What Does the Lord Require: An Exegesis of Micah 6:1-8

During the reign of Hezekiah from 726-697 the southern kingdom of Judah was prosperous. Judah had been made a vassal state of Assyria after the Syrio-Ephraimite war in 734-732 and was flourishing under these conditions despite paying heavy tribute to Assyria. Material wealth among the elite classes was growing. The wealth, however, was not evenly distributed. The elite class routinely oppressed the poor, seizing their land for their estates and forcing them into labor to benefit the wealthy, and to pay the tribute to Assyria. Religion played a large role in people’s lives with sacrifices being made on a routine basis. Public piety was de rigueur. It is during this time that the prophet Micah emerges in Judah. He was most active from 721-701.

Micah is highly critical of the economic practices going on during this time. His oracles speak against land seizures by the elite class. In Micah 2:1-5 he chants a “hoy” or funeral lament for the elite class because of their oppressive practices. He warns the people that God will act in “measure for measure justice” against those who oppress others.

“I am planning such a misfortune against this clan that you will not be able to free your necks from it. You will not be able to walk erect; it will be such a time of disaster.” [Micah 2:3]

Micah rebukes the people for oppressing the poor in their community, and warns them that if the practice continues God would “hide His face” from them. Micah also condemns the people for their empty public practices of piety. In a parody of the preaching of the day, Micah tells the people to “stop preaching” in 2:6. The word Micah uses for “preaching” is a metaphor for “dripping.” Micah is telling the people that their preaching, their public piety is as irritating to God as a dripping faucet. Micah was “convinced that only a spiritual renewal, a return to God by individuals and by society,” could save the nation. (Richards 405)

In Micah 6:1-8, God finally speaks to the people directly, in the metaphor of legal language, to declare his grievance against the people. God asks the people, “What wrong have I done you? What hardship have I caused you?” God then reminds the people of the times God has delivered them. He recounts the Exodus story and the people’s deliverance from Balak and their passage from Shittim to Gilgal. The people respond to God, asking what is that the LORD wants of them. They say they’ve done what they believe is required of them, sacrificing burnt offerings, calves, rams and even their children. God responds through the prophet, telling them sacrifice is not required. Instead, God demands justice, mercy and humility.

Micah 6:1-8: An Exegesis

[1] Hear what the Lord is saying: Come, present [My] case before the mountains, And let the hills hear you pleading.

[2] Hear, you mountains, the case of the LORD – You firm foundations of the earth! For the LORD has a case against his people, He has a suit against Israel

The prophet speaks to begin the passage, calling the people, and all creation to listen to the LORD as He presents his case against Israel. In a parallel motif, the prophet calls the hills, the mountains and then the very foundations of the earth to listen to God present His case. This motif of calling all creation to listen is used in other areas of the Old Testament, most notably in Deuteronomy 32:1: “Give ear, O heavens, and let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!” and in Isaiah 1:2a: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, For the Lord has spoken.” Ralph Smith theorizes that “the mountains and the hills are the jury because they have been around a long time and have witnessed God’s dealing with Israel.” (Smith 50)

Perhaps the prophet calls the mountains and all creation to listen because Israel as a nation had fallen into chaos. Creation represents the perfect order and the power of God to make order out of chaos. Calling creation to hear God’s case against the people is a reminder to the people that what is good is order. Their nation has fallen into chaos marked by oppression and injustice. Only by turning to God and remembering his mighty acts of creation can the people hope to put their own lives and the life of their nation back into perfect order.

The form of this introductory passage is a classic “covenant lawsuit” against the people of Israel. The scene is set “in a lawcourt of cosmic dimensions.” (Brown 288) This passage sets God up as both prosecutor and judge, with Israel as the defendant.

[3] “My people! What wrong have I done you? What hardship have I caused you? Testify against Me.”

In this verse, God invites the people to reason with Him, to judge whether God has been good to them. This motif has been presented before in Isaiah 5:3: “Now, then, dwellers of Jerusalem and men of Judah, you be the judges between me and my vineyard.”

God does not directly come out in this passage and charge Israel with any crimes or sins or breaking of covenant. Instead, God invites Israel into dialogue. God asks Israel what their grievances are against God. In the Revised Standard Version, God asks Israel if God has “wearied” them. Smith writes of this translation:

“In the face of opportunities to get rich quick some of the land-owners might have grown weary of keeping the covenant laws. In reality it was God who had a right to be weary. Isaiah asked unbelieving Ahaz, ‘Is it too little for you to weary men, that you should weary my God also?'” [Isaiah 43:24]

Instead of “wearying” Israel, God has redeemed the people repeatedly. God goes on in the next two verses to remind the people of God’s saving acts.

[4] In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”

[5] “My people, Remember what Balak king of Moab Plotted against you, And how Balaam son of Beor Responded to him,

[5b] [Recall your passage] From Shittim to Gilgal – And you will recognize The gracious acts of the LORD.”

