Introduction to the Minor Prophets
Welcome to about 450 years of prophetic writings! The twelve books of Scripture known as the Minor Prophets (and referred to as The Twelve in the Hebrew, Septuagint, and Vulgate Bibles) span about four and a half centuries and cover three significant periods of Israel's history:
It is well worth while to study these twelve prophets in their own historical contexts. We get to see who reigned over Israel and Judah, who were the contemporaries of these prophets (for instance, Elisha's ministry paralleled that of Obadiah and Joel), and what were the issues facing God's people during the days these men brought God's message.
It is interesting, therefore, to discover that the first division of the Minor Prophets is not arranged chronologically; that is, the prophets of the Assyrian Period are not in chronological order whereas the remaining five books are. How and why did this happen?
This study will attempt to outline the history of the collection of The Twelve, particularly with reference to the prophets of the Assyrian Period. It is important to note at this point that not all commentators and scholars agree as to the historical order of the books especially with regard to Obadiah and Joel but particular historical proofs are not the point of this booklet. Our point is to describe the interesting history of how the books were collated and transmitted to their present place in the English Bible, and then to introduce the Twelve as a collection of timely, relevant messages to todays world.
Speaking only of the Old Testament, God used the hands of at least thirty writers spanning at least an entire millenium in recording His words2. These men ranged socially from kings to statesmen to migrant farmers to court priests. By the way, the social status of these Biblical writers seems to have been somewhat of a factor in the arrangement of Old Testament scriptures.
At first the Word of God was heard orally and passed on orally (Gen. 12:26,27; 15:1). The first recorded incidence of the Word of the Lord being written down was when God commanded Moses to do so (Ex. 17:14; Num. 33:2). From that point on it was common for those who received God's Word also to record it (see Joshua, Josh. 24:26; Samuel, 1 Sam. 10:25; Jeremiah, Jer. 36:2). Thus we have the beginnings of the record of God's words3.
This type of transmission occurred down through Israel's history. Guarding the integrity of this written record was the duty of professional priestly scribes who took painstaking care to guard its accuracy. Also, the texts of scripture were read throughout each year at various feasts and celebrations. The scrolls themselves were kept in the Jerusalem temple until the time of the Babylonian captivity.
After the return from the Babylonian captivity, the Jewish people recognized the need of becoming familiar once more with the scriptures, a need which Ezra was compelled to meet (see Ezra and Nehemiah). Ezra is traditionally credited with compiling the Old Testament manuscripts into the Hebrew canon a valid tradition not refuted by historical evidence4. According to this tradition, Ezra compiled the Old Testament writings into the divisions which the modern Hebrew Bible still holds: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.
Ezras division is supported in scripture, though there appears to be an older twofold division into the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 7:12; 22:40).
The basic difference between the Hebrew Bible and our English Bible began at this point the English Bible generally accepts four divisions: Law, History, Poetry, and Prophecy.
The Hebrew Old Testament
According to one source, the most probable reason for the Hebrews to arrange the Old Testament the way they did (or, the way Ezra decided it) was the attention given to the authors' official status. Moses, the Lawgiver, was given first place with his five books. The prophets came next with their eight books. Finally, the non-prophets wisemen, kings and princes appear with their books.
With regard to the Minor Prophets, the Hebrew Bible places them approximately in the middle of this three-fold division under the group of the Prophets. The Prophets are further divided into two parts, the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. The Former Prophets include Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The Latter Prophets include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and The Twelve5.
The Twelve is the title by which the Hebrews know the Minor Prophets. They were (and are) regarded as one book, not twelve separate books6. They were grouped together into one book because of their small size and the practical possibility that they might become lost if separated7.
The Twelve were not called the "Minor Prophets" until the time of Augustine and Jerome when the Latin Church designated them as such because of their brevity8. (The title of "minor" has nothing to do with their importance or content.)
The order of the Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Old Testament is the same as that of our English Bibles: they begin with Hosea and end with Malachi. The only difference is that they are placed as one book at the end of the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible.
The question as to how the books ended up in their present order is most probably accounted for in the history of the translation of the Old Testament.
Somewhere between 280 BC and 150 BC in Alexandria, Egypt, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek9. This translation is known as the Septuagint (LXX) and is responsible for several changes which took place in the arrangement of the Hebrew Bible. Some books were reclassified, some were regrouped, some were renamed, and even some extra-biblical books were added10.
The concern of the Alexandrian translators was not authorship nor a particular author's contribution, but rather the content of the book and the contribution the whole would have to the fabulous library in the city. The scriptures were chosen to be placed in the Alexandrian library because of the great literary work it was, not because of any conviction regarding the sacred Word of God. Thus, in order to produce a readable and practical copy of the book, certain changes had to be made.
The most obvious change to the book was the need to translate it from Hebrew to Greek. Hebrew was a little-known and little-used language in that part of the world, even among Jews. Also, in order to appeal to the Greek population, other changes had to be made within the book; namely, arrangement of the material. The books of the Hebrew Bible were rearranged according to subject matter, dividing the scriptures into the four parts we are familiar with to this day: Law, History, Poetry, Prophecy11.
In addition to these changes, other books were placed into the scriptures, called the Apocrypha, though they had never been a part of the Hebrew Bible, nor were they written in Hebrew. As an aside it should be noted that Christianity never regarded the apocryphal books as part of the canon of inspired scripture, nor were these books put into any subsequent translation until the Council of Trent in the 16th century decreed their inclusion12.
The Twelve were kept together as a single book in the newly arranged scriptures, under the division of Prophets, but before the larger prophetic books (most probably because there was an ancient tradition that Hosea was the earliest of the twelve prophets). Thus in the LXX The Twelve come after the poetic books and before the larger prophets. The chart below shows this arrangement (apocryphal books are in italics).
