The last book of the Prophets contains the prophecies of twelve distinct prophets, and is known as Trei Asar (תרי עשר), meaning ‘twelve’ in Aramaic. In English, it is sometimes referred to as the “Twelve Minor Prophets”, a moniker that describes only their relatively short messages, but not their importance.
From the Dead Sea Scrolls and the work of Ben Sirach, we know that these twelve prophetic texts were grouped together as one book already by the second century BCE. The era of the Trei Asar ranges from the middle of the eighth century BCE to the beginning of the fourth century BCE. Hoshea, Yoel, Amos, Ovadya, Yona and Micha prophesied during the eighth century BCE, when Assyria terrorized the entire Middle East including the kingdoms of Yisrael and Yehuda. Nachum, Chavakuk and Tzefanya lived in the seventh century BCE, when Assyria’s even more vicious successor, Babylonia, threatened and eventually exiled the tiny kingdom of Yehuda. The final three prophets, Chagai, Zecharya and Malachi lived during the period of the return to Tzion, when the Jewish people returned to the land of Israel after seventy years of Babylonian exile. These three prophets were active during a period spanning from the middle of the sixth century to the beginning of the fourth century BCE, and with the final prophecies of Malachi came the end of the age of prophecy.
Despite being separated from each other by over five hundred years, these prophets shared several messages which are relevant to this very day: Concern for the poor, an emphasis on justice and morality over uninspired ritual, the enduring bond between Hashem and His people, and the eternal relationship of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael.
The first of the Trei Asar, the book of Hoshea son of Be’eri, is one of the longest of the twelve, comprising fourteen chapters. Hoshea prophesies to the last generation before the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Yisrael in 722 BCE. In his prophecies, Hoshea denounces the corruption of the rich and powerful, whose indifference to injustice is leading the people towards certain destruction. While still outwardly powerful, the country’s foundations have been weakened and undermined during years of lawlessness and violence. Though his message is stark and dire, his belief in the people’s ability to repent and return is even greater, and Hoshea tries to convince them of the possibility of salvation, even when all seems lost. In its barest form, God’s relationship with the people is founded on love, the love of a parent for an infant that He taught to walk (11:3), and the love of a husband for His betrothed (2:16).
The first three chapters of the book are autobiographical; Hoshea is commanded by God to marry a woman described as a harlot, and to have children with her. Through this marriage and the naming of his children, Hoshea creates one of the most powerful metaphors for the relationship between Hashem and Israel. The following chapters, 4-13, describe a litany of sins that the people committed, and the punishments that will inevitably follow. The final chapter is one of the most sublime calls for repentance in the Bible, and is traditionally read in synagogues on the Sabbath which occurs during the Days of Repentance, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
The second book of the Trei Asar, Sefer Yoel, consists of four small chapters. Aside from his father’s name, we know nothing of the prophet’s personal life, and the absence of historical references in the book make pinpointing when he lived near impossible. However, Yoel’s message is clear: Through repentance, disaster can be averted and judgment can be transformed to mercy. Indeed, Yoel is one of the few prophets who successfully effects a transformation among the people.
The book has an easily identifiable structure. The first two chapters describe an impending invasion of locusts in Yehuda, a manifestation of God’s judgment. This plague of locusts is metaphorically compared to an invading army from the north. However, when the people repent, rains fall and restore the land, and the invasion is repelled. In the third chapter, the outpouring of rain becomes a metaphor for an outpouring of God’s spirit among the people, as the “day of Hashem,” judgment day, approaches. In the final chapter, Hashem punishes the nations who hated Israel and threatened Yerushalayim. Ultimately, the land is restored and the people of Israel will dwell securely on it.
The third book of Trei Asar, Sefer Amos, contains some of the strongest calls for social justice in the Bible, and indeed, in all of human history. Like his contemporaries Yeshayahu, Hoshea and Micha, Amos prophesied in the middle of the eighth century BCE, in the generation preceding the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel at the hands of Assyria in 722 BCE. This was the period of Yerovam II, whose rule represented the last era of stability and prosperity the kingdom of Israel enjoyed before its descent into instability and eventual dissolution. The superscription to his book mentions that he prophesied “two years before the earthquake.” Excavations at Hazor have uncovered evidence of a major earthquake that caused extensive damage to the region in the year 760 BCE.
