Monday, February 7, 2011

Plead Your Case Before the Mountains, Or Micah's Command to "Mishpat," "Hesed," and "Halak"

God my parent, say more than I can say with these words.
Jesus, hear more in these words than any of us can hear in them.
Holy Spirit, do with these words more than we can ever dream of doing.
Bless us through your words that we might bless others with your actions through them.
In your name I pray, amen.

Micah 6:1-8
as translated by Trevar

Listen (shema) to that which Yhwh is saying.
Arise! Plead your case before the mountains / and let the hills listen (shema) to your voice.
Listen (shema), O mountains, to the legal case of Yhwh, / O the permanent foundations of earth,
because Yhwh has a legal case concerning [God's] people / because with Israel [God] will argue. (1)
"My people, what have I done to you? / And what? have I wearied you all? Answer to me.
For I caused you all to go up from the land of Egypt / and from the house of servants I ransomed you
And I sent before you Moses, / Aaron, and Miriam.
My people, remember what Balak advised the king of Moab / and what Balaam son of Beor answered to him,
from Shittim to Gilgal / for the sake of knowledge of Yhwh's righteousness."

By what means will I approach Yhwh? / [By what means] will I be bowed before the high God?
Shall I approach him with burnt offerings (2)? / With year-old calves?
Will Yhwh be pleased with a thousand rams? / With a multitude (3) of rivers of oil?
Will I give my first born [for] my transgression? / [the] fruit of my body [for] the sin of my life? (4)

[God] will declare to you, O mortal, what is good: / And what does Yhwh seeks from you,
but to do justice (mishpat) / and to love kindness (chesed), / and to walk humbly with your God? (5)

(1) Or: "and [God] will adjudicate among Israel." The verb, normally in the hiphil, means decide, adjudge, or prove. Here, it is in the Hithpael, giving it a back-and-forth connotation.
(2) The Hebrew for "burnt offerings" is a homonym for "injustices."
(3) Literally, "tens of thousands."
(4) Without the added "for" in English, this verse could suggest the people wondering if their sins will go unforgiven and, as a result, their progeny will inherit their sins and the punishment for those sins.
(5) "Kindness" can be translated as "loving-kindness" or "mercy." "Walk" can be translated as "live."

In order to approach Micah 6, we need to understand a little about the first five chapters. The author speaks to a culture not too unlike ours, describing sins that fit into two categories. The first are religious sins, sins against God. The people are worshipping idols and focusing on religious places outside of the Jerusalem temple. And even when they are faithful to the religion God gave them, they become too proud in their interpretations of it, having more fidelity in the letters of their laws than in the God behind them.

The other type of sins are social sins, those committed against neighbors. People are seizing property, which is an especially heinous sin in Israel. Israelites don't just have land, they inherit it as a gift from God. When someone takes the field of an Israelite, they have taken away a God-given right. Micah also paints the people as hungry for money, power, and luxury. It seems the rich enjoy their fancy lives by exploiting the poor. Instead of religious and political leaders doing their work for their God and their neighbors, they do it for their own gain.

With these sins in mind, the author creates a courtroom metaphor in chapter 6. By doing so, all the previously named sins are in mind. The people know they have done wrong and God summons them to plead their case before the mountains, who play the roles of judge and jury.

God summons the earth, because the earth was created before humanity and has been witness to every human deed since before it held the blood of Abel that cried out to God.

With the earth listening, God dares the people present their case, but not a case to show them innocent. Rather, they are to accuse God of breaking the covenant. At least, their actions suggest that they believe God has broken the covenant. God is fed up, asking them to present a proper accusation instead of passive-aggressive sinning.

Hearing no response from the people or, perhaps, giving them no time to respond, God speaks for the people, recounting the interactions between God and Israel, searching for a time when the people were treated wrongly. God begins with the exodus, where the Hebrew people were delivered from slavery, lead by Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

God continues to taunt the people, asking them if they can remember their own history, asking about the time when Balak asked Balaam to curse Israel, but Balaam could not. Asking if they remember the sins they committed when they resided in Shittim, east of the Jordan river, and how God nonetheless helped them proceed, miraculously, into the Promised Land. Asking if they remember how they lived in Gilgal while they became the conquerors and slave-holders in that same land, blessed by their God despite their disobeying divine ordinances and using Gilgal as a nest of idolatry.

When God's statements are over, the people know they have no case. Instead, they must find a way to approach God and find divine forgiveness. Remember, their position is not unlike ours. Their search for a way to please God is our own search.

