Commentary on Micah 3:5-12
Lectionary texts are like photographs: when they are cropped and framed in certain ways, our attention is drawn to some features and not others.
Today’s selection from Micah is no different. By beginning with the denunciation of prophets who speak favorably only when they are paid, we are asked to draw comparisons between these false prophets and Micah, who alone is filled with the power and spirit of the Lord to speak truthfully. And when this text is paired with the Gospel lesson, we are invited to see the ways in which both texts contrast the inadequacy of human teaching with true teaching from God. Yet when we step back from this particular frame and examine Micah 3:5-12 in its literary context, we gain a different perspective on the vital connection between prophetic teaching and just practices essential to communal peace and stability.
By beginning with verse 5, the lectionary reading implies that the subject of Micah’s attack is false prophecy (Micah 3:5-8). However, the immediately preceding stanza in verses 1-4 and the concluding stanza in verses 9-12 indicate that the larger issue is the establishment of justice and equity in society at large. In Micah 3:1-4, Micah calls the heads of Israel to account with a sarcastic rhetorical question: should you not know justice? The question rests on basic hierarchical assumptions about the responsibilities of the more powerful and elite members of Israelite society to care for the less fortunate. The prophet answers his own question by accusing the leaders sabotaging justice by choosing evil over good. Rather than enumerating specific injustices, Micah likens their deeds to cannibalism. With their unjust practices, the heads of Israel are, in effect, consuming the very lives and bodies of those who most needed their protection.
The lectionary reading picks up at this point with an announcement of judgement against the prophets. Although it is possible to read this unit as a separate charge against a different group, the food imagery makes it more likely that the prophets are not innocent of the leaders’ wrongdoing but in fact benefit from it. Hans Walter Wolff has noted that “what comes out of the mouths of these prophets” depends on what has been put into it;1 thus well-fed prophets proclaim peace but stir up war against those who “put nothing into their mouths” (Micah 3:5). It doesn’t take much ideological criticism to see that prophets’ message cannot be trusted because they have allowed themselves to be bought for food. But the charge is more gruesome in two respects.
First, the underlying Hebrew is far more graphic in portraying the well-fed prophets as having a “bite between their teeth.” The imagery suggests an animal-like savagery, which is all the more gruesome when it is read in connection with Micah 3:1-3, where Micah accuses Israel’s leaders of busily flaying the body politic piece by bloody piece. If it is these leaders who are feeding the prophets, then it is tempting to imagine that the “bite” in their teeth has been drawn from this common pot. When it is seen that they are benefiting from the savagery of their patrons, the falsity of their declaration of peace is all the more apparent. As the intermediaries through whom the leaders inquire of God, the prophets fail for the same reason. By feeding off the destruction of Israel, they too have exchanged evil for good and are caught in a darkness of their own making.
Against the willing collusion of the prophets and heads of Israel, Micah presents himself as one who alone is filled with power, justice, and might to declare Israel’s transgressions. It is widely noted in the commentaries that these attributes tend more frequently to be associated with the valor and wisdom of rulers and are not, as a rule, associated with prophecy.2 Thus the “I” speaking here may as easily be contrasted with the heads of Israel as with the prophets. Unlike these ruling elders who were to have known justice but who have instead built Jerusalem on bloodshed, and unlike the rulers, priests, and prophets who can all be bought, Micah exposes their delusion and holds them accountable for the coming judgment.
In his commentary on this text, Daniel Smith-Christopher draws intriguing parallels between Micah’s indictment of the prophets and our own knowledge-driven society, in which paid studies all too often support the agendas of those footing the bill. He writes, “Micah’s anguish is our own: Does [thus as it was written] money and privilege always corrupt the ability to see clearly? Is truth simply the tune called for by those who pay the piper?”3
In my opinion, this text exposes a yet more fundamental problem — the ways in which our unexamined appetites and self-interest make it possible for us to be bought off in the first place. What is distinctive about the “I” who stands apart from all this is the ability to speak independently of the pack, and to claim a higher, divinely granted power and courage to step out of the cycle of emoluments and inducements that greased the workings or privilege and power in Jerusalem. Only through this divinely granted courage could Micah describe reality as it really was, a bloody mess of human making.
1. Hans Walter Wolff, Micah: A Commentary (trans. Gary Stansell; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990), 102.
2. Walter Wolff, 105.
3. Daniel Smith-Christopher, Micah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 120.