Amos describes himself as both a shepherd (1:1) and as a “tender of sycamore figs” (7:14). Accordingly, his prophecies often draw their metaphors from nature. Though he himself is wealthy, he is especially sympathetic to the plight of the working-class farmers, who find themselves paying full tribute to the ruling functionaries in the capital and to the shrine at Beit El, even when suffering from drought, plague and famine. They were compelled to take out heavy loans to continue farming, and their clothes and their children are taken as pledges to secure their debts (2:6-8, 8:4-6).
The book contains three main sections. The first two chapters state that just as other nations courted disaster through their failure to behave morally, Israel will not escape a similar fate. The next four chapters wrestle with the people’s claim that their prosperity is evidence of God’s favor. The final three chapters describe in clear detail the prophet’s visions of the disasters that await the people should they refuse to heed his warning and repent.
The fourth book of the Trei Asar, Sefer Ovadya, is the shortest book in the Tanakh. It contains one stark message consisting of invective against Edom. Throughout history, Edom remained Israel’s implacable enemy, a hatred made even more unforgivable due to their close blood relationship: The Edomites were descendants of Esau, Yaakov’s brother. The loathing for Edom became engraved in the Jewish mind, and in rabbinic thought, all of Israel’s enemies are considered to be Edom’s spiritual descendants.
It is impossible to identify who Ovadya was, or the time in which he lived. Some traditions connect him with the righteous treasurer of Achav’s court, who hid the prophets from Jezebel’s murderous wrath (I Kings 18:3-4). However, it is difficult to imagine a prophecy against Edom being uttered at that time, in the ninth century BCE, when Edom was a backward region consisting mostly of desert sands. Furthermore, the focus of the book is on Yehuda and Yerushalayim, and not on Achav‘s northern kingdom.
Therefore, others suggest that Ovadya prophesied after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, when Edom not only broke their alliance with Yehuda to betray them to the Babylonian conquerors (see Psalms 137:7 and Isaiah 34:5-17), but then moved across the Jordan Valley to the area west of the Dead Sea, invading and occupying territory that had previously been the inheritance of the exiled Judeans.
The single chapter of Ovadya contains several smaller sections, including the prophecy and call against Edom, the grounds for the upcoming punishment, and the punishment itself.
The fifth book of the Trei Asar, Sefer Yona, is one of the most famous books of the Bible and one of the least understood. The excitement of the giant fish that swallows the runaway prophet, the suspense about whether or not the people of Nineveh will repent, and the question if God will carry out his threat to overturn the city, all tend to overshadow the resounding moral message contained in the book: Hashem is merciful, patient, and forgiving, even to the worst scoundrels and enemies that humanity knows, as long as they take steps towards justice, righteousness, and repentance.
Yona, son of Amittai, is mentioned in Melachim II (14:25) as a prophet who lived during the reign of Yerovam II in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. His reign at the beginning of the eighth century BCE was one of relative peace and quiet. However, the shadow of Assyrian domination and conquest, which had been long dormant, was beginning to raise its terrible head. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and one can only imagine the feelings of the prophet when asked to prophesy to save the city of Nineveh, Israel’s most bitter enemy who would become the instrument of its annihilation. In Yona’s mind, saving the city of Nineveh would make him complicit in the destruction of his people. Is this something he can do?
The book can be divided into two sections of two chapters each. Each section contains a request by God that Yona prophesy to the people of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and Yona’s response. The first time, Yona refuses to deliver the message and attempts to flee, only to be stopped by Hashem. The second time Hashem calls him, Yona acquiesces, and tells the people of Nineveh that their end is near. They repent, and God chooses to forgive them. When the prophet complains, God demonstrates to him that His mercy extends to all the world’s inhabitants and creatures.
