Monday, October 6, 2014

Micah: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The book of the prophet Micah (like most of the prophetic books in the Bible) was written during a time of great political and social turmoil for the nation of Israel.  Micah's writings span the years 742-686 B.C.E.--the last years of the northern kingdom of Israel (which fell to Assyria in 722) and the first years of the existence of the southern kingdom of Judah alone.  Micah was from the small southern village of Moresheth, which may account for his sensitivity to the suffering of the poor and marginalized.

Reading these prophetic books, I am startled by the similarity of their messages.  Like prophets before and after him, Micah hammers home the pattern of sin--punishment--restoration of Israel.  The suffering of the people is attributed to their idolatry and social injustice.  Their restoration comes from re-establishing obedience to God in the form of a covenant, sort of like a marriage.  Rather than re-summarizing this all-too-familiar pattern, I would like, instead, to focus on a few passages in Micah that stood out to me, for various reasons.

In chapter 4, in a passage describing the restoration that will come with obedience, Micah repeats a passage from Isaiah:

"They shall beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore."

As I mentioned in my report on Isaiah, this verse is inscribed on the United Nations building in New York.  To me, it is one of the most moving and hopeful expressions of peace--weapons of war are recycled into farming implements.  It reminds me of the movie Star Trek: First Contact, in which a scientist re-purposes a nuclear warhead into a spaceship for exploring the stars, and ends up inauguraing a new era of peace.  This message was particularly relevant to Micah's audience, who lived under constant threat of attack from Assyria.

United Nations Building (New York)
Another significant passage comes in chapter 6.  The prophet asks God what the people must do to be saved and restored.  Should they make animal sacrifices, the most important religious ritual of ancient Israel?  The answer comes in verse 8:

"He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you,
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?"

To me, this is one of the most eloquent expressions of what it means to be a spiritual human being.  These are the qualities of true religion: justice, kindness, and humility.

The last passage I want to point out comes in chapter 5:

"But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days...
and he shall be the one of peace."

This verse is quoted in the gospel of Matthew (2:6) as referring to Jesus, and his birthplace of Bethlehem (which was also the birthplace of King David).  Like most "messianic" prophecies quoted in the New Testament, this one had an immediate meaning in its original context--it had to do witih salvation from the Assyrian empire, which was massive, terrifying, and ended up destroying Israel  (see relief below).  But this passage rasises an issue that perlexed and disturbed me when I first began to study the Bible academically.  Growing up, I was told that the Old Testament prophecies "fulfilled" in Jesus were "proof" of the Bible's divine inspiration.  After studying these texts for myself, however, I've found the situation to be more complex.

Impalement of Judeans by Assyrians (8th century B.C.E.)

These so-called "messianic" prophecies pretty much always had an immediate meaning in their original context that had nothing to do with some figure in the distant future.  If this is the case, were the New Testament writers wrong?  Were they lying?  Were they uneducated or stupid?  Were they quoting passages that they knew were ripped out of context, but which their less-educated audience wouldn't pick up on?  Was it all a ruse?

I don't claim to have the answers here, but I think what these "messianic" prophecies suggest is that the theology of the Bible evolves as it progresses, usually to fit the circumstances and spritual needs of the people for whom it was written.  In this way, perhaps, the New Testament writers weren't lying.  Rather, they were participating in a tradition of re-imaginging ancient texts to suit contemporary needs and views.  This is a difficult concept for biblical literalists or fundamentalists--the notion that the Bible's theology changes as it progresses--but it is the only way I can make sense of these messianic prophecies, and many other biblical concepts.

If you doubt that the theology of the Bible changes, just take the concepts of Satan and hell.  The name "Satan" doesn't appear in the Bible until the book of 1 Chronicles, and then only briefly.  The Old Testament concept of the afterlife is nebulous at best.  The notion of an eternal, resurrected soul doesn't appear until the book of Daniel, which most scholars believe reached its final form in the 2nd century B.C.E.  The concepts of Satan, hell, and the afterlife, were influenced by late Persian and Greek ideas.  And yet, by the time we get to the New Testament, Satan and hell are assumed to have always existed.  You will find no mention of either in the Torah (the first five book of the Bible).

Given this fact, that the Bible's theology changes as it progresses and interacts with different cultures, we must then ask ourselves: How much of its message is culture-bound and how much is universal?  That's a tricky question that serious students of the Bible must carefully ponder.  For the Israelites of the 7th century, questions of spirituality were not abstractions to leisurely ponder.  Rather, such questions were intimately connected to their very real trials and tribulations.  In the case of Micah, that had to do with the threat of total destruction by Assyria.  This may explain the tone of panic, loss, and desperate hope.

The Assyrians are coming!

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