Micah 5.1-4 – Thomas Paine on Prophecy

Today’s Old Testament lectionary reading is from Micah 5.1-4a.  This text reminded me of a discussion I had in one of my classes when I was teaching prophets to seminarians.  We dealt a bit with the New Testament treatment of the Old Testament and the problems of thinking of prophecy as prediction.  One of the outside texts I brought in was Thomas Paine’s “Examination of the Prophecies.”  It is a quintessential demonstration of a modern approach to the New Testament use of the Old Testament that attacks the idea of prophecy as prediction.

The Text of Micah 5.1-4

Thus says the LORD:
You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah
too small to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel;
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient times.
Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time
when she who is to give birth has borne,
and the rest of his kindred shall return
to the children of Israel.
He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock
by the strength of the LORD,
in the majestic name of the LORD, his God;
and they shall remain, for now his greatness
shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.

This text is used in Matthew 2 as a demonstration of where the Messiah was to be born.  It is not the text in Micah, but rather Matthew’s use of the text that Paine takes issue with.

Paine on Matthew’s Use of Micah 5.1-4

Here is what Paine says about Matthew’s use of this text:

The book of Micah, in the passage above quoted, v. 2, is speaking of some person, without mentioning his name, from whom some great achievements were expected; but the description he gives of this person, ver. 5, 6, proves evidently that it is not Jesus Christ, for he says, “and this man shall be the peace, when the Assyrian shall come into our land: and when he shall tread in our palaces, then shall we raise up against him [that is, against the Assyrian] seven shepherds and eight principal men. And they shall waste the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod on the entrance thereof; thus shall He [the person spoken of at the head of the second verse] deliver us from the Assyrian, when he cometh into our land, and when be treadeth within our borders.”

This is so evidently descriptive of a military chief, that it cannot be applied to Christ without outraging the character they pretend to give us of him. Besides which, the circumstances of the times here spoken of, and those of the times in which Christ is said to have lived, are in contradiction to each other. It was the Romans, and not the Assyrians that had conquered and were in the land of Judea, and trod in their palaces when Christ was born, and when he died, and so far from his driving them out, it was they who signed the warrant for his execution, and he suffered under it.

Having thus shown that this is no prophecy of Jesus Christ, I pass on to the third passage quoted from the Old Testament by the New, as a prophecy of him…

Paine of course is correct only if his assumption concerning Matthew’s use of Micah 5.1-4 is correct.  He is assuming that Matthew is using the text as predictive prophecy.  In my opinion, scholars in subsequent generations have shown that the approach of the New Testament authors was more nuanced than this and fit within the interpretive framework of Second Temple Judaism.  However, people have continued to approach the text in Matthew in much the same way as Paine (e.g. Spong).  And, though I think this approach too marrow, I also think this is in some way useful to us in the sense that they can help us to see the problems associated with narrowly treating prophecy as prediction.

I do not really have the time this morning to go into more detail, and I’m not sure the confines of a blog post can make way for a fuller discussion of how the New Testament authors actually used the Old Testament.  For that, I would point to Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which I think is a helpful, accessible introduction.  In addition, I think it is important to ask right questions.  Even if Micah 5.1-4 is not a predictive prophecy about Jesus, what was it about Jesus that made people look for him all over the text of the Old Testament?  It must have been something extraordinarily significant.

Related Posts:

Haggai 1.2 -The Historical Context

Isaiah 45 – A Litany of Monotheistic Texts?