
The response is not a direct answer to the questions but a brief recounting of Israel's history (vv. 4-5). This is more significant than simply a listing of the good things that they have experienced from God. It is a deeply theological response that appeals to the most basic understanding of the people's relationship with God. The grounding of all Old Testament theology is in the twin anchors of the exodus and Sinai. The exodus event not only defined God in immediate historical terms as the deliverer God who heard the cries of oppressed slaves, it also fundamentally defined God as a God of grace. God's self-revelation at the exodus was as a God who enters human history and acts in gracious ways for those who have no power to act for themselves, and who acts on no other basis than his choice to do so for the sake of the people. That became the foundational understanding of God, expressed in the covenantal formula about God that arose out of the exodus, "I will be your God."
Yet, exodus did not stand alone in Israel's history. Simply mentioning the deliverance from Egypt also evoked the memory of Sinai and the giving of the torah, the "instruction" for how to live as God's people (e.g., Deut 6:21-24, 24:22, Jud 6:8-10, Jer 34:13). Israel understood that the experience of God's grace in the exodus called for a response to that grace, a response of worship and faithfulness to the God who had revealed himself to them and delivered them. The torah was the means by which the people were to live out that faithful response in daily living. Theologically, they understood that God's grace calls for a response. The exodus as God's self-revelation defined him as a God of grace, "I will be your God." The experience at Sinai and the torah defined the people in terms of what it meat to have experienced that God. So the rest of the covenant formula, "You shall be my people," became the definition of them as his people.
Against that background, the recounting of God's actions in Israel's history in bringing them out of Egypt and into the land in the "saving acts of God" (v. 5b) serves two purposes here. First, it clearly answers the rhetorical questions with a resounding negative. Had God done anything to cause their behavior? On the contrary, what he had done was brought them out of Egyptian slavery. The incongruity of that as a cause for their attitude of ingratitude is painfully obvious. He had acted in no other way than being their God. And yet they found God wearisome.
Second, the historical recounting of the exodus serves to anticipate the issue of faithful response that is linked to the issue of grace. At this point in the reading we do not yet know whether this will conclude in judgment for failing that response (for example, Amos 3:1-2), or in a call to renew a proper response (for example, Hos 14:1 ff). If this is a purely legal matter, then there should follow a pronouncement of judgment. But if this is a matter of disrupted relationship, then there would follow a call to faithful response (cf. Isa 1:16-17). It will be significant for the message and theology of Micah to note which direction this reading takes.
The second part of this reading opens with the prophet putting into the mouth of the people their anticipated response. On one level, it is a very logical response. If God is upset with how they are living as his people, then a natural question might be, "Then what does he want?" Yet the prophet quickly turns that kind of thinking into heavy sarcasm as a way to highlight their lack of perception.
The prophet casts the response of the people into a widely accepted means of approaching deity in ancient cultures, that of offering sacrifices. The impact of verse six is almost, "With what else should we come before God except with whole burnt offerings?" It is easy here to inject later Christian misunderstandings of the Old Testament Mosaic laws and respond right along with the people. Have they not faithfully offered the sacrifices just as the law required? Was that not how "BC" people maintained relationship with God and achieved forgiveness of sins, by offering sacrifices? Yet with such perspectives we have misunderstood the God of the Old Testament as badly as the people in Micah's time did.
It was a syncretistic adaptation to the magical practices of the surrounding nations that assumed in sacrifices and offerings God could be satisfied and sins forgiven. That was never the purpose of sacrifice in the Old Testament understanding of God, and especially in the Prophets (see Old Testament Sacrifice: Magic or Sacrament?). Sacrifice was not the magical appeasement of the gods. And by themselves they did not achieve reconciliation with God (note Psa. 51:15-17). Sacrifice was rather the celebration of God's grace, a sacramental act of response whereby the worshipper acknowledged his relationship with God and took to himself the responsibilities of acting faithfully as part of his people.
At times, the Mosaic law codes and later priestly legislation elevated the importance of the sacrificial rituals and sometimes created the false impression that they were primary. Yet it is clear throughout the Old Testament that such a view was a perversion of worship of God. In many places in the Old Testament there remained a clear understanding of the symbolic and sacramental nature of the sacrifices (cf. Isa. 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-25; Micah 6:6-8; Ps. 40:6-8). Jeremiah even went so far as to say that God had never required the sacrifices from Israel (Jer 7:22). Israel could never substitute sacrifices, or any other aspect of religious observance for faithful response to God lived out in a holiness of life that reflected far more essential devotion to God and basic responsibilities to others. Jeremiah would later take this same idea and speak of cleanness of heart, a metaphor for purity of intent and motive in serving God (Jer 4:1-4, 14, 24:7, 31:33).
Yet, it is this perverted popular perception of the role of sacrifice that Micah sees in the people's actions. They have confused the forms of worship with faithfulness to God. And yet we should not focus on this one dimension as if it were the only problem. That would lead us to hear in this passage a tirade against formality of worship and rejection of liturgy. That is not at all what this passage is about. The issue is much deeper than forms of worship. The issue at stake here is nothing less than the identity of these people as God's people, and what that entails in the reality of daily living.
