The Book of the Twelve Prophets covers a range of conditions in the life of Israel, each of which brings its own challenges. The unifying theme of these prophets is that in God there is no split between the work of worship and the work of daily life. Nor is there a split between individual wellbeing and the common good. The people of Israel are faithful or unfaithful, in varying degrees, to God’s covenant with them, and degree of their faithfulness is immediately apparent in their worship or their neglect to worship. The people’s faithfulness, or lack of faithfulness, to God’s covenant, is reflected in not only the spiritual environment, but also the social and physical environment, including the land itself. The people’s degree of faithfulness is also visible in their ethics in life and work, which in turn determines the fruitfulness of their labour and their consequent prosperity or poverty. In the short term the wicked may prosper, but both God’s discipline and the natural consequences of unjust work will eventually reduce the unjust to poverty and despair. But when people and societies work in faithfulness to God, he blesses them with an integrated spiritual-ethical-environmental health and prosperity.
These final twelve books of the Old Testament are usually referred to in the English-speaking Christian tradition as the Minor Prophets. In Hebrew tradition these books are contained in a single scroll called “The Book of the Twelve.” It forms a kind of anthology with a progression of thought and coherence of theme. The essential background of the collection is the covenant that God has made with his people, and the narrative told within the collection is the story of Israel’s violation of the covenant, God’s response in punishing or disciplining of Israel, and God’s slowly-unfolding restoration of the Israelite nation and society.
That being the case, five of the first six books of the Twelve—Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah—reflect on the effect of the people’s sin, both on the conduct of the covenant and on the events of the world. Then the next three—Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah—concern the punishment for sin, again with respect both to the covenant and to the world. The last three prophetic books—Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi—concern the restoration of Israel, yet again with respect to a renewal of the covenant and partial restoration of Israel’s standing in the world. Finally, Jonah is a special case. His prophecy does not concern Israel at all, but with the non-Hebrew city-state of Nineveh. Both its setting and its composition are famously difficult to date reliably.
Historical Backdrop of the Twelve Prophets
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There is much debate about the background and dating of the prophets of Israel and Judah. See Introduction to the Prophets for an overall discussion of the major issues and context of their writings. With respect to the Twelve, let us give a brief outline. Within the first cluster, there is a broad consensus that Hosea, Amos and Micah were situated in the eighth century BC. By that time, the United Kingdom of Israel ruled over by David and then Solomon had been split for some time into a northern kingdom, known as Israel, and a southern kingdom, known as Judah. Micah was a southerner speaking to the south; Amos was a southerner speaking to the north; and Hosea was a northerner speaking to the north.
As the eighth century opened, both the northern and southern kingdoms were enjoying a prosperity and security of borders unprecedented since the time of Solomon. But the clouds were gathering for those with eyes to see, such as our prophets. Internally, the economic and political situation became ever more precarious as dynastic struggles preoccupied the ruling class. Externally the gradual re-emergence of Assyria as a superpower in the region would become an ever-growing threat to both kingdoms. In fact, the northern kingdom was effectively eliminated by the Assyrian army circa 721 BC. It never reappeared again as a political entity, although traces of its existence remain to this day in Samaritan identity (2 Kings 17:1-18). The prophets lay the blame squarely on the people of Israel, and to a lesser extent Judah, for abandoning the worship of Yahweh in favour of idolatry, and for violating the ethical requirements of the Law. Despite these failings, the people lulled themselves into a false sense of security because of their covenant with Yahweh to be his people.
The south, under King Hezekiah, somehow survived the Assyrian threat (2 Kings 19), but faced an even greater challenge in the rise of the Babylonian empire (2 Kings 21). Unfortunately, Judah did not repent of her idolatry and ethical violations after her close escape from the Assyrians. Final defeat came at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 BC. This culminated in the destruction of Judah’s societal infrastructure and the deportation of its leadership into exile in the Babylonian empire (2 Kings 24-25). The prophets regarded this defeat as evidence of God’s punishment of the people. This is most sharply etched in the books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah amongst the prophets of the Twelve. They mirror the prophetic writings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who also date from this period. Separate books of the Bible record their prophetic careers (see Jeremiah & Lamentations and Work and Ezekiel and Work), and we will not discuss them here.
The great Persian king, Cyrus, defeated Babylon and took over her hegemony. In line with Persian policy, the empire permitted the Jewish people to return to their land and, perhaps more importantly, to re-establish their temple and other key institutions (Ezra 1). All this took place, it seems, at the pleasure of the Persian empire. The prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi did their work during this phase of Israel’s history.
