Lesson 11: Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk

Obediah: (1 chapter; Ca. 450 B.C.)

Nothing is known about Obediah except that he composed this brief prophecy against Edom. The date is about 450 since verse 15 is quoted by Joel in 400 B.C.

The theme of the first half is the destruction of the country of Edom, south and east of Judah; the theme of the second half is the Day of the Lord and the restoration of Israel. The people of Edom were descended from Esau, the twin brother of Jacob who stole the birthright from him. There was intense rivalry between them--and this continued for generations among the descendants of the two brothers. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C. they were assisted by the Edomites. The people of Judah bitterly resented that and it is reflected in this prophecy.

The short prophecy consists of two parts--the first announces God's judgment on Edom (1-15), and the second proclaims the salvation of Jerusalem (16-18). Obediah expresses a passionate appeal for vengeance against an ancient enemy who took advantage of Judah when she was down. Obediah prophesies that "on the Day of Yahweh" the Lord will overthrow Israel's oppressors and will reveal his salvation to his own people. In the final analysis, tyrants will suffer from their own tyranny, and they will fall into the pit they have dug for others. Because God is the Lord of history, he will save his own people and bring his judgment upon the hostile nations.

Jonah: (4 chapters; ca. 450 B.C.)

The Hebrew of the book of Jonah is like the Hebrew of Ezra-Nehemiah so it was probably written in the 5th century around 450 B.C. Nothing is known about the author except his name.

The theme is God's compassionate love for all mankind, Jew and Gentile. The author tries to reassure his fellow Jews that the divine oracles against their pagan neighbors were conditional, that is, conditioned by their repentance and conversion. God does not hate any of the peoples he has made.

Jonah is unlike the other prophets, for the book does not contain oracles. It is an interesting story about a reluctant prophet who is called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria which had always been hostile and cruel to Israel, to preach conversion to them and faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel. Jonah does not relish the call, so he tries to flee from God by taking a ship to Tarshish, perhaps a place far away in Spain. But God pursues him with a great storm; the pagan sailors discover that Jonah is the reason for the danger, so they throw him overboard. Immediately he is swallowed by a big fish and the storm stops. After three days the fish disgorges him on the shore near Nineveh. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches repentance. All the people, including the king, do penance and are converted. Jonah leaves the city and climbs a hill nearby to see whether or not God will destroy the pagan city. God spares the city out of mercy and compassion.

Is the book of Jonah factual history? Or is it a parable? Opinions on this matter are divided. Until the 20th century, for about 2500 years, Jews and then Christians understood it to be an historical account. It is so much a part of western culture that virtually everyone has heard about "Jonah and the Whale." The weight of history is on the side of this interpretation. The plus side of this view is that it avoids pitfalls involved with a "symbolic" or "mythical" view of historical events related in the Bible which, in the hands of some interpreters, destroys the historical value of the Bible and makes it all "myth." The problem, though, with this interpretation is that it ignores the literary form of "parable" which is present in both the OT and the NT-- Jesus himself used it frequently in his teaching (cf. Good Samaritan, Prodigal Son, Matt. 13, etc.).

Liberal Protestant interpreters in the 20th century, and currently most Catholic biblical scholars, interpret the book of Jonah as a parable or "didactic fiction," or even as allegory. Almost all agree that it is not a historical account. This view raises difficulties with some of the words of Jesus, because he seems to quote Jonah as if it were a historical account of being three days in the belly of a big fish.

What is the meaning of the book of Jonah? The main point is this: God's love and compassion extend to all human beings, Jew and gentile. Jonah himself is an example of the particularism found among many Jews of the time. They thought God loved only Israel and that God hated their pagan neighbors and had only punishment in store for them. So the book is a rejection of that Jewish narrowness. In this sense, the book of Jonah is a giant step forward in biblical religion, seeing that God's love and salvation are meant for all mankind but coming to them through Israel, the chosen people.

In the NT, Jesus makes reference to "the Sign of Jonah" as a type of his three days of death in the tomb before his resurrection (see Matt. 2:39 and Luke 11:30).

Micah: (7 chapters; 740 to 701 B.C.)

Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah. Some of his oracles precede the destruction of Samaria in 721 and some come after that. Like Amos, he lived in the country and rebukes the corrupt ways of city dwellers in Samaria and Jerusalem.

The book bounces back and forth from threats to promises. He threatens Israel and Judah with punishment and destruction if they do not repent of their sins of injustice. If they do repent, God will be gracious to them and promises to bless them abundantly. The prophet sees the Assyrians as the instruments in the hands of God to punish his people. But a remnant will survive to be the carriers of God's promises to his people.

Micah proclaims that the political and military disasters which threaten Israel and Judah come from the anger of the Lord which the people have aroused by their sins. Micah views the coming punishment as something through which Israel must pass in order to survive. The reason for the punishment is to save and not to destroy.

Micah predicts the destruction of Jerusalem in 3:12--which happened over 100 years later. For him the charisma of the prophet is power and the spirit of Yahweh, judgment and strength to denounce sin and injustice. Micah practically summarizes the teachings of the prophets when he says bluntly what the Lord asks of his people, "Only this, to do what is right, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God" (6:8).

St. Matthew in 2:5-6 quotes Micah 5:1-3 to prove that Jesus is the Messiah because the prophet had predicted he would be born in Bethlehem. There is also an allusion to Micah 7:20 in the Canticle of Zechariah, the Benedictus, in Luke 1:72.

Nahum: (3 chapters; ca. 610 B.C.)

Nothing is known of Nahum except his name and that he is from the town of Elkosh which is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. The book was most probably written either during or shortly after the siege and fall of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, by the Babylonians in 612 B.C.

The theme of the book is simple: the fall of Nineveh. The Assyrians had harassed and devastated Israel and Judah for over 100 years. Now they are to be repaid for all the evil they have done to God's people. The Assyrians had destroyed the ten tribes of Israel in the north and had brought in foreign peoples to settle there and mingle with the few Israelites left; together they became the semi-pagan Samaritans who were despised by faithful Jews. Nahum utters oracles of doom and exultation over the destruction of the chief enemy of Judah and Jerusalem.

The prophecy seems to be quite secular and political. There are no threats against his own people and the name of Yahweh is mentioned twice (2:13; 3:5). The prophet sees that the fall of Nineveh proves the principle of Israelite belief that the Lord will eventually punish the wicked and those who oppress others.

From a literary point of view, the oracles of Nahum reach a high poetic level. Some scholars consider Nahum to be among the best written books in the OT.

Habakkuk: (3 chapters; ca. 600 B.C.)

Because of the subject matter of railing against the Babylonians, and before the invasion of 597 B.C., it is most likely that the prophecy was composed between 605 and 597. Nothing is known of the life of Habakkuk except that he seems to have been associated with the Temple in Jerusalem in some way.

The theme of the book is the problem of evil, and specifically how God permits his ends to be accomplished by evil and unbelieving oppressors.

The book moves from a certain doubt about the evil around us, to a vision of how God will deal with it, and finally to a basic trust in God no matter how bad things may appear to be.

The first step in the answer to the problem of evil is that God brings down one oppressing nation (Assyria) by another (Babylon). The next step is that in the rise and fall of nations the just or righteous man will survive by his fidelity to Yahweh (2:4). The final step is that Yahweh himself is the one who saves the just man (ch. 3).

In this prophecy for the first time in Israelite literature a man questions the way of God. For Habakkuk calls him to account for his governance of the world. God replies that he is using Babylon to punish the wicked, but he reassures the prophet that the just Israelite will not perish in the coming disaster.

Because there are several obscurities and ambiguities in the book of Habakkuk, it has stimulated many commentaries over the centuries.

In developing the idea of faith, St. Paul quotes Habakkuk that the just man lives by faith (Gal. 3:11; Rom. 1:17; cf Hab. 2:4). The author of Hebrews quotes the same text to stress the importance of faith in order persevere in times of persecution (Heb. 10:38; cf Hab. 2:3-4). Finally, in her Magnificat Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is an example of the faith and confidence in God foreshadowed in Habakkuk when she prays, "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:47; cf. Hab. 3:18).

Reading Assignment

Read the five minor prophets covered in this lesson. Read a commentary on one of them in The International Bible Commentary (1998).

Writing Assignment

Write an essay of about 1000 words on one of these five prophecies; or, write the essay on the historicity of the book of Jonah; or, write an essay on the Assyrians and Babylonians and their influence on the chosen people as reflected in the Bible.


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