Reviews of

Micah: A Commentary

In Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, HB/OT, Hebrew Bible, Mark Glanville, Micah, Westminster John Knox on February 21, 2018 at 12:02 am

0664229042

2018.02.04 | Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, Micah: A Commentary, OTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015).

Reviewed by Mark Glanville

Daniel L. Smith-Christopher has produced a new commentary on Micah in the Old Testament Library series. This commentary follows an earlier commentary on Micah in this respected series by James Luther Mays, published in 1976.1 The body of the text comes to 227 pages, the first forty-four of which are introduction.

In the introduction, Smith-Christopher provides historical background information and also summarises the recent scholarship on Micah, all the while orientating the reader to his own thesis on the book’s aims and message. Smith-Christopher is explicit as to his location as an author, asserting both his commitment both to a historical-critical reading of scripture as well as to “a declared sympathy with movements in the twenty-first century for seeking greater and more equitable distribution of the earth’s resources to peoples who have been systematically suppressed, as well as movements that seek to ameliorate those inequitable situations without violence.” (2) The author proposes to read Micah as a “critical populist” who is located geographically and ideologically as a ‘lowlander’ and who is also highly critical of the Jerusalem elite (1).

The author explores the historical political context for Micah. While the scholarship has most often characterised Assyrian rule as fear-mongering brutality, the reality is that brute-force could be mixed with diplomacy, depending upon the circumstances. Nonetheless, Assyrian conquest and rule was economically driven with the goal of squandering the resources of the empire to the centre resulting in massive exploitation. Thus, revolt was common (6). Despite characterisations of the later Persian empire as more enlightened, in fact the Persian empire was equally exploitative of land and human-resources (see Neh 9:36-37). The economic and social pressures that the empires exerted upon Israel-Judah probably explains the seemingly routine royal assassinations and the general instability of the Israelite leadership. In this context, decisions by elite rulers in Samaria and Jerusalem produced suffering in the rural population. 2 Chr 28 seems to be an example of the rural countryside resisting the militaristic and diplomatic strategies of the elite. So, when in Hezekiah’s reign the Assyrians intentionally address the populace in the vernacular (2 King 18:26-27), this may reflect a deliberate strategy of inciting insurrection among the populace.

Micah’s hometown of Moresheth is identified by archaeologists as Tel Judeideh, located 23-25 miles south west of Jerusalem. Moresheth was a part of an inner defensive line, and its close proximity to Lachish assured that it was a strategic and vulnerable town in the line of defence against both Philistines and also the great empires—certainly more vulnerable than Jerusalem, that was secluded in the hills (15-18). Archaeological evidence demonstrates the increasing taxation of farmers in areas such as Moresheth and beyond. The wealth and power of the elite is displayed in the ivories of Samaria and the royal LMLK stamps, for example.

Smith-Christopher argues that Micah is a locally based ideologue, with loyalty to the family, clan, and region, who fearlessly objects to the appropriation of local resources by the urban elite for the build-up of the military. Micah’s distinctive polemic, among the prophets, decries the extraction of farming resources (spears versus pruning shears) and of human resources in order to prepare for war. For example, Micah prophesies that Jerusalem is to be “plowed as a field”2 (3:12), not exclusively as a prophecy of destruction, but also an image of a proper use of Zion’s fields in the future when swords have been beaten into plough-shears (20-26). Insightful is Smith-Christopher’s contention that the common dialectic for Micah of judgement-salvation has a ‘preservationist’ tendency that wrongly assumes Micah’s loyalty to Jerusalem and its elite. Rather, the book has a movement of judgement-replacement or old-new (30).

In scholarship, the structure of Micah has been heavily debated and this provides the content of much discussion on the book. Smith-Christopher discusses structure only minimally, choosing instead to discern how Micah unfolds in terms of his paradigm of Micah as a rural prophet who was concerned with anti-militarisation and is therefore highly critical of the extractive policies and international policies of the Jerusalem elite. According to this new paradigm, texts that are customarily thought to be incompatible may be, in fact, compatible, and assumed structures for Micah may be flawed.

Commentary

As for the commentary itself, Smith-Christopher identifies his work as “primarily a theological commentary, driven mostly by historical-critical methodologies that are supplemented and also guided by social and ideological questions.” (39) Questions of literary form are not sidelined, but are discussed only insofar as they elucidate the message and purpose of the text. The moral sensitivity of the prophet is of special interest, especially as they may provide a moral- and faith-lens for contemporary issues (39).

