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“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. — Micah 5:2
Small Town, Big Hope
Have you ever said something that you intended to be understood one way, but someone took it another way, and by the time a few others had taken it up, it became something different altogether?
It’s easy for that to happen, and not only because people may have misheard or misreported what they heard. Sometimes we fail to communicate clearly. If I should say “I saw a boy with a telescope,” would you assume that it was I or the boy who was equipped for distance viewing? Imagine this ad: “Wanted: sitter for a baby about 18 years old.” Would job-hunters assume that the task involves an overaged baby, or that applicants should be 18 to apply?
Meaning may also rest with the hearer. We all live within our own contexts, with our own perspectives, and may hear the same words but interpret them in different ways. A young man may intend nothing but admiration by telling a classmate “Wow, you’re pretty and smart,” but she could easily take the remark as sexually demeaning, as if women were not normally capable of being both attractive and intelligent.
A pre-exilic prophet
We find something similar with today’s text. It is found in a book attributed to a prophet from the eighth century BCE, but it seems to reflect a sixth-century context, and it was later given a messianic interpretation.
The prophet in question is Micah, who lived and worked in and about Jerusalem “in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah” (1:1), which would have been the latter half of the eighth century BCE. Micah was probably born about 760 BCE, so he would have been alive when Jotham and Ahaz ruled, but his prophecies appear to date from the reign of Hezekiah.
Micah hailed from Moresheth, a village not far from the Philistine city of Gath, in an area of fair and fertile hills about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem. Micah had a keen social conscience and was a champion of the peasantry. He promoted ethical living and forcefully condemned the injustice, greed, and decadence of the controlling aristocracy who lived in the cities.
Micah’s name is probably a contraction of micaiyah, meaning “Who is like Yahweh?” Micah was a gifted prophet who apparently had some influence, at least on Hezekiah. He is, in fact, the only prophet whose work is quoted by name in the Old Testament. In Jer. 26:18-19, certain elders of the land quoted Micah’s prophecy that Jerusalem would become “a plowed field” and noted that King Hezekiahresponded by entreating God’s favor,so that destruction was withheld.
A post-exilic message
Micah’s preaching in chs. 1-3 is almost uniformly critical of Judah and Israel, predicting doom and gloom as a result of the peoples’ sins. His oracles that can be linked to historical connections are almost inevitably pessimistic. There are, however, some elements of hope scattered within the book, especially in chs. 4-5.
The oracles of hope in chs. 4-7 seem out of sync with the Micah of chs. 1-3. Just as the book of Isaiah switches gears (and centuries) between chs. 39 and 40, ch. 4 of Micah appears to shift from an eighth-century to a sixth-century audience. This has led most critical scholars to speculate that these oracles derive from a later hand, an admirer of Micah who sought to apply his teaching to a new day by showing that the doom predicted in Micah 1-3 had served an educational purpose, preparing a remnant to find hope for a new and better day.
Lectionary readings typically begin with the address to Bethlehem in 5:2, but we shouldn’t ignore the context of conflict set by 5:1, where the prophet says “Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek.” The verb translated by the NRSV as “walled around” could also be rendered as “slash yourselves” (NET, HCSB) or “gather your troops” (NAS95, NIV11).
What is clear is that Jerusalem is portrayed as being under siege. Gathering troops would be an appropriate response to a siege, but it’s quite possible that the prophet was criticizing those who expressed their fear and panic by cutting themselves with knives, a practice more in keeping with the worship of Baal (cf. 1 Kgs. 18:28), but forbidden for the Israelites (Deut. 14:1).
To underscore the nation’s humiliation, Micah declared that the enemy was striking Israel’s ruler on the cheek with a rod (or scepter), a royal slap in the face that emphasized the people’s impotence before the enemy.
The foe responsible for the siege is not identified. This is probably intentional: by leaving the enemy unnamed, Mic. 5:1 allows later readers to imagine themselves in the prophet’s picture, not just to relive the nation’s shameful ignominy, but also to claim the hope that follows.
