Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are starting Malachi, the last of the Minor Prophets, the last of the writing prophets, the last book in the Christian canon. Malachi’s modern chapter divisions are arbitrary and therefore not the best guides for ordering our study of the book. Structurally, six tightly patterned prophetic disputations makeup the prophetic work. Most translations mark off the disputations with subtitles. Today, I want to cover the first disputation: Malachi 1:1-5. Because there is some discussion over Malachi’s identity and dating, we will layout those details at the start as well.
The book’s superscription in the first verse is skimpy on biographical details. Other prophets often cite their hometown or name of their father. In Malachi’s case, all that is given is the name of the prophet, and we are not even certain of that. There is no character in the Hebrew scriptures with the name Malachi, a slightly awkward name in the Hebrew. Malachi can also translate as a title “my messenger.” Malach is one of the most common Hebrew words in the Bible which can mean angel or messenger. Perhaps the book intentionally left the prophet unnamed, only ascribing the oracle to Yahweh’s messenger. The Septuagint scribes understood the introduction as “his messenger” and translated Malachi’s introduction accordingly: “the word of Yahweh to Israel by the hand of his messenger.” In the Masoretic tradition, the basis for our Bible translations, the pronouncement includes the proper name: “the word of Yahweh to Israel by the hand of Malachi.” So, which is it?
Scholars who theorize that the last six chapters of Zechariah were written by an anonymous author, group Malachi into their theory of a Second Zechariah. Zechariah 9:1, 12:1, and Malachi 1:1 all use the Hebrew word massa’ in the brief introduction to their oracles. Massa’ means oracle or burden. To a prophet, their oracles felt like burdens to deliver. In the Hebrew Bible, the Minor Prophets make up the Book of the Twelve so the last section of Zechariah flows naturally into Malachi as one continuous section.
Technically, there is no way to be certain if the correct translation of the superscription is the noun “my messenger” or the name Malachi. For Bible Fiber, Jewish tradition has kept Malachi as the name of the author and there is no compelling reason to change it. Plus, including the name of the author in the introduction to a prophetic book is common enough to assume Malachi also conforms to that formula.
Unlike Haggai and Zechariah who give precise dates, Malachi does not provide a date or even a historical figure like an imperial king to timestamp the oracle. From internal features in the text, scholars confidentially date Malachi to the postexilic period. Malachi refers to the Temple and Temple system (1:6-14; 3:18) in a manner that suggest the Temple has been operative for years. That means we can safely say the book dates sometime after the Second Temple was complete in 516 BCE and therefore well after the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah.
The particulars of Malachi’s accusations against the community parallel the complaints found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Like Ezra and Nehemiah, Malachi condemns intermarriage with pagans (2:10-16). He also accuses the priesthood of failing to perform their duties (1:6-2:9) and the people of neglecting their Temple tithes (3:6-12). Most biblical historians agree that Malachi had to be a near contemporary to Ezra and Nehemiah. However, Malachi makes no mention of either Ezra or Nehemiah, even though he mirrors their message. Malachi likely came onto the scene right before Ezra and Nehemiah, laying the groundwork for their reforms.
Ezra returned to Jerusalem in 458 BCE. Nehemiah joined him in 445 BCE. The two overlapped for about twelve years. Nehemiah returned to Susa for a time before coming back to Jerusalem again. By this calculation, Malachi likely delivered his oracle sometime between 516 BCE after the Temple was complete and 458 BCE with the arrival of Ezra.
One other clue to Malachi’s dating is his reference to a governor in Jerusalem (1:8). He uses the term for governor that is Assyrian in origin and used in the Bible only during the postexilic period. The governors were imperial appointees and we know of only a few in Judah’s history by name. Ezra refers to Sheshbazzar, the first leader of the postexilic community, as the “governor” of Judah appointed by Cyrus (Ezra 5:14). Haggai used the same Assyrian title “governor” for Zerubbabel (Hag. 1:1, 2:2). And Nehemiah also served as “governor” (Neh. 5:14). Scholars take Malachi’s use of this Persian title as additional evidence of a postexilic date.
