Quick Links in the Book of Micah

I often write my posts pretty off-the-cuff, and this one will have to be an absolute first impulse, because I have 22% battery power left on my laptop, and no cord here at home. But chances to post come rarely so…

Here are some interesting leads for you to follow up in the book of Micah among the minor prophets, should you be so inclined:

  1. Micah’s hometown, Moresheth, mentioned in the title (1:1), appears again in the list of towns on the invasion route of Assyria as ‘Moresheth Gath’. Apparently it is represented by a large present-day ruin mound or ‘tell’ overlooking the Shephelah or western foothills of central Israel, or in ancient times, the borderlands of Philistia.
  2. The call to ‘hear’, using the very common Hebrew term ‘shema‘ in the plural, Micah 1:2, is very like similar calls to attention, or as it were, courtroom summons, at key locations in other prophets, e.g. Micah 6:1, to the mountains; Hosea 4:1, to the Israelites, at the beginning of the body of Hosea, and Isaiah 1:2, to the heavens and the earth as witnesses of Israel’s wrongs.
  3. To go another verse, the frightening appearance of the LORD in 1:3 is very like the theophanic description in Habakkuk 3, not to mention Psalm 97. When the LORD goes out, the mountains shake and melt like wax, says Micah 1:4, and so does Ps. 97:5 and Nahum 1:5-6. Scholars these days talk about ‘cultural memory’ as a conduit for ancient traditions, and I can’t help but wonder about distant memories of some great volcanic eruption lying behind these descriptions of God’s fearful presence, notwithstanding scholarly pointing to similar mythological traditions in the Ugaritic literature.
  4. Micah 4:1-3 is famously nearly identical to Isa. 2:1-4, and scholars debate endlessly whose the passage was first, if either prophet’s. It actually finds a very natural ‘bed’ in Micah, because the judgment of the temple ‘mount’ (Heb. har) in 3:12 is immediately reversed in the supreme blessing of the same mount in 4:1.
  5. Speaking of the devastation of Jerusalem’s ‘mountain’ in 3:12, which would have to be Micah’s most pioneering prophecy, as he was the first to forecast devastation for Jerusalem, along with exile to Babylon (4:10, acknowledging what most scholars would conclude here, but I still suspect it’s Micah’s own), there is a shared word here too. Jerusalem is so destroyed in Micah’s prediction here that it returns to scrub (ya’ar). Yet in 7:14, ya’ar becomes a positive image, as the LORD shepherds his people in the mountain scrublands such as Bashan and Gilead.
  6. Micah has a Jeremiah-style complaint in ch. 7 beginning in v. 1, which also uses the Hebrew term for ‘summer fruits’ that appears in Amos 8:1.
  7. Micah 7:17 speaks of foreign leaders coming bowing and scraping to Israel, licking the dust like serpents. As well as a suggestive help for understanding the curse on the snake in Genesis 3, it is very close to Isaiah 65:25, saying “Dust will be the serpent’s food.”

More generally, and my battery’s about to go, I find the relief from the burden of finding a great enough sacrifice to really remedy sin in Micah 6:8 a very prescient passage from a gospel point of view, though no real means of atonement is flagged there. But in 7:18 we do have a God who forgives, rather than staying angry forever, leading to an uplifting and hopeful conclusion that is taken up at the end of Mary’s long in Luke 1:55 or so, as Luke makes the connection between the hopeful texts of the OT prophets and the advent of Christ. God would prove true not just to Jacob but to all the “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.”

An Attempt at a Master Diagram of Interesting Features of the Psalms

I’m not entirely happy with this yet, and in fact it isn’t complete, but it’s at a stage of “proof of concept”. It’s a master diagram of Psalms in Prezi arranged like one of those broken-up-world globe map projections:

https://prezi.com/gr8muwf70jel/psalms-master-diagram/
Psalms Master Prezi Screenshot

For those interested in technical production details, I produced the world template in one Inkscape document and the coloured content in another. Inkscape is a free, open-source vector graphics program. But Prezi doesn’t recognise the normal vector graphics (SVG) format, so I had to open the finished product in Adobe Illustrator (very new for me, and maybe not permanent, though a better-known vector graphics program, probably the best-known of all). Then I exported it in Adobe Flash format (SWF), which Prezi recognizes, and opened the file from within a new prezi, adding nothing else bar the title. The convoluted process is thanks to Inkscape’s usefulness as a graphics editor, whereas Prezi is very limited that way, and the fact that vector graphics do not lose resolution no matter how far you zoom into them, and are ideally suited to a zooming interface like Prezi.

