Daniel Smith-Christopher – Micah Commentary – Q & A

micah bible commentary smith christopherDaniel-Smith Christopher is the author of the Micah commentary in the New Testament Library series. Dr. Smith-Christopher (Ph.D., Oxford University) is Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University with specialization in Old Testament Studies and Theology.

Dr. Smith-Christopher’s recent publications include, The Religion of the Landless: The Social Context of the Babylonian Exile, The Old Testament: Our Call to Faith and Justice, and Sacred Scripture: A Catholic Study of God’s Word.

Dr. Smith-Christopher lectures frequently for various adult education venues of the Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Uniting Church in Australia, and other Christian churches. He is frequently quoted in the History Channel’s Mysteries of the Bible and other documentaries on religious themes for A&E, the History Channel, National Geographic, and PBS.

7 Questions on Micah in the Old Testament Library Commentary Series

Recently, Dr. Smith-Christopher kindly answered my questions about his Micah commentary. Readers will learn how this commentary came to be, what is unique about it among Micah commentaries, and how the project edified him personally.

1. What previous research and/or personal interests led you to this project and helped prepare you to write this commentary on Micah?

The initial request to work on MICAH came from editors at Westminster/John Knox. 8th-7th Century is not really my main period of specialization in OT, so I was a bit surprised. I normally work on Exile/Persian Period materials (Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah). I certainly admire the 8th Century Prophetic traditions, of course. So, it is not that I ignored the Neo-Assyrian period of Prophetic material – and I was certainly aware of James Luther Mays’ wonderful older work on Micah in this venerable series, “The Old Testament Library”, so I was frankly honored to be asked to work on this new volume. I don’t care if I was their 3rd choice…or their 15th choice…I was still honored!

Micah, of course, is a wonderfully complex and profound work. It features some of the most famous passages in all the prophets – “swords into plowshares”, “what does the Lord require of you…?”, etc. But Micah is also a work that is passionate about justice, about the dangers of corrupt leadership, the dangers of war-mongering, and yet words of encouragement when you feel overwhelmed about what you see around you. It was a delight to work on.

I also made the decision to be quite forthright about my own interests. These days, it is considered important to state one’s own orientation to scholarship in scholarly work – so I decided to not only be open about my Quaker background (informed by Anabaptist ideas as well) but also to actually assert those values as part of my analysis. For example, I believe that an anti-war perspective actually enhances a more accurate reading of Micah and I passionately argue the case that the prophet behind this book was stridently anti-war (which is not quite the same as claiming he was “pacifist”, which I do not claim)!

However, given that Micah is such a stirring read, I should not have been surprised (but I was!) with HOW MUCH scholarly material there is on Micah! The background reading was far more extensive that I originally anticipated. It was a joy, of course, to be able to read so much on 7 chapters of Hebrew Bible – but the debates and writing on Micah is rich and varied, and it was a real pleasure. Along the way – there were some delightful discoveries, such as Wessels’ essays in South African journals. I tried to pay attention to writers from non-Western countries as well, of course, as I believe that cross-cultural interpretation is an extremely important development in Biblical Studies.

2. Who is the intended audience for this commentary? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?

I wrote this work for anyone willing to seriously engage the text of the Bible, but with the old adage firmly in mind: “The Bible in one hand, the Newspaper in the other”. Some attribute that statement to Karl Barth, but I’ve heard others credited with it, too. I do a great deal of sociological and political observation in the commentary because I believe it is essential to maintain a dialogue on these matters when reading Biblical texts…precisely because I would argue that the Bible is ALSO a socially informed writing, and thus deeply political in orientation.

This applies even to issues of textual interpretation, including reading the Hebrew and Greek texts. Questions of nuanced translation can ALSO be influenced by social observations, for example. Nothing about Biblical interpretation is just pure theoretical mathematics, after all! Attitudes, experiences, insights, cultural experiences, all matter deeply.

But if there was a readership that I had in mind – I would have to say that it was foreshadowed by my personal comments at the front of the book. For example, I have many treasured friends among Maori Anglicans in Tairawhiti including the young Maori Anglican Archbishop, Rev. Donald Tamihere they are based on the East Coast of the North Island of Aotearoa/New Zealand, and I have learned a tremendous amount from them about interpreting scripture in the context of indigenous issues and identity. So, besides colleagues already interested in Micah and Prophetic literature, and besides my fellow Quakers and Mennonite who will certainly recognize many themes throughout, I hope that my work is found to be useful to my Maori Christian brothers and sisters, and indigenous Christians struggling with issues of identity, justice, and renewal.

