Saturday, September 24, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (4)

YHWH instituted the year of Jubilee in Israel for several reasons. One was to ensure that ownership of Israelite land outside the cities never changed hands, because the land belonged to God. If the rich were allowed to coerce the poor into permanently selling their inheritance to pay off debt, ancient Israel would quickly have descended into the abyss of present-day global economics, where the most affluent 10% of the population own 76% of the world’s wealth.

Instead, God had provided a regular reset of Israel’s economy: property could still be used to discharge debt, but only on a temporary, leased basis. Title stayed with the original owner, no matter how poorly he handled money. Competent financial managers could still get wealthy, but never obscenely so. And the Jubilee provided this regular reset, a brake on human greed.

Of course, that only worked if the nation followed God’s law. Micah’s prophecy suggests they did not. You can readily understand why: powerful people had a lot to lose.

Micah 2:1-5 — Two Devisings

“Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance. Therefore thus says the Lord: behold, against this family I am devising disaster, from which you cannot remove your necks, and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be a time of disaster. In that day they shall take up a taunt song against you and moan bitterly, and say, ‘We are utterly ruined; he changes the portion of my people; how he removes it from me! To an apostate he allots our fields.’ Therefore you will have none to cast the line by lot in the assembly of the Lord.”

A Man and His Inheritance

The reference to inheritance suggests these rich, evil men were after more than temporary possession of anyone’s land. They were not interested in any arrangement that didn’t give them full control over the long term. The same spirit is alive and kicking among the super-rich today.

It’s hard to imagine Micah did not have King Ahab’s example in mind when he said these words. He literally devised wickedness on his bed and literally coveted a field and seized it. But God had dealt with both Ahab and his household as he promised. Evidently, Ahab only epitomized a problem that later became systemic in Israel and Judah: the rich contrived to steal the inheritance of the poor.

Devising Evil

The same Hebrew word is used in verse 1 (“devise”) and verse 3 (“devising”). Again, the same Hebrew word is translated “evil” in verse 1 and “disaster” in verse 3. I think it’s an intentional parallelism: powerful men devise wickedness, but nobody can out-devise the Lord. We are reminded that we reap what we sow. When men covet and seize the fields of those they can harass and exploit, God will seize theirs and give them to their enemies (“To an apostate he allots our fields”).

I can understand the reluctance of the translators to use the word “evil” in verse 3, and to have God say, “against this family I am devising evil”. Who wants to attribute evil to God? So we get “disaster” instead. Indeed, Christians are not to return evil for evil, but that does not mean that God cannot do so and remain entirely just. David writes about this sort of situation in Psalm 7:

“Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.”

It’s also a reminder of a principle Jesus taught: that evil starts in the heart and works outward into the world. The thoughts we nurse in the privacy of our heads will eventually become actions that affect others.

Because They Can

Why do men oppress their fellow men? Because they can (“because it is in the power of their hand”). Presented with an opportunity to do evil, some men just cannot help themselves. One of the functions of godly kingship was to restrain people like this by enforcing the law. Fathers serve a similar function. When Eli failed to restrain his sons, they engaged in all kinds of evil, so Eli’s household forfeited the priesthood.

Therefore God promised through Micah to ensure the rich in Israel would be judged with the same measure they had used on others. Their own fields would be given away for the use of strangers. Their lament would be “He changes the portion of my people; how he removes it from me!” It was God’s land. No inheritance could be protected unless God stood behind it.

The Apostate

The statement “To the apostate he allots our fields” is disputable, to say the least. Traditionally, the King James rendered it “Turning away he hath divided our fields.” That is certainly comprehensible; it suggests God himself has turned away from his people and is allotting their former property to others. Indeed, Leviticus 26 promises that God would strip an evil nation of its land and allow it to lie desolate. However, numerous other translations go with some variant like the ESV above, identifying an individual or individuals to whom God is allotting the fields: the “apostate”, “traitor”, “rebel”, “turncoat”, “betrayer”, “conqueror”, “captors” or “backslider”. Frankly, I find “apostate” among the least likely of these. The Hebrew is no help here, being an extremely common noun that can be read any number of ways depending on the context. Most interpret this verse as referring to the Assyrian and/or Babylonian conquerors of Israel and Judah.

What we can say with confidence is that the original tenants of the land, who had held it for generations with God’s protection, had violated his laws so egregiously and persecuted the poor so vigorously that he would deal with them in the same way they had dealt with others, returning their own sins on their heads. When he did so, they would have cause to lament as bitterly as they had surely caused others to do.

None to Cast by Lot

“Therefore you will have none to cast the line by lot in the assembly of the Lord.” John Gill makes the following suggestion:

“The allusion is to the distribution of the land by lot, and the dividing of it by a cord or line, as in Joshua’s time; but now there should be no land in the possession of Israelites to be divided among them; nor any people to divide it to, being scattered up and down in the world, and so no need of any person to be employed in such service; nor any sanhedrim or court of judicature to apply unto for a just and equal division and distribution, who perhaps may be meant in the next clause: in the congregation of the Lord; unless this is to be understood of the body of the people, who were formerly called the congregation of the Lord.”

More succinctly, the NLT says, “Others will set your boundaries then, and the Lord’s people will have no say in how the land is divided.”

To me, this seems to be the sense of it.

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