Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares

Schwerter zu Pflugscharen - Bronze - Jewgeni Wutschetitsch - Geschenk der Sowjetunion an die UNO - 1959

An anti-war text from the bible

Micah 4:1-4 is one of the only so-called “anti-war” texts in the entire Bible. Indeed the image of weapons of war being transformed into farm implements in a globally peaceful setting is one of the few images memorable enough for non-Christians to be able to have heard of at some stage.

It sounds rather other-worldly and utopian, really. The base meaning of “utopia”, in case you didn’t know, is nowhere. Maybe Neil Young was right all those years ago: when he called an album “Everyone knows this is nowhere.” Do they?

Even the verse that follows the last one in our first reading would appear to undercut a seemingly idyllic reading of the four preceding verses. It’s like that moment on the Beatles’ album “Sergeant Pepper”—where Paul McCartney sings “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time,” with John Lennon immediately interjecting “It couldn’t get no worse”. Perhaps a cynical voice of reason, or reality, as it were.

WAR (Huh), YEAH!

Then I read something different. Not just different but revolutionary. In this new view, Micah was not giving a vision of the destruction of war, but actually protesting against war itself.

War (huh), yeah… what is it good for? absolutely nothing.. sing it again…

Some will remember this as a protest song by the Temptations about the war in Vietnam – Edwin Starr and Bruce Springsteen both famously covered it too. Maybe resentment and protest are inevitable bed-fellows irrespective of time and place?

The broadside against profiteering warmongers 

Micah was the first one to prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem: and this is in the verses immediately ahead of our reading: Jerusalem will be become plough-land, and Zion a wooded height. Jerusalem: whose corrupt business and political practices had wreaked havoc on the rural hinterland: both in the appropriation of rural land by rich Jerusalem-based merchants via shady means (like rigged scales for weighing produce, extortionate rates on business loans, and then foreclosing on them at inopportune times, and bribes in both the law court and Temple), and thus their levying of tenants to pay their share of the taxation required by the royal house to either pay for war, pay tribute to the inevitable foreign victor, or both.

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So in the verses after this prophesied destruction – the weapons of war are to be turned into farm implements. Whether or not this episode is a later insertion (and many think it is), I think it rather reinforces the prophesied destruction of Jerusalem. The implements thus re-fashioned can be used to literally make the site of Jerusalem productive again, and the expensive metalwork useful. But it won’t be the privileged classes of Jerusalem at the end of a billhook or plough, it’ll be the farmers, the workers, the erstwhile fighters. The corrupt élites will be destroyed.

Rather than representing a peaceful idyll in which the nations enter Palestine to be taught the ways of Yahweh from a restored Temple, I contend that this episode is a continuation of the condemnation that Micah heaped upon the corrupt élites of Jerusalem.

It is not a celebration of the cessation of war, as is very commonly asserted, but it is a reinforcement of the prior judgment of Jerusalem for her sins.

It is an anti-war protest: but from the ones who actually had to fight the war (like the generation of musicians in the '60s who protested Vietnam [everyone from Peter, Paul & Mary to Joni Mitchell to Country Joe & The Fish to the Temptations])

 It is a broadside against those whom Micah sees as the cause of war in the first place.

Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” is, of course, two and a half millennia on from Micah. That song shafts the warmongers as being responsible for the consequences of their actions, in a way that very few songs have done before or since.

A prophecy for Europe?

"The just man justices"

G M Hopkins wrote that the just man justices, from As Kingfishers Catch Fire. That's what links Micah and Dylan: time and context melt in doing justice.

Micah and Dylan write multi-valent poetry: the images become charged in different ways. That's why I suspect the majority of people take this text at face value and idealize it. The traditional, comfortable interpretations are powerful attractors.

I submit, however, that this is not a text upon a peaceful paradise: I think that misses the point entirely. It is one that ironically and bitterly condemns the Jerusalem élites for the state of the city, the hinterland it controls, and the war it foments.

In that sense, and in that sense alone, is it an appropriate reading for Peace Sunday.

Attribution

Meet the prophet Micah

Micah was strutting his stuff in the mid to late eighth century BCE or at roughly the same time as Isaiah in Jerusalem, and Amos in the north, in Samaria.

