Birth of the Messiah: Micah 5:2

Micah 5:1 [2]:
The Messianic Bethlehem Tradition

The strongest passage in the New Testament regarding the birth of the Messiah is the treatment of the Bethlehem tradition in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:1-12)—in particular, the citation of Micah 5:1 [2] within the narrative (vv. 4-6). The tradition regarding Jesus‘ birth in Bethlehem is quite strong, on objective grounds; it is one of the few elements of the Infancy narrative shared by Matthew and Luke (though presented quite differently). Only Matthew relates it to the prophecy in Micah 5:1 [2], and in such a way as to indicate that it was regarded as a Messianic prophecy prior to its application to Jesus. Here is how the Gospel writer frames the citation:

And (hav)ing brought together all the chief sacred officials and (expert)s on the writings [i.e. scribes] of the people, he [i.e. Herod] inquired (from) alongside of them where the Anointed (One) comes to be (born). And th(ey) said to him, “In Beth-Lehem of Yehudah—for so it has been written through the Foreteller: ‘And you, Beth-lehem, land of Yehudah, not even one (bit the) least are you among the leaders of Yehudah; (for) out of [i.e. from] you will come out a leader who will shepherd my people Yisra’el'”.

The Matthean Infancy narrative in chapter 2 may be divided into two halves—the second having a tri-partite structure:

    1. The visit of the Magi (vv. 1-12)
    2. The Flight to Egypt—a triad with a Scripture citation in each part:
      • The Dream of Joseph, warning of Herod, and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
        “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1)
        • Herod’s killing of the infants in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
          “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jeremiah 31:15)
      • The Dream of  Joseph speaking/warning of Herod, and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
        [“He shall be called a Nazarene” (citation uncertain)]

It is also possible to separate it into two halves, each with a bi-partite structure (containing a main and secondary Scripture passage):

    • The visit of the Magi to the child Jesus in Bethlehem, in the threatening shadow of Herod (vv. 1-12)
      “And you O Bethlehem…” (Micah 5:2)
      • The Dream of Joseph and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
        “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1)
    • Herod, ‘tricked’ by the Magi, slaughters the children in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
      “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jer 31:15)
      • The Dream of Joseph and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
        [“He shall be called a Nazarene”]

One might also add 1:18-25 to create three-part structure for the entire Infancy Narrative, each with a central Scripture passage and dream ‘visitation’:

The Scripture citations are central to the narrative, as also to the identification of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Savior of Israel. Unlike the other citations (1:22-23; 2:15, 17-28, 23), here the Scripture is quoted by a character (priests and scribes together) in the narrative, rather than as an aside by the author. Critical scholars would still view this as a Matthean citation, little different from the others in the Gospel; however, if we are to accept the narrative at face value, along with the underlying historical tradition, then Micah 5:1 [2] would have been understood as having Messianic significance at the time of the events recorded (end of the 1st century B.C.), prior to being applied by early Christians to Jesus decades later. To be sure, the original context of the passage (cf. below) is much closer to having an actual ‘Messianic’ connotation than the other Scriptures cited by Matthew (Isa 7:14; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15; and those underlying Matt 2:23). Even so, there is (as yet) no direct evidence for a Messianic interpretation of Micah 5:1 [2] in the first centuries B.C./A.D., outside of the New Testament itself.

If one looks honestly at the original historical context of Isa 7:14 [see the previous note and earlier articles on this passage]; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15, etc., it must be admitted that they have little to do with a future Messiah-figure. It is conceivable that Isa 7:14 could have been understood in this way, but there is no real evidence for it in Jewish literature contemporaneous or prior to the New Testament. The case may be somewhat different for Micah 5:1 [2], based on the following factors:

