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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Malachi

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( 1:1 )

The heading: cf. Zech 12:1 . Both headings are the work of a later editor or editors, which is why some commentators hold that the name Malachi is taken from Mal 3:1 .

( 1:2–5 ) First Disputation

The charge that God has not loved his people is answered in two ways. First, appeal is made to the story of Jacob and Esau in which Jacob, the ancestor of the Israelites, outwits his elder brother Esau (Edom, cf. Gen 25:19–34 ). Second, an apparent recent disaster that has befallen Edom is cited as evidence for God's control of human affairs, backed by the promise that, if Edom rebuilds its ruins, God will destroy them. Scholars who date Malachi early in the fifth century see a reference to Babylonian campaigns against southern Jordan (which had been occupied by Edomites) after 552 BCE (see Bartlett 1992 ) but this is too distant from the early fifth century to be convincing. The uncomfortable saying that God hates Esau is softened by some commentators to mean simply that God loves Esau/Edom less than Jacob/Israel—an interpretation hardly supported by v. 4 . Yet as the oracles continue it becomes clear that if God indeed has a special love for Israel it will not spare the people from forthcoming judgement (cf. 3:5 ).

( 1:6–2:10 ) Second Disputation

The implications of God's special love for Israel are now worked out in a powerful condemnation of the priests. They are charged with dishonouring God by offering polluted food (Hebrew leḥem, a general term for offerings including animal sacrifices) on the altar. This surprises them. The answer to the question ‘How’? (v. 6 ) in vv. 7–8 is not easy to understand. They are accused of saying (NRSV ‘thinking’) that the altar may be despised; but presumably this ‘saying’ is not speech but actions, as they allow blind or sick animals to be sacrificed. Against NRSV, ‘is not that wrong?’ in v. 8 (twice) should be translated ‘it is not wrong’. Either the priests give this advice to ordinary worshippers, some of whom may be unable to offer healthy animals, or the priests deliberately procure for the temple service animals that do not conform to the rules (cf. Lev 22:22–4 ). Whatever the motivation, such an attitude values God less highly than the (probably foreign) governor (v.8). If the priests cannot honour God properly, how can they mediate between God and the people (v.9)? It would be better to have no offerings than dishonourable ones (v. 10 ).

At this point a later addition to the text (vv. 11–14 ) seeks to clarify the situation. The main criticism is now directed towards the ordinary people who bring stolen as well as sick animals as offerings, when they have healthy animals (reading zākeh ‘clean’ for zākār ‘male’, v. 14 ) available. But the criticism is preceded by the noble statement (v. 11 ) that God's name is great among the nations and that incense and pure offerings are (or will be) made to him ‘in every place’. Most commentators deny that this envisages the worship of the God of Israel by all the nations, and see a reference to the worship of Jews in the Diaspora, or to the worship of the God of heaven in the Persian empire (cf. Ezra 6:9 ). However, as Rudolf (1976 ) points out, the idea that foreign nations recognize the God of Israel is not unknown in the OT (cf. Jonah). The seemingly obvious sense of the verse should not be dismissed too hastily, and it becomes a corrective to the exclusivist tendency of Mal 1:2–5 .

vv. 2:1 and 3–9 (v. 2 is secondary) continue the original dispute from 1:10 , and contain a rebuke to the priests. v. 3 implies that the priests and their descendants will be removed from office and Levi, the ancestor of the tribe from which all priests come, is held up as the true example of the mediator of a covenant between God and his people. Commentators are divided over whether the background to these verses is Deut. 33:9 or Num 25:10–13 (see Glazier-McDonald 1987 ). What is at issue is whether or not Malachi is aware of the distinction between priests and Levites, the point being that the book would be early fifth century if it could be shown that, with Deuteronomy, Malachi knows no such difference. In fact, 2:4–9 emphasizes the teaching and not the sacrificial role of Levi. Does the prophet envisage the suspension of the sacrificial cult until the coming of his messenger ( 3:1 )?

( 2:10–16 ) Third Disputation

Attention shifts from the priests to Judah and Jerusalem as a whole (Israel in v. 11 is a later gloss). The accusation is that the people have not lived out the implications of having one God and father, in two ways. First they have profaned the covenant and the temple by worshipping a goddess (NRSV ‘daughter of a foreign god’). Most commentators take v. 11 to refer to marriages with foreign wives, but this is not obvious from the text nor from the continuation in vv. 13–16 . The reference may be to a female consort for YHWH. Although the idolatry interpretation is not free of difficulties—it implies that Judah is a bridegroom and that therefore God is the rejected bride—it makes best sense of vv. 10–12 . The words ‘any to witness or answer’ (v. 12 ) have yet to be convincingly translated or explained.

The second charge is that men have been too ready to divorce the wives that they first married (i.e. wives who are now old), that this violates the notion that man and wife are one flesh (v. 15, cf. Gen 2:24 ) and undermines the loyalty to the covenant expected by God from his people. The text of vv. 13–16 contains many difficulties. ‘I hate divorce’ (v. 16 in NRSV and many modern trs.) is a correction of the Hebrew ‘he hates’ without any support from the ancient versions, and cannot be correct. In fact, the ancient versions took the words to mean that God approved the divorcing of wives who were hated! The Babylonian Talmud (b. Giṭṭin 90b) rightly understands the logic of the passage (if not its Heb.) by arguing that it means that God hates the man who divorces his first wife. The Hebrew is best repointed and rendered ‘if one hated [his wife and] divorced [her]…he covers his garment with violence’ (cf. Redditt 1995 ).