On a literary note, Malachi writes less creatively than prophets like Zechariah. He tones down the figurative language and ramps up covenant terms. Malachi’s disputations are incredibly direct. His priority is the Mosaic law, priesthood, and the Temple. Malachi delivers God’s message through expert use of hypothetical dialogues. Repeatedly, God asks a rhetorical question, the people’s response exposes their apathy or cynicism, and then God makes an assertion to hammer home his point.
In the superscription, Malachi addresses Israel rather than Judah. When postexilic prophets refer to Israel, they are not referencing the former northern kingdom. Nothing remained of that political entity for centuries by the time Malachi ministered. The prophets use Israel to name all the remnant, all the descendants of Jacob, who now make up one united people of God.
Malachi may also be using the covenant name Israel as a prelude to his first disputation which is all about the Edomites. After Jacob wrestled with the angel, he was given the alternative name Israel because he had struggled with God and humans but still overcame (Gen. 32:28). As you know, Jacob’s descendants became the people of Israel. Jacob and Esau are the quintessential story of fraternal enmity. Esau is the Old Testament Super Villain, complete with a complicated backstory and daddy issues. Esau’s descendants, the people of Edom, maintained a cold hostility with Israel for hundreds of years. Go back and listen to my first Obadiah episode for a full history of the Edomites from Esau to King Herod.
Malachi’s first disputation begins with God declaring his love for Israel. The people retort, “how have you loved us?” (1:2). The dialogue is not actual but hypothetical, and through the hypotheticals Malachi exposes the defiance of the people. Often when the prophets are trying to jog the nation’s collective memory, they invoke the Exodus or God’s provision during the wilderness wanderings. Malachi goes further back to the patriarchal age, emphasizing his initial election of Jacob over Esau.
He asks, “‘Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ (1:2). This is another rhetorical question because Malachi’s audience was well-versed in their origin story as the descendants of Jacob. As part of the story, they knew that by custom, Esau was entitled to the birthright because he was the first-born twin. God’s will overrode the cultural norms.
Both Jacob and Edom were flawed characters in the Bible. Yahweh’s election of Jacob was completely out of divine initiative, and not based on Jacob’s righteousness, as the many biblical stories of Jacob’s compulsive deceit demonstrate.
Paul, in Romans, alluded to this verse in Malachi when he wrote about the theology of the divine will: “As it is written, ‘I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.’ What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’” (Rom. 9:13-14).
Translation questions surround the verse “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau” (1:2). Biblical interpreters make a compelling argument that when Bible translators use the word hate, sometimes it does not mean hate like the human emotion. Rather, the Hebrew idiom for hate is better recognized as “not prefer” or “love less.”
The best example of this discrepancy is seen in Genesis 29:31 in describing Jacob’s affection for Rachel over Leah. The NIV reflects the understanding that the Hebrew word does not mean “hate” but rather means “love less.” The NIV reads, “When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive.” The ESV, KJV, and ASV still translate the word hate as hate. They read along these lines: “When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb.” Yet, in the grand story of Jacob’s life, it does not seem that Jacob hated Leah, the wife of most of his children, only that he loved her less than Rachel.
God may be saying the same type of thing in the Malachi disputation. He does not hate Esau, but he does not love Esau like he loves Jacob. In fact, God had instructed the Israelites back in Deuteronomy to not detest Edom on account of their kinship: “You shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin” (Deut. 23:7).
The misunderstanding of the Hebrew idiom likely even carries over into the Aramaic of the New Testament. Jesus told his disciples to “hate” their parents, spouses, children and siblings (Luke 14:26). But that command counters everything else in the Bible. It makes much more sense if Jesus is using the common Hebrew idiom for “love less” or “not prefer.” He is telling his disciples to love him even more than our own families, which makes a lot more sense! My apologies for the long journey through translation problems, but the point is that God loved Esau less and likely did not hate him, and incidentally Jesus does not want us to hate our families.
God reassures the people of their status by contrasting Israel’s destiny with Edom. Edom was Israel’s earliest and longest running rivalry. Despite their kinship, they were never easy neighbors. The prophets speak of the Edomites as a stand-in for all wicked nations. Edom was closer to the lineage and land of Israel than any other people. Yet, God saw the two as distinct.