The prophet places the question on the lips of the people: "With what shall I come before the Lord?" While they answer in one direction and reveal their misguided understanding of relationship with God, that question is still the heart of the matter! What does God require of his people? What exactly is it that God wants from us? The prophet knew that how that question is answered, and more importantly how it is lived, would reveal an understanding of God and commitment to him more than anything that could be said in creeds and doctrine and laws.
To illustrate their misunderstanding, the prophet moved into absurd sarcasm. The logic is simple. If sacrifices were good and made one righteous, then surely more would be better. If God is somehow displeased with the normal sacrifices, then perhaps an increase in the volume and quality of the sacrifices would do the trick! So from verse six where the burnt offering was a normal part of temple sacrifices, the prophet begins to expand what it might take to please God. If one ram were good but not quite sufficient, then surely a thousand rams would be better! If an offering of oil would normally mark righteousness, then 10,000 rivers of oil would certainly make one holy!
The final suggestion continues the progression from thousands of rams to a firstborn child. If the rams could buy relationship with God, how much more should offering the most precious thing one possessed gain favor with God. Yet this could not help but be understood as an absurdity even among apathetic Israelites. Child sacrifice was a common practice among their Canaanite neighbors, but had been rejected by the Israelites very early in their history as being incompatible with the nature of this God whom they had learned was concerned about the powerless and helpless.
As the Israelites entered the land and settled among the Canaanites, they adopted many of their ways, including the offering of the firstborn of animals and the first fruits of the ground as an offering of thanksgiving (although transformed into the worship of Yahweh). Because the Israelites had encountered God in their experience of exodus and Sinai, they made provisions for the substitution of another sacrifice to redeem the firstborn child (Exod 34:19-20; cf. Num 8:17-18).
Yet, Micah has reached the logical conclusion based on their attitudes and actions that such a sacrifice of human life must be acceptable to God. If sacrifices were the means to relationship with God, if what God really requires of his people is proper observance of the rituals, then the most valuable sacrifice should ensure the best relationship with God! If the people of God were to be defined by what religious mechanisms they used to appease God, then it would make sense to define themselves in terms of the ultimate sacrifice.
Micah's hearers would have immediately recognized that this could not be what God wanted from them. The answer to the question that opened this section is a resounding "Not sacrifices!" In the logic of this unit, this time working backwards, if God is not pleased with the offering of the firstborn child (v. 7), then neither is he pleased with the whole burnt offering (v. 6). This leads to the renewed question, this time with more urgency. If what they have been doing is not the proper way to respond to God, then what is? If God does not want the sacrifices, if that is not the means to please God, then does God want? What is that God requires of humanity?
This leads to the summary of Micah's entire message (v. 8). In fact, this single verse could be the summary of the preaching of all the eighth and seventh century prophets. Micah addresses the answer in a second person form to adam, the generic Hebrew term for humanity. While it is addressed specifically to Israel personified in "man," the implication is that this is God's requirement for all of humanity.
What God requires is equated here to what is "good" (Heb: tob). As in the creation narratives in Genesis 1, this term means "appropriate for a purpose." This removes the "requirements" of God from a strictly legal dimension, and places them in the framework of relationship with God and others. The threefold injunction that follows fleshes out those relational requirements in broad terms rather than the specific enumeration of laws to be obeyed or practices to be observed. Much like Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount moving obedience to God from external laws to an internal matter of motives and intentions (Matt 5-6), Micah here defines God's requirements in terms of general principles rather than specific actions. While some might want to argue that this lessens the requirements, in actual practice it only increases the responsibility.
To do or practice justice (Heb: mishpat) moves far beyond the requirements of law. While in our modern thinking "justice" is largely a legal term (and so the Hebrew word is sometimes translated judgement), in the thought of the Old Testament justice involved the basic needs, requirements, or even rights of people living together in community. Justice, then, is decidedly social in nature (see Social Ethics in the Prophets).
The practice of justice, either by God or the people, would be to rectify the inequities of a society that allowed some people to be oppressed to the point where they were deprived of the basic needs, requirements, and rights that would allow them to function as part of the community. It is this perspective that lies at the heart of the exodus, and defines the nature of God as a God of justice (cf. Psa 10:17-18).
Doing justice would involve both sensitivity to one's own actions that might produce injustice (Mic 2:1-2), but would also compel one who would do justice to address the causes of injustice or conditions that fostered it (2:6, 3:5, 9). This is no less than a commitment to the poor, oppressed, and powerless in a society, people who have no voice of their own by which to redress the injustices that marginalize them as human beings. And, as is so often evident in Scripture as well as human experience, such a practice of justice most often brings one into conflict with oppressors who are perpetrating the injustice, and that makes doing justice an act of courage as well as an act of devotion to God.
