Haftorah of Balak: Prophet Micah, 5:6-6-8
It is useful to turn from the well-known tale of Bilaam’s donkey to the life-story of the Prophet Micah, who spoke Truth to Power in his day (end of 8th Century BCE). He was a younger contemporary of First Isaiah, and lived in a small town about twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem, Moreshet Gath. Like his forebear prophets, Hosea and Amos, he was no professional prophet, no hireling of the power elite, the kings, nobility, or the wealthy; he was a simple man of the country, whose heart ached to see the poor oppressed by the city dwellers.
On the international scene, Micah was perspicacious enough to note that Assyria, the upstart world-empire to the north, was a threat to the Kingdom of Israel, whose corrupt leaders were busy playing power-politics in their little corner of the world, foolishly believing that they could arrange military alliances with a weakened, sabre-rattling Egypt to the south, or with the mini-kingdoms among their neighbors. He could sense that Northern Israel was doomed to be conquered by Assyria, and tried to warn the rulers, but they would not listen. He even tried to point out that Babylonia, the next area Power, would eventually conquer the Southern Kingdom of Judah, but this future event was too far-off to be believed. Yet he was right: a prophet can only proclaim the words which the Lord God places in his mouth; he is but the instrument of Destiny, and God’s Will.
Amid all this local corruption and international chicanery, what hope could remain for the Jewish People? The Book of Micah is difficult to follow; its organization is loose and seemingly poorly edited, as if it were composed under circumstances of flight and emergency. Still, its central theme, that of preserving the People Israel, no matter what the cost, comes thundering through, even to us, who live amid far safer, if not saner, conditions. In the end, Repentance from moral and ritual corruption will serve to restore the people to their land, under a kingly Messiah, who will take charge of the erring Nation and lead them onto the proper path of Limud Torah (Torah Study) and Ma’asim Tovim (Good Deeds).
Finally, what about the lengthy list of mitzvote, the Commandments, whereby we Jews have always sought to imbue our lives with Holiness? There is a famous passage in the Talmud, Masechet Makkot 24a, wherein Rabbi Simlai taught that there were 365 negative and 248 positive commandments given in the Torah; King David came and reduced them to eleven, as he showed in Psalm 15. Isaiah then came and further reduced the number to six (Is. 33:15-17). Micah reduced the number to three (Mic. 6:8):
“It has been told you, O’ Mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you—to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
In Isaiah 56:1, the number became two—“Observe the right and do the just,” and, finally, the Prophet Habakkuk (2:4) concluded the matter as one, shining pinpoint of moral light—“The righteous shall live by their faith.”
And so they must.
Plaut, W. Gunther, Ed., The Haftarah Commentary. NY: UAHC Press, 1996.
Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts: Old & New Testaments, Rev. & Updated Ed. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993.