The last book of the Prophets contains the prophecies of twelve distinct personalities, and is known in Hebrew as ‘Trei Asar,’ the Aramaic word for twelve. In English it is referred to as the Twelve Prophets, or the Twelve Minor Prophets, a moniker that only describes their relatively small size and not the importance of their message. From the Dead Sea Scrolls and the work of Ben Sirach, we learn that these twelve prophets were already grouped together into one book by the second century BCE. The era of the twelve prophets ranges from the middle of the eighth century BCE to the beginning of the fourth century BCE. Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah prophesied during the eighth century BCE, when Assyria terrorized the entire Middle East including the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah lived in the seventh century BCE, when Assyria’s even more vicious successor, Babylon, threatened and eventually exiled the tiny kingdom of Judah. The final three prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi lived during the period of the return to Zion, when the Jewish people came back to the Land of Israel after seventy years of Babylonian exile. They ranged from the middle of the sixth century to the beginning of the fourth century, and with the final prophecies of Malachi came the end of the age prophecy in general. Despite ranging over five hundred years, these prophets shared several messages relevant to this day: concern for the poor, an emphasis of justice and integrity over uninspired ritual, the enduring bond between God and His people, and the enduring relationship of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.
The first book of the Twelve Prophets, the book of Hosea son of Beeri, is the longest of the twelve, comprising fourteen chapters. Hosea prophesies to the last generation before the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. In his prophecies, Hosea denounces the corruption of the rich and powerful, whose indifference to injustice is leading the people to 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 Hosea 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; Hosea is commanded by God to marry a woman described as a harlot, and have children with her. Through this marriage and the naming of his children, Hosea creates one of the most powerful metaphors for the relationship between God 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 Twelve Prophets, Joel, comprises four small chapters. Aside from his father’s name, we know nothing of Joel’s personal life, and the absence of historical references in the book make pinpointing when he lived near impossible. However, his message is clear: through repentance, disaster can be averted and judgment can be transformed to mercy. Indeed, Joel is one of the few prophets who successfully effects a transformation among the people of Israel.
The book has an easily identifiable structure. The first two chapters describe an impending invasion of locusts in Judah, 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 the Lord”, judgment day, approaches. In the final chapter, God punishes the nations who hated Israel and threatened Jerusalem. Ultimately, the land is restored and the people of Israel will dwell securely on it.
The third book of the Twelve Prophets, Amos, contains some of the strongest calls for social justice in the entire Bible, indeed, in all of human history. Like his contemporaries Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah, Amos prophesied in the middle of the eighth century before the common era, in the generation that preceded the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel at the hands of Assyria in 722 BCE. This was the time period of Jereboam II, whose rule represented the last period of stability and prosperity the Northern Kingdom enjoyed before its quick descent into instability and eventual dissolution. The superscription to his book mentions that he prophesied “two years before the earthquake.” Excavations at Hazor, (in Northern Israel) 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 dresser of sycamore trees (7:14). Accordingly, his prophecies, often draw their metaphors from nature, and he is especially sympathetic to the plight of the working class farmers, who even when suffering from drought, plague and famine, found themselves paying full tribute to the ruling functionaries in the capital and to the shrine at Beth El. They were required to take out heavy loans to continue farming, and their clothes and their children were taken in pledge to pay their debts (2:6-8, 8:4-6).
The book contains three basic sections. The first two chapters state that just as other nations courted disaster through their failure to behave in a moral manner, 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 visions of the disasters that await the people should they refuse to heed his warning and repent.
The fourth book of the Twelve Prophets, Obadiah, is the shortest book in the entire Hebrew Bible. It contains one stark message, invective against Edom. Throughout history, Edom remained Israel’s implacable enemy, a hatred made even more unforgivable due to their close blood relationship as Edom descended from Esau, Jacob’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 both who Obadiah was and the time period in which he lived. Some traditions connect him with the righteous treasurer of Ahab’s court, who hid the prophets of the Lord from Jezebel’s murderous wrath (1 Kings 18). However, Edom in the 9th century BCE was a backward region that was mostly desert sands. Furthermore, the focus of the book is on Judea and Jerusalem, not the Northern Kingdom. Others suggest that Obadiah wrote after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, when not only did Edom break their alliance with Judea to betray them to the Babylonian conquerors (see Psalms 137:7 and Isaiah 34:5-17), but moved across the Jordan Valley, south of the Dead Sea, to occupy lands that were previously owned by the now exiled Judeans.
The fifth book of the Twelve Prophets, Jonah, 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 anticipation of whether or not the people of Nineveh will repent, and the question of will God carry out his threat to overturn the city, all tend to overshadow the great resounding moral message contained in the book: God 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.
