Worse than a Deadbeat Dad

Religious readers often underestimate the centrality of metaphor to the Bible’s genre. Even when we acknowledge metaphor at work, we dismiss it as secondary to an assumed event in time, or contextualize its meaning with our own experience and perspective. In both cases, we ignore a symbol’s natural setting in history and its integration with a specific narrative system. In Micah, allowing these symbols to unfold in their assigned context uncovers the horrors of Judah’s immorality; in Paul’s vernacular, sins committed “against” the “body.” (1 Corinthians 6:18)

In the Ancient Near East, it was common to personify cities as women. 1 If the city is a woman in the prophetic tradition, its gate is understood as the entrance to her womb. These metaphors carry over in the New Testament, where Paul follows Ezekiel’s lead regarding the city of Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26, Ephesians 5:26-27) or in Luke, where we encounter “a dead man” at “the gate,” a metaphor for stillbirth or bareness. (Luke 7:12) In effect, the “calamity” in Micah that has “come down from the Lord to the gate of Jerusalem” (1:12) is the rape of the city. More than a way of describing the brutality of occupation, this imagery speaks to the consequences of trusting the wrong man.

From the beginning, God chose Jerusalem as his bride (Ezekiel 16:8) even as her children rejected him as their father. (1 Samuel 8:7) “In that day,” Samuel warned, “you will cry out because of the king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you.” (1 Samuel 8:18) In Micah, a faithless king was unable to fill God’s shoes as sole provider for his wife and children. Worse than a deadbeat dad, the imposter cut a deal with his adopted family’s abuser. What kind of husband invites the rape of his own bride? “Is the Spirit of the Lord impatient? Are these His doings?” (2:7) No, God answers. “My words,” those of a true father, bless “the one who walks uprightly,” exposing the “calamity” of the one who does not listen.

As if there were ever a choice.

Sennacherib’s conquest of Lachish 2

Notes:

  1. Ryken, Leland, Wilhoit, James C., Longman III, Tremper, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 1998. Pg. 194.
  2. Sennacherib’s conquest of Lachish. British Museum, London.

Let’s Preach Rainbows and Unicorns for the Kids!

We don’t like our children to be troubled by difficult news.  Especially in America where our children do not face daily struggles of war and famine like they do in other parts of the world, we would rather flip on the Saturday morning cartoons and let the commercials preach rainbows and unicorns.  A child’s dream is fulfilled when she can live vicariously through chic Barbie, or when junior can add the latest action hero figure to the bazillions he has already.   “If a man should go about and utter wind and lies, saying ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ he would be the preacher for this people!” (Micah 2:11)  Indeed, this is the preaching we seek.

We hear in Micah 2:6, “Do not preach”–thus they preach–“one should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us.”  We don’t want to hear how screen time will turn our kids’ brains to mush.  We don’t want to hear how super-sizing and convenient fast food disease our kids with obesity.  The very things we cling to for comfort become our disgrace.  And we certainly don’t want our children to hear the troubling yet real stories of children who are plagued by famine, war, sickness, and abuse.  If they heard, they may react with compassion and cease their own whining for yet more rainbows and unicorns.

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The youngest children of Ephesus School continue to work on memorizing Micah 6:6-8.

Our newest Hebrew word is ללכת  lalekhet, or lechu which means, “walk.”

Micah’s hard word against Judah

The children’s eyes lit up again this week when I told them more about Israelite history.  I recounted King Ahaz’s crime, to call in the Assyrian army to defend Judah against aggression from the northern alliance of Israel and Aram.  Just hearing this caused suspicion in the children; how would King Ahaz know that Assyria wouldn’t turn against Judah?  I spoiled the end–I let them know that it was going to end badly.  We saw the Lord’s uncompromising insistence on driving his people off the land so that they would eventually desire to turn back to him.

I read the entire chapter to the children, telling them to listen and remember what stood out to them.  The women removed from their houses and the prophet preaching “liquor and wine” struck them immediately.  Then they discussed the bad events that were coming to pass for Judah.  Then I read back through the chapter slowly, explaining the difficult parts and inviting discussion.

The dispossession of the people occupied a lot of our time, and we tied it back to the theme of disloyalty from last week (chapter 1).  We recalled how the Lord needed to bring the people back to him, but punishment alone was not going to work.  Wicked people would come and steal their land–and God would allow it!  The people would lament (similar to the mourning of the previous chapter).  This reaction would hopefully bring the people back.

People would not welcome such a message, we saw in the next section (verses 6-7), because it sounds strange.  How could God allow wicked people to have their way with this land and let people be hurt?  All this because King Ahaz sinned?  We remembered the king of Nineveh, who, in contrast to King Ahaz and his people, listened and immediately repented and fasted.  The contrasting behavior of King Ahaz struck us especially because he was the king of Assyria–the very opponent threatening Israel now!  The king of Nineveh proved that the correct behavior was possible, putting King Ahaz in an even more dangerous position in the eyes of the Lord.

Our class agreed that the people would always prefer a prophet who preached a party rather than the doom that God had in mind (verses 11-12).  We wondered, though, how could the Ninevites hear Jonah’s prophecy amidst the voices of the city, especially one that was so difficult.  Of course it’s easier to hear the easy word, making the Ninevites stand out even more for the responsiveness.

This chapter showed that God would warn the people with an impossible message: God was ready to abandon his people and his land.  His own people would suffer and God would not help.  The Lord would lead them out of their land himself (verse 13).

Micah & the Big “I Told You So”

The prophecy of Micah begins with a literary motif that is at once normative and exclusive to the Bible’s genre. In the realm of philosophical religions, it is common to justify suffering via theodicy, the foolish attempt to reconcile rational concepts of God with the existence of evil. When disaster strikes we have come to expect the question, “if there is a God why does he allow suffering,” and its corresponding platitude, “behind every storm cloud there is a rainbow,” and other such tripe. In truth–neither good nor evil–suffering is essential to the natural ecosystem of which humans are a part and to which they contribute. In contrast with human projections of a “rational god,” Micah imposes a biblical deity who in human terms is completely irrational. Not only does he allow suffering, he causes it. Not only does he take sides in war, he takes sides against his own people.

A contemporary of Isaiah, Micah was written “in the days of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (1:1) during the aftermath of Judah’s egregious capitulation to Assyria. Turning away from God, Ahaz had leapt to the affluent and welcoming arms of the king of Assyria. (2 Kings 16:5-9) Soon thereafter, Hezekiah paid the price for his father’s apostasy with the seizure of Judah. (2 Kings 18:13) As with the rebellion of Samaria (1:5)–a reference to the idolatry of Omri, the city’s builder (1 Kings 16:24-25)–Ahaz had placed his eggs in the wrong basket, endangering both Israel and Judah. (1:6-9) It is for this reason, Micah announced, that the Lord was “coming forth from his place,” “from his holy Temple,” to exact punishment. (1:2-3)

In historical terms, the cities of Samaria and Jerusalem were threatened by foreign invasion. Whatever the cause (or not) in history, the impending seizure of Judah presented Micah with a teachable moment. In the Bible, suffering acquires meaning when it is co-opted by the biblical narrative to demonstrate the power of God’s instruction, either as judgment or as witness. In Micah, the former. To help illustrate this point during the introductory presentation to both adults and children, I used the following example.

With the help of two young volunteers, I asked one student to role-play as “a hot stove,” and the other as a child playing in the kitchen. I assumed the role of a parent, warning the child not to touch the hot stove.

“In that day,” I warned her in a trumped up prophetic tone, “your wound will be incurable” (1:9) and you shall know that “your calamity has come down from the Lord.” (1:12)

In our skit, my leaving the room was the child’s cue to touch the hot stove. So she did, and I returned to announce that “God is not mocked” (Galatians 6:7) and that her burn was a punishment from the Lord.

“Does that mean that God burned your hand,” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “It means that God is saying, ‘I told you so.'”

Out of the mouths of babes. No theology degree required.

Anger, Sadness, and Disloyalty

The book of Micah required some background material.  First, I wanted to explain how a prophet functioned as a messenger of God.  I explained to the children the mechanics of communication in the ancient Near East.  Since most people were not literate, and radio and phones had not been invented, communication was a problem.  Kings hired a scribe who wrote a message, the messenger carried it, and the other king’s scribe read it back.  A prophet worked in the same way: God sent a messenger with his word.

Second, I explained the references to Samaria and Judah that we would encounter.  The children love history, so this was exciting for them.  We remembered King David, how he reigned over a united kingdom, and the problems that ensued after the split in the kingdom.  The book of Micah takes place after the Assyrians had wiped out the Northern Kingdom, and while the Babylonians were menacing the Southern Kingdom.  Many of the children had heard of Babylonia before.

Finally, we needed to understand the themes of unfaithfulness in this chapter.  An important issue was explaining the idolatry and “harlot’s hire” that were often repeated.  The latter concept had to be handled delicately, of course, because of the children’s age.  I explained this way.  Imagine a child, whose father denied her something she wanted.  A friend’s father offered to give it to her–plus some things.  How would the father feel if the child decided to move in with the friend’s father?  This is idolatry: deciding to give up one’s father because  of the “stuff” one can get out of the arrangement.  Then we changed to the second concept.  Imagine your father says to your mom, “I’m going to bed.  Are you coming along soon?”  The mother replies, “No thanks.  I think I’ll go stay with my other family.  They give me the best breakfast on Mother’s Day, plus presents, and I never have to do the dishes!”  Just the idea made the children sad.  This is what it means to be a “harlot.”  The kids viscerally felt how disloyalty, arising from material benefits, destroys the family.

God was upset by the people’s lack of loyalty and love of material benefits.  But how does the father bring back the disloyal child or wife?  The kids initially thought of punishment, but then thought it might not work.  We saw the dilemma that confronted God.

The form of the literature struck the kids.  I read aloud the first chapter.  It sounded more like poetry to them, with certain rhythms and images.  The power of God walking on mountaintops, the loneliness of the ostrich, and the baldness of the vulture all stuck with them.

God’s arrival does not always bring good news, we saw.  God walks from mountain to mountain.  Those towering testimonies to eternity sloshed away instantly when God came.  Not only is God powerful and big, but his eternal nature dwarfs even the mountains.

Disloyalty upset God in different ways.  At first, God sounded angry, ready to smash the people.  But then God sounded sad, lamenting the waywardness of the people.  He was vainly trying to stop a contagious disease–disloyalty–before it infected Judah.  The references to the ostrich, alone in the desert, or the jackal, crying pitifully, emphasized this lament.  Finally, the lamentation would come to the people, where they would look like vultures, as they lamented the loss of their own children.

The class responded readily to discussing the metaphors and similies of the text, displaying a sharp intelligence for understanding the prophetic text.  I was encouraged that the skills they had learned in school for reading poetry were helpful for understanding Micah.  Through these images they saw the awesome coming of God, his anger and sadness, and the disappointing disloyalty and ultimate mourning of Israel.

Hearing Implies Obeying

For our first lesson in Micah, our youngest children learned the Hebrew word for “hear.”  It is שמע shema’.  We talked about our mothers who warn us against going into the street or touching a hot stove or playing too rough.  Concerned for her children, she warns against things and behaviors that are unsafe for her children.  “Don’t do that!” mother warns because she loves us and wants to protect us.  And when she calls out, “Did you hear me?!?”  She’s not checking for earwax, she’s checking for obedience.  When mother gives a word of warning, she’s not asking her children for their opinions nor is she giving her children the option to do what she says.  Did you hear me does not mean, “tell me what you think.”  Did you hear me does not mean, “consider what I’ve said, but do what you want.” Did you hear me means, “It looks like you’re not obeying my word and you’re about to be punished for disobedience.”

When mother walks away, her word remains, making her “ever-present.”  Her children are expected to abide by her word, whether she is there or not.  And somehow mother knows when her children are conspiring disobedience or secretly being naughty.  She can walk into the room of her children, “and the mountains will melt . . . and the valleys will be cleft, like wax before the fire.”  When mother walks into the room, no one can hide.  She can see the bump of rump under the blanket, the eyes peeking through the closet, and the wiggly toes at the base of the curtain.  And she can definitely see the broken toys and baby sister crying in the room.   She can recognize the guilt and punish every wrong-doing with a swift hand.

It’s tempting to reach out and touch that hot stove or play too rough, no matter what mom says.  By our own willfulness, we hurt ourselves and cry out, “Mama, help me!”  And Mother hears and attends to the cries of her children.  When we get hurt even after mother warns us, to whom do we turn for band-aids, healing, and comfort?  We turn to mom.  The very one who warns us in order to protect us is the one who makes everything better even when we’ve disobeyed.

