Finding Unity in The Minor Prophets

roman-kraft-136249-unsplash.jpgHow do we put the Minor Prophets together?

That has a been a topic of discussion on this blog and at our church over the last few months. As we’ve preached Jonah, Nahum, and (now) Haggai, we’ve paid careful attention the literary structure of the Twelve. With help from Paul House and David Peterson and Jim Hamilton, we’ve considered how the Twelve is put together and how that arrangement influences our reading and interpretation.

Today, we continue that study with a fewbook qualifications and theological considerations from Richard A. Fuhr and Gary Yates. In their recent book, The Message of the Twelvethese two Liberty professors provide a reading of the Minor Prophets that finds unity in the “theological message . . . that emerges when these books are read as a collective whole” (42). In this approach, they engage with the differences between the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Masoretic Text) and the  Septuagint (LXX), the chronology of the books, the catchwords that may contribute to their order, and the overall theological message that unites these books. While more reserved in their approach than Paul House and his plot line reading of the Twelve, their theological approach helps identify some key themes in the book.

In order, we will consider some of their observations, which help us read the Minor Prophets as a theological whole.

Variations in the Order

First, it should be recognized that there is a minor difference in the arrangement of the Minor Prophets. While the Masoretic Text (MT) has one arrangement, the Septuagint has another. You can see the differences in this chart.

MT (Masoretic Text) LXX (Septuagint)
Hosea Hosea
Joel Amos
Amos Micah
Obadiah Joel
Jonah Obadiah
Micah Jonah
Nahum Nahum
Habakkuk Habakkuk
Zephaniah Zephaniah
Haggai Haggai
Zechariah Zechariah
Malachi Malachi

Going back to Ben Sirach and Josephus, the Minor Prophets have been identified as one unified book, i.e. “The Twelve” (42–43) However, as the chart identifies, there have been (at least) two arrangements. While they share many features (e.g., they begin with Hosea; they place Jonah after Obadiah; and the final six books share the same order), they differ with respect to Joel, Amos, and Micah. Accordingly, Fuhr and Yates suggest caution with respect to making too much of literary arrangement. Citing Ehud ben Zvi, they state, “the fluidity of the order of the books . . . argues that evidence for viewing the Twelve as a unity is too late to clearly demonstrate a purposeful composition and redaction of Twelve as a single work” (42 n3)

Acknowledging the fact that the multiple arrangements lead us to not overstate the literary structure we see in the Twelve, they also identify other literary and theological ways the book can be read as a whole.

Chronology and Catchwords

One key evidence of arrangement is that “six of the twelve books have historical superscriptions in their introductions” and these six books share the same historical order in both manuscripts (3, 43).

  1. Hosea (750–715)
  2. Amos (760–750)
  3. Micah (735–690)
  4. Zephaniah (630–620)
  5. Haggai (520)
  6. Zechariah (520–518)

With the historical superscriptions in the text, they provide benchmarks for the rest of the books. In fact, Fuhr and Yates state that “chronology was also a key factor in the placement of four of the six books that do not have historical superscriptions” (44). Outlining the placement of Jonah, Habakkuk, Nahum, and Malachi, they write,

Jonah was a prophet to Israel in the eighth century BC during the reign of Jeroboam II, and the book of Jonah appears in the section of the predominantly Assyrian prophets that extends from Hosea to Micah. Nahum and Habakkuk with Zephaniah form a section of books that focus on the Babylonian crisis. Nahum prophesied the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC, and Habakkuk announced the Lord’s intentions to use Babylon to judge sinful Judah and then to also punish Babylon for its crimes. Malachi appropriately appears at the end of the Twelve because his ministry follows Haggai and Zechariah at the end of the prophetic era. (ibid.)

So the unity of the Twelve is based on more than just the historical manuscripts. There is a chronological unity found in the Twelve. This sort of chronology strengthens Paul House’s argument for a plot line in the Twelve, as does the evidence of literary connections known as “catchwords.” As Fuhr and Yates also observe, there are many Minor Prophets that share common words or themes at the end/beginning of adjacent books. A full list of “catchwords” can be observed in Jim Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (229–31), but here are four examples from Fuhr and Yates.

