Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are beginning Micah. In Hebrew, Micah is a sentence name, meaning, “who is like Yahweh?” Yah and Yahu are the suffix forms of Yahweh often used in biblical names. The meaning of the prophet’s name closes out his own book. At the end of the last chapter, Micah praises the steadfast love and compassion of the God of Israel and asks, “Who is a God like you?” (7:18).
The book of Micah opens with: “The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem” (1:1). Half the Minor Prophets have historical superscriptions in their introductions, but Micah’s is the fullest in detail. Superscriptions are helpful in our reconstruction of the historical, political, and religious environments that shaped the messages of the prophets. We know a good bit about the reigns of these kings from the books of Kings and Chronicles, and we know a good bit about the Assyrian political scene because of their numerous records. So, first, let me paint the historical backdrop for Micah’s world.
With Micah’s ministry overlapping King Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, he dates anytime between 740—690 BCE. Most likely though, from historical clues in his text, his main ministry lasted from 722—701 BCE, uttering the bulk of his prophecies during the reign of Hezekiah.. Around this same time, Hosea and Amos were prophesying in Israel and Isaiah was in Jerusalem. Micah seems to be on the backend of these other prophets. Considering all that was coming for Israel and Judah, God had to speak extra loud at this time. One interesting thing to note is that Micah’s superscription does not name the contemporary kings of Israel at the time of his ministry, probably because they were considered illegitimate.
Micah ministered in Jerusalem, even though he was from Moresheth, a rural town 25 miles outside Jerusalem. His prophecies are directed at both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. He often references both of them as Israel, treating the divided kingdom as if it were still a unified whole.
At the time, Israel and Judah were both economically strong even if the political situation was tense. Judah’s borders were constantly threatened by Israel and the Arameans. Remember in the previous century, Jonah ministered to a weakened and distracted Assyria. Under the reign of Tiglath Pileser III, the Assyrian empire moved past their period of decline and was on the resurgence. The Assyrian mercenary army was hungry for new conquests. They subdued Israel and Judah making them vassals and demanded heavy tributes.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel wearied of the Assyrian burden. They plotted with the Aramean King Rezin to fight off Assyria and they invited Judean King Ahaz to join with them in a military alliance. King Ahaz was an unrighteous cowardly king, and he wanted no part of challenging Assyria. The prophet Isaiah unsuccessfully counseled Ahaz to fear Yahweh alone and trust in His protection. Instead, Ahaz pursued the protection and alliance of Assyria.
Unaware of the adage “snitches get stitches,” Ahaz informed Assyria of Israel’s plans. To continue currying the good favor of the Assyrian king, Ahaz sent a delegation to him bearing gold and silver gifts taken from the Temple treasury. He even had an Assyrian altar placed inside the Jerusalem temple and instructed the temple priests to make sacrifices on it (2 Kgs 16:10—18, 2 Chron. 28:1-4). Ahaz’s violations of Judah’s religious integrity provoked God’s wrath.
In Israel, the king did not cozy up to Assyria. Rebellions against the Assyrian yoke continued to pop up for the next twenty years, until finally Tiglath Pileser III’s successor, Sargon II, completely conquered the Northern Kingdom. Judah was all that was left in the land covenanted to their forefathers.
King Hezekiah succeeded his father, King Ahaz. Hezekiah was the opposite of Ahaz, godly and righteous. He listened to the prophetic counsel of Isaiah and Micah (Jer. 26:18). Hezekiah enacted sweeping religious reforms that included sanctifying the Temple after his father’s desecrations. He also tore down the cultic high places where false gods were worshiped and enforced strict loyalty to Yahweh. Ready to reestablish Judah’s independence, Hezekiah stopped all tribute payments to Assyria.
By this time, Sennacherib was the new king of Assyria and he did not take kindly to Judah’s rebellion. In retaliation, his armies wiped out 46 Judean towns and marched all the way to the gates of Jerusalem. Hezekiah prayed and Isaiah rightly predicted that the Assyrians would not be able to conquer the capital. A mysterious angel of the Lord passed through the Assyrian encampments and they were forced to give up their siege. In Sennacherib’s records of the siege, he boasted that he locked Hezekiah up “like a bird in a cage,” but he never claims that he captured the capital, an important omission. In essence, Israel and most of Judah were destroyed by the end of the eighth century BCE, but Jerusalem was spared, at least for a while.
