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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Micah

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Title ( 1:1 )

Although Micah often appears to speak on his own authority (e.g. 3:1 ), the book as a whole is characterized by its editor as ‘The word of the LORD’. ‘Micah’ is a shortened form of mîkāyâ (cf. Jer. 26:18 ), meaning ‘Who is like Yah?’, a name possibly echoed at the end of the book ( 7:18 ). His identification by domicile, Moresheth(-gath; cf. 1:14 ), suggests that his ministry was mainly conducted away from home, almost certainly in Jerusalem. On the basis of the material which can most plausibly be ascribed to him, it has been suggested that he was a local elder, responsible in particular for justice (Wolff 1990: 6–8), and perhaps also one of the ῾am-hā᾽āreṣ, ‘the people of the land’ (Rudolph 1975: 22), a conservative group of small landowners with a particular concern for constitutional stability (e.g. 2 Kings 21:24 ). The remainder of the title seems to be deduced from the information in ch. 1 in particular, and is unlikely to be of independent historical value.

God's Dealings with his People as a Warning to the Nations ( 1:2–5:15 )

( 1:2–16 ) One Nation's Judgement is Another Nation's Warning

Although this lengthy passage includes material of diverse origins, it has been developed by stages into a single literary unit with clear connections between the various parts (e.g. ‘For lo’, v. 3 ; ‘All this is for’, v. 5 ; ‘For this’, v. 8 ). The prophecy against Samaria (v. 6 ) is likely to be the earliest part, but its fulfilment is already reused by Micah (vv. 8–9 with 10–16 ) as background to his warning that a similar fate awaits Judah and Jerusalem. His words were partially realized at the time of Sennacherib's invasion of Judah in 701 BCE (cf. 2 Kings 18–19 ) but, as Jer 26:18–19 reminds us, it was not until the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE that Micah's words found complete vindication, and this may be reflected in v. 16 . Finally, by extension of the same process and in the light of this vindication, v. 2 (post-exilic) elevates these lessons from history into a warning to all the nations. This universal perspective then gives shape to chs. 1–5 as a whole, with the words of Micah to Jerusalem in chs. 2–3 giving way to an emphasis on the nations in 4–5 , and concluding ( 5:15 ) with a clear reprise of v. 2 . Thus the historically bound words of Micah become in later reflection a timeless and universal word of the Lord. vv. 3–4 are a characteristic description of a theophany, but unlike earlier passages, where this theme heralds God's deliverance (e.g. Judg 5:4–5; Ps 18:6–19 ), here it presages judgement (v. 5 ). Appropriate to an introduction to the book, v. 5a reflects Micah's basic message (cf. 3:8b ). Elsewhere, ‘transgression’ and ‘sins’ apply particularly to the ruling élite, while ‘Jacob’ and ‘the house of Israel’ invariably refer to Judah (e.g. 2:7, 12; 3:1, 8, 9 ), and both may originally have done so here. In line with the theme of this chapter, however, they have been reinterpreted in the second half of the verse to apply to the northern and southern kingdoms respectively (see too v. 13b ), while the sin is described as more narrowly religious (vv. 5b , 7 ), thus aligning it with the causes of the eventual Babylonian Exile as perceived by the Deuteronomists. vv. 8–9 are the hinge on which the chapter turns. ‘For this’ refers back to the fall of Samaria, but Micah's lament is due to the fact that a like fate awaits Judah and Jerusalem (v. 9 ), as vividly portrayed in vv. 10–16 . The Hebrew text of vv. 10–16 is exceptionally difficult (cf. the different Eng. translations), but its general sense is clear enough; cf. Na᾽aman (1995 ). About twelve towns in the vicinity of Micah's home in Moresheth in the Judean Shephelah are listed, and threatening remarks made about them on the basis of wordplay, e.g. ‘in Beth-leaphrah' (῾aprâ) roll yourselves in the dust (῾āpār)’. This feature probably accounts for the selection of towns, so that it would be hazardous to try to construct a military line of advance out of them. In 701 BCE Sennacherib destroyed most of the towns of Judah and threatened Jerusalem (vv. 9, 12 ), so that Micah's distress (v. 8 ) at this impending doom is intelligible. There was a partial exile to Assyria at this time (v. 16 ), but inevitably later readers will have seen a more complete fulfilment of this prophecy in the Babylonian Exile.

