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.

Farming without war, childbirth without joy: A contradiction in Micah 5

After I read through the chapter, Micah 4, the children told me their first impressions. One student was confused. On the one hand, the Lord was so nice, encouraging all the nations to come to him. On the other hand, he judges and rejects the people. I noted that this contradictory dynamic existed in the text, so we would have to look into it further. The legitimate confusion arose from beautiful images of peace and triumph juxtaposed with scenes of despair and humiliating defeat.

We began this week reviewing the movement caused by the Lord, which resembles a father who punishes and forgives his children. He brings the people out of the land, just to bring them back. The Lord resembles a father, who punishes his children for going against his good will. The father may yell, he may be scary; but when he relents, the return to the father’s grace is a feeling of love and relief. The Lord in this chapter describes the return to grace and the exile.

The last verse (v. 14) confused and shocked the children on the initial read, so I defined the meaning of “siege” and the background to the bad treatment of the king. A “siege” surrounds a city in order to bar any food or water to be brought into the city, and so weaken the city’s defenders. I asked what would have to happen for a king to be smacked in the face, and the students clearly described the state of the city. First, someone would have to reject any respect for the king. Second, the person would have to break into where the king was. Third, he would have to overcome any guards that the king had. In other words, the enemies would have to defeat the city, which would culminate in a humiliating strike against the people’s revered leader.

Going through the chapter in order more slowly, we began with the encouraging image of all the nations streaming to learn about the Lord’s ways (vv. 1-5). Just like the Lord’s holy temple in Jonah 2, the Lord’s dwelling sits high on Mount Zion. Once he has judged all the nations, he won’t allow any more wars: no Israel vs. Judah, no Assyria vs. Israel, no Babylon vs. Judah. Instead the people will turn their instruments of war into ones of farming.

Farming depends on the absence of war, as the children noted. A farmer cannot work his fields if he feels he could be attacked outside, one student said. Also, if a farmer could not count on several months without troops or marauders, working the field would not be worth it. Farming cannot take place during war.

We jumped ahead to the image of the labor and childbirth (vv. 9-10)—one of pain in the hope of new life. Though no one had ever seen a child be born, they all heard about the process from their mothers. In spite of the pain, though, every mother exclaimed how happy they were when they fell in love with their new child, a new life. The city Jerusalem on Mount Zion is like a mother, and its people are like its children. Zion, therefore, would be in great pain before it “gave birth” to its people. For the children’s mothers, the payoff in the end made the pain worth it. In Zion, though, the “children” would be born only to go immediately into captivity. The pain following labor would be even more painful—the pain of having one’s child taken away.

The painful image of the people in captivity (vv. 10-11) resolved immediately after in victory (vv. 12-13). As soon as the people are in captivity, the Lord prepares to save them. Lest the nations think that they defeated Zion by their own means, the remnant that comes out of captivity will, in turn, be the means of judging their enemies by threshing and stomping on them. Ironically, the nations come to judge Judah and Israel, and then the remnant of Judah and Israel judge the nations. The Lord will ultimately “reap” the benefits of this conflict as the remnant dedicates the spoil to him.

Then we return to this humiliating defeat against Israel’s king.

The original confusion arose because of the mix of peace and war. The initial image was of the Lord’s wisdom and teaching and a peaceful, pastoral life. Then came the depth of despair issuing from labor not with new life, but with captivity. Once the Lord saved Israel from the enemies he sent against them, he defeats the enemies at the hand of Israel. At the present, though, Israel is experiencing humiliating defeat. Ultimately, we cannot expect peace without judgment, or judgment without peace.

Swords to Plowshares

My first question today to the youngest children of Ephesus School was, “How do you know English?  Why do you speak English and not Spanish or another language?  People who don’t know English think it’s a hard language to learn, so how do you know how to speak it?”  Their answers boiled down to, “Our parents speak English, and that’s what we speak in our house.  We practice it a lot.”  I used their answer to show why we read straight from the Bible in class.   In the house of the Lord, people speak the language of the Bible.  And the only way we learn the language is to hear it often and practice it.  There might be some hard words or ideas that don’t make sense to us at first, but if we keep listening and practicing, it will make sense. As always, they were happy to be read to while they sat and listened or drew quietly.  Adults fear that children will be bored or won’t understand the Bible, but in my experience, children this age never complain of boredom or not understanding.  They simply absorb what they hear and are wired to learn new words daily.  What better time to read Scripture than this ripe time of language acquisition?

After reading Micah 4 without any pauses or explanations, we went back and talked about the reading verse by verse.  Having been raised on a farm myself, I was surprised to find my class could easily describe a sword or spear, but had no idea what a plowshare or pruning hook was.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.  Micah 4:3-4

We live in an age where our uncles and brothers go off to fight wars, our superheroes carry weapons, and our food comes from the fluorescent- lit freezers in the large concrete box called a grocery store.  Our grocery stores are so clean and sanitized, it would seem that the dirt of a field has nothing to do with the food we consume.  (Consider this a teaching opportunity!)

