In my last post on Micah, I mentioned that the prophet lived during a very difficult time in the history of Judah. During the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, several important political events occurred which impacted the life of the people who lived, not only in Jerusalem, but also in Israel and all Judah.
One significant event was the rise of Tiglath-pileser III, king of Assyria. When Tiglath-pileser assumed the throne of Assyria, his vision was to establish an empire that would encompass most of the ancient Near East. A second event, one that came out of the rise of Tiglath-pileser, was the Syro-Ephraimite War. This war involved Assyria, Israel, Judah, and the Arameans.
I have discussed the Syro-Ephraimite War in detail in my study of Isaiah 7:14 and the Sign of Immanuel. I will not discuss this important political event in the life of Judah. If you do not know much about the Syro-Ephraimite War or if you have not read my two posts on this topic, you can read them here and here.
Two political crises also took place during the ministry of Micah that made a profound impact in the socio-economic life of the people of Judah in the eighth century B.C. These events affected the political life of the Southern Kingdom and contributed to the introduction of syncretism in the religion of Yahweh. These transforming events serve as the background for the proper understanding of Micah’s message.
The first crisis was the fall of the Northern Kingdom and the conquest of Samaria, its capital, in 722 B.C. The siege of Samaria began in the sixth year of Hoshea, the last king of the Northern Kingdom. In the sixth year of Hoshea, Shalmaneser V, king of Assyria, invaded the Northern Kingdom, came to Samaria, and besieged it for three years (2 Kings 17:5). During the invasion of Samaria, Shalmaneser was killed and Sargon II completed the conquest of the city.
Sargon’s relationship to Shalmaneser is unknown. Some suppose that Sargon was an officer in Shalmaneser’s army. It is possible that Sargon was a usurper, a man unrelated to the royal family who saw the death of Shalmaneser as an opportunity to usurp the throne of Assyria.
Sargon finished the conquest of Samaria in 722 B.C. In one of his inscriptions, Sargon boasted of having deported 27,290 inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom to other parts of the Assyrian empire: “In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria. He placed them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes” (2 Kings 17:6).
Samaria was incorporated into the Assyrian empire and became a province of Assyria. As a result of the conquest of Samaria, many citizens of the Northern Kingdom fled to Judah. This influx of refugees into the Southern Kingdom created an economic crisis because these people needed land in which they could settle and begin a new life.
Those refugees who had money probably bribed Judean officials in order to buy by fraudulent means the lands of peasants who could not defend themselves in the court of law. This may be one of the factors that motivated Micah to criticize people in power:
“What sorrow awaits you who lie awake at night, thinking up evil plans. You rise at dawn and hurry to carry them out, simply because you have the power to do so. When you want a piece of land, you find a way to seize it. When you want someone’s house, you take it by fraud and violence. You cheat a man of his property, stealing his family’s inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2 NLT).
On another occasion, Micah proclaimed a similar message:
“You steal the shirts right off the backs of those who trusted you, making them as ragged as men returning from battle. You have evicted women from their pleasant homes and forever stripped their children of all that God would give them” (Micah 2:8-9).
Another political crisis that occurred during the ministry of Micah was Assyria’s invasion of Judah in 701 B.C. In that year, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, invaded Judah and besieged Jerusalem. At that time, king Hezekiah was forced to pay a high tribute to the king of Assyria:
In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. King Hezekiah of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, “I have done wrong; withdraw from me; whatever you impose on me I will bear.” The king of Assyria demanded of King Hezekiah of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the LORD and in the treasuries of the king’s house. At that time Hezekiah stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the LORD, and from the doorposts that King Hezekiah of Judah had overlaid and gave it to the king of Assyria (2 Kings 18:13-16).
These historical, political, religious, and social events shaped Israelite society and provided the background for the message of Micah and for his criticism of those who oppressed the poor and deprived them of their rights and their possessions.
Notwithstanding these political crises, the first part of the eighth century in Judah was a time of economic prosperity. Archaeology gives evidence that a wealthy class of citizens emerged in Judah. According to the prophets Isaiah and Micah, this group of people became wealthier by exploiting the poor people who lived in the many villages of Judah.
This exploitation of the poor became even worse after the fall of Samaria and during the many years Judah became subservient to Assyria as a vassal state. As such, Judah had to pay a yearly tribute to Assyria and the money for the tribute was raised by taxing the people who were least able to pay the exorbitant taxes collected by the government and by the landlords.
Micah preached against those who were greedy for money: “Officials and judges alike demand bribes. The people with influence get what they want, and together they scheme to twist justice. Even the best of them is like a brier; the most honest is as dangerous as a hedge of thorns” (Micah 7:3-4 NLT).
It is clear that most of Micah’s proclamation was influenced by the political crisis created by the presence of Assyria in Israel and in Judah. The Syro-Ephraimite War, the fall of Samaria, and the invasion of Sennacherib resulted in major destruction of property in Israel and Judah. The war against Assyria disrupted many lives and displaced thousands of people. Many were deported and others fled in order to escape the Assyrian onslaught.
The economic pressure caused by the many political crises in Judah affected the political and religious leaders of the nation. In order for the government to be able to pay the yearly tribute, and in order for the rich people to keep their lifestyle, they needed more money and this money came from the citizens of Judah.
The result was the oppression of the poor by the wealthy and the powerful, the seizing of land from those unable to pay their debts (Micah 2:1-2), the eviction of people from their homes (Micah 2:9), the taking of bribes (Micah 3:11), merchants and wealthy businessmen cheating people by using inaccurate weights and measures (Micah 6:10), and people becoming rich through extortion and violence (Micah 6:12).
Even the priests and the prophets were not immune to dishonest practices in order to get money. According to Micah, the priests who taught God’s laws did so for a price. The prophets who were responsible for revealing God’s message to the people would not prophesy unless they were paid (Micah 3:11). Micah was so unhappy with the social and religious conditions of Judah that he believed that “the godly people have all disappeared; not one honest person is left on the earth. They are all murderers, setting traps even for their own brothers” (Micah 7:2 NLT).
In my next post, I will present Micah’s view of the religious life of Judah and his hope for the future, a hope that was based on the coming of a descendant of David, a ruler that would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David’s birth.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary