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Postmonarchy Prophets: Exile and Restoration

1 Introduction

2 Prophets of the Exile

3 Prophets of the Restoration

4 Latter Prophets Collections

Study Guide


Creation-redemption, Cyrus, Day of Yhwh, Ezekiel, Glory of Yhwh, Gog and Magog, Haggai, Isaiah of the Exile (Second Isaiah), Isaiah of the Restoration (Third Isaiah), Joel, Malachi, New exodus, Obadiah, Second temple, Servant of Yhwh, Servant poems, Valley of dry bones, Zechariah, Zerubbabel

Michelangelo's Joel

Michelangelo’s Joel

Joel was a prophet of the Judean restoration who anticipated a time when the spirit of Yhwh would be poured out upon all people, not just kings and prophets as in the past.

Source: Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on Michelangelo’s Joel (Rome: Sistine Chapel, Vatican).

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The periods of the Babylonian exile and the restoration of Judean community life in Palestine were crucial times in biblical history. The exile and subsequent deportation to Babylon was catastrophic in terms of loss of life and destruction of Judah’s infrastructure. It forced a rethinking of former verities such as the invulnerability of Jerusalem and the absolute protection of Yhwh. It also forced the transformation of many of Judah’s notions of deity and the institutions that supported its corporate life. The prophets of the periods of exile and restoration provided visionary thinking in a variety of forms that helped the Judeans to reconceptualize and remake themselves into a renewed people of Yhwh. These prophets not only supported the survival and eventual thriving of the Jews but also laid the foundation for the emergence of Judaism.

1.1 Exile and Restoration: A Summary

Nebuchadrezzar and the Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem in 598 BCE. After capturing the city, he deported the royal administration, including Jehoiachin, to Babylon along with Jerusalem’s civic, religious, and technically skilled elite. This group, numbering as many as 10,000, is called the first deportation to Babylon. The prophet Ezekiel was among this group. Nebuchadrezzar installed Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle and the last remaining son of Josiah, on the throne of the now vassal state of Judah in place of Jehoiachin. Zedekiah eventually attempted to break away from Nebuchadrezzar in the expectation that Egypt would back him. This help did not materialize, and the Babylonian army once again invaded Judah. Many of its fortified cities were destroyed, and Nebuchadrezzar lay siege to Jerusalem once again. The city fell after holding out for a year and a half. Zedekiah escaped from Jerusalem but was caught by the enemy. After witnessing his sons being executed, his own eyes were blinded, and he was sent off to exile. The remainder of Jerusalem’s citizenry was deported to Babylon in the second deportation, and the city was destroyed, including the temple of Solomon. This story is told in 2 Kings 25, an account duplicated in Jeremiah 52.

1.2 Reading Guide

The following passages manifest key components of history and prophecy in the Babylonian period.


• Ezekiel 37:1–14: Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones vision, anticipating the rebirth of Israel

• Isaiah 40:1–11(Second Isaiah): “Comfort my people” passage that announces a return from Babylonian exile

• Isaiah 52:13–53:12 (Second Isaiah): Servant poem 4, in which Yhwh’s servant suffers for the people even though he did not deserve it

• Isaiah 65:17–25 (Third Isaiah): a vision of a renewed heavens and earth

• Haggai 1: rebuilding the temple of Yhwh in Jerusalem

• Zechariah 3: the prophet Zechariah’s vision of the postexilic high priest Joshua who is accused of uncleanness by the Satan

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• Malachi 3: preparing the way for Yhwh to return to his temple in Jerusalem

• Joel 3: Yhwh will pour out his spirit on all types of people on the day of Yhwh


It is difficult to write a detailed history of the Judeans during the period of the Babylonian exile. Naturally, Jewish documentary sources are scarce for this time; the community was now divided between Palestine and Babylonia. Most of its leaders were either dead or in captivity. There was no royal or temple administration; hence, no official records were kept as they were during the period of the monarchy. The best that we can do is reconstruct the experience of the Judeans using prophetic voices. Jeremiah spanned preexile Judah and the Babylonian exile though most of his material is preexilic. Obadiah is very limited in what it can tell us. The words of Ezekiel and Second Isaiah contain the richest collection of material and are especially valuable because both prophets were themselves in Babylonian exile rather than in Palestine.

2.1 Obadiah and Jeremiah

The book of Obadiah is the shortest book in the Hebrew Bible. It is only one chapter long and consists of a single oracle against the territory of Edom, which lay immediately to the southeast of Judah. We know virtually nothing about the prophet Obadiah, except that his name means “servant of Yhwh,” a common Hebrew name.

The book of Obadiah is undated, but it is usually credited to the period immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. The theme of the oracle is divine condemnation of Edom because the Edomites took advantage of the Judeans after they were forced to leave Jerusalem. The Edomites even seem to have cooperated with the Babylonians in despoiling Judah at the time of the exile. Obadiah voices the words of Yhwh:

You should not have entered the gate of my people on the day of their tragedy. You of all people should not have gazed on their disaster on the day of their tragedy. You should not have looted their goods on the day of their tragedy. (1:13)

With nobody to stop them, Edomites encroached on Judean territory during the period of Judean exile. Obadiah makes reference to the day of Yhwh as the time when Edom would be punished by a vengeful God. He predicts a time when the exiles would return and Mount Zion would again be glorious.

There was long-standing antagonism between Israel and Edom. This antipathy was traced by the national epic all the way back to the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, who was the ancestor of the Edomites. Obadiah stands with Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel as a prophetic voice condemning Edom. In fact, Obadiah and Jeremiah stand so closely together that portions of Jeremiah’s oracle of judgment against Edom in 49:7–22 are found in Obadiah 1–9. While Obadiah’s version is perhaps slightly wordier, both either draw on the same tradition or Obadiah borrowed from Jeremiah. It would make an interesting case study of how prophets borrowed from each other, a practice attested among other pairs of prophets.

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Jeremiah 49:14–16 (NRSV)
Obadiah 1–4 (NRSV)
I have heard tidings from the Lord and a messenger has been sent among the nations: “Gather yourselves together and come against her, and rise up for battle!” For I will make you least among the nations, despised by humankind. The terror you inspire and the pride of your heart have deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, who hold the height of the hill. Although you make your nest as high as the eagle’s, from there I will bring you down, says the Lord.

We have heard a report from the Lord, and a messenger has been sent among the nations: “Rise up! Let us rise against it for battle!” I will surely make you least among the nations; you shall be utterly despised. Your proud heart has deceived you, you that live in the clefts of the rock, whose dwelling is in the heights. You say in your heart, “Who will bring me down to the ground?” Though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, from there I will bring you down, says the Lord.

Jeremiah 49:9–10 (NRSV)
Obadiah 5–6 (NRSV)
If grape-gatherers came to you, would they not leave gleanings? If thieves came by night, even they would pillage only what they wanted. But as for me, I have stripped Esau bare, I have uncovered his hiding places. If thieves came to you, if plunderers by night—how you have been destroyed!—would they not steal only what they wanted? If grape-gatherers came to you, would they not leave gleanings? How Esau has been pillaged, his treasures searched out!

Most of Jeremiah’s prophetic experiences and writings are connected to events before 587. Indeed, the fall of Jerusalem in 587 actualized Jeremiah’s predictions of doom. On the surface, Jeremiah’s foretelling of Babylonian victory made it appear that he was sympathetic to the victors. Although he was captured with others at the fall of Jerusalem, he was later released and given permission to travel wherever he wished. He was in the good graces of the Babylonians because he may have been thought to be pro-Babylonian. His writings make clear that he consistently advocated Judean cooperation with Nebuchadrezzar, but he did this primarily because he thought that punishment was due Judah.