( 2:1–3:12 ) Judah and Jerusalem Condemned

These two chapters basically comprise five paragraphs in which various groups within the Judean population are condemned for social injustice and rejection of the prophetic word. In substance they derive from Micah himself and form the securest basis for reconstructing his historical message. Within the broader structure of the book (see MIC 1:2–16 ), however, they function more in retrospect as background to the broader international vision of chs. 4–5 .

Man Proposes, but God Disposes ( 2:1–5 ).

Accusation (vv. 1–2 ) and threat (‘therefore’, vv. 3, 5 ) are here perfectly balanced: as the accused ‘devise…evil’ (v. 1 ), so does God in return (v. 3 ); ‘they covet fields’ (v. 2 ), while God parcels out theirs to others (v. 4 ); they seize others' ‘inheritance’ (v. 2 ) only to bewail the loss of their own (v. 4 ). But who are ‘they’? Rather than simply avaricious capitalists, who dispossess the small landholders of their supposedly inalienable property, they may rather be official administrators under the crown (cf. 3:1, 9 ) who were obliged to tax the rural population heavily and sometimes to appropriate land and property as part of Hezekiah's military preparations for Sennacherib's invasion (cf. Isa 22:7–11 ), which struck Micah's home territory first (cf. Dearman 1988; Wolff 1990: 74–5). For Micah, ‘I was only doing my job’ is no excuse: his ethical interpretation of their exercise of power is that it amounts to a breach of the Ten Commandments (v. 2 ). The threat is therefore directed initially against a relatively small circle in Judean society, who will have no part in the future reconstruction after the Assyrian devastation is over (v. 5 ). Again, however, the later addition of ‘against this family’ (v. 3; cf. Am 3:2 ) suggests that the passage has subsequently been reread after the Babylonian exile in terms of national sin and judgement.

A Prophetic Disputation ( 2:6–11 with 12–13 ).

The plural imperative ‘do not preach’ indicates that a new paragraph starts here (and obviously concludes with the use of the same verb in v. 11 ). Nevertheless, it follows closely on the preceding, and illustrates how Micah and his associates were opposed by those whom they condemned. There are considerable obscurities in the Hebrew text, so that it is not always clear where a change of speaker occurs; the following outline (which differs from NRSV) can only be tentative.

Micah's preaching is rejected (vv. 6–7 ) on the basis of an orthodox view of God's patience and promises (cf. 3:11b ) (read ‘his words’ instead of ‘my words’ in v. 7 ). Micah retorts (vv. 8–10 ) that such confidence is misplaced because his opponents do not, in fact, ‘walk uprightly’. They violently seize what is not theirs (v. 8 , not a reference to the law of E X 22:26–7; Deut 24:10–13 ), and again, perhaps because of the national emergency (see MIC 2:1–5 ), they appropriate others' property. v. 10a is the heartless command of the evictors, while 10b, ‘because of [your] uncleanness [= moral defilement; cf. Isa 6:5; Am 7:17 ] you will be destroyed…’ (my tr.), is Micah's riposte. v. 11 is a sarcastic conclusion. ‘Wine and strong drink’ are an attractive part of the covenant blessings (e.g. Am 9:13 ); these people like preachers who focus on the promises without reference to the conditions of obedience which accompany them. vv. 12–13 are usually interpreted as a promise of God's restoration of his exiled people, in which case their present setting remains a puzzle, awkwardly anticipating the sharp change in mood between chs. 3 and 4 . However, there has always been a minority of commentators (recently Mays 1976: 73–6; Hagstrom 1988: 51–7, 85–6; Brin 1989 ) who see them rather as an announcement of judgement: the ‘gate’ of v. 13 naturally suggests Jerusalem (hardly Babylon!), where the people have been gathered by God for a siege (v. 12 ). It is he who breaks down the defensive wall (cf. Ps 80:12; 89:40 ) and who, in a reversal of the Exodus, leads his people away into exile. On this view, 4:6–7 deliberately reverses this judgement saying, just as 4:1–5 reverses 3:9–12 .

