Friday, October 27, 2017

Bible in a Year: The Twelve Minor Prophets (Trei Asar)

Michelangelo's Zechariah
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

Here are some thoughts, which I wrote four years ago, about the Twelve Minor Prophets.

The “minor prophets” of the Bible are “minor” in the sense that they’re short, compared to the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In the Jewish Bible (Tanakh), they are one book, Trei Asar or the Twelve, and as such, the Twelve are the last book of the Neviim, or prophets, which in turn is the middle section of the Tanakh. (See this site.) According to the Talmud (Gemara Bava Basra 14b), the books were sufficiently short that the scrolls might have been lost, so they were preserved together on a single scroll. (See also this site for that information and much else about these prophets.)

In the Christian Old Testament, these prophets are separated into twelve separate books and are the last books of the testament. That’s how many of us are accustomed to reading them, if we do indeed study them.

Altogether, the Twelve have 67 chapters, which is only one chapter longer than Isaiah. Like the major prophets, the Twelve are concerned with the events of the Israelite kingdoms following the division (after Solomon’s death) into the northern kingdom Israel and the southern kingdom Judah. Israel is conquered by the Assyrians in 722-721 BCE, and Judah is conquered by the Babylonians in 587-586 BCE, who also destroy Jerusalem and take the people into exile. After the Persians conquer the Babylonians, many of the people are able to return to the land and rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple (as recounted in Ezra and Nehemiah).

Any of the prophetic books can be tough reading. Our Sunday school class in Akron, OH tackled Hosea for a while. Then we got depressed at all the difficult and discouraging prophetic pronouncements so we switched to something more cheery: Lenten scriptures! Any of the prophetic books demand a good commentary or study book to help you know what's going on. On the other hand, once you dig into the material, you appreciate their beauty and witness. One Jewish website ( has these words: "The voices of the Trei Asar, taken as a group, were like a great symphony, of dramatic and powerful movements. Or, using a visual metaphor, they were like a rainbow; a most appropriate metaphor, because their prophecies encompassed all the colors of the rainbow, from darkest to lightest, from the most somber to the most serene."

A few years ago I purchased the Berit Olam set of Old Testament commentaries published by Liturgical Press. I decided to start leafing through the two volumes (published in 2000 and 2001) on the Twelve, both by Marvin Sweeney, who teaches Hebrew Bible and the History of Judaism at Claremont. I was interested in learning about the themes and concerns of the Twelve, if we were to study them together as one long book. How do they interrelate, written as they were by a dozen prophets over a 300 year span? I took the following notes from Sweeney's interesting texts.

Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Bibles order the twelve minor prophets following the order of the Hebrew text of the Tanakh (that is, the Masoretic text): Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Many Orthodox Bibles, following the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Tanakh, or LXX), have a different order of the first six of the twelve: Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah. The reason for the different ordering is not clear. As Sweeney notes, the LXX has the benefit of common themes: Hosea, Amos, and Micah concern the norothern kingdom of Israel, especially as an example for the southern kingdom of Judah, while Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, and Habakkuk concern the foreign threat to Judah and Jerusalem, and lastly, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi speak to the restoration of Jerusalem. Also, Joel---which is difficult to place historically---becomes, in the LXX order, a general statement of God’s restoration that provides a segue point between the first three (northern) prophets and the rest of the prophets, with their themes of Judah and Jerusalem (p. 148).

To say more about the themes of the books: Hosea portrays the crisis of Israel as an example for Judah, then Joel provides a framework of punishment and restoration for Jerusalem on “the day of the Lord.” Joel also cites Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, and Zephaniah, thus providing a continuity among the books that follow. With that framework and connection in mind, we move to Amos, wherein the punishment of the northern kingdom Israel is the opportunity to restore the monarchy of David. Then Obadiah preaches against Edom (the kingdom south of the Dead Sea) for threatening Jerusalem. Jonah depicts God’s mercy for Assyria. Micah also portrays the fall of the north as a framework for Jerusalem’s fall and restoration. Then Nahum condemns Assyria for its actions against Jerusalem. Habakkuk similarly condemns Babylon. Then Zephaniah preaches about the purification of Jerusalem; Zephaniah addresses the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple; Haggai preaches about the restoration of Jerusalem; Zechariah is concerned with that process of restoration, and then Malachi is concerned with the city’s final purification (pp. 148-149).