So I asked what we could do with sharp-pointed objects, like swords and spears, if we aimed them at the ground instead of at each other.  After many hints, one child suggested, “Dig in the dirt!”  It took a lot of coaxing even beyond this to help the children realize that one would dig in the dirt or prune trees to raise food, like the vine and fig tree.  References to agriculture are just not as accessible as they once were, but it’s unlikely they will become entirely obsolete.   As a side note, I would encourage parents to spend some time digging in the dirt, planting seeds, and caring for a few house plants or small garden.   The Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall and Barbara Cooney and Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder are two children’s books you can enjoy together to expose your children to farming and enrich their understanding for agricultural metaphors.  References to weaponry are also becoming less accessible with advances in technology, making hand to hand combat with swords and spears less useful for wiping out an entire enemy population.  Yet it is evident that children of this generation understand more about raising war than raising food.

The joy of a big stick will never grow obsolete for a five-year-old.  For the five-year-old, a big stick serves as a capable sword or spear or gun, imaginatively transforming the child into a knight, ninja, or Nazi.  He can swing it against the children and prove himself the most powerful of all on the playground.   But when the Lord is King of the Playground  (i.e. “established as the highest of the mountains” Micah 4:1), those same sticks can be transformed as a game piece to build up the community.   That same stick can be used for a game of limbo, a jumping marker, a magical wand, or a farmer’s hoe, all which include the other children in the play as they share creatively in the games of the playground where “none shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

Micah’s Zero Sum Game

The difficulty of biblical wisdom is that it imposes the concatenation of words with real world actions, things, and outcomes. In Genesis, male patriarchy is subverted through successive generations plagued by sterility. We call Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “fathers,” yet which of them was able to produce offspring? (Genesis 21:1-2; 25:21) While our chauvinism presumes the dysfunction of Sarah’s womb, in reality, it is Abraham’s seed that failed, since God had no difficulty whatsoever fathering Sarah’s child. The Matthean commandment, “call no man your father,” is not an opinion “about” fatherhood. On the contrary, it is the factual exposition of Abraham’s infertility in Genesis, which defers to God as the only Father. For the modern reader, this raises the question, “why then have patriarchs?” Micah’s answer comes in the form of the question restated: “If God is the ‘chief of mountains,’ (4:1) why must I submit to the Assyrians?”

In chapter 4, Micah heralds the coming of the Lord’s house as “chief of the mountains,” promising a world without war (4:3) through the absolute dominance of God’s teaching. (4:2) In principle, no self-respecting Judahite could wish for anything less. Not only peace, but peace through strength with the promise that God will “pulverize many peoples” for the sake of Zion. (4:13) The fly in the ointment, of course, is that the exaltation of God’s mountain in chapter 4 requires the “melting away” of Judah’s mountain in chapter 1. (1:4) This tension is amplified by word play in verse 8, since the term ophel (עֹ֫פֶל) translated “hill of the daughter of Zion,” is just as easily read “tumor of the daughter of Zion.” (4:8) The use of ophel stands out in the poetry of the text, which repeats the word har several times (mountain, hill, hill country/הָר) but only in reference to God’s mountain. In other words, Micah’s “peace on earth” is a zero sum game in which the mountain of Zion is asked to step aside. Judah is not “the first” in abstraction, but the first of many nations to be evangelized. (4:2)

Had Micah begun his book in chapter 4, addressing Judah’s sin with the promise of better days, no doubt, many in Zion would have cried, “Lord, Lord,” to no avail. (Matthew 7:22) As the Matthean Jesus explains, it is not enough to say how much you “like” God. If you want to find life, the word must take flesh in the real world–in your actions toward others. Holding Zion’s feet to the fire of its self-made platonic fold, 1 Micah concatenates the love of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) with the reality of Assyria’s brutal occupation. Do you love God, Judah? Do you want to find life? Then you must look to Assyria; Because in Micah, the evil from the north is the right hand of God.

In John’s first epistle:

If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

Alternatively:

The more I love humanity, the less I love my neighbor.” 2

Notes:

  1. “The Platonic Fold is the explosive boundary where the Platonic mindset enters in contact with messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan
  2. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

They Cry “Peace”

In the long litany of excuses given to avoid biblical accountability, my personal favorite goes something like, “the Old Testament is too violent,” or “the Bible is too negative.” Lamenting the many and various examples of scriptural cruelty, abuse, and assorted graphic unpleasantries, biblical detractors suggest that humanity should instead “focus on the positive.” In reality, and along the lines of ancient Sanskrit wisdom, biblical violence is nothing more than a looking glass for the human race. 1  Responding to our self-delusion on behalf of the victims of abuse, biblical violence in Micah taunts the reader, “God is too violent? Really? Too violent for whom?”

