Year A: Epiphany 4
January 30, 2011
Micah was one of four great Hebrew prophets who lived and worked during the eighth century BCE (the others being Amos, Hosea and Isaiah). Micah 1:1 locates the prophet’s activity during the reigns of three kings of Judah (Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah) which would place him somewhere between 737 and 686 BCE. Great change and challenge are associated with this period. Early in the period the Assyrian Empire rose to new strength and conquered or threatened the smaller states in the ancient Near East, especially those rich in resources near the Great Sea (or the Mediterranean Sea as we now know it). During Ahaz’s reign the Assyrians conquered the Arameans and the kingdom of Israel and made Judah a vassal state. Later in the period, during the reign of Hezekiah, Judah was attacked by the Assyrians and Jerusalem besieged. For some reason not even clear in the Bible (2 Kings 18-19 and parallels) the Assyrian army retreated and left the small kingdom in peace. Thus Micah would have seen both external threat to his people and a period of independence and prosperity.
Micah came from the small town of Moresheth, which in those days was on the border between Judah and Philistia. For that reason he was well aware of the territorial ambitions of kings to the west and south of Judah, as well as of the Assyrians to the north east. Any attack on Jerusalem by forces from any of these areas would be known in the vicinity of Moresheth. No doubt, Micah was well acquainted with the effects of conflict on the poor people of the region, and his well-founded fear of invasion and acquaintance with its effects, appears throughout his writings. As his underlying theme, Micah brings together the two subjects of subjection and devastation by foreign forces and Judah’s religious practice.
Most of Micah’s prophecies appear to have been delivered in Jerusalem, where he castigated the Judean leadership about the exploitation of the people by unscrupulous traders. Micah’s own background as a trader or artisan appears in his focus on unfair trading in the city market place (6:9-12). The religious leadership are left in no doubt that God is not impressed by correct and ostentatious ritual when accompanied by injustice and abuse in other areas of life. For Micah, the exercise of justice in people’s lives, especially those in powerful positions, is an essential ingredient when it comes to seeking favour with God. The leadership of Judah had been corrupt according to both Isaiah and Micah. In the view of these prophets that made this small state susceptible to being overrun by foreign powers. It was seen as part of God’s judgment on them. Judah at the time was sandwiched between the ambitious kings of Assyria and Egypt, and no doubt the prophet knew that Judah was in danger of complete annihilation. That had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel not long before (722BCE). It seems that Micah was successful in his prophetic work. The Book of Jeremiah records the interesting fact that it was Micah who influenced for the good one of the most morally upright kings of Judah, Hezekiah (Jer 26:17-19).
Like most prophets, Micah was a poet, and some of his words are among the most well-known and well-loved sayings cited by supporters of social justice in the modern era. There is some doubt that chapters 4 and 5 were actually written by Micah, but no such doubt surrounds the authorship of chapter 6. It is addressed not just to Judah, but to the whole people of Israel. The scene is a courtroom, as indicated by the language, and the people of Israel are on trial. God brings a charge against them. The people must testify before the whole earth, and even the mountains will witness to their pleading. It was not uncommon to find aspects of nature called to witness treaties or covenants in the ancient Near East. Here they are witnesses to proceedings when it is alleged that a covenant has been broken. First, God asks Israel to give reasons why they have fallen away from the true faith (vv. 1-2). Without waiting for an answer, God sets out the things he has done for them, from the time of rescue from Egypt, and their leadership under God’s servant Moses, until they arrive in the promised land at Gilgal (vv. 3-5). While the setting is a court scene where one might expect a level of hostility from the one who brings a charge, here there is a note of distress in God’s speech. Twice God begins ‘O my people’ (vv. 3, 5) combining a covenant term ‘my people’ with a touch of lament.
In response, vv. 6-7 contain five questions. It is not easy to tell who is speaking here. The questions with their third person references to God and the Lord imply that the speaker is a worshipper of God, possibly one of the people accused in the preceding verses. Maybe the prophet is quoting one of them at this stage as they contemplate what offerings they might make to God. Alternatively, the prophet or God, mocks the people uttering these words as a way of implying a level of self-importance on the worshipper’s part. The questions need not be taken as a genuine query set forth by a worshipper seeking direction, but they could be the musings of someone whose wealth and position give them a choice of pious activity.
The questions set the scene for the prophet’s response in v. 8. These well known verses sound a call to a standard of religious practice where corruption and exploitation have no part. It might sound at first reading that the prophet is totally rejecting the possibility of sacrifice to God. However, that need not be the case. Other passages in scripture also contain words that appear to be anti-sacrificial, or which seem to promote ‘ethics’ over sacrificial practice (see e.g. Amos 5:21-23; Ps 51:16-17 etc.). But it would be extremely difficult in ancient Israel to imagine worship, even when associated with moral or ethical behaviour, being entirely divorced from sacrifice. The temple with its structures and ritual were too much part of the people’s perception of God’s presence and communication with God. There were undoubtedly those who held a shallow interpretation of Israel’s faith in which literal adherence to the system of animal and other sacrifices was seen as sufficient. The question ‘Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?’ (v. 7a) could also indicate that sacrifice was seen as an avenue for the display of wealth. There were others, however, for whom adherence to the sacrificial system reflected a deep level of trust and was extremely important. In either case, matters of social concern seem not to have been associated with worship. The questions in vv. 6-7 could then have been meant to cover both those who asked such questions as a means of personal promotion and empty ritual as well as those who asked them because the matter of sacrifice was such a grave one.
In either case, the prophet contrasted sharply such attitudes to sacrifice with matters of justice and righteousness. All of the questions directed to God about sacrifice are swept away in a resounding ‘no!’. In v. 8 the people are reminded that God has already told them what is good. The summary the prophet gives has become one of the most momentous and far-reaching statements about religious practice in the whole of scripture. While it might sound as though the sacrificial system is swept away with one brush of the holy arm, the verse rather places the sacrificial system in the context of a whole life. What God requires is a sacrifice of the heart and spirit which was to be expressed both in social dimensions through justice and in a more faithful and humble sense of self in the presence of God. The Hebrew word translated ‘kindness’ in English Bibles means more truly ‘loyalty’, both in terms of faith toward God and in action issuing from such faith. Instead of the competitive, arrogant spirit which led to bigger and more extravagant sacrifices and corrupt dealings with others, there could be a new start. The old pride in religious correctness, or even the old anxiety in relation to seeking God, could be given up in favour of a new and humble (or ‘modest?’: the Hebrew word is rare) spirit. In our modern context we might also suggest that a more ‘relaxed’ walk with God is urged where trust has more fully matured and a balanced, honest and loving appreciation of human nature and life developed.
There is no mystery in the pairing of this pivotal reading from Micah with the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-12). Both say that those who are humble and merciful are closest to God. Today’s readings from the two Testaments offer a clear and resounding guide to an authentic religious expression and life.
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