Saturday, November 26, 2022

Mining the Minors: Micah (13)

Why our English Bibles start Micah 5 where they do is one of those little mysteries to which I will likely never find an answer, but in Hebrew, chapter 5 begins with verse 2. That makes more sense, because the prophet has manifestly changed subjects, moving from a future siege of Jerusalem to God’s answer to a nation’s prayers. It’s a better spot for a chapter break.

In chapter 4, Micah spoke of a king-less Israel longing for the restoration of its monarchy. In chapter 5, he gives us more information about this coming king.

Micah 5:2 — Going Out from Everlasting

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”

The Christ and Bethlehem

Why did Herod order the murder of all the male children under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem? You will remember that magi from the east had arrived in Jerusalem, inquiring, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” Questioning the chief priests and scribes, Herod obtained the information that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. How did the chief priests and scribes know this? Matthew’s gospel tells us it was Micah’s prophecy that tipped them off; they understood he was referring to Messiah.

The religious experts were not the only ones anticipating Messiah’s arrival at Bethlehem. John’s gospel says that on seeing the miracles of Jesus and hearing his words, the people argued among themselves:

“Some of the people said, ‘This really is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Christ.’ But some said, ‘Is the Christ to come from Galilee?’ Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?’ So there was a division among the people over him.”

The basis for the people’s dispute was this verse in Micah 5. They took it very seriously.

Bethlehem Ephrathah

The “Ephrathah” appended to Bethlehem is probably intended to distinguish it from the other Bethlehem in the tribal allotment of Zebulun. The statement “who are too little to be among the clans of Judah” is most likely a rhetorical question: “Are you too little to be among the clans of Judah?” The expected answer is “No.” We call it a “little town of Bethlehem” in our hymnology, and elsewhere Bethlehem is called a “village”, but regardless of its actual population, it was a significant place. Bethlehem was where Jacob buried Rachel, where Boaz had met Ruth and where Israel’s greatest king to date, David, was born. These were non-trivial events in Israel’s history. Was Bethlehem too little to be numbered among the clans of Judah? Definitely not.

Reading the statement as a question explains the paraphrase we find in Matthew: “You, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah.” It is not a literal, word-for-word rendering of the original Hebrew text, but it gets to the essence of the prophet’s message.

Going Out and Coming In

However, the scribes left out the most intriguing part of Micah 5:2 in their answer to Herod, possibly because they thought it irrelevant, but more likely because they didn’t fully understand it. Micah ends by saying this king’s “coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”

The words “coming forth” echo a passage in Hosea, who right around the same time said this:

“Let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.”

Micah’s “coming forth” and Hosea’s “going out” are translations of the same Hebrew word, which speaks of an exit that is also implicitly an entrance. It is often used about speech: words exit a man’s mouth and enter into the world, where they provoke a reaction. Here, the Word left the lips of God himself and entered humanity, provoking the most intense reaction in history. Hosea said God had a “going out” in store for his people, and it was 100% reliable, “sure as the dawn”. He had promised to visit them and refresh their spirits just as he refreshes the earth with rains in spring. So Hosea promised a visit from God, and Micah promised a visit from a ruler whose going out was from ancient days. The Jews did not understand that both prophets spoke of the same person: the coming ruler would be God incarnate.

Ancient Days

What did Micah mean by “whose going out is from of old, from ancient days”? Well, he may have meant that the coming of Messiah had been foretold since ancient times. That would certainly be true. God told the serpent that Eve’s offspring would bruise his head. That’s almost as ancient as it gets, human history-wise. Abraham told Isaac, “God will provide himself the lamb”, about as loaded a line as you will find in the Old Testament, and pretty ancient as well. Moses spoke of “a prophet like me from among your brothers”. This too was promised many years in the past.

But Micah didn’t say that the promise of this ruler’s going out was from ancient days, but rather that the coming ruler had himself been going out from ancient days. This too is certainly true: All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. The Word was with God in the very beginning. He was “going out” before there was very much to go out to, and he continued to go out to his people all through Israel’s history in the guise of the angel of the Lord.

The Word Made Flesh

Two Hebrew words describe how long this coming ruler has been “going out”: qeḏem and ʿôlām. Both are common words on their own, but less common when used together. Deuteronomy speaks of “ancient” mountains and “everlasting” hills, and of the “eternal” God and “everlasting” arms. Proverbs speaks of a wisdom possessed by the Lord at the beginning of his work, and established “ages ago”, “at the first, before the beginning of the earth”. That predates Moses, Abraham and even God’s conversation with the serpent.

Should Israel have expected its Messiah to be the Word of God made flesh? Certainly, if they were reading the Old Testament carefully. Jesus stumped the Pharisees with this same truth: “If then David calls him [the Christ] Lord, how is he his son?” Only if the Son is God himself.

It was right there, if only they had understood what they were reading.

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