You are likely familiar with the relationship cliché when one person says to another, “I’m not a mind reader,” meaning, “You have to tell me what you are thinking rather than expecting me to just know.” Communication of expectations and desires is vital to healthy relationships. People might know one another so well that they can guess what the other is thinking, but it is still guess work. And it sure is nice to be told! Whether we are talking about marriage, work, or church relationships, clearly stated expectations provide a basis for partnership and accountability.
This brings us to torah. For ancient Israel, torah was beneficial teaching. It may originate with a person, such as the mother’s torah of Prov 1:8, but more typically it refers to divine instruction. “Torah” with a capital “T” refers either to the first five books of the Bible or to the particular teaching of expectations at Sinai. Israel received this Torah as a gift of divine expression. It set them apart as unique insofar as they had been given special insight into God’s will in the Sinai revelation. In Torah, God clearly states expectations that provide the basis of Israel’s relationship with the divine. Torah gives the answer to the human question, “What does God desire from us?”
Micah 6:8 famously addresses the issue of the Lord’s desire:
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? (NRSV)
This text is the conclusion to a prophetic oracle on what is pleasing to God. The word translated “require” may also be translated as “desire” or “seek.” Rather than seeking an abundance of sacrifices, what God desires from humanity is acts of justice, a love for faithfulness, and a disposition of humility. So where does Torah fit into this picture? Some might say that Micah’s answer rejects the sacrificial system outlined in sections of Torah, for example, the Levitical sacrifices that are presented as a “pleasing odor to the Lord” (Leviticus 1-7). However, Micah’s point is not to dissuade people from sacrificing, but that the people misunderstand what truly pleases God if they ignore the basic tenets of Torah: justice, love, and humility. These three are the foundations of the Lord’s covenant with Israel.
The prophetic voice places a special focus on calling people back to the basics of faith and justice. But these principles are also the heart of Torah. Indeed, I would argue that the “He has told you” of Mic 6:8 refers to Torah, when God told Israel “what is good.” Deuteronomy 10:12 asks an almost identical question.
“So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?”
The answer is longer than that of Mic 6:8, but it is very similar.
“Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.” (NRSV)
In both Micah and Deuteronomy, the answer to God’s requirement for the people is to walk with God and to love God’s commandments, for God commands Israel to act with justice and mercy. Deuteronomy 10 goes on to talk about the circumcision of the heart, showing justice to the orphan and the widow, and loving the stranger. These are the foundations of Torah, spelled out in detail through the particular stipulations for particular times in the life of Israel (Deuteronomy 12-24).
Micah 6:8 is the John 3:16 of the Old Testament, and for good reason. But lest we think that the prophets are the sole proprietors of justice, love, and humility, we need to read the Torah. Perhaps, if Micah were holding up a sign at a local sporting event, his sign would read:
He has told you.