Reading Micah While the World Burns
This past summer some women from church decided to gather on Wednesday evenings to read Scripture. We rotated hosting responsibilities and, after the initial chit-chat and snack table perusal, settled into backyard lawn chairs to read a chapter aloud from the book of Micah.
Yes, that Micah. The Biblical minor prophet, the “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” one. It’s a short book smushed near the end of the Old Testament, only seven chapters long. Sounds like a great summer read, right? Inspiring, and justice-themed, I thought naively.
Micah does have some lovely passages about redemption and world peace, but those verses are clustered in its later chapters. The first three chapters though? They’re rough.
Our early discussions went something like this:
Hmm, Micah sure likes to “howl like a jackal and moan like an owl” and roam around barefoot and naked. Cool cool.
“…disaster comes from the Lord, even to the gates of Jerusalem.” What? Why is God bringing disaster and laying on the threats here?
And why, exactly, are these towns left by God to “writhe in pain, waiting for relief”? Yikes.
“I don’t know if I can keep reading this,” one friend confided. “I’m just not finding a lot of hope here, and life is hard enough.”
In between sips of fizzy water, we wrestled with Micah’s prophecies against apostate Israel (which included frequent prostitution references), trying to connect our 21st-century realities to 700 AD. God’s forced exile of God’s people to Babylon felt cruel and punitive. It wasn’t exactly the light, uplifting book I’d been expecting to read over the summer.
We struggled along and by late July reached Micah’s later half where, on occasion, the cycles of judgment began to break to themes of redemption. Finally! I thought. Some payoff for enduring Micah 1-3!
But even then there was no true respite from pain. In chapter 4, despite God’s beautiful promise of a kingdom where people “trained for war no more” and beat their swords into plowshares, the Israelites weren’t having it. The promises of redemption after exile weren’t enough in the face of actual exile.
In chapter 4, verse 9, Micah writes:
“Now why do you cry aloud?
Is there no king in you?
Has your counselor perished,
that pangs have seized you like a woman in labor?”
I love a good childbirth metaphor, preferably one where God is described as a laboring mother. But in Micah, the community is the woman seized by labor pains, unable to find a king or counselor (or doula? I wrote in my notebook) to comfort them in a time of great stress. As a people, unfaithful Israel was driven out of their homeland into enemy territory.
Exile was here. Their world was on fire. God’s promises for eventual liberation were not enough.
The humid July air was heavy as we sat at a picnic table and drew our own parallels to Israel’s contractions of panic and grief. Here we were, a group of women in Minneapolis in 2022, facing what was once unimaginable: climate change (and record summer heat). Gun violence down the block. A fragile democracy. Residual trauma from the ongoing pandemic and aftermath from George Floyd’s murder. I could relate to Israel’s cry for a leader that could guide us all to safety, or offer comfort, or make sense of all the trauma.
But also here, in the company of women, I wasn’t alone. We acted as counselors for each other: listening, nodding, passing the bowl of cherries. We heard each other’s loud laments as we wondered together: How do we raise resilient children when we are barely coping ourselves? Will things ever get better? Where are signs of hope?
Reading Micah has challenged me to be honest with my own children about the state of the world. When my son asked about the kids in Texas who were shot in their school, my breath caught in my throat. But I didn’t change the subject or rush toward some resolution.
Instead I thought about the words of the late author James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” That is the kind of resiliency I want for my children. And so I sat beside my son and rubbed his back. I channeled my inner prophet and told him the truth, then offered up a quiet prayer of grief and lament.
Perhaps the harsh judgments in Micah are a sign that God has heard the desperate prayers of mothers like me. God is paying close attention to what causes our collective labor pains: the greed, the violence, the lack of political will to change. God’s care of the vulnerable necessarily translates into holding wrong-doers accountable. And, ultimately, Micah leads to those famous verses of both justice and restoration.
I often struggle to believe that God’s kingdom is on its way or, as the Jesus Storybook Bible describes it, that “God is making the sad things come untrue.” But I’m starting to believe that God intends us to be doulas to each other as we collectively grieve and rejoice, doubt and trust. Like the mother crying out in Micah 4, we are in this holy labor together. Maybe God gives us each other in times like these, not to whisper flat platitudes that provide no comfort, but to share in the burden of hope.
When the world is burning, Micah asks: “And what does the Lord require of you?” This summer the answer looked like a group of women wrestling with the ancient word of an obscure prophet, unwilling to let go until God gave a blessing.
Stina Kielsmeier-Cook is a writer from Minneapolis where she raises kids, maxes out her library card, and is usually late for church. She is the author of Blessed Are the Nones: Mixed Faith Marriage and My Search for Spiritual Community, a spiritual memoir about interfaith marriage, monasticism, and deconversion. Connect with Stina at stinakc.com.
For further reflections on childbirth metaphors in Scripture, read Stina’s essays on God as a laboring mother in Isaiah 42:14.