Some of the last chapters of the book of Jeremiah describe the prophet’s experiences after the destruction of Jerusalem. Chapters 39–44 tell us that Jeremiah remained in Judah for a time after 587. Shortly after the Babylonian victory, Gedaliah was appointed governor of Judah by the Babylonians. Rival Judeans opposed him because he cooperated with the Babylonians, and they assassinated Gedaliah in 582. Following the death of Gedaliah, Jeremiah was forced to travel to Egypt with a group of refugees. While there he continued to prophesy until his death.

2.2 Ezekiel after the Fall of Jerusalem (25–48)

The second half of the book of Ezekiel, written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 (see Figure 12.1), promotes the spiritual and territorial restoration of Israel. Ezekiel sought to rebuild the hope of the people and to reassure them that Judah would soon be restored and that God would return to Jerusalem. For the survivors, the trauma of Jerusalem’s destruction and the Babylonian exile was as painful as the death of a family member. Psychologists tell us that those who experience great trauma and loss can respond in a variety of intense ways, sometimes called posttraumatic stress disorder. Those who experience death of loved ones go through predictable stages of grief, including denial, anger, and finally acceptance. The surviving

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Time Line: Book of Ezekiel

FIGURE 12.1 Time Line: Book of Ezekiel

Judeans cycled through all these emotions. And Ezekiel, as God’s grief counselor, supported them through this process, sometimes in very startling ways.

His way of providing pastoral support was to argue that the people had brought the disaster upon themselves, and he told them that their only hope for recovery was to change. No comforting embrace from Ezekiel. Yet through it all, Ezekiel never gave up on the people or denied their grief or saw their situation as hopeless. Ezekiel endured the Babylonian exile with the Judean people and presented them with a vision of what they must do to rebuild their identity for the new world conditions in which they now lived. Ezekiel was a major transitional figure in the move from an Israelite identity to what would become the religion of Judaism (see Boccaccini, 2002).

2.2.1 Against Foreign Nations (25–32)

Ezekiel 25–32 is a collection of condemnation speeches directed against Israel’s detractors. The following nations and city-states come under verbal attack: Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt. These were all entities in the immediate vicinity of Judah that took advantage of Judah’s woes to increase their own spheres of influence (see Figure 12.2). Collections of condemnations of foreign nations is a common feature of prophetic books; compare Isaiah 13–23, Jeremiah 46 –51, and the entire books of Obadiah and Nahum. Such oracles are a projection of Yhwh’s control of history in service of his own people.

These judgment oracles served at least two theological functions for Ezekiel’s audience in exile. First, they reaffirmed divine justice. By all standards of evaluation, these nations were no better than Judah; indeed, they were often less humane and pious, by Israel’s standards. Ultimately, they would have to be punished by Yhwh even though then and there they were being used by Yhwh to punish Judah. Second, their power and influence would have to be checked in order for Judah’s political restoration to take place.

Tyre and Egypt are objects of special curse in this series of oracles against the nations. Tyre is condemned in three chapters (26–28) and Egypt in four (29–32). The lamentation over the king of Tyre (28:11–19) is especially interesting for its description of the king as the primeval man in the garden of Eden:

You were a perfect seal, full of wisdom, altogether beautiful. You were in Eden, the Garden of Elohim. Every precious stone covered you: carnelian, chrysolite, and amethyst . . . With an anointed guardian cherub I placed you on the holy mountain of God. You walked among the shining stones. You were blameless in your

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Ezekiel's Oracles Against the Nations

FIGURE 12.2 Ezekiel’s Oracles against the Nations

ways from the day I created you, until iniquity was found in you. In connection with your far-reaching trading you became full of lawlessness, and you sinned. So I cast you down from the mountain of Elohim, and the guardian cherub drove you from among the shining stones. (28:12–16)

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This description of beauty in the garden, expulsion, and the guardian angel recalls features of the creation story of Genesis 2–3. Although no serpent is involved in this story, sin is the reason for the expulsion, specifically the ruthlessness of the king of Tyre. Elements that go beyond the Genesis version are the location of the garden of Eden on the mountain of God and the business of the fiery, shining stones. Taken with Genesis 2–3, this story is corroborating evidence that there was a widely known myth of primeval beginnings in Eden, followed by expulsion.

Ezekiel used the creation myth to characterize the king of Tyre as an evil man who deserved his downfall. History tells us that Tyre held out against Nebuchadrezzar and the Babylonians for thirteen years. This gave many in Judah faint hope that they too might be able to hold out against Babylonia. But Tyre ultimately fell. Ezekiel used his lament over fallen Tyre to disabuse his fellow exiles of the notion that holding out against Babylonia would be successful. The reuse of this myth in its application to Tyre is a fascinating example of the way that myth could be historicized; that is, the drama of the myth was seen as a veiled account of historical events.

2.2.2 Hope after Defeat (33–39)

Chapters 33–39 contain oracles of restoration written after the predicted final destruction of Jerusalem had become reality. In Chapter 34, Ezekiel depicted the past rulers of Israel as negligent shepherds. In their place, God would become the Good Shepherd who would rescue his sheep from disaster. He would also restore the Davidic monarchy. Extending the shepherd metaphor, he says this:

“I will establish one shepherd over them and he will shepherd them—my servant David. He will shepherd them and he will be their shepherd. And I, Yhwh, will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them.” (34:23–24)

Ezekiel had not given up hope in the rebirth of Davidic rule. Jehoiachin was still alive and in exile with Ezekiel. He remained the focus of Jewish hope. The Judean refugees and those back in Palestine continued to look to the line of David for the restoration of the nation. The mention of “one shepherd” expresses Ezekiel’s hope that the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, would once again be united. This reference to the line of David is one of the latest expressions of Davidic messianic expectation in prophetic literature.

But the reference to the Davidic leader as “a prince” rather than as king is somewhat puzzling. The use of this term is consistent with Ezekiel’s later restoration vision of Chapters 40–48 in which David is uniformly referred to as prince. The question is this (see Levenson 1976): Was this way of referring to David an expression of antimonarchic sentiment on Ezekiel’s part, or was he just expressing the old covenant’s theocratic ideal that only Yhwh could be king? The issue of leadership, including its shape and legitimacy, remained a major one throughout the exile and well into the period of restoration.

In Chapter 36, Ezekiel reiterates the internal spiritual dimension of the restoration, addressing the people as a whole using the plural “you”:

“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put inside you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26)

This hope was expressed earlier in Chapter 11, and now some of the implications are drawn out. The people would be cleansed and forgiven, and even the land itself

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Valley of Dry Bones

FIGURE 12.3 Valley of Dry Bones

The valley of dry bones as depicted in a third-century CE synagogue painting from Dura-Europos in Syria.

Source: From Valley of Dry Bones in C. H. Kraeling, ed., The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report VIII, Part 1 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1956), plate LXIX. Panel NC1, Ezekiel, the Destruction and Restoration of National Life, Section A. Courtesy of Yale University Press.

would reap the benefits of this restoration. Grain would be abundant, fruits and vegetables would abound, and there would never be famine again.

Ezekiel’s most powerful image of restoration is the vision of the valley of dry bones (Chapter 37). In the vision, Yhwh took Ezekiel out to a vast valley filled with parched human bones (see Figure 12.3). God told him to prophesy to these bones and to implore them to come to life. As he preached, the bones began to rattle and shake. They came together to make skeletons, then ligaments bound them together, and skin covered them. As Ezekiel continued to preach, a spirit-wind infused the bodies, and they became alive.

The dry bones are Israel of the exile, and Ezekiel foresaw the day when Israel would be reborn as a nation and returned to its land. It can also be taken as an affirmation of the life-giving potential of prophetic preaching. Above all, the word of God, accompanied by the spirit-wind of Yhwh, can bring the nation back to life.

