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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament

Jim Moyers


8: Three More Post-Exilic Prophets

Obadiah, Malachi, and Joel were written sometime after the return of the Jewish captives from Babylon, a time of chaos and uncertainly with a politically weak Judah continually threatened by other nations.  There are no dates given for their prophecies and no mention of kings whose known reigns might provide a rough date.  No personal information about the prophets is revealed in the texts.  All three follow the usual prophetic pattern of condemning injustice and unfaithfulness to God, threatening divine retribution, and finally providing assurance that Israel will be restored to greatness surpassing that of its past.  The Day of the Lord is increasingly an apocalyptic event.


Obadiah has the distinction of being the shortest book in the OT, so short that it wasn’t divided into chapters in the medieval era like the other OT books.  Verses 1-15, which in part duplicates the oracle against Edom in Jeremiah 49:7-16, condemn Edom and describes how all the nations will join to destroy it.  


Edom, which occupied territory to the southeast of Judah, is a repeated concern throughout the writings of the prophets.   The Edomites were believed to be descendants of Esau while the people of Israel were descended from his brother, Jacob, renamed “Israel” by God.  As Israel’s brother Edom should have come to the aid of Judah, but instead took advantage of the Babylonian conquest to move into Judean land.  There may also have been a treaty violation in which Edom joined others against Israel.  


The second half of Obadiah, verses 17-21, proclaims the Day of the Lord in which “the house of Jacob shall be a fire . . . and the house of Esau stubble” (26).  Edom will be subjected to Israel.  This seems to have become a fulfilled prophecy during the second century BCE when the Idumaeans (the Greek name for the Edomites) were indeed conquered and forcibly converted to Judaism.  They supported Judah in the 1st century CE Jewish rebellion against Rome and disappeared from history after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.


Malachi, which translates as “my messenger,” may or may not have been the name of the prophet.  The first few verses again focus on Edom and the disasters that have befallen it as proof that God “loved Jacob but hated Esau” (1:2) after which the focus shifts to what is going on in Jerusalem.  The temple has been polluted by priests sacrificing blind and lame animals.  There has been intermarriage with people who worship “foreign gods” and divorce which God hates.  


But the Lord “will suddenly come into his temple” to “purify the sons of Levi . . . till they present right offerings to the Lord” (3:1, 3).  “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears,” (3:2) a text I often heard quoted as a description of the Second Coming of Jesus.  Which of course is not the meaning in the original context.


God will send “my messenger” (this use of the Hebrew malachi seems to make it doubtful that it was the prophet’s name) to “prepare the way” for the sudden divine appearance in the temple.  The wicked will be judged while the names of “those who feared the Lord and thought on his name” will be recorded in “a book of remembrance” (3:16).  The day will come, “burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.  But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.  You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall” (4:1-3).  That last bit I don’t recall ever having heard quoted by SDA ministers and teachers, most of whom it would be difficult albeit amusing to picture “leaping like calves.”


The last verse of Malachi, which seems to have been attached to the book as a sort of appendix, identifies the prophet Elijah as the messenger who will be sent “before the great and terrible day of the Lord” (4:5).  This text became important in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic tradition, and in the Gospel of Luke was applied to John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus.  


Joel further develops the apocalyptic scenario of the Last Day.  It is the source for some very familiar verses that I recall being recited as rote phases related to Adventist expectations of “the end of time.”  For instance I was taught that “The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord” (2:30 in the English translation of Joel in which the chapter and verse division differs from that of the Hebrew text) was a prediction of the “Dark Day” of May 19, 1780, more than sixty years prior to the date of the Second Coming as set by the Millerite Movement from which the SDA church emerged.  After years of hearing the Dark Day cited as a supernatural “sign of the times” I was surprised to learn that it was a local and very natural event caused by smoke from a vast wildfire to the west of New England.

    

Joel opens with a description of a plague of locust which has stripped the land bare.  The streams are dried up and terrible famine is affecting even the wild beasts.  A fast (which seems a rather dubious response to famine!) is proclaimed to petition God.  God, who is gracious and merciful, responds with deliverance and blessing.


With the locust repeatedly compared to an invading army, it is not clear whether they are to be taken literally as an insect plague or if they symbolize a human enemy desolating the land.  But whether they are symbolic or real, if God’s people “return to me with all your heart” (2:12) he will drive the enemy “into a parched and desolate land” (2:20).  Describing preparations for the war of the nations against Israel, Joel inverts the familiar texts of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3:  “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears” (3:10).  The nations gathered against Judah will be judged “in the valley of decision” (3:14) for their offenses against God’s people.  Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia, which have “sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks” (3:6). will have their own children sold to Arabian traders.  “Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness for the violence done to the people of Judah” (3:19).    . . . But Judah shall be inhabited for ever, and Jerusalem to all generations” (3:19-20).


© 2021 James Moyers

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