MICAH THE MORASTHITE
SOME time in the reign of Hezekiah, when the kingdom of Judah was still inviolate, but shivering to the shock of the fall of Samaria, and probably while Sargon the destroyer was pushing his way past Judah to meet Egypt at Raphia, a Judean prophet of the name of Micah, standing in sight of the Assyrian march, attacked the sins of his people and prophesied their speedy overthrow beneath the same flood of war. If we be correct in our surmise, the exact year was 720-719 B.C. Amos had been silent thirty years. Hoses hardly fifteen; Isaiah was in the midway of his career. The title of Micah’s book asserts that he had previously prophesied under Jotham and Ahaz, and though we have seen it to be possible, it is by no means proved, that certain passages of the book date from these reigns.
Micah is called the Morasthite. [Micah 1:1, Jeremiah 26:18] For this designation there appears to be no other meaning than that of a native of Moresheth-Gath, a village mentioned by himself. [Micah 1:14] It signifies Property or Territory of Gath, and after the fall of the latter, which from this time no more appears in history, Moresheth may have been used alone. Compare the analogous cases of Helkath (portion of-) Galilee, Ataroth, Chesulloth, and Iim.
In our ignorance of Gath’s position, we should be equally at fault about Moresheth, for the name has vanished, were it not for one or two plausible pieces of evidence. Belonging to Gath, Moresheth must have lain near the Philistine border: the towns among which Micah includes it are situated in that region; and Jerome declares that the name-though the form, Morasthi, in which he cites it is suspicious-was in his time still extant in a small village to the east of Eleutheropolis or Beit-Jibrin. Jerome cites Morasthi as distinct from the neighboring Mareshah, which is also quoted by Micah beside Moresheth-Gath.
Moresheth was, therefore, a place in the Shephelah, or range of low hills which lie between the hill country of Judah and the Philistine plain. It is the opposite exposure from the wilderness of Tekoa, some seventeen miles away across the watershed. As the home of Amos is bare and desert, so the home of Micah is fair and fertile. The irregular chalk hills are separated by broad glens, in which the soil is alluvial and red, with room for cornfields on either side of the perennial or almost perennial streams. The olive groves on the braes are finer than either those of the plain below or of the Judean tableland above. There is herbage for cattle. Bees murmur everywhere, larks are singing, and although today you may wander in the maze of hills for hours without meeting a man or seeing a house, you are never out of sight of the traces of ancient habitation, and seldom beyond sound of the human voice-shepherds and ploughmen calling to their flocks and to each other across the glens. There are none of the conditions or of the occasions of a large town. But, like the south of England, the country is one of villages and homesteads, breeding good yeomen-men satisfied and in love with their soil, yet borderers with a far outlook and a keen vigilance and sensibility. The Shephelah is sufficiently detached from the capital and body of the land to beget in her sons an independence of mind and feeling, but so much upon the edge of the open world as to endue them at the same time with that sense of the responsibilities of warfare, which the national statesmen, aloof and at ease in Zion, could not possibly have shared.
Upon one of the west-most terraces of this Shephelah, nearly a thousand feet above the sea, lay Moresheth itself. There is a great view across the undulating plain with its towns and fortresses, Lachish, Eglon, Shaphir, and others, beyond which runs the coast road, the famous war-path between Asia and Africa. Ashdod and Gaza are hardly discernible against the glitter of the sea, twenty-two miles away. Behind roll the round bush-covered hills of the Shephelah, with David’s hold at Adullam, the field where he fought Goliath, and many another scene of border warfare; while over them rises the high wall of the Judean plateau, with the defiles breaking through it to Hebron and Bethlehem.