Jonah, son of Amittai, is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet who lived during the reign of Jereboam 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 so 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 Israel’s annihilation. In Jonah’s mind, saving the city of Nineveh would make him complicit in the destruction of his people. Is this something he is able to do?
The book can be divided into two sections of two chapters each. Each section contains a request by God that Jonah prophesy to the people of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and Jonah’s response. The first time, Jonah refuses to deliver the message and attempts to flee, only to be stopped by the Lord. The second time God calls him, Jonah 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 that His mercy extends to all the world’s inhabitants and creatures.
The sixth book of the Twelve Prophets, Micah, contains the prophecies of Micah the Morashite. Like his contemporaries Isaiah and Hosea, Micah lived in the second half of the eighth century, a time which saw the Assyrians become a superpower in the Middle East, conquering and subjecting the nations and countries that stood in its path. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, Samaria, is captured and exiled by Sargon II in 722 BCE, and just over twenty years later, Sennacherib embarks on his own conquest, capturing all of Judah’s fortified cities and laying siege to Jerusalem in 701 BCE. Only through God’s miraculous intervention as described in II Kings 19, in which a plague strikes the Assyrian army at night, killing hundreds of thousands and causing their retreat, is Israel saved.
The brilliance of the Hebrew prophets was their understanding that these events were not accidental, but were directly linked to the level of righteousness and justice among the nation. Judah, unlike idolatrous Israel, continued to worship God. Like their northern brethren, however, unscrupulous officials in the city profited off the labor of the hard working farmers in the country. Micah the prophet was their scourge, denouncing them at every opportunity. It is not surprising that he is known as the “Amos of the Southern Kingdom”. However, unlike Amos, Micah was effective in effecting some level of change among his people. When, a century later, Jeremiah is tried for sedition, the elders remember that “Micah the Morashite prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah; and he spoke to all the people of Judah, saying: Thus saith the LORD of hosts: Zion shall be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest. Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all Judah put him at all to death? Did he not fear the LORD, and entreat the favor of the LORD, and the LORD repented Him of the evil which He had pronounced against them? Thus might we procure great evil against our own souls.’ (Jer. 26:18-19)
The structure of the book is straightforward. It contains three sections beginning in chapters 1, 3, and 6. In each section, Micah outlines God’s complaint before the people, clarifies what God desires from them, and finishes with a message of hope and salvation.
The seventh book of the Twelve Prophets, Nahum, begins “the burden of Nineveh – the book of the vision of Nahum 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 when it was written; it mentions the Assyrian conquest of Thebes (No-Amon) in 663 BCE, and prophesies about the ransacking of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, which fell in the combined assault of Babylonia and Medes in 612 BCE. This chronology places Nahum in the middle of the seventh century BCE, a time when the emasculated Kingdom of Judah barely enjoyed vassal status in the vast Assyrian empire. The empty fields of the exiled Kingdom of Israel to their north served as a grim reminder of what awaited them should they choose disobedience. Indeed, the king Menasseh behaved religiously and morally no better than the Assyrian overlords he served.
The message of Nahum’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 book of the Twelve Prophets, Habbakuk, is unique among the prophetic works of the Bible. In most works, the prophets convey God’s message to the people. Habbakuk conveys the people’s questions to God. He saw that evil remained unpunished and unbowed, and challenged Heaven to respond. God does respond, and challenges Habbakuk to wait and see how the Divine plan plays out through history. Until then, “the righteous will live by his faith”.
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. The superpower, which brutally enslaved the Middle East for centuries, was about to collapse. Unlike his predecessor Nahum, who rejoiced in Assyria’s upcoming downfall, Habbakuk saw that an even crueler and more vicious foe, Babylon, would arise and take its place. Some suggest that he prophesied after the shocking and tragic death of Judah’s most righteous king, Josiah, at the hands of the Egyptian invaders in Megiddo in 608 BCE. Ancient traditions identify Habbakuk both as the son of the Shunamite woman that Elisha revived in 2 Kings 4, and as one who was called by angels to feed Daniel when he was in the lion’s den. What this teaches is that Habbakuk’s message was understood to span generations. Each era faces its own challenges to their beliefs, but we are called upon to believe in the Lord and His righteousness.
This short book contains three sections; a two-part dialogue with God, a series of taunts towards Israel’s former oppressors, and a final request of the Lord to overthrow all evil and injustice in the world.
