Friday, March 30, 2012

Messianic Prophecy - Part 8

According to Peter Stoner, Micah 5:2 should be interpreted as making the following prediction:

(1) The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

There are three parts to this interpretation:

(a) The Messiah
(b) X will be born in Y
(c) Bethlehem

I have previously argued that there are reasonable doubts about the subject of the passage being 'The Messiah', because the term 'the Messiah' does not occur anywhere in Micah, and only occurs in one single passage in the entire Old Testament.  I have also previously argued that there are reasonable doubts about the form of the predicate being 'X will be born in Y'. The passage does not use the term 'born' and there are other ways that one can be 'from' a specific town or city besides having been born in that town or city.

There is also reasonable doubt about the third component of Stoner's interpretation.  The passage does explicitly refer to "Bethlehem of Ephratha", but it is not clear whether this is a reference to the town of Bethlehem.

Some background information will be helfpful here.  Consider the word 'Israel'. To what does this Old Testament word refer?  You don't have to have a Bible dictionary to answer this question. An ordinary dictionary will do the trick (from my old American Heritage Dictionary):

Israel1. A republic, founded in 1948…  2. The kingdom of ten tribes founded in northern Palestine by Jeroboam in 933 B.C. and destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C.

Israel1. The decendants of Jacob.  2. The whole Hebrew people, past, present, and future, regarded as the chosen people of Jehovah by virtue of the covenant of Jacob.  3. The Christian church, regarded as...

IsraelA name of the patriarch Jacob.

Some of the definitions are obviously not relevant to the Old Testament (i.e. "A republic founded in 1948"  and "The Christian church"). But we can see that there are three or four different meanings that are relevant.  The word 'Israel' can refer to a specific person (Jacob), a collection of people (the decendants of Jacob or the Hebrew people), or to a kingdom or territory.  According to the Old Testament, a man named Jacob was re-named 'Israel' and his decendants became the Hebrew people (the nation of Israel) which took possession of cities and land in Palestine, part of which became the Kingdom of Israel, for about 200 years.

A similar ambiguity exists with several other proper nouns in the Old Testament.  For example, the word 'Judah' has a similar ambiguity:

JudahSon of Jacob and Leah; ancestor of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

JudahThe tribe of Israel decended from Judah.

JudahAn ancient kingdom in southern Palestine, occupied by the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and governed by the decendants of Solomon.

The proper noun 'Judah' can refer to a person, a tribe, or a kingdom/territory.

Because proper names in the Old Testament can have multiple references, to people, tribes, kingdoms, and places, we need to be aware of the possibility that the phrase "Bethlehem of Ephrathah" might also be ambiguous and have more than one referent.  Obviously, one plausible interpretation is that this phrase refers to the town of Bethlehem.  But one can reasonably ask whether there might be some other intended referent.

A parenthetical phrase that follows the words "Bethlehem of Ephrathah" strongly suggests that the author was not referring to a town or place:

But you, O Bethlehem of
who are one of the little clans
of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me...

In the parenthetical phrase, 'Bethlehem of Ephrathah' is referred to as a 'clan' not as a city or town.  A clan is a subdivision of a tribe.  The people of Israel were made up of twelve tribes, and each tribe was subdivided into clans.  A 'clan' is thus something like an extended family, as in "We are having a family reunion".  So, the parenthetical comment implies that the referent of the phrase 'Bethlehem of Ephrathah' is a group of people who are part of an extended family, a part of a subdivision of a tribe of people.  The specific tribe is mentioned explicitly: Judah (unless 'Judah' here means the person Judah, but in that case since the tribe of Judah consists of the descendants of the person Judah, there is at least an implied reference to the tribe of Judah, to the people who descended from the person Judah, or who are considered to be descendants of the person Judah).

The tribe of Judah is of special significance because it is the tribe from which the king David came.  The town of Bethlehem is also known for being the town from which king David came, and it was the town of his ancestors (for example, his grandmother Ruth lived in Bethlehem).
'Bethlehem' is the name of a person, as well as the name of a town.  The same is true of the proper noun 'Ephrathah' :

Another name for Ephrath, the wife of Caleb (1 Chr. 2:24; 4:4).

A place name used in reference to Bethlehem and the surrounding region (Ruth 4:11; Mic. 5:2).  Jesse, the father of David, is called an Ephrathite of Bethlehem (1 Sam. 17:12), as are Naomi, her husband, and their sons (Ruth 1:2).  The LXX includes Ephrathah in the list of places near Bethlehem which it inserts after Joshua 15:59.

Ephrathah also appears as the name of a woman (1 Chr. 2:19) who is identified as an ancenstor (eponymous) of Bethlehem, Tekoa, Beth-gader, and Kiriath-jearim (1 Chr. 2:24, 50-51; 4:4-5), well-known towns in northern Judah.  It is unclear whether the kinship group associated with this territory took its name from such a person or whether the name is merely a personification of the territory for genealogical purposes. ...
(Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible, p.417)

Clearly, the words 'Bethlehem of Ephrathah' have the same sort of ambiguity as the word 'Israel" and the word 'Judah'.  And since the parenthetical comment implies that Bethlehem is a 'clan',  it is doubtful that the phrase 'Bethlehem of Ephrathah' is simply a reference to a place or town.   Rather, given that king David's father Jesse was an 'Ephrathite of Bethlehem', it seems more likely that Micah 5:2 is talking about the tribe and clan that the 'one who will rule in Israel' is to come from, namely from the same tribe and clan as king David.  One can come from that tribe and clan without having been born in a specific town, such as Bethlehem.

So, there are at least three different plausible interpretations of Micah 5:2:

1.  The one who is to rule in Israel will be born in the town of Bethlehem.
2. The one who is to rule in Israel will come from the town of Bethlehem.
3. The one who is to rule in Israel will come from the same clan as king David.

Because of the parenthetical comment that implies 'Bethlehem of Ephrathah' to be a 'clan', I believe that interpretation (3) is most likely to be correct, and because the word 'born' does not occur in Micah 5:2, interpretation (2) is more likely to be correct than interpretation (1).   I believe it is very likely that one of these three is the correct interpretation, so I will assume that the probabilities of these interpretations will add up to a total of 1.0. 

Here are my probability estimates:

P(Interpreation 3 is correct) = .5
P(Interpretation 2 is correct) = .3
P(Interpretation 1 is correct) = .2

Because the concept of 'The Messiah' arose after the Old Testament was completed, Peter Stoner's interpretation of Micah 5:2 is almost certainly incorrect.  However, there was a hope in the Old Testament that a new king or ruler would arise and bring back the golden age of the Kingdom of Israel under king David.  So, interpretation 1 is fairly close to Stoner's interpretation.

If we take the correctness of interpretation 1 to be good enough to say that Stoner's intepretation was correct, then we can calculate the probability that Stoner's conjunctive claim about Micah 5:2 is correct:

Interpretation (1) is correct AND Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Each of the conjuncts has a probability of about .2 (two chances in ten) of being true, and we can reasonably assume that there is no significant causal influence between the truth or falsity of the two conjuncts, so we can use the simple multiplication rule here:

.2 x .2 = .04

The probability that Stoner's conjunctive claim about Micah 5:2 is correct is less than .1 (less than one chance in ten).