Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Smith-Christopher, Daniel, Micah: A Commentary (OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015). Pp. 304. Hardback. US$50.00. ISBN 978-0-6642-2904-7.

Daniel Smith-Christopher, in his commentary on the book of Micah, presents an intriguing and broadly compelling approach to a reading of this prophetic book. It is intriguing in that it proposes an approach to the text that has arisen lately in biblical scholarship—namely, sociological criticism. Furthermore, the conclusion that Micah represents a non-violent critique of the military powers of the ancient Near East is novel and should be considered at length. In general—with some notable caveats—this conclusion is also compelling, offering a new way forward for interpreting the book of Micah and the historical figure, while also stirring up fertile ground to seek out and discover the extent of anti-militaristic protest throughout the ancient Near East.

Smith-Christopher introduces his commentary by presenting the various contexts important for reading the book of Micah. He first addresses his own context by adhering to “historical-critical biblical scholarship and a declared sympathy with movements in the twenty-first century for seeking greater and more equitable distribution of the earth's resources to peoples who have been systematically suppressed, as well as movements that seek to ameliorate those inequitable situations without violence” (p. 2). Although this attitude stems from his involvement in the Quaker and Mennonite Christian traditions, he suggests that such a perspective should not detract from the reading he proposes because every analysis is couched in some bias. Indeed, the “socially conservative assumption” that “Micah as a historical prophet could not possibly have questioned the authority of Jerusalem” (p. 3) serves as the primary bias informing many studies of the book of Micah to this point.

Smith-Christopher goes on to discuss the historical contextual situations that would lead a prophet such as Micah to offer an anti-militaristic critique of the ruling elite of Judah and Israel. First, he discusses the imperial designs of the Assyrian (and later Babylonian and Persian) rulers and the impact that the gradual encroachment into the Levant would particularly have had on the residents of the Shephelah, beginning with Tiglath-Pileser III and extending to Sennacherib's siege of Judah (pp. 3–8). Although he primarily situates the book of Micah in the eighth century B.C.E., he does allow for redactional models that see parts of the book or even the whole as a product of exilic or post-exilic hands. However, he does not see a change in imperial designs that would significantly affect his reading of the book. The second contextual frame of reference consists of regional politics between Judah and Israel, including a helpful excursus on LMLK jar stamps and figurines that presumably served for fertility rituals, which suggest rationing and “population policy” centered around military preparation (pp. 8–15). The third context consists of the local political and economic issues of the Shephelah, especially as the line of defense for any invading armies and as the border region between Judah and the Philistines (pp. 15–20). These combined factors contribute to Smith-Christopher's reading of Micah as being an anti-militaristic populist: “Therefore the most effective way to understand Micah in his historical, geographical, and ideological context is to read his message as a regionally oriented religious and political challenge to the oppressive economic and military interests of the central elite of Jerusalem,” although he notes that this perspective need not stem from “any moralistic pacifism” (p. 21). It is this perspective that forms the lens through which the commentary views the text of Micah's book.

The remainder of the book presents the commentary divided into various subsections based on literary divisions. Each section consists of a translation with notes on important words and phrases followed by a more detailed discussion of the various lexical, grammatical, syntactical, historical, and literary issues presented by the text. The notes and commentary are technically thorough in presenting the multiple options offered by various scholars while maintaining relevance to the main thrust of the passage. Though possibly an editorial decision rather than authorial, the use of transliteration as opposed to the Hebrew and Greek scripts significantly causes some discussions, especially on lexical matters, to suffer. This is most readily apparent in the discussions of frequent wordplays, alliteration, and assonance in chapter 1 (pp. 67–79).

Throughout the commentary, Smith-Christopher takes as an assumption that the (virtual) entirety of the book of Micah comes from the eighth century B.C.E., although he does not definitively assign the provenance to that period thus allowing for the possibility that the populist message could have been carried on by other residents of the border region. For example, even in a passage often attributed to a later redaction, he suggests that the reference to a “remainder…returning” in Mic 5:2 (MT) “may have helped to lay the groundwork for this rather extensive later use in the sixth-century prophets” (p. 168).

On the whole, the thesis that the entirety of the book of Micah represents a populist anti-militaristic critique of the ruling elite of Jerusalem is generally well-founded throughout the commentary. However, certain passages present some difficulty in accepting this premise as applied to the whole book and Smith-Christopher's answer to these problems is not always satisfactory. For instance, in order to consistently maintain the supposed anti-Jerusalem tone throughout Mic 5, Smith-Christopher is forced to remove an entire phrase from v. 7 (MT) with no text-critical support (p. 180). This “major textual surgery” serves only to align the severity of Micah's critique with Smith-Christopher's preconceived notion of what Micah intended to say to the militaristic elite. Instead of removing this phrase, it would be more reasonable and responsible to adjust one's interpretation of the severity of the critique based on the textual evidence rather than to adjust the textual evidence to fit one's interpretation. In this case, the charge of “reading into” the text seems entirely warranted.

The commentary could also be improved by dealing with violence at a deeper theological level, partially in spite of his statement that the proposed attitudes need not represent moral pacifism (p. 21), but also because of the theological purpose of the commentary and the moral/theological commitments of the author (pp. 2–3, 39). Although Smith-Christopher deals at length with the technical problems in Mic 5:6–14 related to identifying the audience (whether the nations or Judah itself) in each given phrase (pp. 176–88), a further question pertains to God's use of force and violence when humans are condemned for their own use of such.[1] How does God's use of violence and the portrayal of God as a warrior affect Smith-Christopher's theological position—which he suggests is the very position of Micah and his book?

Despite these criticisms, Smith-Christopher's Micah: A Commentary should remain a vital contribution to present and future studies on the message of the book of Micah. With thorough argumentation according to historical-criticism, key comparative sociological insights drawn from currently observable situations, and a fresh perspective on the attitude of Micah toward Jerusalem and its leaders, this commentary should prove valuable for contemporary discussions on both the biblical book and concerns surrounding violence, justice, and the intersection between politics, religion, and daily life—all deep and abiding concerns throughout the history of human civilization.

Joshua Gardner, McMaster Divinity College

[1] For discussion of similar violent imagery of the “terror of YHWH” in Isa 2–4, which follows the same promise of idyllic peace that is presented in Mic 4:1–5, see Francis Landy, “Isaiah 2: Torah and Terror,” in Duncan Burns and J. W. Rogerson (eds.), Far from Minimal: Celebrating the Work and Influence of Philip R. Davies (LHBOTS, 484; London: T & T Clark, 2012), 259–71. reference