In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Anna Sieges joins Pete and Jared to elaborate on the benefits of viewing the Minor Prophets as a literary whole. Together, they explore the following questions:
- What exactly is the Book of the Twelve?
- Where did the Christian tradition get the idea of “minor” prophets?
- What is the benefit of reading the Minor Prophets as a unit rather than as individual books?
- How does Mamma Mia help us understand the Book of the Twelve?
- How does the chronology add to the beauty of the Book of the Twelve?
- How does the trajectory of the Book of the Twelve mirror the trajectory of Isaiah?
- What are some of the primary themes that come through in the Book of the Twelve?
- What is the literary anchor of the book of the twelve?
- If Joel is like an introduction or preface to the Book of the Twelve, why doesn’t it come first?
- What did the writer of Malachi mean when they said God “hates divorce?”
- What strong connections are present between Jonah and Joel?
- Why does Jonah stick out like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the prophetic books?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Anna Sieges you can share:
- “With the Book of the Twelve, you’ve got kind of standalone pieces, like you can read Hosea or Zephaniah on its own. But when you bring them all together, they tell this larger story of the people of God and you’re just hearing all of their ups and downs as they go.” @AnnaSieges
- “Folks did not like the idea of somebody coming in later and adding to these prophetic works, but I think it’s really special. It’s really helpful because it helps round out the prophetic word into more than just like, you’re going to get the smackdown. It offers a hope for restoration.” @AnnaSieges
- “There’s a really gritty character to the prophets. They’re looking at their circumstances, they’re looking at invading armies or the crops failing and they’re wrestling with, ‘Well, how do I reconcile this with what I know of God?’” @AnnaSieges
- “When does mercy show up? And when does justice show up? Because God’s got both sides. And how do you navigate between those two? That seems to be something that the Book of the Twelve is wrestling with—desiring mercy and yet experiencing justice sometimes.”
- “[The editors of the Book of the Twelve] are wrestling through this, and there are different points of view that are presented and they let that tension stand. It’s almost like they’re in a conversation together, which I love.” @AnnaSieges
MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: Common English Bible
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
MORE FROM ANNA SIEGES
- Blog Post: We Don’t Talk About Periods, No No
- Blog Post: Why Women in Ministry?
- Blog Post: MacArthur and Me: An Invitation
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Welcome, everybody, and today’s topic is “The Minor Prophets and Why We Shouldn’t Call Them That” and our guest is Anna Sieges.
Jared: Yep, she is the Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Gardner-Webb University. And what should we call them, if we’re not going to call them the Minor Prophets?
Pete: We should call them the Book of the Twelve. Why? Because Anna says so, that’s why. It’s that simple.
Jared: Exactly. That’s all you need to know.
Pete: Actually, everybody, people been saying that for a very long time, which is sort of the point of this podcast.
Jared: Like the people who wrote the books called the Book of the Twelve, call it that. So, we should maybe-
Pete: That’s right. Yeah.
Jared: Pay attention to the people who actually wrote the books.
Pete: Right. I’m not really sure what that means, but that’s a really good point, Jared, I appreciate that.
Pete: So yeah, you know, the thing is that it’s—I love this discussion, because just digging a little, just a little under the surface even, to some of these biblical books, you just, you catch a vision for like, there’s so much more going on here than meets the eye. And, and the so-called Minor Prophets, you know, they’re short books, and you knock them off, but there’s much more going on there and Anna gave us a glimpse into this. So, I thought was a great conversation.
Jared: Yeah. So, let’s talk about the Book of the Twelve.
Anna: Mamma Mia is this musical that takes these ABBA songs and then puts them together into a continuous story. They’re just separate ABBA songs, but in this play, you bring them together to make them into a whole. And that’s kind of what’s going on with the Book of the Twelve. You’ve got kind of like standalone pieces, like when you bring them all together, they tell this larger story, which is kind of cool to read them all together in that way.
Anna: So, I grew up as a missionary kid and loved the Bible, it was my favorite thing. I would like check-out Bible dictionaries and commentaries and things and look through them as like a child and teenager. And I took this vocational test that was like- it was a Christian vocational test, though. And it was like, what should you be when you grow up? And it came out Bible scholar.
Anna: And I was like, I have- I don’t know what that is or what that could even mean.
Pete: And how old were you?
Anna: I was- when I took the test, I was 18.
Pete: Did you have friends?
I had youth group friends.
Anna: We all listened to Christian music together and we were real cool.
Pete: Okay. Yeah, I guess you’re right.
Anna: Yeah, like DC Talk was a big deal for us.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Anna: Mm hmm.
So, I didn’t know what that meant. I went to college and took some classes in Bible, we had to, and just had a blast doing it and so luckily, I had a female professor that was teaching me Bible. And I was like, “Oh, man, this woman is doing something that I think I would really like to do.” And I don’t think it would have occurred to me that I could do it if there hadn’t been a woman in that role. Because all of my pastors had always been men and all of my other Bible teachers had always been men.
