Micah: Judgement against an unrighteous nation

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The role of a prophet

A prophet is one who declares the words of the Lord to others "But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his son." (Mic 3:8). God spoke in various ways, with Moses he spoke face to face, (Ex 33:11) "The Lord would speak with Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.."; to others it involved observation of the created order and reflecting upon these, e.g. Prov 24:32 (after observing a natural phenomenon) "I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw." To prophets the Word of the Lord comes as dreams or visions e.g. Num 12:6, (contrasting with Moses), "When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams."

In Exodus 7:1 Aaron is described as Moses' prophet (i.e. Moses' spokesman)

Prophets are usually introduced as those who "saw" or "heard" the Word of the Lord as a special revelation e.g. Isaiah 13:1 "An oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw...", Num 24:2-4 "When Balaam looked out and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the Spirit of God came upon him and he uttered this oracle: 'The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of one whose eye sees clearly, the oracle of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who falls prostrate and whose eyes are opened." They were sometimes referred to as "Seers" (Heb ro eh) because they could "see" spiritually, (1 Sam 9:9) "Formerly in Israel, if a man went to enquire of God, he would say, 'Come, let us go to the seer,' because the prophet of today used to be called a seer."

Religious worship was generally led by priests, who operated the sacrificial system and taught the law (Lev 10:11) "You must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses." Prophets provided a commentary on contemporary events, and were required to call people (including priests) back to their covenant relationship with God. The "job description" is articulated in Deut 18:18-22, in which the prophet is to be accorded the same respect as if God himself were speaking. However, "If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him." (Deut 18:22)

Prophets had varied social origins; some were shepherds (Amos), others priests (Ezekial, Samuel and Elijah) or the sons of priests (Jeremiah), Nathan was king David's prophet, Isaiah was clearly known in court circles (Is 7:3), Deborah was a judge, whilst others came from more obscure backgrounds. The Talmud suggests that Obadiah was an Edomite who converted to Judaism. Prophets were both male and female, e.g. Ex 15:20 "Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister...", Judges 4:4 "Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time..." 2 Kgs 22:14 "Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Acbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophetess Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum..." In Luke's Gospel Anna is described as a prophetess (Luke 2:36). Their scope was not just confined to Israel e.g. Isaiah has oracles for the nations (Isa chapters 13-23).

What set them apart was an inner compulsion to deliver the message that God spoke to them. Jeremiah tried to keep silent, but could not, (Jer 20:9) "But if I say, 'I will not mention him (God) or speak any more in his name.' his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot", Jonah tried to avoid the responsibility but was not allowed to, (Jonah 1:3-4) "But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord. Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up."

Prophets often worked in groups. Saul's men, who were looking for David, "saw a group of prophets prophesying, with Samuel standing there as their leader" (1 Sam 19:20), 2 Kgs 2:15 refers to "the company of the prophets from Jericho." Obadiah hid a hundred prophets from Jezebel's wrath (1 Kgs 18:2-4). Prophets could be employed by the court, "So the king of Israel brought together the prophets — about four hundred men — and asked them, 'Shall I go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?" They often used music and musical instruments to help them draw closer to God; Samuel instructs Saul "As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high places with lyres, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power, and you will prophecy with them; and you will be changed into a different person." (1 Sam 10:5-6)

Some prophets displayed ecstatic behaviour and adopted a unique appearance, or undertook extreme actions. They were sometimes labelled as mad e.g. Jer 29:26 says "you should put any madman who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons." Perhaps the most extreme example is Saul who stripped off his clothes and lay all day and night prophesying (1 Sam 19:24). In 2 Kgs 1:8 Elijah is described as "a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt round his waist." Elijah's cloak, later in the narrative, is seen as a sign of his prophetic office (2 Kgs 2:13-14). Ezekial was told to shave his head and divide his hair into three (Ezek 5:1-4), a third was burned inside the city, a third struck with the sword and a third scattered to the wind, with a few strands tucked into his garment. This was a visual sign of the judgement to come on Jerusalem, but also the prospect of a remnant as future hope. Hosea was told to marry a prostitute as a sign of Israel's infidelity to God (Hos 3:2).

Being a prophet was costly, both because they were members of the community that was affected and because of hostility from those to whom they spoke. "Because of this I will weep and wail; I will go about barefoot and naked. I will howl like a jackal and moan like an owl" (Mic 1:8). It could also be dangerous, Luke 13:34 (Jesus speaking) "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you...." c.f. Acts 7:52 (Stephen speaking) "Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?..."

