Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Parable of the Talents

Continuing my off-and-on project of reading about Jesus’ parables (1), I looked up the parable of the talents---a scripture that inspired me when I hoped to deepen my faith during my college years. I already knew that a talent “in the biblical sense” was a unit of mass and value, and that the word had come down into the English language to mean an ability or skill. Like many of us, I read the now-double meaning of talent in a symbolic sense, which spurred and encouraged the stewardship of my abilities.

The parable is found in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27. Here is Matthew’s version:

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Luke 19:11-27 has the same story but with some differences. For instance, the man becomes specifically a nobleman who goes to a far country “to get royal power for himself.” Luke’s version also ends slightly differently:

“Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” 

Eugene Wehrli notes that although the parable concerns money, it “must not be treated as a story about the correct use of money” (p. 75). Nor should we think the master is an exact representation of God or Jesus, since this master is not the most upright master, seizing things and acting so harshly that his servants act fearfully. The parable is meant to illustrate something rather than to make that particular character a figure for God.

One difficulty in interpreting the parable, writes Wehrli, is following the reasoning. The third servant takes care of the money, too, seemingly in a responsible way. Wehrli’s analogy is a woman who is entrusted with a valuable vase, who then locks us up away from her rowdy children so that the vase can be returned undamaged, which seems reasonable and responsible. But the master had expected gain on his trust, which the other servants were astute enough to realize.

Returning to the idea of gifts from God, Wehri writes, “God’s gifts are not to be merely preserved; they must bear additional fruit.... The man with the one talent protected what was given him but was unwilling to venture it. This is like honoring religion...but refusing to live by its power. This is also like being unwilling to invest one’s life and risk all for the sake of God” (pp. 76-77).

He comments that among differences between Luke’s and Matthew’s versions, Luke introduces the context of the parable differently---Jesus’ followers expected the kingdom to come soon. Also, in Luke’s version, all the servants get the same amount. The basic thrust of the parable, though, is the same.

Seeking an original context for the parable, Wehrli comments that the story seems to be directed toward the Pharisees. Jesus was criticizing their faith, which (in Wehrli’s words) “puts a hedge around... faith to keep it from being contaminated. Instead of investing it or putting it to work in the world, [the Pharisee] keeps it pure by isolating it from bad influences” (p. 79). If the religion person----anyone, not just the Pharisees of Jesus’ time---has discourse and interaction with others but keeps faith to oneself, one has not recognized the purpose and value of faith.

I must interject an important point here: It’s so easy for Christians to read these scriptural accounts and then assume that Jesus’ words characterize Jews and Jewish teachers today, as well. This is wrong. I can testify that my Jewish friends and colleagues are all about putting their faith to work in the world---to the responsibility of “healing the world” (tikkun olam). My Jewish friends continually inspire me to make my own religious faith more devoted to service to the needy and to interpersonal peace. The qualities Jesus criticized in the Pharisees (who had a specific historical reason to be scrupulous in their devotion) are hardly unknown among persons of nearly any religious faith.

Jeremias also discusses the parable (pp. 58-63) agreeing that, in the presumed original context of the story, Jesus would not have identified him or God as the despot of the parable. Nor was the original parable necessarily about the delay of Christ’s return. (The early church could have seen the parable as an allegory for the Second Coming, in the theme of the master’s delay and the subsequent punishment of the third servant. Likewise, the brutality of the nobleman at the end of Luke's version could refer to the harsh justice that awaited the wicked at the Last Judgment.) Jeremias, too, sees the original target of the story as the Pharisees and scribes, trusted with the treasure of God’s teachings but unwilling to risk them.

Interestingly, Jeremias notes that the parable also appears in the non-canonical Gospel of the Nazarenes, in which the third servant has been rewritten (and moralized) into a wicked person who squandered his master’s wealth “on harlots and flute-players” (p. 58).

I suppose many of us---myself included, especially when I first encountered the parable---read it somewhat allegorically. God is the master who gives us talents (i.e., skills), expects us to use them for God’s kingdom, and is displeased if we let them languish. I had several modest talents, and so this call to God’s service stirred my heart.

