What God requires (July 19, 2015)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Micah 6:1-8

Most of us live in places where we depend on the rule of law to maintain order and justice in our communities. Judges and juries, law enforcement agencies and lawmakers, lawyers and law schools — all contribute to making our world a place where human beings can flourish. When those who judge or those who enforce our laws fail to honor their public trust, the fabric of our community life is torn and serious problems arise. Christians should thank God for the just rule of law.

The prophet Micah spoke out for Jahweh, Judah’s covenant-making God, who gave Moses the law by which God’s people were ruled. God’s covenant law called for the worship of Jahweh alone and the establishment of justice among God’s people. But Micah lived in a time when the political and religious leaders in Israel and Judah often ignored God’s law. Micah reveals that God’s response was to invoke the rule of law and to take Israel to court, so to speak.

Micah 6:1-2: God’s lawsuit
Micah announces that God has “a controversy with God’s people.” Like a prosecuting attorney, Micah begins the legal proceedings by calling witnesses. In this case the witnesses are drawn from the natural surroundings: the hills and mountains and strong pillars that ancient people pictured as enduring foundations holding up the earth. Micah is directed by God to plead the Lord’s case against the covenant people.

Micah 6:4-5: God’s testimony
Micah presents God as the plaintiff pleading his case with questions. “What have I done to you?” God asks. “In what have I wearied you?” The Jewish Study Bible translation has “What wrong have I done you?” God demands an answer, but the tone of the request for an answer is softened by the repeated poignant appeal “O my people …. ” God reluctantly initiates a lawsuit against the covenant people.

God’s case is based on “the saving acts of the Lord.” God says, “I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery.” God also provided leaders for the people: Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Here Miriam is named as an equal to her brothers.

God calls upon the people to remember key episodes in which God intervened to protect the covenant people. God frustrated the plans of the Moabite King Balak, who wanted Balaam to curse Israel’s army (Numbers 22-24). God raised up Joshua to be their leader. God also held back the waters of the Jordan so that the people could cross over to Gilgal on dry ground (Joshua 3-4). God’s case is rooted in the story of the exodus from Egypt and the entrance into the Promised Land.

Micah 6:6-8: God’s expectation 

Having initiated the lawsuit and presented God’s case, Micah now changes his role and speaks on behalf of the people. He asks a series of questions aimed at clarifying what will meet the expectations of God’s lawsuit. There is no doubt about the identity of the plaintiff in this lawsuit. It is the Lord, God on high.

Will burnt offerings of yearling calves be acceptable? Will countless rams or ten thousand rivers of olive oil satisfy the lawsuit? Or even more extremely, will it be enough to offer one’s oldest son as an offering for sin, one’s own flesh and blood as an atonement for one’s own sins? This final question may have been especially significant, since King Ahaz is reputed to have practiced child sacrifice. All of these possibilities are examples of ritual sacrifices associated with cultic religion in Judah. This is what the temple in Jerusalem represented.

Micah reminds the people that God has already clearly told them what was expected. God expects three things from the covenant people: to carry out justice, to make kindness the highest value and to walk (that is, to live) humbly in God’s presence. Justice means that all of God’s people enjoy the peace and wholeness of a well-ordered society. Practicing kindness by making it a priority to care for the needs of others is God’s second expectation. God expects the covenant people to live humble lives of devoted service to God. Each of these expectations provides a stark contrast to the prevailing style of life practiced by the corrupt and self-aggrandizing religious and political leaders.

For discussion 

What does this covenant lawsuit tell us about the nature of God? Do you think the justice God requires is punitive (i.e., a punishment for sins) or is it restorative (i.e., right relationships are established)? What are the characteristics of a person who walks humbly with God?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.