In chapter 3 of Micah, God’s anger turns toward the religious rulers of Jerusalem, who shy away from God’s violent message (2:6) crying instead for a “peace”  that ignores “justice” (3:1) while ensuring their own comfort. (3:5) Overlooking violence against women and children (2:9) they deride the veteran (2:8) even as their sanctimonious “peace” consecrates a self-serving “holy war” at the expense of the most vulnerable of God’s children.

In contradistinction with modern makers of war 2 the biblical God speaks loudly and carries a small stick. Begging and pleading with the leaders of Jerusalem to look in the mirror, Micah threatens them with a terrorism that is the natural consequence of their own misdeeds. In this sense, biblical violence is a hoax. God does nothing. We do it to ourselves.

In Micah–among the most violent non-violent texts ever written–God employs the language of  the oppressor to open our eyes to the plight of the victim. Most people reading this blog–people with access to computers and electricity–do not go to bed hungry. In a world where the vulnerable suffer violence, hunger, and abuse every day, platitudes about a “more positive” alternative to the Bible are an abusive sham.

Uncomfortable, yes. But to the afflicted and the brokenhearted, the Bible’s violence is good news; For those held captive or in prison, it is the herald of their liberty; (Isaiah 61:1) For the rest of us, it is a warning.

Notes:

  1. “Others are merely mirrors of you.” – Ancient Sanskrit Proverb
  2. Monroe Doctrine: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Painful But Necessary

This week, I had the opportunity to fill in for Mrs. Benton’s class with the youngest children. In her absence, we reviewed the first and second chapters of Micah. Our discussion was about God being angry at the people and telling them that he was going to punish them because they didn’t listen to his commandments.

To help bring the point home, I asked the children to compare it to when they do something against what their mom or dad tells them–for example– “don’t hit your sister.”  If they hit their sister, their parents will punish them, even though their parents really don’t want to punish them. Your parents don’t enjoy making you sad, I explained, but because you chose not to listen to them, you will have to face the consequences.

There are consequences for our actions and that’s how we learn to behave correctly. God didn’t want to punish his children, but sometimes that’s the only way to help someone understand. Adults need to hear this as much as children, which is why the Bible’s constant reminders are so painful. Painful, but necessary.

Will Israel miss the Lord?

God lets–even makes–people leave so that they’ll miss him.  We began today’s lesson recounting a story about Ramona from Beverly Cleary’s books about this young girl.  On one occasion, Ramona gets angry with her dad and decides to run away from home.  Rather than scold or beg Ramona to stay, her mother surprisingly helps her pack.  We knew, though, that Ramona’s mother did not want her child to leave.  She wanted Ramona to realize that while her daughter didn’t like things at the moment, she actually loved and counted on her parents.  When the people of Israel unfaithfully want to turn away from the Lord, the Lord lets them, with the help of the hand of the Assyrians.

The first verses (1-4) of Micah 3 condemn the leaders of Israel.  One child noticed that this condemnation may be against the Northern Kingdom, but the text is not entirely clear.  The leaders are making what one child called “human stew.”  The leaders are like shepherds of their people, but rather than taking care of and protecting the sheep, they’re eating them.  This symbolizes how the leaders take advantage of the people.  In the end, just as the leaders ignored taking care of the people, the Lord will ignore the leaders’ cries for help.

The next verses (5-8) condemn the prophets.  This condemnation recalls the judgement against the people in 2:11 for only hearing the prophets who speak nice things–what I called the “cake and ice cream” prophets (instead of the “wine and liquor” prophets of 2:11).  Who wouldn’t prefer a prophet who promised cake and ice cream all the time?  In chapter 3, prophecy depends on how well-fed the people are.  If their bellies are full, the prophecy is “peace”; if bellies are empty, the prophecy is “war.”  Their bellies control their prophecies.  As a result “darkness” shall fall on the prophets.  We discussed how “darkness” causes blindness, and that the inability to see symbolizes the inability to understand.  Ultimately, Micah alone speaks for the Lord, and the word encompasses judgement on the sin of Israel.

The final section (9-12) comes back against the leaders.  The kids easily saw how fairness disappears once judges, priests, and prophets trade “wisdom” for money.  These shouldn’t even be called prophets anymore, but false prophets, they said.  The people claim that God is with them, but they are mistaken because they haven’t been listening to Micah–or any of the prophets.  The last image, of Jerusalem becoming a ruin, and the Temple Mount as a forest shrine, struck the children strongly.  They imagined the altar of the great cathedral of St. Paul, Minnesota, reduced to a nice pile of rocks surrounded by a forest that had previously been a city.  That God no longer wanted the people on their land–clear since the beginning of the book–culminated with this image of nothing remaining on the land at all.

While the people wanted peace and believed that God remains with them, protecting them, they wandered.  They chose to go with other gods and display their rejection of God and his teaching.  God sends them away, off the land, with the hope–for their sake–that they will miss him enough to come back.

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.

***

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.”