The Vulgate translation (c. 382-405 AD), the official Latin translation by Jerome, followed the LXX format because of the familiarity of Christianity with its fourfold division. Also, the New Testament adopted a similar structure by arranging its books into the groups Gospels, History, Epistles, Revelation13. This arrangement by Jerome found great acceptance among his constituency and solidified the division of scripture.
The Vulgate, however, places The Twelve again as one book after the larger prophetic books (and before the apocryphal book of the Maccabees). The order of the books within The Twelve are once again in the order of the old Hebrew text as well as our English Bibles.
Through these historical arrangements and compilations we observe the categorial divisions and ordering of scripture as shown in the table below. The table shows first the divisions of literary type, then the order and placement of The Twelve.
Internal Arrangement of the Assyrian Period Prophets
The chronological order of the prophets of the second and third periods were well known to the collectors and determined their placement in the scroll of The Twelve. The order of the Assyrian Period prophets, however, was a combination of authorship, content, and geography14.
Hosea is placed at the head of the collection because his prophecies are the most comprehensive, just as in the collection of Pauline epistles Romans is placed first. The subsequent books of this period have no date given in the heading and so were arranged with a few guiding principles in mind.
First, a prophet of the kingdom of Israel was always paired with that of a prophet of the kingdom of Judah: Joel (J) with Hosea (I); Obadiah (J) with Amos (I); Micah (J) with Jonah (I); Habakkuk (J) with Nahum (I).
Second, the scope of the prophecies were paired together, and the relative sizes of the books were paired together. Thus Joel was paired with Hosea since both dealt with one particular part of the kingdom: Hosea with Israel; Joel with Judah. Obadiah was paired with Amos because of their size. Amos follows Joel because Amos begins with a quotation from Joel (Joel 3:16).
Amos and Obadiah might also have been placed together since Obadiah's prophecy might be regarded as an expansion of Amos 9:12.
There are possibly two reasons Obadiah was placed before Jonah and not Micah: First, Jonah lived in the reign of Jeroboam II, the contemporary of Amaziah and Uzziah, whereas Micah did not appear until the reign of Jotham. Second, Obadiah begins with the words, "We have heard tidings from Judah, and a messenger is sent among the nations," and Jonah was such a messenger.
A Chronological Listing of The Twelve, Approximte Dates, Historical Passages
The red block represents the Assyrian Period prophets, the blue the Babylonian Period, and the yellow the Persian Period.
Themes of the Minor Prophets
There are several ways to look at the books of these twelve prophets: a focus on prophecies, biographical information, historical data, etc. If one were to focus on the impact of the messages, however, and pay particular attention to how their audiences might have responded, one could propose the following table of secondary titles and themes.
Guidelines for Study
The purpose of looking at the Twelve chronologically is to give us the best possible way of identifying with the Jewish people at the times of the prophets. We need to pay attention to history. We need to listen to the prophets as if we were in Israel/Judah when they were there, preaching in the streets, in the fields, on the walls, and in our houses. Doing so raises some interesting questions to ask as we read the books of the Minor Prophets.
Why would this particular message mean anything to me, especially if Hosea/Joel/Amos were speaking of Amon or Assyria? If we knew, for instance, that the crops had utterly failed this year, our people were depressed and unwilling to withstand the threats of an Assyrian army, it would be a merciful and encouraging message from God to hear a prophet say that the Lord was going to defeat the enemy for us.
What am I learning (or being reminded of) about the character and promises of God? Why does Amos tell us to "prepare to meet thy God?" What have we missed that we need to be re-introduced to Him?
As you read and study, do so prayerfully. Keep the historical framework in mind and open a map to see what the prophets are talking about. Make it as real as possible to you, for these were, indeed, living people who had families and a nation to care about and to pray for. There are deep truths for you and I in the pages of their tears and prayers, warnings and consolations. The principle here is that application must be just as text based and focused as your initial interpretation. Find the significance for the prophets audiences before finding it for yourself.
A Prayer of Thanks for the Twelve
Our Father, we thank You for these twelve faithful men who stood apart in trying times, who were honest with You, with themselves, and with us. Thank You for Your Spirit which moved in them with a passion for their country, but even more so with a passion for your people. They are a great example, like so many of Your saints, about whom the writer of Hebrews says "the world was not worthy." We pray for attentiveness as we hear their words today. We pray for hearts to be open to Your voice as You speak through their words and tell us over again Who You are and what You desire of us. Amen.
1Norman Geisler and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago: Moody Press. 1977. P. 20.
2W.H. Griffith Thomas. How We Got Our Bible. Chicago: Moody Press. N.d., p. 10.
3Ibid., p. 13.
4Ibid, p. 13.
5Geisler and Nix, p. 20.
6Hobart E. Freeman. An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets. Chicago: Moody Press. 1977. P. 135.
7Ibid., p. 135.
8Ibid., p. 135.
9Geisler and Nix, p. 20.
10A small excursus: we found it quite interesting to think of how Egypt was the place that kept and nourished Moses, the Lawgiver, and through much pain brought Israel to the world. Now, so many centuries later, Egypt once again gives birth to the Law of Moses and presents a mature Israel to the world. This is an exciting example of Gods superintendence of history and His vast providential care... and perhaps of His incredible humor.
11Ibid., p 20.
12Thomas, p. 16.
13Geisler, Nix, p. 21.
14The following is adapted from Keil and Delitzsh: C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament. Vol. 10, "Minor Prophets". Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers. 1989.