In these verses God reminds the people of his saving acts from the Exodus to their entry into the Promised Land. Each of these stories would be familiar to Micah’s readers. The delivery from Egypt was a pivotal point in the life of the people. It is their most cherished story of God’s saving grace. It makes sense to recall this most important act of God as first in God’s list. “Israel’s ‘creed’ not of doctrinal statement so much as of this ‘sacred story …'” (Laymon 488)

God goes on to remind the people of Balak king of Moab and his plot against Israel. Numbers 22-24 recounts the story of Balak who called on Balaam, son of Beor, to curse the Israelites. Balaam was a prophet of sorts, and a non-Jew who “possessed some knowledge of Jehovah and he acknowledged that his knowledge as a prophet came from God.” (Doud Online) Balak sends messengers to fetch Balaam, but Balaam does not trust them. He consults with God who forbids him to go to Balak. Later the king sends several high officials to seek out Balaam. They appeal to his pride and offer him honors and a great reward if he comes to Balak’s aid. Balaam still insists on speak with God before agrees go. God grants permission to Balaam to go with the men, but on the condition that “whatever I command you, that you shall do.” [Numbers 22:20]

Balaam leaves the next morning with the men but “God was incensed at him going.” [Numbers 22:22] An angel of the LORD appears on the road to Moab, but Balaam does not see it. Balaam’s ass, however, does see the angel who tries to stop Balaam’s progress three times. Each time the ass shies away from the road, Balaam beats the ass, until the ass speaks in Numbers 22:28, and asks why Balaam is beating it. Finally, Balaam’s eyes are opened and he sees the angel. Balaam offers to turn back, but the angel tells him to go on to Moab, but repeats the warning that “you must say nothing except what I tell you.” Balaam informs Balak that he can only speak the words of the LORD. He builds seven altars where a ram and a bullock are offered as sacrifice. At the altar, Balaam tries to do Balak’s bidding and speak a curse against Israel. Balaam tries to curse Israel three times, but each time, instead of a curse, Balaam blesses the Israelites saying “blessed are they who bless you, accursed they who curse you!” [Numbers 24:9b]

In Micah, God offers this example as one of God’s saving acts for Israel. Even an enemy of Israel cannot speak a curse against the people because of God’s actions. Interestingly, it is Balaam who gives Balak the key to make the Israelites stumble just before their entrance into the Promised Land. While they were Shittim, the Israelites “profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women.” [Numbers 25:1] While Balaam could not curse the Israelites in the way that Balak had wished, he did provide Balak with a way to corrupt the people just the same. However, in this passage, that episode is not mentioned. Only God’s saving act of preventing Balaam’s curse is what is important to this passage and emphasizes that while God can prevent others from cursing the Israelites, God cannot, because of free will, prevent the Israelites from cursing themselves! After Balaam’s efforts to curse the Israelites fails, God leads them from Shittim on the east of Jordan to Gilgal on the west where they finally enter the Promised Land.

“Here they kept their first Passover in the land of Canaan and renewed the rite of circumcision, and so ‘rolled away the reproach’ of their Egyptian slavery. Here the twelve memorial stones, taken from the bed of the Jordan, were set up; and here also the tabernacle remained till it was removed to Shiloh.” (Easton’s Online)

[6] With what shall I approach the LORD, Do homage to God on high? Shall I approach him with burnt offerings, With calves a year old?

[7] Would the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, With myriads of streams of oils? Shall I give my first born for my transgression, The fruit of my body for my sins?

These verses use parallelism to make their point about the rightness of sacrifice. “With what shall I approach the LORD,” and “Do a homage to God on high?” is the first parallel as the people wonder what they can bring to God. “Shall I approach with burnt offerings,” is a general question, but becomes specific in the parallel line “with calves a year old?” The third parallelism is v.7b in discussing the matter of child sacrifice, of giving “my first born for my transgression” and the parallel of, “The fruit of my body for my sins?” In this passage the people address God after God’s case against Israel has been made. The people query the LORD as to what it is the LORD wants from them. They go on to list the many sacrifices they’ve engaged in before God. The offerings are considered from the smallest possible offering to the most expensive, from burnt offerings to child sacrifice.

Burnt offerings, and guidelines for offering them, are outlined in Leviticus 1:1-17. These sacrifices are completely destroyed by fire. None of the meat is left over for food for the priests. Calves a year old are more valuable, and were offered for a priest [Leviticus 9:2-3]. “This offering would have been made by the wealthy.” (Brown 288) Cereal offerings were provided with oil [Leviticus 2: 1,15]. To offer “thousands of rams with myriads of streams of oil” would be a lavish sacrifice. Offering a first born son would be the most valuable sacrifice a person could give to God. Child sacrifice is condemned in Mosaic Law but was not unheard of in Israel. 2 Kings 16:3 relates that King Ahaz had sacrificed his first born son, as did King Manassah in 2 Kings 21:6. The Jews also offered child sacrifices in the valley of Hinnom in Jeremiah 19:5 and Jeremiah 32:35 in worship to Baal and Molech.