If this historical recap washed over you, the main thing to remember when reading Micah is that Assyria was threatening Israel and Judah from all sides. Therefore, Micah’s message of doom did not seem far-fetched or unreasonable to his audience.
Micah’s opening oracle is a theophany, an intense manifestation of Yahweh in earthly terms. Theophanies were a frequently used tool in the Hebrew scriptures. Yahweh manifested as a burning bush to Moses (Ex. 3:2-10), a commander of armies to Joshua (Josh. 5: 13-15), a wrestling angel to Jacob (Gen. 32:24-30), and a still small voice to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12). The prophets’ theophanies are often grandiose with a taste for the cosmic. Isaiah sees the hem of God’s robe overwhelming the whole of the Temple (Isa. 6:1-8) while Ezekiel has a vision of Yahweh’s chariot wheeled by supernatural creatures (Ezek. 1).
In Micah’s vision of Yahweh, he is the great judge descending from His heavenly chamber and marching on earth. The mountains melt under His weight and valleys burst open beneath His stride (1:4). The same mountain range that was one of the natural advantages for Israel in her defense against invading nations melt like wax to the hot knife of Yahweh’s step. The fertile valleys of Samaria were the life source of the agricultural system of the kingdom, but with Yahweh descending onto the scene, they erupt like cascading waterfalls.
The nations are summoned to the courtroom of justice. Like in the other prophets, the language of the courtroom lends itself to the depiction of Israel’s crime and punishment. Samaria and Jerusalem are on the hot seat. Micah asks, “What is the transgression of Jacob? Is it not Samaria? And what is the high place of Judah? Is it not Jerusalem?” (1:5). As the capitals of Northern and Southern kingdoms, they are held to account for the corruption and injustices that have tainted their nations. As the centers of religious worship, they are to blame for the failure of the priesthood and the syncretism that has defiled pure worship of Yahweh. Both kingdoms are guilty of ignoring Yahweh’s religious and moral ideals.
Based off context clues, Micah likely delivered this first oracle when King Ahaz was on the throne. Samaria had not yet been destroyed, but the Assyrian threat loomed large. In verses 1:2-9, Micah describes Samaria’s future destruction. This section is the only real focus Micah gives to Samaria; the rest of his book is directed at Judah.
Samaria’s destruction will be total. Samaria, the beautiful jewel of the Northern Kingdom was described by Isaiah as a wreath at “the head of a fertile valley” (Isa. 28:4). In Micah’s vision, Samaria’s building stones will fall into the valley below and her idols will be beaten to pieces (1:7). We know from our Hosea study that idol worship was the most blatant of Samaria’s sins. The people used their temples and high places to participate in Canaanite fertility rituals. Micah describes those pagan rituals as gathering “prostitute wages” (1:7) and he foretells that the money collected in the temple from such debauchery will be stolen and placed in the Assyrian coffers. Micah doesn’t see any great loss with the pagan treasures of one temple being stolen and put in another.
Assyria is never named in this first chapter of Micah. The oracle keeps the focus on Yahweh as he intervenes in history. The judgements are from Yahweh, even if it was a foreign army who executed his punishment.
By 722 BCE, Micah’s oracle materialized, not long after he first spoke it. Assyrian King Sargon II conquered Samaria and deported the upper classes of Israel. Samaria was not quite flattened in the way Micah describes but it was as good as gone to the people of Israel. Sargon II, in keeping with Assyrian policy, moved other conquered peoples into Samaria to occupy the city. The ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom were lost to history from that day forward.
Puns and wordplay
Micah’s second oracle section boomerangs back to his listening audience, the people of Judah. In verses ten to sixteen, Micah describes the taking of nine Judean cities. The towns Micah describes are all in the Shephelah, Judah’s lowlands. They are small peaceful agricultural towns, much like Micah’s hometown. The order of the town’s listing is random, not geographic or representative of the way Sennacherib’s armies later advanced on Judah. The list is a sampling of Judah’s coming destruction.