As these authors note, the parable’s original form was likely a “jab” at the Pharisees and was more analogical than allegorical. But the point is always apropos: the treasure of God's teachings is not something to keep to ourselves but is meant to be a blessing and a healing power to the world.


(1) Exploring the Parables by Eugene S. Wehrli (United Church Press, 1963), and The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).

Friday, May 24, 2013

Participants in the Divine Nature

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is a challenging doctrine, with technical language.
United Methodist Memes
During my doctoral studies, I researched the doctrine in the theology of Karl Barth.

Ever since the work of the post-Nicene fathers, the divine nature is said to subsist in the three "persons" (personae, prosopa): the Father who is the incriminate origin of the Son and the Spirit, the Son who is the Logos made flesh, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Barth prefers the Patristic idea of tropos huparxeos (or modus entitativus, or Seinsweise), rather than prosopon, in order to preserve both the unity and tri-unity of God. He stresses that God’s tri-unity (Dreieinigkeit) points to God’s essential relational being, “in which the being of God for us is not something foreign to God’s essence but is grounded in his very being” (Church Dogmatics, I/I, p. 359f).

Because God’s essential (not accidental) nature is relational, God’s self-revelation to human beings takes us into a union with God. Any knowledge of God is also a sharing of the life and being of God in that God’s self-revelation is the nature of God in God’s tri-unity. This is not supposed to be a theopoiesis of human being but rather a gathering of humans into a saving relationship. Nor is it a mystical union, because God’s self-revelation is a wholly free act of God and never a miracle that we can objectify or claim, even in prayerful mysticism.

Jesus Christ is God’s “being in act.” The Trinitarian doctrine of perichoresis (the natures of the persons of the Trinity mutually permeate and condition one another) grounds the nature of God in his three ways of being and in his being for us (pro nobis). Knowledge of God is inseparable from God’s Lordship in Christ. But not only do we know who God is because of Christ, we also thereby know one another as fellow human beings whom we can serve gladly. That is because Christ’s human nature is not something foreign to his divine nature, but it, too, is essential to the being of God. So Christ not only reveals God but also essential, social human beings.

Barth's trinitarian "model" is not the only one. Duncan Reid, in his book Energies of the Spirit: Trinitarian Models in Eastern Orthodox and Western Theology (Scholars Press, 1997), explains distinctions in the doctrine. He notes that Aristotle distinguishes power or attributes (dunamis, from which we get words like "dynamic"), essence (ousia), and energy (energeia); in human beings, for instance, power is the potentiality and energy the actuality of our essence. In Western trinitarian theology (in the tradition of Augustine), God's potentiality, activity, and essence are the same: God is identical in being and action. This is why the West insisted on the filioque: because the western church so emphasizes God's being and action (the imminent and economic trinity); the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father are crucial, and the Spirit must be understood as proceeding from the Father and the Son. Eastern theology (the tradition of Origen, Athanasius, and the Cappadocians, etc.), tended to see power and energy as synonyms, so that God's energeia is identified with God's attributes. For Orthodoxy, this better ensures God's real presence in the created world. Especially, the distinction allows us to say that human beings (and the whole of creation) are invited to be "taken up (analêpsis) into the divine energy" so that we "become God" (theos ginetai), or deified (Reid, chapter 1).

These are all very subtle distinctions, but ones that are crucially important in their implications for other doctrines like justification and sanctification.

When I first posted these thoughts, I also pulled another books off the shelf, What Do Other Faiths Believe? (Abingdon, 2003). My interviewee for Sikhism explained his faith:

“Our scripture starts with a word, Ik Onkar... If you miss the meaning of that word, you’re going to be following the rituals but not the sense of the faith. If you followed and understood the meaning of that word, the rest of it falls into place. Ik Onkar means, ‘there is only one.’ There are not two. That one, is God. Once I understand that, you and I are not two. Just like I have two hands and two legs, my leg is not the same as my hand but they are one, a part of this body. If someone cuts off my hand, it is no longer part of the body; it cannot function. If we are an extension of that ultimate God, and that’s all we are, so our purpose in life becomes very clear to us: to serve that greater body” (pp. 72-73).

