Reading the Bible Better: Finding Unity in the Book of the Twelve

tanner-mardis-612668-unsplash.jpgWhat are the Minor Prophets about? Should we read them together, as one unified book? Or should we read them as twelve discreet books, written (Nahum) or spoken (the other 11) by twelve different prophets?

These are questions worth asking when we study the Book of the Twelve. And as our church has studied Jonah, is starting Nahum, and will soon look at Haggai, I wanted to share another post on ways we find unity in the Twelve. Already, I’ve shared the helpful work of Paul House. If you haven’t read that, start there and then come back here.

In this post I will look at the work Old Testament scholar David L. Petersen (not to be confused with David G. Peterson, the New Testament scholar) and biblical theologian Jim Hamilton. In David Peterson’s survey of research (“A Book of Twelve?” in Hearing the Book of the Twelve, ed. James D. Nogalski and Marvin A. Sweeney, pp. 1–10), he lists five evidences of unity in the Twelve. And in Jim Hamilton’s book God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgmenthe shows how each book is connected to the others through various catchwords and themes. We’ll look at each of these studies to better read the Bible and better understand the unity of the Twelve.

Five Evidences of Unity

In his short study on the Minor Prophets (“A Book of the Twelve?”), David Petersen presents five ways that unity is seen in the Twelve. While addressing the question of whether or not the Twelve is truly a “book,” a question he answers in the negative, he provides some helpful guides for ways we might see unity and arrangement in the Twelve. In his survey, these forms of unity total five.

  1. Scribal Practice. The scribes made a practice of copying of the Twelve onto one scroll, adding weight to their unity. Written across a period of five centuries, with twelve different authors, these books were not written as a unity. But once collected, they always were recorded and read together.
  2. Size. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve all share a common length. “Jeremiah is the longest prophetic book, occupying 116 pages in one edition of the Hebrew Bible. Ezekeiel is the shortest, occupying ninety-five pages. The Twelve stands in between, with ninety-six pages” (5). Accordingly, as others like Stephen Dempster have observed, the Twelve when taken as unit is a comparable to the other Major Prophets.
  3. Order. While various manuscripts (MT, LXX, etc.) possess different orderings, the Twelve show many signs of arrangement. They are not simply randomly selected and assembled; they demonstrate order. And some of the proposed methods of arrangement include chronology, catchwords, length, and geography.
  4. Formation. Coming from a higher-critical perspective, Petersen writes, “There is significant evidence that the formation of the Twelve was a complicated process, extending over a long period and attributable to many individuals” (8). For Petersen, this does not a book make, but it does suggest an intentional arrangement.
  5. Literary Features. Finally, the most compelling reason to read the Twelve as a unified “book” is because of literary themes that develop throughout. Whether this shows up in a plot development, like Paul House espouses, or a singular theme, such as “repentance” (LeCureux) or “the Day of the Lord,” which Petersen prefers, there are clearly themes that interpenetrate the Twelve and which help us understand the message.

From these five features, Petersen argues for the evidence of unity in the Twelve, even as he’s not convinced about the term “book.” Agreeing that the term book is conceptually anachronistic, Petersen’s view thematic approach to the Twelve is worth considering. He writes,

Each of the Major Prophets includes a dominant theme. So, too, the Twelve. If Isaiah focuses on Zion, Jeremiah on the rhetoric of lament, and Ezekiel on the glory of Yahweh, the Twelve highlight Yahweh’s day. Each of these four scrolls offers a distinctive theme.

The vocabulary of temporality — of time —is a key to understanding the Twelve, and for good reason, especially when one compares the other three prophetic books with the historical breadth offered by the Twelve. . . .  In contrast [to the Major Prophets], the Twelve contains the earliest and the latest exemplars of prophetic literature. On the one hand, Amos reflects the conditions of the mid-eighth century; on the other hand, Zech 9–14 stems from well into the Persian period. So, with the Twelve, we are dealing with a period of roughly 400 years. None of the major profits can compare with the historical sweep offered by the Twelve. Hence, it is a really appropriate for these books to share a temporal lens — The day of Yahweh — by means of which to focus their vision. (10)

Catchwords Demonstrate Unity

In his book God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, Jim Hamilton demonstrates how “catch words” function to unify the whole Twelve. In a compact chart, he shows where these “link words and thematic connections” show up in the Twelve.

Screenshot 2018-04-25 17.41.39.pngTo these links, Hamilton provides a helpful caveat. He both affirms “an intentional arrangement” of the Twelve and offers caution that the arranger of the books may not have edited them to fit together. Hamilton writes,

The order of the Twelve seems to reflect an intentional arrangement that resulted in these twelve prophets being read together as a single book. This intentional arrangement can be seen from the way that key words found at the end of one book often recur at the beginning of the next. Where there are not key words, there are sometimes thematic links, such as the way that Nahum, who prophesies the destruction of Assyria, is followed by Habakkuk, who prophesies the destruction of Babylon. These connections are traced in table 3.10.

The nature of this evidence does not point, in my view, either to intense editorial activity or, necessarily, to literary dependence between the prophets. Some of these link words are not terribly significant, and there is no connection to the end of Jonah at the beginning of Micah—the connection noted in table 3.10 is from the end of Micah’s prophecy. In other cases there are no link words at all, such as between Nahum and Habakkuk or between Zechariah and Malachi, and the connections between these books noted in table 3.10 are thematic rather than lexical. In my view, then, any editorial activity that resulted in the arrangement of these prophecies appears to have dealt with the documents as they stood rather than to have altered them to tie them together. Whoever put the Twelve into the order we find them in the MT (Ezra?) appears to have proceeded by working with what he had before him rather than inserting material that would establish a clear connection between the end of one prophecy and the beginning of the next. (229–31)

If Hamilton is right about the arrangement of the Twelve without editing, the presence of catchwords still indicates intentionality in the arrangement. All the more, unity is found through the themes that run throughout. Hamilton points to these themes as well, indicating the way (1) warnings, (2) judgments, and (3) promises of salvation repeat throughout (231). You can find a comprehensive list in his book, as well as further discussion on the Prophets and their role in God’s story.

Reading the Bible Better

In the end, Petersen and Hamilton help us read the Minor Prophets better, because they show us how we should read them together. Indeed, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35). And maybe we should only apply that to the verse he cites in that context, but I suspect the larger principle applies: the unity of Scripture is a property of God’s Word in general. And thus, it should be our aim and expectation to see literary structures, thematic unity, and canonical shaping that supports Jesus’ words.

Applied to the Twelve, it should not surprise us that we find unity in their pages. In fact, by reading the Minor Prophets together we gain a clearer understanding of their prophetic message and their threefold purpose—to expose sin, to warn of judgment, and to provide hope in a coming Messiah. In this way, we should take them not as isolated prophets speaking only to local situations. Rather, inspired by God they are speaking a cohesive and complementary message that led their hearers to look to the Lord who is gracious and compassionate, but also just and powerful.

To that end, let us labor to hear their unified voice, because by knowing them better, we will better know Word of the Lord and the Lord of the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash