Twelve books, one scroll, mixed messages: the minor prophets (today’s first four).

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The fourth book of prophecy in the Jewish “Latter Prophets” designation (after Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) is a bit of a cheat. It’s actually twelve books, the books designated in Christian classification as Minor Prophets, and in the Jewish scheme as the Book of the Twelve. At some point these books were collected together and written in a single scroll. This is probably known by the time of Ben Sirach at the beginning of the second century BC, when he refers to “the Twelve Prophets” (Sir 49:10).

There are only a small number of readings provided from the minor prophets in the Sunday lectionary – some are more significant than others. I shall take the Goldilocks option: neither treating them as one book (too long for a single blog post) nor twelve (too short for one post each). Instead I shall post three blogs each covering four of these books. That means today’s blog is on Hosea, Joel, Amos and Obadiah.

Hosea

Hosea is broadly a contemporary of Isaiah, but prophesying in the north, Israel proper, rather than in the kingdom of Judah. He is, along with Jeremiah, among the most personal and emotional of the prophets. His prophetic calling seems tied particularly to his experience of marriage. In his relationship with his unfaithful wife, he sees a picture of God’s relationship with faithless Israel. This leads to his attributing a degree of painful emotion to God which is unusually poignantly expressed. The continuous common lectionary includes a couple of readings from Hosea in its selection of the prophets.1 The main reading used in both lectionaries appears in Matthew as one of Jesus’ favourite quotations from his bible: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”.2

Joel

Again there is only one key reading from Joel used in both lectionaries. This is the call to fast and repent. Joel develops his understanding of the day of the Lord as a day of judgment in the light of the devastation experienced by the land under a plague of locusts. His work is rather hard to place: swarms of locusts are not as easy to date as monarchs and battles. He summons the people to repent so as to avoid the worst of the disaster such a swarm would bring, and to trust God for a future with abundant food in place of the scarcity the locusts leave behind them.

A plague of locusts. (Image courtesy of CSIRO

The power of his poetry always seems to escape the literal reference and makes the encroaching locusts a powerful metaphor for judgment. Joel’s summons to genuine repentance – “rend your hearts and not your garments” – is used as the first reading on Ash Wednesday. It is not quite the most famous verse from Joel’s central vision: that comes in the note of hope at the end which Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost as a prophecy of the Holy Spirit’s work.3

Amos

Amos presents himself as a very unofficial prophet: his legitimation comes from his call not from any form of institutional accreditation.4 This call provides one of the two readings in both lectionaries. He describes himself as a herdsman and tree-dresser, and he was active in the period before the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel, overlapping with the very beginning of Isaiah’s career in the south. He is perhaps the earliest of the prophets to get a book of his prophecies edited together and they seem to be almost unremittingly gloomy.

There is very little by way of hope in Amos. (It may be a later editor who sticks in the one note of hope in the book.) However, his vision of God’s judgement is extensive, and it is driven by a passion for justice. He details the injustices of the surrounding nations before he comes to Israel. As God’s chosen, surely Israel above all should understand God’s call to practice justice. They should know better, but because they oppress the poor and ignore God as much or more as anyone, they will suffer a sterner judgment. It is the stress on God’s concern for justice that marks the other readings from Amos in the lectionary.5

Obadiah

There are no readings from Obadiah included in the lectionary. It is, after all, only a single chapter long. Obadiah is perhaps the most tribal of the prophets. His primary concern is with the day of the Lord bringing vengeance for Israel over the neighbouring land of Edom.

At the heart of this seems to be anger at the way Edom had tried to take advantage of the Judeans being exiled. The grievances of people who thought of each other as in some sense kin, hurt more than those of complete strangers. Israel and Edom traced their kinship and rivalry all the way back to stories of the tribal twin ancestors Jacob and Esau. The prophet looks forward to God finally giving Israel a victory, after Edom had so completely forgotten the ties of kinship as to gloat over Israel’s defeat and take what spoils they could.


Notes

  1. The continuous Year C cycle, Propers 12 & 13. There is also a reading from Hosea in Year B in the Roman Catholic Lectionary, on the 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time.
  2. Year A, 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 5. The verse is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 9:13, and 12:10.
  3. Joel’s prophecy of young men seeing visions and old men dreaming dreams (2:28) only appears in the lectionary as quoted in Acts. A reading from Joel’s more comforting vision of a land of plenty is also an option for Anglican celebrations of Harvest Thanksgiving.
  4. The story of Amos’ call, verses from chapter 7, is read in Year B, Proper 10, the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
  5. In both lectionaries, Year C, the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 20. The other readings from Amos are either in the continuous lectionary, or fall on Sundays where the lectionaries differ slightly.

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