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Sex. Violence. Hypocrisy. Revenge. Quentin Tarantino meets A Catcher in the Rye in the Minor Prophets, a collection of twelve short books with the misfortune of having the lamest nickname in the Bible.
The Minor Prophets open with a shocking story: God orders the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute, have a few kids and then violently abuse his whole family. The point is to symbolize Israel’s unfaithfulness and an imminent foreign invasion, but that’s not the only message this sends.
The days of milk and honey are over, saith the Lord, and things are getting crazy up in here.
What follows over the next eleven books is a divine guilt trip through two major turning points in Jewish history: the Assyrian invasion, which threw thousands of Israelites out of their homes without a Find My Lost Tribes app, and the Babylonian invasion, in which the remaining two tribes just got temporarily misplaced. And by “temporarily,” we mean about 70 years.
Here are just a few of the highlights in these decidedly not up-with-people books:
About that name. Over the years the word “minor” has made people who want to say good things about these books unnecessarily defensive. Exhibit #1: a steady stream of puns about how the Minor Prophets are really major this and major that, made in the hopes of taking these guys out of AAA ball to play in the big leagues with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.
So let’s get this out of the way: the minor in Minor Prophets didn’t originally mean what it now does in English. Back in the day “minor” was a Latin way of saying smaller, and in this case it’s a reference to length. The books in the Minor Prophets are for the most part rather short, along the order of a couple three-blog posts.
And that’s pretty much who the Minor Prophets are—twelve angry bloggers.
What gets them so mad is a situation that may sound rather familiar. A couple hundred years or so earlier, the twelve tribes of Israel had entered into an agreement, or covenant, to create one nation under God. Rather than having a bunch of subservient states ruled by the richest and most powerful city, the twelve tribes would be equal, and instead of a society dominated by the wealthy the Israelite dream was for every family to own a home, a dog and a big screen TV. Well, make that a vine and a fig tree.
That was Israel’s golden age, but according to the Minor Prophets it’s all been downhill since then. Thanks to ungodly infighting, Israel has split into two countries: Israel, the ten tribes in the north, and Judah, which is much smaller but includes Jerusalem and the temple. A broken covenant, ungodly foreign alliances, fake piety, big business out of control—Israel and Judah aren’t what they used to be, and the Minor Prophets want to make sure that they get what they deserve.
Yet their message isn’t entirely one of condemnation, and a clue to the Minor Prophets’ ultimate agenda can be found in the fact that the Hebrew scriptures don’t call them minor at all. Instead, the Jewish Bible collects all twelve of these prophets into a single book, just as the prophets themselves predict Israel and Judah would once again be unified as twelve tribes in one.
Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?
Ever feel like you were on a one-way trip in the wrong direction? If so, then the Minor Prophets are for you.
Although the incidents described in the Minor Prophets took place more than 1500 years ago, the struggles they encounter are surprisingly fresh. Horrible things that happen for no apparent reason. Political leaders who betray their core values. Hypocritical do-gooders. Wealthy people who take advantage of poor and middle class. The Minor Prophets wrestle with all these issues and more in their characteristically colorful way, and even if we may not agree with everything they say, they ask the difficult questions.
For example: Can a covenant culture grounded in a commitment to social responsibility co-exist with capitalism and self-interest? When left to their own devices, will people do the right thing? Is income inequality unavoidable?
Lots of people important people were thinking about these things through the years. Martin Luther’s reading of the prophet Habakkuk helped spark the Protestant Reformation. Harriet Beecher Stowe drew from the Minor Prophets in writing the anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Martin Luther King, Jr. regularly cited the prophet Amos in advocating for his dream of racial justice. Labor activists everywhere love Amos. The book of Jonah has been an inspiration for countless attempts to understand the all too human failure to do the right thing, including the classic Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.
These are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. At a time when many people are dissatisfied with the gap between the American dream and the present reality, the Minor Prophets are ready for their next close-up.
The Minor Prophets is a comedy troupe that has produced more than two dozen short films, none of which has anything to do with the original minor prophets. That’s. So. Raven. The group owns minorprophets.com as well, further proof that the biblical Minor Prophets can’t catch a break.
