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.”

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Ten Books on the Boil: The Other Five

Well, the truth is you can’t really keep ten books properly on the boil. And a word from experience: this isn’t the kind of snappy title that attract readers to a blog post. Learning as we go. But, in the interests of finishing something that you start, here are some comments on the following five books whose reviews were flagged in a post probably two months ago:

  • Isaiah 1-39 with an Introduction to Prophetic Literature (1996), by Marvin Sweeney
  • Interpreting Isaiah: issues and approaches (2009), edited by David Firth and H. G. M. Williamson
  • The Book Called Isaiah: Deutero-Isaiah’s Role in Composition and Redaction (1994), also by H. G. M. Williamson
  • Prolegomena to the History of Israel, originally 1878, by Julius Wellhausen (that ought to get a reaction), and
  • Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction – and Get It Published (2002) by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato.

Continue reading

Ten Books on the Boil? The First Five

Are you one of those people who have 6 or 8 books on the go at once? A couple at the office, three or four on the bedside table, another one on top of the fridge? It isn’t the most efficient system, is it? Short attention span? Too many interests? When you know how you operate, you don’t keep fighting it, do you. So it’s going to be 6 or 8 books on the go for life.

In the absence of a more coherent & thoughtful piece, here are my ten or so books with a comment on what each is about and how good it is. There is, naturally, an Old Testament theme, and more specifically, most have to do with either Old Testament history and historiography (history-writing) or with Isaiah, my new teaching subject for this semester. Continue reading

Declaration of Amnesty – The Act of a King

Let’s try for a short one!

I’m studying Jeremiah 34:8-22, which features 4/7 occurrences of a rare Old Testament word, derôr, in vv. 8, 15 & 17.  Here’s the first occurrence.

The word came to Jeremiah from the LORD after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves. (Jer 34:8 NIV)

It’s a little bit of a challenge establishing what such a rare word means; it only turns up once in the entire Torah or Pentateuch:

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. (Lev 25:10 NIV)

But there is, I have it on good authority, a cognate Akkadian word, durruru, and evidence of a practice described using this term, whereby an ancient Near Eastern king might, especially upon first coming to the throne, declare a kind of general amnesty or liberation of slaves as an opening goodwill gesture.  So you know I’m not making this up, check out Nahum M. Sarna,  “Zedekiah’s emancipation of slaves and the sabbatical year,” in Orient and Occident: Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday (ed. Harry A. Hoffner; Alter Orient und Altes Testament 22; NeuKirchen-Vluyn: NeuKirchener, 1973), 143-149 @147, as one example.

Out of two more occurrences in the OT, one is the important-sounding eschatological (focused on the final kingdom) passage in Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. (Isa 61:1-4 NIV)

In context, it sounds as though liberation from bondage in Babylon might be offered here to Jewish captives of the exile (586-538).  It already strikes the reader as an arresting and profound passage, something momentous, a huge claim.  But that sense is only heightened when we see the way this text is quoted in the Gospels:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luk 4:18-21 NIV)

I love the dramatic pause at the end of v. 20.  It’s pin-dropping time!  What’s he going to say? The passage is already dynamite in a social environment where messianism is in the air, and impatience with Roman rule. The day of liberation! The jubilee year spoken of in Leviticus, but the one that God gives direct! What’s he going to say?

“This is that day.” Heavy! This is the first act of Jesus’ ministry described in detail in Luke. In Luke’s presentation, this is Jesus’ way of officially inaugurating his ministry. And what does he say? I’m here as the designated spokesman for the heavenly King, who is declaring an amnesty, release for those enslaved.

It’s a new day. It’s a new order. It’s a new age.

Jubilee. Sign on!

It was so radical, it could only polarize the crowd, and Jesus is immediately in trouble, the centre of controversy. Because if it’s true, it’s wonderful on a mythical scale, but if it’s false, it is heretically, blasphemously, and for a people already oppressed, painfully false, like prosperity gospel preached to poor South Africans, or a cargo cult expecting gifts from the sky.

That’s for you to decide, but when you check out the background of derôr in Isa. 61:1, and discover that it can be the opening act of a new regime, you can appreciate that Jesus opens his ministry with a biblical bombshell in a munitions factory.