The sixth of the Trei Asar, Sefer Micha, records the prophecies of Micha the Morashite. A contemporary of Yeshayahu and Hoshea, he lived in the second half of the eighth century BCE, a time which saw the Assyrians become a superpower in the Middle East, defeating and subjecting the nations and countries that stood in its path of conquest. The northern Kingdom of Israel, Shomron, is conqured and exiled by the Assyrian king Sargon II in 722 BCE, and just over twenty years later in 701 BCE, his son Sennacherib embarks on his own campaign of conquest, capturing all of Yehuda’s fortified cities and laying siege to Yerushalayim. Only through God’s miraculous intervention described in Sefer Melachim II 19, bringing a that plague strikes the Assyrian army at night, killing hundreds of thousands and causing their retreat, is the country saved.
The brilliance of the Hebrew prophets is expressed in their understanding that these events were not accidental, but were directly linked to the level of righteousness and justice among the nation. Yehuda, unlike the idolatrous Yisrael, continued to worship Hashem. Like their northern brethren, however, unscrupulous officials in the cities profited from the labor of the hard-working farmers in the countryside. The prophet Micha was a strong opponent of these wealthy and powerful men, denouncing them at every opportunity. It is thus not surprising that scholars have referred to him as the “Amos of the southern Kingdom”. However, unlike Amos, Micha was somewhat successful in effecting a change among his people. When, a century later, Yirmiyhau is tried for sedition, the elders protested, reminding them: “Micha the Morashtite, who prophesied in the days of King Chizkiyahu of Yehuda, said to all the people of Yehuda: ‘Thus said God of Hosts: Tzion shall be plowed as a field, Yerushalayim shall become heaps of ruins, and the Temple Mount a shrine in the woods.’ “Did King Chizkiyahu of Yehuda, and all Yehuda, put him to death? Did he not rather fear Hashem and implore Hashem, so that Hashem renounced the punishment He had decreed against them? We are about to do great injury to ourselves!” (Jeremiah 26:18-19).
The structure of the book is straightforward. It contains three sections beginning in chapters 1, 3, and 6. In each section, Micha outlines God’s complaint before the people, clarifies what Hashem wants from them, and concludes with a message of hope and salvation.
The seventh of the Trei Asar, Sefer Nachum, begins, “A pronouncement on Nineveh: The book of the prophecy of Nachum the Elkoshite.” We know nothing about the person behind the prophecy, nor can we identify the location of Elkosh.
What this small book does, however, is concentrate upon the upcoming downfall of the Assyrian empire, which had brutally dominated the Middle East for over five centuries. The book provides a general outline of the period in which it was written; it mentions the Assyrian conquest of Thebes (No-Ammon) in 663 BCE, and prophesies about the future ransacking of the Assyrian capital Nineveh, which fell in the combined assault of Babylonia and Media in 612 BCE. These references position Nachum in the middle of the seventh century BCE, a time when the emasculated Kingdom of Yehuda barely enjoyed vassal status in the vast Assyrian empire.
The empty fields of the exiled kingdom of Israel to the north of Yehuda served as a grim reminder of what awaited them should they similarly choose disobedience. Indeed, King Menashe, who ruled Yehuda at the time, behaved no better, religiously or morally, than the Assyrian overlords he served; the Bible relates that he was guilty of idolatry, licentiousness and murder (see II Kings Chapter 20).
The message of Nachum’s prophecy is empowered by its single-mindedness: Uncompromising abhorrence of Israel’s perfidious foe. The first chapter describes God’s judgment – those who trust in God will find shelter while the rest of the world trembles. The second chapter provides glimpses and flashes of Nineveh’s upcoming destruction. The final chapter explains the reason for Nineveh’s sudden fall.
The eighth of the Trei Asar, Sefer Chavakuk, is unique among the prophetic works of the Bible. In most works, the prophets convey God’s message to the people. Chavakuk, though, conveys the people’s questions to Hashem. He saw that evil remained unpunished and unbowed, and challenged Heaven for a response. God does respond, and challenges Chavakuk to wait and see how the Divine plan plays out through history. Until then, “the righteous man is rewarded with life for his fidelity” (2:4).