Hosea. Hosea reflects the 8th century rise of Assyria and the text depicts conflicts with the Assyrians (pp. 3-4). Sweeney writes that although Hosea is by Rabbinic tradition called the oldest of the twelve, Amos mentions Jeroboam and Uzziah and Hosea mentions the chronologically later Ahaz and Hezekiah (p. 3). Also Amos writes during the rise of Assyria before it had definitely threatened the northern kingdom. But still, he writes, “Hosea seems to be particularly well suited for its position at the head of the Twelve on thematic grounds. It employs the metaphor of Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and the bird of their children as a metaphor for YHWH’s relationship with Israel” (p. 3). That is, as Gomer is divorced because of harlotry, so the Lord condemns Israel for abandoning its covenant with God---Israel’s figurative “adultery.” But Hosea takes his wife back, and the Lord also restores Israel following punishment from gentile nations. Sweeney notes that the Lord’s disdain for divorce in Malachi connects back to Hosea (p. 3).

(Here is another blog post that I wrote about the travel motif in Hosea.)

A late 1st cen. BCE or early 1st Cen CE fragment
of the Septuagint minor prophets,
from wikipedia
Joel. The book has no definite references to its historical circumstance, and the threatened “Day of the Lord” seem to refer to natural calamities. But, “[w]ithin the MT version of the Book of the Twelve, Joel presents the paradigm for Jerusalem’s punishment and restoration as a fundamental question to be addressed within the Twelve as a whole” (p. 149). In my old Bible, I jotted a note from a seminary class, "transitional between classical prophecy and apocalyptic."

Joel is profoundly important for Christianity in his prophecy of the Spirit poured out upon all (2:28-29). In context, the recipient of the gift is probably Judah, but the early church claimed it as a Pentecost passage.

Here is another blog post, where I develop more deeply into Joel 3:10 and issues of war and peace.

Amos. The theme of locusts connects Amos and the previous book Joel (Joel 1-2, Amos 7:1-3), as does the theme of the restoration of fertility and agricultural prosperity (Joel 3:18, Amos 9:11-15). Amos also connects to the subsequent book, Obadiah, in the need for Edom to be pushed (Amos 1:11-13, 9:12). Furthermore, Joel, Amos, and Obadiah are connected because of the theme of the day of the Lord (Joel 1:15, Amos 5:18-20, Obadiah 15). In the LXX order of the books, Amos connects with Hosea in identifying the Beth El sancturary as a specific problem of God’s anger depicted in Hosea, and then Amos connects to Micah in their mutual depiction of God’s punishment and restoration (p. 191). Also, Hosea, Amos, and Micah are all the 8th century prophets among the Twelve (pp. 191-192).

Of course, I HAVE to quote Amos 5:23-24, a reminder to us each day:

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Obadiah. This short book has in common with Amos the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, as well as the theme of the day of the Lord (p. 279).

Jonah. This book depicts God’s mercy toward Nineveh of Assyria, thus connecting to the mercy God shows in restoring Israel and Judah as depicted in the next book, Micah. Jonah balances Obadiah’s prophecies against Edom, but it also contracts with the book after Micah, Nahum, which shows the punishment of God toward the ultimately unrepentant Assyrians (p. 305). Jonah also addresses the question of God’s mercy and trustworthiness following the Babylonia exile, for the themes of creation and the Exodus are brought in, functioning to tie together earlier scriptures about God’s power and faithfulness (pp. 306-307).