Micah begins with the saying, “tell it not in Gath.” This is one of those prophetic hyperlinks to another piece of scripture. “Tell it not in Gath” is alluding to the moment when King David learned of Saul and Jonathan’s death (2 Sam. 1:20) and called for ritual mourning among the people. Gath was the long-time Philistine enemy of Israel. David was resentful of the gloating that would surely happen among Israel’s enemies when news arrived that the house of Saul and Jonathan were dead. Micah intends for the literary callback to connect the fall of Saul’s house to the fall of the Davidic dynasty. In 2 Samuel, it had been Saul who was on the run from David, and now it is the descendants of David on the run from Sennacherib.
The destruction of all nine cites are described with puns, sometimes based off the sound of the place name and sometimes stemming from the meaning of the town name. Micah is clearly a clever and skilled orator, but the original Hebrew is the only way to appreciate his wordplay. Unfortunately, the nuances do not come through in translation. I will try to explain a few so you get the picture.
Micah turns the name of each town into an omen of its eventual fate. The town Beth-leaphrah means “house of dust,” and Micah warns them to roll themselves in dust. His own town, Moresheth, sounds like the Hebrew word for betrothed. Micah says Judah must give a dowry for Moresheth (1:14). The punishment is a complex metaphor. Judah will lose the town of Moresheth and still be required to pay tribute to the Assyrian overlord, like a father who has to give away his daughter and pay a dowry. The effect of Micah’s specific doom messages, catered to each town, would have been chilling to his audience.
I can try my own weak example of what Micah is constructing with words by using the names of towns in Northern Virginia. Springfield will be caught in a perpetual winter. Ashburn will go up in the flames of the enemy. Blackstone will tumble down into the valley. You get the picture.
Lachish was the most strategic of Judean towns mentioned by Micah. Lachish was one of the military fortresses built to protect the way to Jerusalem. Micah is being ironic when his oracle commands Lachish to use its chariots, not to fight the Assyrian army but to flee. Assyria conquered Lachish in its sweet through Judah. The importance of conquering the prized town was not lost on Sennacherib. He depicted the protracted siege and gruesome conquering of Lachish on the walls of his palace in Nineveh.
The oracles strike a personal chord in Micah. He is horrified by his own pronouncement. Throughout his oracles, Micah preaches the same message as Amos, railing against the injustices and moral failures pervasive in society. But Micah also has a wide emotional range like Hosea, truly grieving the failed union of Yahweh and Judah
His hometown of Moresheth was a rural community outside of Lachish. He would have been familiar with these other towns of the Shephelah as well. When pronouncing the destruction of Jerusalem, his current home and place of ministry, Micah says “it has reached the gate of my people” (1:9).
Micah says, “For this I will lament and wail; I will go barefoot and naked” (1:8). He cries out like a jackal. He asks others to join with him in grieving Judah’s fate. Shaving part of one’s head was a traditional way to publicly mourn. Micah gloomily suggests to his compatriots that they take it one step further in proportion to the coming devastation and instead shave their heads as bald as an eagle (1:16).
The prophetic vocation is to communicate Yahweh’s truth, but they are not spared from the coming destruction. They are not immune to the grief and anguish. Jeremiah did not even marry because he could not knowingly bring children into such a difficult period. What sticks out to me most in Micah is that there is no tone of gloating in his words. Unlike Noah, the prophets had no boat of protection that allowed them to escape the coming storm. The prophetic calling includes walking through the trauma alongside the people. Micah loved Jerusalem. He loved the small towns surrounding Jerusalem. And he even equated the Kingdom of Israel with the Judean kingdom as a whole. These were his people and his towns. What will follow over the coming weeks in our Micah study is a message of doom mixed with hope for salvation. But what I hope you feel right now is that Micah, a mouthpiece for God, is not separate from his prophecies. A prophet has an ear to heaven but a life on earth. And for that, I trust the anguish. Its authenticity is comforting, even if the message is challenging.
Please join me next week for Micah chapters 2 and 3.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. I hope Bible Fiber can help you with your own commitment to go deeper into God’s word, especially the parts that aren’t as familiar. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.