The present discussion of the commentary section of Smith-Christopher’s book is confined to a few comments on the opening verses, in order to set the scene, and to Micah 4. The opening verses of Micah declare judgement upon the capital cities of Samaria and Jerusalem, not only for idolatry, but for their amassing wealth via the taxation of urban farmers (so, 1:7, “prostitutes fees”). Micah is warning his fellow rural-southerners of the coming destruction, should a new and faithful course not be taken by the militarisation-addicted rulers in the cities. Those with power have joined house to house and field to field (2:2), which is an aberration of the Mosaic injunction that each household is to possess an inheritance from the Lord on which to farm and flourish. Smith-Christopher considers the accusation that the elite have joined house to house and added field to field (2:2) in relation to the displacement of First Nations people in North America, Australia, and New Zealand (among other places). Indeed, those with power and wealth ‘scheme’ today, too: “Those who have schemed to take away their land will lament at their fate when their riches are taken from them by the hand of God.” (89) In a similar way, throughout the commentary, Smith-Christopher’s considers contemporary resonances with Micah, teasing out the pregnant ethics for domestic and international relations today (85).

Moving forward through the commentary, Smith-Christopher challenges the widely held view that 3:12, a prophecy of judgement—“Zion will be plowed!”— is incompatible with 4:1-5, concerning beating swords into ploughshares, at least at the level of the original author/s. He argues that this apparently incoherent juxtaposition actually coheres when viewed from Micah’s critical, anti-Jerusalem, and anti-militarisation perspective. The land surrounding Jerusalem ought to be peaceful farmland that is shared by the populace: “Jerusalem will be plowed—and we want to pound our swords into the very plowshares that will help do the job!” (43) In this way, judgement fits hand-in-glove with a rural and anti-military stance.

It is enlightening to trace the logic of Smith-Christopher’s commentary through chapter four. 4:6-7 speaks of a surviving remnant whom Yahweh will gather and exalt. Smith-Christopher suggests, on the basis of Micah’s partisan denunciation of the urban elite throughout the book, that this group does not consist merely of those who are left alive, or even of those who have been exiled. Rather, This is the genuine, righteous portion of Yahweh’s people who have suffered from the policies of Israel-Judah’s kings and their cronies. Over these righteous people, Yahweh will soon reign directly (149-51). Next, Micah taunts the leadership: “Now, why do you cry out? Is there no king with you?” (4:9) Micah “thunders forth a warning in reply!”: “Writhe and burst forth, daughter of Zion, as a woman giving birth, because you shall go out of a city, and dwell in the field.” (153)

4:13 speaks of Zion’s militaristic victory over the nations: “Rise up and tread, daughter of Zion! Because I will make your horns into iron, and make your hooves into bronze; you will crush many peoples . . .” How does this fit with Smith-Christopher’s thesis of Micah’s anti-war stance? While Mays and others interpret this passage as a summons to war,3 the reference to horns of iron seems to reference the ill-fated nationalistic prophecy of Zedikiah son of Chenaanah to Ahab, whom Micaiah ben Imlah, Micah’s namesake, opposed (1 Kgs 22:11). This suggests that the text may represent a view other than Micah’s own. In this way, the following imperative contains harsh irony: “Now muster, daughter of [a group of] conscripts!” (5:1 = 4:14 MT; 162) In this context, Lamentations echoes Micah’s call to a non-military response to the Assyrian threat: “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of Yahweh.” (Lam 3:26; 163)

