September 3, 2013 0

Episode 27 – Minor Prophets

By in Blog, Podcast

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book-toonThis is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. Today’s show is a landmark – this is our last podcast in the Hebrew Bible! And it’s going to be a doozy. We’re going to look at TWELVE whole scrolls today, the most material we’ve ever covered in a single show. These are the so-called “minor prophets,” not because they matter any less than the “major prophets,” but simply because their writings are shorter. These books are every bit as colorful and creative as anything else in the bible, and perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to cram them all into a single presentation. But I always like to cover more ground than less if possible, and at this point I think a bird’s eye overview will suit us best.

Each of these Hebrew scrolls has a unique historical and literary context, so we’ll take them one at a time. But let’s keep in mind some of the broad observations we’ve made about biblical prophets in the past: First, they aren’t “fortune tellers” so much as they are pundits, much more interested in the headlines of their own day than the religion of the future. They often use fiery language and creative play-acting to speak truth to the powers-that-be in Israel who – in the eyes of the prophets – are leading the nation down a deadly path. The survey we’re about to take will also reinforce our observation that prophets came from all sorts of backgrounds and lifestyles, often leaving a mundane job for a season to address some urgent crisis, then presumably going back to work (if they weren’t killed). Here, then, are the “minor prophets.”

First up is Hosea.

Hosea

And already I have premise problems… Hosea is actually a fairly substantial book. Our translation is broken into fourteen chapters, making it longer than some books to which we’ve devoted entire podcasts. But for our purposes the book can be summarized and contextualized rather simply. Just STOP CRITICIZING ME for TWO SECONDS!

After establishing that Hosea lived and prophesied in the eighth century BCE during the reigns of some familiar kings including Ahaz and Hezekiah, the text gets right to the rather lurid point. Verse 2:

2 …YHWH said to Hosea, “Go, get yourself a ‘wife of whoredom’ and have ‘children of whoredom,’ for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking YHWH.”

If you picked the bible up and turned to Hosea without any context or background, you would be perplexed and perhaps offended by a story in which a man is instructed by his god to marry a whore and have some whore babies just to make some kind of angry point. But just by having read other texts from the Hebrew Bible, we have at least some idea of what we’re looking at. We remember how the major prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel – indulged in outrageous acts of performance art, personally embodying their messages in creative outbursts designed to grab Israel’s attention. And we know from the Torah and elsewhere that “whoredom” – in this context rampant fornication and adultery – is a common metaphor for Israel’s idolatry, worshipping the “gods of the land” instead of YHWH.

Hosea operates in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and very much occupies the same political space as “First Isaiah” – the eighth century buildup to the Assyrian attack on Israel and Syria. He even employs tactics similar to Isaiah’s, giving his children descriptive names like “No Mercy” and “Not My People.” In chapter one Hosea marries Gomer, the aforementioned “wife of whoredom,” and apparently takes on a second partner in chapter three (though Christian interpretations squint hard to make it look like the same woman – wouldn’t want the prophet to do anything naughty in proving his point). After colorfully demonstrating his rebuke, the rest of Hosea’s book is a catalog of accusations and warnings of inevitable punishment, peppered with words of hope for Israel’s restoration.

Joel

Joel is a brief little scroll with a short, sharp point. And millions of legs, antennae and wings. This prophet describes the destruction and horror of the Assyrian invasion as both metaphor – an all-consuming swarm of locusts – and as a real experience. From what we know of the Assyrian empire and their tactics, the locust imagery isn’t far off. The “armies of the North” moved throughout the Ancient Near Eastern world, destroying everything in their path. The book was most likely written long after the events of the invasion, though it’s difficult to pinpoint a date.

The second half of the tiny book sees vivid hope for the restoration of both Israel and Judah, characterized by this famous passage:

28 “And it shall come to pass after that,
I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
And your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on your male and female servants
In those days I will pour out my Spirit.

