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.
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.
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.
Peace and Security through Obedience
4 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,
2 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.
3 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;
4 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.
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The four sermons in the series
- The Book of Numbers | Snakes on a plain
- Resurrection, a sign of restoration? | Ezekiel's fresh flesh for dry bones
- Peace in our tine | Micah's insight
- Songs of the servant, Isaiah's vision | Signs for every age