( 2:17–3:5 ) Fourth Disputation

The complaint that evildoers prosper materially in a world in which, according to covenant ideas, they ought to suffer misfortune, is common in the OT (cf. Deut 28:15–44 and Ps 73 ). Here, it gives rise to the charge that the complainants have wearied God, and occasions the promise that God is about to act decisively. His messenger will prepare for God's coming, which will result in judgement against the evildoers (v. 5 ). Two later expansions of the text blur the focus of the passage, while indicating that the promise was taken seriously by the users of Malachi. The second expansion (v. 3 from ‘and he will purify’ to v. 4 ) concentrates the divine coming upon a purification of the temple cult, and in connection with v. 5 implies that a reform of the temple will have to precede the divine judgement of social abuses. The first expansion (v. 1 from ‘The messenger of the covenant’) is an attempt to clarify who is meant by the Lord (Hebrew ᾽ādôn). Although certainty is impossible here, it is likely that the original oracle envisages the imminent coming of God, while the expansion implies that the Lord will be a heavenly being (cf. the angel of God in the Exodus narratives, Ex 14:19–23:20 , the Hebrew mal᾽āk meaning both ‘messenger’ and ‘angel’). This introduces us to the central problem in Malachi that is taken up again in ch. 4 . The book in its first main draft and in its final form urges faithfulness to God upon a society in which there were social abuses, indifferent worship, and even idolatry, and in which a speedy divine intervention had not materialized. How those who advocated faithfulness to God coped with the situation is indicated in the remainder of the book.

( 3:6–12 ) Fifth Disputation

A new strategy is brought into play. In direct address by God it is implied that the people's misfortunes are due not to God's indifference but to Israel's failure to observe God's laws. It is because God does not change that the children of Jacob (the name is a pun on a root that can also mean ‘trickster’ or ‘crooked’) still survive despite their waywardness. The people are challenged to show that they have returned to God by fulfilling their obligations to render tithes to the temple. They are invited, indeed, to put God to the test (v. 10 ), who promises that he will then bless their agricultural labours (vv. 10–11 ). This is a positive attitude to the temple compared with 1:7–2:3 , but not necessarily at variance with it. Tithes could be used for social purposes (Deut 14:28–9 ) and if the people who had something were, through the tithe, to provide for the socially oppressed (v. 5 ), this would show practical commitment to the implications of being the children of one creator father ( 2:10 ).

( 3:13–4:3 ) Sixth Disputation

The complaint first heard at 2:17 , that God is indifferent to justice, is taken up again and expressed even more forcefully. Not only do the evildoers prosper; those who try to keep God's commandments see no benefit. The day belongs to those who treat the things of God with dismissive arrogance. It would be wrong to suppose that the complainants are interested in religion merely for what they can get out of it. We have here rather the anguished cry of those who want to live in a world where goodness and not evil is paramount. The second-person dialogue between God and the people is broken at 3:16–17 by a prose passage in the third person. While switches from second to third person and back are not necessarily signs that verses have been interpolated, the logic of the passage becomes clear if it is assumed that v. 18 originally followed v. 15 . The God-fearers are assured that they will see a difference between themselves and the wicked. The occasion will be the coming day of the Lord ( 4:1 ) that will destroy the evildoers and bring healing and life to the faithful ( 4:2 ).

The fact that this may have not been entirely reassuring brings us to the expansion in vv. 16–17 , which has the effect of bringing the hope of future vindication into the present. The opening word ‘then’ makes no logical sense in its context, and has been emended to ‘thus’ (i.e. in this way) but this is unnecessary if v. 16 is regarded as an expansion. The faithful are reassured that even now their names are being recorded in a book (cf. Esth 6:1–3 ) and that they are a special possession. Thus, their words of complaint do not occasion God's anger, but his mercy.

( 4:4–6 ) Closing Words

The last three verses are a later conclusion to Malachi and the Book of the Twelve. The reference to the coming of Elijah both amplifies 3:1 , which expects a forerunner to precede the day of the Lord, and subverts 3:16–4:3 , which envisages an imminent day of judgement which will spare those whose names have been written in the book of remembrance. The reference to Moses (v. 4 ) echoes Deut 34:5 , where Moses is called the Lord's servant. Tradition dislikes anonymity, which is why the anonymous ‘messenger’ of 3:1 has become the named Elijah here. Elijah has been chosen because of the tradition that he did not die but was taken up to heaven (2 Kings 2:11 ). On the other hand, the designation ‘messenger of the covenant’ and the picture of him coming to the Jerusalem temple ( 3:1 ) hardly fits the Elijah of 1 and 2 Kings.

In the HB Malachi concludes the Law and the Prophets, which is why the references to Moses and Elijah in 4:4–6 are apposite. In the Christian Bible Malachi ends the Old Testament, and the reference to the coming of Elijah is taken up in the story of the Elijah-like figure of John the Baptist.

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