We know little about the prophet’s personal life. His name, from the Hebrew word to ‘embrace’, appears only here. Most scholars place him near the end of Assyria’s reign. That superpower, which brutally enslaved the Middle East for centuries, was about to collapse. Unlike his predecessor Nachum, who rejoiced in Assyria’s upcoming downfall, Chavakuk saw that an even crueler and more vicious foe, Babylonia, would arise and take its place. Some suggest that he prophesied after the shocking and tragic death of Yehuda’s most righteous king, Yoshiyahu, at the hands of the Egyptian invaders at Megiddo in 608 BCE.
Ancient traditions identify Chavakuk as the son of the Shunamite woman who Elisha revived in Melachim II 4, and also as one who was called by angels to feed Daniel, when Daniel was in the lion’s den. What this teaches is that his message was understood to span generations. Each era faces its own challenges to their beliefs, but we are called upon to trust in God and His righteousness.
This short book contains three sections; a two-part dialogue with Hashem, a series of taunts towards Israel’s former oppressors, and a final request of God to overthrow all evil and injustice in the world.
The ninth of the Trei Asar, Sefer Tzefanya, describes the last of the twelve prophets to speak before Yehuda’s final disintegration and dissolution by Babylonia at the end of the seventh century BCE. In the year 638 BCE, the young child Yoshiyahu ascended the throne of Yehuda. For over half a century under his grandfather Menashe, Yehuda was a subservient vassal to the Assyrian Empire, and lost most vestiges of its sovereignty, including its religious autonomy. Instead of the pure worship of God, Menashe brought Assyrian idols and cultic practices into Yehuda, and even into the Beit Hamikdash itself.
In the country, rich courtiers profited from the toil of the oppressed citizenry. However, by the time Yoshiyahu comes to power, Assyrian influence is on the wane. The young child king senses that the moment is right to remove all vestiges of foreign rule from the country, engaging in the most comprehensive religious and political reform that Yehuda has ever seen. Within two decades, the righteous Yoshiyahu will rule over a country as big as that of David and Shlomo. Among those guiding him was the prophet Tzefanya, about whom we know little.
Tzefanya speaks about how the people of God must live in righteousness, which involves respecting the needs of the poor and engaging in genuine worship. Otherwise, he warns, Hashem is preparing a day of judgment, a “Day of Hashem“. It is up to the people to decide whether that judgment will befall them, or their enemies.
The book contains five sections in its three chapters. Chapter 1 warns about the approach of Divine judgment on the world, including Yehuda. Chapter 2 repeats the warning for specific other countries, excluding Yehuda. Chapter 3 then begins with Yehuda’s call to judgment, continues with God’s punishment and concludes with the prophet urging Tzion and Israel to rejoice, for after the judgment, God’s love and care for them will become evident to all.
The tenth of the Trei Asar, Sefer Chagai, is the first book written after the first wave of exiles return to Eretz Yisrael in 536 BCE.
After the Persian empire defeated the Babylonians, Cyrus the Great allowed the Jewish exiles to return home. Those Jews who returned to their ancestral land did so filled with idealism and hope, but soon the harsh reality of rebuilding their destroyed homes and repairing their scorched fields overtook them. The land was parched, the rains did not fall, and the returnees were barely capable of sustaining themselves. At the same time, the Persian empire was shaken by a series of revolts (522-520 BCE), and the people who had moved into the land of Israel in their absence began making trouble for the returnees.
Into this picture stepped Chagai. He carried a brief, direct message. The people who lived in Israel were not sinners, but they were so concerned with their individual lives, needs and wants that they forgot the primary purpose of the return. The reason the people of Israel were to dwell in the land of Israel was to proclaim the name of the God of Israel. Instead of concerning themselves with their personal needs, the people must dedicate their efforts to building a second Temple, where God’s Presence can rest and from there, emanate all over the world.
If the people of Israel would recognize the cosmic significance of their actions and efforts, not only would they receive rains of blessing, but they would also affect change the world over. As described in Sefer Ezra (chapter 6), Chagai’s efforts were not in vain; through his encouragement and that offered by his contemporary prophet Zecharya, the people completed building the Temple and dedicated it in 516 BCE.
