Nahum and the Minor Prophets

This week I spoke to our adults and presented the book of Nahum in light of the other books we have been reading.  I presented how reading Nahum in the context of the other Minor Prophets enhances the message of the opposing faithfulness of the Lord and the fickleness of Israel.

In our Bible the book of Nahum existed as part of a bigger whole, and the ancient evidence we possess also reflects this structure.  We call these books the “Minor Prophets” because they are shorter than the other prophetic books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah.  Scholars also refer to the Minor Prophets as the Book of the 12, because of the number of minor prophetic books.  This number immediately sounds significant because the number of times the number 12 appears with significance in the Bible (eg, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles).  The earliest copy we have of the Book of the 12 was found in the Judean desert.  We have never found any of these twelve books on their own.  As a result, I am choosing to read the Book of the 12 as a single narrative–twelve beads on a single string.

The Book of the 12 does not have meaning without the meaning of the individual prophetic books (chapters?), so a deep understanding of each book is important.  Often these books are boring: God gets angry, God smashes, people feel sorry.  It’s hard to see why this boring, sometimes depressing message has to be repeatedly told, let alone read.  This reaction makes sense; the story arcs of each of these books bear close resemblances to one another.  However, on deeper examination, one can ferret out the differences, which contain the overall movement of the Twelve.

So we quickly went through the book of Nahum.  (We’ll read it closely over the next few weeks.)  The Lord appears as a destructive force of nature, ready to destroy his enemies.  Nineveh, the capitol of the Assyrian empire, will be destroyed, but Israel will be restored (ch. 1).  Those who are righteous have a chance for salvation, though they will not avoid the catastrophe–an upcoming war (ch. 2).  The harlotries of Nineveh will become her shame, and as Nineveh defeated the world power of Egypt, so Nineveh will suffer humiliating defeat (ch. 3).  Nahum is a story of defeat, but instead of Israel being crushed by its enemies, Israel is lifted up as its enemies are crushed.

Because this book speaks in Israel’s favor and against Israel’s enemies, it resembles on the surface a propaganda piece for Israel.  While we have a typical story of God wreaking havoc, instead of against Israel, the Lord is working against Israel’s enemy.  The text creates an odd reality.  While it addresses the Ninevites, the text is in Hebrew; Assyrians couldn’t understand it.  This address speaks to Israelite ears in Hebrew.  This effect is as if Al Qaeda addressed the US for its rejection of God–but in Arabic.  Americans would not ever hear this invective against them; the message is for Arabic-speakers and no response from the US is expected.

The Lord is telling Israel that no kingdom is eternal.  As Israel was defeated, so is Nineveh, and for many of the same reasons.  The accusation of “harlotry” was used everywhere from the beginning of the Twelve, in Hosea 1, to the most recent, Micah.  No one is born safe; no one is born in danger.  Unfaithfulness is the unwavering criterion of righteousness, whether for the Lord’s chosen people or for the Gentiles.

In the broader context of what we have read, the Lord shows no favor, except on the faithful.  Jonah displayed a chosen prophet who could not live up to the faithful standard of the Ninevites, who were quickly and easily forgiven.  Micah described the consequences on Israel for their lack of faithfulness: Assyria, with the Lord’s help, would defeat Israel.  Now Nineveh must learn the same lesson.  Israel cannot complain about unfairness; Nineveh is seeing the same consequences as Israel.

To human beings, the Lord looks like a yo-yo.  Once he’s up, filling the cup of blessing; next he’s down, ready to crush his people.  Why does the Lord treat his people like this?  Habakkuk, the prophet following Nahum, begins with these very questions.  “How long?” the prophet asks in the beginning of the book, as the people have experienced defeat anew, this time at the hands of the Babylonians (Habakkuk 1:2).

Saving grace comes when one realizes that the Lord is constant, though humans may not be.  The Lord shows constant faithfulness to his people, offering blessings at times and correctives at others.  The people, though, might show their faithfulness, counting on the Lord for help; at other times, they count on their own armies or the armies of their allies–harlotry–rather than on the Lord’s help.  The Book of the 12 thus outlines the stalwart faithfulness of the Lord in opposition to the people’s mixed actions of faithfulness and treachery.

bookofthe12

Jude: Disagreeing to Agree

Falling in line with other epistles attributed to “the Pillars,” (Galatians 2:9) Jude, literally, Judas (Ἰούδας) is included in the canon as part of a larger narrative about Paul’s conflict with Peter and James. The obvious implications of the name Judas, the “brother of James” (1:1) and the adaptation of Jude’s phraseology by the letters of Peter 1 underscore its placement with Paul’s opponents. Written in the same vein as the letters of Peter and James, Jude is presented as a corrective for those who would twist Pauline liberty into an excuse for lawless behavior. Far from contradicting Paul’s teaching, Jude accentuates his message, warning of dire consequences for “ungodly persons” who rebel against the authority of the written word.

