Thursday, March 27, 2014

Should you not know justice?

Today I read some from the prophet Micah, who addressed the people of Judah during the time of the Assyrian crisis. His message is not particularly different from that of the other prophets, whether those of the northern or southern kingdom. Like Donald Gowan appreciates in Theology of the Prophetic Books (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), the prophetic kerygma is the death and resurrection of Israel: death by exile because of sin, but resurrection in eventual return to the promised land.

I am really fond of the polemics of the third chapter of Micah, when he speaks against the rulers and prophets. Notice what he says:

Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Should you not know justice? -- you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay the skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron (3.1-3).

He makes the rulers of the nation out to be a pack of murderers and torturers who cannibalize their constituents. This is in stark contrast to the expectation that they rule with equity and justice, for the good of the people. Micah condemns the rulers for going in the entirely opposite direction with their leadership: rather than ruling for the sake of their constituents, rather than ensuring that justice prevail, they rip the skin from the backs of their subjects and gorge on their meat. A powerful image!

Likewise he objects to the prophets whose messages are tempered by the favor (or disfavor) they receive from their audiences:

Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry "Peace" when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths. Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God (vv. 5-7).

The job of everyone who takes himself or herself to be a prophet is to speak the word of the LORD, and for so many this meant speaking an extremely unfavorable message to an unreceptive people. Jeremiah is one of the tragic stories of the Bible in this regard. He was given the prophetic burden by God, forbidden to marry or have a family because the people are going to die of horrible diseases anyway, and he received nothing but persecution for his message. In the end, he complains that Yhwh deceived him (Jer 20.7). In the face of such great prophetic struggles, the prophet who speaks nice to those who feed him (and bad to those who don't) is a disgrace, and the LORD hides his face from such people.

The chapter ends with one more piece of polemics against the rulers:

[Israel's] rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, "Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us." Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height (vv. 11-2).

The final line which speaks of Zion being plowed is famous for its extreme imagery: the very Hill of God, where Yhwh is supposed to reside amidst his people, will be entirely cleared and destroyed; it will be abandoned so that a wild forest will grow there. This is the result of the evil of the rulers and the upper class: they claim to be with God, they presume that God is with them, yet every day is spent in iniquity and injustice.

This is the message of the prophetic endeavor of the Old Testament in the end: there are expectations to be fulfilled by those who claim fellowship and covenant with God; the persistent and indifferent failure to fulfill expectations is met with judgment.