He explained that when we misunderstand our true identity, we think of ourselves as an “I,” something separate. But that is a very basic and serious error. Our true identity is as part of a whole, which is God, and thus our purpose in life is to serve one another. My interviewee said that, when we serve ourselves, we become analogous to a cancer cell. He noted that our goal is to add value to the universe. For instance, “If you are serving a customer, rather thinking, ‘How can I sell him something?’ now you can ask, ‘How can I add value to him?’ I am in the listening mode and try to find out ‘What does he need?’ Then I come around and serve that. Everywhere you see success happening, it has this ingredient present" (pp. 74-75).

Here are two different religions that affirm the ontological sociality of human beings, rooted in the being of God. In Sikhism, God is understood as the one God with whom we share our being. In Trinitarian Christianity, our sociality is grounded in the being of God pro nobis. One is a matter of understanding the true nature of our relation, the other is a matter of our being brought into a saving relationship. One is an impersonal God of infinite qualities, the other is a personal God whose very being is in relationship. In both cases, we do wrong, and fundamentally betray our human nature, when we serve only ourselves.

I had bookmarked an article,, which affirms the divine nature in human beings. In some religious systems, human beings are understood to be a part of the divine. The non-dualism tradition of Advaita Vedanta, for instance, there is no essential difference between the Universal Spirit (Brahman) and the individual soul (jivatman). Differences that we perceive in reality are actually illusion (maya) and therefore true understanding (jnana) comes from understanding maya. Obviously, then, there is no essential difference between humans and the Universal Spirit (nor between humans and other life forms). Other schools of Vedanta, like Vishishtadvaita, understands the soul and God to be different yet similar, while Dvaita understands souls, God, and the material world to be all separate realities and yet eternal.

As I kept thinking about all thing----going on a trinitarian journey, so to speak---I leafed through my Bible for passages that teach our unity with God and with one another.

A wonderful passage is Jesus' prayer in John 17. I probably shouldn't quote the whole thing here, for copyright purposes, so I'll just ask you read the whole thing with the ideas in mind: Jesus' unity with God, Jesus' unity with his followers and friends. What is the nature of our unity with Christ? Christ is glorified in us (vss. 10, 22-23), and Christ guards us (vs. 12-13), and although we do not belong to the world (vs 16) we are still here and are sanctified in Christ's truth (vs. 17). But that glory, protection, and sanctification are directed toward Christ's prayer that those who believe, and those who will believe, "may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (vss. 21-22). Likewise, Christ prays "that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them" (vs. 26).

I'm a very proud American, but I worry that the individualism and self-sufficient spirit that pervades our culture deters us from being able to appreciate and implement the unity we have with one another in Christ. One sees so many individualistic behaviors in congregations, which you could describe as "my way or the highway," "I pulled myself up by my boot straps," "you have to cover your ass to make it," and so on. We can be very stubborn and set-in-our-ways people who love our relationship with Christ but become snooty, or busy, or unconcerned when we think about being in unity with one another. I'm as private and self-sufficient as the next person.

Perhaps we should put John 17 on the walls of churches so that we remember that we are one with one another in Christ!

But if we did that, we should put Ephesians 2:11-22 on the walls, too. Read that passage, too. This is a similar and powerful biblical vision of our God-given unity with one another. God has removed the boundaries that separate people---but, of course, we persist in retaining them or building new ones.

And also---while we're attaching signs to walls---John 14 would be another excellent passage to remind people, on a weekly basis, of the role of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's role is absolutely crucial because Jesus is not present with his disciples any longer: his death requires his absence. But the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit abide in us and lead us to love God and one another.

There are other passages, like 2 Cor. 6:16:

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
"I will live in them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people."

We could trivialize the passage a bit when we turn it into a health-related thing: we ought to take care of our bodies because our bodies are God's temples. We miss a deeper point: God's very presence dwells with us as the same God once dwelled in the Jerusalem Temple, but God's act of dwelling puts us in proximity to God's holiness--which, in turn, demands holiness from us.

