Commentary on Micah 6:1-8
According to John Collins, Micah 6:8 is “biblical ethics in a nutshell.”1
He’s not incorrect. In fact, there are indications throughout the text that the message should have profound and even cosmic impacts for the people of God.
First, the historical context for this passage is difficult to discern. There are no explicit references in the text to people, places, or situations that might elucidate the present conflict. Broadly, we read in the introduction (1:1) that Micah of Moresheth brought his message during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, though he does not seem to have been closely affiliated with the kings (unlike, for example, Isaiah of Jerusalem). There is also evidence that later editors amended and added to Micah’s messages, giving us a composite text with a core prophetic message that is made relevant over and over again. Micah’s original message was likely directed at Israel, but served also as a warning for Judah as well. Concerns for social justice and cultic practices are dominant throughout the book as a whole, and both themes were in line with other 8th century prophets.
Looking specifically at 6:1–8, multiple clues are present in the text that indicate to a reader that this particular message is of utmost importance. First, the structure and form of the pericope itself tells us that we should pay attention. The passage opens with a repeated call to “hear,” and the Hebrew word shem‘a has more than merely an auditory meaning—it carries with an expectation that what is heard will be followed up with action. In other words, “heed” this message, says Micah.
Second, the form of the message is cause for attention: what is brought to be “heeded” is a dispute or controversy. The Hebrew word rib connotes a legal or judicial sense, and is used elsewhere to refer specifically to a covenant lawsuit, in which God as plaintiff condemns the people for breaking the covenant. The use of the rib structure here brings solemnity to the matter—these calls for justice and ethical action are closely connected to the relationship between God and the people.
Third, the rhetoric of this particular rib is quite unique. Indeed, it is not entirely clear here whether God is the plaintiff or the defendant. While the prophet calls for God to “plead your case” (6:1), God does not pronounce guilt. Rather, God asks a question: “… [W]hat have I done to you? In what have I wearied you?” (6:3). Some scholars read these questions as sarcastic in tone,2 but they may also suggest God’s own weariness or an entreating for understanding in the midst of a frayed relationship. Indeed, if we allow that some of the book has been edited in the postexilic era, such uncertainty and questioning is a common feature in presentations of the divine-human relationship.
God’s questions in verse 3 are followed by questions of the people in verse 6, framing the text with further uncertainty, or at least an uncertainty in how to solve this rib. Both sides of this relationship seem to be tip-toeing around.
Both God’s speech and the people’s questions intensify and expand as they go. Twice, God’s interjection, “O my people!” (6:3, 5), shakes the hearer to remember the covenanted relationship. Moreover, the short recital of God’s “saving acts” (6:5) pack quite a punch. In verses 6–7, the people ask what type of offering is most suitable or pleasing for God, building hyperbolically from 1 to 10,000, and then qualitatively from burnt offerings of animals to humans. (This notion, abhorrent to readers today, perhaps would not have been for those making the suggestion originally.)
Finally, it is important to notice that God speaks directly to the people, but the people do not respond directly back to God. Again we see hints that the divine-human relationship is at stake here—so, we ought to be paying close attention and taking this seriously.
Fourth, elements of wisdom play in this passage in interesting ways, expanding the impact of the message. Perhaps indicative of later editing, the appeal to creation marks the rib as impacting not only the people but the whole of the cosmos. Through a literary merism (from the “mountains” to the “enduring foundations of the earth”) in 6:1–2, the prophet enjoins all of creation to hear and heed the message (see also Deuteronomy 30:19). Framing the passage on the other end (verse 8), the use of “mortal” (Hebrew ’adam) and “good” (Hebrew tob) recall Genesis 1. ’Adam is unusual here, marks the only occurrence of this word in the vocative, and is also characteristic in wisdom ethical instruction. In addition, seeking “what is good” (6:8) is a wisdom question, even when used by prophets (for example, Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 22:15–16; see also Ecclesiastes 6:11–12).
Given the many clues in the text, by the time the reader gets to 6:8—the pinnacle of the text—the reader should be sitting up and paying attention. In this final verse, the courtroom metaphor continues: following the speeches of both plaintiff and defendant, the ruling comes down via the prophet, the adjudicator of sorts. Once more, questions are used—indirect questions, highlighting that these things are perpetual (6:8a: what is good, and what God seeks from you [translation mine]). Moreover, the last three verbs are complementary infinitive constructs, clarifying or explaining what it is that God seeks from us continually. We may have already been “told” what is good, but these things we must keep doing always because God is always seeking them from us.
Do justice—here, not a state, but an action.
Love kindness—without loving kindness, justice is incomplete.
Walk humbly—or rather, reverently with God.
The Hebrew root tsana‘, often translated “humbly,” signifies that “walking with” God includes a mindfulness of God’s attentions and works (verses 3–5), and of the affirmation that one bears responsibility for one’s actions in life.
Thus, these final words of the prophet are a culmination of the whole passage, encapsulating the solemnity and the gravitas of the rib structure, and marking the impact of God’s saving acts and of the people’s questions. The message conveys more than human ethics—how we act for and with one another reflects our relationship with God.
That’s an Epiphany message for the ages.
- John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deuterocanonical Books, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2018), 573.
- See, for example, Daniel Smith-Christopher, Micah, OTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 190.