The Politics of Confrontation and Promise—Micah 6:1-8 (Benjamin Kautzer)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

True worship has little to do with the ‘commodification’ of liturgy; it has everything to do with the performative embodiment of God’s redemptive narrative through justice, mercy and fidelity.

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Introduction

Few lines from the vast writings of the prophetic tradition are more cherished than those of Micah 6:8: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. Three simple strokes capture the momentum of the great eighth century prophets: Amos crying out for mispat (justice / righteousness), Hosea sounding the depths of ḥesed (loving-kindness / covenant-faithfulness), Isaiah calling the people to a life of humble faith and obedience before the living God of Israel. In the words of G. W. Anderson, ‘Nowhere is the prophetic message more concisely and powerfully expressed.’

Yet for all its profundity, this lone verse too often marks the beginning and end of Christian engagement with the book of Micah.

To illustrate the point, I couldn’t help but smile when I first discovered Rich Wyld’s wonderful little diagram.

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Or does it?

It goes without saying that a project like Theologygrams exists for the sake of comedic hyperbole, not nuanced exegesis. I get that. But this image has given me pause for thought nonetheless.

At one level, Wyld is poking at the church’s tendency toward selective reading. But for me this also illustrates an equally troubling temptation to caricature into irrelevance the bits of Scripture we’d rather overlook.

Micah’s got some great one-liners … but what of the rest of the story? Is it really the case that the book has nothing more to offer than a monotonous litany of destruction? If so, are we better off pocketing a few superbly quotable verses and moving on? Or (as is often the case) will a closer inspection of the text yield a deeper, more complex and challenging theopolitical vision?

Confrontation and Promise

The book of Micah does indeed contain its share of destruction. The prophet begins by surveying the corrupt political landscape of Samaria in northern Israel and Jerusalem in southern Judah. Micah witnesses a society spiralling toward catastrophe.

Wealthy and oppressive land grabbers, intoxicated by power and propagandized by their own false prophets, shamelessly defraud the weak and vulnerable of their inheritance. Political leaders have come to believe they are so powerful that they can get away with whatever they want. Darkness no longer hides in shadows, but flaunts its oppressive and unjust acts in the cold light of day.

Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance. (2:1-2)

Those who should have taken up the cause of justice instead ‘hate good and love evil’ (3:2). As a consequence of violence and greed, the bodies of the poor have become expendable—ravaged, used, mutilated, consumed ‘like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot’ (3:1-3).

Politicians judge for a bribe; priests teach for a price; prophets peddle divinations for money—all claim divine legitimacy for their actions by ceaselessly invoking ‘God on our side’ (3:11).

Into this desperate moment, the word of YHWH comes to Micah of Moresheth during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah (1:1). Micah outlines the task of confrontation to which he has been called:

But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the spirit of the Lord,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression
and to Israel his sin. (3:8)

These words sound a sharp warning against Israel and Judah. Yet far from flat-lining into a ‘monotonous litany of destruction,’ Micah’s critique develops throughout the book into a complex message marked by both confrontation (judgment) and promise (hope).

Kenneth L. Barker (“A Literary Analysis of the Book of Micah,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155.620 [1998]: 437-448) suggests that following its introductory prologue, the book contains three cycles of prophetic proclamation: First cycle: The judgment and restoration of Israel and Judah (1:2-2:13); Second cycle: Indictment of Judah’s leaders, but Judah’s (and Israel’s) future hope renewed (chapters 3-5); Third cycle: God’s charges against Judah, and the ultimate triumph of God’s kingdom (chapters 6-7).

YHWH may scatter the proud in their conceit (1:16), but he will gather a remnant ‘like a flock in its pasture’ (2:12-13).

YHWH may condemn the corruption of the temple (3:12), but he will (re)establish his holy house on Zion ‘as chief among the mountains’ (4:1-7).

YHWH may cast down the mighty from their thrones (3:4-7), but he will raise up, from the humble town of Bethlehem, a messianic king to shepherd his people Israel (5:2-4).

In all this, the God of Israel will not remain silent; the God of Jacob will refuse evil the last word. For YHWH will be faithful to his covenantal promise: that through this people all the nations of the earth shall be blessed (cf. Genesis 12:1-3, 22:15-18).

This pattern of confrontation and promise sets the context for our lectionary reading from chapter six.

The Courtroom Drama of Micah 6:1-8

Micah 6:1-8 unfolds as a courtroom drama of four scenes. In scene one (vv. 1-2), YHWH initiates a juridical disputation—a ‘controversy’ or ‘covenant litigation’—against Israel. The people are summoned to plead their case before the witness of the mountains.

In the second scene (vv. 3-5), YHWH calls this cosmic court to order with his opening statement. The argument is blunt: YHWH has been relentlessly faithful to a fickle and faithless people. The rhetorical question ‘O my people, what have I done to you?’ points not to a litany of wrongs, but rather to a narrative sequence of liberation, transformation, and generosity.

The first demonstration of YHWH’s faithfulness is the story of the Exodus.

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam. (6:4; cf. Exodus 6-15)

Through mighty acts of power, YHWH liberated his people from bondage and oppression. He appointed competent leaders to set before them two paths: the path of justice, mercy and covenant fidelity that leads to life; and the path of oppression, cruelty, and rebellion that leads to death (Deuteronomy 3:15-20). The deathly injustice currently plaguing Micah’s world suggests that Israel has not been walking well the liberating way of her Redeemer.

The second narrative references Balaam and his talking donkey.

O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him … (6:5a; cf. Numbers 22-24)

At first glance this may seem a slightly random choice. However, this story speaks to the transformative power of God. When rumours reached King Balak that ‘a people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land’ (Numbers 22:5), he commissioned Balaam to curse Israel. But YHWH intervened. Through the voice of Balaam’s donkey, a curse once intent on damaging the people of God is transformed into a new word of blessing. What the nations intended for evil, YHWH worked for the good of his purpose (cf. Romans 8:28).

