Study Guide

The Twelve Minor Prophets Covenant and Captivity

Covenant and Captivity

Set the trumpet to your lips! One like a vulture is over the house of the LORD, because they have broken my covenant, and transgressed my law. Israel cries to me, “My God, we—Israel—know you!” Israel has spurned the good; the enemy shall pursue him. (NRSV Hosea 8:1-3)

Set the trumpet to thy mouth. He shall come as an eagle against the house of the LORD, because they have transgressed my covenant, and trespassed against my law. Israel shall cry unto me, My God, we know thee. Israel hath cast off the thing that is good: the enemy shall pursue him. (KJV Hosea 8:1-3)

Storks, vultures, eagles, doves—the Minor Prophets sure do like their birds, but what they like even more is the covenant, or contract, that God made with the twelve tribes way back in the book of Exodus—even back to Abraham, if you count that circumcision agreement as a covenant. If punishing Israel with an invasion sounds rather severe, it might help to know that this is actually a standard punishment listed in a covenant between nations known as a vassal treaty. Maintain the alliance and good things happen; break it and you are toast. Israel hopes that by appealing to their long history, God might relent.

Ephraim herds the wind, and pursues the east wind all day long; they multiply falsehood and violence; they make a treaty with Assyria, and oil is carried to Egypt. (NRSV Hosea 12:1)

Ephraim feedeth on wind, and followeth after the east wind: he daily increaseth lies and desolation; and they do make a covenant with the Assyrians, and oil is carried into Egypt. (KJV Hosea 12:1)

When nations enter a vassal treaty they make vows in the names of their respective gods. Israel would have done this in its treaty with the Assyrian empire, but in the book of Hosea, the country’s rulers are violating their agreement by secretly trying to join other nations in taking on Assyria. Why would this get God so mad? Well, for one thing, the second commandment handed down at Mount Sinai is not to take Yahweh’s name in vain, which back then would have included breaking a sacred vow.

I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat, and I will enter into judgment with them there, on account of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations. They have divided my land, and cast lots for my people, and traded boys for prostitutes, and sold girls for wine, and drunk it down. What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will turn your deeds back upon your own heads swiftly and speedily. For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks, removing them far from their own border. (NRSV Joel 3:2-6)

I will also gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and will plead with them there for my people and for my heritage Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations, and parted my land. And they have cast lots for my people; and have given a boy for an harlot, and sold a girl for wine, that they might drink. Yea, and what have ye to do with me, O Tyre, and Zidon, and all the coasts of Palestine? will ye render me a recompence? and if ye recompense me, swiftly and speedily will I return your recompence upon your own head; Because ye have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried into your temples my goodly pleasant things: The children also of Judah and the children of Jerusalem have ye sold unto the Grecians, that ye might remove them far from their border. (KJV Joel 3:2-6)

God’s people carried off to foreign lands and sold into slavery. Sacred objects stolen and used in pagan temples. The promised land occupied. This passage from Joel captures the pain of exile and loss felt throughout all the Minor Prophets—even Jonah’s anger of the repentance of Nineveh reflects his desire to see Assyria punished for the horrors inflicted on Israel. God’s ancient commitment to Judah is on epic display in this passage. Ask any parent: they’ll tell you that they can scream at their kids but don’t let anyone else try.

Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria, the notables of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel resorts! …Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (NRSV Amos 6:1, 7)

Woe to them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria, which are named chief of the nations, to whom the house of Israel came! … Therefore now shall they go captive with the first that go captive, and the banquet of them that stretched themselves shall be
removed. (KJV Amos 6:1, 7)

Maybe Israel and Judah have been complacent because they think that the covenant will protect them regardless of how they’ve been conducting their lives. That’s what some of the false prophets have been telling them. This passage in the book of Amos killed the Minor Prophets’ sponsorship deal with La-Z-Boy recliners and Craftmatic adjustable beds, and it’s easy to see why.

