By Amy Zewe—
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 reading Micah chapters 2 and 3. Micah warned of coming punishment for Judah in chapter 1, but in this section he goes into more detail about who exactly is to blame for the disaster. Micah 2 consists of two speeches of doom, primarily focused on greedy landholders. The elite of Judah have ignored God’s sacred system of land distribution and instead are abusing their power to gobble up the property of the less fortunate. In Micah 3, our prophet widens his gaze, calling out the entire cast of Judah’s leadership: priests, judges, and prophets. These positions of authority were meant to serve the people. Instead, the civil and religious systems are corrupt money grabbing schemes where judges, prophets, and priests deny justice to the people and fatten their own wallets. The punishment for those who hate good and love evil will be overthrow and exile. We need to go deep into the text to unpack the substance of Micah’s accusations and discover the response of Micah’s peers to his message.
Micah first paints an image of Judah’s elite landowners, lying in their beds plotting their next evil deed, eager for the morning so they can renew their wicked acts. Micah says, “they covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away” (2:2). The idea of wrongdoers scheming at night, keen on starting each day, is striking for its industriousness. Micah is making clear that the robbing of the disadvantaged in Judah is intentional, not the accidental result of tough economic times or poor agricultural yields. The hardship of the lower classes in Judah is the product of design, not circumstance. The landowners are refusing to obey God’s laws of land inheritance and debt forgiveness. Micah’s contemporary, the prophet Isaiah, spoke of a pervasive spirit of greed: “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left” (Isa. 5:8).
Before the Israelites had conquered the land of Canaan, God mapped out how the people should distribute the land among the tribes (Num. 26). The intent was to fairly provide for each of the twelve tribes and their descendants. On the plains of Moab, Moses took a census of the whole Israelite community. Lots were cast and land was assigned to each clan, larger clans receiving larger lots and smaller clans getting smaller lots. After Joshua and his armies conquered the “hill country, the western foothills, the Arabah, the mountain slopes, the wilderness and the Negev” (Josh. 12:8), the elders distributed the territory according to what had already been decided before the conquest. Because the land of Israel was sacred, a gift from God to His people, only God could divide and distribute the land. It was not the prerogative of earthly systems to redistribute it.
The laws of Moses also laid out a legal system to manage disputes over ancestral lands. Care was taken so that fathers with no sons would pass the family land down to their daughters. If a man had no children, his land went to his brothers (Num. 27). God foresaw a day when the people would try and game his system of debt forgiveness and land returns, but He appealed to what should be a common sense of justice: “Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God” (Lev. 25:17).
The story of Naboth’s vineyards shows just how seriously the righteous people took the laws of land inheritance, while the wicked disregarded the laws. In 1 Kings 21, the unrighteous King Ahab of Israel coveted his neighbor Naboth’s vineyard. When Ahab asked to purchase the vineyard, Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors” (1 Kings 21:3). As a righteous man, Naboth understood that according to God’s laws, if he sold his ancestral property, he would be depriving his descendants of a future home and vineyard. He also knew that the land was God’s and not his to give. Ahab and his wife Jezebel, offended by the rejection, killed Naboth and took possession of the vineyard anyway. When the prophet Elijah heard the news, he was enraged. He understood that not only had an innocent man been killed, but God’s laws were pushed aside to satisfy the greed of an evil king. When greed overwhelms justice, and the upper classes put themselves above God’s laws, the weak suffer.
A hundred years later, when Micah was preaching against land grabbing elites, he was, in a sense, wearing the mantle of Elijah. The King of Israel was not above God’s laws in Elijah’s day, nor were the upper classes of Judah in Micah’s days.
Robbing and defrauding the middle and lower classes became the norm in Micah’s lifetime. Given that Micah was from a rural town in Judah, he was likely an eyewitness to the mistreatment of family and neighbors. Micah often places himself in his oracles. He accuses the land barons of taking homes from “the women of my people” (2:9). When a family lost their land, they lost their life-source and easily slipped into poverty and destitution.
God had understood that even with a rule of inherited lands, people would come on tough times. So, His law provided safety nets which prevented people from slipping into debt and servitude. The Torah spelled out a generous lending system designed so that every seven years debt was cancelled. The law of Moses also demanded that every fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee, all family property should return to the rightful owners (Lev. 25:8-13). But the landowners disregarded the Jubilee.
God warned against the temptation to deny loans to the poor: “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them” (Deut. 15:7). By the eighth century BCE, God had had enough. The hardhearted and tightfisted were going to be punished. Micah’s commission was to give them one last warning.
Micah’s oracles often have an eye-for-an-eye or reap-what-you-sow element, which is first seen here in the second chapter but will reoccur in future oracles. In the case of Judah’s landowners, Micah had one clear message. Because they had proven greedy and untrustworthy with the land God gifted them, the gift was going to be taken away and overrun by an invading army. Judah would be overthrown and it would be up to her captors to parcel out the fields (2:4). Exile was the greatest of humiliations for ancient peoples because it represented not only a military and political loss but also the disfavor of their deity. Indeed, Micah never names the Assyrians or Babylonians as the instruments of God’s punishment. Yahweh is the only one sitting in the judge’s seat.