Dies Irae, Day of Wrath
There’s a whole website dedicated to Dies Irae, the Gregorian chant based on Zephaniah’s description of the day of wrath. (1:14-15) Thanks to the diligent collection efforts of ASCAP, all royalties from the performance of this song go to the prophet’s sole surviving descendant, Milly Zephaniah of Hoboken, New Jersey.
Children of the Corn
Malachi, Nahum and Amos take a star turn in this classic film loosely based on the Minor Prophets. And more tightly based on a book by Stephen King.
The Lion King, “King of Pride Rock”
The description of God’s day of wrath in Zephaniah 1:14-15 inspired a Christian chant called Dies Irae, which in turn inspired the climactic music for Simba’s ascent. It’s the circle of life. Okay, technically it’s a line, but you get the point.
Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie
VeggieTales is a popular Christian entertainment franchise that features a group of spiritual vegetables. Important note to anyone who decides to prepare a report on Jonah by watching this movie instead of reading the Bible: in the original Hebrew text, Jonah is not a talking asparagus.
Jonah and the Whale
It’s what everyone thinks when they read the book of Jonah: this would make a great romantic comedy! At least someone with pull in Hollywood thought so.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
In his time, many considered King to be a dangerous radical. In a Birmingham, Alabama prison for his role in leading a nonviolent civil rights demonstration, King defends himself from this charge by citing the example of Amos, “Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’” What makes this quote an especially cool example of King’s genius: the Birmingham police were notorious for blasting the demonstrators with water cannons.
A Jewish Exile’s Babylonian Lawsuit
The Minor Prophets are God’s People’s Court, with Yahweh giving his people guilt trips through breach of covenant legal complaints. Here’s an example of an actual case from Babylon involving a Jewish slave in exile who fails to secure his freedom.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech
In this historic address from 1963, the civil rights leader quotes Amos 5:24, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” However, Amos is not quoted in the ABBA song with the same title.
An Islamic cartoon about Yunus and the Whale
We all know that Shmoopers are clever, so you’ve probably already figured out that Yunus is Jonah in Arabic. What’s especially cool about this cartoon are the little differences from Jewish and Christian versions of the tale. The prophet can’t be drawn. He actually wants to convert the Ninevites. And then there’s the mysterious singing bear ….
Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?
Daniel and the lion’s den, Jonah and the whale—this slave spiritual from the old South finds a hope of freedom in stories about God saving his people from dangerous animals. Ooooh, burn.
Accentuate the Positive
The original version of this Johnny Mercer classic is an old time African American gospel sermon updated for post-war America. Remember Jonah, banish bad thoughts and whatever you do, don’t mess with Mr. In-Between because he is one tough cookie.
Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower
The third chapter of Habakkuk was historically set to music, but it’s the first verse of chapter two that made music history. Bob Dylan’s lyrics + Jimi Hendrix’ guitar = a timeless riff on Habakkuk’s watchtower vigil—so timeless, in fact, that it was the favorite song of Battlestar Galactica’s cylons millennia before it was written.
Pedro the Lion – Of Minor Prophets and Their Prostitute Wives
Back in the 1990s, the city of Seattle required everyone between the ages of 15 and 30 to be in a grunge band, and “Of Minor Prophets and Their Prostitute Wives” is one of the songs to emerge from this strange experiment. The singer’s attempt to win back his ex by calling her a slut is surprisingly true to the biblical source.
Porgy and Bess
In George Gershwin’s masterpiece, the story of Jonah is one of the things that “you’re liable to read in the Bible” that “ain’t necessarily so.”
Hosea, Gomer and a child to be named later pose for a family painting in the 12th century Bible of St. Andre aux-Bois.
Joel Proofreads His Scroll
A candid behind-the-scenes painting in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. That’s the Sistine Chapel, Las Vegas by Fred Michelangelo, but pretty good, no?
Haggai Asks Joshua and Zerubbabel for Directions to Oktoberfest
A woodcut from Martin Luther’s Bible of 1545
The prophet exhorts the Israelites in this Dore woodcut.
The Not So Fab Four
Zephaniah, Joel, Obadiah and Hosea go full emo in this painting by John Singer Sargent. Well, maybe not Hosea, who had everybody talking with his daring choice of white.
The prophet Zechariah is seeing things in this Martin Luther woodcut.