The imagery and expectation of Ezekiel becomes apocalyptic in character in Chapters 38–39 when he describes a great battle. Gog of the land of Magog is evil incarnate, a caricature of all Israel’s enemies combined. This enemy comes out of the north, seeking to wipe out Israel once and for all. But after a cataclysmic battle, described in great detail in these chapters, God’s people are victorious. Israel will be vindicated for all time.

The exaggerated character of this account and its future setting have prompted some interpreters to read this as a prescription for the end-times battle of Armageddon. More probably, it was an imaginative rendition of the expected confrontation with the Babylonians, who had long been the nemesis of Israel. The more grandiose the battle, the more impressive is Yhwh’s (and Israel’s) victory.

2.2.3 Restored Temple (40–48)

Ezekiel, remember, was a priest as well as a prophet. His most elaborate depiction of restoration naturally involved that most sacred of areas, the temple complex in Jerusalem. In a vision dated to 573 (twenty-five years after the beginning of his exile and twenty years after his call vision), he was given a vision of the restoration of the nation. This is a fitting complement to Ezekiel’s temple visions in Chapters 8-11,

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Exile Era Time Line

FIGURE 12.4 Time Line: The Exile Era

which included him seeing the glory of Yhwh depart the Jerusalem temple. Ezekiel’s plan for restoration placed the temple at the center of the nation both physically and spiritually, though this center is not identified as Jerusalem. Placing the temple in the center allowed for the presence of Yhwh to dwell among his people again.

The following are some of the important features of the restoration program as expressed in Ezekiel’s vision. A rebuilt temple would be located in the geographical center of the tribes, which would be arrayed around it symmetrically, three to a side. The rights and privileges of serving in the temple itself would be given exclusively to priests from the line of Zadok of the family of Aaron.

The ground would be revived. A river of freshwater would flow from under the temple and run all the way to the Dead Sea, in the process making the sea wholesome and the surrounding wilderness a paradise. Presumably Jerusalem, because the place is referred to simply as “the city,” would once again be the center of attention. Its name would be changed to “Yhwh is there” because Israel’s deity will again take up residence in that place.

Overall, Ezekiel had a comprehensive vision of the need for the people to become holy and how it could be accomplished. He had a priest’s sense of the need for devotion and worship centering on the presence of Yhwh in the temple. He combined this with a prophet’s attention to inward spiritual renewal and devotion. His combination of devotion, as defined by the Mosaic covenant, along with an openness to the work of the spirit of God, makes him a major figure in the emergence of Judaism.

2.3 Isaiah of the Exile (Second Isaiah)

Chapters 40–55 of the book of Isaiah most likely come from the hand of a prophet who lived in Babylonian exile in the 500s BCE (see Figure 12.4. Dated sometime within the period 546 to 538, these chapters do not come from the hand of Isaiah of Jerusalem, the namesake of the book, who lived in the 700s. We know virtually nothing about this exile era prophet, not even his name. Scholars have taken to calling this otherwise anonymous prophet Second Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah (which means the same thing but is a fancier Greek-based term); we can also call him Isaiah of the Exile. Most likely he was an exiled Judean refugee living in or near Babylon.

Conservative Jewish and Christian authorities tend to maintain that the entire book of Isaiah was written by Isaiah of Jerusalem, arguing that although the latter chapters apply to the situation of Babylonian exile they were written predictively by Isaiah in the eighth century. Some of the reasons why mainstream scholarship

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believes Chapters 40–55 were written in the mid-500s are its references to the destruction of Jerusalem as a past event (40:1–2), Babylonia as their present setting (43:14; 48:20), and Cyrus the Persian as their coming deliverer (44:28; 45:1–4).

This prophet, though nameless, is one of the most inspiring of the Hebrew Bible. He was quite learned, judging by the synthesis of traditions he was able to pull together, and quite gifted, judging by his original and brilliant poetry. He drew from Israel’s historic faith and reapplied it to the new setting of exile, giving Yhwh’s refugee people reason for hope.

Second Isaiah consists almost entirely of poetic passages with little of the narrative type material found in First Isaiah. Many scholars have tried to determine the boundaries of these poems and the logic and flow of Chapters 40–55 as a whole, with varying success. The most recognizable division within the text is between Chapters 40–48 and 49–55. The first subsection addresses its audience as Jacob and Israel. It deals with the fall of Babylon and a new exodus. The second subsection addresses its audience as Zion and Jerusalem and deals with the issue of social justice. Beyond this basic division though, little else is agreed upon. Instead of dealing with compositional issues, we will treat Second Isaiah thematically.

2.3.1 New Exodus

Second Isaiah marks a dramatic change from the prophetic tone of the monarchy era, which was dominated by the strident and stern rebukes of the likes of Amos and Jeremiah. Their words of judgment had by now come true. God had indeed punished Israel and Judah completely (the “double punishment” in the following quote) for their sins. Second Isaiah announces that now things will be different. His prophetic anthology has sometimes been called “The Book of Comfort” based on passages such as the following:

“Comfort, comfort my people!” says your Elohim. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and call out to her that her time of war has ended, that her sin has been pardoned, that she has received double punishment from Yhwh for all her sins. . . . A voice says, ‘Call out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I call out?’ This—all flesh is grass. . . . The grass withers, the flower fades, but Elohim’s word will always stand.” (40:1–2, 6, 8)

The anonymous prophet called Second Isaiah, like his spiritual mentor Isaiah of Jerusalem, was acutely aware of having been deliberately called to his task by Yhwh. Compare Isaiah 6 with Isaiah 40. Second Isaiah’s call in Chapter 40 is a bit difficult to sort out because of the different voices that speak; most of them are without explicit identification. A number of authorities have reconstructed this text as a call narrative; the following interpretation is one way to work this out. The high god Elohim directs the Divine Council to commission someone to proclaim Judah’s release from captivity. A member of the Council (“a voice”) issues the command to prepare the way for Yhwh and looks for someone to go forth with the message. Then the prophet speaks up to volunteer, requests the specific message he should bring (“What shall I call out?”), and receives it (“All flesh is grass”).

The Divine Council’s summons in verses 3–5 suggests that it announces the reappearance of Yhwh in a new theophany:

A voice calls out, “In the wilderness prepare the road for Yhwh, make straight in the desert a highway for our Elohim. Every valley will be lifted up, and every

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mountain and hill will be flattened. The irregular ground will be level and the rough areas even. The glory of Yhwh will be revealed so all humanity will see it. It will happen because Yhwh’s mouth has spoken.” (40:3–5)

Theologically speaking, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians presupposed the withdrawal of Yhwh from that city. Some Judeans may have thought that he had returned to the wilderness, his original home. Second Isaiah proclaims that the God of the wilderness will reveal himself, lead his people through the wilderness, and then bring them into the Promised Land once again.

Instead of a pathway through the Reed Sea, there would be a straight and level highway through the Arabian Desert. This expressway would carry the people directly home. The exodus tradition once again becomes the basis for hope. The dynamic reuse of biblical traditions is nowhere else more apparent in Hebrew Bible than here in Second Isaiah. This prophet keeps coming back to the exodus theme to give shape to a hope for those currently in exile. He encourages them to have faith in a new exodus, this time from Babylonia rather than Egypt:

Thus says Yhwh—the one who makes a path in the sea, a path through the raging water, who brings down chariot and horse, army and soldier (they lie down, they cannot get up, they are snuffed out, put out like a wick)—Remember not earlier events. Do not dwell on the past. Indeed, I am doing a new thing. It is springing up right now, do you not see it coming? I will make a path through the wilderness, rivers in the desert. (43:16–19)

Note the details of the exodus tradition recalled in this passage: crossing the sea, the army of the enemy drowning in the sea. These recall the great salvation event at the Reed Sea of the Mosaic age. Yet, in Second Isaiah’s estimation, that Egyptian event will be nothing compared to the future exodus from Babylonia.