But anyway, so I was in her class one day, it was a prophets class and I was loving it having a great time. And she brought in this guy from the Divinity School at the same college, his name is James Nogalski, he’s a huge Book of the Twelve person. And he gave the driest lecture of all time on Joel as the literary anchor of the Book of the Twelve, and he just showed how Joel has all of these little points that connect elsewhere in the Book of the Twelve to these other prophetic works, and I was entranced. And I loved it and from that point forward, I was like I’m Book of the Twelve, that’s what I do. And so, for that, that was it, the 21-year-old version of me was like, the Book of the Twelve is amazing, this is what I’m going to do with my life.
Jared: Wow, that’s very definitive. Yeah. I don’t know if anyone’s ever been so definitive book of Joel.
Pete: So, just, that whole experience, just opened up windows and doors and sort of expanded stuff compared to how, let’s say your relationship with the Bible was before that point?
Anna: Yeah, it did. It really, it helped me to look at the Bible in new ways, especially because what he was bringing to the table was this idea that these twelve books or writings had been edited together over time, which is kind of a tough concept for somebody who’s been taught to read the Bible as looking at these prophetic books as being written by the person of the prophet. What I was hearing then was, oh, maybe the person – the prophetic person like Micah, or Hosea, or Amos or one of these guys- maybe they had a role in it, but as time passed and more people were involved in forming it and shaping it and reinterpreting it and bringing this whole collection together.
And so, that was kind of a new way of thinking about the work of a prophet for me, because so often I think when we think about prophets, we think, okay, this firebrand that shows up on the scene and maybe walks around naked for three years or something like that and is very controversial. And I think that that’s apt, but I think that sometimes we miss that these prophets, the prophetic works that we now read, had a life that continued after the person of the prophet through these kind of pencil pusher types, who were there to keep the tradition alive, keep what the prophet had said alive and reinterpret it to new situations. And so that was a new concept for me, but also a really beautiful one, because I don’t really think of myself as a firebrand or anything like the prophets that we meet in the Old Testament, but I can be a pencil pusher with the best of them.
Anna: And you know, pay attention to details and continue telling the stories over and over again to new generations.
Jared: Well, let’s back up just a second, because before we get too far into it, you keep calling it the Book of the Twelve.
Jared: And in my tradition, would have called it the Minor Prophets and we would have thought of them as separate entities. So, you had Micah and Joel and Hosea, they’re all separated. But the way you’re talking about it is as a unit, so can you talk a little bit about and again, for our listeners, the Jewish canon, or how the Jewish readers read their scriptures, it would be called the Book of the Twelve, it would be a unit. But for Christians, we’ve separated those out. Can you talk a little bit about the history of that before we start talking about the Book of Twelve as a unit? Because I think for a lot of people, that might be a new idea.
Anna: Yeah, absolutely. I think usually, you’re right. The way that we read these prophets is to call them the Minor Prophets, and that dates back to Augustine, our good friend, and I don’t think that he was trying to be pejorative or anything, but he called, you know, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, the Major Prophets and then the other ones were the Minor Prophets. And he was just, he had in mind, “Oh, these guys are shorter, so they’re minor.” But in Jewish tradition, you’re right, they’re all together, and they’re referred to collectively as the Book of the Twelve, which probably dates back to the fact that they were all on one scroll together.
You know, in ancient times, you got a big old scroll, you’ve got the Book of Isaiah on one scroll Jeremiah on another scroll and then the Twelve on one scroll just all pushed in together. And so, yeah, it seems that for, in ancient tradition and then even moving closer to our more modern time, Jews have been much better at reading the twelve prophets together than we Christians have been because we inherited this tradition of calling them the Minor Prophets, and then focusing in on the individual prophets, rather than taking them as a whole book together.
Pete: And maybe—correct me if I’m wrong—but part of that in the Christian tradition might have to do with issues of prophesying Jesus. So, you’re looking at these individual snippets from the books rather than, I guess what you’re saying is just appreciating them as a literary whole, that also has some theological substance because of that literariness.
Anna: Right, yeah. I think you’re onto something there. There is a tendency, maybe, to like pick and choose certain passages and then apply those to Jesus. And I think that there was a real interest in like, the person of the prophet. So, what was Micah like? Where did he grow up? What was his, you know, life like? And one of the interesting things with the Minor Prophets or the Twelve, is that you don’t get a whole lot of autobiographical information. And so, if you’re going on that search, like you would, you get a little bit for Isaiah. You get a good amount for Jeremiah and a good amount for Ezekiel. But when you look at the Twelve, there’s just not a whole lot to help orient you to the person of the prophet. And so those same tricks don’t really work quite as well with the Twelve. You can know some things about Micah and Amos, you know, you’ve got Amos being like, “I’m from Toccoa. And I’m not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet,” but other things don’t really come through. And so, it’s more beneficial in many ways to look at them as a whole, because it’s harder to do that work of isolating the person of the prophet.