The Workings of Hebrew Narrative in the Hezekiah Stories in 2 Kings

My kids have just come home from school with the fact that the world’s best-selling book is the Bible and not any part of the Harry Potter series, or even Lord of the Rings.

It isn’t surprising when we look closely at the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (to say nothing of the all-important Final Quarter).  I’m constantly amazed at the artistry and profundity of both poetic and narrative texts of the OT.  And some of it escapes us until we read the Hebrew.

Having reached the end of 2 Kings 20 this morning, let me mention a couple of great little nuggets from 2 Kings 18-20, those riveting and sometimes perplexing stories about Hezekiah.  (Pretty well all of these things will apply also to Isaiah 36-39, but I am not taking the time to check each detail there right now.)

  • There is a fundamental tension within the story of the Assyrian crisis when Sennacherib invades.  Here it comes out in Christopher J. H. Wright’s brief historical survey in The Message of Jeremiah, Bible Speaks Today Series (2014), p. 18:

“When Sennacherib marched west to put down the rebellion in 701 BC, he invaded and ravaged Judah fiercely and then besieged Jerusalem itself.  Panic once again in Jerusalem.  This time Isaiah’s counsel prevailed, Hezekiah sought the Lord, and the city was spared with a miraculous deliverance (though Hezekiah did in fact submit to heavy tribute).”

That is a clear tension in the story, and the submission is narrated first, before the story of miraculous deliverance!  There’s no concealment or gilding the lily at this point.  But even the silence about conquest evident in the Sennacherib Prism might suggest that the failure to actually take Jerusalem is the elephant in Sennacherib’s room: “(Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city.”

  • There is a good example of ‘repetition with variation’ in Hebrew narrative.  The first message from Sennacherib’s chronies in 2 Kings 18:19-25 is seemingly careful not to incite the enmity of Yahweh, instead (disingenuously) claiming that Hezekiah’s centralization of worship to Jerusalem makes him less faithful to Yahweh than Sennacherib himself is, who has come to invade Judah, he says, on Yahweh’s instructions!  In v. 29 he adds, “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you from my hand.”  But notice the word of the second backup threat to Hezekiah in 19:10: “”Do not let the god you depend on deceive you when he says, ‘Jerusalem will not be handed over to the kind of Assyria.’  …Did the gods of the nations that were destroyed by my forefathers deliver them…?  Much of the wording is identical, but in place of ‘Hezekiah’, now it is Yahweh’s competence being questioned.  Perhaps that is why the second prophetic denunciation through Isaiah is so much the stronger than the first!  Can I emphasize that this is a principle for understanding all OT narrative?  Pay attention to the little variations within the repetition!  They make the big points!  (This is also what makes good music good!)
  • Isaiah’s first, much briefer message in 19:6-7 uses a great word that I hadn’t noticed before:

6 Isaiah said to them, “Tell your master, ‘This is what the LORD says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard– those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me.
7 Listen! When he hears a certain report, I will make him want to return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword. ‘” (2Ki 19:6-7 NIV)

The word rendered ‘underlings’ is one Hebrew word for children or teenagers, and can by derivation mean ‘servants..  It’s effectively labeling Sennacherib’s highest officials as his ‘boys’, trivial figures who just say and do what they’re told.  It’s a Churchillian one-word put-down.

By the way, Isaiah’s first message, as brief as it is, is links to the final judgment on Sennacherib, his eventual assassination (2 Kings 19:37).  Enclosed within this prophecy and fulfilment is another, the larger oracle/s of Isaiah (19:21-34) and their fulfilment in the plague that drives the Assyrians from the walls of Jerusalem (19:35-36).

Here are some of the things that feature twice in the narrative in 2 Kings 18-20; see if you can locate the two aspects of each feature:

Inclusios or Doublets in 2 Kings 18-20

  • And to illustrate just one brief example of the many deliberate doublets in this narrative: the account of Hezekiah’s career finishes where the Assyrian crisis began in 2 Kings 18:17 – at the aqueduct of the upper pool…a piece of infrastructure that 2 Kings 20:20 finally tells us was a key achievement of Hezekiah.  And, characteristically for Hebrew narrative, the two Hebrew terms for this structure are mentioned in reverse in the Hebrew text!  The book of Isaiah does even more with this particular narrative setting, but that’s another story.