The ninth book of the Twelve Prophets, Zephaniah, describes the last of the prophets to speak before Judah’s final disintegration and dissolution by Babylon at the end of the seventh century BCE. In the year 638 BCE, the young child Josiah ascended Judah’s throne. For over half a century, under his grandfather Manasseh, Judah was a subservient vassal to the Assyrian Empire, and lost not only most vestiges of its sovereignty, but also its religious autonomy. Instead of the pure worship of God, Mannaseh brought Assyrian idols and cultic practices into Judah and into the Temple itself. In the country, rich courtiers profited from the efforts of the oppressed citizenry. However, by the time Josiah comes to power, Assyrian influence is on the wane. The young child king senses that the moment is right to remove all foreign vestiges from the country, engaging in the most comprehensive religious and political reform that Judah has ever seen. Within two decades, the righteous Josiah will rule over a country as big as that of David and Solomon. Among those guiding him was the prophet Zephaniah, about whom we know little. Zephaniah 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, God is preparing a day of judgment, a “Day of the Lord”. It is up to the people to decide whether that judgment would 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 Judah. Chapter 2 repeats the warning, but for specific countries excluding Judah. Chapter 3 then begins with Judah’s call to judgment, continues with God’s punishment and concludes with the prophet urging Zion and Israel to rejoice, for after judgment God’s love and care for them will become evident to all.
The tenth book of the Twelve Prophets, Haggai, is the first book written after the first wave of exiles return to the Land of Israel in 536 BCE. After the Persian empire defeated the Babylonians, Cyrus the Great allowed the Israelites to return home. Those Jews who returned to their ancestral land were filled with idealism and hope, but soon the reality of rebuilding their destroyed homes and re-plowing their scorched fields overtook them. The land was parched, the rains did not fall, and the returnees were barely capable of eking out a meager living. 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 in their absence began making trouble for the returnees.
Into this picture stepped Haggai. He carried a brief, direct message. The people who lived in Israel were not sinners, but they were so concerned with their private lives, needs and wants that they forgot the primary purpose of the return. The people of Israel were to dwell in the Land of Israel in order to proclaim the name of the God of Israel. Instead of being concerned with their personal concerns, the people must dedicate their efforts to building a Second Temple, a home where God’s Presence can rest and from there, emanate in justice and righteousness over the world. If the people of Israel recognized the cosmic significance of their actions and efforts, not only would they themselves receive rains of blessing, but would affect change the world over. As described in Ezra 6, Haggai’s efforts were not in vain; through his and the prophet Zechariah’s encouragement, the people completed the building of the Temple in 516 BCE.
The eleventh book of the Twelve Prophets, Zechariah, 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 Israel after the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 538 BCE. Several of Zechariah’s prophecies are dated to the second and fourth years of the reign of Darius (520 and 518 BCE), at the time when the rebuilding of the Second Temple under the Persian appointed governor Zerubabbel had begun in earnest. 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 Zechariah than we do about most other prophets. Like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, he was a priest, and his grandfather, Iddo, is mentioned among the priests in Ezra 5 and Nehemiah 12. His contemporaries include the prophet Haggai, who began prophesying two months before him, and Joshua the high priest. However, his message differs from Haggai, whose single-minded focus was the encouragement of the Jewish people to build the Temple in order to allow God’s rule to spread over the world. Zechariah adds the religious and moral dimension. He encourages the people to repent, emphasizes that God’s rule stands in contrast to military might – “not by might, not by power, but by My spirit” (4:6), and stresses that ritual fast days have no value unless accompanied by a spiritual component.
The book of Zechariah has three clear parts. The first six chapters describe a series of visions that Zechariah has regarding the building of the Temple and its significance. In the next two chapters, Zechariah 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 Judah and Ephraim and the upcoming destruction of those nations that stand against Israel; and the final three chapters describe the tribulations that Jerusalem will face right before the end of days.
The last book of the Twelve Prophets, Malachi, 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 as well as life 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 people so that they again become worthy of receiving God’s love.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Malachi lived. Even his name Malachi may not be his proper name, as in Hebrew it means “my messenger.” Some ancient traditions suggest that Malachi was really Ezra. However, we do know that he prophesied some time after the Second Temple had been rebuilt in Jerusalem. The enthusiasm that had accompanied the original pilgrims and returnees had disappeared, and the people’s moral standards had started to slip. Offerings were brought at the Temple, but only perfunctorily, without emotion or passion. Gifts and tithes were only occasionally brought to Jerusalem. There was a problem of intermarriage with 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 and affection. This sense permeated their lives, and laws were performed unthinkingly, if performed at all.
In chapter 1, Malachi reiterates God’s love for Israel and then outlines the general problem, that their lives were devoid of passion and fervor. When they ask “where have we behaved in this way,” Malachi is prepared to answer, pointing to the meager offerings they brought to Jerusalem. Much of the rebuke occurs in question/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 God. In chapter 2, Malachi addresses the priests and places on them a new charge – beyond their ritual responsibilities in the Temple, 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.