What does it mean to be “minor?”
“Minor” can refer to sports leagues, musical scales, types of injuries and, yes, even mean being trivial. But in the case of the minor prophets in the Old Testament, the term refers to “length.” The 12 minor prophets in the Bible have fewer words than the major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. (Another book, Lamentations, is traditionally accredited to Jeremiah as well.) The words of both groups of prophets are equally important.
While the Christian Bible has individual books for each minor prophet, the Jewish Bible (sometimes called the Tanakh) places all 12 into one book called Nev’im (the prophets.)
Lent always starts with a reading from a minor prophet, Joel, on Ash Wednesday. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning…” (Jl 2:12). Later this month (Feb. 24), the first reading will come from the prophet Jonah, speaking in Nineveh: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed …” (Jon 3:4).
The minor prophets lived over a span of nearly four centuries, from about 790 B.C. to 430 B.C. They witnessed some very important events in salvation history: the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel (722 B.C.), the Babylonian Exile from Jerusalem (starting in 598 B.C.), the destruction of the First Temple (586 B.C.), the return and rebuilding of the Second Temple (515 B.C.) and into the post-exile time of the fifth century before Christ.
The messages of these 12 prophets were not always, or even mostly, what we think of today as prophecy: foretelling future events. Yes, these prophets spoke of the coming of the Messiah and of God’s Kingdom on earth, but they also instructed people to turn from evil ways, inspired hope in exile and reminded us of the primacy of God in life.
“Prophet” comes from a Hebrew word, navi, which later became the Greek prophetes. Navi (sometimes written nabi) comes from two Hebrew letters which, when put together, mean “being open,” as in waiting to be filled. In Hebrew tradition, prophets were open to receiving God’s word and were sent to proclaim (pour out) that word.
Prophets of biblical times were spokespersons for God. They also spoke for the people to God in prayer. Prophets played such an important role in Hebrew Scriptures that their words and work take up one-third of the Tanakh. The book of the prophets falls in the middle of the Tanakh, after the Book of the Law (the Torah) and before the Ketuvim (the writings) which include the Psalms and Proverbs.
The Na’vim is the longest of the three sections — and includes the major prophets. It demonstrates how all prophets walked with the Hebrew people through most of their history. It also shows that the prophets’ main purpose was to guide the Chosen People, reminding them of the Law and keeping them close to God — both in good times and in times of trouble. As The Catholic Encyclopedia explains, “The Hebrew prophet … had to maintain and develop the knowledge of the Old Law among the Chosen People, leads them back when they strayed, and gradually prepare the way for the new kingdom of God…”
The minor prophets offered various messages, but one point they often made was reference to a coming day of judgment by God. Whether this is a day that happened later in history or is a time yet to come is open to reflection. These prophets also, in different ways, announce the coming Messiah.
The minor prophets are:
- Hosea — Hosea and Amos lived in the same time frame, around the early to middle part of the eighth century B.C. They are the earliest of the minor prophets. Both preached in the Kingdom of Israel. Hosea’s book, and Zechariah’s, are the longest books of the minor prophets. Hosea’s name means “salvation.”
- Amos — His name means “carried by God.” Amos was a shepherd and orchard worker in the Kingdom of Israel.
- Micah — His name means “Who is like God.” Micah preached in the southern Kingdom of Judah around the same time as the prophet, Isaiah. This was the early part of the eighth century B.C. Micah came from a village in the hills of Judea.
- Jonah — We probably know Jonah best for his attempt to escape from the Word of God — and thus was swallowed by a whale, He also grew angry when the people of Nineveh repented. His book is read by Jewish people on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
- Obadiah — Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah all prophesied around the time of the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah (including Jerusalem) at the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth centuries. Obadiah, whose name means “servant of God,” has the shortest book of the minor prophets, less than 700 words.
- Nahum — Around 612 B.C. Nahum, whose name means “comforter,” also preached against the city of Nineveh. This time, they did not listen and the Assyrian city was destroyed.
- Habakkuk — He preached around 600 B.C., not long before the Babylonian invasion and exile. Despite this, his writing is largely joyful, which might explain the “festive” meaning of the prophet’s name.
- Zephaniah — This prophet preached about 30 years earlier than Habakkuk, during a time of pro-Assyrian support in King Josiah’s court in Jerusalem. Zephaniah spoke about the “Day of Lord” and of a coming disaster. Despite his dire message, Zephaniah’s name means “God has protected.”
- Haggai — Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi preached after the Babylonian Exile, around 520 B.C. when King Darius of Persia had allowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s Temple to continue. Haggai spoke eloquently about visions of the rebuilt Temple.
- Zechariah — He preached at the same time as Haggai and spoke of many symbolic visions, especially about the coming of the Messiah. His name means “God has remembered.”
- Malachi — We don’t really know the true name of this prophet. The name “Malachi” means “my messenger” in Hebrew. Writing around 455 B.C., this prophet’s words spoke against the priests of his time.
- Joel — Dating the Book of Joel is difficult for scholars, though he was probably one of the later minor prophets, living around 400 B.C. Joel, whose name means “God is God,” speaks of a plague of locusts and also in an apocalyptic manner of a “Day of the Lord” for which people must prepare through repentance.
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; The New American Bible, St. Joseph Study Edition; britannica.com; myjewishlearnig.com; Catechism of the Catholic Church; The New Dictionary of Theology; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; The Society of Old Testament Study at sots.ac.uk; and torah.org