The valley-mouth near which Moresheth stands has always formed the southwestern gateway of Judea, the Philistine or Egyptian gate, as it might be called, with its outpost at Lachish, twelve miles across the plain. Roads converge upon this valley-mouth from all points of the compass. Beit-Jibrin, which lies in it, is midway between Jerusalem and Gaza, about twenty-five miles from either, nineteen miles from Bethlehem, and thirteen from Hebron. Visit the place at any point of the long history of Palestine, and you find it either full of passengers or a center of campaign. Asa defeated the Ethiopians here. The Maccabees and John Hyrcanus contested Mareshah, two miles off, with the Idumeans. Gabinius fortified Mare-shah. Vespasian and Saladin both deemed the occupation of the valley necessary before they marched upon Jerusalem. Septimius Severus made Beit-Jibrin the capital of the Shephelah, and laid out military roads, whose pavements still radiate from it in all directions. The Onomasticon measures distances in the Shephelah from Beit-Jibrin. Most of the early pilgrims from Jerusalem by Gaza to Sinai or Egypt passed through it, and it was a center of Crusading operations, whether against Egypt during the Latin kingdom or against Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. Not different was the place in the time of Micah. Micah must have seen pass by his door the frequent embassies which Isaiah tells us went down to Egypt from Hezekiah’s court, and seen return those Egyptian subsidies in which a foolish people put their trust instead of in their God.
In touch, then, with the capital, feeling every throb of its folly and its panic, but standing on that border which must, as he believed, bear the brunt of the invasion that its crimes were attracting, Micah lifted up his voice. They were days of great excitement. The words of Amos and Hosea had been fulfilled upon Northern Israel. Should Judah escape, whose injustice and impurity were as flagrant as her sister’s? It were vain to think so. The Assyrians had come up to her northern border. Isaiah was expecting their assault upon Mount Zion. The Lord’s Controversy was not closed. Micah will summon the whole earth to hear the old indictment and the still unexhausted sentence.
The prophet speaks:-
"Hear ye, peoples all; Hearken, O Earth, and her fullness! That Jehovah may be among you to testify, The Lord from His holy temple! For, lo! Jehovah goeth forth from His place; He descendeth and marcheth on the heights of the earth."
"Molten are the mountains beneath Him, And the valleys gape open, Like wax in face of the fire Like water poured over a fall."
"For the transgression of Jacob is all this, And for the sins of the house of Israel. What is the transgression of Jacob? is it not Sarnaria? And what is the sin of the house of Judah? is it not Jerusalem? Therefore do I turn Samaria into a ruin of the field, And into vineyard terraces; And I pour down her stones to the glen And lay hare her foundations. All her images are shattered, And all her hires are being burned in the fire; And all her idols I lay desolate, For from the hire of a harlot they were gathered, And to a harlot’s hire they return."
The prophet speaks:-
"For this let me mourn, let me wail. Let me go barefoot and stripped (of my robe), Let me make lamentations like the jackals, And mourning like the daughters of the desert, For her stroke is desperate; Yea, it hath come unto Judah! It hath smitten right up to the gate of my people. Up to Jerusalem."
Within the capital itself Isaiah was also recording the extension of the Assyrian invasion to its walls, but in a different temper. [Isaiah 10:28] He was full of the exulting assurance that, although at the very gate, the Assyrian could not harm the city of Jehovah, but must fall when he lifted his impious hand against it. Micah has no such hope: he is overwhelmed with the thought of Jerusalem’s danger. Provincial though he be, and full of wrath at the danger into which the politicians of Jerusalem had dragged the whole country, he profoundly mourns the peril of the capital, "the gate of my people," as he fondly calls her. Therefore we must not exaggerate the frequently drawn contrast between Isaiah and himself. To Micah also Jerusalem was dear, and his subsequent prediction of her overthrow [Micah 3:12] ought to be read with the accent of this previous mourning for her peril. Nevertheless his heart clings most to his own home, and while Isaiah pictures the Assyrian entering Judah from the north by Migron, Michmash, and Nob, Micah anticipates invasion by the opposite gateway of the land, at the door of his own village. His elegy sweeps across the landscape so dear to him. This obscure province was even more than Jerusalem his world, the world of his heart. It gives us a living interest in the man that the fate