They begin with the least thing of which their minds can think and progress to the greatest conceivable sacrifice. They focus each option on whether or not it will please God and the answer to each option is no, excepting the last option. The last option is so serious, they cannot help but think of themselves.

Should they bow before God? No, that's not enough.
Would God want a year-old calf or other burnt offerings? No. Although required by divine law, it isn't enough now that the law has been broken.
Perhaps God could be pleased by a thousand rams with rivers of oil numbering in the tens of thousands? This option is beyond the requirements of the law, but, still, no, not enough.

Their next idea draws from the past. After all, Yhwh seems to be emphasizing the past a lot, from the creation of the earth, to the exodus, the law, the crossing of the Jordan river, and even the conquest and dwelling in the Promised Land. They think back to Abraham and one of the first commands Yhwh gave according to Israelite tradition: the command to kill Isaac, Abraham's son. Knowing the weight of this sacrifice, the people state the possibility twice: "Will I give my first born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my life?"

That's a real option for the Israelites. We know as well as the people that Yhwh said no to Abraham, letting Isaac live. But another story of child sacrifice exists, one we don't remember as well as the Hebrews might have. In the book of Judges, we read a tale where Yhwh makes no effort to save the daughter of Jephthah given as a burnt offering to God (Judges 11:29-39). For the Hebrews, God is a God who sometimes accepts child sacrifice. Thousands of years later many Christians believe God required the life of his own son for the forgiveness of sin. Child sacrifice is not out of the question when it comes to Yhwh their God and Yhwh our God. The people do not know the final answer to that final question.

For us, child sacrifice is not a live option, despite our religious history. We simply don't think in those terms. At least, not exactly. Every decision a parent makes is a decision affecting their children. Those of us without children still make decisions that impact the world around us and the future of humanity's existence in this world. Most of us have heard stories in which a parent, often times a pastor, thinks they are giving something to God and that thing, be it money, love, or time, sacrifices the well-being of the children involved.

Someone responds to the people in verse 8. Perhaps the mountains themselves respond, as if the rocks and stones are crying out when no one else will. They speak in light of the history of Israel and God's righteous deeds. When the mountains make their address, they address "O mortal," using the Hebrew word "adam," a word meaning earth, people, and the Adam of Adam-and-Eve fame.

By using the word "Adam" instead of one of the other Hebrew words for "people," Micah says God's requirements are consistent. They are the same requirements for all people since before Adam and and after Jesus. They are not just Israel's requirements, they are our requirements.

As an answer to our sin, God requires us all "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

The people asked how they should approach God and instead of answering their questions, they receive a vague response about what God requires of them. Micah doesn't even explicitly define what each of these requirements mean. However, our knowledge of chapters 1-5 combined with a few tidbits from chapter 7 will open up these three short requirements.

Before I proceed, be warned. I don't have the key to what Micah is talking about. Like everyone here, I have approached this book with baggage and I cannot help but place my baggage into how I read. So as we continue, remember what LeVar Burton used to say at the end of his television show, Reading Rainbow: "you don't have to take my word for it." With Burton, I encourage you to look into these words yourselves.

Justice (mishpat)

From what I can tell, Micah nuances justice two ways. The first nuance is best summarized by Deuteronomy 19:21: "Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." This is the justice in our court rooms in the robed figure of blind Lady Justice with cloth over her eyes, a sword in her left hand and scales in her right hand. Her blindness keeps her from being swayed by who is involved in a situation. She is concerned with law, "fairness," and what somebody "deserves," as symbolized in the scales. This sort of justice is consistent with our idea of "judgment."

The judgment side of justice has a place in Micah. In chapter 7, Micah begins, "Woe is me! For I am like the fruit pickers, like the grape gatherers. There is not a cluster of grapes to eat, or a first-ripe fig which I crave." Micah is harvesting, literally reaping what he sews, but not enjoying the fruit of the harvest. Like modern-day cocoa and coffee farmers, he supports the rich with his labor while the rich enjoy cheap luxuries while paying meager wages to those who provide the luxuries.

Micah interprets this unfortunate experience as payment for his sins, as God's "judgment." In 7:9 he says, "I will bear the indignation of Yhwh because I have sinned against him." Micah mourns his situation, but sees it as just. After all, the law in Deuteronomy says God will curse sins and bless faithfulness, which is why the court metaphor is so appropriate. God has been faithful to the covenant, the people have not. Therefore, they will be punished. That's judgment. That's justice.

At least, one sense of justice. Listen again to Micah 7:9, this time in its entirety: "I will bear the indignation of Yhwh because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my case and executes justice for me. He will bring me out to the light and I will see his righteousness." According to this verse, it is just for God to deliver judgment on Micah. However, it is also just for God to deliver Micah out of judgment, out of justice into justice.

This justice is not blind. Instead of Lady Justice knowing the letter of the law, this nuance of justice looks at people, recognizes their beauty, and feels for them. Because God is just, God wants to deliver people simply because they are people and carry the image of God. We see this justice all over the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Every time God delivers or reaches out, it is because of God's righteousness and grace, not because of the person's merit. This, too, is justice.

Since Micah has already foretold God's judgment, I think Micah is asking for the second sort of justice from us. Judgment has its place in this world, the place where Yhwh put it in Israel: in the rules of the community. But in our personal lives, Micah calls for a different sort of justice, the kind where we aren't judging and condemning, where we aren't acting based on anyone's sins against us or God. Rather, doing justice is doing justice based on the righteousness of God: loving people, serving them, letting them serve us, and letting them serve with us. When it comes to justice, no person's sins matter. The love of God matters.

Kindness (hesed)

And so we will seek to do justice, and we will do it, because of the second command, because we "love kindness." The Hebrew word "kindness," like the Hebrew word "justice," is a word that often appears in the Israelite faith and religion. Whereas "justice" addresses our relationship to the world around us, "kindness" addresses our feelings and response to God. The word evokes consistent actions from consistent feelings. To better understand it, we can see it in context in Micah 7:18: "Who is a God like you, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of his possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in unchanging love." Here "unchanging love" is that same word elsewhere translated as "kindness." It is this "kindness" or "unchanging love" that we are supposed to love.

We are supposed to love it, because God delights in it. It is this sort of unchanging love through which we understand God's relation to creation. This "unchanging love" is the reason for Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." It is the reason for the incarnation: "for God so loved the world." It is the reason God interacts with all of creation and the reason that even the earth groans for salvation, as Paul says.

If we love kindness, love God's kindness, love God's unchanging love that inspires God to continually descend to creation and redeem it, then we will want to do justice to all, to every Adam and to every Eve, to everything created by God. When we love this "kindness" and do this "justice," they will become more than our actions and our affections, they will be who we are.

Live Humbly with Your God (halak)

It is difficult to inspire ourselves to love something. So, Micah offers us a little tip: "walk humbly with your God." Walking--or for those who cannot walk, traveling--is a metaphor for life and another word familiar to the Israelite religion. In Deuteronomy, Moses asks the people "to love the LORD your God, and to walk in [God's] ways always." Micah builds upon this metaphor, not just saying we should live and walk in God's ways, but to live and walk humbly with our God. Traveling and living with someone indicates intimacy. As we begin to know our God better, we will begin to recognize God's image where we see it. We will begin to recognize the image of God in others. And if we love our God, we will love others and delight in kindness towards them, in doing justice.

There it is, church. There is the crux of this passage and why Micah can stop at this command and move on to something else.

You see, humility in traveling means recognizing you're not the only one traveling. On an airplane, it could mean considering the person behind you before putting your seat back. On a bus or train, it might mean offering your seat to someone who might need it more. While traveling through life, humility begins by recognizing God travels with us. But it isn't just "me and God." It isn't just my family and God, my church and God, the Church and God, my country and God, or all people and God. Life is a journey all creation travels together. And God's image is everywhere on that journey and everywhere in creation. If we love God, then in humility we recognize that God's "unchanging love" is everywhere and we will want to do justice to all.

As it turns out, the only way to live and walk humbly with our God is to love kindness and to do justice. Centuries later, Jesus will say essentially the same thing when stating the two greatest commandments: we love God by loving our neighbor. We delight in God by delighting in what God delights: justice and kindness.

Loving your neighbor is the way you love God. Doing justice and loving mercy is the way to walk humbly with your God. And although I still encourage you to look at this passage for yourself, don't forget that doing justice and loving mercy isn't just reading, studying, and praying, which are ways to deal with religious sins.. Like Micah's audience, we need to examine our sins against God. But we also need to examine our sins against God's creation and all that is in it: our neighbors. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are God-given rights, and many of the luxuries we enjoy today stand in the way of other people's lives, liberties, pursuit of happiness, and pursuit of God.

Remember, our situation isn't too unlike Micah's. So as we leave the sanctity of this place and enter the sanctity of the world around us, let us seek justice to do, kindness to love, and our God, with whom we can walk humbly. Otherwise, we might soon be asked to plead our own case before the mountains.