We are studying Malachi 2:1-9 & 3:5-6 for Sunday, March 29. The focus is on Malachi’s indictment of the priesthood in post-exilic Israel. We’ll have to think about how this does, or doesn’t, pertain to a religious world in which we don’t have a hereditary priestly class that is responsible for administering the system of religious sacrifices centered around the national temple – that is, a religious world like ours. [Some questions on the text are here.]
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Malachi is the final book of “the Twelve,” or the Minor Prophets.
The historic experience of the kingdom of Judah’s exile in Babylonia, and the understanding that it was a consequence of Judah’s unfaithfulness to God’s commandments, is essential background. Malachi writes after the exile, when the Judahites – now we think of them as Judeans – have returned, the temple in Jerusalem has been rebuilt on the ruins of the old one, the sacrificial system has been restored. But the people’s behavior has not improved any, despite the disciplinary experience of the exile.
The book almost has the structure of Hegelian dialectic, where God makes a statement (thesis), the people challenge it (how so?? – the antithesis), and God – through the prophet – responds to the implicit contradiction in the people’s challenge (the synthesis). OK, not really. Mainly because Hegel is a lot later than Malachi. But also because that last movement is not really a synthesis; God overrules the people’s objections, demonstrates what the people are getting wrong, outlines consequences. Those speeches form the longest part of the book.
We are focusing on part of God’s complaint against the priests of the day (Malachi 2:1-9). So it will help us to remember that priests held their offices by inheritance, from Aaron, brother to Moses, descendants of the patriarch Jacob’s son Levi. So when Malachi talks about the “covenant with Levi” this is what he means, and the instructions in the book of Leviticus in particular lie in the background. The priests are responsible for carrying out God’s instructions about correct worship, and about holiness, given at Mt. Sinai as part of God’s covenant with Israel.
Malachi 1 opens with God affirming God’s love for the people [they don’t see it that clearly], and expressing God’s disgust with their lame [literally] worship. God holds the priests largely responsible for this (Malachi 1:6), since they are not upholding appropriate standards – and that’s their job. This leads in to our text, which spells out consequences for the lax priests, and emphasizes the importance of their instruction – and that instruction being sound.
The rest of Malachi 2 is usually read as having to do with Judean men marrying foreign women; Malachi 3 is God’s announcement that God is sick and tired of the people’s misguided complaining, which God is going to do something about, by showing up.
We probably know this part of Malachi (Malachi 3:1-3) well, because of this:
Our verses 3:5 & 6 follow this announcement, and spell out the objects of God’s judgment.
After that, the book finishes up with another divine complaint about the people’s faulty repentance, and with a final prophetic vision of the reward for the faithful remnant.
Malachi’s setting in time makes the book chronologically the last of the prophetic books. In Christian Bibles that makes it the last Old Testament word before the New Testament. This no doubt affects the way Christians read his final prophecy, about the return of Elijah before the “great and terrible day of YHWH.” Whether the New Testament is or isn’t “really” the interpretive context for Malachi is a theological and religious and faith tradition question, not an empirical one. I like to remember that.
A few verses of Malachi show up in the Revised Common Lectionary, most often during Advent. But not these. So once again, this week we have something we wouldn’t know about the Bible if all we knew was the lectionary.[*]
CLOSER READING: God announces a curse on the priests’ work, emphatically – repeated three times. I think “curse your blessings” means “when you bless the people, I will curse that blessing.” This suggests that people should not want to be blessed by priests like this. And “curse” here is the same word used since Genesis 3 – so the priests are here explicitly in the company of the serpent, of Adam and Eve, of Cain, et al.
In verse 3, we might not be entirely wrong to read God as saying, almost literally, “the s**t is going to hit the fan”. The verb translated “spread” is “scatter” or “fan” or “winnow,” and the image is of the priest – or priest’s son – being splattered in the face by the very offering being made, which is itself “dung,” and then taken away along with the rest of the mess. Talk about “blowback.”
In verse 4, God seems to offer an explanation: I’m telling you this, commanding this, doing this, to preserve the covenant, not to break it or invalidate it. Covenant is a central concept here, emphasized by repetition. It’s a positive concept: a covenant of life and well-being (shalom).
The covenant works that way because the [ideal typical] priest knew the fear [literally] of God, and was literally dismayed or shattered before God’s name.
I think we probably need here to hold on to the idea that this fear and dismay before the Holy God is a constant reminder and spur to priestly caution and rectitude. The NRSV translates “fear” here as “reverence,” and “dismay” as “stand in awe.” We have a tendency to think of “reverence” and “standing in awe” as a kind of pleasant, nicely elevated, “spiritual” sensation. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Malachi means.
It seems more accurate to think about fear here by trying to think of a context in which there are massive, fatally undesirable consequences for the slightest deviation from “best practices.” Like working in a nuclear power plant. Performing brain surgery. Cutting diamonds. That makes “fear” and “dismay” the opposite of having the casual attitude that what you do doesn’t matter all that much, that “it’s fine, good enough.” And then transfer that feeling to the idea of “serving God.”
And then read God’s comments about “true instruction” (torah) in verses 6 through 9. Instruction (torah) is emphasized in verses 6-9 by repetition (four times), and as we know, that torah is intimately related to the covenant in the first place. [And this seriously makes me wonder whether the “covenant with Levi” should not make us think of Moses, at least as much as it makes us think of Aaron.]
Notice the careful use of “walking in my way” and “turning” that happens in verses 6-9. When the priest walks in YHWH’s way and gives true instruction then it turns people from iniquity, but when the priest turns aside and gives corrupt instruction and doesn’t keep YHWH’s ways then people can’t walk in that way, but stumble.
If it were up to me, I would make out the last phrase of verse 9 “and you lift up your faces against the torah.” I would be all alone in that, though, so probably best not to listen to me.
Notice that God is repeatedly referred to in this text as YHWH Sabaoth, or LORD of hosts (four times in 2:1-9, and more often throughout all of Malachi). That is, as the warrior God. YHWH means business.
In verses 5 & 6 in chapter 3, this same YHWH Sabaoth will “draw near” for judgment or justice, and there’s a list of people who will probably wish YHWH would stay farther away.
It is not a comfortable list.
[So I hope that the New Testament is an appropriate interpretive context for Malachi. For instance, Romans 4:22-25. Which isn’t to say we should ignore that list.]
[*] Feels like this reminder is in order: I keep harping on this on principle. The principle is: remember that the Bible is bigger than the lectionary Bible, and a lot bigger than the known from hearing it in church Bible. The corollary is: a lectionary-based curriculum will not lead to Biblical literacy. My hypothesis is: that forgetting this, or not being aware of it in the first place, explains a significant proportion of the chronic complaints that the PC(USA)’s Bible Content exam is unreasonably difficult and unfair.