Thursday, October 30, 2014

Malachi: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The book of Malachi is the last book of the prophets in both the Jewish and Christian Bibles.  In the Jewish Bible, it is followed by the books known as the Writings (which includes Psalms, Proverbs, and other books).  In the Christian Bible, it is followed by the New Testament, particularly the gospels.  This was done by early Christian compilers to emphasize their theological perspective, which was that the Jewish prophets predicted Jesus Christ.  This interpretation was (and is) not shared by Jews.  In most cases, I tend to share the Jewish interpretation of so-called Messianic prophecies.  It makes a lot more sense to understand these passages in their original (Jewish) contexts.

Malachi was probably written in the 6th century B.C.E., during the post-exile Persian period, because the book assumes the existence of a re-built temple in Jerusalem.  Unlike most prophets, who wrote in poetry, Malachi wrote in prose, and his style is argumentative.  The book can be read as an extended argument between God and the struggling community of Israel.  Considering the scarcity of food and the ongoing struggle to survive and re-build their lives, the Jews question God’s love, justice, and wonder why He isn’t better looking out for them, his chosen and beloved people.

To the charge that God doesn’t love Israel, God points to their neighbor Edom, who was recently destroyed: “ But you say, ‘How have you loved us?’ Is not Esau (another name for Edom) Jacob’s (another name for Israel) brother?  Yet I have loved Jacob and hated Esau; I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals.” (1: 2-3)  God’s argument is basically, “I show my love for you by hating and destroying your enemy.”  This is indeed a disturbing and not altogether pleasant expression of love, but there it is.


To the charge that God is not looking out for his chosen people, God responds that the fault lies with the priests, who haven’t been offering “pure” animal sacrifices.  This reflects a very ancient way of thinking, shared by thousands of the oldest cultures around the world—the idea that, to gain the favor of the gods (or God), you must sacrifice animals.  In the case of the Jewish priests, God is angry because they have been offering blind and lame animals, which is against the purity laws of Leviticus.  The probable reason for this was the economic hardship of the people, and the scarcity of healthy livestock.  God’s solution is to offer healthy animals, even if it means people go hungry.

Animal sacrifices were important to ancient cultures like Israel.

Another cause of the peoples’ suffering, according to Malachi, is that they’ve been allowing inter-racial marriage: “for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign land.” (2:11)  This passage could be interpreted metaphorically, referring to the marriage-like covenant between Israel and God.  But, if we take the metaphorical route, we must also interpret 2:16 metaphorically: “For I hate divorce.”  This passage is often cited by Christians who take a hard line against divorce.  But its interpretation is not altogether clear in its original context.  Taken literally, it refers to inter-racial marriage.  Taken metaphorically, it refers to the specific covenant between God and Israel.

The prophet continues his argument, asking, “Where is the God of justice?”  As God’s chosen community, Israel had experienced considerable injustice.  God’s responds that the people must wait.  He says, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to the temple.”  This passage is quoted in the New Testament gospel of Mark as referring the John the Baptist, who heralded the coming of Jesus (kind of like the Silver Surfer).  This is, of course, a later Christian interpretation which would have offered no comfort to the 6th century B.C.E. community, who would all be long dead before John the Baptist or Jesus arrived, five centuries later.  It would be like telling victims of poverty and injustice today: “Do not despair—help will come in 500 years, after you are all dead.”  No, in its original context, these passages referred to religious reformers of the time.

A scantily clad John the Baptist

The people are then criticized by God for not giving enough money to the temple and its priests.  Over time, the priestly class would assume great power and wealth.  Actually, by the time we get to Jesus, the priestly class had become so wealthy and corrupt and defensive of the status quo that they would become a main target of Jesus’ criticisms.  If there is any connection between Malachi and Jesus, I think it lies here perhaps.

The book ends with a vision of a time when the wicked will be punished, and the righteous saved.  Malachi encourages the people to obey the laws of Moses, and wait for a religious reformer like Elijah who will turn the people back to God.  Gospel writer Matthew interpreted this passage as, again, referring to John the Baptist.  However, again, I don’t buy this interpretation, for previously stated reasons.

Thus ends the Old Testament, aka the Hebrew Scriptures.

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