To love mercy or kindness in the second requirement Micah gives. This is the Hebrew term hesed (or chesed, pronounced with a hard ch as in chord) which has a depth of meaning hard to capture in English translation. Covenant faithfulness, compassion, loyal love, loving devotion, and steadfast love are all attempts to translate this term. It is often used to describe God's faithful actions throughout history on behalf of his people, especially in historical action such as those in the exodus that could be expressed in covenantal metaphors (e.g., Exod 15:13). But the term can also be used of people, often in the same covenantal contexts in which the people were expected to respond to God with a steadfast loyalty and love that reflected the compassion and grace that God had demonstrated to them.
Hesed, then, is a relationship term. It is not a warm-fuzzy-feeling kind of love, but is a commitment and steadfast dependability that arises from mutual relationship. To love hesed was to be committed not only to God who had himself demonstrated his own hesed to the people. It was also to live in community in such a way that hesed marked life together as God's people. To love hesed was to be committed to a quality of life that was governed by the principles of mutual respect, helpfulness, and loving concern.
"Walking a path" is a common biblical metaphor for living a certain kind of lifestyle (for example, Isa 42:24, Psa 119:1, Eph 5:2, Phil 1:27). All through the Old Testament, the people are called to walk in the path of torah (for example, 2 K 10:31, Jer 32:21-23, 44:23, Neh 10:29, etc.). Again, it is easy for us in the modern Christian world to assume this is a regime of legal obedience. But understanding that torah is not a set of legal requirements but instructions for how to live life under God allows this to be much more dynamic than obeying laws (see Torah as Holiness: Old Testament "Law" as Response to Divine Grace).
Walking humbly with God is a call to do more than to come to God with offerings thinking to buy his favor, but to spend the time walking, living life, with God in ways that would work out in every aspect of life. It implies a sensitivity to the things of God, a concern, to use a familiar expression, to allow our heart to be broken by the things that break the heart of God. It is a deep desire to see the world through the eyes of God, to act in the world as God would act.
When this final requirement is placed alongside the first two, walking with God becomes synonymous with having a heart for justice and compassion. In this sequence, walking with God is actually the overarching category for doing justice and loving hesed. They cannot be separated, for walking humbly with God, living all of life under God and in relationship to him, will result in both.
It will be very tempting to reduce this text to little more than an apology for a certain type of worship or ammunition for shooting holes in other styles of worship. Or it will be easy to allow the message of Micah to degenerate into superficial moralizing about the need for social justice, too often translated into the most recent popular cause of a particular political establishment. Yet, popular social justice issues are too often their own form of social injustice as they elevate certain "causes" at the expense of other more important and deserving issues that need more immediate attention. Too often they are promoted by the very powers that oppress. In any case, these all miss the point of this text. Empty worship is an important part of this text, but it is not the real issue. And social militancy for its own sake apart from a thorough grounding in the justice, grace, and revelation of God is little more than 10,000 rivers of oil.
The real issue here is idolatrous worship and idolatrous religion in which the people have replaced worship of God in the living of life with lip service and external form. In a subtle but very real sense, by adopting this attitude the people have slipped away from the worship of God while they are supposedly worshipping. In the very process of offering the sacrifices, they have substituted the process itself for God, and have begun worshipping something other than God.
As Amos and Isaiah have already said, and Jeremiah will say again later, it is only the height of human self-interest that can allow people to disconnect their daily lives from the worship of God. To operate out of self-interest in all aspects of life, even to oppressing and cheating the weakest and most helpless members of society is bad enough. But then to think that killing a ram or bringing an offering of grain or oil automatically balances the scales of justice is the height of arrogant sinful pride. It is like, to use Isaiah's metaphor, coming before God and lifting up hands to pray while they are dripping with the blood of the victims of injustice (Isa 1:15). In our context, Sunday religion is not worth much if it doesn't make a difference in how we treat people on Monday! And coming to church on Sunday has little meaning if the principles of justice and mercy were not lived in the workplace on Friday.
The main thrust of this passage is a call to examine what lies behind the offerings, what lies behind the fašade of religion with which we so often like to wrap ourselves. While the language is not used here, this passage is a passage of the heart. It is about the intentions that lie behind our actions, the stark reality of who we are when all the fašade is stripped away, when all the pretentious of mechanical and yet idolatrous religion stands in court before God. It is about what God really wants from us when we come before him. As one writer said, "it is not so much what is in our hands as what is in our hearts that finds expression in our conduct that is important." (Smith, Micah-Malachi, Word, p. 51).
The Preaching Paths here could lead very effectively to an examination on all levels both personally and corporately of what really drives our service to God. It can be a call to examine not only our forms of worship, but our hearts to see if we have slipped into pious idolatry. This passage clearly declares that true religion, true worship, is not expressed in the external trappings no matter how elaborate or much. True devotion to God is expressed in a life defined by moral and ethical behavior that grows out of a love for God and in response to his grace. And that moral and ethical action will take shape in actions for the weak, powerless, and oppressed, the broken and hurting of the world who have no future and can offer no reward. Such a call fits closely with a similar call from Jesus, as he defined the criteria for entering the presence of God (Matt 25:31-46). Even in this Gospel, where we often derive the mandate for preaching as the primary mission of the church (28:19-20), the emphasis falls heavily on meeting the needs of a hurting world in physical acts of justice and mercy.
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