Prophets could also be corrupt and false prophets represented a barrier to hearing the authentic word of God. The other Micah in the Old Testament in 1 Kgs 22:11-13 (Micaiah is a longer version of Micah) contends with false prophets who have wrongly advised the king. Jeremiah states that many of the prophets of his time were simply not authentic, (God is speaking) "I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied" (Jer 23:21) and he has a heated debate with Hananiah over the authenticity of his prophecies (Jer Chap 28), leading to Hananiah's death soon afterwards. Isaiah complained that "Priests and prophets stagger from beer and are befuddled with wine" (Isa 28:7) whilst Ezekial condemns the false prophets of his day (Ezek Chap 13) as "those who prophesy out of their own imagination." (Ezek 13:2) Nehemiah names Noadiah, a prophetess, as one who opposes his words (Neh 6:14). Micah is also contending against false prophets who lead people astray by saying what they want to hear rather than the authentic word of God, or who can be bought (Mic 3:11) "Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortune for money."

Mic 1:2 — 2:13 The first cycle — judgement and redemption

"Hear, O Peoples, all of you, listen O earth and all who are in it, that the Sovereign Lord may witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple." (Mic 1:2). The opening verses of Micah constitute a judgement oracle, but the oracle is addressed to all the peoples of the earth and God is described as the Lord of all the earth (Sovereign Lord). So a universal summons is possible because of God's universal rule. The judgement is given initially from the heavenly temple (in v3 God descends in person), of which the earthly temple is a replica. "Look! The Lord is coming from his dwelling-place; he comes down and treads the high places of the earth. The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart like wax before the fire, like water rushing down the slope." (Mic 1:3-4) This is both figurative, God's appearance is likened to the impact of a volcanic eruption and an earthquake, but also literal, as the Assyrians destroy the kingdom. When God appears in person the world seems to fall apart (e.g. Isa 64:1-3)

"All this is because of Jacob's transgression, because of the sins of the house of Israel. What is Jacob's transgression? Is it not Samaria? What is Judah's high place? Is it not Jerusalem?" (Mic 1:5). Transgression (Heb pesa) can also mean rebellion, and refers to a wilful infraction of the covenant, i.e. it is not ignorance but deliberate. Samaria and Jerusalem are metonymies for the leaders of the two kingdoms i.e. attributes that refer to the thing that is meant e.g. "the Pentagon" for the US Military, or "Downing Street" for the Prime Minister. The reference to "High Place" is a reference to sites of pagan worship. Cultic high places were normally on hills (1 Sam 9:14) and supplied with idols (2 Chr 33:19, Mic 5:13). They contained ashera, either a live tree or a pole (Mic 5:14) symbolizing the female fertility goddess and masseba, one or more stone pillars, symbolizing the male fertility deity (2 Kgs 3:2). There were often altars and places where sacrificial meals would be eaten. As a result of this infidelity to the covenant, Judgement will be imposed on both Samaria (Mic 1:6-7) and Judah (Mic 1:8-16).

"Therefore, I will make Samaria a heap of rubble, a place for planting vineyards.....All her idols will be broken to pieces....Since she gathered her gifts from the wages of prostitutes, as the wages of prostitutes they will again be used." (Mic 1:6-7) In about 880 BC Omri acquired Samaria as a virgin site and established it as a royal residence. It was noted for the thickness of its defensive walls but it is now to be demolished. The text refers to the inability of Samaria's (pagan) gods to defend her. Cultic sites were often associated with prostitution, and this paid for the images that were located there, the inference is that the Assyrians will take the gold and silver to pay for their own cultic prostitutes, or pay for a girl somewhere!

Note that the oracle has literary structure, linked by "Hear" as all people are summonsed, "Look" at God's epiphany as he descends to earth, "All this" as the accusation is delivered and "Therefore" as the result. Micah's own reaction is recorded "Because of this".

Sentence against Judah

Specific oracles are targeted towards Judah. "Because of this I will weep and wail; I will go about barefoot and naked......" (Mic 1:8-9) Micah's response is of misery, but largely because he saw no hope for Samaria ("her wound is incurable") and feared the same for Judah (v9). The howling like a jackal and moaning like an owl may also refer to the rawness of Micah's text as he declares what judgement will mean for a number of towns located in the Shephelah, the low-lying foothills to the west of the hill country of Judah. The disasters may refer to Sennacherib's invasion in c701 BC, but may also refer to the earlier incursion by Israel allied with Syria during the reign of Ahaz.