It is no coincidence that YHWH’s opening question, ‘O my people, what have I done to you?’ (Mic 6:2), echoes the donkey’s first words to Balaam: ‘What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?’ (Numbers 22:28).

The third narrative calls the people to remember ‘what happened from Shittim to Gilgal’ (6:5b). In the book of Joshua, Shittim (east of the Jordan) functioned as the staging ground from which Israelite spies were dispatched into the land of Canaan (Joshua 2:1).

At Gilgal (west across the river), Joshua famously erected a memorial of twelve stones taken from the Jordan, symbolic of the twelve tribes now poised to possess the land. Indeed, the very name ‘Gilgal’ (related to Heb. galal, ‘to roll’) derives from Joshua’s pronouncement that in this place ‘I [YHWH] have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt’ (Joshua 5:9).

In other words, ‘what happened from Shittim to Gilgal’ is biblical short-hand for all that the Lord accomplished from the crossing of the Jordan to the conquest of the land (Joshua 3:1). It is a story of God’s promises realized in his generosity.

These three narratives confront the people, not with thunderous condemnation or a storm cloud of destruction, but with a reminder of who YHWH is and what YHWH has done for them. These stories confront them with the sheer fact of YHWH’s gracious, unmerited favour in setting Israel apart to be for him a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6).

The third scene in our courtroom drama depicts Israel’s rebuttal (vv. 6-7). YHWH has kept his side of the bargain. What does the Lord actually require of his covenant partners? What should Israel bring before the Lord? Are burnt-offerings sufficient? What about calves? A thousand rams? Ten thousand rivers of oil? A firstborn child as an atoning sacrifice for sin? For all the trappings of religious hyperbole, the answer given here is ultimately a false one. As Walter Brueggemann points out,

It is commonly noticed that the answer builds from the least valuable to the most valuable. But every part of the answer is a commodity. The answer ponders how one offers something ‘of value.’ The re-asking of the question in verse 8 indicates, without explanatory comment, that the ‘commodity answer’ is wrong and rejected. YHWH does not want ‘stuff’ from Israel or from humanity. [Brueggemann, Walter. “Walk humbly with your God,” in Embracing the Transformation, ed. K. C. Hanson (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2014), 84. Emphasis added.]

Israel is attempting to wield its worship in a manner consistent with its distorted political habits. Just as leaders, politicians and prophets employed wealth to guarantee access, secure immunity, turn a blind eye, court favour through bribery, so now the priests offer up this ‘commodity worship’ to guarantee access to the divine presence, atone for the sins of the soul, blind God’s eye to injustice, and court material blessing. A false answer indeed.

In the fourth and final scene of the drama (v. 8), YHWH stands to give his closing arguments.

He has told you, O mortal [adam], what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

The answer takes us right back to the beginning of our inquiry, to that summative message at the heart of the prophetic witness of the Old Testament: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.

Each phrase is charged with theological and political significance, which has enormous consequences not only for how one lives rightly in the world, but also for how one worships faithfully before God. Much ink has been spilt upon these matters (for one excellent exploration of these themes in light of Micah 6:1-8, see Nicholas Wolterstorff. “Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy,” Theology Today 48.1 [April 1991]: 6-21).

A slightly different question surfaces for me when I read this passage again in context of our courtroom drama. YHWH began his case by pointing to narratives of liberation, transformation, and generosity. These stories somehow culminate in the ethical and political praxis of Micah 6:8. But what’s the connection? What links the narrative of God’s saving actions in the world to the ethical response of God’s people?

Peter Leithart offers an insight which might give us a clue. In his book, A House for My Name, Leithart reflects on how the Exodus narratives ought to shape the way Israelites are to live as servants of YHWH.

God says something like this: Because I have saved you from Egypt, you should live like people who have been saved from Egypt. In the New Testament, Paul teaches the same way. He says that Christians are ‘dead to sin.’ Because they are ‘dead to sin,’ they should live like people who are dead to sin by putting sin to death (Rom 6:1-11). What God has done for us is the basis of what He commands us to do. The basic command is: Be the kind of people that the Lord has made you; live up to who you are. [Peter J. Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000), 79]

Here we touch upon the heart of Micah’s message. Israel has not been liberated from the bondage of slavery in Egypt just to turn around and oppress its weakest and most vulnerable members. Judah has not received God’s gracious gift of the land in order to violently strip this inheritance from the powerless by force. Rather the whole people have received a new identity and a new vocation: to be a kingdom of priests.

True worship, therefore, has little to do with the ‘commodification’ of liturgy; it has everything to do with the performative embodiment of God’s redemptive narrative through justice, mercy and fidelity.

‘Be the kind of people that the Lord has made you; live up to who you are.’ This, Micah reminds us, is our spiritual act of worship.


Ben Kautzer is an Anglican priest serving his curacy at St Nicolas Earley on the east side of Reading in the Diocese of Oxford. He has recently completed his doctoral thesis on the works of mercy and sacramental ethics at Durham University.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Confrontation and Promise—Micah 6:1-8 (Benjamin Kautzer)

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, many thanks. I have to confess that I came across it through the hubris of googling theologygrams, but your post brought to mind how that diagram came about. Back in Durham I met with two friends weekly to read scripture together and for a while we worked our way through Micah. It was a fantastic time, but we kind of mocked ourselves for longing to get to 6.8 when we were wrestling with some of the more challenging passages. It’s just a stupid diagram, but it represented at the time what we were learning about persevering with the texts we had caricatured, and so your post really struck a chord with me. Many thanks

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