2 Peter 1:4 is a good related verse:

Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature.

Good themes for our prayers and meditations for this Trinity Sunday are these: what are ways we become temples of God's Spirit (if we even want to be)? How do we "participate in the divine nature"? How do we understand the divine nature so that our ideas about God and ourselves (while not necessarily disrespecting other people's faith) is uniquely Christian?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Did Jesus Smile and Laugh?

Artistically the Buddha is often represented with a slight smile. Jesus is, too, in some paintings, for instance, in the serene and famous Head of Christ by Warner Sallman (1892-1968). I looked online for other pictures but the one I liked best (one that was natural-seeming and not "forced" in depicting Jesus' happiness), was actually an old stand-by, often seen in churches: Head of Christ by Richard Hook (1914-1975).

And, of course, there is the good old "Buddy Christ" from the movie Dogma: a grinning, winking Jesus giving a big thumbs-up. So many artistic depictions of Christ are solemn, stern, or serene but unsmiling.

Do accounts of Jesus' life mention his smile or laughter? Unfortunately, none of the canonical gospels do. We have ten verses altogether in non-canonical writings like the Gospel of Philip and the Apocryphon of John. Ricky Alan Mayotte, who has collected Jesus' teachings in the canonical and non-canonical writings, lists these verses. Here are four:

"But he who stands near him is the living Savior, the first in him, whom they seized and released, who stands joyfully looking at those who did him violence, while they are divided among themselves. Therefore he laughs at their lack of perception, knowing that they are born blind" (The Apocalypse of Peter).

"The Savior laughed and said to them, What are you thinking about? Why are you perplexed?" (The Sophia of Jesus Christ)

"And I said, 'Lord, where will the souls of these go when they have come out of their flesh?' And he smiled and said to me, The soul in which the power will become superior to the despicable spirit, she is strong and she flees from evil" (The Apocryphon of John)

"But I [Jesus] laughed joyfully when I examined his empty glory...And I was laughing at their ignorance" (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth)

In such writings, his laughter and smiles are ironic and knowing, rather than reflecting joie de vivre.[1]

If you think strictly in terms of Jesus' atoning work, you might argue that the suffering of Jesus for our salvation takes precedence over his happiness. And yet that seems limiting, for didn’t Jesus have a broad, full (though short) life filled with all the emotions we experience? Certainly Jesus loved, and one needs psychological security and depth to be able to love as he did. Joy and laughter, too, require a sense of security. Not only that, but Jesus wanted his joy to be in the disciples, so their joy would be complete (John 15:11). We should read that verse and think of real joy in Jesus' voice, not the stern instructiveness with which we sometimes hear the words read in church.


1. Ricky Alan Mayotte, The Complete Jesus (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1997), 149-150.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Remembering the Lord

I picked up a favorite book, When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings by Thomas H. Green, S.J. (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1979). In other blog posts I’ve thought along with Fr. Green on the idea of “floating in God’s tide.” Today, I opened the book at random and I noticed the page where he recalls his father. The family had sent out a memorial card that read, “Remember with joy George C. Green,” and his life dates. Fr. Green says that memories of his father brings joy to his heart.

This was helpful to me as I continue to process my mother’s death last fall. My mom was a worrier, who lived in constant physical pain, and sometimes (to her family) saw the glass as half-empty. I still feel sad about the time she commented she wished I’d made better grades in school, when in fact I’d graduated cum laude. It’s important to me to acknowledge these kinds of things but also to put them in a larger context; she wasn’t always like that and was, often throughout my life, a nurturing and supportive mother. She had a perfectionistic streak born out of sadness and pain, while my dad (who could be grouchy and stubborn) was a little more unconditionally proud of me. Remembering the whole of my parents’ lives with me helps me think through a variety of feelings and ultimately to feel happiness in my memories of them.

