In addition to the three major prophets in the Tanach, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, there is a volume, pitifully little read by most Jews, known as the Trei Asar, the Twelve Prophets. It opens with the prophecy of Hosea and continues with Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Haggai, Zecharia, and concludes with the last of the prophets, the brief three chapters of the prophet Malachi.
Little is known of him. Many rabbis have concluded that the author is anonymous. In the Talmud and in the Targum he is identified with Ezra and even Mordechai. The anonymity stems from the opening verse in the final chapter 3: “Behold, I send you my messenger”. The Hebrew word for my messenger being “malachi”.
Some of the vocabulary is Persian, an indication that his message was delivered during the Persian administration, when Jerusalem was under the rule of a Persian governor. He paved the way for the return from exile of Ezra the scribe, father of Judaism as we know it today, and followed by his compatriot Nehemiah. It was the latter two who re-established Jewish worship and religious observances under the laws of Torah, laws and practices which many had not observed during the years of Babylonian and later Persian exile.
The dating of Malachi’s prophecy is considered later than the year 516 BCE, the year in which the Second Temple was dedicated. Most Biblical scholars set a date between 500 and 400 BCE.
In Malachi’s time, the Hebrews were indifferent to religion, they did not follow Torah laws, immorality was common, divorce was numerous, and intermarriage with non-Hebrews was too prevalent.
Malachi, a lonely Jerusalem prophet, had the great obligation to teach the skeptical Hebrews, to condemn the immoral priesthood, to abolish intermarriages, and to bring back the Word of God to His wayward people.
The shouts of the people were astonishing to the prophet. “Who needs God? What has He done for us lately? Where is the God of justice?”
Malachi’s task was to rekindle the Mosaic law into a people who had forgotten it. He demanded the restoration of the Temple rituals and chastised the priests who were lax in their service He denounced immoral behavior, beliefs in sorcerers, condemned those who committed adultery and persecuted widows and orphans. He described the true function of a faithful priest:
Torat emet hayta b’fihu v’avla lo nimtza bisfatav’ b’shalom u’v’mishor halach iti v’rabim haishiv mai-avon.
The law of truth was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found in his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness and did turn many away from iniquity.
Malachi preached the high ideal of the priesthood and re-enforced their obligations to God’s holy service. In condemning intermarriages with foreign women and divorces from Jewish wives, he exhorted his people in powerful human language:
Halo Av Echad l’chulanu, halo El Echad b’ra-anu. Madua nivgad ish b’achiv, l’chalel brit avotainu?
Have we not all One Father? Has not One God created us all? Why then do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, profaning the covenant of our fathers?
* * *
“L’mimai avotaichem sartem maichukai v’lo shmartem. Shuvu ailai v’ashuva aleichem.”
Powerful words as meaningful today as in the period of prophecy.
From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My ordinances and have not kept them. Return unto me and I will return unto you.
His prophetic cry ends with the words:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he shall turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children and the hearts of the children unto their fathers.
Strong words from a lonely prophet who paved the way for a religious return and served a priori to Ezra’s return to Judah to establish the formal birth of the Jewish religion., For this, Ezra has been rightly called “the father of Judaism”. First we were Hebrews. Then we were Israelites and Judeans.
Malachi, Ezra and Nehemiah created us as Jews.
In reading the Book of the Twelve Prophets, each of us can profit from the prophets of old. Is there a better way to prepare for our Holy Days of Awe?