The eleventh of the Trei Asar, Sefer Zecharya, is one of the most esoteric books of the Bible. It is the second of the three books written during the period of return to the land of Israel after the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 538 BCE. Several of Zecharya‘s prophecies are dated to the second and fourth years of the reign of Darius (520 and 518 BCE), at the time when the construction of the second Temple had begun in earnest under the Persian-appointed governor Zerubbabel. As such, it is not surprising that many of the visions in the book describe the significance of the Temple and its reconstruction, and how it could potentially allow Divine sovereignty to spread throughout the world.
We know more about Zecharya than we do most other prophets. Like Yechezkel and Yirmiyahu, he was a priest, and his grandfather, Ido, is mentioned among the kohanim in Ezra chapter 5 and Nechemya chapter 12. His contemporaries include the prophet Chagai, who began prophesying two months before him, and the high priest Yehoshua. However, his message differs from that of Chagai, whose single-minded focus was the encouragement of the Jewish people to build the Temple, so that God’s rule could spread over the world. To this message, Zecharya adds a religious and moral dimension. He encourages the people to repent, emphasizes that God’s rule stands in contrast to military might – “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit” (4:6) – and stresses that ritual fast days have no value unless accompanied by spiritual improvement.
The book of Zecharya has three clear parts. The first six chapters describe a series of visions that Zecharya has regarding the building of the Temple and its significance. In the next two chapters, Zecharya answers questions from the Jews who remained in Babylonia, about how to adapt religiously to the new reality of a rebuilt Israel. The final six chapters deal with visions of the distant future: Chapters 9-11 describe the restoration of Yehuda and Ephraim and the upcoming destruction of those nations that stand against Israel, and the final three chapters describe the tribulations that Yerushalayim will face in the period preceding the end of days.
The last of the Trei Asar, Sefer Malachi, not only concludes the twelve prophets in this book, but also represents the end of the era of prophecy in Israel. As such, this book must be understood as a transition. The people are adjusting to life in the resettled land of Israel, and to a world without prophecy. The book’s theme is outlined at the outset – God’s love for His people Israel has never waned. The prophet is motivated to rebuke the children of Israel so that they again become worthy of receiving His love.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Malachi lived, or even if this was his personal name or a title of some sort, as it means “my messenger.” The Talmud (Megila 15a) even suggests that he was Ezra. However, we do know that he prophesied sometime after the second Beit Hamikdash had been built in Yerushalayim. The enthusiasm that had accompanied the original pilgrims and returnees had dissipated, and the people’s moral standards had slipped. Offerings were given at the Temple, but only perfunctorily, without emotion or passion. Gifts and tithes were only occasionally brought to Yerushalayim. There was a problem of intermarriage between Jewish men and local Canaanite women and other foreigners, similar to the problems faced by Ezra when he arrived in Israel in 458 BCE. The underlying malaise that gripped the people was that they did not consider themselves special or worthy of God’s attention or affection. This sense permeated their lives, and the commandments were performed by rote, if at all.
In chapter 1, Malachi reiterates God’s love for Israel and then outlines the general problem that their lives were devoid of spiritual passion and fervor. When they ask “how have we scorned Your name” and “how have we defiled You” (verses 6 and 7), Malachi is prepared to answer, pointing to the meager offerings they brought to Yerushalayim. Much of the rebuke occurs in question and answer form; he wishes for his listeners to understand and internalize his message. He then chides them that the gentiles would never bring such pitiful offerings, an important statement that recognizes that all sincere worship is ultimately directed towards Hashem, Jewish and non-Jewish.
In chapter 2, Malachi addresses the priests and places upon them a new charge – beyond their ritual responsibilities in the Beit Hamikdash, they are to become teachers of the Law to the people. He then rebukes the people for profaning their holiness through intermarriage, often at the expense of the wives of their youth. In the final chapter, Malachi describes how God will send His messenger to purify the people of their sins before judging them, so that their offerings and their lives will once again be pleasant before the Lord.