I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, the LORD your God. (NRSV Amos 9:14-15)

And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them. And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be pulled up out of their land which I have given them, saith the LORD thy God. (KJV Amos 9:14-15)

God’s covenant with Israel is said to be eternal, and the breach of covenant complaints in the Minor Prophets typically include a promise of eventual restoration. God’s people will return to the land and it will be fruitful. In fact, this passage from Amos compares Israelites to plants and promises that they won’t be pulled out of the ground again.

But upon mount Zion shall be deliverance, and there shall be holiness; and the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions. And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau; for the LORD hath spoken it. (NRSV Obadiah 1:17-18)

But upon mount Zion shall be deliverance, and there shall be holiness; and the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions. And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau; for the LORD hath spoken it. (KJV Obadiah 1:17-18)

Getting back the land and wiping out the invaders remain the top two items on Israel’s and Judah’s to-do lists for centuries. The references to the some of the original players in the covenant—Jacob, Joseph, and Esau—demonstrates God’s long memory. Obadiah excoriates Esau for how he treated his little brother Jake, and his descendants are paying the price.

The seacoast shall become the possession of the remnant of the house of Judah, on which they shall pasture, and in the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening. For the LORD their God will be mindful of them and restore their fortunes. (NRSV Zephaniah 2:7)

And the coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah; they shall feed thereupon: in the houses of Ashkelon shall they lie down in the evening: for the LORD their God shall visit them, and turn away their captivity. (KJV Zephaniah 2:7)

Lying down and exploiting your fellow countrymen is bad. Lying down after decades of exile is fine, especially if you invite your poor, foreign, widowed or orphaned neighbors to stop by to watch Arrested Development on your 72-inch screen. This passage really conveys what it would be like for Judah to return home after the long period of exile, especially to beachfront property.

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD. (NRSV Zephaniah 3:18-20)

I will gather them that are sorrowful for the solemn assembly, who are of thee, to whom the reproach of it was a burden. Behold, at that time I will undo all that afflict thee: and I will save her that halteth, and gather her that was driven out; and I will get them praise and fame in every land where they have been put to shame. At that time will I bring you again, even in the time that I gather you: for I will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when I turn back your captivity before your eyes, saith the LORD. (KJV Zephaniah 3:18-20)

This vision of an ingathering of the exiles to Judah has always had enormous emotional resonance for the Jewish nation, which is why the early Zionists, dispersed among many countries, nixed proposals to establish a Jewish homeland in Uganda or Sitka, Alaska—two of several proposed sites. From God’s vantage point in eternity, he can see the whole world go into a slow clap after his people get back home.

Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. (NRSV Haggai 2:2-5)

Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest, and to the residue of the people, saying, Who is left among you that saw this house in her first glory? and how do ye see it now? Is it not in your eyes in comparison of it as nothing? Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, saith the LORD; and be strong, O Joshua, son of Josedech, the high priest; and be strong, all ye people of the land, saith the LORD, and work: for I am with you, saith the LORD of hosts: According to the word that I covenanted with you when ye came out of Egypt, so my spirit remaineth among you: fear ye not. (KJV Haggai 2:2-5)

And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Take of them of the captivity, even of Heldai, of Tobijah, and of Jedaiah, which are come from Babylon, and come thou the same day, and go into the house of Josiah the son of Zephaniah; Then take silver and gold, and make crowns, and set them upon the head of Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest …. And they that are far off shall come and build in the temple of the LORD, and ye shall know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me unto you. And this shall come to pass, if ye will diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God. (KJV Zechariah 6:9-11, 15)

Using former exiles freshly off the chariot from Babylon to establish the authority of the new high priest and governor of Judah makes for a powerful scene—and it’s not a bad strategy for uniting the community too. It’s a lot like a commemorative ceremony for 9/11 or the Boston bombing with representatives from the victims and their families.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.… Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. (NRSV Malachi 3:1, 4)

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the LORD, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. …
Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the LORD, as in the days of old, and as in former years. (KJV Malachi 3:1-4)

Although the temple gets rebuilt after the Babylonian exile, Malachi continues to affirm the central importance of words and actions consistent with the principles embodied in religious ritual. It’s another step closer toward creating the culture of modern Judaism, in which sacrificing bulls has given way to the sacrifice of prayer and righteous living. And what better way to help the community make the transition by saying it’s a return to the good old days?

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