Isaiah was a priest in the royal court in Jerusalem, an Establishment prophet if you will—whereas Amos (the tender of sycamores and sheep] and Micah were very much figures from the rural hinterland. Amos and Micah are both reckoned as two of the twelve Minor prophets, not because they are relatively unimportant, or worked in the underground industries, but because their edited utterances take up a relatively small part of a standard scroll.

Amos and Micah are united in their judgment of the royal, priestly and merchant classes for corrupt business and religious practices, but yet these same classes maintained an uncritical assumption that Yahweh was on their side, and would defend them in a crisis.

Micah hailed from a fortified town not fair from the major city of the Philistines, and practically next door to Judah’s second city, Lachish. So he and his family and fellow townspeople would know all about the vicissitudes of war, from having to raise money to pay it, to being dragooned into a ragtag army to fight the enemy of the day. They’d know about losing menfolk either briefly or permanently from their rural workforce. They’d know about Assyrian scorched-earth policies where not only were animals slaughtered, trees felled, and crops burned: but even the earth itself was scraped away. The Romans plowing salt into the earth around a defeated Carthage three hundred years later was in the same tradition.

 

Micah 4:1-4

Peace and Security through Obedience

In days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
    and many nations shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
    and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
    and no one shall make them afraid;
    for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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The four sermons in the series

  1. The Book of Numbers | Snakes on a plain
  2. Resurrection, a sign of restoration? | Ezekiel's fresh flesh for dry bones
  3. Peace in our tine | Micah's insight
  4. Songs of the servant, Isaiah's vision | Signs for every age
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Comments

Stuart Manins
27 February 2019, 4:47 PM

'Swords into plowshares'. With just one fewer stroke of the quill the scribe could copy, 'Peace in our Time', as 'Peace in our Tine'. Just as appropriate really but with a network of quite different associations and  meaning.

Informed attention to detail, love of theology and care for language have been characteristics of Mike's sermons and David's comments so far. May it continue. How easily the original thrust of a passage can be lost over time.

Two questions: Does the compass in the Blake drawing have Masonic meaning? And why over two thousand or more  years have  Jews been so hated? As a nation they were no worse that Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Romans. In some areas they were clearly better.

Mike Stachurski
28 February 2019, 8:57 AM

I'm making guesses here - and I'm no anti-Semite.  I think there at least two things at play here: particularism, and envy.  

Particularism in the sense of being and believing in themselves as a chosen people, and manifesting that in religious practices, clothing, etc. Then again, so did the Nazis, of course.  And through hanging together - whether in ghettoes, or in synagogues, yeshivot, etc. Having a particular identity.  I experienced this kind of particularism as a kid: parish church, parish school, Catholic businesses. It was unspoken. So I was profoundly shocked when a classmate (in a State school) claimed  that she went to church every Sunday. She was Presbyterian. I instinctively thought that we were the only outfit going (although I knew there were other churches in town, I didn't actually go into one until I was a teenager)  

I also think a lot of it is envy. Because Jews were forbidden entry into so many professions in Europe and beyond - they entered into banking and other industries where they made formidable successes of themselves. Also in the arts and sciences (most of the quantum theorists were Jewish). Popular music history (taking the twentieth century as an example) would be profoundly different without the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Neil Sedaka, Carole King... And Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles. There are also plenty of examples in the classical world, of course.

David Bell
02 March 2019, 1:05 PM

The Ancient of Days image is one of the iconic William Blake images. For him, it was a personal favourite, and he hand-tinted a final copy on his death bed.

It was the frontispiece to the book, Europe A Prophecy, and it depicts a demigod, Urizon. But far from being God or Yahweh, Urizon is the embodiment of reason gone mad, reason without feeling, making slaves of all humans and human endeavours. The pair of compasses stretches out over a black void, into which we are all plunged when the individual, the particular human, is considered as only part of a great machine, a tiny cog of no significance. I think this mirrors what Mike calls the particularity of the Jews. Their sense of being chosen offended those who felt they were not chosen, and for this, and many other reasons, they became the scapegoats across Europe.

I think that the Freemasons used the symbolism of a pair of compasses long before Blake's era, but after Ancient of Days was published it was a useful image for their purposes.

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