3. What is unique about this commentary? What contribution does it make to studies of Micah?

I don’t know if it is “original” but I hope that my observations are considered helpful in that they are informed by an abiding interest in issues of social justice, minority and indigenous rights, and a critique of all forms of militarism and violence. Given the setting, the book of Micah speaks with a powerful critique. There is no mistaking this commentary as anything other than a serious Quaker’s reading of Micah, deeply informed by my Mennonite teachers in seminary, and continuing to be informed by my reading of progressive people of faith (esp. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian) in the modern world. In short, there are lots of “Micahs” out there!

4. What section or passage of this commentary was particularly memorable to research and write? Why?

The opportunity for a Quaker Bible teacher to work hard on the famous “Swords into Plowshares” passage was a gift. There is so much more to be said about this famous passage. I am convinced that there is a monograph in there somewhere…

5. What personally edified you in writing this commentary, increasing your affections for Christ?

Two passages haunt me. The first one is quite difficult in Hebrew, and the NRSV does the following:

Micah 2:8 But you rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war.

I have (what I believe to be) strong reasons to read this passage differently. The details of how I think the Hebrew  grammar can make sense for my reading are a bit complex, but suffice it to say that I think that the Hebrew can quite fairly read to actually refer to what we would call today: “war-mongers” – and I believe he is referring to officials in Jerusalem who insist on mustering “war-mongers” – and I believe he is referring to officials in Jerusalem who insist on mustering local villagers (like Micah’s village) for wars that will only result in destruction of their peaceful villages in the foothills even if Jerusalem – a city with it’s walls and wells – might well survive. I read Micah as a very angry villager bitterly angry at Jerusalem for fomenting unnecessary rebellion for it’s own ends. On this, by the way, I think Micah may significantly differ from the “city-boy” Isaiah. It would certainly not be the first time that Biblical voices disagree, and I am by no means the first to propose that Micah and Isaiah might see things somewhat differently!

The other passage is far easier to understand, and is a really good sample of Micah’s fiery rhetoric of justice and injustice:

Micah 3:1 And I said: Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Should you not know justice?– 2 you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; 3 who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron. I am convinced that the contemporary American (esp. Evangelical) Christian obsession with political and economic conservatism (everybody for themselves) does a serious disservice to the passion for justice in a book like Micah – and the passion of the ministry of Jesus. I have for some time been concerned about reading and hearing Jesus as Prophet (among other aspects and titles). This particular emphasis has been sadly neglected, in my opinion. There is always a potential revolution when Christians begin to be as concerned to live what Jesus taught – just as concerned with living the message as they are concerned to be dogmatically specifically about who Jesus was (and is). It’s like the early Church councils. For example – some of our dear Christian predecessors spent so much time debating the specific Greek words to DESCRIBE Jesus (homo-ousias…homoi-ousias) but I wish they had spent some more of that time deciding how to minister to the poor and feed the hungry in OBEDIENCE TO Jesus rather than talking ABOUT Him. Now, maybe they did – but the point is that we don’t hear much about it. Wouldn’t it have been marvelous if an early Christian “Micah” had shaken up Nicea or Chalcedon with the needs of the urban and rural poor? Surely reading Micah might help shake us out of endless bickering about such doctrine? Especially when we face dark times? Contrast Nicea and Chalcedon with Medellin, Columbia, in 1968 when the Catholic Bishops met and gave official sanction to the movement we know today as Liberation Theology! Now THERE was a Church council Micah would have approved of!

6. Besides your commentary, what are your top recommended books (commentaries or otherwise) on Micah?

[Hans Walter] Wolff, of course, has written some of the classic works on Micah. The Anchor Bible volumeAnderson and Freedman, is essential (even though I don’t go in for their detailed poetic verse analysis); and Dempster’s brand new volume on Micah is also helpful (but it came out after mine). Willi Wessel’s journal articles, written mostly in South African journals, is compelling reading. Mays’ previous volume in the Old Testament Library was a classic and still worth a serious read. Some of the feminist readings of Micah are also quite provocative, like Erin Runions.

But if you want to understand a really interesting way of reading Micah, read the lyrics of the great socialist anthem, “The Internationale“. There are so many thematic parallels, I would almost believe that the French writer of the original, Eugene Pottier, had been reading Micah while manning the barricades of the Paris Commune! 

7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?

I am becoming increasingly fascinated with late 19th, early 20th Century Christian Socialists and their reading of the Bible. I am working on a book on this theme. Obviously, this is moving toward “History of Interpretation” a bit, which is new for me, but I hope to continue proposing that these interesting activists have some readings that are worthy of serious consideration textually and critically as well.

Like many Christians (but, apparently, not quite enough yet), recent events have pushed me to the left (where Jesus is to be found waiting for us), and my reading of the Bible continues to move that direction as well. I have been helped profoundly by the fact that previous generations of activists and social thinkers also derived great inspiration and comfort from Scripture in equally dark times.

I would have to say that – in a profoundly real way – Micah pushed me further left on the social and political spectrum.

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