Emphasizing the “written” gospel’s dominion twice in the same verse (1:3) Jude stresses his “effort” and the “necessity” of “writing” (γράφειν/γράψαι) the faith “once for all handed down to the saints.”  Even Michael the archangel “did not dare” speak on God’s behalf, deferring instead to the coming judgement. (1:9; Galatians 1:8) Echoing a typical Pauline formula (Ex. Galatians 1:7) he goes on to explain that “certain persons” who “have crept in unnoticed” (1:4) are undermining this written teaching by twisting the “grace of God into licentiousness.”  In effect, Jude amplifies Paul’s corrective from 1 Corinthians: Freedom in Christ, like freedom from bondage in Egypt (1:5) is not “freedom” in a general sense.  In Exodus, the people are set free for the express purpose of serving God. (Exodus 8:1) This point is consolidated in Jude’s reference to the “rebellion of Korah” (1:11; Numbers 16) which resulted in the destruction of Korah, Dathan and Abiram and their entire households. (Numbers 16:31) The same point carries over in each biblical example cited.

Finally, Jude explains that the ungodly are easily recognized in the objective of their speech. Circumventing the inconvenient truth of the gospel, which undermines both teacher and student, the ungodly “speak arrogantly,” that is, on the authority of human wisdom, status, or affiliation, “flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage.” (1:15) Since a human word is always spoken in selfishness, it is easily discerned from the gospel, which does not seek to please human beings. (Galatians 1:10) “But you,” Jude explains, “ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:17) It is this teaching, consigned to the written gospel, which  is able to keep its adherents “from stumbling.” (1:24)  Not to any human beings, Jude warns, but to God alone be “dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever.” (1:25)

hey jude

Notes:

  1. Tarazi, Paul N., “Volume 65: Jude, Orthodox Audio Bible Commentary,” OCABS Press, 2004

Bearing the Indignation

I can’t say it’s been easy teaching Micah to young children, ages 3 to 6.  At this age children are trying to figure out how the world works–if this, then that–and they have a heightened sense of fairness, especially when they think they have been treated unfairly.  How can the victim be the perpetrator at the same time?  How does a teacher explain to young children, “I will bear the indignation of the LORD because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me forth to the light; I shall behold his deliverance. Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, “Where is the LORD your God?” My eyes will gloat over her; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets.” (Micah 7:9-10) In many children’s stories and fairy tales, there is usually a clear hero–innocent and benevolent–and a clear villain–evil and selfish–and justice is executed in the end.  Can anyone think of a children’s story where the hero has wronged another, suffers the shame of his punishment and is chided for it, and comes out the hero on the other end?  It may help in explaining Micah.

Imagine a child who pesters his siblings–cheating at their games, taking their toys, and jabbing his brothers and sisters with his sharp elbows.  As a punishment his mother scolds him harshly and sends him to stand with his nose in the corner.  While he endures his punishment, he begins to reflect on his wrongs and experiences a few moments of contrition.  It feels as though he’s been standing in the corner forever and he resolves to be more kind.  His siblings find him alone in the corner, and while mother is not around, they begin to taunt him, hurling insults and punches.  Knowing he can do nothing because his mother told him not to move his nose from the corner or say a word, he accepts the taunts of his siblings, knowing he probably deserves them.  His siblings continue to berate him, beating him with cruel words and sticks.  As he begins to cry from the pain of the beating, his siblings chide, “You think Mom is going to listen to you?!?”  Suddenly Mother appears and lashes out against all the other children, showing that their brother’s punishment should have deterred them from their greater cruelty.  Not only are they sent to the corner, but all their toys are thrown to the garbage heap, and then they are sent to bed without any supper.  The first naughty boy is told sternly he may eat at the table.  He sits and eats soberly, remembering his past wrongs and the plight of his brothers and sisters.  Poor mother with children who constantly try her patience!  But like the Lord, she does “not stay angry forever, but delights to show mercy.”