Amos

Next up is Amos. I’ve studied this one in Hebrew, and it’s an amazing example of what we miss by reading these texts in English. Amos is a treasury of jokes, puns, wordplay and other linguistic treats – most of them completely lost in translation to English. Of course that’s the sad reality for every text in the bible…

Amos was one of the “sheep breeders of Tekoa.” Some say that means he was a simple shepherd, others say it’s a more technical term and that he was a wealthy businessman. Whatever the case, he had a “normal” job before (and we assume after) he found himself called to be a prophet. Amos was from the southern territory of Judah, but his prophetic campaign took him to the north, to the kingdom of Israel, to – you guessed it – warn of coming judgment in the form of Assyrian violence. And while his contemporaries like Hosea called Israel to account on grounds of “religious fidelity,” Amos is famous for the way he appeals to social justice. Here Israel’s biggest sin isn’t that she followed after idols and other gods, but that the nation’s fat cats are getting fatter while the poor are getting poorer. Good thing we’ve solved that one in the future.

At the heart of Amos’ message is a rhetorical trap sprung by the prophet on the unsuspecting priests and religious leaders of Israel. He counts off a litany of condemning oracles against Israel’s enemies: Gaza, Edom, Tyre, Moab, etc., and hits a crescendo by calling the same judgment upon Judah, to the South. This would have elicited snickers and perhaps even cheers from northerners who considered Judah to be virtually as wicked as those others. But the prophet goes one further, reserving his harshest words for his audience: the Israelite elite. It’s a rollicking good read.

Obadiah

Obadiah, meaning “Servant of YHWH,” is a very short prophetic text from the time of Judah’s Babylonian exile. It addresses two of the pressing crises of that era: the punishment of Judah’s enemies (in this case specifically that of Edom, an ancient enemy who was still annoying Israel and who would themselves fall to Babylon), and the restoration of Judah. Obadiah ends with one of the most explicit enunciations of the Jewish hope for the “Kingdom of YHWH” to be reestablished in Jerusalem.

(Jonah)

We did a whole show about Jonah, one of the most maligned and mangled books of the Prophets. See BOOK Episode 23 for more.

Micah

Micah is another eighth century prophet, most likely a contemporary of Hosea and Isaiah. He’s actually never referred to as a prophet, he’s just a fella from Judah with a lot to say about current events. His name is a question in Hebrew – “who is like YHWH?” and the book ends with Micah asking YHWH, “who is a God like you?” In his scroll he brings a “lawsuit” against the Hebrew people on behalf of their God, decrying the corruption and injustice which characterized both the northern and southern kingdoms in that century. Like his contemporaries, Micah announces judgment and punishment on both Israel and Judah for their corruption while also imagining what deliverance and restoration will look like. For Micah, it’s a new ruler, a sort of servant-king, who comes from Bethlehem – a small town thats name can either mean “house of bread” or “house of war.” Christians read this and their messianic prophecy alarm goes off. It certainly points in this direction, and the New Testament picks up on that, but let’s also remember that this isn’t just a cryptic prophecy hanging in mid-air, waiting to make sense someday in the future – it’s first and foremost a look BACKWARD to King David, the only great ruler Israel ever had, and a little boy who came from, you guessed it, Bethlehem.

Nahum

Nahum is a volatile little book that channels fear of Assyrian terror into condemnation and mockery. It’s interesting to read Nahum in contrast with Jonah, as both scrolls feature prophets with urgent messages for Nineveh, the “capital city” of the Assyrian Empire. Jonah reluctantly delivered a call to repentance and reformation, to which the city responded – much to the prophet’s dismay. In Nahum’s day, not only has Nineveh returned to her “wicked” ways, she has become such an evil and reckless monster that God is going to destroy her. Repentance doesn’t enter into the equation.

Of course, that is only an easy surface reading of the two scrolls. They grow out of very different contexts. Jonah is a very “stylized” legend which has more to say about Israel than it does about Assyria, while Nahum is an urgent polemic against a looming and powerful enemy.

Habakkuk

The short Habakkuk is a fascinating text with perhaps more in common with Job and Qoheleth than with the prophets. Habakkuk lives in between the fall of Israel and the exile of Judah. It’s been at least a hundred years since Assyria flattened the northern kingdom, and Babylon’s shadow is creeping over Jerusalem. In the midst of this chaos and horror, Habakkuk looks heavenward and asks YHWH: “What is your problem?” The book takes the form of two complaints by the prophet, followed by two reported “responses” from God.

