The Twelve Prophets (Trei-Assar)
Why were twelve prophets lumped into this one book labeled: “The Twelve?”
Do these prophets have more in common with each other than with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel?
Our rabbis tell us that the reason a single book was formed out of these twelve prophets was to ensure their survival in the Jewish national library.
Remember, 2500 years ago, at the time that our rabbis were deciding which books to include in the Tanach (Bible), there was no printing press, no photo copier and certainly no CD ROM drive.
In other words, if a book was to be spread around and read, it had to be copied by hand (a huge job, when you consider that they didn’t have the types of paper and the pens that make our lives so easy today). It would also have to be stored safely. Now logic tells us that it’s easier and safer to store one large scroll than twelve small ones. So, since each of these twelve prophets is relatively small, they were all “published” together.
The first of the twelve, Hosea, was actually an older contemporary of Isaiah, and if it would have been left as a book by itself, it would have come before Isaiah. The careers of the final three prophets of the book (Chagai, Zechariah and Malachi) reach into the period of the second Temple. What these prophets have in common, is that they each transmitted the word of G-d as it was given to them and they each have something to say to our generation.
What follows are very short descriptions about each of the Twelve Smaller Prophets:
Hoshea gave his prophecy to the Jews of Israel in the declining years of the first Temple period. His message was a warning to the Jews that their slipping morality would bring destruction and exile. Through the eyes of the prophet we see a vision of the coming destruction and exile, the rebuilding of the Temple 70 years later, and its eventual destruction at the hands of the Romans. We are also shown (by way of what might have been a dream involving Hoshea’s wife) that even in exile, G-d is still with His people.
The vision of Joel (Yoel) contains good news and bad news: He hints to the four kingdoms under whose cruel rule the Jews would live: Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome. The future path of our nation would be difficult indeed – assuming that they didn’t correct their observance of G-d’s commandments. Joel is also famous for his description of the eventual ingathering of the exiles at the time of the final redemption.
Amos directs a good deal of his eternal prophecy to the Ten Tribes (who would soon be lost from our people as a result of their actions). Aside from the all-important warnings to both those of the northern kingdom and of the south in Jerusalem, Amos points out that Jews have been given an important mission in this world. The Jews were also given great strengths to fulfill their mission. If they don’t do their job, their punishment will be far greater than for others: “The bigger they are the harder they fall.”
Obadiah is noteworthy (aside from being the man who hid and supported 100 prophets in the terrible days of King Ahab), for a prophecy that isn’t directed specifically at the Jews at all, but at the neighboring nation of Edom. They too, according to Obadiah, are destined to be brought to justice for their actions. Our rabbis often associate the Roman Empire and its intellectual heirs with Edom.
Jonah (Yonah) is probably the most famous of the twelve prophets because his book is read in Synagogue on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Jonah was ordered by G-d to go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh (located in today’s northern Iraq, near the Turkish border) and convince the non-Jews there to return from their evil ways. Jonah was afraid that the people of Nineveh would listen to his rebuke and improve themselves, thus casting the Jews (who weren’t listening to their prophets) in a bad light. He therefore tried to avoid the mission, even at the cost of his life.
Escaping in the opposite direction on board a commercial boat, Jonah ran into a fierce storm and allowed himself to be thrown overboard to save the crewmen. Once overboard, he was swallowed by a fish (and then a second, after the first spat him out). Eventually, after doing Teshuva (repentance) he found himself safely on dry land.
Realizing that there is no escaping the will of G-d, Jonah traveled to Nineveh and spoke to its people. They did indeed change their ways.
Micah also warns the Jews (of both the northern and southern kingdoms) of what continued disregard for the commandments would bring. But much of the book is devoted to the wonders of the third Temple – to be built at the time of the redemption. Perhaps what has kept our interest in this book so strong over the centuries is the clear prediction that at no time in our long, long exile would G-d ever push us away completely… we will never be totally wiped out.
In Nahum we find an “undoing” of the prophecy of Jonah: The same city that was brought to teshuva by the words of rebuke from Jonah will soon be destroyed: Why? For having become, under the leadership of their king Sancheriv, the empire that swallowed and disrupted most of the known world, including the ten northern tribes of Israel.
As we’ve seen in the words of so many other prophets, a question arises frequently: if the ten northern tribes earned the fate they received by Sancheriv, why should Sancheriv be punished for doing G-d’s will?
Habakkuk, like Nahum, was sent to speak about the end of an enemy of the Jews, this time Nebuchadnezar, the Babylonian king.
Here too, we are told about the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple after just 70 years… this would not be a final redemption.
Notable in the prophecy of Zephaniah is the description of the length and depth of the coming exile, and of the redemption that will follow bringing universal faith in the one true G-d.
The final three books of The Twelve are Chagai, Zechariah and Malachi. These were the prophets who lived at the very end of the age of prophecy (after their deaths, there have been no prophets. There have been some people with divine inspiration, but no one was on the level of a prophet). All three spoke to the Jews during and immediately after the building of the second Temple, and foresaw the events of the second commonwealth.
For instance, Chagai urged the people to put greater effort into the construction of the city, settlements, and Temple, despite the hardships involved. Zechariah discussed specific sins that were present in his generation and described the story of Chanukah (which would only occur 200 years hence).
This terribly brief overview of the words of “The Twelve” cannot hope to carry the flavor and power of the actual books. The intention here is only to give over an idea of the contents and purpose of each work, but there’s no substitute for diving in head first and studying the material – and if at all possible, in the original Hebrew.