Commentary on Micah 6:1-8
The historical situation of this text is not entirely clear.
A setting during the reign of King Hezekiah in the late eighth century is likely. At the same time, hints of exilic and postexilic periods (e.g., rebuilding city walls; restoring national boundaries, 7:11) may reflect expansions of the text over the years in view of new community situations.
The language of “(covenant) lawsuit” is sometimes used for this text, but that is an unlikely designation, for such language tends to reduce these verses to matters of legal import. The fundamental issue at stake between God and Israel has to do with a relationship that needs close attention. The repeated use of the word “what” (6:3, 5, 6, 8) serves to raise questions and issues that are to be addressed by both people and God.
The prophet begins by quoting God. Israel and God are in controversy. God asks what issue (“case”) the people have with God. God’s reply is direct (6:3): “Answer me”! The text moves to a summary statement of all that God has done for Israel (6:4-5), and then follows the words of a spokesperson for the people (6:6-7), and concludes with the word of the prophet (6:8). The last-noted verse captures the heart of the issue at stake between God and people.
Look at the text more closely. The world of nature is asked to enter into the dialogue as witnesses of what has happened to the God-Israel relationship. What the people have done that occasions God’s response is not altogether clear, especially in view of God’s agonizing and sorrow-filled questions to them (“O my people!”; verse 5). This emotion-laden divine language is certainly not typical courtroom or accusatory rhetoric (6:3)! God’s rhetoric suggests that the people have been complaining about God’s expectations of them. God’s basic reply is: make your case; let’s put the issue on the table: “What have I done that you should respond with such charges against me?” Answer me!
The openness of God to engage in such a dialogue with the people is remarkable (cf. Abraham, Genesis 18:25-33; Moses, Exodus 3-7). God interacts with the people about their concerns; God does not dismiss their complaining as inappropriate or bring them into court because they have dared to question God! Quite the contrary, God develops reasons as to why they should be appreciative of God’s activity in their story even though life has been difficult.
God provides a brief history of all that God has done for them through the years (6:4-5). Given this story, they should be more grateful than their complaining suggests. Those “saving acts of God” (verse 5) on Israel’s behalf include: the exodus from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 1-15); the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (a striking female reference, Exodus 15:20-21); the deliverance from the Moabite King Balak through the agency of Balaam as the people made their way through the wilderness (Numbers 22-24); and the climactic move into the promised land itself, using familiar shorthand: from Shittim, east of the Jordan, to Gilgal on the west (see Joshua 2:1; 3:1; 4:19; 5:19).
The purpose of listing the divine activity is stated clearly: “that you may know the saving acts of the Lord” (verse 5). Such divine actions are “saving,” for God has brought life, health, and well-being to individuals and community. The people are to “remember” so that they might “know,” that is, come to a fuller realization of what God has done. What God has done is a crucial centering matter that will both ground and give shape to understanding the human activity in the verses that follow (6:6-8).
Given what God has done, the people ask what God expects of them in view of their sins (6:6-7). What worship practices are in order (see Psalms 15; 24)? Or, to put it crassly: what do I, a sinner, have to do before God will be pleased? “With what (verse 6)”!? The list ranges from traditional to extreme (burnt offerings; costly year-old calves; large numbers of rams; even larger numbers of “rivers of oil”) and ends on a climactic point: would the sacrifice of my first-born child do (see Genesis 22:1-19)?
One is given to wonder about the expectations of God for the community or, more accurately, the people’s understandings of those expectations. Were all of these suggestions serious? Were they purposely hyperbolic, perhaps to emphasize the seriousness of the question? Or, is this an attempt to “cover the waterfront” of possibilities? God, I’m willing to do anything! The willingness to sacrifice a child suggests urgency.
But the answer in 6:8 calls the questions of 6:6-7 into question. The basic issue at stake in your relationship with God is not the nature of your worship (see Amos 5:21-24).
At the same time, what people do in response to their God is not irrelevant. “What is good?” is an important question, a question that God has already answered: “he has told you” (6:8; see Hosea 12:6). What is most basic in this relationship with God? What does the Lord require of “you”: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with “your” God. What does the Lord require of you, you who have been “saved” by God? The issue is not a means to achieve salvation. The question addresses those who are members of the community of faith already. Does the relationship you have with God entail any expectations? This text says: Yes.
The orientation toward both neighbor and God is clear. In effect, give yourself on behalf of others, particularly those who are needy, by doing justice and loving kindness (“steadfast love”). At the same time, walk humbly (or attentively) with your God. The “walk” with God (4:2; see Deuteronomy 26:17; 28:9) has to do with life’s journey and the shape thereof. That God’s call for action on behalf of the less fortunate is joined with the call to journey with God is important; the one will deeply affect the other.
This text is similar to Jesus’ combination of two other Old Testament texts (Mark 12:28-31): Love your God and your neighbor as yourself (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).