Habakkuk’s first complaint: God seems to be unjust. Violence begets violence. Injustice goes unpunished. The innocent suffer. God’s answer: You are not as innocent as you think you are. I am using Assyria and Chaldea (Babylon) to punish you. Unsatisfied, Habakkuk tries again: Will you ever be done punishing us? Seems like it’s all you do. God’s final response: Stay tuned. Your suffering will eventually end, and what’s more, I will deal even more harshly with Babylon, because they’re enjoying this too much.

Books like Nahum and Habakkuk raise all sorts of questions for us about God and war and history, but God’s answer here seems to satisfy the prophet. The book ends with a psalm of acceptance and praise.

Zephaniah

Zephaniah is another prophet from the period between the great devastations of Israel and Judah. He announces coming judgment – called “the Day of YHWH” – on the southern kingdom at the hands of Babylon and offers the people a last chance to repent. He reminds his compatriots that judgment will also fall on the nations of the world, and wraps up with a vision of restoration and redemption which (intriguingly) also appears to be for all the nations of the earth.

Haggai

In the sixth century (around December, 520, if the text is to be believed), a prophet named Haggai delivers a word from YHWH to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah (then a Persian territory), and to Joshua the high priest, that the time has come to rebuild his “house,” that is, the Temple. The leaders of Judah comply, and the Temple is reconstructed – events also documented in Ezra and Chronicles. Haggai further prophecies that YHWH’s “spirit” and “glory” will remain with the people and – eventually – fill his house once more, and closes his writings with some words of praise for Zerubbabel, which is quite interesting given the ambivalent attitude toward the ruler elsewhere in scripture.

Zechariah

We’ve talked about this before on Book, but when the people of Judah returned to the land and the Temple was rebuilt, there was a palpable feeling of anticlimax and even disappointment. Persia still ruled over them, and there was no rapturous moment when the glory of God filled the Temple and brought Jerusalem back to life.

Zechariah’s mission was to preach hope and patience to the disillusioned people of Judah. He did this by imagining (or envisioning, if you like) the glorification of the Temple that hadn’t happened yet in real life. Through a series of vivid apocalyptic scenarios, he assured Judah that YHWH was still present, and that he had a mysterious cosmic plan – not only to reinhabit the Temple, but to reclaim Israel’s throne for himself, and thus bring his ultimate purposes for the whole world to completion. There are many allusions to Zechariah in the New Testament, most of them unsurprisingly in John’s Revelation. Meanwhile, here in the Hebrew Bible, the 2nd scroll of Chronicles tells us that Zechariah was murdered by Joash, the king of Jerusalem at that time. Bummer.

Malachi

The final scroll in the Hebrew Bible canon is Malachi. It offers no explicit timeframe, but is assumed to have been written in the fifth century – around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Malachi’s short scroll addresses the same disillusionment and morass confronted by Zechariah. The prophet presents a series of charges against the people of Judah: they have doubted YHWH’s love, they have dishonored him with empty sacrifices, and they have offended YHWH with idolatry and one another with adultery. He concludes by imagining the great vindication that will come one day for all Israel.

And that is all there is! That was an all-too-brief survey of a whole lot of intense material, but I think we have a good grasp on the people, events, and themes of the minor prophets. In one sense, this collection is as diverse and dynamic as the whole of the Hebrew Bible. At the same time, there is a surprising oneness to these texts, as they all face the various tragedies of defeat and exile with equal parts finger wagging and hope for restoration.  We also notice a lack of the sort of mystical, detached soothsaying we’ve often assumed biblical prophecy to consist of. These aren’t dark and cryptic warnings presented in a vacuum, waiting for events thousands of years in the future to make sense of them. They are Israel and Judah prophecies for Israel and Judah people. They offer a specific hope in the face of a specific problem on behalf of a specific god. That the whole library of Hebrew scripture ends on a note of anticlimax and unfulfilled hope is, for one thing, a signal that what we have been reading – with all of its art and imagination – has been a product of real humans living real history.

And so our adventure through the Hebrew Bible ends. We’ll take a short break and regroup for our look at the Greek texts we call the “New Testament.” Lots to say about that when we get there, but let’s say one thing now: without the Hebrew Bible, there is no New Testament, and without a knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, we have no hope of beginning to understand what is going on there. I guess what I’m saying is, don’t delete these first 27 episodes. thanks.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way.  If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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