8th-Century Prophets, Michel Foucault, and Power
In Moyer’s classes, we’re still reading the 8th-century prophets in the Hebrew Bible. I stumbled across these verses in Micah, and it reminded me of something I read for another paper I’m writing this semester:
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?
The voice of the Lord cries to the city
(it is sound wisdom to fear your name):
Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city!
Can I forget the treasures of
wickedness in the house of the wicked,
and the scant measure that is accursed?
Can I tolerate the wicked scales
and a bag of dishonest weights?
Your wealthy are full of violence;
your inhabitants speak lies,
with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
Micah is railing against the social injustice of the wealthy and those who cheat one another. Dishonesty runs rampant in Israel, leaving broken victims left in its wake. These prophets come onto the scene after the kingdom splits, when parties and factions are vying for the power that has become associated with Israel’s relatively insignificant and short-lived monarchy. These prophets come predicting exile, “[a] word for what happens when you still have the power and the wealth and the influence, and yet in some profound way you’ve blown it because you’ve forgotten why you were given it in the first place.” Israel has forgotten who they were; they don’t remember Yahweh’s deliverance from Egypt (Micah 6:4) or the oppression they endured as slaves and strangers (Dt. 10:18–19). They have obsessed themselves with power. At this point, I hear the words of Michel Foucault ringing in my head:
in a society such as ours, but basically in any society, there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterize and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse.
Discourse, Foucault suggests, serves as the foundation of power relations that create “truths” capable of ordering society. The power described in the prophets is the oppressive relationship of those merchants who hold the scales to distort the truth, to create new truths based on their influence over their customers. It is the deceitful “violence” of the wealthy. Essentially, the prophets and Foucault are concerned with the same issues of power:
In many instances I have been led to address the question of power only to the extent that the political analysis of power which was offered did not seem to me to account for the finer, more detailed phenomena I wish to evoke when I pose the question of telling the truth about oneself.
Michel Foucault and the prophet Micah are raising questions about the nature of power in society and each individual’s involvement in power discourses. How do I participate in this discourse of power relations? Who do I think that I am? The powerful? Or the one affected by power? For Foucault, power is only truly power-ful when there is the “possibility of resistance.” The masses are not controlled by power unless they give those who crave control the ability to master them. In fact, Foucault says that “power has always been impotent.” For Micah and the other 8th-century prophets, the desire for power and dominance is the myth that has undone the identity of the people of God. In striving for control, the people have violated their covenant with the God who controls everything. The ones who will remain, those with true power, both Micah and Foucault say, will be those who are often considered “powerless”:
In that day, says the Lord,
I will assemble the lame
and gather those who have been driven away,
and those whom I have afflicted.
The lame I will make the remnant,
and those who were cast off, a strong nation;
and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion
now and forevermore.