July 22, 2018

Within the Word. Micah: New Hope (and Some Serious Puns)

The prophet Micah is a puzzlement. Traditionally the prophet has been thought of as an eight-century contemporary of Isaiah, prophesying in the country villages while Isaiah prophesied in the city of Jerusalem. More recent scholarship, however, places his book in the Persian period, two or more centuries later. The message of Micah, however, is valid for all time.

After an initial accusation and an announcement that the prophet will go barefoot and naked in order to get the attention of the people, Micah launches into a series of puns. If the content were not so serious, the puns would be delightfully amusing. It is as if the prophet were saying: “Those who live in Flint, Michigan, strike fire. Residents of What Cheer, Iowa, rejoice. Folks in Peculiar, Missouri, are somehow odder than the rest of us.” But Micah is not trying to entertain. He is warning the people that even their city names are a warning: Citizens of Maroth (bitter) should not hope for good (Mic 1:12). People of Achzib (deception) should not expect true news (1:14).

Perhaps the most familiar passage from Micah is the trial scene (6:1-8). God summons the people to court and declares a case against them. The witnesses have been called: the mountains and the hills. The accusation has already been laid out in a previous chapter: The wealthy have used their power to gather up all the arable land and to cheat the poor out of what little they have. The Lord warns the rich that they themselves will lose their property (2:1-5).

At the trial itself, however, God does not accuse the wealthy in anger but rather laments that he has lost their love. God cannot let go of these precious people! What response do the people give? They are still focused on material goods. They offer all their riches, even their firstborn sons. But that is not what God wants. God wants their hearts: “do justice, love goodness, walk humbly with me” (6:8). It is too easy to give God things; what God really wants is unconditional love.

God’s accusation brings the prophet close to despair. He laments: “Woe is me!” (7:1). But even in his anguish he insists on clinging to the Lord: “I will wait for God my savior; my God will hear me!” (7:7). He pleads with God to shepherd the people “as in the days of old” (7:14). He reminds God, “Who is a God like you, who removes gilt and delights in mercy?” (7:18). He knows that God cannot stay angry, cannot bear to lose this beloved people. So he trusts that God will indeed have compassion, will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea (see 7:19). Finally Micah uses his trump card: God’s undying fidelity to Abraham and Jacob. God has sworn to remain faithful to them forever (7:20).

New hope will come from a small, insignificant town, Bethlehem, “least among the clans of Judah” (5:1). From this little town, overshadowed by the great city Jerusalem, will come a new ruler who will shepherd the people with strength and love. This new ruler will not only bring peace but will himself be peace (5:4).

- Sr. Irene Nowell

Irene Nowell, OSB, is a member of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas. She is author of Pleading, Cursing, Praising: Conversing with God through the Psalms and Wisdom: The Good Life.