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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 Priesthood ( 1, 6–2, 9 )

The Priesthood ( 1, 6–2, 9 )

Malachi stands in a long line of prophets, beginning with Amos, who were critical of the priesthood. In this case, the charge is that the priests have been offering cheap sacrifices, disposing of sick and lame animals instead of offering the best ones. The logic of Malachi's argument deserves notice. No one would offer a sick animal to the governor, yet the priests make such offerings to God. An offering has symbolic significance and reflects the attitude of the one who brings it. Malachi is not opposed to the priesthood as such. Far from it. He speaks of a covenant with Levi ( 2, 4 ), which is never mentioned in the Pentateuch or historical books. (Levi is, however, set apart for a special role in Dt 10, 8f and 33, 9f .) He has the greatest respect for the ideal of the priesthood. Because so much is expected of the priests they are all the more guilty.

The most striking statement in this passage, however, is the declaration that “from the rising of the sun, even to its setting, my name is great among the nations” ( 1, 11 ). The Gentile nations certainly did not worship the Lord explicitly, so it is not certain what the prophet had in mind. One theory holds that the reference is to the Jewish Diaspora, the scattering of Jewish exiles among the nations, but Jews were not supposed to offer sacrifices outside of Jerusalem, although they sometimes did. Two considerations may throw light on this problem. First, the Persian kings were generous in providing funds for the support of the Jewish Temple, and Malachi may have recognized this support as an offering to the Lord. Second, in the official correspondence in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Lord is called the God of heaven (for example, Ezr 6, 10 ). The high god of the Persians, and other sovereign deities could also be acknowledged as “the God of Heaven,” and so the Gentiles could be understood to worship the same God as the Jews. This view of pagan religion would be decidedly broad‐minded and liberal.

Breaches of Faith

The most controversial passage in the book of Malachi is found in the third oracle, 2, 10–16 . The prophet begins with the rhetorical question: “Have we not all the one Father?” He goes on to denounce two breaches of faith. First, Judah “has married an idolatrous woman” (literally, “the daughter of a foreign god,” 2, 11 ). The second problem is the divorce of “the wife of your youth,” ( 2, 14 ).

It is reasonable to assume that the background of this oracle is related to the situation described in Ezra 9 , where the leaders of the people inform Ezra that “neither the Israelite laymen nor the priests nor the Levites have kept themselves aloof from the peoples of the land … for they have taken some of their daughters as wives …” The usual explanation of the passage in Malachi is that Jewish men were divorcing the Jewish wives of their youth and marrying Gentile women, possibly for social reasons. Inevitably, they then became implicated in the cult of pagan deities. On this interpretation, the question, “have we not all one Father?” is addressed only to Jews and is not as universalistic as it initially seems.

This interpretation is certainly possible. There is no doubt that Malachi disapproved of mixed marriages. There is no other evidence, however, that Jews in the postexilic period divorced their Jewish wives. In fact, the only instance of divorce for which we have evidence is found in Ezra 10 , where the Jewish men who had taken foreign wives send them away at Ezra's command. Malachi's categorical statement, “for I hate divorce, says the LORD” ( 2, 16 ), is hard to reconcile with Ezra's policy. It is possible, then, that Malachi is quite universalistic, despite his disapproval of mixed marriages. Once a marriage had been entered into, it was sacred. The Jewish men should have taken care that their offspring were “godly” ( 2, 15 ) rather than try to undo the marriage. Conversion of the spouses, rather than divorce, was the solution. On this interpretation, the “one Father” is the creator of all, Jews and Gentiles. Ethnic distinctions do not matter if one is willing to recognize the one God. The “daughter of a foreign god” only becomes so by her choice of which God to worship. If this interpretation is correct, Malachi exhibits some of the spirit of Saint Paul in his openness to the Gentiles. He would have been in direct conflict with Ezra, had they been contemporaries. We know that there was some diversity of opinion in Judaism at this period. Ezekiel 44, 7 insisted that no “foreigners, uncircumcised both in heart and flesh” be admitted to the Temple. In contrast, an oracle preserved in Isaiah 56 shows a very open attitude to “the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,” and assures them of a place on the holy mountain. Malachi may be seen as part of this “liberal” tradition, which welcomed foreigners if they were willing to convert to Judaism.

The Day of the Lord

The final chapter of the book is dominated by the expectation that God will come in judgment. The image of the refiner's fire is embedded in our memory by Handel's Messiah. The idea of a day of destructive judgment is, of course, an adaptation of the traditional Day of the Lord. The most distinctive aspect of Malachi's use of the theme is the motif of the messenger who prepares the way. In the final appendix, this messenger is identified as Elijah the prophet. Since Elijah had not died but was taken up alive to heaven (2 Kgs 2, 11 ), there was speculation that he would return to complete his earthly course. In the New Testament, John the Baptist is cast in this role (Mt 11, 14; 17, 12f ). Elijah's task is to warn the people and give them a last chance at repentance. It is likely that the prophet we call Malachi saw himself as performing this task.

The final oracle of Malachi is also the conclusion of the prophetic corpus. The editors of the prophetic books specifically wanted the collection to reinforce the laws of the Pentateuch: “Remember the law of Moses…” ( 3, 22 ). They also underlined the theme of the coming judgment, which runs throughout the collection. The purpose of the collected prophetic books is not only to remind us of the past but especially to motivate us in the present by making us look to the future.

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