    • Unlike the oracles of Isaiah 7:10-17 and 9:1-7, which are presented in a relatively precise historical context (the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah, the Syro-Ephraimitic crisis and impending invasion by Assyria, c. 740-701 [esp. 735-732] B.C.), Micah 5:1-6 [MT 4:14-5:5] has a rather more general setting of coming judgment (military attack implied) followed by restoration. The themes (as well as language and style) of the these oracles in Micah are quite similar to those of Isaiah, but without some of the accompanying historical detail.
    • Assyrian invasion is mentioned in 5:5[4], and is presumably the source of judgment to hit Judah and the Northern kingdom (there is no clear indication Samaria has yet fallen, 722-721 B.C.); however, there is nothing like the precise (imminent) timing found in the predictions of Isa 7:15-17; 8:4. The implication of Micah 5:5-6 would seem to be that the Davidic ruler of 5:2 will lead (Judah’s) troops against the Assyrian invasion, which will lead to the gathering in of the remnant of Jacob (the Northern kingdom?). There is thus a closer parallel to the oracle in Isa 9:1-7, which is also more plausibly ‘Messianic’ (in its original context) than Isa 7:10-17.
    • The reference in Micah 5:3 [2] that God will give Israel/Judah up to judgment “until the one giving birth has given birth” is far more general (and symbolic, cf. the reference in 4:10) than that of the virgin/woman of Isaiah 7:14 (or Isa 8:3); this fact, in and of itself, makes application of the passage to an archetypal or future ruler much more natural.
    • The reference to Bethlehem (in Judah), while possibly intended (originally) to refer to a specific coming ruler in Micah’s own time, also makes likely an archetypal reference to the Davidic line (cf. also references to the “house of David” and “throne of David”, Isa 7:13; 9:7, etc).
    • While one can consider the language in 5:2b as similar to the exalted honorific titles given to ancient Near Eastern rulers (see my notes on Isaiah 9:6-7 in this regard), there is a dynamic, almost ‘mythological’ quality to the phrasing, which, when removed from the immediate context, would certainly suggest divine origin. Once the specific ritual sense of king as God’s “son” (cf. Psalm 2) has ceased to be relevant in Israelite history, the way is paved for the idea of a future/Messianic ruler as “son of God”.

Matthew’s citation of Micah 5:2 differs in several respects from both the Hebrew (MT) and Septuagint (LXX) versions:

Hebrew (MT) [5:1]

And you, House-of-Lµm {Bethlehem} of Ephrath,
Small to be (counted) with the ‘thousands’ [i.e. clans] of Yehudah {Judah},
From you shall come forth for/to me
(One) to be ruling/ruler in Yisra°el {Israel},
And his coming forth is from ‘before’ [<d#q#]
—from (the) days of ‘long-ago’ [<l*ou]

LXX

And you, Beth-lehem, house of Ephrathah
Are little to be in/among the thousands of Yehudah;
(Yet) out of [i.e. from] you will come out for/to me
The (one) to be unto (a) chief [a)rxwn] in Yisra’el,
And his ways out are from (the) beginning [a)rxh]
—out of [i.e. from] (the) days of (the) Age

Matthew 2:6

And you, Beth-lehem, land of Yehudah,
Not even one (bit the) least are you in/among the leaders of Yehudah;
(For) out of [i.e. from] you will come out a leader
Who will shepherd my people Yisra’el

There are three major differences (and one minor) between Matthew’s citation and that of the LXX and Hebrew MT:

