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.

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.