But, if the result doesn’t help anyone comprehend (in this case) Psalms, all the playing around is in vain. So critical feedback is welcome!

A New Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Study Tool Online

From time to time I add a new pin to my Pinterest board on tools for studying biblical Hebrew: https://www.pinterest.com/abrown5929/biblical-hebrew-teaching-and-learning/

But occasionally there comes along a new tool that’s worth noting more fully. Care of a student of Matthew Anstey (and of mine, at intervals), I’ve found out about one called Shebanq, which appears to permit searching of anything you’d like to find out about the Hebrew Bible/OT. I’m sure it can do a great range of different things, and you may want to explore the possibilities. Let me mention just one.

Some time back, I explored manual representation of distribution of important OT terms by means of a heat map. If you don’t know what a heat map is, it is a kind of chart commonly used in data visualization circles. Here is an effort done up in Prezi to show where Levites are mentioned in the OT, and where they aren’t: https://prezi.com/uhjbcpw1xiyn/references-to-levites-in-joshua-kings-chronicles/

Levite Refs in Hist'l Books Sshot

However, much better than a template that has to be filled in manually is a tool that creates a heat map (such as the circular one above) automatically. That is one thing that Shebanq does. As an experiment, I searched for the prefixed relative pronoun that usually appears as ‘שֶׁ’, typically in late biblical Hebrew contexts. In concert with a whole range of other terminological data, including the use of Aramaic and, more tellingly, Persian terms, it gives away parts of the OT canon as clearly postexilic, notably Book V of the Psalms, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes. You’ll see what I mean in this screenshot from the program:

Shebanq rel pron example

You’ll find this at http://shebanq.ancient-data.org/hebrew/text, and the relevant term is tagged with the number 2640. To get there, select ‘Words’ in the header menu, select the Hebrew letter ‘שׁ’, then find ‘שַׁ’, the first option under that letter. Then, in the LH dialogue box, select ‘chart’, and (as we say here) ‘Bob’s your uncle’! A heat chart making the distribution of the term clear at a glance!

I find this kind of tool an instant buzz, and a doorway both into diachronic studies of term frequencies (over time) in biblical Hebrew, and into ‘synchronic’ studies of key biblical themes accessed through tracing ‘giveaway’ words for those themes.

Did I mention that it’s free?

New Genre: The TwitView – a micro-book review

Book: Shead, Andrew G. A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah (New Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove: Apollos, 2012).

Looks like:
Shead - Mouth Fire
Pluses:
  • Solid grasp of the range of issues affecting Jeremiah
  • Excellent introduction to literary formation and structure of Jeremiah
  • Strong sense of biblical theology, and overall theologically very robust
  • Thoughtful and ambitious theology of the Word of God – a tour de force
  • Loves Jeremiah!
  • Wonderful value for money, at not much over $10. You’ll never get more bang for your buck.

Minuses:

  • Not as light as Reader’s Digest, that’s for sure, but clear and accessible for academic writing.
  • Ultimately draws the theological bow a bit too long, I felt, but well worth wrestling with.

Outro:

  • If you’re half interested in Jeremiah, and can handle a solid read, and have $15 to your name, you have to buy it!

Where are the Levites Mentioned? An Experiment in Visualization of Word Distribution in the Bible

I am experimenting with a template for visualizing the distribution of words and ideas in the Bible in a simple, at-a-glance format. Right now, with my limited IT skills, Prezi is the tool of choice. So here is a set of examples of how we might quickly and clearly show the distribution of a term or concept in the Bible. I’m using data on where Levites are mentioned in the New International Version, so it’s a simple English-language study, drawn from a search in BibleWorks.

The Pentateuch

Levite Refs in Pentateuch Sshot

What I notice here is that the book with Levites virtually in the name, ‘Leviticus’, barely mentions them! They don’t appear until ch. 25, almost at the end, and then only that chapter. So Leviticus is hardly about the Levites in any explicit way. But Numbers is loaded with references, as if it has Levites and their religious roles squarely in view. They appear among the underprivileged classes in many of the references to them in Deuteronomy, and they also appear significant in Exodus, especially in connection with Moses and Aaron as their patron figures.

The Historical Books

Levite Refs in Hist'l Books Sshot

Levites feature with some frequency in the historical books of the OT, with particular concentrations in the mildly bizarre story about the Levite and his concubine late in Judges and in 1-2 Chronicles, suggesting that Levites may have had a part in ancient Israelite society from very early on, but are a particular focus of interest after the exile.

The Prophets

Levite Refs in Prophets Sshot

Levites are distinct for their general absence in the (Latter) Prophets, appearing in just a single half-chapter in Jeremiah, and that being the section of Jeremiah, 33:14-26, that is absent from the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint or LXX. The Levites are only mentioned in the last few verses of Isaiah 66, once in the Twelve (Minor Prophets) in Malachi 3:3, and a number of times in Ezekiel’s temple vision in Ezekiel 40-48, with suggestions that Levites are to have a demoted status in Jewish religion. That’s a very limited range of texts, and arguably late in production in each case. The general impression is of an appearance of this topic in exilic and post-exilic times.

The Writings

Levite Refs in Writings Sshot

It perhaps isn’t surprising in some cases, given the nature and subject matter of some of these books, but the Levites are not mentioned anywhere in the Writings, including the Psalms (not shown), apart from post-exilic Ezra and Nehemiah, where they become very prominent indeed.

I’m no scholar about the Levites, and in my mind the big three features of post-exilic Jewish religious life are Torah, Sabbath and, moreso later, synagogue. But perhaps Levites, though the Judges story in particular may set their origin in Israelite society very early, to say nothing of the Exodus references, are primarily a prominent feature of post-exilic society, and most references to them in our Bibles come from the exile or later. There is of course an intersection here with older historical-critical concerns, but I’m not an expert on these either, and would like to keep scholarly hypotheses from too quickly shaping the data at hand.

Another good visual study would be references to the Sabbath, no?

Not Too Small to be Noticed: What Jeremiah 34 Says About the Value of the Individual

The Story in Brief: Zedekiah’s manumission of the slaves in besieged Jerusalem (Jer 34:8-22):

Under pressure from besieging Babylonian (or, as my young daughter read it out last night, ‘Babylion’) forces around 588 BC, Zedekiah, last king of Judah, secured the agreement of community leaders to release “fellow Jews” who were enslaved: 34:8-10, 15, 18-19. If we were to guess at his motives, and plenty of scholars have had a go, I think the most likely is that this was an attempt to set the covenant relationship with Yahweh on a better footing by fixing a point of obvious neglect of the law.

Civil laws in Exod 21:2-6 and Deut 15:12-18 set a six-year limit to the permissible period of enslavement of a ‘fellow Hebrew’, which by the time of the later Deuteronomy law seems to have simply acted as a synonym for ‘fellow Israelite’, though it probably meant something different in Exodus 21. My sense is that the prescribed limit of six years had long been neglected, and Israelite slaves had been kept indefinitely. Perhaps this rested uneasily on the conscience of some in Jerusalem, and it seemed an obvious point at which a gesture of renewed obedience to God could be made. Verses 18-20 imply that the covenant ceremony, which was conducted in the temple itself (v. 15), involved a ceremony of passing between the parts of animals divided in half, in a gesture of “let this be done to me if I fail to uphold this agreement,” i.e., a rather graphic self-maledictory oath. (The same practice lies behind Abraham’s dream in Genesis 15.)

