The Portrayal of the Nations in the Book of the Twelve

This is a paper I wrote for an independent study with Fred Putnam on the OT Prophets in the Fall of 2009, entitled, “The Roles of the Gentiles in the Book of the Twelve.” Enjoy!


Israel is the center of YHWH’s redemptive plan in the Hebrew Bible.  The books of the Latter Prophets are focused on God’s dealings with Israel and Judah: the faithlessness of the people, God’s judgment, and God’s plan to show mercy and restore them.

The fate of the Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible is less clear.  Some Gentiles are incorporated into Israel by conversion or marriage (e.g., Asenath, Jethro, Rahab, Ruth).  Others are condemned and/or destroyed.  Still others have ambiguous relationship to Israel and her God: sympathetic to the YHWH religion but still on the periphery (e.g., Naaman, Melchizedek).

The purpose of this study is to examine the portrayals of non-Israelite peoples in the Minor Prophets (Twelve).  There are several roles/fates of the Gentiles in the prophetic literature.  The variegation in these eschatologies points to two theses concerning the theology of the Twelve.

Specific Gentile Peoples in the Twelve

In some passages the nations trouble Israel/Judah, either by attacking them or leading them into idolatry.  In other passages the nations are the instrument of God’s just judgment against Israel/Judah.  Sometimes the disobedience of Israel/Judah is compared to that of the nations.

Often the nations are condemned for wickedness, pride and cruelty.  Only once in the Twelve is a particular Gentile nation commended for obedience to YHWH (Jon. 3).  As a consequence, the nations are variously attacked, exiled, destroyed, humbled—or converted.

Babel and Asshur

The two major powers of the world of the Twelve feature prominently in many of these books.  Two books (Nahum, Jonah) are devoted almost exclusively to God’s interaction with Assyria.  These two powers are portrayed primarily in two ways: they are God’s instruments of judgment on Israel/Judah,[1] and they are condemned nations that are destroyed for their own wickedness.[2]

The main exception is found in the book of Jonah.  In chapter 3, Jonah preaches in the streets of Nineveh.  All the people, from the king down to the peasants, believe Jonah’s message, and they repent and fast in the hope of turning away God’s wrath (3:5-9).  God shows mercy and concern for this Gentile people and even their animals (3:10; 4:11).


Persia is not addressed in the Twelve, except for several mentions of Darius’s reign as a temporal marker in Haggai and Zechariah.[3]  This is fascinating, considering the positive portrayal of the Persians in the other Latter Prophets, Ezra-Nehemiah, Daniel and Chronicles.

Egypt and Edom

Egypt and Edom are mentioned frequently in the Twelve.  In Hosea, Egypt is an instrument of God’s judgment on Israel/Judah.[4]  Elsewhere, Egypt is condemned for its pride and wickedness.[5]

Edom is portrayed as mocking Israel/Judah.[6]  The prophets recognize the shared history of these two peoples as descendents of Abraham.  Edom’s transgression is his lack of brotherly love toward Israel.  In Amos 1:11, Edom is condemned for “pursuing his brother with the sword,” “casting off all pity,” and “keeping his wrath forever”—allusions to Genesis 33.

Moab and Ammon

Moab and Ammon are half-brothers from Lot’s incest with his daughters (Gen. 19:30-38).  In the Twelve Moab is mentioned several times, but Ammon only twice.  Ammon is promised destruction for troubling Israel.[7]  The prophets portray Moab’s role as a stumbling block for Israel as a continuation of the events of Numbers 22-25.[8]  In Zephaniah 2:8-11, Moab’s kings are condemned for burning the bones of the king of Edom.

Canaan and Lebanon

In the Twelve, Canaan and Lebanon respectively embody the worst and best of the land of Israel.  Canaan is mentioned only once and symbolizes wickedness to be expelled from the temple (Zec. 14:21).  Lebanon, known for its great forests and craftsmen, symbolizes prosperity and fertility.[9]

Tyre and Philistia

Tyre and Philistia, two ethnically related nations, troubled Israel/Judah from the northern and southern coasts respectively.  Nothing positive is ever said about these nations; they are wicked peoples who led Israel/Judah astray and persistently attacked them.  Two different fates are prescribed: captivity[10] and destruction.[11]

Cush (Ethiopia)

Cush is mentioned on three occasions in the Twelve.  In Amos 9:7, Cush hyperbolically represents the farthest nation from Israel/Judah.  In Nahum 3:9, Cush had been judged by Assyria for its wickedness.  In Zephaniah 2:12, the Cushites are killed by YHWH.

The Collective Gentiles in the Twelve

In many instances the Twelve speak of the nations generally, or of an unspecified Gentile people.  These portrayals are quite diverse, including both damning and gracious oracles.


In several instances, the nations or an unspecified nation are the instruments of YHWH’s judgment on Israel/Judah,[12] playing a similar role to that of the Assyrians and Babylonians.  These may in fact be veiled references to Asshur or Babel.

In Amos 3:9-15, YHWH calls the nations as “witnesses” against Israel.  Israel has become so wicked that even the evil nations have the moral “high ground” in comparison.

In other passages, the nations make war against YHWH or his people.[13]  YHWH, the messiah or Israel/Judah fight against and destroy the nations.  In oracles of judgment, it is often difficult to tell whether the condemned will be destroyed or merely exiled.  Exile is corporate death, so that the difference may be slight.


Like certain narrative sections of the Hebrew Bible and other passages from the LP, a few passages in the Twelve speak of grace expressed to the Gentiles or to the whole world.  These fascinating “ecumenical” passages speak of God’s mercy and justice extended throughout the world.