Cannibalism in Court! ( 3:1–4 ).

Three closely related paragraphs in ch. 3 bring the catalogue of judgements to a climax in v. 12 . In this section, the ‘heads’ and ‘rulers’ (the ruling élite of Judah and Jerusalem) are condemned for manipulating the judicial process in a manner which results in a denial of true ‘justice’ (v. 1 ), a fundamental term in Micah's critique (cf. 3:8, 9 ). As in 2:1–5 , neither they nor the courts regarded their actions as illegal, but if the outcome is an intolerable oppression of the ordinary citizen (so the grotesque metaphor of vv. 2–3 ), then the system itself stands condemned. As a result, they themselves will call to God at some time of unspecified distress (v. 4 , perhaps amplified by 3:12 ), only to find that he will no more answer them than they have the people.

Prophets for Profit ( 3:5–8 ).

Just as 3:1–4 has a certain parallel in 2:1–5 , so too does 3:5–8 in 2:6–11 . Now, however, the objects of Micah's polemic are explicitly called ‘prophets’ (vv. 5–6 ), ‘seers’, and ‘diviners’ (v. 7 )—and there seems to be little difference between them; the latter are no worse than the former (indeed, in 3:11 the prophets ‘divine’), but all alike are condemned because the substance of their message is determined solely by their wages (v. 5 ). The judgement, therefore, is another case of poetic justice (vv. 6–7 ): ‘vision’, ‘revelation’, and an ‘answer from God’ will all be withdrawn, leaving them looking foolish and ashamed. Micah adds a concluding and contrasting note about himself (v. 8 ), which implies that he does not regard himself as a prophet. As already noted, the verse is a succinct summary of the basis of his condemnation (see MIC 1:5; 3:1 ), just as 3:12 will epitomize its consequences.

Concluding Judgement ( 3:9–12 ).

This paragraph gathers up the themes of chs. 2–3 as a whole: form, addressees, and accusations are broadly the same. v. 10 may well reflect for Jerusalem the same circumstances as 2:1–5 did for the countryside. v. 11 refers to the same misplaced confidence as 2:6–7, 11 , but clarifies that this was based on the so-called tradition of Zion's inviolability; see especially Ps 46 , which is more or less quoted here. Micah's uncompromising judgement is therefore appropriate (v. 12 ) and was remembered more than a century later as the epitome of his preaching (Jer 26:18 ). The fulfilment of his words at that time doubtless stimulated renewed attention to his work, leading to its reworking in redaction, as already seen, and in development, as follows immediately.

( 4:1–5:15 ) Israel among the Nations

This section presupposes the reality of the judgement already described, but opens up the prospect of a glorious restoration beyond it. While several of the previous themes are thus reversed, a consistent new element is the effect of Israel's restoration on the nations, whether for good or ill. This connects with ch. 1 and sets the words of the historical Micah in a more universal context. The material is of diverse origin and date, but it has been welded together to show how the vision for a new order ( 4:1–5 ) will be realized through the rule of God ( 4:6–7 ), exercised by a restored monarchy in Israel ( 4:8–5:6 ). For this to come about, both the nations and Israel will need to be forcefully purged ( 5:7–15 ).

Peace at the Last ( 4:1–5 ).

The section opens with a vision (of late-exilic origin at the earliest) of universal, eschatological peace. Several verbal associations with the concluding paragraph of ch. 3 demonstrate that God's destruction of Zion is not his last word, but rather the necessary first step in his farreaching purpose. It should be emphasized that the peace of verses 3b–4 can only be achieved as the nations willingly submit to God's instruction: ‘The theological integrity of the prophecy lies in its unity’ (Mays 1976: 93). A concluding (liturgical?) response (v. 5 ) invites the people of God to exemplify just such a submission. vv. 1–3 have a close parallel in Isa 2:2–4 , and each passage concludes with a verse (Isa 2:5; Mic 4:5 ) which integrates the material into its new context. Mic 4:4 (lacking in Isaiah) is probably an original part of the oracle, and has Isaianic characteristics. It therefore looks as though the material has come independently into each book from a common original which was developed in Isaianic circles.

