A quick overview of geography is helpful when approaching this work. We are accustomed to thinking of Israel as one entity led by God’s anointed kings. However about two centuries after the glory years of David and Solomon, the kingdom divided into Israel [north] and Judah [south]. The capital city of the northern kingdom was Samaria, later destroyed, and Samaria became a region in tension with Israel to the south. Think of the “Good Samaritan [St. Luke’s Gospel] “and “The Samaritan Woman at the Well” [St. John’s Gospel.] The two capital cities in Micah’s time were Jerusalem [south] and Samaria [north], and while there are many towns mentioned in Micah’s texts, they are secondary to the prophet’s main thrust of calling out the sinfulness of “big city living.”
It did not require a seer to see life-shattering threats upon the horizon. The northern kingdom was hedged in by Assyrians [early Syria] to their north, and in fact the Assyrians would overrun the northern kingdom and destroy much of it in 720 B.C. Micah understood that the southern kingdom, losing its northern buffer, would at some point face a similar fate, which indeed occurred in 586 B.C. when Babylon seized the remaining southern kingdom and carried off the occupants in the “Babylon Captivity” which lasted 50 years. Consequently Micah, preaching during the northern crisis, directs his preaching to both kingdom capitals which had fallen into spiritual decay.
Micah does not waste time. From the very start he announces that he has received “the word of the Lord” which he directs to both Jerusalem and Samaria. Samaria will become “a stone heap” for its sins, which from the context of chapter one appears to be idolatry and probably temple prostitution. Idolatry can mean multiple things, but at its heart is a failure to trust God and a tendency to “hedge bets” with other powers by trading, treaties, adopting pagan fertility rites, etc. God takes the abandonment of trust and fidelity to the Law with the rage one would expect from a spouse who has been sexually betrayed. This theme of conjugal betrayal is used elsewhere in prophetic writing, notably the Book of the Prophet Hosea. Temple prostitution itself was a regrettable but real institution of support for the holy place until the later years before the coming of Christ.
Chapter 2 of Micah should give us pause in the United States. The preaching here turns to “redistribution,” from the poor to the rich. “They [the rich] covet fields, and seize them; houses, and they take them; they cheat an owner of his house, a man of his inheritance.” He goes on in Chapter 3: “Hear this…you rulers of the house of Israel. You who abhor what is just and pervert all that is right…her leaders render judgment for a bribe, her priests give decisions for a salary, her prophets divine for money.” Micah scorns the mindset of the rich and powerful, who believe they can live in such an imbalanced society with impunity. “Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No evil can come upon us!” But Micah, speaking for God, demurs: “Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed like a field, and Jerusalem reduced to rubble.”
The obligation of society—to stamp out abuse of the poor by the rich--is probably the primary ethical teaching of the entire collection of prophetic books of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures. When coupled with absolute love of God and obedience to his Law, this is the summit of Jewish life. There are some who say that with the coming of Jesus, the moral life of Israel ceased to be the determining factor in eternal destiny. They forget that Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew. When Jesus was pressed about the final judgment, in Matthew’s Gospel [Matthew 25: 41-45] Jesus had Micah in mind when he stated a hard truth:
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The Book of Micah is not well known to most Catholics; one could probably say the same thing about much of the Hebrew Scripture. And alas, in the case of Micah, the name might stir to mind the celebrational vibes of the Christmas Season of the Christian Calendar. For Micah Chapter 5 begins with a prediction: “But you, Bethlehem-Ephratha, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” For centuries Micah 5 was considered a prediction of the birth of Christ, though most of the chapter describes this future figure as a new king of Israel who will unite the nation and reclaim any lands lost to the Assyrians. To highlight Bethlehem, a nondescript town, would be very consistent with Micah’s disgust of big cities. The association of Micah’s prophesy with the birth of Jesus is made by the Christian evangelist St. Matthew. In Chapter 2 of his Gospel, the famous visit of the Wise Men of the East read every year on the Feast of the Epiphany, Matthew describes King Herod coming unhinged at the appearance of the Magi seeking the newborn king of the Jews. Herod convenes his clergy:
When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’]”
Micah is one of twelve “minor prophets” in contrast to the major prophets such as Isaiah, whose work runs past 60 chapters. But there is a remarkable harmony to all the prophetic literature and the ultimate commandments of Christ. The key is behavior: individuals and nations who do not rest until every human being, a child of God, has experienced God’s expression of protection and justice at our hands motivated by a genuine sense of brotherhood under God’s watchful eye. Micah’s simple seven-chapter book brings home the consequences of indifference and abetting a status quo which institutionalizes economic and social dysfunction.
For the text of Micah and a brief commentary, the USCCB provides free access here.
The Paulist Biblical Commentary treats of Isaiah, pp. 842-851. The PBC is a valuable addition to any church minister, teacher, or student of the Bible.
The most recent book on Micah’s text from a Catholic publisher is Micah  by Julia O’Brien. This book appears in the Wisdom Commentary Series of Liturgical Press. WCS is the first collection of scripture commentaries researched entirely by women scholars and theologians. WCS is an ecumenical venture, as are most major commentary series today.
Face Book photo is mine, featuring The Paulist Biblical Commentary and the New American Bible, 1991 edition.