Joel 2:26-32 (2:26-3:5 MT) tells of a post-catastrophic blessing.  Joel’s apocalyptic visions of judgment give way to the language of restoration.  YHWH promises to pour out his Spirit “on all flesh” (2:28).  The survivors of the great judgment/battle will worship on Mount Zion, and “all who call upon YHWH’s name will be saved” (2:32), with no ethnic distinction made.

Zechariah 14 is similarly fascinating chapter.  At first, the nations attack and plunder Jerusalem (vv. 1-2), not unlike Joel’s “locusts.”  Then YHWH rises up to destroy the attackers (vv. 3-5).  In YHWH’s subsequent ascension to the Jerusalem throne, the nations are struck with terror and plundered (vv. 12-15).  However, after peace is restored, the survivors of the nations worship YHWH by celebrating the festival of Sukkot in Jerusalem (vv. 16-19).

In Jonah 1, Jonah runs away from YHWH’s command to preach to pagans.  In the storm of judgment, pagan sailors pray to YHWH sincerely (v. 14) and obey his prophet (vv. 12, 15).  They are rewarded with calm waters (v. 15) and make vows to YHWH (v. 16).

Other passages speak of a universal turning toward YHWH in the last days.  Micah 4:1-8 echoes Isaiah 2, envisioning a peaceful, universal rule of YHWH in Jerusalem over the nations.  In Zephaniah 2:20 and Zechariah 8:20-23, the Gentiles respect Judah and travel to Jerusalem to worship.  Malachi 1:11-14 speaks of YHWH’s “great Name among the nations.”

In several places the prophets identify injustice with oppression of the widow, orphan and “sojourner.”


We can make several provisional observations and posit two theses and suggestions for further study from this brief survey.

First, the Twelve are unanimous that sin committed by Jews or Gentiles is equally displeasing to YHWH.  The teachings of the Law and the curses of the Covenant are applied equally to Jews and Gentiles, although the Twelve contain more condemnation for God’s covenant people than for the nations.

Second, the Gentiles are never condemned merely for ethnicity; a specific sin is always named within an oracle of judgment: arrogance, oppression, idolatry, fraud, mocking, etc.

Third, grace is promised to Jews and Gentiles in the Twelve.  It cannot be said that the grace is given equally in all instances; there are some passages in which Israel/Judah receives blessing and the Gentiles are destroyed.  But grace is not given exclusively to the ethnic people of God, as the Abrahamic promise might seem to imply (Gen. 12:3).

First thesis: The lack of agreement on the nature of judgment/blessing for the Gentiles in the Twelve means that each condemnation passage must be interpreted 1) in its own literary context; and 2) sometimes with a single historical referent; but 3) mostly as a condemnation of sin.

Second thesis: The inclusion of the Gentiles in the kingdom hope was YHWH’s eschatological plan all along.

Further Study

The other books of the Latter Prophets include both oracles of condemnation against the Gentiles and predictions of their inclusion.  A survey of the portrayal of the various and collective nations in these books would yield a fuller picture of the eschatology of the prophetic canon.[15]

One aspect of the divergence between early Christianity and Tannaitic/Rabbinic Judaism is revealed by the portions of the Tanakh each movement chose to emphasize.  Schnittjer has tallied the number of Tanakh quotations and allusions in the New Testament, Patristic writings, the Mishnah and the Gemarah.  The Christian writings favor the Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel and the Twelve, but the number of references to the Latter Prophets in the Rabbinic literature is dwarfed by the number of references to the Pentateuch, particularly Leviticus.[16]  It makes sense that Christianity as an ethnically inclusive religion would draw on the more inclusive Prophetic tradition.[17]  The connection between the roles of the Gentiles in the Twelve and the ethnic issues in the New Testament is worthy of further study.


[1] Hos 5:13; 7:9-16; 8:9, 13; 9:6, 10; 10:6; 11:5; 12:1; 13:8; Mic 4:10; Hab 1:6-11

[2] Joel 2:20; Amos 1:3-5; Mic 5:5-6; Nahum; Hab 2:5-20; Zeph 2:13-15; Zec 2:6-9; 5:5-11; 6:8-12; 9:1; 10:11

[3] Hag 1:1; 2:1, 10; Zec 1:1, 7; 7:1

[4] Hos 7:9-16; 8:13; 9:6; 11:5

[5] Joel 3:19; Nah 3:8 Zec 10:11

[6] Joel 3:19; Amos 1:11-12; 9:12; Obadiah; Mal 1:2-5

[7] Amos 1:13-15; Zeph 2:8-11

[8] Hos 9:10; Amos 2:1-3; Mic 6:5

[9] Hos 14:5-7; Nah 1:4; Zec 10:10; 11:1

[10] Joel 3:4

[11] Amos 1:6-8, 9-10; Zeph 1:9; 2:4-7; Zec 9:2-4, 5-8

[12] Joel 1:6; 2:2; Mic 4:11

[13] Joel 1:6; 3:9-18; Mic 5:7-9, 15; Hab 3:12; Zeph 1:2-6, 18; Hag 2:22; Zec 1:15; 12:2; 14:1-15

[14] E.g. Zec 7:10; Mal 3:5

[15] I assume that the Latter Prophets have diverse messages within a unified prophetic theology.

[16] Gary E. Schnittjer, “A Comparison of the Use of the Scripture in the New Testament and Early Rabbinic Traditions.”  Paper presented at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, San Francisco, November 2001.  <; (accessed 11 March 2017).

[17] In particular, passages such as Joel 2, Zechariah 14, Micah 4-5

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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