This is how the Lord functions in Micah.  When Micah says Hear or Hearken it implies responding to the word of the Lord with obedience.  The Lord comes down in judgment, addressing every transgression.  Yet the Lord “does not retain his anger for ever because he delights in steadfast love.” (Micah 7:18)

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The youngest children of Ephesus School will be memorizing Micah 6:6-8.

I want to die!

I had the pleasure last Saturday of substitute teaching Dr. Benton’s church school class. After reviewing chapter three of the book of Jonah we moved into the fourth and last chapter  which begins with Jonah being displeased and angry.

“Why is Jonah upset?” I asked the class.

“Because the king of Nineveh repented,” one child answered to a chorus of agreement from the others.

“Jonah was so mad he wanted to die,” said one of the older girls.  “Isn’t suicide a sin?”

“That is a good question and we’ll talk about suicide a bit later,” I answered. “What did Jonah do next?”

“He made a tent to sit in” was one answer.

“He wanted to see what would happen to the people in the city,” said another.

“And what did God do?” I asked.

“He made a bush grow up for shade but a worm ate it!” replied a younger boy.

“This is true,” I said. Then we talked about the added mercy of the bush God caused to grow for shade even though Jonah already had a tent. We noted how happy this made Jonah. But then during the night God sent a worm to destroy the bush so it withered and then God caused even hotter weather conditions for Jonah. Once again Jonah becomes angry and defeated by circumstances he can’t control, telling God two more times that he wants to die.

“Jonah doesn’t like it when God is kind to other people,” one child pointed out. “He’s only happy when God does nice things for him.” This was followed by a discussion of the childishness of Jonah.  “Even adults can act childish,” I reminded the children. “Being “childlike” is not necessarily bad, but childishness is about how we can act when we don’t get our way. Do you think Jonah really wanted to die? Does his life seem that bad?” There was good discussion about this and we decided that Jonah was not in any real pain but wanted to have his own way. We knew this not just from chapter four, but the context of the whole story which more than once shows Jonah trying to escape that which is unpleasant to him. I asked the class if they had ever felt that they wanted to die. Almost all of them gave an example of a time when they felt this way, usually because they had a task or job they didn’t want to do like practice the piano, homework or chores.  “Do you really want to die or do you want to get your own way?” I queried.  Most agreed that they usually wanted their own way. Then I pointed out that there are people who are in such deep pain that they feel they want to die to escape the pain. Then we spent time talking about suicide and the importance of listening to others who express pain or say they want to die.  I underlined the fact they should always tell their parents or an adult if they feel this way or anyone they know expresses a desire to harm themselves.  It is not up to them to figure this out on their own.

Jonah’s problem, we decided, was more about wanting to be in control than anything else, a sin we are all guilty of. But God in his mercy and kindness would not give in to Jonah’s temper tantrums. In fact at times  he makes Jonah’s life harder.  Does Jonah ever acknowledge that God is in control in spite of all circumstances?  The text doesn’t say.

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Jonah the Post-Modern Nihilist

The final section of Jonah opens with the prophet’s anger and displeasure at the reversal of God’s wrath. (4:1)  In a reprisal of  his teenager persona, Jonah justifies his selfish behavior from chapter 1, wagging his finger at Dad, “didn’t I tell you?” (4:2) Jonah’s childish rant teems with hypocrisy.  Even as he is rescued from Sheol (2:2) he angrily pouts that his weaker brother (Nineveh) is forgiven for lesser crimes.  Lesser, since before God sent Jonah to warn Nineveh, they had no way of knowing their offence. Again, Matthew’s application of Jonah comes to mind in the parable of the merciful king:

32 Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.” (Matthew 18:32-34)

Questioning Jonah with fatherly patience, the Lord asks, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” (4:4)  This inquiry appears twice in chapter 4 and addresses inherent contradictions in  Jonah’s rebellion.  A kind of post-modern nihilist, Jonah finds neither purpose nor meaning in God’s judgement (4:2) or in life itself. (4:3)  Still, when faced with his own suffering, nihilism gives way to Jonah’s active engagement in his own comfort.