Pete: Now, just, I mean, as curiosity, I think some of our listeners might be wondering whether, you know, in Judaism, way back when before the time of Christ, since the very beginning, when they had a Bible, these twelve prophetic books, they were still, as far as we know, in the same order that we have them in our English Bibles today? Or is that not clear?
Anna: Oh, Pete. Oh, no. I don’t know what to say because… So, I’m a redaction critic and so I’ve got a whole long story that I can tell you about how I think the twelve came together, but it’s so boring.
Pete: Okay. Yeah, well, we don’t do boring here, do we?
Pete: It wouldn’t be boring to me. But it did come together. But at some point, I guess what I’m really trying to get at is, you know, Augustine, around 400, right or roughly around that time. He starts using this term Minor Prophets.
Pete: For Christians, were the twelve already sort of separated out into twelve separate books, or, you know what I mean?
Pete: Because I’m just wondering where this idea of like, nah, that it’s not one thing, it’s twelve separate things.
Pete: Was that pre-Augustine? Was that like, I mean, do we know when that sort of mentality started?
Anna: I don’t know exactly, but what I can tell you is that like, for example, Sirach is going to treat them all together. So, Ben Sira is like, hey, we’ve got Jeremiah. We’ve got Ezekiel. We’ve got Isaiah. And we also have, he uses this phrase, the bones of the twelve prophets.
Pete: So, who is he? Who is Ben Sira? And like, when did he live?
Anna: So, he brought to us- well, he’s writing for- he’s writing an account of his grandfather, Sirach. And he’s intertestamental period.
Pete: Right. So, he’s pre-Christian, right?
Pete: So, he’s got this notion already of a Twelve. And almost like he’s not- he’s clearly not inventing it.
Anna: Right. Yeah, he didn’t come up with it and even later with Josephus, he will refer to 22 books within the Hebrew Bible, and you can’t get 22 books in the Hebrew Bible, like we would usually count 39. But you can’t get 22 if the Book of the Twelve if the 12 books are separated. So, Josephus seems to be kind of nodding towards it. Also, the Talmud says that the sages taught that the order of the books of the prophets are- and they do, you know, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and then they do Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve Prophets. So, the Talmud is even lumping these twelve together.
Jared: So, why would you do that? What are the benefits to reading this as a unit, rather than seeing them as discrete books like maybe many of us grew up reading them?
Anna: Sure. I mean, I think you get a whole lot of fun takeaways.
So, number one, the order that we have them in is largely chronological. So basically, what you get is you’re hearing the story of the people of God, from like the 8th century through maybe the 5th century through this prophetic mouthpiece, and you’re just hearing all of their ups and downs as they go if you read from Hosea all the way through Malachi, which is kind of fun to have that chronological framework. One of the ways that I like to talk about it is, are you guys familiar with Mamma Mia the musical?
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: [Light laughter]
No, I haven’t seen it, but I know what it’s about.
Anna: It’s awesome. It’s the best.
So, Mamma Mia is this musical that takes these ABBA songs that just kind of exist in the 70s and takes a whole bunch of them and puts them together into a continuous story. And so, you get like-
“Mamma Mia, here I go again…”
[Speaking voice] And then,
[Singing voice] “Dancing Queen…”
[Speaking voice] And they’re all like, they’re just separate ABBA songs, but in this play, you bring them together to make them into a whole. And that’s kind of what’s going on with the Book of the Twelve. You’ve got kind of like standalone pieces, like you can read Hosea on its own or you can read Zephaniah on its own. But when you bring them all together, they tell this larger story from the time of the Assyrians through the time of the Persians, which is kind of cool to read them all together in that way.
Jared: So, as we read them, we’re reading these different accounts. How does that play into- you started our conversation talking about how these are edited works together. And so, is that part of it? Like when we’re reading, toward the end, say toward Malachi, are we reading something that was written a few hundred years before and has gone through revisions and now we’re getting the Persian version, so to speak? Or are these being written chronologically as well? I’m trying to piece together what’s the relationship of the writing of these to how we get them in our Bibles now.
Anna: I would say a little bit of both. So certainly, some of the stuff in Hosea and Amos and Micah goes back to the 8th century. There are cores there that that tend to go back as far as the 8th century. But then as time went on, it seems like these pencil pushers and poets were adding to them.
