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Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: Prophecy in an Age of Uncertainty Hardcover – January 10, 2017
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About the Author
Rabbi Hayyim Angel is the National Scholar of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals and the Rabbinic Scholar at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York. He has taught advanced Bible courses to undergraduate, graduate, and rabbinical students at Yeshiva University since 1996, and lectures widely. Rabbi Angel has published over 120 scholarly articles, primarily in Bible, and is author or editor of fourteen books. His scholarship focuses on the interaction between traditional and academic approaches to Bible study. He received his BA in Jewish studies summa cum laude from Yeshiva College, his MA in Bible from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, his MS in Jewish education from the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, and his rabbinical ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. Rabbi Angel lives in New York City with his wife and three children.
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Rabbi Hayyim Angel answers these and many more questions in his very informative, easy to read, relatively short, but to the point book. Rabbi Angel is a highly respected teacher, lecturer, and author. I read many of his articles and books and enjoyed everything he wrote. I quoted him often in my own books and people told me they liked his ideas, his insights, and the way he presented them. I think that everyone will have this reaction to this book.
Rabbi Angel had a difficult task before him as he wrote this book because certain sections of Zechariah are nearly impossible to decipher. Rashi, ibn Ezra, and Radak preface their commentaries by stating how challenging it is to understand what the prophet is saying. Even parts of the other prophets’ words are unclear. But, as I wrote, Angel fulfills his task, and does so with verve. He integrates tradition and contemporary scholarship. He tells us that to better understand the three prophets, we need to understand what occurred to Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Mordecai, and Daniel, and especially the general history of the time.
He writes: “Many of the issues the prophets dealt with are also strikingly relevant in the modern period.” We read that many Jews chose to remain in the diaspora after being expelled from Israel when the temple and the country was destroyed in 586 BCE. They did not return to Zion in 538 BCE when the Persian king allowed the return. Only 42,360 people came home. “In the medieval system of chapter breaks in our printed Tanakhs, there are 929 chapters. Of these, 129 – or roughly one eighth – are comprised of Second Temple books.” The books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi have only nineteen chapters. This is one reason why we need a scholar such as Rabbi Angel to explain what is happening during this period.
This was a time when Israel was impoverished, the rebuilt temple was small and far from lavish, the ark was missing, Jews had understood that a messianic redemption would return. They read this promise into past prophecies. But what they saw and felt was far from what they expected. Judea, as the land was called at this time, was only a tiny vassal state in the vast, powerful, and pagan Persian Empire. Tosaphot Yevamot 50a and Malbim explain the failure of the prophecies that the people saw failed to occur: “Prophecy predicts what should happen, but not necessarily what will happen.”
Hagai focused his prophecy on encouraging his nation to build a temple despite the existing problems. Zechariah, speaking to the people when they resumed building the temple, consoles his disillusioned co-religionists and calls upon them to act properly and cease behaving as their ancestors. He addressed a broad range of issues pertaining to the new harsh political reality with eight difficult to understand visions. He answered questions such as, since we returned to Israel, should we continue the fasts we instituted to remember the destruction of Israel and its temple; and is God continuing to reject us because of our bad behavior.
The traditional view contained in commentaries such as Radak and Abarbanel, which is not clearly in the Bible, is that Malachi was the last of the prophets. There is also no biblical statement that prophecy no longer exists. Angel writes, “it is likely that he was [the last prophet].” Angel states “it appears he prophesied one or two generations after Haggai and Zechariah.” We do not know if Malachi was the prophet’s name. The word means “messenger” and may describe the man’s mission. The Babylonian Talmud Megilah 15a, identifies him as Mordecai. The Targum states he was Ezra. And there are other opinions. Be this as it may, it is fascinating and insightful to read Angel’s discussion of this issue since it enhances our understanding of the history of the time and how prophets functioned.
Malachi condemned the behavior of the priests who were leading Israel away from God. He also condemned intermarriage, a subject not mentioned by Hagai and Zechariah, although mentioned by Ezra and Nehemiah. Malachi’s final prophecy, which is the Bible’s final prophecy, is “I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.”
Who is this Elijah? Is he the man who existed centuries before Malachi? Is he the person who the book calls Malachi? What is his mission? What is the “awesome, fearful day of the Lord”? Is this a prophecy of the messianic age? As with much else spoken by the three prophets, these final words are opaque, but we learn much by reading Angel’s interpretation of the final prophet’s last words, and all that he and the other two said before, why they said it, and its meaning for us today.
The uncertainty in the title refers to the times in which these prophets lived, just after the fall of the second Temple. With the destruction of the Temple, the general outlook of the populace was that Judaism was dead, and there was no future for the Jewish people without a holy Temple. A Judaism without a Temple was something that was simply incomprehensible and unfathomable to them. It was a like a body without a heart. The populace understood the destruction of the Temple and the exile to Babylon to be a cessation of their covenantal relationship with God.
With that, it was Jeremiah and Ezekiel who worked to combat that mistaken belief. And it was the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi who came later who took the people out of their malaise, and preached to them of a future redemption.
Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi preached at a time when Israel was no longer an independent nation with its own king. Rather a small vassal state within the huge Persian empire. As very small fish within a huge Persian pond, most Jews didn’t see any future for the devastated Jewish nation.
At 150 pages, Angel provides context to the human experience of the time. He cogently details the dread that overtook the Jewish nation during those horrendous times.
At a scant 38 verses, Haggai reflects the recorded prophecies he said over a four-month period during the second year of the reign of Darius (520 BCE). Haggai succeeded in inspiring a demoralized people to resume their building of the Second Temple after a lengthy delay.
As to the book of Zechariah, most of it consists of esoteric prophecies of redemption, Angel does a good job of making sense of the cryptic nature of this book. He notes that some of the things Zechariah prophesized about, must have been evident to his audience, but remains obscure to us.
The message of Malachi was much more subdued than the optimism of Haggai. While Haggai preached that redemption was near. Malachi spoke of the new reality. That although they had longed for the redemption; they know it was not at hand.
As the last of the prophets, Malachi knew that he was needed to help the people transition to the era where the Oral law and the Rabbis would be the dominant figures in Jewish life. They would in effect replace where the Temple once stood. The message of Malachi was that with the cessation of prophecy, the Torah will become the sole means of hearing the revealed word of God.
The most dramatic insight Angel brings is that although the loss of prophecy was a terrible blow for the Jewish nation, there were actually spiritual benefits to its suspension. He notes that the people were now able to accept the Torah out of pure free will; rather than via prophetic compulsion.
The loss of prophecy also lead to the development and expansion of the Oral law. Rather than running to the Prophets for answers; the people ran to the Rabbis. Finally, prayer took hold during this era. And people were now able to better use prayer in their religious experience, taking an active responsibility for keeping the lines of dialogue with God alive.
While there are but 19 chapters of text from these, the last of the prophets; Angel does a fine job of extracting deep insights from them. He provides the reader with an understanding of the devastation of the times.
Angel shows that the message of these prophets from long ago, is still relevant today. Topics such as identity and redemption, are indeed timely. In this short, but most insightful monograph, Angel does a superb job of bringing these lesser known prophets to light, and ensuring their timeless messages are still heard today.
Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: Prophecy in an Age if Uncertainty (Maggid Studies in Tanakh Book 6)
Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: Prophecy in an Age OF Uncertainty (Maggid Studies in Tanakh Book 6)