Tuesday, February 01, 2005


Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. "0 my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 0 my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD." "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Start with Paul Ricouer's thesis: "namely that religious experience comes to language through specific modes of discourse," and we have a better starting place for considering the words of the Hebrew Prophets.

First: they were talking to a specific community: Israel, before, during, or after, the Exile. And most of them were strong proponents of social justice, which they linked to the worship of the God of Abraham. But even for prophets like Micah, who promoted "pure" worship (i.e., uncontaminated by the practices of non-Hebraic cultures), that worship was also carried out in life, not just in the temple.

Second: the "specific modes of discourse." The image of a trial is almost a constant in the Hebrew Scriptures. As first the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians, and then the kingdom of Judah first lost power, and then even existence, the people wondered where their protection from the God of Abraham had gone. They challenged God, and the prophets often responded with a courtroom of Creation, where Creation itself was called to bear witness and hear the complaints of Israel (the people), and God. This touches on Ricouer once more, whom I am taking for my own uses (obviously), but who is nonetheless instructive here:

Ricouer's thesis rests in part on the relation between the form of discourse and the theological content, an understsnding developed by Gerhard von Rad. Ricouer applies it to narratives in the Scriptures, and finds:

This example, systematically developed, no longer allows us to construct theologies of the Old or New Testaments that understand the narrative category to be a rhetorical procedure alien to the content it carries. It seems, on the contrary, that something specific, something unique, is said about Yahweh and about Yahweh's relations with the people Israel because it is said in the form of a narrative, of a story that recounds the events of deliverance in the past...Nothing is said about God or about humankind or about their relations that does not first of all reassemble legends and isolated sagas and rearrange them in meaningful sequences so as to constitute a unique story, centered upon a kernel-event, that has both a historical import and a kerygmatic dimension.*
So this story of God calling a "cosmic courtroom" together is a theological expression as well as a visionary episode. Micah speaks about the relationship of the God of Abraham to the children of Abraham. When God calls for justice, God is placed before justice, too: not as judge, but as petitioner. God calls upon Creation to witness and to judge, in a way more like the trial of Socrates in Plato's Apology than
like the second half of "Law & Order." God, like Job, is willing to be judged, because God knows who is innocent, and who is at fault. But God, take note, is willing to be judged.

But not, apparently, so anxious to judge. This is the real significance of the scene. "What does the Lord require of you?" Not the firstfruit of the land; not even the firstfruit of your body (just as the concluding verses echo Psalm 51, there are echoes here of Deuteronomy 26:1-11, and Genesis 22); in fact, before any "demand" is made, there is a reminder that first comes the blessing, then comes the duty. And the budren is, indeed, light: "He has told you, O mortal, what is good." God gives, in other words, and asks for exchange only later. It can be argued, in fact, that what God offers is as close to a gift as is possible under Jacques Derrida's strict definition (i.e., something given without knowledge by the giver or by recipient, so that there is no economy of exchange, no cycle of delivery and compensation for delivery). God sells without price, and we buy without money.

And what is "good"? Those would be the moral precepts of the Mosaic law: the social justice, the proper worship of the God of Abraham. The way of life, as opposed to death, as set before Israel by Moses (Deuteronomy 30:15). We all have to live, and we all have to follow some rules; but which ones are good, and lead to the "good life"? The question, quite simply, of Aristotle's Nichomacean Ethics. That is what Micah is referring to, what God is offering: an ethic, a practice for life.

And what is it? That's the law of Moses, the teachings of the prophets. And what does it require of you? What do you give up, in order to gain this good (even Aristotle understood some things had to be given up, in order to make greater gains)? What, indeed, except to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

An address, let me repeat, made to the children of Abraham: and now to those who want to walk with the God of Abraham. But what does it cost you? Only the willingness to do the justice the God of Abraham is willing to submit to; the love the mercy offered unconditionally by the God of Abraham; and to be humble before the God of Abraham. It is the lesson of Moses; of Job; or Isaiah; of Jesus of Nazareth and Paul and St. Augustine and St. Aquinas and St. Francis and Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day and Jim Wallis and...well, you get the idea.

As Moses said to Israel: "Surely, this commandment...is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say 'Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth an din your heart for you to observe." (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, NRSV)

*Paul Ricouer, "Philosophy and Religious Language," Figuring the Sacred, tr. David Pellauer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 40

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