The Book of the Twelve does not refer to some lost manuscript of writings by the Twelve Apostles. No, these are the writings of twelve prophets of YHWH spanning a large range of time: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Sometimes these prophets are called minor prophets simply because separately their surviving writings are shorter than books like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
So are we talking about the Book of the Twelve or the “minor prophets”? To call the books the “minor” prophets suggests that they are less important than Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and that each one of the twelve is a separate book. However, in the Hebrew Scriptures they are more like separate chapters in one larger book and this Book of the Twelve is the plus one of the latter prophets and thus is given a prominent and important place in the canon.
The Prophets in the Hebrew Canon are in the following order (unlike your English Bibles):
The eight books of the Prophets follow the wisdom pattern of 3+1+3+1. Kings is the +1 punch of the former prophets with the nation left in exile. And The Twelve is the +1 punch of the latter prophets. Separately The Twelve might not get the attention they deserve but together they rival Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and put in the position of the +1 punch they have all that much more importance. Thus the Prophets follow the wisdom pattern of 3+1+3+1 and the latter +1 punch is a collection of 3*4 = 12. Twelve is also the symbolic number for the people of God – i.e., representing the twelve tribes of Israel.
At some point the Twelve were brought together and edited together to be a collection. Your English Bibles thankfully follow the Hebrew Canon rather than the Septuagint Greek translations in the order of the books. So the English Bibles get this order right, but most readers are unaware that they are to read the Twelve as a collection – almost as separate chapters in one larger book. We know that the Masoretic Scribes read them as a collection because the scribes normally put four blank lines between books but here they only put three and they give us statistics on each but also on the whole of The Twelve.
What books are next to each other is important. That the book of Ezekiel is followed in Hebrew canonical order by The Twelve makes a difference in how we read The Twelve. Ezekiel is concerned with priestly issues, especially given his priestly lineage, and that too is a major focus of the Twelve. The Twelve mirrors the movement in the latter prophets as a whole (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) increasingly toward priestly concerns, which is the major focus of the last three books in The Twelve.
Nevertheless, the most important reason for Ezekiel and The Twelve being in that order (and not separated by Daniel, a wisdom book) is the relationship between Ezekiel and Hosea (the first of The Twelve). The canonical order has an apologetic function – those tempted to reject Ezekiel as a prophetic book because of its pornographic chapters describing the hideous nature of their sin would be reminded that this was a common tradition of the prophets because the next book was Hosea. In Hosea, the people of Israel are also compared to a prostitute.
Hosea is actually the older writing. Hosea wrote about what would soon happen to Israel, which served as a warning for Judah too. But, according to the Prophets, Judah’s sin would surpass that of Israel. Ezekiel was written after the exile of both Israel and Judah and because the sin of the latter was worse the language in Ezekiel is even more graphic than Hosea.
Some will argue that the individual books of The Twelve have been stitched together. One example of this can be seen from the relationship of the first and second of The Twelve. Hosea 14:7 does not appear to really fit (the first person of the surrounding verses is here in the third person). The ESV obscures this by translating “his” as “my” and telling you in the footnote. In any case, the verse telescopes the book of Joel in reverse order.
Hosea 14:7 says, “They shall return and dwell beneath his shadow; they shall flourish like the grain, they shall blossom like the vine, their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.”
Joel 1:10 says, “The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes.”
And Joel 3:15 says, “The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (picture of his shadow).
Likewise for Joel and Amos:
Joel 3:16 says, “YHWH roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake. But YHWH is a refuge to His people, a stronghold to the people of Israel.”
Amos 1:2 says, “YHWH roars from Zion and utters his voice from Jerusalem, the pastures of the shepherds mourn and the top of Carmel withers.”
Joel 3:18 says, “And in that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk…”
And Amos 9:13 says, “Behold, the days are coming…the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.”
It is worth noting the north-south organization of the books:
Hosea (North – Israel); Joel (South – Judah); Amos (North – Israel); Obadiah (South – Edom); Jonah (North – Ninevah); Micah (South – Judah); Nahum (North – Ninevah); Habakkuk (South – Judah); Zephaniah (South – Judah); Haggai (South – Jerusalem); Zechariah (South – Jerusalem); Malachi (South – Jerusalem).
The effect is to draw a spiral in on Jersualem, which is the center of the target.
The alternating pattern may also help explain why some of the books are in the order that they are.
This movement is reversed then in the New Testament Prophetic book of Acts where the gospel is preached in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria (aka Israel, the northern nation), and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
The most common important words in The Twelve (works both in English and in Hebrew) are LORD/YHWH, God, day, and hosts. Actually these words are usually found in a couple common phrases: “YHWH, God of hosts,” or some variation on that, and “the day of YHWH.” This is what The Twelve is about: YHWH, God of the heavenly host (an army, “host” is a term from military usage) will one day (the day of YHWH) wage a lopsided war against His adversaries. And before that day comes, The Twelve concludes, Elijah will come to call the people to repentance so that YHWH will not devote them to destruction.
And so the Prophets ends this way: “Remember the Torah of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I have commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of YHWH comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:4-5, English).
The closing comments of The Twelve and the Prophets point the people back to the Torah of Moses, referring particularly to Deuteronomy (after all, Horeb is the preferred word for the mountain of God in Deuteronomy and Sinai is the preferred word for the mountain in Exodus) but then also referring to the Torah as a whole (Gen-Deut). Of course, what we said concerning the Prophets is true also for the Torah of Moses. If you want to appreciate the Torah and grasp the design of its canon you must understand the concluding book of the Torah (Deuteronomy) and the conclusion of that book.