of these small villages, many of them vanished, should excite in him more passion than the fortunes of Zion herself. In such passion we can incarnate his spirit. Micah is no longer a book, or an oration, but flesh and blood upon a home and a countryside of his own. We see him on his housetop pouring forth his words before the hills and the far-stretching heathen land. In the name of every village within sight he reads a symbol of the curse that is coming upon his country, and of the sins that have earned the curse. So some of the greatest poets have caught their music from the nameless brooklets of their boyhood’s fields; and many a prophet has learned to read the tragedy of man and God’s verdict upon sin in his experience of village life. But there was more than feeling in Micah’s choice of his own country as the scene of the Assyrian invasion. He had better reasons for his fears than Isaiah, who imagined the approach of the Assyrian from the north. For it is remarkable how invaders of Judea, from Sennacherib to Vespasian and from Vespasian to Saladin and Richard, have shunned the northern access to Jerusalem and endeavored to reach her by the very gateway at which Micah stood mourning. He had, too, this greater motive for his fear, that Sargon; as we have seen, was actually in the neighborhood, marching to the defeat of Judah’s chosen patron, Egypt. Was it not probable that, when the latter was overthrown, Sargon would turn back upon Judah by Lachish and Mareshah? If we keep this in mind we shall appreciate, not only the fond anxiety, but the political foresight that inspires the following passage, which is to our Western taste so strangely cast in a series of plays upon place-names. The disappearance of many of these names, and our ignorance of the transactions to which the verses allude, often render both the text and the meaning very uncertain. Micah begins with the well-known play upon the name of Garb; the Acco which he couples with it is either the Phoenician port to the north of Carmel, the modern Acre, or some Philistine town, unknown to us, but in any case the line forms with the previous one an intelligible couplet: "Tell it not in Tell-town; Weep not in Weep-town." The following Beth-le-’Aphrah, "House of Dust," must be taken with them, for in the phrase "roll thyself" there is a play upon the name Philistine. So, too, Shaphir, or Beauty, the modern Suafir, lay on the Philistine Region. Sa’anan and Bethesel and Maroth are unknown; but if Micah, as is probable, begins his list far away on the western horizon and comes gradually inland, they also are to be sought for on the maritime plain. Then he draws nearer by Lachish, on the first hills, and in the leading pass towards Judah, to Moresheth-Gath, Achzib, Mareshah, and Adullam, which all lie within Israel’s territory and about the prophet’s own home. We understand the allusion, at least, to Lachish in Micah 1:13. As the last Judean outpost towards Egypt, and on a main road thither, Lachish would receive the Egyptian subsidies of horses and chariots, in which the politicians put their trust instead of in Jehovah. Therefore she "was the beginning of sin to the daughter of Zion." And if we can trust the text of Micah 1:14, Lachish would pass on the Egyptian ambassadors to Moresheth-Gath, the next stage of their approach to Jerusalem. But this is uncertain. With Moresheth-Gath is coupled Ach-zib, a town at some distance from Jerome’s site for the former, to the neighborhood of which, Mareshah, we are brought back again in Micah 1:15. Adullam, with which the list closes, lies some eight or ten miles to the northeast of Mareshah.
The prophet speaks:-
"Tell it not in Gath, Weep not in Aeco. In Beth-le-’Aphrah roll thyself in dust. Pass over, inhabitress of Shaphir, thy shame uncovered! The inhabitress of Sa’anan shall not march forth The lamentation of Beth-esel taketh from you its standing. The inhabitress of Maroth trembleth for good, For evil hath come down from Jehovah to the gate of Jerusalem. Harness the horse to the chariot, inhabitress of Lachish, That hast been the beginning of sin to the daughter of Zion";
"Yea, in thee are found the transgressions of Israel Therefore thou givest to Moresheth-Gath The houses of Aehzib shall deceive the kings of Israel. Again shall I bring the Possessor [conqueror] to thee inhabitress of Mareshah; To Adullam shall come the glory of Israel. Make thee bald, and shave thee for thy darlings; Make broad thy baldness like the vulture, For they go into banishment from thee."
This was the terrible fate which the Assyrian kept before the peoples with whom he was at war. Other foes raided, burned, and slew: he carried off whole populations into exile.
Having thus pictured the doom which threatened his people, Micah turns to declare the sins for which it has been sent upon them.