Yhwh is the redeemer of Israel. If you read other portions of Second Isaiah, be alert to the numerous allusions to Israel’s earlier exodus experience, including the move from slavery to freedom, passing through the water, the miraculous providing of water and manna, and the conquest of the land. In addition to the great exodus theme, Second Isaiah develops other significant themes.

2.3.2 Creation-Redemption

The early chapters of Genesis is by no means the only place where the Hebrew Bible talks about the creation of the world:

“Listen to me, Jacob; Israel whom I called! I am the one: I am the beginning (the first), I am also the end (the last). My hand laid the foundation of the earth, my right hand extended the heavens. When I call them, they stand at attention.” (48:12–13)

The reason why Second Isaiah talks about creation is to ground the redemptive capability of Yhwh in his power. Because he is the one who created the world, he is powerful enough to bring Israel out of captivity. In the following passage, Second Isaiah combines the creation myth with the expectation of redemption:

Rouse, rouse, put on strength, O arm of Yhwh! Rouse, as in the old days of past generations! Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces? Did you not pierce the Sea Monster? Was it not you who dried up Sea, Great Deep? Did you not make

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TABLE 12.1 Servant Poems



1 42:1–6 He will bring justice to the nations
2 49:1–6 I make you a light to the nations
3 50:4–9 My back to those who beat me
Bruised for our iniquities

the depths of Sea a road for the redeemed to cross? Now, the redeemed of Yhwh will return and come to Zion with singing. Eternal joy is on their head. They will obtain joy and gladness. Sorrow and sighing will leave. (51:9–11)

The terms Rahab (not the same as the prostitute Rahab of Jericho in Joshua 2, which is spelled differently in Hebrew), Sea Monster, Sea, and Great Deep, all synonymous, make reference to the waters of chaos. Their use here recalls the victory of Elohim over the waters of chaos that preceded the creation of the world (Genesis 1). The victory was achieved by splitting Sea, similar to the way Marduk split Tiamat in half to create the world.

This myth was also used to express the cosmic significance of the act of deliverance at the Reed Sea. The splitting of the waters of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14) became the splitting of Sea, a victory over the waters of chaos. Second Isaiah is saying that this type of powerful act would be repeated to return God’s people to Zion.

2.3.3 Servant of Yhwh

Four poems in Second Isaiah speak of an enigmatic figure called the servant of Yhwh. They are known as the servant poems, or the songs of the suffering servant (see Table 12.1). For some time, scholars have seen these poems as related and have treated them together to generate a character sketch of the servant.

The first servant poem describes God’s choice of the servant who will bring justice to the nations. The second poem describes, in the servant’s own words, his experience of having been called by God to be a light to the nations. The reference in verse 3 to Israel is generally recognized as a late insertion intended to identify the servant with the nation. The third poem turns unpleasant with its first-person description of how the servant was physically abused in the course of his mission. The last and longest servant poem, except for the first few verses, is a third party’s observations on the suffering of the servant. What follows is a fragment of this last servant poem.

Surely he has lifted our infirmities and carried our diseases. But we reckoned him stricken, struck down by Elohim, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our wrongs; upon him was inflicted the punishment that made us whole, and by his wounds we are healed. (53:4–5)

On the basis especially of this last poem, the servant of Yhwh figure has also come to be called the “suffering servant.” The notion is a remarkable one. It appears to represent a transference from atonement by animal sacrifice, the traditional ritual means of atonement in Israel, to atonement by a human being’s suffering. By his suffering, the servant of Yhwh receives divine punishment for the sins of the group.

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No one knows exactly how to interpret the figure in the poems and whether or it represents a real historical figure. Some have suggested that the servant of Yhwh is a metaphor for Judah, which suffered terribly in the Babylonian exile (remember, this is the audience that Second Isaiah is directly addressing). By suffering, Judah delivered healing to other nations in the form of a witness to the saving power of Yhwh.

Others have suggested that the servant was an actual individual. Israel’s prophetic figures were typically called “my servants, the prophets” and “servant of Yhwh.” Moses is called this in Deuteronomy and other prophets elsewhere. If the servant was a real prophetic figure, Jeremiah is a possible candidate. He was called by Yhwh (compare Jeremiah 1:5 and Isaiah 49:5). We know from Kings and the book of Jeremiah that he was socially outcast and physically abused. Besides Jeremiah, others have also been suggested, including Judah’s king in exile, Jehoiachin, Second Isaiah himself, and Zerubbabel, the first governor of Judea after the exile. In Christian interpretation, the servant of Yhwh is identified with Jesus of Nazareth, a connection made movingly through the use of Second Isaiah in Handel’s The Messiah.

Perhaps the very indefiniteness of the allusion was Second Isaiah’s intention. He may have had somebody real in mind as a model; but he may have been suggesting, by keeping the identification vague, that the way of selflessness and suffering is the way salvation comes in God’s plan, not by military force. By keeping the figure indefinite, such a figure does not become merely an historical curiosity but a perpetual model for God’s chosen and redeemed people.

2.3.4 Cyrus the Persian Messiah

Second Isaiah contains, among other things, a clear example of theological interpretation of history. Cyrus, the Persian monarch who opposed the Babylonian empire, was viewed by the Judeans as their great deliverer. Second Isaiah even uses the term messiah—that is, anointed one—to refer to him in order to indicate the divine initiative behind his mission:

“I am Yhwh, who made all things, . . . who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, he shall carry out all my plans.’” Thus says Yhwh to his anointed one, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subjugate nations before him, . . . ‘I am Yhwh, there is no other. Except for me there is no god. I equip you, though you do not know me.’” (44:24, 28; 45:1, 5)

With eyes of faith, Second Isaiah interpreted the current events of his day as ordained and directed by Yhwh, even down to the actions of their most likely political ally at that time. Second Isaiah clearly threw his support behind Cyrus and promoted an anti-Babylonian policy. By 539 Cyrus was successful against the Babylonians.

The references to Cyrus enable us to date Second Isaiah fairly reliably. From these Cyrus passages, it is apparent that he was becoming known in Babylon for his military exploits. His first major victories were against Media in 550 and Lydia in 546. It was not until 539 that he defeated Babylon. Thus, the hope expressed by Second Isaiah, viewing Cyrus as Israel’s deliverer, was no doubt framed sometime within the decade between 550 and 539. And as it turned out (see RTOT Chapter 17), Cyrus was kindly disposed toward the Judeans and even assisted the efforts of the Judeans who desired to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple there (see Figure 12.5).

Second Isaiah’s willingness to identify Cyrus as the messiah indicates a departure from the Jerusalemite theological tradition, which attached that term to the reigning

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Cyrus Cylinder

FIGURE 12.5 The Cyrus Cylinder

Second Isaiah interpreted Cyrus’s victories as a sign of Yhwh’s guidance. Cyrus viewed them as ordained by the Babylonian high god Marduk: “Marduk, the great Lord (of Babylon), the protector of his people, beheld with pleasure the good deeds of Cyrus and ordered him to march against his city, Babylon. He made him set out on the road to Babylon, going at his side like a real friend. Without any battle, he made him enter his town Babylon.” What we have are two theological interpretations of the same event, each side claiming providence for its god.