      • Instead of the reference to Ephrath(ah), Matthew specifies “land of Judah”; this may be an intentional alteration to avoid mention of an unfamiliar clan name (though the place name Ramah is retained in the citation of Jer 31:15 [Matt 2:18]).
      • Instead of calling Bethlehem small/little [LXX o)ligosto$], Matthew uses the expression “not even one (bit the) least” [ou)damw$ e)laxisth, i.e. ‘not at all’, ‘by no means’]—in other words, Bethlehem is actually great. Is this a variant reading (from a lost Hebrew or Greek version), or an intentional alteration (by the Gospel writer)?
      • Instead of the ‘thousands’ [or clans] of Judah, Matthew reads “leaders [h(gemwn]” of Judah. This is a relative minor difference, and may conceivably reflect a different reading of the consonantal Hebrew text; or it may be an attempt to emphasize rule (rather than the constitution) of Judah.
      • Matthew has omitted the final bicolon (“and his coming forth…”), inserting at the end of the prior line (replacing “of Israel”): “who will shepherd my people Israel”. This appears to be a quotation from 2 Samuel 5:2 (LXX): “you will shepherd my people Israel”, joined to Mic 5:2. The inclusion of this Scripture would strengthen the citation as a reference to the Davidic ruler figure-type.

Messianic Interpretation of Micah 5:1 [2]

The historical tradition in Matt 2:4-6 evinces a belief, or expectation, by Jews of the time, that the Anointed One (that is, the Davidic Messiah) would be born in Bethlehem. There can be little doubt that this underlies the core Gospel traditions in the Infancy narratives. Both the Matthean and Lukan narratives emphasize the association with David, though this is stronger and more pervasive in Luke (cf. Matt 1:1ff, 17, 20; Lk 1:27, 32-33, 69ff; 2:4, 8ff, 11). The historical detail of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is part of this Davidic Messianic tradition. The fact that the Bethlehem tradition is presented so differently within the two narratives demonstrates that it pre-dates both of them.

Indeed, there is evidence that the Bethlehem tradition (and also Micah 5:1 [2]) had been independently applied to the Messiah, in Judea, prior to the writing of the Gospels. This can be inferred fairly from John 7:41-42:

“Others said [i.e. regarding Jesus], ‘This is the Anointed (One)’, and (yet) others said, ‘No, for the Anointed (One) does (not) come out of the Galîl {Galilee}, (does he)? (Has) not the Writing said that out of the seed of Dawid and from Beth-Lehem the Anointed (One) comes?'”

The historical context in John at this point is ambiguous enough to virtually guarantee that we are dealing with a Jewish (rather than early Christian) tradition. It could be derived simply from the historical details surrounding David’s life, but more than likely the reference in Micah 5:2 is assumed as well. The tradition of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem is established in the subsequent Rabbinic literature—most notably, Jerusalem Talmud Berakot 5a [2:4], and the Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations §51 (on Lam 1:16). However, these passages are considerably later than the first century, and evidence from the first centuries B.C./A.D. is scant indeed. Sadly, the surviving fragments of the Qumran Commentary (Pesher) on Micah (1Q14) do not cover the relevant portion of the book (4:14-5:5 [5:1-6]). A separate text, 4Q168, with two small fragments, may be a similar Micah pesher (the surviving portion deals with 4:8-12), but too little is preserved to provide much by way of interpretation.

According to Origen, in his work Against Celsus (1.51), Jewish scholars in his time (and prior) had removed or suppressed the Bethlehem tradition—i.e., the expectation that the (Davidic) Messiah would be born in Bethlehem—to avoid giving support for the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah. However accurate this bit of apologetic may (or may not) be, it could be seen as providing independent confirmation of the Bethlehem tradition by perhaps the mid-2nd century A.D. Around the same time may be dated the Aramaic Targum (Jonathan) on the Prophets, which glosses/paraphrases Micah 5:1 [2] to say specifically that the Messiah comes out of Bethlehem. Unfortunately, the Jewish evidence cannot be dated, reliably at least, any earlier than this. Even within the later Rabbinic writings, the Bethlehem tradition is not very widespread; there is, for example, no reference to Bethlehem in the Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 52a where the Messiah’s birth is alluded to. This may be partly because of the complex character of the Messianic figure-types, alternating between ordinary human and supernatural/heavenly figures, sometimes even suggesting a (re)incarnation of David or Elijah himself. In the New Testament we actually have more detail regarding the birth of Jesus as the Messiah than we typically find elsewhere in Jewish tradition regarding the Messiah.