Like an American watching cable news, Jonah setup a “shelter for himself”  grabbed a bucket of popcorn and “sat down”  in judgement (4:5) to watch 120,000 people suffer a certain and violent death. (4:11)  It is notable that the Lord’s plant–not the prophet’s self-made shelter–was able to provide for Jonah’s needs. “Unless the Lord builds the house, in vain do they labor who build it.” (Ps 127:1) Alas, suddenly,  the same Lord who provided the plant for shade replaced it with a “scorching east wind.” (4:8) Poor Jonah. What does it all mean? Does Jonah have a “good reason” to be angry about the plant? (4:9)

Jonah is a nihilist for his neighbors but a believer for himself.  To paraphrase The Sopranos, sorry Jonah, “either it means something or it means nothing.”  You can’t have it both ways. Jonah mourned the loss of a transient plant “for which [he] did not work and which [he] did not cause to grow” (4:10) yet cared nothing for his needy neighbor. Surely, if Jonah’s comfort means something, what of Nineveh?

“Then God said to Jonah:”

Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (4:11)

Mark, Canonizer of Paul

New from OCABS Press, Mark, Canonizer of Paul  by Tom Dykstra. A new look at intertextuality in Mark’s gospel:

“For over 150 years the idea that Mark used the Pauline epistles has been recurring in New Testament research. Now in the work of Tom Dykstra, wide-ranging work and thoughtful, the truth of that idea emerges with a clarity it never had before. The result is to give a fresh sense of the origin and nature of Mark, of all the New Testament books, and of the quest for history.” –Thomas Brodie, Director, Dominican Biblical Institute, author of The Birthing of the New Testament

“Tom Dykstra draws connections between Paul and the Gospel of Mark that are stunning, surprising, and original, and leave readers with a sense that the evidence deserves a better interpretation than traditional Synoptic models can offer. Well argued, easy to read, immersed in the relevant current exegetical discussion, the book fascinates, provokes, and encourages to think outside the box.”– David Trobisch, author of The First Edition of the New Testament

“In addition to its main focus on Mark, this book is a lucid introduction to early church history, oral tradition, the gospels’ genre, and how to understand scripture in general.” – Paul Nadim Tarazi, Professor of Biblical Studies, St. Vladimir’s Seminary

The crazy guy vs. the one who listens to him

Chapter 3 of Jonah illustrates Jonah’s second chance to give the Ninevites a second chance.  God sets Jonah back on track to warn the Ninevites.  Jonah complies this time, and the Ninevites are fairly warned.  The king of Nineveh responds with extraordinary piety when word reaches him, committing himself and his entire land–including the livestock–to fast for three days.

The first discussion turned on why the king would respond this way.  It is an impossible reaction.  We thought of how soon the mayor of New York City would declare a fast should someone declare on those busy streets that God would condemn the city.  (One child suggested that someone probably already did–even multiple times!)  The king’s extreme reaction to such a simple statement overwhelmed us.

Next, the breadth of the fast troubled us.  The students asked how it could be fair that everyone would have to fast.  Had every single individual sinned?  One student suggested that they were not only punished for their sins, but also their intention to sin.  In this way the universal fast was justified.  I countered that the animals also had to fast; what could they have done?  Some children argued that even animals could poo on someone maliciously.  I disagreed; an animal poos when it has to, not by intent.  As a result, the fact that animals had to fast proved that both the guilty and the innocent had to fast.

Sometimes you have to “take one for the team,” one child said.  We had to consider why innocent people had to fast.  We know that sometimes in the Bible, a family is cursed because one child sins.  The reaction of the king of Nineveh to God’s declarations expands this paradigm out to the city level.  Everyone had to fast because everyone was cursed–whether he or she did something individually was irrelevant.

Since the king showed such compunction, the students could see why God forgave him.  Should the kids, knowing that they were about to be punished, offer a sincere letter of apology and voluntary grounding from the TV, their parents might let them off the hook.  Their parents may have, however, punished the child regardless out of fairness, or held them up to the atonement they set up for themselves.  God was particularly kind to let the Ninevites off the hook.

Finally, we noticed a continuum of obedience among three characters: Jonah, the sailors, and the king.  The king came out on top, having immediately responded to God’s word.  The sailors came next, because they resisted God, but finally submitted.  Jonah comes up last, since he fought hardest against God’s will.

I asked a question in the end.  If their sister had offered the same letter and voluntary grounding for an infraction that they had already been punished for, would it be fair for the parents to let the sister off the hook?  How would they feel?  Would they support their parents’ decision?  We will see how they answer this question next week when we read ch. 4.