*****

Parents, here’s a summary of our Ephesus School memory work, if you’d like to review with your children at home:

Memory verses:  Micah 6:6-8

Hebrew words:

mercy:  chesed חסד

remnant:  she’erit שארית

hear:  shemah  שמע

mountain:  har הר

repent:  shuv שוב

appoint:  menah מנה

walk:  lechu  לכו

You Can Lead a Horse to Water

In every serious, lasting relationship, there comes a moment of truth in which at least one person must decide not to be the victim. Shunning the wisdom of Scripture, children supplant obedience with blame, squandering the due season of their adulthood with endless, poisonous rants about how others are responsible for their failures. Spouses wickedly nurture their “inner child” complaining of unmet emotional needs or of what their partner does or does not do for them. Neglecting “the weightier matters of the Torah,” such couples close their household to people with genuine problems, all the while condemning each other in pointless arguments about “mint and dill and cumin.” (Matthew 23:23) A patchwork of families broken–each concerned with their own needs–our communities become hollow shells. In Dr. King’s words, we build empty “neighborhoods” when what we need are “brotherhoods.” 1

Starved by Judah’s bareness (7:1) Micah laments just such a society, one devoid of the Lord’s wisdom. “Woe is me,” he cries, sent to harvest the fruit of the Torah from barren soil. (7:1) “The godly person has perished from the land. There is no upright person among men.” (7:2) “Each of them,” he explains, “hunts the other with a net,” as though neighbors were appointed for consumption, not communion. Warning of a judgment far worse than the Assyrian invasion, the prophet envisions a society in which each person’s enemies are of their own household:

5 Do not trust in a neighbor;
Do not have confidence in a friend.
From her who lies in your bosom
Guard your lips.
6 For son treats father contemptuously,
Daughter rises up against her mother,
Daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
A man’s enemies are the men of his own household.”
(Micah 7:5-6)

Isolated from neighbors and betrayed by friends, Judah’s victim mentality leads to a world characterized by self-righteous rebellion and broken trust, in which people share beds, but not intimacy.

Serving God in the struggle to save Zion from a self-inflicted Hell, Micah speaks of an alternative characterized by repentance (after a violent reboot) in which even the downtrodden remnant of Jerusalem comes to understand that its debt to God far outweighs any abuses suffered. (7:18) “As for me,” Micah exclaims, “I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him.” (7:9) If Jerusalem were to follow Micah’s lead, seeing itself not as victim, but as oppressor, God might again show compassion (7:19) as in the days of Moses and Aaron (7:15) in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. (7:20) All this and more is possible in the Kingdom of God, if only Jerusalem would repent, embracing her enemies. “No one,” the proverb goes, “can live in Paradise without others.” 2

Alas, you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

horsewater

Notes:

  1. King, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, Paul’s Letter to American Christians, November 4, 1956 (http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_pauls_letter_to_american_christians)
  2. Old Arabic Proverb

Israel learn their lesson–and enjoy victory: Micah 7

This chapter starts to bring events around to Israel’s side again. Much of the book of Micah describes the destruction caused by the Assyrians, and the wicked actions of Israel that brought it about. The book culminates in chapter 7 with the reversal of fortunes enjoyed by the people, as soon as the Lord relents, shows his forgiveness towards them, and brings Israel’s enemies down to the dirt.

I began this lesson by asking the students to review past chapters. What did the children remember? They remembered the motion of Israel: going out and coming back in again. The Assyrians were attacking the North, and the South was counting on Assyria rather than God. The people were overwhelmed by guilt rather than intent on following the will of the Lord. With prompting, they remembered the People Soup and the wicked kings who preyed on their people. War, destruction, and guilt were the overwhelming themes.

After reading the chapter, we began the first section (vv. 1-7) where we encountered an important agricultural metaphor that seemed to shift its meaning (vv. 1-4). The kids have gone berry- and apple-picking in their lives, and they knew what it looked like at the end of the season, when the bushes and trees were all picked-over. This was Israel at this moment; as one child said it, the people were just the “trash.” This metaphor displayed how the land was “picked over” as a result of the war. The land looked empty. Then the metaphor shifted as the people complained that no good people are left. The best “fruit” of the people, the pious and upright ones, were gone. The image shifted from what the people’s enemies had done to the people and what they had done to themselves. They had become so wicked that they were “prickly shrubs” that cannot produce fruit at all. We remembered the unjust leaders and judges from 3:9-11, how the judges unjustly favored the rich over the poor. Injustice among those in charge of justice proved too much for the Lord.

Furthermore, life had become impossible because no one could trust each other any more (vv. 5-7). Not only were the judges unfair, but you could not trust your wife, children, parents, or friends. The Lord stood out as the only good one remaining—and the narrator, the people, had no one left but the Lord to trust. The Assyrians had not taken the best fruit; the people lost its best fruit—their good and pious citizens—and could no longer grow fruit at all.

During the next section, a reversal of fortunes took place (vv. 8-13) and the Lord is called on to bring this reversal to pass (vv. 14-17). (The kids began humming “What Goes Around … Comes Around,” by Justin Timberlake at this point.) We imagined being smashed by a superior force, just as Israel was beaten by Assyria, as I acted like the Lord and towered over one of the students and taunted her. According the to text, the student had to say that she had to “bear the anger,” that the threat came not from the tall teacher (Assyria), but from the Lord as a result of her sin (v. 9). She will stay crushed until the Lord decides to stop crushing her—Assyria really isn’t the enemy but a tool of the Lord. After taunting the student/Israel—mocking her faith in the Lord—Assyria would eventually fall down so low that Assyria will be like the “mud in the streets” (v. 10). What has gone around will come back around; Assyria crushed Israel and taunted her, but Assyria would finally be crushed. The end of Assyria would come because of Assyria’s “fruit” of their deeds, just like Israel (v. 13). Finally, after kings constantly disappointed them, the people long for the Lord to be their shepherd (vv. 14-17) to lead them out into wonderful pastures and bringing their enemies down to the dust like a snake.

The end of the chapter—and the book—highlight the Lord’s unique patience and love (vv. 18-20). This description of the Lord contrasts with the wrath that we’ve seen up to this point. How is the God who sends war and famine and humiliation against his people one who claims love and graciousness towards the people? The book teaches the people how to recover from the war and loss of the war against Assyria. When Israel learns that the war and loss come as a result of their sin, and that when they learn to put the injustice and oppression that they have inflicted on their own people, the Lord will again make them victorious. Moreover, he will completely put away their sin—down to the bottom of the sea (v. 19). The Lord will not forget his people, but continue in fulfilling his promises made from the beginning (v. 20).

After six chapters of Micah explaining the war and affliction that Israel experienced, this final chapter brings hope to the fore. While this section highlights the devastation caused by Israel against the people, it also reverses their fortunes. Rather than an afflicted, guilty Israel, the people will enjoy victory and forgiveness from their God. Israel has the chance to learn a lesson, and this lesson brings hope in eventual victory.

Plato’s Wicked Scales

The most difficult rule of the biblical tradition–and the one most widely ignored–is Scripture’s insistence that its judgments can apply only to one’s self. In 2 Samuel, David quickly condemned the rich man for stealing a poor man’s ewe lamb, unwittingly accusing himself:

Then David’s anger burned greatly against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. He must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.” Nathan then said to David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:5-7)

It was David, wealthy and powerful, who had stolen a poor man’s wife, murdering the foreigner to satisfy his own wants.  David had co-opted the Torah as an “agent of sin” (Galatians 2:17) as though Scripture was given to set one sinner above another. Seeking a justifiable course for itself, the human mind builds “wicked scales” (6:11) using the weaker brother as a crutch for Plato’s imaginary “good person.” In opposition to human reason, the Bible asserts that no one is good. (Psalm 14:1-3)  Perpetuating the David-Nathan paradigm, Scripture coaxes the ego, inviting condemnation of the Pharisee in order to expose the reader’s pharisaism:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (Romans 2:1)

Echoing the same principles, Micah’s prophecy exposes Jerusalem, not the foreigner, as the unrepentant aggressor. Even if Jerusalem had done nothing wrong (Matthew 25:26; Luke 19:22) like David, they stood condemned by their debt to God:

Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul.  I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these! ” (2 Samuel 12:7-8)

Daring Judah to make a reasonable defense of itself, in Micah, God taunts his people, suggesting they plead their case to the mountains and foundations of the earth. (6:1-2) The metaphor calls to mind humanity’s insignificance compared to God’s creation 1 emphasizing the magnitude of their indebtedness. “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

“My people,” God cries, “what have I done to you?” (6:3) The gift of creation? (6:1) Deliverance from slavery? (6:4) The blessing of instruction? (6:4-5) These alone lay a burden at Judah’s feet to heavy to bear. The worst atrocities of Assyria’s king pale in comparison.

What does that say about you, the reader? Think before you answer. God cannot justify wicked scales. (6:11-12)

Notes:

  1. Tarazi, Paul Nadim, The Chrysostom Bible: Genesis as Commentary, OCABS Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2009.  In Genesis, the toledot (תּוֹלְדֹת) of creation supersedes that of Adam, playing down humanity’s importance.

Accused by the Offering

Parents get a little crazy about their kids’ messes.  They’ve got so much, they forget half of what they own.  Collections of Barbie dolls, Legos, Golden Books, American Girl dolls, Star Wars action figures, Polly Pockets, play kitchen plastics, Magnetics, Wii accessories, and lip gloss are strewn all over the house.  I’ve heard of more than one mom “secretly disposing” of forgotten toys.  But if kids see the discard pile, watch out.  The weeping and wailing and pleading for these “special” toys come on with full force.

Honestly, our kids’ toy closets don’t look so different from our own pantries, vanity drawers, third-car garages, and investment portfolios.  I think they come by it honestly . . . and far too early.

Our youngest children of Ephesus School talked about the treasures they store in their toy boxes.  It’s exciting for young children to talk about the things that are special to them; just like adults and how they talk about the great buy on spaghetti sauce (so buy 20), anti-wrinkle cream which peels back the years, their new RV with seat warmers, and their rising stocks in BP oil.  But kids this age also love telling stories about how they share toys with their friends, and how friends share with them.  I remember my own daughter at that age had no trouble giving away her most-prized toys.  Unfortunately, I think I stopped her when she was ready to give away an expensive doll Grandma had recently bought for her birthday.  Now that she’s older and has really learned from my example, she’s much more careful about that kind of heedless generosity.  I think the doll is now safely stored in a closet somewhere.

During these past six weeks in studying Micah, our youngest students have been memorizing 6:6-8.  “Thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil” reminds us of “thousands of toys and ten thousand stickers.”   What an impressive offering . . . any kid would want that!  And why shouldn’t God be pleased with it too?  But the offering itself accuses the giver.  It takes careful storing and calculation to produce an offering at this sum.  The ironic thing is that the rams and oil are God’s from the beginning anyway.  So the children are now beginning to see that their toys are really God’s toys, so why not share them or give them away like He shares them with us?

 

In good times and in bad, we love goodness in humility: Micah 6

The Lord in Micah 6 demonstrates to the people how he created them, how they are to respond, and how their current suffering comes from their inappropriate response. Our class reiterated the movement in the book of Micah: God brings the people out of captivity, the people sin, God sends the people into captivity, God brings them out of captivity, etc. This chapter features a courtroom scene, followed by a boisterous show of guilt. The people suffer because they choose to reject the correct response to grace, love of neighbor, but instead choose greed. Whether the people are coming out of or going into captivity, they must respond with love of goodness and humility.

I began by describing two points of background. First, we discussed how a court procedure worked and how each role functions: the judge, the plaintiff/accuser, the defendant/accused, the lawyers, the witnesses, and the jury. Second, I narrated an abbreviated version of the story of King Balaq, the Prophet Balaam, and Balaam’s ass. The drama of the court and the comedy of Balaam captured the students’ attention: after the class, the students asked if they could produce a play based on the courtroom and Balaam’s ass. (I would have to play the judge, they said.)

When I read through the chapter, one student was captivated by the irony of God not allowing the people to conceive—but when they conceived (miraculously!) he sent the children to be killed by the sword (verse 14). Again, the apparent cruelty of the Lord comes to the fore. I re-read the whole section, bringing out the emptiness, hunger, and lack of life.

Next, I read through the chapter more slowly and deliberately, and the movement of God’s claim, Israel’s response, and Israel’s present predicament became clear. In verses 1-5 the Lord brought his suit against Israel. Since the Lord is the plaintiff, I asked, who is going to judge the case? The prophet, the students thought. No, I responded, because the prophet isn’t nearly old enough. A judge must be old and wise, so the Lord chose the next oldest thing to him: the mountains and the hills. The Lord, the plaintiff, argued his case against the defendant, Israel, to the judges and jury, the mountains and hills. He even called Israel as witnesses for his case! The Lord recounted the kindness he showed to Israel: bringing them out of Egypt, helping them survive the desert even against King Balaq, and bringing them through the River Jordan into the Promised Land. The case lays out God’s grace to the people, which lies at the foundation of the expected response.

The people respond in one voice, desiring to atone for their ingratitude (verses 6-7). Yet even they see the futility in trying to atone—nothing suffices. The children in class could identify with this despair, the inability, for example, to make up for a wrong committed against their father. What would their father want them to do, then? Probably he would want them to treat their brothers and sisters kindly and to be obedient to their parents. As the Lord said, “Do what is just, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (verse 8). The Lord does not want atonement but a heartfelt response to his gracious acts and a subsequent change in behavior.

The Lord notes the specific sins of greed that the people committed, that is, acting contrary to kindness and humility, and calls on their ruler to end these actions (verses 9-12). First, the people use false measures. The children were surprised when I asked them why the Lord finds fake weights one of the worst sins. They learned, though, that fake weights are a way to cheat your neighbor and take advantage of the hungry for the sake of making money. Second, the rich lie about the poor in order to take advantage of them. It takes a strong king—referred to as the “scepter” or “staff” by metonymy—to get rid of this despicable behavior. Greed and false testimony stand in opposition to justice, goodness, and humility.

Micah ends the chapter with a reminder of the lack of fruit—food and children—that results from following the sinful kings, Omri and the house of Ahab (verses 13-16). All of the people’s work results in pain and suffering, not satiety or rest (verses 13-15). This is not senseless cruelty but pedagogical, as it is to bring the people back to a correct response to God’s grace, that perhaps lack of God’s grace would cause the people to desire it and become grateful. In the end, they will not be able to do the right thing, and the only good that might come of it would be that their punishment might make them an example to teach the other nations (verse 16).

The people suffer because they misunderstand the reason for their suffering. The Lord created them out of his kindness not so they might feel guilty and incapable of repaying him, but so his kindness might motivate them to act kindly and justly. In their guilt, they happily follow wicked kings and act out their greed. Their greed resulted in severe shortage and lack, though, so that they might come back to their senses, recognizing the importance of the Lord’s gracious abundance. Eventually, they would not learn; their suffering caused them to be derided, so the surrounding nations might benefit. In the end, people suffer because we refuse to respond to God’s grace with gratitude, and if we can’t learn from our suffering, hopefully someone can.

House of Ephrathah

When we think of the word diaspora, it is usually in negative terms, contextualized in a framework out of sync with biblical teaching. Seeking control where none is possible, the human being desires a permanent place–a secure homeland–even as history and biology suggest life’s perpetual transience. To correct our understanding of diaspora in a way that reflects the wisdom of Micah, we need only consider its etymology. A compilation of two Greek words, dia (δια, between, through, across) and spora (σπορά, a sowing, seed) diaspora suggests an idea of community that shatters the violent boundaries we impose on each other and the natural world. “The lilies of the field,” Matthew writes, “neither toil nor spin,” (Matthew 6:28) yet their spora–like all plant life–is carried to the ends of the earth, flourishing wherever it lands. Exhorting Jerusalem to consider this transience, Micah imagines a Zion outside of Palestine, the patchwork of a displaced “remnant” (5:7) of the “least” and the “outcast” of the people of Judah. (4:6-8; 5:2)

Employing the emotional symbols of state power, in chapter 5, Micah offers hope to a besieged city, speaking of a shepherd in Jerusalem who “will arise and shepherd his flock” (5:4) wielding the “strength of the Lord.” (5:4) This great shepherd, Micah tells us, will secure life for his people, delivering Judah “from the Assyrian when he attacks our land.” (5:6) Playing on the sin that caused Judah’s fall–the worship of temporal strength–Micah pulls a bait and switch, replacing the god Judah wants with the one assigned “from of old.” (5:2) It is true that Jerusalem will be saved, but not in the way that she imagines:

Then the remnant of Jacob
Will be among many peoples
Like dew from the Lord,
Like showers on vegetation
Which do not wait for man
Or delay for the sons of men.” (5:7)