Fr. Green (writing in the context of his discussion of St. Teresa and the relationship of will, understanding, and imagination) comments that his remembering of his father brings joy, and so can the memory of Jesus. “When Jesus was about to die, he was anious that we remember his love for us, that we remember him... As one of our most beautiful contemporary songs puts it: ‘All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you.’ When our prayer becomes more ‘quiet’... our understanding and our imagination become the organs of remembering the Lord and his love for us. This remembering moves the will to love him, just as my memories of my father touch my heart; this is to ‘remember with joy’” (p. 49).

Fr. Green’s thoughts reminded me of those of a Lutheran writer, the New Testament scholar Nils Dahl, who describes Philippians 2:5-11 as not so much a confession of faith but a “commemoration [remembering] of Christ,” and other early Christian liturgies and practices, including the celebration of the Lord’s Day (Sunday) can be called commemorations of Christ—ways by which we remember Christ.(1) Remembering Christ in turn involves both an understanding of the gospel and the way God wants us to live, a “rule of conduct.”(2) These passages are very much in keeping with Old Testament calls to remember the Lord and his commandments, promises, and mighty acts, for instance the book of Deuteronomy, thoroughly a call to remember as a means to ongoing faithfulness.

Remembering God’s blessings and mercies through Christ is inextricably linked with those described in the Bible, bridging the centuries so that those mercies and blessings are within our own comparatively meager stories. Reading and hearing the scriptures are ways we remember Jesus, and certain passages—Ephesians 2:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:5, 2 Timothy 2:8, 2 Peter 3:1-2, and others—are specific calls to remember. Likewise, the liturgical words of the sacraments. The words of the Eucharist include the reminder to remember Christ, his death and resurrection, and his promise to return; otherwise we don’t have a sense of why we’re sharing the elements. The sacrament of Baptism evokes the name of Jesus and thus the memory of who he is and what he did on our behalf.(3)

Much of our faith is a remembering of Christ, whether we think of it that way or not. For me, some of my faith struggles have in turn arisen when I’ve forgotten to remember, as it were. That is, I’ve gotten so caught up in my everyday affairs, and in my own tendency to be anxious and “half-empty” in my thinking, that the blessings of my life and God’s unfathomably deep love become submerged in mind amid a storm of temporary concerns.

1. Nils Alstrup Dahl, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), the essay “Amamnesis: Memory and Commemoration in Early Christianity,” 20-21.

2. Dahl, Jesus in the Memory, 25.

3. Dahl, Jesus in the Memory, 20.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Twelve Minor Prophets

Michelangelo's Zechariah
The “minor prophets” of the Bible are “minor” in the sense that they’re short, compared to the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In the Jewish Bible (Tanakh), they are one book, Trei Asar or the Twelve, and as such, the Twelve are the last book of the Neviim, or prophets, which in turn is the middle section of the Tanakh. ( In the Christian Old Testament, these prophets are separated into twelve separate books and are the last books of the testament. That’s how many of us are accustomed to reading them, if we do indeed study them.

Altogether, the Twelve have 67 chapters, which is only one chapter longer than Isaiah. Like the major prophets, the Twelve are concerned with the events of the Israelite kingdoms following the division (after Solomon’s death) into the northern kingdom Israel and the southern kingdom Judah. Israel is conquered by the Assyrians in 722-721 BCE, and Judah is conquered by the Babylonians in 587-586 BCE, who also destroy Jerusalem and take the people into exile. After the Persians conquer the Babylonians, many of the people are able to return to the land and rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple (as recounted in Ezra and Nehemiah).

Any of the prophetic books can be tough reading. Our Sunday school class in Akron, OH tackled Hosea for a while. Then we got depressed at all the difficult and discouraging prophetic pronouncements so we switched to something more cheery: Lenten scriptures! Any of the prophetic books demand a good commentary or study book to help you know what's going on. On the other hand, once you dig into the material, you appreciate their beauty and witness. One Jewish website ( has these words: "The voices of the Trei Asar, taken as a group, were like a great symphony, of dramatic and powerful movements. Or, using a visual metaphor, they were like a rainbow; a most appropriate metaphor, because their prophecies encompassed all the colors of the rainbow, from darkest to lightest, from the most somber to the most serene."

