There is an article out of Bible Review called “The Great 8th century” that will give much information relating to the book of Micah. From now on, this study is going to get heavy. It cuts right to the heart of the matter and you will need this back-round to understand the 8th century prophets and what’s happening today.
Assyria has two main enemies, the “Urartu” and the Arameans, Israel’s main enemy in the 9th century. This allows the northern and southern kingdoms to expand and engage in trade with Phoenicia (Tyre and Sidon). It was a time of power and prosperity, a “golden age” if you will. King Uzziah in the south and King Jereboam II are ruling. Jereboam extends his borders from the entrance to Hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah (the Dead Sea-2 Kings 14.25). In the south, Uzziah expands the borders south to Eilat, and west to Ashdod. The northern and southern kingdoms are at peace with each other, and controlled the trade routes. Their joint kingdoms are as large as King Solomon’s territory.
There were impressive cities in the north including Megiddo, Hazor, Tel-Dan and Samaria, with impressive architecture and civil administration. The north outshined the south because they had more to work with economically and militarily. The south reached its peak under Uzziah, with Jerusalem and Lachish being major cities. Both were exposed to political, cultural, economic and religious influences of the surrounding countries, especially Phoenicia, Aram and Philistia. Phoenicia was a city-state and had great maritime skills and they were allowed to trade under Assyrian rule because it was profitable to the Assyrians. They also excelled in architecture. King Solomon hired them to help build the Temple. They were a “vassal state.” The Philistines were the main rival of Judah. King Uzziah and Hezekiah had major victories over them, and were conquered by Assyria and were allowed to trade as a vassal state under Assyria.
The Assyrians liked war, and their gods centered around warfare, while most others had gods centered on fertility. They went to Babylon for “brains” and brought the doctors, scientists and engineers north. Their main interest was war, not “thinking.” This is what happened after World War II with the Russians and America trying to get the best German scientists to their side. In the movie “The Right Stuff” concerning the space race with Russia, there is a line that answered the question as to why America was winning the space race over the Russians that said “Our Germans are better than their Germans.”
The conquered lands of the Assyrians became either a vassal state or a province. A vassal state had their own rulers, as long as they didn’t rebel, and their own way of life. A province was ruled directly by the Assyrians and they were more strict as to what went on. Israel had a special attraction to Assyria and had a vassal state status because they had access to seaports and the trade routes. Tiglat-Pilaser, Shalamanser and Sargon were ruling in Assyria when Israel rebelled, so Israel became a province in 721 BC. Judah remained a vassal state and remained “loyal” but would rebel later. It kept its identity and was never annexed into the Assyrian Empire. Israel, however, lost its political and cultural identity because they were made into a province. Israel was forced to worship Assyrian gods, where Judah was permitted to worship the Lord, or whoever they wanted.
During the reign of Hezekiah, he developed trade routes and is remembered for his religious reforms back to God. He destroyed shrines, pillars, pagan altars and centralized worship in Jerusalem. In the north, they mixed paganism with the worship of God. In 705 BC he begins to form an alliance against the Assyrians. A phenomena began to occur in the 8th century. The prophets began to write things down and were called the “writing prophets.” Up to that time they were called “court prophets” or “royal prophets” and ministered to the kings orally, not necessarily to all the people. The “writing prophets” were against paganism, luxury and the mixing of paganism with the true worship of God. They were very “orthodox” in what was put forward, speaking to all the people. Some may ask, “Why did they write things down?” The answer is because it was easier to remember.
As a result, a new level of Hebraic literature begins to emerge, using puns and wordplays only in Hebrew, on several levels. Poetry and literacy rose to a new level in the 8th century and these puns and wordplays helped you memorize what was being communicated, as we will see in Micah. The book of Isaiah has many examples of this new form of poetry (Isa 2.10, 19, 21; Isa 5.25; 9.12, 17, 21; 10.4; Isa 3.9, 11; Isa 5.8, 11, 18, 20, 22; 10.1, 5). The battle between paganism and the worship of God was heating up in the 8th century.
The Shephelah Valley was a very important piece of real estate at the time. If you wanted to control Judah you must have control over it. Many important battles were fought there. Judah could be divided into four sections, moving north and south. In the east, there was the Wilderness of Judea. The elevation drops 4000 feet in ten miles and is about 10 miles wide and 50 miles long. Then moving west you had the Judean Plateau, which included Jerusalem and Hebron. This was the heart of Israel and was about 2500 feet in elevation and 15 miles wide and 50 miles long. Moving west you come to the Shephelah Valley with rounded hills, from 300 to 1300 feet elevation and 10 miles wide and 50 miles long. Moving west again you come to what is called the Coastal Plain, which is 15 miles wide and 50 miles long. You must understand the Shephelah because it was called “The Guardian of Judah” because it was a “buffer” between the Coastal Plain and the Judean Plateau. More battles took place there than anywhere else. It was a staging area or the first line of defense.
Eastern powers needed the Via Maris (the “way of the sea”) open for trading. To make sure that was possible, you had to control the Judean Plateau, and in order to control that you had to control the Shephelah, or you could never be sure about an open Via Maris and Coastal Plain. To the east and to the south of the Judean Plateau it was a desert. To the north, small ridge lines made it a good area for many small forts and cities which could block an enemy’s approach to Jerusalem. To the west, numerous stream valleys cut into the plateau and were like arrows pointing upward. As a result, you could ascend any of these four routes in four hours to get on the Plateau with an army and proceed to Jerusalem. So, the Shephelah as defended with cities and forts to prevent that. The Valley of Aijalon was the “gateway in the north”, then there was the Valley of Sorek, the Valley of Elah and then Lachish, a major fortification/city and the heart of any defense. This was vital to the defense of Judah and whoever wanted to control the Middle east had to control the Shephelah Valley.
Major battles and events happened there and the cities were very close to each other, being only 10 miles wide and 50 miles long. A city could watch the siege of another city from their walls. Joshua fought at Ailon where the “sun stood still.” Samson gave his riddle at Timnah and Samuel ministered there. Jonathan defeats the Philistines at Mikmash and David slays Goliath in the Valley of Elah. He routs the Philistines at Rephaim. King Ahaz has battles at Beth-Shemosh, Soco and Aijalon. King Hezekiah fortifies the Shephelah but loses it to the Assyrians. The Maccabees fought there and Bar Kochba had his headquarters at Mareshah.
The northern kingdom had the city of Samaria (1 Kings 16.21-24). It was called “Shomeron” and was built by Omri. He bought the hill the city was built on from Shemer. The word means “watch mountain” (Amos 3.9; Jer 31.5) and from the time of Tiglat-Pilaser of Assyria it was called “Samirin” in Assyrian texts. It is near Shechem, on the edge of the Coastal Plain, but sits in the mountains. It is a very fertile area (Isa 28.1) and the kings of Israel had their palaces there. Samaria was destroyed by Sargon in 721 BC. Two years later they rebelled again and the people were deported. It was a very strong city and withstood several sieges. It was highly pagan and it had a temple to Ba’al with Ahab, a place of idolatry. No king of Israel was a worshipper of the Lord. The Greeks, and later the Romans, utilized it and the Jezreel Valley in the north was very important.
This information will be very important as we move through Micah, but it can also be applied in other books as well, especially the book of Isaiah. In Part 5, we will begin to study the book of Micah, and having a good idea of the geography will help you understand why the events mentioned in the book took place there.