Life for Jerusalem, Micah explains, comes from the Lord, who saves his people from the Assyrian by using the tyrant’s abuse as an opportunity to scatter the remnant of Judah “like showers on vegetation.” (5:7)

“You are the salt of the earth,” Matthew explains, (Matthew 5:13) meant to spread the seed of God’s instruction “among many peoples.” (5:7) This scattering, “like a dew from the Lord,” (5:7) secures life for Jerusalem when she trades her desire for security with fellowship, abdicating borders to embrace human kinship. Judah is the first of many called to roam the earth with the Torah. “Like a young lion among flocks of sheep,” (5:8) the Torah–the Lion of Judah–is to trample and tear down the nations even as Jerusalem has been trampled, with the wisdom of God’s judgment. In this way, the house of Ephrathah, Bethlehem of Judaea, “too little to be among the clans of Judah” (5:2) will fulfill the meaning of its name as the “fruit bearing” house of the Lord.

Temporal dew, marauding lion

We continued to notice further contradictions in Micah. Again, the Lord will make the people powerful and afflict them. The new ruler of Israel will be small and insignificant, as well as powerful. The remnant of Jacob will pass away and yet conquer like a lion. The children had to navigate these opposites to make sense of this chapter. As the people decrease in significance and increase in obedience to the Lord’s wisdom, the stronger they become.

We reviewed the basic movement of Micah. The people in the city believe themselves to be powerful, then God sends the Assyrians to conquer them and take them to exile. God is waiting for the day when he can bring them back—once they’ve learned his wise teaching, his Torah.

The Lord brings out a ruler who embodies the most important qualities of this chapter: insignificance and wisdom. Once the people find themselves in exile, an insignificant ruler with origins “from of old” (v. 1) will come and become so powerful, he will muster a defense able to withstand any attack of the Assyrians (vv. 3-7). He won’t come, though, until the mother in labor “has borne” (v. 2). I told the children that we can understand the rest of the chapter if we grasp this image. The fact that he comes from a small, insignificant place, the town of David in the shadow of Jerusalem, demonstrates a lack of influence. His link to old times shows that he is wise—and true wisdom comes from the Lord and Zion (4:1-2). An image of a wise, old man, obedient to the Lord, emerges.

The initial, apparent weakness of this old man blossoms as true strength—stronger than the Assyrians. He will come after the woman gives birth, which represents the siege (4:10). After the people, in spite of their strength, are defeated by the Assyrians, the old, wise man will become stronger than their most powerful enemies. Not military strength, but wisdom in the Lord, brings victory.

The people, too, are to embody insignificance and strength. More tension arises as the “remnant of Jacob” is “droplets on grass” (v. 6) while “like a lion among flocks” (v. 7). How can this remnant be so ephemeral that the sun makes it disappear, yet terrifying as the king of the beasts? The kids in class clamored to try to figure this out! They remembered the ruler from the first verses. The people on their own, in God’s eyes, are weak, but when they are wise, God will make them strong.

The Lord preempts potential pride or sense of significance in the people. As soon as the Lord declares the people to be a conquering lion, he voices a litany of how he will destroy them (vv. 9-14). He will destroy their weapons and fortresses (vv. 9-10)—signs of Israel’s military might. [Note: After the session I noticed that the initial Hebrew word in these verses is not “destroy,” as some translations state, but “cut off,” which emphasizes how the Lord will excise these elements from the people.] He will destroy their sorcery and idols (vv. 11-13)—signs of the Israelites’ disloyalty and desire to control the elements on their own. The Lord cuts off the precise items that the people use to build themselves up. These elements distinguish them from the ruler described in the beginning of the chapter because they give a sense of significance and strength, rather than insignificance and wisdom. Ultimately, the Lord will judge all nations on the basis of whether they “obeyed” (v. 14), that is, reflected the wisdom of the Lord’s teaching available to all nations (4:2).

This chapter confuses the reader in how it suspends and unites the stark opposition between that which passes away and that which conquers. The new ruler reflects how Israel should conduct itself. If Israel would withstand the Assyrians, they have to put away their weapons and deities. As they increasingly resemble the dew, they become more like the marauding lion. Their adherence to the Lord and his teaching (ultimately indistinguishable) stand as the criterion for success. Returning from exile, the people must follow in their own actions, the insignificant, wise ruler whom God will choose.