So, you add a little bit to Amos, you add a little bit to Hosea, and then you, oh! You got to introduce Nahum, so now we’re going to add a little bit more to start to bring these together. And so, in many ways, you could say they’re being written chronologically, right? They have their home in a certain period of time, but the people who are responsible for maintaining these books saw fit to bring them together and edit them together, as they added more and more material.
Pete: So, you get some glimpses of like, a time after Hosea. It was 8th century, right?
Pete: So just, yeah. Because I mean, that that’s helpful to know because I think when people sit down to read these books really carefully, things can sometimes get a little bit confusing, because it’s like, it seems like we’re in a different time here. Or why are they mentioning these people and over there, they’re mentioning these other people from a different time period. And it helps, it helps to understand the—I guess what Jared was asking was the literary history of it, you know? And how things, how even their concept of these, you know, the words of the sacred prophets, means you don’t keep them under glass, but they actually transform as the community transforms.
Anna: Yeah, that’s a really good way of putting it. Yeah, they’re undergoing a transformation as the community moves through different times and different concerns, really. So, for example, very often, you can see it pretty clearly in both Hosea and Micah. You’ve got just these terrible, early cores of just judgment, like, “Oh, things are just going to go bad for you.” But then you can see that somebody came in later, probably after the crisis was over, and added in these glowing, hopeful sections, where it’s like, “Hey, you know, it’s going to be okay, God is still with you.” And so, I’m really, it seems to me that folks did not like the idea of somebody coming in later and adding to these prophetic works, but I think it’s really special. It’s really helpful because it helps round out the prophetic word into more than just like, you’re going to get the smackdown and it offers a hope for restoration.
Jared: Okay, so we have this chronology, you said one, what’s two? In terms of why it would be helpful or beneficial or why historically we can read this as a unit.
Anna: Okay, so- well, let me go into a little bit more detail on the chronology. So, for example, if you’re going through just like as the books are labeled in your Bible, you’ve got Hosea and Amos they come first. They’re primarily about the fall of the northern kingdom, right? It’s just like, “Oh man, Assyria is coming in and just going to just totally annihilate the northern kingdom.” Then you get Jonah, Micah, and Nahum, and those all three together are really dealing with Assyrian dominance. So, in Jonah, I know, Jared, that you just did a whole thing on Jonah. But in Jonah, we’ve got the Assyrians turning to God, which is like, “What? That’s insane.” And then, in Micah, it’s kind of like the story goes south and the Assyrians attack Judah. And then in Nahum, ugh, the Assyrians get it.
So, we’re kind of like tracing out, okay, we start with the fall of the northern kingdom, then we’ve got the Assyrian dominance and then the fall of Assyria. Then that same threat that took down Assyria comes to the southern kingdom in Habakkuk and Zephaniah. And then you skip right over the exile, just like the Book of Isaiah does and you go to the return from the exile in Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi. And so yeah, it’s just a really interesting way to look at these superpowers that come through and just kind of beat up on the northern and southern kingdom. And then after all of that happens, the return again.
Pete: It’s interesting, I mean, the way you describe that, because what’s clicking for me is the trajectory of the Book of the Twelve seems to mirror the trajectory of the Book of Isaiah.
Pete: Starting with the Assyrians are the problem, right? But then you have, you know, you move to the second part and then you’re in exile, but you’re not- he doesn’t dwell on the exile part, he dwells on the you’re leaving soon part. So, it’s the return and whatever we do with the last part of Isaiah, but it’s somewhat nice, but it’s also somewhat people are frustrated that things aren’t working out, but you’re still you’re still dealing with that post-exilic period, and that’s also been edited.
Pete: You know, over time and changed and morphed. And I think to me, I just want to, you know, when I teach my students and things, I think that’s such an important thing to know, just the nature of this literature, and from what we can tell, how it came together. And there’s much more to this than, you know, those parts that might have been added to Hosea or Amos, about when things turn around and get better.
Pete: That’s not, it’s okay to say, this isn’t a prophet predicting something that’s going to come about in a couple hundred years. This is this is a community valuing how they feel God is speaking to them at that moment. And they just bring it all together under this one heading, you know. And I don’t know if your experience is like this, Anna, with studying things and having gone to seminary and all that, but there’s something about the humanizing of this book, which is really, I mean, the Bible as a whole, but now the Book of the Twelve. And maybe if you want to talk about that there’s something humanizing about its humanity and how it has its feet on the ground, it’s not this ethereal thing where prophets are hanging out with God up in the throne room and they drop nuggets to us, there’s a struggle happening. And there’s a need to reconcile what God is like even, you know, as the story continues.
Anna: Yeah, there’s a really gritty character to the prophets, in that you can kind of see, as they’re trying to work this out on the ground, you know? They’re looking at their circumstances, they’re looking at invading armies or the crops failing or things like that and they’re wrestling with, “Well, how do I reconcile this with what I know of God?” And you’re right, it does, it brings in this human element.