God promises Judah that he will destroy Edom. Preexilic prophets like Amos (9:3), Ezekiel (25:12-14), Obadiah (10), Isaiah (34) and Jeremiah (49:7-22) had all predicted Edom’s devastation. In every case, the end of Edom was going to be a harbinger for Israel’s future restoration.
God says, “I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals” (1:3). The Bible frequently emphasizes the extent of desolation in any cursed place by the presence of wild animals in the place of people (Isa. 34). What is unique to Malachi is that he is the only prophet to suggest the process of Edom’s demise had finally begun. Is Malachi suggesting Edom’s fall would be complete within the lifetime of his audience? That part is unclear, but his language structure suggest that the downturn has begun but not yet complete.
The Edomites did not leave behind their recorded national history. Most of what we know about Edom is from archaeology and the Bible. Before the Babylonian invasion, Edom and Israel had a tense relationship. The pottery record shows that around the end of the First Temple period, Edom had pushed into Negev territory and even reached into southern Judah. Archaeologists uncovered a site called Horvat Qitmat which is an open-air Edomite shrine right in the Judean Negev. Clearly, despite their enmity, they had a heavy influence on one another culturally and tolerated their geographic nearness.
During the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, Edom was spared. In fact, the Bible paints a picture of Edomites celebrating Judah’s fall, plundering their homes, moving into evacuated lands, and capturing Judean refugees (Obad. 10-16; Lam. 4:2). By the rivers of Babylon, the psalmist recorded the exiles memories of how the Edomites took advantage of their misfortune: “Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. ‘Tear it down,’ they cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations!’ (Ps. 137:7).
No record exists of a Babylonian attack on Edom, but that does not mean it did not happen. According to Josephus, Nebuchadnezzar’s armies raided neighboring nations Ammon and Moab several years after Jerusalem in 582 BCE. Historians assume Edom was included in the raids, if not directly named by Josephus. Malachi might be portraying the Edomites prior suffering under Nebuchadnezzar because he describes them crying out “we are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins” (1:4). Clearly, at some point the Edomites had fallen on hard times like all the surrounding peoples and like Israel it was their intent to rebuild what Babylon destroyed.
When Edom tried to rebuild their nation, Yahweh stopped their efforts. Malachi’s oracle says he would frustrate the Edomite’s every attempt: “the Lord of hosts says: They may build, but I will tear down, until they are called the wicked country, the people with whom the Lord is angry forever” (1:5). Indeed, by the fourth century BCE, a seminomadic group began moving into Edom and pushing out the native Edomites. There is no evidence that they conquered Edom militarily, but somehow they gained control of the former Edomite regions. By 312 BCE, the Nabateans, an Arabian tribe, completely overran the Edomites’ former territory. Adept builders and successful traders, the Nabateans transformed the former Edomite stronghold Sela into Petra. The mixed population that stemmed from Edomite and Nabatean relationships became known as the Idumeans. The Maccabees forcefully converted the Idumeans to the Jewish faith in the second century BCE.
By the time Malachi ministered to the returnees of Judah, the initial enthusiasm of the community gave way to disillusionment. Malachi as God’s divine mediator is a confrontational prophet. But he tries to show the people, that despite their exile and suffering, they survived, and that survival is of God. Unlike Edom who will be forever removed from her land, Jerusalem is in the process still of being resettled and rebuilt. Their Temple is finished and the sacrificial system renewed. God wants his people to open their eyes to the reality of his works on their behalf, even if it seems slow to them now. Malachi reports, “Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, ‘Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel!’” (1:5). By contemplating the very different fortunes of Israel and Edom, Yahweh is asking his people to acknowledge his provision and love. The promises he gave to Jacob centuries before still hold true. Yahweh assures Israel of his love for them, by speaking the language of revenge on their enemies, a very effective vocabulary to Ancient Near Eastern ears. But the question Malachi is also putting forward is do the people love him in return? Do they worship him with pure hearts?
Join me next week for the second disputation in Malachi which covers Malachi 1:6-14 and 2:1-9. The prophet has a heavy burden to deliver to the Jerusalem priesthood.
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