The text contains Hebrew word play and puns which are lost when translated into English: Gath, the g in Gath is played against the g sound in nagad (to tell), hence "tell it not in Gath". They should not weep because weeping would draw attention to their disgrace. Gath may be the Philistine city referred to in David's lament on the death of Saul, "Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights. How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon...." (2 Sam 1:19-20) i.e. don't let the enemy know how serious this is. Beth Ophrah means "House of Dust", so in Beth Ophrah they are to roll in the dust as a sign of mourning. Shaphir has its roots in the word for pleasant or beautiful, but they are to pass on in nakedness and shame. Zanaan sounds like the words "to come out", but the people will be too afraid to come out. Scholars are not sure what Beth Ezel means, but it could mean the house of taking away, and therefore the protection that the town afforded has been taken away.

Maroth has its roots in the word for bitter (mrr, to be bitter), and so Maroth writhes in bitter pain because there is no hope, even Jerusalem is threatened. Lachish sounds like the Hebrew word for a team of horses, so the chariot is to be hitched up but only so that they can flee. There is further irony since Lachish was a very heavily fortified trading outpost. It is singled out as the place where pagan worship began in Judah. Moresheth Gath is Micah's home town and it will be left defenceless (the "parting gift") whilst Aczib (Heb deception) will prove herself deceptive to the Kings of Israel. Micah predicts that a conqueror will come who lives in Mareshah (sounds like the Hebrew for conqueror) and that "He who is the glory of Israel will come to Adullam". This could refer to God, but is more likely to refer to the King (possibly of the northern Kingdom) who will need to take refuge at Adullam. The irony is that David once sought refuge near Adullam (1 Sam 22:1-2). The instruction to "shave your heads in mourning" (Mic 1:16) is probably being delivered to Jerusalem as the mother town, to mourn over the tragedy of the people. It is a call to repentance.

The sentence against Judah is intensified over that against Samaria in that the judicial sentence is extended from two verses (6-7) to nine and it becomes climatic at the end, introducing radical acts of mourning. There is a literary structure to the oracle which begins and ends with reference to the events of King David, (Gath (v10) and Adullam (v15)) and pivots around the fall of Lachish (v13), which was the most important town to fall to Sennacherib in c701 BC.

Oracle against personal greed and exploitation

The oracle changes to address the personal behaviour of the rich who exploit the poor and the retribution that will result. (Mic 2: 1-5). This behaviour is clearly pre-meditated ("they lie awake at night and plan it"). Seizing fields and land deprives the poor of their livelihood: "You drive the women of my people from their pleasant lands. You take away my blessing from their children for ever." (Mic 2:9) The retribution will be apt, Yahweh also plans(Heb hasab), "Those who plan iniquity" (Mic 2:1) is mirrored with "I am planning disaster" (Heb 2:3). They will no longer walk around arrogantly but will be ridiculed and it is their fields which will be removed and assigned to traitors (i.e. even to pagans such as the Assyrians). Verse 5 refers to the practices by which the land was divided (see Joshua 18:1-10), and they will play no further part in those practices.

Micah clearly has to contend with false prophets. Although verse 6 can be read in a number of ways it is probably an accusation that by refusing to prophecy the truth the nation is doomed to disaster. They put forward a number of excuses, "Is the Spirit of the Lord angry? Does he do such things?" i.e. is God really capable of treating his people in this way. Micah's response is to remind them just how far they have deviated from the covenant demands (Mic 2:8-11) and how prophecy has become corrupted (Mic 2:11). Compare with Isaiah 30:9-11 "These are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord's instruction. They say to the seers, 'See no more visions!' and to the prophets, 'Give us no more visions of what is right!' Tell us pleasant things, prophecy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel."

Deliverance is promised

But even in the midst of judgement there is hope (Mic 2:12-13), Yahweh will gather the remnant. The passage does not set a date, before the gathering there must be a scattering. But the gathering is substantial, the imagery is of a huge throng of people. The prophet adds, "One who breaks open (Heb paras) the way will go up before them" as a result the people also "break through" the gate. The words recall David's victory over the Philistines (2 Sam 5:20) in which Yahweh broke through his enemies. God will break down whatever holds his people prisoner, securing their release. Is this a reference to the deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrians, or something else?

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