Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Book of the Twelve

Posted by foryourfaith on January 13, 2010


The term “Minor Prophets” has been used in Christian churches at least since the days of St. Augustine (354 – 430 AD).  The term is not concerned with the relative importance of the prophets but with the size of the books attributed to them.  It distinguishes between the shorter prophetic books and the longer (major) prophetic books contained in the Bible.  An earlier title for the same collection is The Book of the Twelve.  The twelve books are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

The destruction resulting from a plague of locusts is the basis for the first part of the Book of Joel.  A land that, before the locusts come, is luxuriant “like the garden of Eden” becomes “a desolate wilderness.”  Joel, whose work is usually dated 400 – 350 BC, relates this locust plague to the coming of the day of judgment.  The locusts become a divinely sent army whose mission is to destroy a nation that has turned away from God.  Joel calls upon the people to repent:  “rend your hearts and not your garments.  Return to the Lord . . . “ for those who worship the Lord will be delivered.

In the Book of Obadiah, the day of the Lord is the day of God’s retribution against the enemies of Israel.  Singled out for special attention is the kingdom of Edom, which had “rejoiced over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin.”  Such behavior was particularly abominable because the kingdom of Edom was related to the kingdom of Judah through descent.

Micah prophesied during the time when the mighty armies of the Assyrian Empire wiped out the Kingdom of Israel and threatened the existence of Judah.  This threat lies behind Micah’s proclamation of the destruction of Judah as punishment for apostasy and corruption.  Micah attacks the wealthy, who have increased their wealth at others’ expense, and condemns those prophets who insist that all is well, saying what those who pay them want to hear.

The Book of Micah also contains words of promise and hope.  Zion, it says, will be the center of worship for all nations, and all war will halt.  Over this Zion will reign one who will come forth from Bethlehem, who will establish the security of Israel.  The Gospel according to Matthew understands this oracle to refer to the birth of Jesus.

In the last decades of the seventh century BC, Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, fell to the combined forces of the Medes and the Babylonians.  In the Book of Nahum this event is celebrated as the Lord’s judgment over the oppressive forces “who plotted evil against the Lord.”  In vivid poetry the prophet portrays the downfall of the center of the once proud empire.

The fall of Assyria meant the rise of Babylon, and once again Judah faced the threat of an expanding imperial power.  This was the situation when Habakkuk came on the scene.  He saw the danger posed to his land by the Babylonians (Chaldeans in the Book of Habakkuk), and he questioned why god permitted wickedness and oppression to swallow up the righteous.  The answer God gives Habakkuk is:  “he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”  According to a rabbinic tradition, this statement sets forth the principle underlying all the Law of Moses, while in the New Testament, Paul uses it as a scriptural foundation for his concept of justification by faith.

A few decades before Habakkuk, Zephaniah condemned the idolatry and corruption of Judah and warned that “The great day of the Lord is near.”  In words that became the inspiration for the medieval hymn Dies Irae, he described God’s “day of wrath,” when “a full, yea, sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.”  However, those who seek righteousness may be spared.

Under the Persians, the Jews returned to their homeland and began to rebuild their Temple.  But conflicts within the community prevented the restoration.  Concerned about the neglect of the Temple, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah attempted to stir up the people.  Haggai attacked the people’s self-concern, arguing that their failure to rebuild the Temple was itself the reason for their present wretched state.  Zechariah promised that god would strengthen Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, that he might bring the rebuilding to a successful conclusion.  The people apparently found the words of the two inspiring, for work on the Temple was resumed, and in 515 BC the Second Temple was completed.

Much of the material from Zechariah is presented as extended reports of what Zechariah “saw in the night.”  In eight reports of visions, the prophet first describes what he had seen – such things as divine horsemen patrolling the earth, or chariots emerging from between two mountains of bronze; he then tells how an angelic interpreter explained to him the significance of what he had seen.  The report of such visions is more characteristic of what is referred to as apocalyptic literature (as represented by the books of Daniel and Revelation) than it is of older prophetic literature.  Zechariah seems to be a transitional figure between classical and apocalyptic prophecy.

In the Book of Zechariah, only the first eight chapters originate in the work of the prophet.  Zechariah 9-11 and 12-14 are the first two of three collections of anonymous oracles that conclude the Minor Prophets.

The third collection of anonymous oracles is what we know as the Book of Malachi.  The name of the book is taken from Malachi 3:1 (“Behold, I send my messenger” [Hebrew:  malachi]).  Malachi attacks the manner in which priests and people have corrupted the Lord’s teachings.

The Book of the Twelve ends with the promise that “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” God will send Elijah the prophet, who will so prepare the community that the Lord’s coming will not bring a curse.  Thus, the Minor Prophets contain both threats against a sinful people and a hope for salvation.


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