Friday, 30 November 2012

Bible Reading Plan: The Minor Prophets

This is a somewhat belated post (for which apologies) on the 'Twelve Minor Prophets', whose books are traditionally read around this time of the year in the Office at Matins, and are set for the Bible Reading Plan over November and early December.

Importance

These prophets are called 'minor' not because they are unimportant (quite the contrary, they are very important indeed) but because they are short: the longest two books of the group (Hosea and Zechariah) clock in at fourteen chapters; while the shortest, Obediah and Haggai, have only one.

Despite their shortness, several of them are quoted in the New Testament very frequently indeed, in part because some of their prophesies are fulfilled in the New Testament, but also because of the enduring nature of the warnings they contain.

The prophets frequently point to the importance of right behaviour, providing the seeds of the social teachings of the Church.  They should also though, remind us that the failure of God's people to keep his covenant - whether new or old - has real consequences in the here and now.

What is a prophet?

These writings stretch over quite a long period - from the eighth to the fourth centuries BC, and the things they describe often overlap with events recounted in the historical books.

What they have in common is that the speaker played a charismatic role in his time: the prophets were not (necessarily) priests, but rather derived their authority to speak directly from a charism granted by God.

Some of them were instructed by God to use dramatic means to get the message across: the instruction to Hosea to marry a harlot,  to symbolize the state of the marriage between God and his people, being right up there.

I have to admit, though, that my favourite is the most reluctant of the prophets, Jonah, who when told to call on Nineveh to repent, first ran in the opposite direction, and after finally giving the warning rather hoped they wouldn't heed it, and was angry when they were spared!

A quick guide to the twelve...

Here is a quick guide to the twelve books.

Hosea (Nov 14-17) - Fourteen chapters long, Hosea prophesied between around 745-730.  Born in the reign of King Jeroboam II in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, this was a turbulent period when Israel managed to depose or assassinate six kings in the course of twenty years and was invaded by the Assyrian Empire at least twice.  The key issue for Hosea though is the resulting religious syncreticism that grew up: in an effort to appease the invaders, the people worshiped pagan gods and priests failed to teach.  The relationship between God and his people is depicted as a marriage - and infidelity was rife.  One particularly relevant to our times!

Joel (Nov 18) - Three chapters long, scholars are split on when this was written, debating whether it was very early indeed (830-740) or around 400 BC, after the return of the people to Jerusalem from Exile, but before the Greek invasion.  Either way, it is a call to repentance and penance in the face of a calamity (historically a plague of locusts).

Amos (Nov 19-20) - Nine chapters.  Amos was a shepherd at the time of King Jeroboam II (his work probably dates from between 760 and 750), and his focus is on injustice and immorality: in short, true social justice.

Obadiah (Abdias) (Nov 21) - This is actually the shortest book of the Old Testament, with only one chapter and twenty one verses.  It prophesies the destruction of Israel's enemies, in the form of Edom, the nation that began with Esau, and the future kingdom of God.  It may be the oldest of the minor prophets books.

Jonah (Nov 22) - The story of Jonah being swallowed by the whale and surviving three days in its belly is cited by Our Lord as foreshadowing his own descent into hades.  Modernist scholarship has decided this book is a fable or parable; the tradition has always held otherwise.  Nonetheless, these four chapters are surely the most humorous in the Bible.

Micah (Nov 23-24) - Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, prophesying between around 740-700.  Its seven chapters are a call to conversion, and contains the prophesy that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

Nahum (Nov 25) - The three chapters of this book deal with the fall of Nineveh (the Assyrian capital) due to their cruelty (they were conquerered by the Babylonians in 612) and its author was active between 698 and 642 BC.

Habakkuk (Nov 26) - Three chapters dealing with the problem of evil, and on how injustice may prevail in the short term - but good will ultimately triumph.  It was probably written around 608 BC, and loooks at how God brings down the Assyrian Empire by using the Babylonians (Chaldeans).

Zephaniah (Nov 27) - Zephaniah was the great-great grandson of King Hezekiah, and prophesied just before the Babylonian captivity, around 635-630.  The main target of his three chapters is superstition and idolatry.  The author of the Dies Irae drew heavily on his description of the day of judgment.


Haggai (Nov 28) - Written in 520 BC this short one chapter book urges the exiles returned to Jerusalem courtesy of the Persian Cyrus to resume the task of rebuilding the Temple.  Lack of funds and people had caused the returnees to give up on the task; Haggai's message is that the poverty of the people has been caused by their lack of commitment to the task.  Handel uses the verse Thus says the Lord: and I will shake in his Messiah.  A message here for some of our bishops, intent on selling off churches rather than building up their beauty, perhaps...

Zechariah (Nov 29-Dec 1) - A contemporary of Haggai, Zechariah also gets a guernsey in Handel's Messiah, with the aria Rejoice O Daughter of Zion, and a key focus of the book is certainly the future coming of the Messiah.  Like Haggai, though, it deals with the need to rebuild the Temple, destroyed in 587 BC.  It has fourteen chapters.

Malachi (Dec 2) - Malachi's four chapters foretell the coming of John the Baptist to prepare the way for Christ.  Written between 420-400 BC he is the last of the Old Testament prophets, and speaks of the legalism and lack of real reverence that characterized the times.  The keys to reform, he suggests, are the Temple, the priesthood and the liturgy, and fidelity to the law.

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