While Jerusalem sat under siege with its king being slapped around, the prophet anticipated the birth of a new king who would arise to set things right. He looked south of the powerful city to the village of Bethlehem, the birthplace of David, and declared “Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are small among the clans of Judah; One will come from you to be ruler over Israel for Me” (v. 2). The verse goes on to indicate that the coming ruler would be “from antiquity, from eternity” (NRSV), perhaps better read as “from the distant past” (NET).
The clear inference is that the coming ruler would be a virtual second coming of David, still remembered as Israel’s greatest king and the first to truly unite the country.
The interpretation of v. 3 is difficult because its verbs and pronouns don’t have clear antecedents. A common reading is that God is the subject of “give them up,” meaning God would leave the people of Israel to their enemies until “she who is in labor” – the mother of the ruler to be born in Bethlehem – had given birth. Afterward, “the rest of his brothers” (the king’s countrymen) would return to the people of Israel.
The new king would arise to shepherd the people of Israel “in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God” (v. 4a: note that LORD translates the divine name Yahweh). The new leader with the old heritage would bring a new eraof security and peace to the people (v. 4b-5a). This promise could bring hope to Israelites facing a crisis, whether it was caused by Assyria, Babylon, or the Roman Empire.
A messianic interpretation
History tells us that this promise was not fulfilled, at least not in the expected way. No king born in Bethlehem arose to deliver Israel from the Assyrians or the Babylonians. Although the Persian king Cyrus allowed the Jews to return home, they functioned as a sub-province of Persia with appointed governors. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah had hopes that governor Zerubbabel, a descendant of David born in Babylon, would lead Israel to new heights, but it didn’t happen.
How, then, could the prophecy be fulfilled?
As the Jews suffered under many rulers, prophecies such as this one (along with several from Isaiah and certain of the psalms) came to be interpreted as predictions of a messiah who would yet arise to lead Israel into a new day as a nation of righteous people who would become the envy of the world.
After the life and ministry of Jesus, the early church reinterpreted these same prophecies as pointers to Christ, a different kind of messiah who would reinvent Israel as a people of God composed of believers from all nations.
Thus, it’s not surprising that Matthew’s story of the wise men’s search for a baby king has the paranoid King Herod calling on Judaism’s most prominent scribes to ascertain whether the scriptures had predicted the birth of a new king, and where. They responded by quoting Micah’s assertion that a ruler would arise from Bethlehem of Judah (Matt. 2:4-6, see “The Hardest Question” online for more about this quotation).
Both Matthew and Luke are careful to locate the place of Jesus’ birth as Bethlehem, even though his childhood was spent in Nazareth. They also pointedly identify Jesus as a descendant of David, the very “shoot from Jesse” (David’s father) that Isaiah had predicted (Isa. 11:1, 10), the David redivivus of whom Jeremiah spoke (Jer. 30:9), the shepherd-king David promised by Ezekiel (34:23-24, 37:24-25).
But the early church understood Jesus to be more than the second coming of David, however idealized the ancient king was. The kingdom Jesus ruled would not be a worldly empire, but a community of faith with roots in the earth and its branches in eternity.
How ironic it is that Bethlehem today has become a walled city, fenced in by an Israeli government so concerned about security that Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighbors in the town of Jesus’ birth are kept behind razor wire and not allowed to leave without a special permit.
The ancient Jews were not the only people to live in a world torn by dissension. As they longed for a “second coming” of David, so today we look with anticipation to Christ’s return anda day when the Bethlehem-born shepherd-king brings security and peace to all. BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for December 20, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Micah 5:1-5a
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
If one of my students calls me, I can be sure they are in trouble. Our students want to do everything themselves and in reality, there isn’t a lot that they can’t do for themselves. But I know that when they call, they have tried to do it themselves and they can’t. For the longest time I thought it would be easier if I did it for them, but I realized that I wasn’t helping them out at all. Instead, I’ve learned to walk with them, giving them guidance, and answering questions along the way. The biggest thing I can do, though, is to help them when they’ve fallen. That’s when their really reaching out for someone. When all their walls are down, we can be there to help them back up. Walk with your students, but make sure you aren’t always carrying them.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Wolf” from Big Fish via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Micah 5:1-5a