Micah. The restoration of Zion amid the nations is a major theme of Micah (chapters 4-5). As the sixth book in the Masoretic order of the Twelve (the order most of us are used to), Micah bridges God’s judgment and mercy to the nations in Obadiah and Jonah, with themes of the next three books: the fall of Ninevah, the Babylonian threat, and God’s call to his people to repentance.  As the third book in the Septuagint, Micah’s perspective of the punishment of the northern kingdom Israel has ramifications for the experience of Jerusalem and Judah as well as the nations, including Micah’s vision of Zion as the center of God’s world peace (p 339). “Overall, the book of Micah is esigne to address the future of Jerusalem or Israel in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile,” even though Micah himself was 8th century (p. 342).

And... I have to quote Micah 6:8:

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?

Nahum. Concerned in part with the divine judgment against Nineveh, the book follows Jonah, indicating that the repentance of Nineveh was temporary. But the book is also the beginning of the long process of God’s judgment against the nations, as well as against Judah and Jerusalem, which are the subjects of the subsequent five books (p. 420).

Habakkuk (spelled Habaccuc in many Roman Catholic Bibles). Like Nahum, Habakkuk affirms the Lord’s control of world events, and the Lord’s use of the nations in the divine purposes. The two books contrast in affirming the fall of Assyria (Nahum) and looking forward to the fall of Babylon (Habakkuk) (p. 453). “This prepares for Zephaniah, which calls upon the people to make their decision to observe YHWH’s requirements or suffer punishment if they refuse to do so (p. 454). Similar to the author of Lamentations, Habakkuk asks the hard question of the triumph of evil nations; but God answers Habakkuk with assurance of their punishment.

Among prophetic passages important in later New Testament theology, this one in Habakkuk is crucially important in Paul's letter to the Romans:

Look at the proud!
   Their spirit is not right in them,
   but the righteous live by their faith (2:4)

Zephaniah. Zephaniah links with Habakkuk in the prophecies about Babylon (the agent of Judah’s fall) and with subsequent Haggai, who looks to the rebuilt Temple and the hoped-for restoration of the Davidic monarchy (p. 493). But the beginning of Zephaniah locates the prophets career during Josiah’s reign, thus connecting with the pre-exilic reforms of that righteous king. The call for repentance and purity of Josiah’s reforms have a new urgency in the post-exilic times (pp. 493-494).

Haggai, Zechariah. Both are prophets who appear in the Bible book of Ezra. Haggai’s concern with the Temple and the restoration connect with Zephaniah’s themes and with the next book, Zechariah, who affirms the Temple and restoration but also looks beyond the Temple to God’s cosmic purposes (pp. 529, 561).

A verse in Zechariah becomes important in the Christian interpretation of Jesus:

       And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn (12:10).

Malachi. The last book of the Twelve calls the people to “to take the action that is necessary for Jerusalem and the Temple to fill” the role depicted in the previous books: Israel and the Temple as “the holy center” of God’s peace for the nations and the cosmos. As Sweeney noted elsewhere (in my notes above), the Lord’s disdain of divorce circles us back to the divorce and return of Gomer and Hosea in the first book of the Twelve (p. 713). With his interesting question and answer format, Malachi poses the same question as Habakkuk. He also provides us with the unique detail that Elijah will appear before the day of the Lord.


Thinking of "The Twelve" as a long biblical book, we have history of God's people from the 8th to the 5th centuries, but we also have a beautiful vision of God's peace for the world, centered at Jerusalem. We also have a vision of God's universal purposes. Many Christians, of course, interpret some of these texts as referring to Christ and his kingdom, and we understand more about Christ and his person and work by appreciating his place and context within God's purposes with Israel. We also find among the Twelve, classic Bible passages that always inspire and call us, like Micah 6:8, Habakkuk 2:4, Amos 5:24, and others.


The Tanakh ends with books that, in the Christian Old Testament, are positioned earlier: Ezra-Nehemiah, which provides history of the return from exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple; and 1 and 2 Chronicles, which recapitulate Israelite history and emphasizes the Jewish worship and temple. In this way, the Tanakh opens to the future of Jewish life and worship. The Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi and the prophecy of Elijah’s arrival prior to the Messiah. And so, moving from Old to New, we proceed immediately to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, which connects Jesus to Hebrew history.

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