Eight excurses are located throughout the commentary, and summarising these will give insight both in to the author’s method and also into the central themes of the book. Excursus one concerns the LMLK jar stamps and pillar figurines. The jar handles appear in greatest numbers in the Shephelah region and the hill country of the north in Judah. Smith-Christopher follows Borowski in suggesting that the LMLK jars were a part of Hezekiah’s defensive strategy against the Assyrians (14). The pillar figurines appear to be fertility amulets that may have been used to hedge against population loss anticipated by Assyrian invasion and the need for military troops. Excursus two argues that there is deliberate literary connection between Micah and Micaiah ben Imlah, whose confrontation with Ahab is narrated in 1 Kgs 22. Both prophets seem to resist the militarised Zionistic optimism of the kings. Excursus three critically explores the common thesis that sayings that feminise Jerusalem and Samaria and refer to these cities being stripped and exposed seem to refer, metaphorically, to an Israelite practice of exposing an unfaithful wife. Citing ANE texts that refer to stripping captive soldiers naked, it is observed that such texts more likely refer to Israelite POWs (57-59). Excursus four analyses 3:12 as a reference to animals who inhabit a destroyed Zion. On the basis of the thrust of the book as a whole, as interpreted by the author, it is suggested that this is not evocative of the total destruction of the land, but specifically of prophetic and divine fury against the elite. Excursus five examines the much discussed vision, “They will hammer their swords into plows and their spears into vineyard shears.” (4:3; cf. Isa 2:4) Against the scholarship that interprets 4:3 as in consort with the violent images in Micah, Smith-Christopher concludes that 4:1-5 “suggests a strong sentiment of peace,” on the basis that 4:5, concerning walking in the ways of Yahweh, should stir the hearers to live in such a way that Micah’s vision of peace is established (142). Excursus six observes how the LXX renders ‘lame’ (Hebrew; 4:6) as syntríbō, a term that has a strong military association. Smith-Christopher glosses syntríbō as ‘shattering’. Excursus seven employs social-psychological research on ‘being-watched’ as a lens into 4:11, “let our eyes gaze upon Zion.” This phrase refers to the “imperial gaze,” as a threatening and imposing exertion of power over Israel and Judah (157-59). Excursus eight discusses the unusual image of Israel as a lion among the nations (5:8; 179).

Taken as a whole, Smith-Christopher’s commentary evidences the author’s exhaustive knowledge of the scholarship on Micah and his extensive knowledge of the disciplines related to the study of the Hebrew Bible more broadly. Throughout the commentary section, the author has chosen to prioritise word studies, inter-textual analysis, theology, and ethics, also relating the message of Micah to the contemporary world. Smith-Christopher has traced through the commentary his conception of Micah as a critical populist who is located geographically and ideologically as a ‘lowlander’ and who is highly critical of the exploitative and militarised politics of the Jerusalem elite. The author has achieved this goal successfully, to the mind of this reviewer, and in doing so, Smith-Christopher has contributed to our conception of Micah as a coherent work.

Having observed the significant contributions of Smith-Christopher’s work, we now note what the reader will not find in this commentary. The commentary section contains very limited redaction-critical analysis (examples from the texts discussed above are found on 152, 154). The use of archaeology and ancient Near Eastern texts is largely confined to the Introduction and to the excurses. Social-scientific tools are employed, including trauma analysis (44) and social-psychology (157-59), though again these appear in the Introduction and the excurses rather than in the commentary section. Analysis of syntax is sparing, as is discussion of textual variants. While for scholars these limitations are real, the outcome of such an approach is a highly readable commentary that is also useful for faith communities and for teachers and preachers.

Among the key findings is the contention that the common dialectical movement of judgement and then salvation has a ‘preservationist’ tendency that wrongly assumes Micah’s loyalty to Jerusalem and its elite. In fact, Micah moves from judgement to a renewed, faithful community. Yahweh’s sovereign plan is not simply to judge and then to save, but rather to winnow, to sift, and to renew. This is part of the birthing and shaping of new communities of humanity that express in their shared life the love, joy, peace, humility, and fellowship that humanity was seemingly created for in the first place. Indeed, Smith-Christopher’s reading of Micah projects for us an international community of peace where ploughs and shears bring forth abundance from the earth and where swords and spears are no longer necessary. For, Yahweh has taught the nations God’s ways, that are reflected in the life-bringing Torah (4:2).

In sum, I recommend this study as scholarly commentary offering a coherent vision of Micah’s theology, ethics, historical context, and literary strategy. Micah’s anti-militarised stance, on behalf of the most vulnerable is a much needed voice in the present hyper-militarised North American context, as elsewhere. It is to be hoped that many young scholars take up the mantle of discerning how the Hebrew Bible addresses contemporary issues of injustice in light of the powerful and restoring reality to which it attests.

Mark R. Glanville

markrglanville [at] gmail.com

1 James L. Mays, Micah, OTL (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976).

2 All scripture translations are taken from Smith-Christopher’s commentary.

3 Mays, 107.

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