Source: From H. C. Rawlinson, The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, Vol. V (London: British Museum, 1861– 1884), 35.

king from the line of David. Second Isaiah seems not to have put much stock in the Davidic line, nor does he look to it in hope. In fact, although there are numerous references to Zion and to Jerusalem, there are no references to David until 55:3, and even this one is ambiguous:

“I will make with you an eternal covenant, my faithful Davidic-type loving relationship. See, I had made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you will call nations that you do not know, nations that you do not know will run to you.” (55:3b–5)

Second Isaiah seems to be suggesting something quite remarkable. The loving covenantal arrangement that Yhwh earlier had established with David would now be transferred to his people as a whole. The dynastic covenant would become a national covenant. The people would complete the mission begun by David. In this way, Second Isaiah is claiming that the Davidic covenant had not been annulled. Rather, it has been democratized.

Much more could be said about Second Isaiah’s writings. They are full of images and promises of hope and restoration. However, now we turn to Third Isaiah, which was written in that period when Judah was struggling to rebuild and realize those dreams that had been fueled by Second Isaiah.


The Persian period extended from 539 to 333 BCE. The Persian empire (see Figure 12.6) was founded by Cyrus and superseded the Babylonian empire. Now as a province of the Persian realm, Judah became known as Yehud and the Judeans as Yehudim, from which the label Jews is derived. Cyrus was benevolent to the Jews, both those who had remained in Palestine and those dispersed throughout his empire. He allowed any who so desired to return to Palestine and even provided support to help rebuild the infrastructure of Yehud. The first hundred years or so of the Persian period is reflected in the latest books of the Latter Prophets, as well as in the books associated with the Chronicler (see RTOT Chapter 17).

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Persian Empire Map

FIGURE 12.6 The Persian Empire

The prophetic books dating to the Persian period are largely concerned with reconstructing Judean social institutions and religious life after the devastation of the Babylonian exile. Some of these prophets were involved in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple and encouraging the people to support it. The prophets also helped to reshape the religious outlook of the survivors of the recent Babylonian crisis.

TABLE 12.2 Leaders, Kings, and Prophets of the Persian Period

Jewish Leaders

Persian Kings

Hebrew Prophets
Sheshbazzar, 538 Cyrus, 550–530 Third Isaiah, 537–520
  Cambyses, 530–522 Haggai, 520
Zerubbabel, circa 520 Darius I, 522–486 Zechariah, circa 520–518
  Xerxes, 486–465  
  Artaxerxes, I 465–424 Malachi, circa 500–450
Ezra, circa 450   Joel, circa 400–350
Nehemiah, circa 445   Jonah, circa 400 (?)
Second Zechariah, circa 400-200

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3.1 Isaiah of the Restoration

The last major component of the book of Isaiah is called Third (or Trito-) Isaiah and was written by an anonymous writer of the Isaiah school; we can also call him Isaiah of the Restoration. This collection of material contains prophetic oracles coming from one or more of Second Isaiah’s disciples. These oracles were addressed to the faithful and the not so faithful Jews living in Jerusalem in the early postexilic period, that time when the people were struggling to reestablish life in their homeland. This section of the book of Isaiah is datable to the period 538–520. Much of its message is intended to sustain the refugees who had recently returned from Babylonian captivity, especially those who were discouraged and depressed by the difficulty of life back in Jerusalem. You can sense the desperate need of the people in the following passage, which voices Third Isaiah’s sense of calling:

The spirit of Yhwh Elohim is upon me, because Yhwh has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to shore up the broken spirited, to proclaim freedom to the captives, the opening of prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of Yhwh’s favor, and the day of our Elohim’s vengeance. (61:1–2)

As with Isaiah of Jerusalem and Isaiah of the Exile, this prophet expressed his awareness of prophetic calling. He was drawn to minister to Yhwh’s people, even to fire them up. But he had a formidable job ahead of him. Jerusalem was in ruins. The community, too, was morally fragmented. There was dissension between the Judeans who had never left, the so-called people of the land, and those who had returned from foreign exile.

Isaiah of the Restoration encouraged those struggling for security and faith in the absence of a temple and its sacrifices by giving them something else to hold onto. He assured them that Yhwh was present even if no building was available to accommodate him:

Thus says Yhwh: “Heaven is my throne, the earth my footstool. What house would you build for me, what place for me to rest? All these things my hand has made, all these things are mine,” says Yhwh. “But this is the one to whom I will pay attention: the one that is humble and unassuming and respects my word.” (66:1–3)

This writer, as you can see, concurs with Second Isaiah in promoting the universal extension of Yhwh’s domain. Yhwh claims the entire world and desires to reveal his salvation to all people. Salvation has not yet arrived, but soon it would, and it would embrace all nations, not just Israel.

“Just as the new heavens and the new earth which I am about to make shall stand before me, so shall your offspring and your name stand. From new moon to new moon, from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship me,” says Yhwh. (66:22–23)

Through difficult times and dreadful conditions, Third Isaiah sought to keep the faith of the people alive.

3.2 Haggai

Cyrus allowed the Judean refugees to return to Palestine, and he encouraged them to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Life was very difficult back in Judea, and the work, though begun shortly after 538, soon ground to a halt. Haggai was a major voice in Jerusalem, encouraging the work to be completed. In 520 he gave five addresses,

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collected in the book of Haggai, which urged the Jewish leaders to assume responsibility for the project and finish it. The leaders at this time were Zerubbabel, the governor, and Joshua, the high priest (spelled “Jeshua” in the Chronicler’s History). Addressing them and the people of Jerusalem, Haggai said,

Thus says Yhwh of hosts, “These people said, ‘It is not yet time to rebuild Yhwh’s house.’” The word of Yhwh came through the prophet Haggai, “Is it time for you to live in your paneled homes while this house remains in ruins?” . . . “You have expected much but now it has come to little. When you brought it home, I blew it away. Why?” says Yhwh of hosts. “Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you are concerned about your own homes.” (1:2–4, 9)

Evidently, the people were busy raising their own standard of living, and they put off rebuilding the temple until they were done. Haggai demanded that the people reverse their priorities. First, Yhwh’s house must be rebuilt, and only afterwards might the people expect to prosper. In large measure due to Haggai’s urging, the temple was completed in 515. This temple has come to be called the second temple to distinguish it from the first temple of Solomon.

Haggai expressed the Jerusalemite priestly perspective that the presence of Yhwh in Jerusalem was the precondition for the return of national prosperity and blessing. And Yhwh would not return until he had a dwelling place, the temple. In his last address to Zerubbabel (2:20–22), Haggai foresaw the demise of the other nations and the rise to power of Zerubbabel who would be God’s “signet ring.”


The prophet Zechariah was a contemporary of Haggai, and both prophets were contemporaries of Zerubbabel and Joshua, the civic leaders of the early Judean restoration. Zechariah prophesied in Jerusalem from 520 to 518. Whereas Haggai’s prophecy came in the form of direct moral address, Zechariah’s prophecy largely took the shape of symbolic visions of coming events that incorporated dialogues with Yhwh and his angel (see Table 12.3). Zechariah’s visions are followed by a collection of divine pronouncements often attributed to an unnamed prophet (a situation much like that in the book of Isaiah) from the early Greek period.

We note a couple features of the prophecies of Zechariah. They are addressed to the Jews living in Jerusalem after the exile. They show sympathy for the people in these difficult circumstances and intend to raise their morale. A major themes is Yhwh’s continuing dedication to Jerusalem and Zion, for whom he is said to be very jealous.

The book of Zechariah demonstrates a considerable awareness of past prophecy. Zechariah clearly sees himself as standing in a long line of prophets. The book begins by drawing connections to the past:

Do not be like your forebears, to whom earlier prophets preached, “Thus says Yhwh of hosts, return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.” But they

TABLE 12.3 Structure of Zechariah




Part 1: Visions 1–8 Zechariah 520–518
Part 2: Pronouncements
Second Zechariah

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did not hear me, says Yhwh. Where are your forebears now? Do the prophets live forever? But my words and my laws, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your forebears so that they repented and said, Yhwh of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do. (1:4 –6)

Zechariah attests here the power of the word of Yhwh spoken through the prophets. The tragedy of the exile was the result of the hardness of the ancestors’ hearts and happened according to Yhwh’s plan. This, he argues, should be a warning to the current generation. Furthermore, serving as the introduction to the visions, it reinforces the certainty of the prophetic word concerning the future.