The conclusion of Deuteronomy reveals that prophecy has ceased in Israel and that the one greater than Moses has not yet appeared. In the meantime, until the day of YHWH begins, one is to study Torah for direction. The end of The Twelve adds that Elijah will return right before the day of YHWH. By noting this it is agreeing with Deuteronomy that Elijah, though a great prophet from the other +1 book (Kings), was not the one greater than Moses. Nevertheless, in the meantime, until prophecy resumes just before the day of YHWH, study Torah.
The Twelve prophesied the end of prophecy as normative for righteous living and directed the devout Israelite to itself and Torah for direction after the cessation of prophecy. No longer would you have the spoken word to direct you how to live, now you would need to study the written word. Piety would look like submitting to the teaching of Torah by the priests since the Lord no longer spoke through prophets. This is both why the Prophets are so critical of the corruption of the priesthood as well as why the books move in a priestly direction.
It is not just the end of the book that looks forward to the end of the Prophets. Zechariah 1:5 says, “Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever?” It is a rhetorical question demanding an emphatic negative answer: Absolutely not! Zechariah 1:6 continues, “But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? So they repented…” Here is one way one is to live in the in-between time: “they repented.” This is a major theme of The Twelve. Amos 8:11 says, “I will send a famine on the land…of hearing the words of YHWH.”
The book of Joel says, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:28). So the timeline is thus: prophecy will cease (Amos, Zechariah), Elijah will return (Malachi), the day of YHWH, and afterward the pouring of the Spirit upon worshipers of YHWH from all nations so that they are all prophets (Joel). I would add that while all Christians are prophets even today that what we normally think of as prophecy came to a close when the New Testament was completed.
It is worth noting that Moses is no longer with us, nor are the Old Testament Prophets, but the written Torah and the written Prophets remain to guide us to Christ.
A more complete timeline would be thus: the Twelve closes and prophecy ceases, John the Baptist (Elijah) prepared the way, the death and resurrection of Jesus as Part I of the day of YHWH, Pentecost and prophesying during the Apostolic Age, the canon closes and prophecy ceased again, and then Part II of the day of YHWH. Note that there is no Elijah before Part II.
The purpose for stitching The Twelve into one larger collection and thus having the Prophets follow the wisdom pattern of 3+1+3+1 is to emphasize the wisdom concern of studying the written word of God. The beginning and end of the Prophets (Joshua 1 and the end of Malachi) stress the study of the written Torah of Moses. And the Prophets, first with Joshua, are wisdom teachers. There is even a chiastic relationship between the beginning and end on this theme: in Joshua 1 it was “Moses, my servant” and in Malachi 4 it is “my servant Moses.”
The purpose for stitching The Twelve into one larger collection and thus having the Prophets follow the wisdom pattern of 3+1+3+1 is to emphasize the wisdom concern of detailed studying the written word of God. The beginning and end of the Prophets (Joshua 1 and the end of Malachi) stress the study of the written Torah of Moses. And the Prophets, first with Joshua, are wisdom teachers. There is even a chiastic relationship between the beginning and end on this theme: in Joshua 1 it was “Moses, my servant” and in Malachi 4 it is “my servant Moses.”
Hosea was the prophet who married a prostitute. He was the last to prophesy to the northern nation before it fell to the Assyrians circa 722 B.C. The unfaithfulness of his wife was an example to the nation of how they had been unfaithful to God. The written book of Hosea is a collection of prophetic oracles.
Joel the son of Pethuel is otherwise unknown to us. There are many with that name in Scripture, but if any of them are him we do not know. The book written by him talks about a locust plague. This disaster foreshadows the day of YHWH. Best guess is that he wrote sometime around the late 6th century to mid-5th century B.C., but it could have been anywhere up to the 9th century B.C.
Amos was the first of the writing prophets, at least of the dates we know, having written during the reigns of Uzziah of Judah (792-740 B.C.) and Jeroboam II of Israel (793-753 B.C.). This does highlight the fact that The Twelve are not in chronological order. Amos preached about the social injustices of his day and he used a 3+1 wisdom pattern in many of his oracles against foreign nations as well as against Judah and Israel. He was a shepherd from the southern kingdom but prophesied in the northern kingdom.
Obadiah’s vision is very short. It was likely written soon after 586 B.C. This was when the Babylonians were destroying Jerusalem. It is a vision of what will happen to Edom who turned on their brothers in Israel.
Jonah stands alone as of a different genre from the rest of The Twelve. While all the rest contain the visions or oracles or lamentations and the like of the prophets, this one is a narrative about a prophet. 2 Kings 14:25 mentions Jonah as living during Jeroboam II’s reign, but we do not know the date of the book.
Micah wrote during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah – about the same time as the prophet Isaiah – circa 750-700 B.C. The northern kingdom fell during his ministry.
Nahum wrote an oracle concerning Ninevah about a century after Jonah’s visit to them. The city then fell to the Babylonians in 612 B.C.
Habakkuk likely was written around 640-615 B.C. This was not long before the fall of Assyria and rise of Babylon. The prophecy that God would use Babylon to punish Judah would be fulfilled in 586 B.C. Habakkuk wanted to know how God could use such a wicked nation to bring this judgment.
Zephaniah was a prophet during the reforms of good king Josiah (640-609 B.C.). Despite the reforms, Zephaniah’s message was about the coming day of YHWH – though not without the good news of restoration.
Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi all major on priestly concerns. They were written well after the fall of Jerusalem. Haggai and Zechariah were written around 538 to 515 B.C. In 538 the first group of exiles returned to Jerusalem. In 515 they finished building the Second Temple. Malachi, whose name means “my messenger,” likely wrote a short time later.
And again the unifying theme of the whole collection is that the day of YHWH is coming, so repent and believe!