I like to say of prophets that they do two things really well. And when I say prophets, I don’t mean just like, the Micah the 8th century prophet, but the people who are interpreting it through the ages. I think that their job is to have their feet firmly planted on the ground to understand reality as they see it. And then also, to have God’s vision for the world and what God sees. And so, see clearly what’s in front of you, but also the vision to see as God sees in the hope to bring about that kind of reality, through social justice or proper worship or good farming practices, you know.
Jared: Alright, well, I do want to move to the second thing, because I find this very interesting. So, what’s another reason why we would want to do this? And I guess I’m also curious as to, I’m always curious, when our Bibles just don’t follow the same trajectory as the Jewish Bible and how that might actually change how we see or read our scriptures in the future as Christians.
Anna: Yeah. Well, I think that one of the things that it teaches you to be aware of are kind of the ways that the Bible is interpreting itself. So, you can see this really clearly in the Book of the Twelve, because the certain themes start to come through. So, one of the primary themes of, the Book of the Twelve is big on this, is the day of the Lord. And it just- “the day of the Lord” or “on that day” comes up again and again and they’re, in the book of Joel, which I already mentioned to you is the literary anchor of the Book of the Twelve, right? It has these four key days of the Lord that kind of waft through it, and as you continue to read the Book of the Twelve, you see these four days come across really clearly.
The first day of the Lord being the destruction of the northern kingdom. The second day being the destruction of Assyria. And the third day being the destruction of the southern kingdom. And then, it’s a lot like Isaiah in this way, as you move into those later books that are talking about the return, there’s a sense in which there’s always another date, that fourth day of the Lord is always looming. And so, Malachi, our final book in the Book of the Twelve, is going to be really careful to warn his readers, “Hey, if you don’t straighten up and get this stuff on track, there will be another Day of the Lord.” And so, these four waves, the fourth one that doesn’t actually come to pass within the Book of the Twelve, but it’s always there lingering as kind of a warning that it could happen.
Pete: So, Joel is almost a table of contents for the Book of the Twelve?
Anna: I would call it an introduction or a preface.
Pete: Okay. That raises the question, though, I mean, there may be no answer to this, but you got me curious. Why isn’t it first? Why is it second?
Anna: Well, I think because, well, number one, I think that we are good Westerners and we think “Oh gosh, well if it’s the internet should come first.”
Pete: Yes, of course, the way God intended, I think.
Anna: Yeah, the way that we think that it should happen. But like, for example, you see this all the time in prophetic literature like why isn’t Isaiah’s call first? Why do you have to wait six chapters? What’s going on here? But it seems that, I think, this is just my guess. This isn’t based on anything, but I think that you have to have Hosea first so that you know what you’re dealing with. You know that something has gone terribly wrong, because if you just start out with, “Hey, I’m going send these four days of the Lord,” you’re like, “But why? What happened?” And Hosea kind of sets the pace for that.
Pete: Yeah, that’s a really good point, because otherwise it’s too abstract. But like, you’ve got that first day of the Lord, I guess, really hammered home in Hosea. Plus, it starts off with a great story.
Pete: Or not. Or not. At least one that’s going to get your attention.
Anna: A beautiful romantic story.
Anna: Yeah, have you seen the movie Redeeming Love just came out in theatres?
Pete: I don’t have the nerve. Have you seen it?
Anna: No, I haven’t seen it. I can’t do that.
Pete: It’s hard. It would be hard for me to do that, yeah.
Anna: Yeah. I can’t, no. Romanticizing that kind of story, it’s just, bleh, cringy.
Anna: But that does bring us to another really important theme in the Twelve, which gets introduced in Hosea and that is this marriage between Yahweh and the people/the land, which is kind of interesting. We don’t tend to think of the land as, like, being capable of being in a relationship with a deity, but ancient people sure as heck would have. In fact, we don’t even think of ourselves as being in relationship with the land, you know? Even though we definitely are. Like, we depend on it for our survival.
But anyway, so marriage in Hosea. We’ve got this marriage between Yahweh and the people/the land, which is mirrored in Hosea’s marriage to this wayward woman named Gomer. And through the course of this story, however, you want to hash it out, Hosea and Gomer, kind of, they split up, and then they get back together, which also sets the tone for what you’re going to find in the Book of the Twelve. Well, Yahweh’s relationship with Israel gets broken and then they get back together. And so, you see that theme of marriage and you can trace it throughout the Book of the Twelve. But it becomes really poignant when you get to Malachi and you hear, you hear the Lord speaking, and He says, “I hate divorce. I don’t want to do this again. I don’t want us to split up again, just like we just did with the exile.”
And so, this kind of theme, you get kind of bookends in the Book of the Twelve, where you’ve got Hosea, which foreshadows this relationship that then gets broken, then they get back together. And then you’ve got Malachi, who says, “Gosh, I hate divorce. I don’t want to do this again. Let’s make sure our relationship is steady.”