Zechariah also shows his dependence on earlier prophecy by the way he adopts and adapts earlier prophetic images. Jeremiah’s prophecy of the seventy years of captivity (Jeremiah 29) was used in the first vision to designate the length of captivity. It also became the basis of Daniel’s vision of seventy weeks of years (Daniel 9). And the flying scroll of the sixth vision seems to derive from Ezekiel’s scroll (Ezekiel 2–3).

Zechariah was concerned about the religious purity of the people and the morale of Jerusalem’s leaders. To that end he attempted to inspire them. In eight visions, Zechariah glimpsed the changes ahead (see Table 12.4).

In the first vision, he saw four horsemen patrolling the earth in anticipation of the punishment of the foreign nations and the return to power of Jerusalem. In the second, he saw four horns representing world powers and four blacksmiths who would destroy those horns. In the third, he saw a man measuring Jerusalem for the rebuilding of its walls, who was then told that the city would be huge and Yhwh would be its protecting wall.

In the fourth vision, Zechariah saw an unclean Joshua, the high priest, standing accused by the Satan of being unfit for duty. Then he was confirmed by God and given the duties of the high priesthood. In the fifth, he saw two olive trees, representing Zerubbabel and Joshua, who supplied a golden lamp stand that illuminated the world. In the sixth, he saw a flying scroll containing the covenant laws. All wrongdoers fell under the judgment of the Torah. In the seventh, he saw wickedness personified as a woman in a flying basket, which was removed to a distant land. In the eighth, forming an envelope structure with the first vision, he saw four horses patrolling the earth in anticipation of the messianic age.

TABLE 12.4 Zechariah’s Visions



1 1:8–13 Four horsemen, earth at rest
2 1:18–20 Four horns and blacksmiths
3 2:1–5 Measuring the dimensions of Jerusalem
4 3:1–10 Cleansing Joshua, the high priest
5 4:1–14 Lamp stand with Zerubbabel and Joshua as olive trees
6 5:1–4 Flying scroll
7 5:5–11 Wicked woman in a flying basket
Four horsemen, north at rest

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The first collection of the book of Zechariah closes on a positive note. Yhwh declared that he would return to Jerusalem, restore its greatness, and usher in a time of peace:

Thus says Yhwh of hosts, “Now I am saving my people from the eastern territory and from the western territory. I will bring them to live in Jerusalem. They will be my people and I will be their Elohim, with faithfulness and righteousness.” (8:7–8)

Here, Zechariah anticipates even further repatriations of the people. Jerusalem remained the holy city of the Jews, and the ideal for the Jews of the dispersion was to return to Zion. Notice also how Zechariah uses the covenant slogan to express hope: “They will be my people and I will be their Elohim.

The oracles found in Second Zechariah echo familiar prophetic themes: the destruction of the foreign nations, the restoration of Israel, and the coming day of Yhwh. Second Zechariah gives special attention to messianic leadership. It describes a triumphant king who arrives humbly riding on a donkey (Chapter 9), an image and text used later in the New Testament gospels when Jesus of Nazareth enters Jerusalem. The evil shepherds, a royal metaphor, would be removed from office (Chapters 11 and 13). The evil nations would finally be destroyed, and Jerusalem would become a holy place where Yhwh the king would dwell forever.

3.4 Malachi

Nothing is known about the person of the prophet Malachi. In fact, we do not even know if this is a prophet’s name because the word Malachi means “my messenger” in Hebrew. It could be just a label for the role of the prophet rather than a personal name. Based on an analysis of the themes of the book, it is supposed that its messages were written in the period 500–450 BCE. They complain about abuses in Jerusalem’s second temple, which was completed in 515. Concern about foreign marriages is mentioned in 2:10–12, and this was known to be a major issue also in Ezra’s day, around 450.

The book of Malachi makes extensive use of the disputation literary form. That is, it frames its prophecies in the question-and-answer style typical of dialogue. This pedagogical style may reflect a teaching and preaching approach used by priests in the second temple. Malachi uses this style in Chapters 1–2 for examining the shortcomings of the priests:

“A son honors a father, and a servant his master. I am a father. Where is my honor? If I am master, where is my respect?” says Yhwh of hosts to you priests who despise my name. You say, “How have we despised your name?” By offering on my altar defiled food. You say, “How have we defiled you?” By your saying that the table of Yhwh is defileable. “If you offer for sacrifice something blind, is that not wrong? If you offer something lame or sick, is that not wrong? Offer it to your governor! Would he take it? Would he show you favor?” says Yhwh of hosts. (1:6–8)

Here, the priests are exposed for dishonoring God with inferior animal sacrifices. Damaged animals were not acceptable for sacrifice. Being less valuable, they indicated less than total devotion. The priests were probably keeping the better animals for themselves.

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Except for a few negative remarks about Edom, Malachi is concerned less with foreign nations and more with the spiritual condition of the priesthood and the people. He anticipates a judgment day when the wicked would be destroyed and the righteous rewarded. The book closes with references to the two figures that epitomize the Torah and the prophets, thereby upholding the venerable covenant traditions of Israel.

Remember the Torah of Moses my servant, that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel, the laws and rules. Now, I am sending to you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible Day of Yhwh comes. He will turn the heart of fathers to sons and the heart of sons to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with utter destruction. (4:4–6)

The expectation of the return of Elijah before the judgment day is here stated clearly. This has given rise to traditions of Elijah’s return within both Judaism and Christianity. Elijah has a place within the traditional Jewish celebration of the Passover yet today. New Testament writers viewed the career of John the Baptist as the realization of this expected return of Elijah.

The book of Malachi is the last book of the Book of the Twelve. It is not necessarily the last book chronologically, given its uncertain setting and our inability to nail down the chronology of some of the other books of the collection. Yet it was judged to be a fitting conclusion to the Book of the Twelve, probably because of its anticipatory eschatological flavor. When the canonical order of books in the Hebrew Bible was revised and became the Old Testament, the book of Malachi ended up last. This turned out to be fitting insofar as Malachi ends with the expectation of the return of the prophet Elijah.

3.5 Joel

It is difficult to pin down with certainty the historical setting of the prophecies of Joel. Of the figure of Joel, we know next to nothing except for the meaning of his name, “Yhwh is El.” Early readers must have thought him preexilic, hence his placement between Hosea and Amos. The book of Joel was placed before Amos perhaps because of the correspondence between Joel 3:16 and Amos 1:2, and Joel 3:18 and Amos 9:13. Also, Amos, like Joel, expected the day of Yhwh to come soon.

The evidence for establishing an historical context for Joel is only inferential. Nothing is mentioned about the destruction of Jerusalem, allowing a preexilic date that makes him a contemporary of Jeremiah. But the absence of any reference to a king, or to the Assyrians and Babylonians, and an apparent reference to the dispersion all suggest a postexilic date. The general consensus is that Joel is to be placed somewhere in the period 400–350.

The central theme of the book is the day of Yhwh, which gives the book as a whole its coherence. The book of Joel divides into two parts. The first part, Chapters 1:1–2:27, centers on an elaborate vision of a locust plague and drought, which is a way to warn of the coming divine judgment, the day of Yhwh. The second part, Chapters 2:28–3:21, describes the blessings on Judah and Jerusalem that will attend the coming day of Yhwh and the corresponding punishment of the surrounding nations.

Joel has sometimes been called a “cult prophet.” That is, he was supportive of the priesthood and the temple and perhaps was even a priest himself. He was concerned that offerings were not coming in as expected, in part because the land

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itself was not productive and in part because the people were not giving generously. Consequently, the priests could not perform their duties:

The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off from the house of Yhwh. The priests mourn, the ministers of Yhwh. (1:9)

This concern for the temple and its priests is more characteristic of postexilic prophecy than preexilic. Compare Jeremiah, who criticized the complacency and self-serving nature of the priests in the Jerusalem temple. Joel is more like Haggai and Malachi in his support of the temple.

Joel was a prophet of the judgment day. He called it the “Day of Yhwh” (1:15), as did Amos, but he broadened the concept into a comprehensive world–historical event. Presuming the postexilic dating of Joel, the book is a study in the appropriation of earlier prophetic tradition, especially that of Amos and the Day of Yhwh.

Watch out for THE DAY! The Day of Yhwh is near. As destruction from Shaddai it comes. (1:15)

Here, Joel uses the term Shaddai, which is the Priestly writer’s designation for the deity of Israel’s ancestral period (compare El Shaddai in Genesis 17:1). But the deity of the ancestors, Joel warns, has turned against Israel. The notion of the day of Yhwh appears to come out of the conquest tradition. It was Yhwh’s day, the day when he demonstrated his power by destroying Israel’s enemies. But times have changed. Now his power will be unleashed against Israel. Only if the people take warning and repent will disaster be averted.

The occasion for Joel’s core prophecy most likely was the devastating locust plague described in 1:4. The only way to avert disaster is through a communal fast. The coming destruction is described as a locust plague, which became a metaphor for the devastating army that would do the actual work of punishing Israel. Yet Joel also foresaw the coming of a new age, a time of salvation:

“Then afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. I will even pour out my spirit on male and female slaves in those days.” (2:28–29)

The pouring out of God’s spirit seems to continue the spirit theme expressed in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In those books, God would give the people a new heart and a new spirit. Here, if we are dealing with the same general expectation, this new spirit would have its source in God.

The pouring out of the spirit in Joel has associations with prophetic anointing. The spirit would inspire dreams and visions. The remarkable aspect of the outpouring is its democratic scope. Everyone, young and old, male and female, slave and free, would receive the prophetic gift in the latter days.

Joel’s interest in the future has been read as having apocalyptic characteristics:

I will show portents in the heavens and on earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of Yhwh comes. (2:30–31)

The day of Yhwh, in Joel’s description, has cosmic associations. The fire and smoke are what we associate with an appearance of God, a theophany. The blood

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could connote many things, including the taking of life. The celestial imagery here in Joel has an apocalyptic flavor. This, combined with Joel’s “end of the world,” or eschatological, interest shows that he has affinities with the full-fledged apocalyptic literature that proliferated in the late postexilic period (see RTOT Chapter 16).


We have seen that the study of Israel’s prophetic literature, both Former Prophets and Latter Prophets collections, can be challenging at a number of levels. We saw that the Former Prophets expressed Israel’s history from a rather late point in the stream of events—namely, the time of Josiah. It framed events to convey both an historical and a theological story. We also needed to integrate the two collections so that the sayings of the Latter Prophets could be seen within the context of Israel’s political history as told in the Former Prophets.

As we examined the Latter Prophets, we saw than many of those books bear telltale signs that they went through an involved composition history. Historical references and clues in some of the books indicate that they have been built up and supplemented in various ways and editors have shaped them. As we sort out the history of development, we see how later prophets used the sayings and themes of earlier prophets to help them comprehend the logic of the divine plan for Israel. An examination of the composition history of the Latter Prophets collections were all finalized after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 and given their final shape either late in the exile or in the postexilic period of restoration.

Some readers might feel that talk of the compositional growth of biblical books over long periods of time undermines the grounding of these books in prophetic persons such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. Rather than seeing this as a challenge to prophetic authorship, it can be seen as evidence of the continuing vitality of the divine word spoken by these individuals. Their words were recorded, remembered, reprocessed, and reused to help generations of Jews come to accept and understand their historical experience. Later writers found such inspiration coming out of the words of the preexilic prophets that they identified with these servants of Yhwh and added their own words to them almost as if they were speaking with the voice of their master.

The following material pulls together the evidence on the growth of the Latter Prophets in order to account for the shape and structure of its final canonical collections as they exist today.

4.1 Isaiah as a Book

The book of Isaiah underwent a complex process of compilation, expansion, and editorial revision. The history of Isaiah scholarship has tended to emphasize the separation of the book into its three main sections, assigning the different portions to different historical periods and more or less just leaving them there. Much Isaiah scholarship has delineated the individual poetic units and has tried to establish the authorship of the units with priority frequently given to genuine Isaiah of Jerusalem sections.

Very few attempts have been made to view the book as a whole by trying to construct the overall witness of the book. But we must keep in mind that somebody within the community of faith saw fit to put all this material together into one scroll under the heading “the words of Isaiah,” and it was not just because they all fit conveniently onto one piece of leather (the great Dead Sea Isaiah scroll is an

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inconvenient forty feet long). We have to ask ourselves then: What gives the book its unity? What does the book as a whole have to say?

Clements (1982), an Isaiah expert of note, argues that the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE is the clue to the editorial strategy that holds the book together. He argues that First Isaiah, while written primarily in reference to the Assyrian crisis of the 700s, was edited during the Babylonian crisis and its judgment oracles provided the prophetic explanation for the eventual fall of Jerusalem. Second and Third Isaiah were attached to First Isaiah by later scribes because they were motivated to balance prophetic judgment with prophetic promise. They wanted to say that divine judgment is not the last word but is followed by divine restoration. This basic sequence of judgment followed by renewal is echoed in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and is presented as a fundamental structure in the plan of God.

While accepting the critical analysis of the book into its component elements, Childs (1979) assesses the book of Isaiah from the point of view of the effect of its current shape. He argues that there are virtually no signals of 500s era authorship of Second and Third Isaiah in a plain reading of Chapters 40–66. He claims that the original setting of 40–66 is effectively disguised. In its present shape, the entire book is placed in the mouth of eighth-century Isaiah of Jerusalem: “These are the words of Isaiah, son of Amoz” (1:1). In effect, this places both judgment and salvation within the eternal plan of God. For even before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile, as attested by 40–66, God intended to return his people to Judah. Even before destruction, he was providentially planning ahead to their restoration.

In this view, the book confirms the long-term saving word of God. Note the frequent references to the faithfulness of the word of God (40:8; 44:26; 55:10–11). God is faithful to his word and trustworthy. God plans beyond judgment to forgiveness and reacceptance. Taken as a whole, the book of Isaiah is a witness to the goodwill and power of Israel’s deity, Yhwh.

4.2 Jeremiah as a Book

The book of Jeremiah seems to have had a complex literary history and consists of both prose narrative and poetry. Three main types of sources underlie the book (see Table 12.5):

TABLE 12.5 Sources of the Book of Jeremiah



Jeremiah Texts
A Autobiography 1–25 including the complaints; 46–51
B Biography 19:1–20:6; 26–29; 36–45
C Prose sermons 7:1–8:3; 11:1–14; 18:1–12; 21:1–10; 22:1–5; 25:1–11; 34:8–22
11:18–12:6; 15:10–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–13; 20:14–18

1. Type A: Autobiography. Naturally, this material is framed as Jeremiah’s own speech and is found mainly in Chapters 1–25 and 46–51. Much of this material is poetic and is generally assumed to be closer to Jeremiah’s own utterances than the following types.

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2. Type B: Biography. This material is third-person stories about Jeremiah, probably written by Baruch, Jeremiah’s personal secretary. These biographical episodes are found in Chapters 19:1–20:6; 26–29, and 36–45.