  • Hosea (14:4–9) ends with agricultural imagery (“grain,” “vine,” and “wine,” v. 7), and Joel begins a locust plague devastating the land (“grain,” “new wine,” and “grapevine,” 1:10–12). “These linking references to grain, wine, and vine in Hosea and Joel contrast the future blessing of Israel with the present realities of judgment.” (45)
  • Joel ends with the Lord roaring from Zion (3:16), and Amos begins the Lord roaring as a lion (1:2).
  • Amos ends with a judgment on Edom (9:12), and Obadiah then recounts God’s judgment on Edom.
  • In content, Obadiah condemns Edom for their hatred towards their neighbor Israel. The same objection could be raised against Jonah, who despises Assyria, as well as the Lord who extends grace to them.

From these examples, we can see how the catchwords contribute to the chronological development of the whole book. Fuhr and Yates even believe that the catchwords help explain why the chronology of the books might be altered. Written at the time of closer to Judah’s fall to Babylon, “Obadiah is chronologically displaced, but it theologically connects to the books that precede and follow” (46).

Even in their cautiousness, Fuhr and Yates cannot deny the literary connections in the text. In fact, they suggest catchwords continue through the rest of the Minor Prophets (47), indicating that the Twelve is far more than an historically-arranged collection. Rather, there is evidence of literary shaping too. While perhaps displaying less editing than the Psalter, there remains good reasons to read the Twelve as one book. (Another evidence for this can be seen in the theological message of the book).

Putting the Twelve in their Place

In the end, it seems best to read the Twelve as a collection of prophets, who, through the course of Israel’s history, show how the promises of God are ruined by sin and restored by grace. In other words, we might read the Twelve through the lens of a passage like Hosea 6:1–2.

Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.

This verse repeats a key imperative in the Minor Prophets (Return to the Lord!). At different times and in different ways, each prophet call the people of God to return to God. That said, as Fuhr and Yates observe, positive repentance happens very little in Israel’s history. Rather, what we see is the downward spiral of sin and judgment. As a result, the Minor Prophets look to the future for a coming messiah, a new covenant, and life after death (see pp. 47–58).

Reading chronologically, the Minor Prophets report how the Lord tore and struck down Israel, so that he might heal them and bind them up. In this way, the words of Hosea (stationed as the introductory prophet) explain God’s plan: God will strike his rebellious people down, even unto death, but not without the promise of resurrection (cf. Ps 89:30–33).

And thus, in these books the overarching plan remains the same. He will judge their sin, but on the other side of judgment will be restoration. “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” Therefore, for those who first heard these words, for those who arranged them together, and for us, we are called to the same faithful response: “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth” (v. 3).

In truth, this is where the Minor Prophets conclude. While the earlier books are dark with judgment and death, the book ends with future hope. Though the blessings of God has not fully arrived, the light of the Lord is dawning, and spring showers are forthcoming. While the people must still “return to the Lord,” the Lord is making plans to return to his people. And thus a holistic reading of the Minor Prophets sets us on a course to see the Lord, when he is born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2), led and foreshadowed by Elijah (Mal. 4:4–6), entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Zech. 9:9), ready to make a new covenant (Hos. 3:1–5), one that will bring in the nations (Mic. 4:2), one that will bless all people with God’s Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28–32).

In all of this, we see why it is so important to read the Twelve together. Read in isolation, we are tempted to despair or dismiss the Minor Prophets when sin and judgment prevail. But when we see how these Prophets follow the contours of Israel’s hard history, we learn how to read these books with faith in God and forward-looking hope in the arrival of his Son. Even more, because we stand on the other side of Christ’s arrival, we know the rest of the story and the good news to which these Prophets spoke. But again, we may miss their message, if we only read them isolation, or worse, if we atomize bits and pieces of their message without following their literary and theological message.

Accordingly, let us continue to read the Twelve together and learn how to see the goal of their message in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash