Merry Christmas, all. I hope it’s been a productive year working through the Hebrew Bible, which was the only scripture for the first Christians. With the shift in Sunday meeting organization next year, I have no plans to do anything differently. I’ll continue posting NT lessons and perhaps some other things, on a weekly basis. (You can find my backlog of NT posts here and working forward)
The chiliast, one who believes in a second coming of Christ that will usher in a millennial reign, has special challenges in reading signs. First, he is urged to notice lest he be caught unawares. Second, he must be aware of how many false readings and alarms there have been in bygone days, even by the faithful….Our task is to react and to notice without overreacting, to let life go forward without slipping into the heedlessness of those in the days of Noah….To ponder signs without becoming paranoid, to be aware without frantically matching current events with expectations, using energy that should be spent in other ways, these are our tasks. – Neal A. Maxwell, For the Power is In Them. (Salt Lake City: DeseretBook Company, 1970), 20.
So, I’m skipping Zechariah to focus on Malachi, a short book of four chapters (three in the Hebrew arrangement.) Malachi is last prophetic book and the last in the Christian canonical order, but not the last book written/edited (which is probably Daniel.) Does the order of books matter? It does, actually. Malachi closes the Christian canon, talking about coming messengers, preparing the way, the Lord suddenly coming to his temple. Malachi is set in a time when things are not so good but is all about expectation of things about to happen. Turn the page, and lo! things are happening in Matthew (even though 400 years pass with that turn of the page): angelic messengers and the birth of Jesus. This book order helps portray Jesus as fulfillment of OT prophecy and the expectations of Malachi. The Jewish canonical order, by contrast, ends with the book of Chronicles. And how does Chronicles end? On an upbeat, high point, with God’s anointed Messiah Cyrus the Persian rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and the rebirth of God’s city and people. Malachi probably dates to roughly the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah.
“Unlike Haggai and Zechariah, the book of Malachi contains no date formulas linking the prophet’s message to the reign of any Persian king. Malachi does make reference to the governor of Yehud (1:8) and a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem (1:10). Thus the book may be dated broadly to the period after the completion of the Second Temple (515 B.C.). A careful study of the language of the prophet’s oracles reveals that the book has a great affinity to Haggai and Zechariah, suggesting a terminus ad quem of the reforms of Ezra and (later Nehemiah) initiated in Jerusalem, beginning in 458 (cf. Ezra 7:8). It seems likely that Malachi addresses the Jews in the province of Yehud during the reign of King Darius I (522–486 B.C.), making him a slightly later contemporary of these two prophets of Yahweh’s Second Temple. ” ZIBBCOT
As to Malachi, it may not be a name. Hebrew malachī means “my messenger” and appears in 3:1, “Look, I am sending malachī (“my messenger”? “Malachi”?) to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” The Greek Septuagint translation understands malachī as “messenger.”
“There is a tradition in the Targum [Aramaic translations] that Malachi is Ezra; a similar tradition is brought to bear in [the Babylonian Talmud] Meg. 15a; an alternate tradition of [Rabbi] Naḥman claims that Malachi was Mordecai…. Despite these traditions, it is likely that Malachi should be understood as a personal name.”
At least, in the title of the book. But when it comes to Mal 3:1
“The identity of the messenger in 3:1 has been highly debated. Is My messenger (Heb “malakhi”) Malachi? Or is there at least a pun on the name of the prophet? Is the messenger the angel of the covenant, a zealous, powerful enforcer of the covenant who is like a smelter’s fire and like fuller’s lye (i.e., a purifying, caustic treatment)? Is he Elijah (see v. 23)? Or is Elijah the angel of the covenant? Does the text indicate an expectation of a priestly Messiah? There is a very long history of interpretation on this v., with multiple meanings already in antiquity. The New Testament merges this v. with Isa. 40:3 and identifies the expected messenger as John the Baptist (Matt. 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27).”- Jewish Study Bible (1st ed.)
Now, nearly half of Malachi (1-2:9) focuses on rebuking priests for “cheating” on their offerings. Why should priests merit such condemnation?
- Priests had to maintain a stricter level of ritual holiness and behavior, so corrupt or cheating priests merited more condemnation than non-priestly folks. Moreover, priests were the ones who administrated the ritual system of sacrifice and atonement. It’s one thing to cheat on your taxes; it’s another thing entirely when you work for the IRS! Note, for example,
- 2) Priests were literally a type of Messiah (or Christ) because they were anointed. Or rather, the Messiah was seen as priestly, in a way.
- 3) Priests were supposed to set the example and teach the law, statutes, and ordinances. This aspect of their duties is often not obvious to us, so consider the following passages.
Lev 10:8-11 And the LORD spoke to Aaron: Drink no wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons, when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die; it is a statute forever throughout your generations. 10 You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them through Moses.
Here, the priests are bound to avoid all intoxicating drink in one verse. The next two specify duties that they are to make distinctions between holy and unholy, pure and impure, and moreover, to teach the Israelites the whole law. It’s awfully hard to do the latter two if you’re tipsy. Notably, perhaps, the Book of Mormon reflects this duty of a Levitical priest: Mosiah 12:25, “are you priests, and pretend [or claim] to teach this people?” Alma 13:6 “ordained unto the high priesthood of the holy order of God, to teach” Mosiah 6:3, Benjamin “appoints priests (to do what?) to teach the people.” So priests had quite the responsibility for personal ritual holiness, distinguishing between holy and unholy, and knowing and teaching the law. One of Ezekiel’s observations was that the priests had ceased to make the distinctions and teach the people.
Ezekiel 22:26 [Israel’s] priests have done violence to my teaching and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.
And when we come to Malachi, how does he describe the priests?
This condemnation is presented as a discussion or disputation. The Hebrew text says multiple times, “You ask” or “you say” (Mal. 1:2, 6f; 2:14, 17; 3:7f, 13) and then God answers. One thing they’ve been doing is offering animals that are unfit. Malachi says a bit sarcastically in 1:8 “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? Try presenting that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor?” Try offering that to the Governor, and see how he likes it! There is a hint here and in 2:9 that the priests have been showing partiality in what they accept. Poor? Well, better bring a proper offering! Rich? Maybe we’ll look the other way if your animal is blind or sick. After enumerating their problems, a largely symbolic (I hope) curse is pronounced. The priests who are supposed to be extremely sensitive to holiness and haven’t been, are going to be defiled and cast out on the heap like any other unclean thing.
2:7 the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. 8 But you [priests] have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts…
2:1 And now, O priests, this charge is for you: 2Unless you obey and unless you lay it to heart, and do honor to My name—said the Lord of Hosts—I will send a curse and turn your blessings into curses. (Indeed, I have turned them into curses, because you do not lay it to heart.) 3I will [do something, Hebrew uncertain], and I will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festal sacrifices, and you shall be carried out to its [heap]- JPS
“Dung” may refer either to the intestines that are removed during the sacrificial process or their contents. Either way…
On a new topic, after a brief rebuke of the people for their misdeeds in tithes and offerings, Chapter 4 invokes a “sun of righteousness, which shall arise with healing in its wings” for those who revere God’s name. Several things of interest here. First the image of a winged sun was very common throughout the ancient Near East. Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and others used it in jewelry, seals, in royal imagery, and other places. Wikipedia has a few examples. Indeed, the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets says that Malachi’s usage
probably is an adaptation of the winged sun-disc icon of Persian art. In ancient Mesopotamia the winged sun-disc icon was widely used and represented the guardianship of the deity for the king. Malachi applies the solar epithet to God as the deity who will truly provide blessing and protection for those people overshadowed by his wings.
Yahweh was sometimes associated with solar imagery, so this is not that unusual. Second, it may be that “righteousness” is not a description, but the name of a deity. Exploring this possibility, the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible notes that
The original function of Righteousness as an aspect of the solar deity, who searches out and destroys injustice upon the face of the earth but vindicates the righteous, is only slightly veiled in Mal 3:19–20.The image concerns the dawning of the day of Yahweh, when the intense sun will consume the wicked like stubble, while for those who revere God “the sun of Righteousness (ṣĕdāqâ) shall rise with healing in its wings.”
Third, when Mal. 3 and 4 are quoted in 3 Nephi 25-26 with slight differences, the phrase is changed from “sun of righteousness” (Heb. shémesh tsedaqah) to “son of righteousness” (which would be ben tsedaqah, if they were speaking Biblical Hebrew). While “sun” and “son” are homonyms in English, they are not so in Hebrew. Moreover, the possessive suffix on “wings” is feminine, agreeing with “sun” so it’s very unlikely we’re dealing with a Hebrew variant. It’s doubtful Jesus addressed the Nephites in Hebrew anyway, 600 years after they’d left Jerusalem. Is this a case of dictated homonyms being misunderstood? Christianizing of the OT? A JST-like doctrinal updating? Brigham Young famously said
Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings.” (JD 9:311)
“[T]here has not yet been a perfect revelation given, because we cannot understand it, yet we receive a little here and a little there. [I] should not be stumbled if the prophet should translate the Bible forty thousand times over and yet it should be different in some places every time, because when God speaks, he always speaks according to the capacity of the people.”- Brigham Young notes by William Clayton, Council of Fifty Minutes, Apr. 18, 1844, in JSP, CFM:119.
Is this a case of cultural adaptation? I have no idea if there was any kind of Native American/Mesoamerican/pre-columbian “winged sun” motif that would have served as cultural background for the Nephites to grasp Malachi’s usage, as the Israelites would have. However, during the destruction nearly a year before his visit, he used the metaphor of a hen gathering them under her wings.
You “who are of the house of Israel, how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and have nourished you. 5 And again, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, who have fallen; yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, ye that dwell at Jerusalem, as ye that have fallen; yea, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not. 6 O ye house of Israel whom I have spared, how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart.”
Perhaps this shift from “sun” to “son,” then, accommodated the Nephite understanding by combining this metaphor of wings and Jesus’ presence, hence “son of righteousness with healing in his wings.”
- Hate? Chapter 1:2-3 have bothered some people. Does God hate anyone? We should understand that “love” and “hate” are used much more broadly in Hebrew and the ancient Near East than today. They can be covenantal terms or merely terms of favor and disfavor. Hence the JPS translation, “After all—declares the LORD—Esau is Jacob’s brother; yet I have accepted Jacob and have rejected Esau. I have made his hills a desolation, his territory a home for beasts of the desert.”
- Curse? The curse of the last verse, “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” is not one of the normal curse words. I wanted to write a dissertation on cursing, so it’s a pet topic. The particular kind of curse is not ‘rr or qll, but chérem, which I discussed before. The use of chérem here suggests to some commentators that this curse is connected to covenantal violation(s), an interesting suggestion.