3. Type C: Prose sermons. These show evidence of composition in the Deuteronomic style. That is, they contain the same vocabulary and style as the Deuteronomic school of theologians. Many have a common theme—namely, exposing the guilt of the people who have failed to heed prophetic warnings and have not repented. Included in this category are Chapters 7:1–8:3; 11:1–14; 18:1–12; 21:1–10; 22:1–5; 25:1–11; and 34:8–22. As with type A material, these sermons are framed as the direct speech of Jeremiah.


These components were combined to create the final form of the book. Unfortunately, the book lacks a clear organization; chronology was clearly not the determining principle. The date indications in the text jump back and forth, and the book does not follow a linear chronological order. Keep this in mind if you read the book in its entirety. It takes a special effort to orient the chapters within their historical context.

There is one obvious structural division in the book, and that comes after Chapter 25. Chapters 1–25 stand out as a structural unit that consists mostly of Jeremiah’s own prophetic statements. Chapters 26–45 mostly contain biographical narratives about Jeremiah. Chapters 46–51 are judgment statements directed against Judah’s enemies. And Chapter 52, the final chapter, contains an account of the fall of Jerusalem taken from 2 Kings 24:18–25:30.

It turns out that most of the type A autobiographical material is found in Chapters 1–25, as well as most of the type C material. The introductory phrase “the word of Yhwh came to me” is characteristic of passages from these chapters. In contrast, the introductory formula “the word of Yhwh came to Jeremiah” is often used from Chapter 26 to the end of the book. This has led some scholars to make the suggestion that the second half of the book (Chapters 26–52), in some form at least, comes from the scribal hand of Baruch.

One of the most interesting compositional issues concerns the purpose of the completed book and its intended audience. Clearly, the book in its final form was compiled after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587. The Babylonian invasion and its devastating results were proof positive of the truth of Jeremiah’s prophetic gift. He had been right all along! Someone, apparently someone dominated by the Deuteronomic perspective of guilt and punishment, saw the truth in Jeremiah’s life and teaching and fashioned his message into a form that could serve as preaching to the surviving refugees in exile (see Nicholson, 1970). The core message was this: Yhwh has not abandoned his people. They had to be punished for their sins, but the covenant is still in effect. In fact, it is a new covenant, new in the way God would relate to his people now and in the future.

4.3 Ezekiel as a Book

The book of Ezekiel evidences a deliberate and well-considered overall structure. The prophet’s visions of the presence of God at the beginning and end frame the book, the throne-chariot and the new temple, respectively. The early visions of corruption in the Jerusalem temple are balanced by an ending vision of restoration. The book consists of two main parts. Part 1 is set before 587 and consists of warnings to Judah. Part 2 is set after 587 and holds out hope.

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The oracles against the nations in Chapters 25–32 interrupt the flow of material applying to Judah. But there is a logic to their placement. The foreign nations come under God’s judgment and must be subdued before Israel could be restored. The book as a whole also shows an intentional movement from prophecies of woe before the disaster of 587 (Chapters 1–24) to prophecies of hope after the disaster (Chapters 25–48).

Much of the critical scholarship on the book of Ezekiel concentrates on discerning the origin of individual prophetic units. Zimmerli (1979, 1983), takes pains to separate what he judges to be texts original to Ezekiel from the commentary provided by later writers and editors. He gives priority to the former. Childs (1979) says that valuing Ezekiel’s own oracles over later commentary overlooks a very important point—namely, that the so-called commentary additions were canonized along with Ezekiel’s originals. The commentary is evidence of how the originals were heard and applied by the community of faith, and they, too, bear scriptural authority.

4.4 The Twelve as a Book

The Book of the Twelve includes books that range across an historical span of some 400 years (see Table 12.6). Books from the Twelve can be found anchored in the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian periods.

The first recorded reference to the Book of the Twelve as a collection called the “Twelve Prophets” comes from the Wisdom of Ben Sirach in the 100s BCE. So they have been grouped together for a long time. But why? Does the Book of the Twelve have unity in any sense? Or were these twelve rather short books placed together on one scroll of sheepskin only for convenience?

Each book has its own editorial integrity and canonical shape, and each can stand on its own. Yet the question that we ask at this point is this: Do we gain anything from seeing these books as a collection? Might there have been a theological or literary reason for creating this collection and ordering it in this particular way?

Although nothing can be proven, the answer seems to be yes. There is a rough chronological progression going from first to last in the Twelve. And there is unity encompassing diversity. The books taken as a whole address the big issues of prophecy: Israel’s

TABLE 12.6 Book of the Twelve

Israelite Era


Approximate Dates
Assyrian crisis    
  Amos 760–750
  Hosea 750–725
  Micah 730
Babylonian crisis    
  Zephaniah 640–622
  Nahum 620
  Habakkuk 608–598
  Obadiah 587
  Haggai 520
  Zechariah 520–518
  Malachi 500–450
  Joel 400–350
  Jonah 400 (?)
Second Zechariah

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devotion to Yhwh, the responsibility of foreign nations to respect Yhwh’s people, and the expectation that Yhwh will act in the future to vindicate his people and punish wickedness. And history did demonstrate that the prophets were on target. Punishment occurred when in succession the empires of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia were eclipsed, and vindication occurred when the people of God survived. Through it all, Israel was the place where the divine Torah was honored, if at times only half-heartedly.

The Book of the Twelve ends on a note of anticipation. Malachi affirmed the enduring relevance of the Torah of Moses and looked forward to the return of Elijah on the Day of Yhwh. He would decisively turn the hearts of the people back to their God.



1. Babylonian exile. What was the cause and duration of the Babylonian exile? What was the prophetic explanation for the exile?

2. Prophetic visions. Which prophets of the exile and restoration had visionary experiences, what were their visions, and what was their overall purpose?

3. Second temple. What was the second temple, when and where was it built, and why was it important?

4. Glory of Yhwh. What does the phrase “glory of Yhwh” signify, what was its background in earlier biblical history, and why was it important in this period?

5. Servant of Yhwh. Which prophet composed a poetic sketch of the servant of Yhwh, what was the experience of this figure, and why was this figure important?


1. Valley of dry bones. Ezekiel’s vision of a valley full of bones has inspired hope for many. The famous African American spiritual “Dry Bones” used this vision to give hope to slaves. Locate a recording and listen to it prior to your discussion. The rebirth of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 is interpreted by many as the fulfillment of this specific vision. See if you can find references to it in Jewish literature. How does a story like this come to have such power? Can you think of other stories like it that have had such a powerful effect in shaping the hopes and dreams of people?

2. Exile. The period of Judah’s exile was its most challenging historical experience. Among other things, it inspired creative theological thinking. For example, Israel’s traditional notions of deity underwent profound change. What are some of the changes in the way the prophets perceived and described Yhwh in response to the crisis of exile?

3. Restoration. The experience of exile and the return to Palestine forced a radical revision in many of Judah’s institutions, including its forms of civic and religious leadership. What were some of the major changes? How did the prophets help shape the Judean community in the wake of the exile?

4. Foreigners. Reflect on the vehement prophetic condemnations of the foreign nations that you find in many prophetic books including Amos, First Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Obadiah and Nahum deal only with judgment on foreign nations. Then reflect on the message of the book of Jonah with regard to Nineveh. What were the options with regard to God’s justice in relation to God’s mercy? Did God treat the foreign nations differently than he treated his own people? Was there a different standard of judgment? For what are they held accountable?


Israel in Exile: A Theological Interpretation, by Ralph W. Klein (1979), is a study in how various people, including Ezekiel, made sense out of the Babylonian exile. Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, from Ezekiel to Daniel, by Gabriele Boccaccini (2002), examines Ezekiel’s contribution to Zadokite Judaism, which is in his argument the background of rabbinic Judaism.