A Positive Role for the Remnant ( 4:6–7 ).

The realization of the vision (cf. ‘in that day’) will begin by God's rule in Zion over the restored remnant. As 4:1–5 reverses 3:9–12 , so here the judgement of 2:12–13 is overturned (see too Zeph 3:11–20 ). This absolute use of the word ‘remnant’ is post-exilic, and helps to locate the setting of the redaction of this section as a whole.

The Instrument of God's Rule ( 4:8–5:6 ).

This passage has a clear and balanced structure. 4:8 and 5:2 (introducing 5:2–6 ) are exactly parallel, and between come three short paragraphs introduced by ‘now’ ( 4:9, 11; 5:1 ). The whole is closely tied to the preceding by way of detailed development of the theme of God's rule. 4:8 makes clear that God's rule over Zion will be exercised through a restoration of ‘the former dominion’, which 5:2–6 confirms will be in the person of a new Davidic figure. His insignificant place of origin parallels that of the remnant among the nations; in neither case does God's rule follow the normal course of power politics. Whether or not the reference to the Assyrians in 5:5–6 points to a pre-exilic origin for 5:2–6 (in part, at least), its redactional setting and hence use in the book as a whole are clearly post-exilic. For readers at this later time, ‘Assyria’ will be a sobriquet for the world powers in general (cf. Ezra 6:22 etc.), an interpretation reinforced by the unprecedented use of the parallel ‘land of Nimrod’ (cf. Gen 10:8–12 ). The period of suffering which precedes his rule ( 5:3 ) is thus the Exile (cf. 4:10 ); as throughout this section, restoration follows, and does not replace, judgement. This emphasis is also the focus of the three short paragraphs in 4:9–5:1 . The first two (and so probably also the third, 5:1 ; the Heb. text, however, is too obscure for certainty) may have their origin in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (so Wolff 1990 ), but they are developed by future promises which loosen them from any strictly bound historical setting. The gathering of the exiles ( 4:10b ) and the overthrow of enemies ( 4:12–13; 5:1 is developed by the promises of 5:2–6 ) link up with what has been seen elsewhere in the section, so that again God's ‘thoughts’ and ‘plan’ ( 4:12 ) are to use his now judged people as his agents and instruments of eventual universal rule.

A Negative Role for the Remnant ( 5:7–9 ).

In 4:6–7 the remnant was restored as a sign of the positive benefits of God's rule. Here, we see the other side of the coin—as his instrument of judgement on the nations which oppose it. For this use of the ‘dew’ image (v. 7 ), see 2 Sam 17:12 (Rudolph 1975; Hillers 1984 ); the two similes of vv. 7 and 8 are thus closely parallel in both structure and thought.

No Peace for the Wicked ( 5:10–15 ).

A probably pre-exilic oracle in 10b–14 (which some scholars ascribe to Micah) is here reused to stress again that ‘in that day’ the rule of God will not be thwarted by either military or religious opposition. As 5:7–9 was the negative counterpart of 4:6–7 , this may be regarded as the downside of 4:1–5 . (With 4:8 and 5:2 in parallel, the whole of chs. 4–5 thus displays a certain symmetrical arrangement.) The content of vv. 10–14 points to Israel as the object of God's judgement here, but v. 15 extends this to the nations. The clear echo of 1:2 (‘obey’ in 5:15 is the same word as ‘hear’ in 1:2 ) is the clue to the purpose of the whole, and shows again that the final form of Mic 1–5 is ultimately concerned with God's dealings with all the nations, to whom Israel is presented as an example. The prospect of peace and blessing is set before them ( 4:1–4 ), but persistence in their rebellion will lead to their overthrow. As with Israel, however, this need not be God's last word, for ‘that day’ ( 4:6 and 5:10 ) can include his rule over a remnant just as much as vengeance on the disobedient.

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