Not all commentaries agree, however, that this passage is literally talking about child sacrifice. Both Jerome Biblical Commentary and The Interpreters One Volume Commentary believe this passage refers more specifically to the rights enjoyed by the first born. That of “a special blessing and a double share of his father’s property.” (Brown 288) Since the passage deals with “worthy gifts,” The Interpreters One Volume Commentary considers the mention of child sacrifice to point to “the explicit consideration of a human life totally dedicated to God … ” (Laymon 489)

That explanation paints too pretty of a picture of what the people are asking here, I believe. The passage, to me, seems to reflect the people’s growing frustration with God. God has outlined a case against them and they seem taken aback that they have done anything to upset God. Instead, they plead, “Look at what we’ve done. We’ve given every offering in the book, and even some that are explicitly outlawed in the book. What more can we give?”

The rhetorical point that the prophet makes by laying out the sacrifices from least to most is that sacrifice cannot be an empty gesture. Even the most lavish of sacrifices means nothing to God if the person’s heart and mind are not fixed on God at all times.

[8] “He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God;”

Following the people’s reply to God’s charge against them, the prophet speaks to the people for God. The prophet tells the people what is required of them: justice, love of goodness and a modest walk with God. This is not a new revelation to the people. They have heard these words before in several places: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.” Deuteronomy 10:12

“For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; Obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings.” 12:7: “You must return to your God! Practice goodness and justice, and constantly trust in your God.” Hosea 6:6

“If you offer Me burnt offerings — or your meal offerings — I will not accept them; I will pay no heed To your gifts or fatlings … But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” Amos 6:22,24

This is not to say that God wants the people to stop sacrificing to God altogether. Sacrifice is part of the Mosaic Law, and the prophet is not trying to change the law here, but merely point out that in following the letter of the law, one must also be mindful of the spirit of the law. The prophet seeks to show the people that sacrifice “without a proper relationship to God and neighbor is … useless.” (Smith 51) There is no sacrifice that a person can give that is grand enough to please God. Only by giving oneself totally to God can one become “right” with God. “It is not an ethic but a way of life.” (Brown 288)

Despite the fact that God has repeatedly saved the people and blessed them, the people remain clueless about what God truly wants of them. They have sacrificed and still have practiced injustice, oppression and evil and have displayed haughtiness. God tells them their sacrifices are not what God requires of them. Instead, what God requires is that they do justice, love goodness and walk modestly with God. God is not concerned with overt displays of piety, but instead demands inward growth with God. To do justice, one must first be just within himself. To love goodness one must cultivate goodness within. To live modestly, one must become modest. God demands inner growth, and the ability to embody justice, goodness and modesty, more than any outward sign of piety or reverence. Jesus tells the Pharisees in Matthew 15:18: “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” Unless we have justice, goodness, and modesty in our hearts what proceeds from out mouths will defile us, even if it’s a praise to heaven. Without love we are a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” [1 Corinthians 13:1] to God.

Things today are much like they were in Micah’s time. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Corporations are more concerned with the bottom line, and how many profits will be realized in a year than they are with the general welfare of their workers. Big companies have all but obliterated the idea of the “family farm” as a modern day version of latifundilization takes place. Many in our society, including women, children, homosexuals, African-Americans, Latinos and other non-Caucasian races remain on the margins, oppressed by a system that does not value the diversity they bring to society.

Mainstream churches spend their time raising money for building funds, or paying an increasingly large staff to market the church to the increasingly nonplused population. Many churches bleed the spirituality out of religion in the name of public piety. Church becomes a place to see and be seen. In my hometown, a small community north of Atlanta, church is a place to do business. Everyone in town will do business with you if you’re seen in church. The depth or integrity of one’s walk of faith is not as important as being seen as being religious.

The rightness of doctrines, of following church law or church precepts, often takes precedence over real spiritual growth. Say one wrong thing about a doctrine and many denominations will kick you out. Have the audacity to perform a marriage ceremony for two people in love, who happen to be of the same sex, and get defrocked. In too many churches today, it’s the letter of the law that matters, not the spirit. Justice, mercy and a humble walk with God are far from the people’s minds as they attend to church business, mindful only to follow the rules and doctrines to the letter.

God’s case against the people still stands. We’ve done all the modern day rites we’re supposed to do: go to church on Sunday, pray, talk about God to others, witness about our faith, but still God has a case against us. Again, God seeks to remind us of what we need to do: seek justice, mercy and walk humbly with God. Yes, we are to do all the other things we are called as Christians to do, but we must come to God not just with our rites and sacrifices, but with our whole hearts and minds focused solely on God.