Recently I purchased the Berit Olam set of Old Testament commentaries published by Liturgical Press. I decided to start leafing through the two volumes (published in 2000 and 2001) on the Twelve, both by Marvin Sweeney, who teaches Hebrew Bible and the History of Judaism at Claremont. I was interested in learning about the themes and concerns of the Twelve, if we were to study them together as one long book. How do they interrelate, written as they were by a dozen prophets over a 300 year span? I took the following notes from Sweeney's interesting texts.

Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Bibles order the twelve minor prophets following the order of the Hebrew text of the Tanakh (that is, the Masoretic text): Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Many Orthodox Bibles, following the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Tanakh), have a different order of the first six of the twelve: Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah. The reason for the different ordering is not clear. As Sweeney notes, the LXX has the benefit of common themes: Hosea, Amos, and Micah concern the norothern kingdom of Israel, especially as an example for the southern kingdom of Judah, while Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, and Habakkuk concern the foreign threat to Judah and Jerusalem, and lastly, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi speak to the restoration of Jerusalem. Also, Joel---which is difficult to place historically---becomes, in the LXX order, a general statement of God’s restoration that provides a segue point between the first three (northern) prophets and the rest of the prophets, with their themes of Judah and Jerusalem (p. 148).

To say more about the themes of the books: Hosea portrays the crisis of Israel as an example for Judah, then Joel provides a framework of punishment and restoration for Jerusalem on “the day of the Lord.” Joel also cites Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, and Zephaniah, thus providing a continuity among the books that follow. With that framework and connection in mind, we move to Amos, wherein the punishment of the northern kingdom Israel is the opportunity to restore the monarchy of David. Then Obadiah preaches against Edom (the kingdom south of the Dead Sea) for threatening Jerusalem. Jonah depicts God’s mercy for Assyria. Micah also portrays the fall of the north as a framework for Jerusalem’s fall and restoration. Then Nahum condemns Assyria for its actions against Jerusalem. Habakkuk similarly condemns Babylon. Then Zephaniah preaches about the purification of Jerusalem; Zephaniah addresses the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple; Haggai preaches about the restoration of Jerusalem; Zechariah is concerned with that process of restoration, and then Malachi is concerned with the city’s final purification (pp. 148-149).

Hosea. Hosea reflects the 8th century rise of Assyria and the text depicts conflicts with the Assyrians
A late 1st cen. BCE or early 1st Cen CE fragment
of the Septuagint minor prophets,
from wikipedia
(pp. 3-4). Sweeney writes that although Hosea is by Rabbinic tradition called the oldest of the twelve, Amos mentions Jeroboam and Uzziah and Hosea mentions the chronologically later Ahaz and Hezekiah (p. 3). Also Amos writes during the rise of Assyria before it had definitely threatened the northern kingdom. But still, he writes, “Hosea seems to be particularly well suited for its position at the head of the Twelve on thematic grounds. It employs the metaphor of Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and the bird of their children as a metaphor for YHWH’s relationship with Israel” (p. 3). That is, as Gomer is divorced because of harlotry, so the Lord condemns Israel for abandoning its covenant with God---Israel’s figurative “adultery.” But Hosea takes his wife back, and the Lord also restores Israel following punishment from gentile nations. Sweeney notes that the Lord’s disdain for divorce in Malachi connects back to Hosea (p. 3).

Joel. The book has no definite references to its historical circumstance, and the threatened “Day of the Lord” seem to refer to natural calamities. But, “[w]ithin the MT version of the Book of the Twelve, Joel presents the paradigm for Jerusalem’s punishment and restoration as a fundamental question to be addressed within the Twelve as a whole” (p. 149).

Amos. The theme of locusts connects Amos and the previous book Joel (Joel 1-2, Amos 7:1-3), as does the theme of the restoration of fertility and agricultural prosperity (Joel 3:18, Amos 9:11-15). Amos also connects to the subsequent book, Obadiah, in the need for Edom to be pushed (Amos 1:11-13, 9:12). Furthermore, Joel, Amos, and Obadiah are connected because of the theme of the day of the Lord (Joel 1:15, Amos 5:18-20, Obadiah 15). In the LXX order of the books, Amos connects with Hosea in identifying the Beth El sancturary as a specific problem of God’s anger depicted in Hosea, and then Amos connects to Micah in their mutual depiction of God’s punishment and restoration (p. 191). Also, Hosea, Amos, and Micah are all the 8th century prophets among the Twelve (pp. 191-192).