Micah’s oracles of disaster are not easy on his listeners. Other prophets contemporary to Micah begged him to stop his pronouncements saying, “one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us” (2:6). Micah denounces those prophets. They are bent on delivering good news but their promises are based on their overconfidence in being God’s elect. They are not uttering truth, but simply preaching what the people want to hear. Micah says the people want to silence the truth-telling prophets while the false prophets preach of “wine and strong drink” (2:11). The false prophets appeal to the people’s wealth and appetite, as opposed to petitioning their conscious. The false prophets preach only of assured blessings, or what Isaiah called “smooth things” (Isa. 30:10)
This placating message was deadly for Israel and Judah, and it is a deadly message that carries on in the church today. Our Christian equivalent of false prophets in our day are the health and wealth churches who guarantee that strong faith leads to material gain. This message is a lie, a distortion of the gospel. It is also a pitiful commission in comparison to our actual call to participate with our creator in building the kingdom of God.
Since prophets were often paid for their services, there was a temptation to give the “customer” what they wanted. Micah accuses the prophets of proclaiming peace when they were paid well for a prophetic message (3:5) and pronouncing war when they were not. The wealthier the recipient of a prophecy, the more pleasing the nature of the oracle. Prophets tickling the ears of the people rather than challenging their sin continued to be a problem a hundred years later when Jeremiah was ministering. The Babylonians were on the march but the prophets opposed to Jeremiah kept promising the people that no harm would come to them (Jer. 23:17).
The creed of the people believed Yahweh to be a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). Yahweh had described Himself with such terms. The people relied on the eternalness of their covenant with God. However, the covenant was designed as a partnership with moral and ethical expectations. God had warned his people that if they kept to the covenant, they would experience blessings, and if they walked away from the covenant, they would experience curses (Deut. 11). Their position as God’s elect was not going to be revoked, but their sin and disregard for God’s laws brought upon the curses. Part of the punishment for breaking the covenant was banishment from the promised land (Deut. 11:17).
Christian doctrine struggles with the nature of God’s assurances as well. On the one hand, we have the “once saved, always saved” mantra preached from podiums. But one trip through the New Testament epistles exposes verses that put the idea of permanent salvation into question. Paul, in writing to the church in Galatia, warned them that if they continued to lead impure and immoral lives they would surely not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21). Paul, writing to Timothy, reminded his disciple that people are free to claim the saving powers of Jesus in their life, and they are also free to reject those powers (2 Tim. 2:12).
Micah compares his own faithfulness to Yahweh’s message to that of the false prophets. He never denies the authenticity of their prophetic gift, only that they are misappropriating it. The difference for him is that he is a prophet carried by the spirit of Yahweh (3:8). The punishment for false prophets was the removal of their prophetic ability. Just as Samson lost his strength with the cutting of his long locks, Micah warned that the prophets’ visions and revelations would go dark and their prayers and intercession would go unanswered (3:6).
Conspiracy of the Powerful
God sent Moses to Israel when she needed a leader to deliver her from bondage in Egypt. God sent Joshua when Israel needed a military commander to conquer the promised land. God sent King David when Israel needed a united political capital. God sent Solomon when the people wanted a house for Yahweh to be exalted. The physical kingdom of Israel and Judah were complete, even if divided, but their spiritual kingdoms were rotting. The prophets, priests, judges, and landowners share responsibility for poisoning the well.
Micah 3 widens the scope to look at the whole corrupt power structure responsible for Judah’s undoing. Because Micah was a prophet with access to the king (Jer. 26:18), it is likely he delivered his oracles in the Jerusalem courtyards within earshot of all the judges, prophets and priests. Micah accuses them of a conspiracy to exploit the people and deny them justice. Land barons steal property while the judges in court refuse to protect them. The priests take bribes and look the other way. Moral order was not their priority. Micah explains the widespread corruption in a phrase common to the other true prophets. The people “hate the good and love the evil” (3:2).
Micah describes Judah’s elite as cannibals. Each of Micah’s oracles increase in severity, but here his condemnations climax. They eat the poor, take off their skin, break their bones and cook them in pots (3:3). The prophet’s intent is to use savage language to properly reflect the horror God feels witnessing their mistreatment of one another.
Our section of Micah today does not end on a high note, but it does give us plenty to think about as we look around our world and question our own measure of selfishness. When we spread our hands in prayer to our creator, does his face shine down upon us? Or as the prophet Isaiah says, does He hide his face because our hands are also full of blood (Isa. 1:15)? The difficult messages of the prophets live on and are as true to us today as they were then.
Please join me next week for Micah chapters 4 and 5. Also, I include all of the biblical citations in the show transcript and on the blog section of Jerusalem Connection’s website and in our emails. I have stopped saying them in the actual podcast recording because it seemed disruptive. But I do think it is important. I hope you check out the transcript each week for your own cross referencing in the scriptures
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 are not as familiar. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.