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? Micah 6:8
If this were the only verse in the Bible – or if it somehow trumped all the others – then we might be able to reduce Judaism and Christianity to ethics. “It’s not about ritual; it’s all about justice.” The best way to read this passage, though, is in the context of Micah’s prophetic message.
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.
“O 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. O 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.” Micah 6:1-5
Chapter 6 begins with a courtroom scene. The Lord calls upon Israel to defend itself against the charge that it has violated the terms of the covenant God established with them. The Lord has a contoversey with “his people” – the people bound to him by his own covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Lord has been faithful to Israel throughout the history of the covenant relatonship. He delivered his chosen people from Egypt and gave them the land he promised to their ancestor Abraham. The Lord is faultless; it is Israel that has repeatedly been the unfaithful partner in this relationship. Israel has not kept the requirements of the covenant. Micah alludes to many of Israel’s failings throughout his prophecy.
Of course there is no answer to the charge. Israel is guilty. Now comes the question of what Israel must do to restore its covenant relationship with God. Verses 6-7 offer possible solutions to Israel’s guilt:
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?” Micah 6:6-7
Micah 6:-7 is specifically concerned with “transgression” and “the sin of my soul.” It is not about cultic worship in general. The problem is Israel’s sin and the broken covenant relationship; the assumed solution is sacrifice. Are the normal burnt offerings enough? Perhaps it will take thousands – or tens of thousands – of offerings. Maybe it even requires the sacrifice of firstborn children. Verses 6-7 are poetic escalation. Just what is the price of restoring the right relationship between Israel and its covenant Lord?
The Lord does not require such things. The Lord is merciful and will bear the weight of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Even now, the Lord simply requires that Israel “do justice” – that is, keep the requirements of God’s covenant with Israel. Justice, here, is only tangentially related to western, 21st century theories of social justice. Justice is covenant faithfulness on Israel’s part.
This covenant faithfulness has multiple dimensions. With regard to fellow Israelites, the law’s requirements can be summarized as “kindness.” With regard to God, covenant observance is “walking humbly.” It is an anachronism, however, to divorce these phrases from Micah’s own religious context. Micach looked forward to the day when “the mountain of the LORD’s house [i.e. the temple where Israel offers cultic sacrifice] shall be established as the highest of the mountains” (Micah 4:1). It’s not exactly religion-less religion that the prophet envisions.