Presumably upon the withdrawal of the Babylonian army in the face of Egyptian army manouevres (34:21), the slaveowners reneged on their covenant and re-subjugated their released slaves (34:11, 16). The effect was to make their gesture look particularly empty and artificial. This double-take elicited a judgment prophecy from Jeremiah, who condemned this violation of the recent covenant as symptomatic of Israel’s general covenant infidelity, and predicted Babylonian forces’ return and successful destruction of Jerusalem: 34:12-22.

Jeremiah 34 Prezi ScreenshotScreenshot of recent presentation on the slave release story. (See it at http://prezi.com/nd26ypqgpu-u/jeremiah-348-22-fresh-life-from-ancient-roots-bilingual/)

God’s Awareness of the Individual

Reading this story, my eye was caught by little phrase ‘לְנַפְשָׁם’ (l’naphshām). Translated “as they desired” (NET, w. NRSV similar) or “where they wished” (NIV), I now think “to live their own lives” (New Jerusalem Bible)’ is closer to the Hebrew. The important point is that either the will, or at least the wellbeing, of the slave is taken into account in this little phrase, i.e. the slave is considered as a person and not just property.

The same safeguarding of the slave as a person is seen in OT slave law. Exod 21:5-6; Deut 15:16-17 say that the choice to become a bondslave, i.e. to renounce the right to freedom after the stipulated ownership period of six years, remains the slave’s own. Deut 15:18 implies that this is an exception and should not quietly become the default arrangement, though it is possible to imagine this bondslave provision being exploited as a loophole, and it is hard to tell whether torah slave laws were ever properly enforced (though Jeremiah 34 and Nehemiah 5 provide case studies).

Deuteronomy often connects the slave’s domestic situation with the Israelites’ national past, most famously in the Deuteronomy version of the Ten Commandments:

“But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant,…so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. (15) Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:14b-15a NIV)

This care of the rights even of an owned individual fits a theme we see at various points in Jeremiah. Though the outlook for the nation is grim, as the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem is destined to fall as the inevitable expression of Yahweh’s judgment for Judah’s sin, the individual who remains faithful to God can, maybe not thrive, but survive:

  • Jeremiah, who is so afraid of his calling and continues to suffer through it, is made “iron and bronze” by the LORD and outlasts all of his rivals.
  • Ebed-Melech, the African royal court staffer who rescues Jeremiah from the cistern (Jer 38:7-13), is rewarded for his faith and faithfulness with survival of the crisis (39:15-18).
  • Baruch, who feels the burden of the prophetic ministry as his master does (45:3), is urged to let go of ambitions inappropriate to such a dark and difficult time (45:5a), but is also granted survival (45:5b).

Hinted at here is a possible freedom both from the mastery of ego and the grinding burden of self-loathing. The work and plan of God, we might say the Kingdom, is bigger than you or me. Like little children in a large family, circumstances cannot be ordered around our personal preferences. But like little children in a large family, each of us remains inestimably precious to God. To use Paul’s image, like the various parts of the ‘body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12:12-27), each of us who has been inducted into the family of God, a privilege anyone may claim who is so minded, has a role to play in the right functioning of that body as a whole. In a sense, while we’re not needed by God, the Bible’s witness is that we are wanted.

That makes me relax a little. The need to try to prove my right to breathe has passed. I don’t need to achieve anything on the sporting field or in the business world (or academically!) to show onlookers that I’m a worthy human being. I don’t need to publish a book to be someone. Just my being here shows that I’m wanted, if this is a world where God presides.

Hands up anyone who prefers it to be a world where God does not preside.

A Stable and a Shaken World: A Sermon Outline and Study of the Hebrew Word ‘mwt’

I spoke on this ‘shaking’ idea in the Psalms recently, focusing on occurrences of the Hebrew verb ‘מוט (e.g. Psa 46:3)’.  Some of the folk present have asked for access to the PowerPoint resource, so here ’tis.

Notes:

  1. The second slide acts as a master, with each of the nine boxes linked to more specific content centred around a relevant passage from the Psalms or Isaiah.  Every slide has a small icon to permit navigation back to this master slide.
  2. The screen concerning Psalm 104 and comparing it to verse 1 contains a link to a Word document which outlines the full text of Psalm 104.  I will include this separately, below.

Here is the Word file of Psalm 104: