New book examines Judaism’s last three prophets

Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: Prophecy in an Age of Uncertainty by Hayyim Angel, Maggid Books, New Milford, CT, © 2016, ISBN 978-1-59264-413-1, p. 154 plus appendix, $24.95

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.

Fred Reiss, Ed.D

WINCHESTER, California –  Jewish prophets are missionaries in the sense that God calls them to fulfill a task, such as conveying important information to the Jewish nation, a warning perhaps, or message of consolation, spoken in terms each can understand. Jeremiah spent years cautioning Judaeans to forsake their evil ways and repent their sins, or the Temple will be destroyed; Jonah reluctantly traveled to Nineveh announcing the city’s imminent destruction unless the inhabitants atone for their wickedness; and Ezekiel offered hope of return to the Judaeans taken into captivity by the Babylonians.

God fulfilled His promise. About seventy years after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, Persian King Cyrus, soon after defeating Babylonia in 539 BCE, permitted Jews to leave Babylonia and rebuild their holy city and its Temple. Led by the newly appointed governor Sheshbazzar, the young son of Jehoiachin, Judea’s last king, about 42,000 Jews returned, where they lived in poverty, experienced harassment by neighboring Samaritans, suffered with failing crops and drought, and demoralized, ultimately ceasing construction of the Temple. Sheshbazzar soon disappears from the historical record, perhaps due to death. By order of Persian King Darius I, Zerubbabel, Jehoiachin’s grandson, and Joshua, a descendent of High Priests replaced Sheshbazzar, and during the subsequent century and a half, God sent three prophets to the Jews living in Judea.

In Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: Prophecy in an Age of Uncertainty author Hayyim Angel, well-known Jewish scholar and rabbi, using archeological and historical records and explanations of past commentators, analyzes the Hebrew text to determine and clarify each of their missions, which lay hidden in twenty-five-hundred-year-old imagery.

Haggai, whose book contains only thirty-eight verses, appears about the time of Zerubbabel’s arrival, around 529 BCE. He excoriates the returnees for believing that circumstances led them to conclude the time for rebuilding the Temple had not yet come, and for becoming disheartened at the idea that the new Temple will not be as grand as the First Temple. Haggai exhorts and encourages them to renew construction of the Temple, telling them God will provide. The people enthusiastically respond.

Angel observes that unlike the Book of Ezra, which blames outside forces for lack of progress, Haggai places the culpability firmly on the returnees’ lack of faith in God, making the unifying link in Haggai’s prophecy the idea that if the returnees faithfully observe the commandments, redemption is at hand—Zerubbabel will be the next king over an independent Jewish state, but if not, redemption will be set farther into the future.

Zechariah, who preached about the same time as Haggai, and whose prophetic visions are often interpreted in apocalyptic terms, is much more difficult to understand. Angel, writing that “the Book of Zechariah is filled with enigmas,” offers evocative explanations consistent with peshat, or face-value meaning of the text, along with the belief that if prophets recount visions with ambiguous metaphors, such as Zechariah’s semblance of the flying scroll, the woman in the tub, the term “Branch,” and the four celestial chariots, they might be perplexing to us now, but the people who heard the prophet’s message fully understood the imagery. “Zechariah’s visions,” Angel assures us, “reflect the situation at his time; a time when Jews saw only the mighty Persian Empire and longed for God’s presence to appear.”

The book Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi takes the position that Jews were disheartened by the overarching power of Persia and its kings, when to God belongs all power, glory, and might. By the late sixth century or early fifth century BCE, Jews in general, but certainly Jews in and around Jerusalem, concluded that redemption was not at hand and Zerubbabel would not be the king of an independent Jewish state.

Beginning in chapter nine, Zechariah’s prophecies, according to Angel, no longer speak to the present, but rather to some distant future, predicting such things as: the cataclysmic downfall of Israel’s enemies, the abolition of weapons, universal recognition of God’s glory, and a permanent ending to Israel’s exile. To this end, in a small separate chapter, Angel offers an interesting interpretation of the Book of Esther, which he says focuses on the differences between the capricious unpredictable powers of an earthly king, in this case Ahasuerus (Xerxes), a Persian king and contemporary of Zechariah, and divine justice.

Malachi, a contemporary of Ezra, who lived about eighty years after Haggai and Zachariah, preached at a time when the reconstructed Temple stood in Jerusalem, and according to Angel, his message differed from both Haggai and Zechariah. Preaching at a time long after the belief of an immediate redemption disappeared, and perhaps even feeling rejected by God, Malachi condemning a corrupt priesthood, “who bring defective offerings and do not consider their actions to be wrong,” turns the priestly blessings into denunciations against them. Malachi in support of Ezra the Scribe, rebukes those who intermarried, and offers consolation and redemption to the righteous of Israel, individuals who had not violated the Torah’s commandments.

By tradition Malachi is the last prophet, and in the final chapter, Angel considers alternative answers to why prophecy ceased.

Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: Prophecy in an Age of Uncertainty is a worthy addition to the Maggid Studies in Tanakh series and an outstanding example of scholarship brought to bear on the textual meaning of Israel’s last three prophets. The presentation is stimulating reading and the book is a worthy companion to an in-depth study of the immediate post-exilic period.

*

Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil Calendars; Public Education in Camden, NJ: From Inception to Integration; Ancient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and a fiction book, Reclaiming the Messiah. The author may be contacted via [email protected].

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