< December 20, 2009 >

Commentary on Micah 5:2-5a


On this last Sunday of Advent, we come to another familiar prophetic passage, familiar at least in part because it plays a prominent role in Matthew's story of the birth of Jesus.

When the magi from the East come to Jerusalem expecting to find the king of the Jews, King Herod's scribes quote this passage from Micah as evidence that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6):

"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).

The allusions to David are clear. Bethlehem is David's birthplace. David is the preeminent "ruler" of Israel in the biblical imagination, and by the time Micah was prophesying, David's reign was long past, "from of old." Later in the passage, using a metaphor common in the ancient Near East, the coming ruler is pictured as a shepherd, in the image of his famous ancestor (Micah 5:4).

In spite of the obvious allusions to David, this passage from Micah is mysterious. It is difficult to know what exactly is being described, especially in verse 3. Who are the "he" and the "them" mentioned in the verse? What does it mean to "give them"? (The word "up" is not in the Hebrew text.) Who is the woman in labor? And who are "his kindred"?

Commentators are not agreed on the answers to these questions, but it seems clear that the oracle tells of a time when a ruler, a new David, will gather the children of Israel and will rule over them in the name of the LORD, bringing them security and peace.

It may be helpful to link this passage with an earlier one in the book, Micah 4:8-10. Both passages begin with the words "and you." Both passages are addressed to cities; the first to Jerusalem/Zion; the second to Bethlehem. Both passages, too, speak of a woman in labor. In 4:9-10, the "woman" is Zion. The labor pains she experiences are the pangs of exile, but she is promised deliverance.

In the second passage, then, perhaps the "woman" in question is again Zion/Jerusalem, and the "birth" is again a metaphor to speak of deliverance from enemies. The "kindred" (or, more literally, "brothers") who return to the children of Israel are perhaps exiles (whether the 8th century exiles of Israel, from Micah's own time, or the later sixth century Judean exiles to Babylon is not clear).

The passage is indeed mysterious. What is clear, however, is that it was understood by the Gospel writers as a messianic prophecy and has continued through the centuries to be understood as such. The "ruler" whose coming Micah foretells is the One whose birth we will soon celebrate: of the line of David, from Bethlehem, a king who will shepherd his flock in the power of the LORD.

What more can be said? Well, perhaps it is worth noting that this passage continues a deep-rooted biblical theme. That is, Bethlehem is one of the "little clans." The Hebrew word might better be translated "least" or even "insignificant." It is used elsewhere in the Bible to describe one who is younger, or one who is lesser in social status and power.

We know this story well. Jacob, Joseph, David himself--these are the younger brothers, the ones not supposed to be chosen. In fact, biblical law commands that the older brother gets the birthright, no matter the feelings of the father (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

And yet, it happens again and again. The youngest is chosen. Jacob gets the birthright and the blessing. Joseph is exalted over his brothers. David is overlooked until all of his brothers have been paraded before Samuel. Then, finally, he is called in from the pastures surrounding Bethlehem to stand before the prophet and be anointed king (1 Samuel 16).

The most unlikely, the most insignificant, are exalted. "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).

The village is a backwater, and the one who comes from it cannot be expected to amount to much. One thinks of Nathanael's statement when he hears about Jesus, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46).

Can anything good come out of Nazareth, or Bethlehem, or Dekalb, or Topeka? It is a judgment both on the town and on those who live there. And yet, in the case of Bethlehem and those who come from her, the old biblical pattern holds true: the insignificant are exalted. The tables are turned, and the most unlikely of people are instruments of God's salvation. From this insignificant little village, a young shepherd boy grows up to become the most beloved king in Israel's history. And a descendant of that king fulfills God's long-awaited promises of deliverance, not just for Israel, but for the whole world.

It is not the way of the world, this exaltation of the lowliest. But it is the way God works, over and over and over again. An insignificant village. A child born to a young unmarried girl, and that girl's song, heard today: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly" (Luke 1:52). And the one who comes from that little village and that young girl becomes the one Micah proclaims as "the one of peace" (5:5). It is a proclamation we will soon hear echoed from the pastures surrounding Bethlehem.