It was midafternoon when I climbed the side of Tel Goded, a large hill created by layers of ruins from an ancient city rebuilt again and again over thousands of years. The steep incline is now covered with long grass about waist high, stones haphazardly poking out of the ground. The tel is located in Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park in Israel’s Shephelah, a region in the middle of the country renowned for its hills and wide, open valleys. Accompanying me were three other study-abroad students from Jerusalem University College (JUC), and two of the university’s graduate students, our guides on the adventure. We’d spent the morning washing pottery at a nearby archaeological dig, piled into a tiny rental car, and driven out into the Judean countryside in an effort to locate a short list of tels with Biblical significance. Tel Goded was our first stop.
We weren’t sure it was Tel Goded until we’d driven as far as we could up an unmarked dirt road, parked the car, hiked up the incline, and examined the rudimentary maps that Seth, one of the grad students, had brought along. After ten minutes or so of turning this way and that to match the hills around us with the elevation levels and names on the map, we’d figured it out. We’d indeed located Tel Goded – more historically known as the city of Moresheth-Gath, the hometown of the Biblical prophet, Micah.
In the Old Testament, Micah is considered a minor prophet, a writer of one of twelve short prophetic books named after their respective authors. Micah’s seven Biblical chapters seem rather insignificant, yet the fact that he was from Moresheth is mentioned both in the introduction to his book (1:1, 14), and in the book of Jeremiah (26:18). According to Biblical time period-markers, Micah would have lived and prophesied during the reigns of three Judean kings: Jotham (750-735 BCE), Ahaz (735-715 BCE), and Hezekiah (715-687 BCE). Aside from the Biblical significance of the site, Tel Goded was used by Jewish militants who dug a network of tunnels throughout the region as they defied Rome during the Bar Kokhba revolt from 132-136 C.E.
Standing atop the tel, which is the tallest hill in the region, we had a full three hundred and sixty degree view of the Shephelah – rows and rows of hills leading north-east toward the Judean hills surrounding Jerusalem, the rolling plains interspersed with patches of forest extending westward toward the Mediterranean Sea just out of view. The entire landscape was a light shade of vegetative green that can only be seen in the spring – any other time of year Israel’s foliage dies and is replaced by the tan brown of dried grass and dirt. Olive trees speckled the landscape, their rounded shapes scattered like mushrooms across the hills and flat areas alike.
As we stared out across the vast emptiness of the region, the wind buffeting our faces like a wave battering a wharf, an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) helicopter appeared, a pinprick to the east moving just below the heavy clouds high in the sky. At first, it was too far away to hear, yet we watched until we heard the dull “thup, thup, thup, thup” blasting through the air, dense as mayonnaise.
When the copter disappeared into the low clouds in the north, Seth pulled a Bible from his backpack and read us the book of Micah – seven short chapters consisting of a hundred and five verses total. Micah relays a message from God to the nation of Israel, calling them to repent because they are worshipping other deities, civic and religious leaders have failed to hold their communities committed to God, and the general population in Israel has become economically corrupt. The beginning of the book promises that Israel will be destroyed by their enemies and be judged, but by the end of the book, God has promised that His love will remain for His people and that He will restore them after they have been conquered.
Of all Judah’s kings, Ahaz’s story is renowned as one of the most vile because he’s said to have sacrificed one of his children to the Canaanite god, Baal, by heating a metal idol to hundreds of degrees and setting the infant onto the idol’s cupped hands, incinerating it. Though Micah’s message of invasion and military destruction comes across as harsh, in the context of a society whose leader did something like that, I could see why Israel was set to be judged at that point in the OT narrative.
After reading of this promised destruction in chapter one and into chapter two, Seth broke from his reading and showed us on the map how several of the towns Micah warns of the coming destruction were directly visible from the hill on which we stood – Tel Gat eight miles west, Tel Lachish six miles to the southwest, Tel Mareshah two and a half miles south, and Tel Achzib sixteen miles to the north. Like the tel on which we stood, these cities lay ruined, nothing more than grassy knolls speckled with hewn-stones. My spine felt like ants were dancing up and down it. These cities were no longer dots on a map or words in an ancient story; they were real places that I could see, now in ruins. After mentioning each of these cities, Micah warns Jerusalem twenty miles northeast, the suburbs of which we could barely make out in the haze of the horizon.
After these dire proclamations, Micah writes my favorite verse in the entire Bible. It seems God is frustrated that Israel has not held up their end of their covenant with Him, yet the verse also lays out what it means to be a Christian in the plainest, most simple terms I’ve heard: “He has told you, O man, 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?” (ESV 6:8). And who wouldn’t want to do these three things? Justice, kindness, and humble communion with God. Those sound like such simple, desirable things – certainly not an unreasonable standard – yet, human nature so easily turns away.
Thirty-nine years after Micah’s writing in 740 BCE, Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, swept south with his armies along the “Way of the Philistines,” an ancient trade route connecting Mesopotamia with Egypt, conquering every major city on his way. Historically, of the cities that Micah warned, Sennacherib conquered first Gath (Gat), then Lachish, Mareshah, Moresheth-Gath, and ultimately Achzib – essentially traveling in a U shape across the plains surrounding Micah’s hometown as he swung down the trade route, then back northward in an effort to conquer Jerusalem, which ultimately failed in 701 BCE.
I tried to imagine what an elderly Micah must have felt as he watched an enormous foreign army crawl south along the coast, burning first one town, then another, and another, the fires clearly visible in the clear Judean air. After days and days of watching them advance, lay siege, destroy, repeat, he then saw them swing north from Lachish to conquer Mareshah, knowing full well that the Assyrians had turned toward Jerusalem and that his hometown was almost directly on the way.
I wondered at what point Micah fled, or if he did. Did he make a stand with his townsmen? Was he killed when Sennacherib’s forces torched his home? How far below my feet were the ruins of his time period? Did one of the higher layers contain ruins of a house that he built? So little is known about the man whose letter has been reprinted more times than I can count, yet that day atop Tel Moresheth-Gath, as Seth read, Micah’s words and warnings gained a newfound vividness in my mind.