Obadiah. This short book has in common with Amos the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, as well as the theme of the day of the Lord (p. 279).

Jonah. This book depicts God’s mercy toward Nineveh of Assyria, thus connecting to the mercy God shows in restoring Israel and Judah as depicted in the next book, Micah. Jonah balances Obadiah’s prophecies against Edom, but it also contracts with the book after Micah, Nahum, which shows the punishment of God toward the ultimately unrepentant Assyrians (p. 305). Jonah also addresses the question of God’s mercy and trustworthiness following the Babylonia exile, for the themes of creation and the Exodus are brought in, functioning to tie together earlier scriptures about God’s power and faithfulness (pp. 306-307).

Micah. The restoration of Zion amid the nations is a major theme of Micah (chapters 4-5). As the sixth book in the Masoretic order of the Twelve (the order most of us are used to), Micah bridges God’s judgment and mercy to the nations in Obadiah and Jonah, with themes of the next three books: the fall of Ninevah, the Babylonian threat, and God’s call to his people to repentance.  As the third book in the LXX, Micah’s perspective of the punishment of the northern kingdom Israel has ramifications for the experience of Jerusalem and Judah as well as the nations, including Micah’s vision of Zion as the center of God’s world peace (p 339). “Overall, the book of Micah is esigne to address the future of Jerusalem or Israel in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile,” even though Micah himself was 8th century (p. 342).

Nahum. Concerned in part with the divine judgment against Nineveh, the book follows Jonah, indicating that the repentance of Nineveh was temporary. But the book is also the beginning of the long process of God’s judgment against the nations, as well as against Judah and Jerusalem, which are the subjects of the subsequent five books (p. 420).

Habakkuk. Like Nahum, Habakkuk affirms the Lord’s control of world events, and the Lord’s use of the nations in the divine purposes. The two books contrast in affirming the fall of Assyria (Nahum) and looking forward to the fall of Babylon (Habakkuk) (p. 453). “This prepares for Zephaniah, which calls upon the people to make their decision to observe YHWH’s requirements or suffer punishment if they refuse to do so (p. 454).

Zephaniah. Zephaniah links with Habakkuk in the prophecies about Babylon (the agent of Judah’s fall) and with subsequent Haggai, who looks to the rebuilt Temple and the hoped-for restoration of the Davidic monarchy (p. 493). But the beginning of Zephaniah locates the prophets career during Josiah’s reign, thus connecting with the pre-exilic reforms of that righteous king. The call for repentance and purity of Josiah’s reforms have a new urgency in the post-exilic times (pp. 493-494).

Haggai, Zechariah. Both are prophets who appear in the account of Ezra. Haggai’s concern with the Temple and the restoration connect with Zephaniah’s themes and with the next book, Zechariah, who affirms the Temple and restoration but also looks beyond the Temple to God’s cosmic purposes (pp. 529, 561).

Malachi. The last book of the Twelve calls the people to “to take the action that is necessary for Jerusalem and the Temple to fill” the role depicted in the previous books: Israel and the Temple as “the holy center” of God’s peace for the nations and the cosmos. As Sweeney noted elsewhere (in my notes above), the Lord’s disdain of divorce circles us back to the divorce and return of Gomer and Hosea in the first book of the Twelve (p. 713).

In this biblical book "The Twelve," we have history of God's people from the 8th to the 5th centuries, but we also have a beautiful vision of God's peace for the world, centered at Jerusalem. We also have a vision of God's universal purposes. Many Christians, of course, interpret some of these texts as referring to Christ and his kingdom, and we understand more about Christ and his person and work by appreciating his place and context within God's purposes with Israel. We also find among the Twelve, classic Bible passages that always inspire and call us, like Micah 6:8, Habakkuk 2:4, Amos 5:24, and others.