No, the Book of the Twelve is not some new archaeological discovery, fantasy novel or self-help program. It is the name scholars give to what most of us call the twelve books of the “Minor Prophets.” You know, there those short books tucked in the very end of the Old Testaments after the longer, “Major Prophets,” of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Daniel is not considered a “prophetic” book in the Hebrew Bible even though it is included among them in our Bibles. The twelve “Minor Prophets” are considered to be one book, and hence, a fourth prophetic “book” along with the three “Major Prophets.” We read them, then, both as individual writings and then as “chapters” in a larger book. It is these chapters we will use to guide our Lenten reflections this year.
The great theme and pattern of the Bible is Exodus – Exile repeated over and over again through Israel’s history and the history of the church. This macro-pattern also has its micro-analogue in our personal stories. The church in our land by all signs and evidences languishes in a season of exile these days. God has not rejected us but he has turned away from us, abandoned us to our preoccupations and self-absorptions. Jacques Ellul, in his seminal book, Hope in Time of Abandonment (written in the ‘70’s but remaining as pertinent today as ever), describes God’s abandoning his people because of their “mediocrity.”
Muddling along on our own insight and power, vesting our visions with ultimacy, forging ahead as if we actually knew what to do apart from a life steeped in prayer and the Spirit – the persistent and pervasive practice of such mediocrity also places God’s people in danger of being abandoned to ourselves.
Lent is the church’s best response to such danger. A lengthy period of reflection as we accompany Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem and the cross is a healthy antidote to avoiding or recovering from the mediocrity that leads to abandonment. This is not a moral struggle. Let’s be clear about that! It is a Spirit-ual (my way of indicating that our struggle is with God’s Spirit not our own inner “spiritual” resources) all the way down. It is a descent into hell, if you will. For it is only in hell where theologians (according to Luther) and faithful followers of Jesus are truly formed. And hell is abandonment by God (Mt.27:46).
The pattern or central theme of the Book of the Twelves is Sin – Judgment – Restoration (Paul House) and this pattern can be differentiated into one of “sin, partial repentance, delayed judgment, national rebellion, exile, return, further sporadic repentance, recurring sin, and a continued pattern of judgment and salvation until the final eschatological resolution” (Gary E. Yates, “Repentance and Return as Unifying Themes in the Book of the Twelve” ETS 2013). This differentiated pattern maps well onto the messy and jumbled character of our lives and the church’s response to God’s call and grace.
The great issue for the church and its members, and the focus of Lent, is how to face and fight our resistances to following Jesus Christ, to Jerusalem, to the cross, to Easter. Here is where the Book of the Twelve can help us.
Hosea serves as an introduction to the collection of these twelve documents. It introduces the theme of call to repentance and Israel’s failure to respond obediently. Joel-Malachi present this pattern in three different settings (Yates) and dynamics.
-the first iteration of this pattern begins in Joel with the people’s repentance, their relapse into sin, and exile for Israel (Amos) and Judah (Micah, Habbakuk, Zephaniah).
-the second iteration begins with Jonah’s story of Nineveh’s repentance but is followed immediately by Nahum’s announcement of judgment on that nation.
-the final iteration is post-exilic with Haggai and Zechariah demonstrating the repentance of the people as seen in rebuilding the temple and returning to YHWH, but Malachi closes the Book of the Twelve by documenting another tragic relapse into sin.
From pre-exilic Israel (Hosea/Micah, Habbakuk, Zephaniah) to the nations (Jonah/Nahum) to post-exilic Israel (Haggai, Zechariah/Malachi), the nation’s failure to be the people YHWH called to bear his presence and blessing to the world is the fundamental issue in the history of the world. Yes, the stakes are this high. For us. For the world. Even for God.
We will begin with a series of reflections on the dynamics of this pattern we find in Hosea which will equip us to note them in the three versions (pre-exilic, nations, post-exilic) the Book of the Twelve gives us.
We best read these reflections with the church in North America in mind. It is the analogy to Israel this side of the cross to which they make most sense. But there may well be personal issues each of us face and need to deal with that are illumined as well. Each reader will have to make that determination and use of these reflections to that end for themselves.