In summary, the Book of the Twelve Prophets spans a wide range of background circumstances in the life of the people of God. Accordingly, it reflects several different paradigms within which faith at work needs to be expressed.
Hosea, Amos, Micah, Obadiah and Joel were active in the eighth century when the state was well developed, but the economy was declining. Power and wealth accreted to the upper strata and left a growing disadvantaged class. There is some evidence of a trend towards cash cropping as a way of meeting the growing urban demand for food. This had the destabilising effect of reducing the risk spreading inherent in the subsistence farming it supplanted. Farming communities became vulnerable to annual variations in production, and the cities were correspondingly subject to vagaries in their food supply (Amos 4:6-9). As the prophets from this period begin to speak, the glory days of opulent building projects and territorial expansion are well past. Such circumstances provide the soil for corruption on the part of those desperate to hold on to their power and diminishing wealth, and a widening gap between the rich and the poor. As a result, God’s prophets from this period have much to say to the world of work.
God Demands Change (Hosea 1:1-9, Micah 2:1-5)
God puts the blame for Israel’s corruption on the people as a whole. They have abandoned God’s covenant, which both breaks their connection with God and breaks the just social structures of God’s law, leading directly to corruption and economic decline. “Whoredom” is the term the prophets often used to describe Israel’s breaking of the covenant (e.g., Jeremiah 3:2, Ezekiel 23:7). To dramatize the situation, God takes the metaphor literally and commands the prophet Hosea to “take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (Hosea 1:2). Hosea obeys God’s command, marries a woman named Gomer, who apparently fit the requirement, and has three children with her (Hosea 1:3). We are left to imagine what making a household and raising children with a “wife of whoredom” must have been like.
Although the prophets use the imagery of prostitution and adultery, God is accusing Israel of economic and social corruption, not sexual immorality.
Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance. (Micah 2:1–2)
This makes Hosea’s family situation a dramatic example for those who work in corrupt or imperfect workplaces today. God deliberately put Hosea in a corrupt and difficult family situation. Could it be that God deliberately puts people in corrupt and difficult workplaces today? While we may seek a comfortable job with a reputable employer in a respectable profession, perhaps we can accomplish far more for God’s kingdom by working in morally compromised places. If you abhor corruption, can you do more to fight it by working as a lawyer in a prestigious firm or as a building inspector in a mafia-dominated city? There are no easy answers, but God’s call to Hosea suggests that making a difference in the world is more important to God than keeping our hands clean. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in the midst of Nazi control of Germany, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask, is not how to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live."
God Makes Change Possible (Hosea 14:1-9, Amos 9:11-15, Micah 4:1-5, Obadiah 21)
The same God who demands change also promises to make change possible. “A harvest is appointed when I would restore the fortunes of my people, when I would heal Israel” (Hosea 6:11–7:1). The Twelve Prophets carry a fundamental optimism that God is active in the world to change it for the better. Despite the apparent triumph of the wicked, God is ultimately in charge, and “the kingdom shall be the Lord’s” (Obadiah 21). Despite the calamity the people are bringing upon themselves, God is at work to restore the goodness of life and work that he intended from the beginning. “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). The closing oracles of Joel, Hosea and Amos (Hos. 14; Amos 9:11-15) illustrate this in explicitly economic terms.
The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil….You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. (Joel 2:24, 26)
[Israel] shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon. (Hosea 14:7)
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. (Amos 9:14)
God’s word to his people in times of economic and social hardship is that God’s intent is to restore peace, justice, and prosperity, if the people will live by the precepts of his covenant. The means he will use is the work of his people.
Despite God’s intentions, work is subjected to human sin. The most egregious case is work that is inherently sinful. Micah mentions prostitution, probably in this case cult prostitution, and he promises that the wages from it would be burned (Micah 1:7). A straightforward application of this would be to rule out prostitution as a legitimate occupation, even it if might be an understandable choice for those who have no other way to provide for themselves or their families. There are other jobs that also raise the question, should this job be done at all? We can all think of various examples, no doubt, and Christians would do well to seek work that benefits others and society as a whole.
But Micah is speaking to Israel as a whole, not only to individuals. He is critiquing a society in which social, economic, and religious conditions make prostitution viable. The question is not, “Is it acceptable to earn a living as a prostitute,” but “How must society change to eliminate the need for anyone to do degrading or harmful work?” Micah calls to account not so much those who feel forced into doing bad work, but the leaders who fail to reform society. His words are scathing. “Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Should you not know justice?—you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones” (Micah 3:1–2).
