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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Twelve Minor Prophets

John J. Collins

The Book of the Twelve is a collection of prophetic oracles that were composed over a period of about 300 years. The number twelve is probably chosen because of the twelve tribes of Israel. At least in some cases the books are artificial—for example, it is quite clear that Zechariah 9–14 do not come from the same prophet as Zechariah 1–8 . While we will review the books in their canonical order, it may be helpful at the outset to group them according to their origin.

  • 1. Three prophets, Amos, Hosea, and Micah, were active in the eighth century BC, and were contemporary with the earlier part of Isaiah's career. Hosea was a northern prophet and Micah a southern, while Amos was a native of the Southern Kingdom who prophesied in the north. (On the two kingdoms, see the historical sketch, RG 45–50 .)

  • 2. Another cluster of three prophets can be dated in the Babylonian period, toward the end of the seventh century BC. Zephaniah is dated to the time of King Josiah (640–609 BC), Nahum proclaimed the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC, and Habakkuk prophesied when the Babylonians were already advancing westward (605–597 BC).

  • 3. Two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah are known to have been active in the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple in 520–518 BC. Again, only chapters 1 through 8 of the book of Zechariah can be attributed to this prophet.

  • 4. The remaining four books, Joel, Jonah, Obadiah, and Malachi, and the latter part of Zechariah, come from the postexilic period, but their dates cannot be determined precisely. Malachi may be roughly contemporary with Ezra in the fifth century BC. The book of Jonah and the second part of Zechariah could be as early as the fifth century or as late as the Hellenistic period (after 330 BC).

Most of these books are made up of short poetic oracles. (The book of Jonah, which is a short story, is an exception.) The nature of prophecy is that it addresses specific situations, and so it is important to know something of the time and place of the different prophets, when this is possible. At the same time, these oracles were preserved because they had enduring relevance and could be applied to new situations by analogy. All of this material was handed down orally for some time before it was put in written form. Consequently, there is often reason to doubt whether a particular prophecy was actually uttered by the prophet to whom it is ascribed. So, for example, Micah 4, 1–3 contains a passage that is also found in Isaiah 2, 1–4 . We cannot now be sure which, if either, of these prophets originally spoke these lines. Moreover, these books were edited in the postexilic period, and the editors also added some passages. While it is always helpful to know the situation in which an oracle was originally given, it is not possible to be sure of the original setting of each passage.

As we might expect, there is considerable diversity in this collection, but there are also some dominant themes:

  • 1. Most of these prophets focus their attention on the sins of their own people. There are exceptions. The oracles of Obadiah and Nahum consist entirely of condemnations of foreign nations. Haggai and Zechariah, in the period immediately after the Babylonian exile, are exceptionally supportive of their leaders and institutions. Nonetheless, most of these prophets were characterized by their critical spirit.

  • 2. The sins they denounced were both social and cultic. The social agenda of prophecy was set by the great eighth‐century BC prophets, especially Amos and Micah, but concern for the weak and unprotected persists throughout the corpus, down to the oracles of Malachi. Hosea engages in extensive polemic against the worship of gods other than the Lord, and this con‐ cern reappears from time to time in the other prophets. The prophets were even more concerned, however, with abuses in the worship of the Lord, even when there were no pagan elements involved. Amos and Micah denounced the cult of their day because it made the people complacent and distracted them from the injustice of their society. At the end of the collection, we still find Malachi criticizing the priests for failing to live up to the ideals of their office. People who performed the prescribed rituals were not necessarily pleasing to God for that reason. The prophetic critiques do not mean that ritual is not important. On the contrary, it is precisely because it is vitally important to the religious life of a community that they devote so much attention to it.

  • 3. It is common in biblical theology to say that God acts in history. The prophets say more than this: they teach that whatever actually happens is the work of God. So they understood the great calamities, which befell the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BC and the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 587/6 BC, as acts of divine judgment. Indeed these catastrophes added to the authority of the prophets, since they were seen as the fulfillment of their oracles. The constant reference to historical events ensures an element of realism in the preaching of the prophets. They are not only concerned with moral ideals, but also with what works in practice.

  • 4. The theme of judgment undergoes some development in the later prophets. This can be seen by following the motif of the Day of the Lord. This motif first appears in Amos. In the context it seems clear that the Israelites expected the Day of the Lord to vindicate them against their immediate enemies. For Amos, however, the Day of the Lord would be the occasion of judgment on Israel. In the postexilic period, Joel anticipates a day of judgment for all nations in the valley of Jehoshaphat. In Zechariah 14 it is the day when all the nations assemble for battle against Jerusalem, to be defeated by the Lord. The Book of the Twelve ends with a forward look to “the day of the Lord, the great and terrible day.” Increasingly, it is a day of definitive universal judgment.

  • 5. The theme of the salvation of Israel is also more prominent in the postexilic period. Already in the eighth century BC, Hosea looked beyond the impending destruction by the Assyrians and spoke of a new beginning like the Exodus of old. After the exile it made little sense to speak of further destruction of Israel. Very often the prophets imagine a situation that is different from the present. When Jerusalem was in ruins, or restored in only modest circumstances, they revived the dream of Zion, the holy mountain, and divine abode (so Joel, Zephaniah, and a postexilic passage in Micah 4 ). Similarly, the hope for a restored Davidic monarchy is at home in the period after the exile (Mi 5; Zec 9 ). The phrase “on that day” frequently introduces prophecies of the great transformation that is to come (for example, Zec 14, ). It is likely that at least some of these oracles were inserted by those who put this collection together, gathering and arranging the scattered materials. These editors wanted to insure that the recollection of the past did not outweigh the hope for the future. The tendency of the editors to put the words of judgment in perspective is most strikingly evident at the end of the book of Amos. After the prophet's threat that God would wipe Israel off the face of the earth, the editor adds, “but I will not destroy the house of Jacob completely” ( 9, 8 ) and goes on to prophesy the restoration of the Davidic dynasty.

Taken as a whole, the Book of the Twelve is both a reflection on the past and a lesson for the future. The order of the oracles is not easily apparent, and this makes reading through the collection difficult. They are certainly not arranged in chronological order, and even the thematic order is only occasional. We can, however, find a pattern, in which sin is followed by judgment and judgment by salvation. Not all the individual prophets saw this full pattern. Some, like Amos, simply announced the imminent judgment. Others, like Haggai and Zechariah, focused on the moment of restoration. The editors of the prophetic books were heavily influenced by the theology of Deuteronomy. According to that theology, sin does not go unpunished, but God is ultimately merciful and wants only the repentance and restoration of Israel. The collected prophets, then, can be read as a call for repentance, to be sustained until the final Day of the Lord. The first book in the collection, Hosea, ends with the invitation, “Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God” (Hos 14, 2 ). The final book, Malachi, ends with a reminder to keep the law of Moses, and a promise that Elijah will come to reconcile parents and children. In this way, the lesson of the prophets is tied in nicely with that of the Pentateuch.

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