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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

And You, O Bethlehem - A Prophecy without Context

I should begin by saying that I like the book attributed to the 8th century BC prophet, Micah; some of the passages that I find most inspiring come from his writings. His vision of a time when people will “hammer their swords into plowshares” and give up warring (4: 3), along with his description of what it means to truly follow God: “to do justice, and to love kindness” (6:8) – these words continue to motivate me.
But the more I explore the words of the prophet Micah, the more difficulty I have. It is easy to appreciate these words in an abstract sense, removed from their context, but a text stripped of its context is all but meaningless. Without context a passage is malleable, and can be beaten into the shape of any argument, without regard for the original intent.

And for the prophet Micah, context is difficult to demonstrate. The opinion of biblical scholars on what parts of the book are from the mouth of the prophet, and which parts may be from later editors and redactors is divided. Most scholars agree that chapters 1 – 3 are from the prophet, but very little of chapters 4 -7 are attributed to him. (Simundson 535) The difficulty, then, is to locate a historical period in which to find context for the chapters in question. And there, too, opinion is divided; suggestions range from the time of Hezekiah (and the prophet Micah) to the Maccabean period.

And if the difficulties of locating a historical context weren’t difficult enough alone, the Hebrew text of Micah is a mess. “Although many of the passages present no textual difficulties or only trifling problems, others are badly, perhaps hopelessly, corrupt” (Hillers 809).

Reading Micah is much more difficult than is usually appreciated, especially during this Advent / Christmas season. 

One of the lectionary readings for this Sunday is that famous passage from Micah 5: 2 (or 5:1 depending on which translation you use, another source of difficulty in this book).

“And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath,
least among the clans of Judah,
from you one shall come forth
to rule Israel for Me -
one whose origin is from old,
from ancient times.”
(Micah 5:1 JPS)

This verse has become a treasured verse for Christians at Christmastime because of its quotation by chief priests and scribes in response to the magi’s question in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 2: 2 – 6). But Matthew’s citation of this verse does just what we don’t want to do: it strips the words from their context. And, even though it is a treasured verse, part of a beloved story, we should ask-does Matthew’s use of the verse from Micah fit the context of the original passage? If we are willing to read carefully and critically we’ll probably conclude that, no, Matthew has not followed the context of Micah’s words (whether these are from Micah himself or from a later redactor or editor).

“No other chapter in scripture has been more abused by its friends than this. It is one of the scriptural sources of the Messianic hope that was to loom so large in post exilic Judaism. The tradition that Jesus came in fulfillment of this and other prophecies was so early and so deep a part of Christian tradition that it wrote itself into the Gospels…It is hard to believe that anyone who had actually read this chapter carefully could think it had any reference at all to the coming of Jesus Christ. There is little or nothing in common between its central theme and anything he did or said. Actually the gospel records claim only that Bethlehem was the ordained birthplace of the one who was to be ruler in Israel. Once they have ‘established’ that by referencing vs. 2, they walk straight away from everything else in the chapter” (Bosley 930-1).

To put the passage back into context somewhat, we should go back and read through chapter 4. This long expected ruler would come during a time of great calamity and distress, during desecration and destruction, during a great siege by the Assyrians. And during this time the ruler of Israel would be struck on the cheek with a rod. (Micah 4:14)

In response to this the ruler, coming from the humble village of Bethlehem, would rise to power, bringing peace and security. He along with “seven shepherds” and “eight princes” (5: 4) will take the war to the Assyrians. They will invade Assyria and “shepherd Assyria with the sword, the country of Nimrod with the naked blade” (5: 5 NJB).

But does this sound like Jesus? Did Jesus, who was struck and beaten, disgraced by his enemies, take up swords and naked blades to make them pay for their insults and their abuse? Did he make peace by making war?

The more I read of Micah, the more I’m convinced that Matthew used the verse as a proof-text without regard for the context. And I don’t quite know what to do with this. “To lift this prophecy out of history…is to defy the historical element in the prophets. Yet, to obscure the Messianic thrust … is tantamount to defying the divine plan for Israel and the world” (Bullock 120-1).

Bosley, Harold A. “The Book of Micah: Exposition.” The Interpreters Bible: Volume 6. Nashville, TN: Abindon Press. 1956.

Bullock, C. Hassell. An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books.  Chicago, IL: Moody Press. 1986.

Hillers, Delbert R. “Micah, Book of.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume IV. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992.

Simundson, Daniel J. “The Book of Micah.” The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume VII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1996.

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