Our society is different from Micah’s, and the specific remedies God promises to ancient Israel are not necessarily what God intends today. Micah’s prophetic words reflect the connection between ritual prostitution and idolatrous cults in his day. God promises to end the social abuses centered at the cultic shrines. “I will cut off your images and your pillars from among you, and you shall bow down no more to the work of your hands; and I will uproot your sacred poles from among you and destroy your towns” (Micah 5:13–14). In our day, we need God’s wisdom to find effective solutions to current social factors leading to sinful and oppressive work. At the same time, like the prophets of Israel, we need to call individuals to repent of wilfully engaging in sinful labour. “Seek good and not evil, that you may live, and so the Lord, the God of hosts will be with you” (Amos 5:14).
Working Unjustly (Hosea 4:1-10; Joel 2:28-29)
When the prophets speak of prostitution they are seldom concerned merely with that particular line of work. Typically they are also using it as a metaphor of injustice, which by definition is unfaithfulness to God’s covenant (Hosea 4:7-10). In a broad reminder that wages may be unjustly earned, Amos indicts the merchants who use inferior products, false weights, and other deceptions to reap a profit at the expense of vulnerable consumers. They say to themselves, “We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat” (Amos 8:5–6).
Many otherwise-legitimate ways of making a living may become unjust by the way they are performed. Should a photographer take pictures of anything a client asks, without regard for its effect on its subject and viewers? Should a surgeon perform any kind of elective surgery a patient might be willing to pay for? Is a mortgage broker responsible to ensure the ability of a borrower to repay the loan without undue hardship? If our work is a form of service under God, we cannot ignore such questions. We need to be careful not to imagine a hierarchy of work, however. The prophets’ claim is not that some types of work are more godly than others, but that all types of work must be done as contributions to God’s work in the world. “Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit,” God promises (Joel 2:29).
God’s Justice Includes Work and Economic Justice (Amos 8:1-6, Micah 6:1-16)
Justice in work is not only an individual matter. People have a responsibility to make sure that everyone in society has access to the resources needed to make a living. Amos criticizes Israel for injustice in this respect, most vividly in an allusion to the law of gleaning. Gleaning is the process of picking up the stray heads of grain that remain in a field after the harvesters have passed through. According to God’s covenant with Israel, farmers were not allowed to glean their own fields, but were to allow poor people (literally “widows and orphans”) to glean them as a way of supporting themselves (Deuteronomy 24:19). This created a rudimentary form of social welfare, based on creating an opportunity for the poor to work (by gleaning the fields) rather than having to beg, steal or starve. Gleaning is a way to participate in the dignity of work, even for those who are unable to participate in the labor market due to lack of resources, socio-economic dislocation, discrimination, disability, or other factors. God not only wants everyone’s needs to be met, he wants to offer everyone the dignity of working to meet their needs and the needs of others.
Amos complains that this provision is being violated. Farmers are not leaving the stray grain in their fields for the poor to glean (Micah 7:1-2). Instead they offer to sell chaff—the waste left after threshing—to the poor at a ruinous price. “You trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor,” Amos accuses them, “…selling the sweepings of the wheat” (Amos 8:4, 6). Amos accuses them of waiting restlessly for the end of Sabbath so they can carry on selling this cheap, adulterated food product to those who have no other choice (Amos 8:5). Moreover, they are cheating even those who can afford to buy pure grain, as is evident in rigged balances in the marketplace. “We will make the ephah [of wheat being sold] small and the shekel [selling price] great,” they boast. Micah proclaims God’s judgment against unjust commerce. “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?” says the Lord (Micah 6:11). This tells us clearly that justice is not only a matter of criminal law and political expression, but also of economic opportunity. The opportunity to work to meet individual and family needs is essential to the role of the individual within the covenant. Economic justice is an essential component of Micah’s famous, ringing proclamation only 3 verses earlier, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8). God requires his people—as a daily matter of their walk with him—to love kindness and do justice individually and socially, in every aspect of work and economic life.
Work and Worship (Micah 6:6-8; Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 4:1-10)
Justice is not merely a secular issue, as the prophets see it. Micah’s call for justice in Mic. 6:8 follows from an observation that justice is better than extravagant religious sacrifices (Mic. 6:6-7). Hosea and Amos expand this point. Amos objects to the disconnect between the religious observance and ethical action.
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21–24)
Hosea takes us deeper into the connection between being spiritually grounded and doing good work. Good work arises directly from faithfulness to God’s covenant, and conversely, evil work takes us away from the presence of God.
Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel; for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing…. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. (Hosea 4:1-3, 6)
This is a reminder that the world of work does not exist in a vacuum, separated from the rest of life. If we do not ground our values and priorities in God’s covenant, then our lives and work will be ethically and spiritually incoherent. If we do not please God in our work, we cannot please him in our worship.