Finding Theological Unity in The Twelve: Reading the Minor Prophets with Richard Fuhr and Gary Yates

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 an historical-literary arrangement. While perhaps displaying less editing than the Psalter, there remains good reasons to read the Twelve as one book. And this is especially the case when we consider the theological themes that run through the book.

The Theological Message of the Twelve

In his book The Unity of the TwelvePaul House argues that sin, judgment, and restoration are three themes extant in each prophet. He argues these three themes also organize the Twelve, where the first six books stress sin, the next three judgment, and the last three judgment. For him, this is the plot line that puts the Twelve together.

Complementing that vision, but not directly engaging it, Fuhr and Yates, present four themes repeat through the Twelve (and all the Prophets, actually). For a full consideration of their arguments, I encourage you to read their book. But let me highlight where the themes of (1) repentance, (2) the Day of the Lord, (3) a new covenant, and (4) the coming messiah can be found in the Twelve.

Repentance and Return

First, as the Minor Prophets address the sinful people of Israel, they stress the need for Israel’s (and all nations) repentance and “return.” From Hosea 6:1 (“Come, let us return to the Lord) to Malachi 3:7 (“Return to me, and I will return to you”), we discover that the word “return” (shuv) is used over eighty times in the Twelve (48). From the high volume of this word and its correlates, we discover a key theme, if not the key theme (see Jason LeCureux, The Thematic of the Book of Twelve), in the Twelve.

This theme displays some interesting features. As Fuhr and Yates, highlight (48–49), there are only four positive responses to the call for repentance (Joel 2:12–17; Jonah 3:1–10; Haggai 1:12–14 and Zechariah 1:3–6; Malachi 3:16). Thus, the overwhelming “feel” of the Twelve is the disobedience and unrepentance of Israel inviting God’s judgment. At the same time, the latter books of the Twelve promise a spirit of repentance (see Zechariah 12:10) that will come on the other side of judgment. Thus, mirroring Paul House’s plot line, we find a story of repentance sought, repentance rejected, and repentance granted in the Twelve.

The Day of the Lord

Second and closely associated with repentance is the Day of the Lord. In the Twelve, the Lord’s climactic judgment and salvation is mentioned in multiple places and in multiple ways. The “Day of the Lord” occurs in Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 15; and Zephaniah 1:7, 14. The “Day” also occurs in Hosea 1:5: 2:16, 18; 5:9; Amos 2:16; 3:14; Obadiah 1:12–14; Micah 7:12; Zephaniah 1:9–10; Zechariah 9:16; 14:13, 20–21.

Fuhr and Yates dissuade readers from understanding the monochrome vision of the Day of the Lord as only God’s final and futuristic judgment (51). Rightly, they suggest the Day of the Lord repeats in history. It repeated in Israel, on the cross, and it awaits all creation on the last day. In the Twelve, we are introduced to this key idea as related to the action of God as a Divine Warrior (52). Therefore, the Twelve gives us more than signs and predictions of judgment; it introduces us to the God who destroys evil (see Nahum and Habakkuk), while saving those who take refuge in him (Nahum 1:7; Habakkuk 2:4).

A New Covenant

In addition to the Day of the Lord, and perhaps antecedent to it, the Minor Prophets also carry forth a message of a “broken and restored covenant” (52–56). Like Jeremiah (31:31–34), Isaiah (ch. 53–55), and Ezekiel (36:25–27) speak of a new covenant, so too the Minor Prophets promise a new covenant through a variety of glorious images.

For instance, Hosea and Malachi, respectively, begin and end the Twelve with a mention of God’s love (Hosea 3:1; 9:15; 11:1; 14:3–4; Malachi 1:2–3). Whereas, the beginning of the Twelve shows how Israel’s broke covenant with God, spurning his love; the end of the Twelve shows how God’s faithfulness will secure the love of his people (53). Likewise, the promise of the Holy Spirit, a gift of the new covenant, is described in Joel 2:28–32. Moreover, multiple books speak of Israel’s restoration (Nahum 2:2) and a return to the land (Haggai 2:20–23; Zechariah 9:14–16).

Still, these promises are more than just a national return. The cosmic scope of the restoration is seen in the way Haggai speaks of Yahweh shaking heaven earth. Then, even after Israel has re-entered the land, the people are still called to return to God (Zechariah 1:3 and Malachi 3:7). In these ways, the Twelve mirrors the message of the other Prophets, that God will return his people to the land, but more than just giving them physical deliverance, the latter glory will be far more than can be seen now (Haggai 2:9; cf. 2:3; Zechariah 4:10). In this way, the Twelve follows a trajectory that keeps the eyes on the Lord and to the One whom the Lord is sending.

The Coming Messiah

The last theme to consider in the Twelve is the messiah whom the Lord continues to promise. While the Twelve finishes with the historical restoration of the temple (in Haggai and Zechariah), there remains a day when the messenger of the covenant will come (Malachi 3:1). This is what the whole Old Testament anticipated, the arrival of God’s promised messiah. And in the Twelve this is recurring theme.

Cast as a New David, Hosea 3:5; Amos 9:11–15; Micah 5:2–6; Haggai 2:20–23; and Zechariah 3:8–10; 6:10–15; 9:9–10; 12:8–14 all promise a king who will usher in the new covenant (56–58). In this way, the Twelve is more than collection of historical prophets speaking calling Israel to repent. And they are not just futuristic messengers, foretelling the end times (although their may be some of that). Rather, they are messengers of God who foretell the coming Son of David who bring salvation.

Hence, there is great reason for Christians to study the Twelve today as we understand their unified and Christ-centered message.

Putting the Twelve in their Place

In the end, it seems best to read the Twelve as long-ranging 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.

As we observed above, 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.

Reading chronologically, the Minor Prophets, which span over four-hundred years (from the 8th C to the 5th C) 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 (Micah 5:2), led and foreshadowed by Elijah (Malachi 4:4–6), entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Zech 9:9), ready to make a new covenant (Hosea 3:1–5), one that will bring in the nations (Micah 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



2 thoughts on “Finding Theological Unity in The Twelve: Reading the Minor Prophets with Richard Fuhr and Gary Yates

  1. Pingback: Unshakeable Faith: Seeing Christ Through Haggai’s Temple — Part 1 (Haggai 1:1–2:9) | Via Emmaus

  2. Pingback: Unshakeable Faith: Seeking Christ Through Haggai’s Temple (pt.2) | Via Emmaus

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