Pete: You see right there, even that “hate divorce.” How many times have we heard that taken out of context and say this is God’s command, the divorce should never ever happen?
Anna: That’s a great point. Because that’s not at all what’s happening in Malachi. Malachi is not terribly worried about whether you and your spouse split up, but is much more worried about the relationship between God and the people.
Pete: Yeah, I think what you’re doing here is you’re helping us with even reading strategies for the Book of the Twelve, to be looking for these themes that are prominent and to sort of read them across books. So, we have the marriage, which you just said, and the day of the Lord. And are there others that you think are worth mentioning here? Things that maybe you feel are prominent or just connect with you?
Anna: Yeah, the other one that I think is really important is this focus on theodicy. And when I say theodicy, what I mean is, you’ve got these prophets that are trying to figure out the relationship between God’s justice and God’s mercy. And that just comes up again and again throughout the Twelve. And for the most part, you get these little echoes of… You guys are probably familiar with Exodus 34, where God’s like telling Moses his name, and God’s like, “Hey, my name is the Lord. I’m a gracious God, I’m slow to anger, abounding in love. Also, I don’t let the bad people go unpunished.” You know, so, God’s kind of introducing God’s self as both things: I’m gracious, I’m also just. And that plays through the Book of the Twelve in really big ways.
Most normally, what you see is when the prophet is speaking on behalf of God’s people, the prophet is like, “Hey, God, could you show us mercy?” And when the prophet is talking about other people, like foreigners, “Hey, God, could you please show them justice because they deserve it.” Kind of like we are when we get a speeding ticket or something you like, the cop pulls you over and you’re like, “Can I please have mercy?” But if the other guy who was like speeding past you gets pulled over then you’re like, “Justice for him, please.” So, they’re doing a lot of that.
Pete: So, theodicy is, just, can you define that quickly?
Anna: Yeah. Well, the way that I’m thinking about it…sometimes you can think about it in terms of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” That can be a good theodicy question. But the way that I’m thinking about it is just like this negotiation between God’s mercy and God’s justice. So, when does the mercy show up? And when does the justice show up? Because God’s got both sides. And yeah, how do you navigate between those two? And that seems to be something that, that the Book of the Twelve is wrestling with—desiring mercy and yet experiencing justice sometimes.
Pete: And I guess then, you mentioned Exodus 34, that speech that shows up a couple times in the Hebrew Bible. But you know, I guess Jonah sort of turns that on its head a little bit, right? Can you get into that a little bit, just how Jonah plays on that same theme, and comes to what I think is a really ridiculous point of view from an ancient Israelite or Jewish point of view.
Anna: Yeah. So, Jonah, oh my gosh, Jonah is so interesting. Jonah, does not want God to be merciful to the Assyrians, right? Because he hates their guts. And so, he’s so reluctant, he doesn’t want to go preach to them. Finally he does and then they repent in this really miraculous way. And this is just one more instance of reading the Twelve together and how it can be really beneficial. Joel, the prophet Joel, calls for a specific kind of repentance in chapter two of Joel and it involves sackcloth and fasting and every member of society being a part of it. When you get to Jonah, you’re reading about Jonah, “Oh, fine. I’ll go. I’ll preach to these people.” And they enact this repentance that is precisely the kind of repentance that Joel called for: everybody fasts, everybody puts on sackcloth.
And Jonah, the Book of Jonah, even gets a little bit funny with it. And it’s like, yeah, the king says you gotta put sackcloth on all your cows too, which is hilarious. But anyway, so the Ninevites, these Assyrians, they enact this great repentance, and then God’s like, “Cool. This is exactly what I wanted. So, I will now be merciful.” And then Jonah’s like, “Oh, God! This is why I didn’t want to come here! I knew that you were merciful and slow to anger.” Kind of throws it back in God’s face and is like, “How dare you be merciful. I really wanted you to show up with judgment,” which is a very hilarious part of Jonah, where he’s like, “I just wish you weren’t so merciful.”
Jared: While we’re talking about Jonah, I’d be curious to ask you this in terms of, you know, when you read Jonah, it doesn’t read like the other prophetic books, it reads more like maybe the former prophets where we’re learning about the prophets like Elijah and Elisha, and yet here in the in the Book of the Twelve, we have a story about Jonah and the Ninevites. What’s the reason, do you think, I don’t know if there is a good reason, that is it just these thematic connections? I wonder, but what made me think of it is, if you just look at the thematic connections, Jonah belongs. But if you look at maybe the formatting and the style, Jonah doesn’t seem to belong, which may be more of a case again, to read this as a unit.
Anna: Yeah. Oh, no, that’s a good question. Because it does, it just sticks out like a sore thumb. I think that it’s there. It has really strong connections to Joel, for one thing, and I think that’s intentional. I think that helps it fit into the Book of the Twelve a lot better just because when they do this repentance, it is precisely the one that Joel called for. But I think it’s also there like it, it does read like Elijah and Elisha. But also, it’s highly satirical, right? Basically, the whole book is making fun of the prophet, which is interesting in prophetic literature to be like, “Haha, the prophet’s a dummy.” But it, number one, I think that it was included and written in the post-exilic period when we’ve got folks like Ezra running around being like, “Dismiss your foreign wives, we have to have ethnic purity!” And I think that Jonah, in many ways, is there as satire and comedy to push back on that sort of idea, kind of like- do you guys remember when Stephen Colbert did the Colbert Report and he just pretended to be this right-wing guy? I think that’s kind of what Jonah is. It’s like we’ve made up this caricature of what a bad prophet looks like, what a prophet looks like who doesn’t actually want to do God’s work, who doesn’t actually want to include the nations.
Pete: Yeah, again, that brings up another issue about the nature of the Hebrew Bible, which is an inner dialogue or debate.
Pete: Which is, you know, I just, it always fascinates me that somebody edited this stuff together. And it’s like, “Yeah, all this stuff is good. It all stays.” You know?
Pete: And yeah, and it’s almost like part of the lesson of reading the Book of the Twelve as a whole is to struggle with those tensions, I don’t mind saying contradictions, I mean, authors can contradict themselves. I don’t think it’s about God contradicting God’s self, it’s just the books. They do this because they’re coming at it from different angles, but there was wisdom and value in preserving that, rather than sanitizing that and even editing it in order to be a book that has some tensions that makes you think about God and your relationship to God and what it means for God to be good or just or merciful and things like that. I just, I don’t know, I always take that away from these kinds of conversations, because it’s really meaningful to me to have a Bible that the parts don’t all have to fit. And if you try to make them fit, you’re actually going miss a lot of what these editors and writers were so careful to try to say.
Anna: Yeah, absolutely, they preserved it there for a reason. They are wrestling through this, and there are different points of view that are presented and they let that tension stand, which I love. I think it’s really cool. I mean, I think even with the interplay between Joel and Jonah, Joel does not like the foreigners. He does not like the nations. He’s really looking forward to the day when God is just going to come and burn them all up. And then to have Jonah come along and say, “Yeah, but what if the nations repent in the way that you asked them to? Then do you still want to burn them up?” It’s almost like they’re in a conversation together, which I love.
Pete: Right. And what if God wants them to repent?
Pete: God’s not against them. Then you have Nahum two books later, which is like blasting them again, it’s like, can I get off this roller coaster here anytime soon? But no, you can’t. Actually, you can’t get off that roller coaster, you have to stay on it.
Anna: No, you can’t. And that this might be getting too much into the weeds, but in the Hebrew version of the Old Testament, or Masoretic Text, we’ve got Jonah where it appears in our current Bibles, right? But in the Greek version, they’ve taken out Jonah and Obadiah and Joel, and moved them just because they don’t fit very well with the chronological layout. But if you go back to the Hebrew and have Jonah right before Micah, like the Hebrew has it, it explains so much better why, in Nahum, God is like, “Hey, I’ve been really patient with you. And my patience is at its end.” Because you got to be like, if you don’t have Jonah first, then you’re kind of like, wait, how has God been patient? Why is God even dealing with the Assyrians? But if you’ve got Jonah coming first, then you know, oh, God and the Assyrians have been working together. And now they’re going down in flames.
Anna: So, Nahum gets to be the prophet that Jonah wanted to be.
Pete: And it’s interesting that, I mean, if Jonah is post-exilic, I think you said that before, right? They’re picking on something that’s not even—the subject is not even relevant historically.
Pete: So, I mean, could you just explain why that might be the case? I mean, I don’t know if we have a clue.
Jared: I just want to clarify what you’re saying, just to make sure that our listeners hear that, because when you say post-exilic, that’s after the time that the Assyrians would have been a threat at all.
Pete: Yeah, because they’re out of the picture by the late seventh century.
Jared: They’re out of the picture by like 300-400 years because, not only are the Assyrians no longer, the Babylonians are no longer a threat. Like, we’re already a few empires removed-
Pete: Exactly right.
Jared: By the time we get to the post-exilic period. So, we have this book that’s bringing back up the Assyrians-
Pete: A dead enemy, a bygone dead enemy.
Pete: I mean, do you think, I mean, it’s not a loaded question, because I’m sort of curious, but is, I guess there is sort of rhetorically, maybe, there’s got to be some reason for—I mean, Jonah could have picked on the Babylonians, but why the Assyrians?
Anna: I think the Assyrians are just the worst.
Anna: They’re just awful.
Jared: Historically, yeah.
Anna: They’re so terrible. And I think that in the consciousness of the people of God at that time, I mean, you see in Revelation, it’s going to- they’ll go back to Babylon to make Babylon the big bad guy, which is actually Rome, blah, blah, blah. But, at this point in time, if you’re trying to figure out who was the worst, gosh, it’s got to be the Assyrians. They took down the northern kingdom. They also had this terrible thing that happened during the time of Hezekiah, where they pretty much destroyed the southern kingdom and just left Jerusalem standing. And they’re just so cruel and mean, they are like impaling people. They’re just the worst.
Pete: They’re filleting them. They’re taking the flesh off their bodies.
Anna: Yeah. Ugh,
Pete: They’re just- well, they’re not nice.
Jared: Not to bring us back from Game of Thrones here
Pete and Anna: [Laughter]
Jared: But is one of those reasons though to is, again, I’m kind of hammering this unit picture, which is, if you have these other books circulating around and they’re talking about the Assyrians and you’re- it just seems like you wouldn’t have- like what you said is, if Jonah, the subject of Jonah is Babylon, you lose the narrative that you’ve just been describing to us.
Anna: Tell me more.
Jared: Like Nahum is talking about, you know, the Assyrians.
Pete: Oh, you mean the order in which they appear.
Jared: The order in which they appear. If Jonah now, the subject is Babylon, then you lose this real critical piece of that larger narrative.
Pete: That tension that we’re talking about, right? Yeah.
Jared: Exactly. Right.
Anna: Yeah, that’s true. And I think that there’s something to, I don’t know how old the story of Jonah is, you know? Like, how far does it actually go back? I think it’s probably written down during the post-exilic period. But I think that there is some sort of a sense within the Book of the Twelve of God is working with Assyria somehow. And so having Jonah in there is a crucial point in the narrative to help explain why we have this whole three chapters in Nahum that’s dedicated to taking the Assyrians down and God saying, “Hey, I’ve had compassion on you, but now my patience is at its end.”
Jared: Well, as we wrap up our time here, I have a quick question, because people listening may have given up on the Book of the Twelve, a long time ago. Like, “I don’t get it. I don’t understand why this is relevant.” What would be some words of wisdom to people who say, “Hey, maybe I want to give this a try?” How can they pick up their book and not just completely lose interest in just a couple of minutes? What are some strategies here?
Anna: Well, I think, number one, is always just having a good study Bible, a study Bible that’s going to orient you to the themes that run throughout and then also just like where you are in the chronology, and hopefully a study Bible that’s going to acknowledge that editorial activity has happened and that’s not bad. So, that would be the first step. And then gosh, what would be the second step?
Pete: Do you have a study Bible that you might recommend for that?
Anna: Well, okay, so there are a variety out there. I love the Common English Bible, which is kind of self-promoting, because I wrote some of the notes for it, for the Book of the Twelve.
Pete & Jared: [Laughter]
Anna: But they really do actually a good job being, like, user-friendly for normal people. I could say, like, the New Oxford Annotated Bible and I think that the New Oxford Annotated Bible is fine or like the Harper Collins Study Bible, I think those are good. They’re a little more academic. And so, the Common English Bible is the one that I would go with.
Anna: Yeah. And other than that, I would say, just keep your eyes open for those different themes that you’re going to keep being brought back to you and keep yourself attuned to the ways in which the people of God are wrestling with this relationship. And also, there’s some really horrifying stuff in the Book of the Twelve. Don’t be afraid to wrestle back and be like, “Eww, I don’t like that depiction of God.” And keep moving through until you find one that you like better.
Jared: Oh, alright. Okay, I thought you were going say, make sure you read it through the lens of the end times-
Pete and Anna: [Laughter]
Jared: Because then it gets really relevant really fast.
Anna: Yeah, I mean, if you read it with the Bible in one hand and the Left Behind series in the other hand, then it just really pays off.
Pete: It all pops. It just pops, it comes together. It’s all clear. It’s fantastic.
Pete: So, just in case anybody doesn’t understand, this is sarcasm and don’t do that.
Jared: And if you don’t know what the Left Behind series is, congratulations!
Pete: Good for you.
Anna: You are doing so well in life if you don’t know what Left Behind series is.
Jared: Well, thank you so much, Anna, for jumping on and just giving us just a wealth of information about the Book of the Twelve, which I think is something that often gets left behind in biblical scholarship and isn’t often talked about. So, we really appreciate you coming on.
Anna: Yeah, absolutely. So happy to do it. I really appreciate what you guys do and I’m glad to be a part of it.
Stephanie: Well, that’s it for this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Before you go, we want to give a huge shout out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, you can leave us a review or just tell others about our show. You can also head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month, you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.
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