Micah

Micah, along with Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, is one of the prophets of the Assyrian Period (8th century BCE). The book that bears his name is the sixth in the collection known as the “Book of the Twelve,” or the “Minor Prophets,” in the Hebrew Bible. (In the Greek Septuagint, it is the third book of the twelve.)

In Micah 1:1, the prophet is named as מִיכָה הַמֹּרַשְׁתִּי [mikah hammorashti], “Micah of Moreshet” (or “the Morashtite”), identifying him with a town Moresheth about 23 miles southwest of Jerusalem. Outside of Micah 1:1, Micah of Moreshet is referred to only in the book of Jeremiah (26:18), as certain elders recall a prophecy from earlier times and cite Micah 3:12. There are several others in the Hebrew Bible who have the name “Micah,” which means “who is like YHWH?”.

In the Septuagint, the name appears as Μιχαιαν τὸν τοῦ Μωρασθι [michaian ton tou morasthi], suggesting a patronymic (“Michaias son of Morasthi”) rather than a place name.

The book’s seven chapters present a series of oracles announcing divine judgment on Israel and Judah.

Relatively little attention is given to the northern kingdom of Israel, nor are there oracles directed against the surrounding nations. While both Assyria and Egypt are noticed at several points, the focus remains  predominantly on the fate of Judah, and Zion in particular.

There are few structural markers in the book after the formal introduction in 1:1 to give shape to the collection. Chapters 1–3 announce the coming judgment, with social abuses and rejection of the prophetic word largely to blame. While the negative tone never wholly recedes, some hopeful notes are introduced in chapters 4–7 despite seemingly complete social and political breakdown. Even so, the book concludes with a brief theological reflection on the nature of divine compassion (7:18-20).

Date and authorship

The superscription to the book (1:1) locates the activity of Micah to the days of “Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” The chronology of these reigns is notoriously difficult to date with precision, but this roughly locates Micah’s ministry in the second half of the 8th century BCE (ca. 747 to ca. 698).

Locating this setting for Micah-the-prophet is one matter; discerning the literary setting of Micah-the-book is another. The traditional view ascribed the book to Micah himself. By the late 19th century, however, “critical” scholars argued that the book was a post-exilic production, with little of it attributable to the prophet himself.

Lack of structural clarity combines with vagueness of historical setting to produce a welter of modern readings. Arguments are made for and against literary unity, and similarly in favour or not of an 8th-century setting. The various options do not combine in a predictable way: earliness or lateness need not cohere with perceptions of a unified or fragmentary text, which may or may not have much to do with the “historical” Micah!

Interpretation

As the brief statement of date and authorship suggests, the literary unity of the book, and the optimum description of its structure still remain matters for debate.

Famously, the “swords into ploughshares” pericope of Micah 4:1-4 is shared with Isaiah 2:1-4 and raises the question of the nature of the relationship of these two ostensibly contemporary prophets, both working in the same Jerusalem setting.

With much of the emphasis of the book on the social problems, naturally the social and economic dimensions of Micah have attracted attention, especially around issues of justice and reconciliation.

Itumeleng J. Mosala, a South African scholar, in “A Materialist Reading of Micah,” distinguishes three types of material in Micah according to what he sees as their ideology. The framework and dominant ideology, seen in, e.g., 4:5-13 or 7:1-20, is that of the former ruling class of Judah now humbled by exile. Their hope is for the restoration of Zion. But other parts, e.g., 2:1-5 or 3:8-12, accuse the ruling class of specific crimes against the poor, and proclaim the judgment of God even on Zion itself (3:12). Mosala finds a third type of material in passages that he sees as ambiguous or aimed at warning rather than accusation, including 3:1-7 and 6:1-8. These he identifies with people who serve the rulers but do not have power themselves. But there is nothing to hold this group together, and perhaps he should conclude that there is little in Micah that does not belong to one of his first two categories.

Mosala cites vv. 3-4 as “the most revolutionary part of the entire biblical discourse,” transforming the familiar interpretation as a cry for peace into a plea for priorities, with an emphasis on food and improvement of the quality of life for all top of the agenda, even at the expense of weaponry, always a luxury for the few to preserve power for the benefit of some while depriving others of the basic means of sustenance. Not so much a simple plea for peace as a wholesale revision of priorities to create a new world where food, the economy, and survival come first.

Reception history

t.b.a.

Further reading

Jacobs, Mignon R. “Bridging the Times: Trends in Micah Studies since 1985.” CurBR 4 (2006): 293-329.
Mason, Rex. Micah, Nahum, Obadiah. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991.
Mosala, Itumeleng J. Pages 101-53 in Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
Willis, John T. “Micah, Book of.” Pages 150-53 in vol. 2 of Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. 2 vols. Edited by John H. Hayes. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998.

Web resources

The Hebrew text of Micah: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, TanakhML, Westminster Leningrad Codex.
Septuagint Micah: Septuaginta (ed. Rahlfs/Hanhart), Brenton translation.
Smith, J. M. Powis. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum. ICC. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1911. [good overview of critical scholarship on Micah at the time of writing]
Wikipedia pages for the book of Micah and the prophet Micah.