The book of Zephaniah was compiled in the late 7th century BCE and is the last prophetic writing before the Babylonian exile becomes the main prophetic focus. There seems to be an interesting development occurring in the political situation around the time Zephaniah is compiled. Judah, the southern kingdom, has not heeded either the prior prophetic teachings nor have they learned from the judgment that fell upon the northern kingdom of Israel, captivity under Assyria over a century prior. Zephaniah becomes a written declaration against Judah about God’s coming judgment against Jerusalem. A judgment coming as surely as the anticipated judgment against the nations.

Much of Zephaniah is dedicated to the judgment coming against Jerusalem for its unfaithfulness. An unfaithfulness characterized by engaging in idolatry[1] and then the subsequent injustices socially perpetrated on account of disobedience to God’s law.[2] While Nahum and Joel both use the picture of lions for Assyria’s violence against Israel, Zephaniah uses the metaphor for the way the leaders, prophets, and priests of Judah have treated the people of God.[3] The enemies of Israel, those who have helped tear the people of God apart with Assyria, are also warned throughout chapter two that they will face judgment for their evils. As the nations are judged Judah is given a future hope that a remnant will be allowed to return to the land and flourish.[4] The nations around Judah will become desolate lands in the same way the people of God suffered as the armies of Assyria ravaged the north land of Israel and the coming judgment would desolate the south land surrounding Jerusalem.[5] Assyria, to the praise of all other nations under its empire, will be cast down. Zephaniah emphasizes the reason for her fall is more boastful pride than her violence.[6]

Zephaniah’s judgment text follows Joel’s tradition of explaining God’s actions primarily as the rightful sovereignty of the Creator god. Zephaniah begins with God’s declaration that he has the power and right to destroy all life in his creation.[7] A declaration that sounds conceptually similar to the logic of the Flood narrative of Genesis. Zephaniah focuses the Creator’s judgment firstly against Judah for its idolatry and in this way makes the people of God a representational figure for rest of humanity. Judah’s punishment isn’t only justified by the Creator’s sovereignty over all humanity but is depicted as, or at least the beginning of, God’s “affliction on humanity” because of sin against God.[8] Israel representing humanity in judgment is also seen in Joel’s language of the Creator sending armies against Israel in the land, which brings an end to the happiness of all humanity because is the destruction of the Garden of Eden.[9]

Zephaniah is the first prophet to bring in the concept of human sacrifice as the consequence of Judah’s for idolatry and injustice.[10] God intends to bring a violent army against Judah. Here Zephaniah slips into apocalyptic language to present the destruction of Jerusalem as the judgment of the Creator.[11] The entire creation, including humanity, is “consumed” or “eaten” by the fire of God’s zeal, or jealousy, for worship.[12] This linguistically connects to both the sacrificial language and the destructive Flood parallel earlier in the same chapter. God sacrifices creation, beginning with his own people, so that he will be rightly worshiped in his creation.

This utter destruction of humanity and creation should likely be seen more as a purification rather than a complete annihilation. Once judgment coming against creation is complete against the people of God it then begins to work outwardly toward the nations.[13] As the judgment moves towards to the nations it is revealed that a faithful remnant of Judah will be allowed to survive. This judgment, while destructive to creation, is also a divinely chosen purification process.[14]

Zephaniah claims that while the prophets and priests in Jerusalem may not have lived according to the law the God of Israel fulfills it because the law reflects the justice of God as the Creator. God, as Creator, does justice to creation by sustaining it continually, revealed in every new morning.[15] God as Creator will discipline creation and bring the nations into correction. The prophet announces that God will pour out his fire to consume the nations just as he will do to his own people.[16] The nations will be consumed in the creational sacrifice by God to himself. In the same way as this judgment purified a remnant of Judah to worship the Creator so too will it purify some within the nations. The nations will become one people, represented in a singular speech formed out of the many of humanity.[17] These remnants of the nations will be led as an offering of worship by the exiles returning to the land.[18] God will remove all people who rebel against him in idolatry and violence through his sacrificial purification of creation.[19] God the Creator is revealed as the King of Israel and the Lord of all nations in his purification of all creation through judgment and the concurrent rightful worship of a purified and unified humanity.

Observations:

  1. Zephaniah’s seeming allusions to the initial stories of Genesis is intriguing. Like Joel, Zephaniah focuses on the God of Israel’s sovereignty over creation, including the nations, on account of him being the Creator god. Because their use I’m tentatively convinced that the initial stories of Genesis were already being grouped together by the time Zephaniah was being pronounced and compiled in the late 7th century BCE. My reasoning is based on 1) the assumed depiction of God as Creator, which surround Zephaniah’s linguistic allusions to 2) the Flood narrative in the idea of a sweeping total destruction of creatures from the face of the earth and 3) the many languages of the nations being purified into one seems to be a reversal of God’s judgment on the nations from the Tower of Babel account.
  2. Along the lines of the above point, Zephaniah contains the earliest prophetic reference to Sodom and Gomorrah.[20] The reference is meant to cause fear in the Moabites and Ammonites by conjuring to mind a judgment by Israel’s God that brought about total destruction. The verses before and after the reference seem to show the parallel between Moab and Ammon with Sodom and Gomorrah is the sin of pride and being against God’s people. There is no sexual content to this reference. This could mean the later patriarchal stories are also somewhat connected to the early stories of Genesis by the time of Zephaniah’s complication. Or, at least, that Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction had already become connected to the same Creator god expressed in the Creation account(s), Flood account, and Tower of Babel story.
  3. Neither Joel, Nahum, nor Zephaniah seem to define idolatry as the worship of empty images made of stone or wood. Later prophets will ridicule both the people of God and the nations for worshipping idol-statues as divine. These earliest prophets simply call the worship of other nations’ gods idolatry and rebellion. The emphasis on God as Creator is meant to reveal his overarching sovereignty over all things and his rightful authority to 1) enact judgment on Israel for rebelling against him in refusing to worship him solely, and 2) to judge the nations for doing evil as errant components within his creation.
  4. Zephaniah seems to express a development in prophetic understanding concerning God’s theological role in the suffering of his people and the existence of evil in his creation. Nahum seems to be the most simplistic prophetic exposition with his rare references to God’s authority as Creator and his singlemindedness upon God avenging judgment on behalf of his people’s sufferings. Joel supplements this vengeance substantially. Joel shows the Creator god as a master gardener of his creation. The nations are seen as his animals or fruit trees and his authority extends to disciplining Israel with harsh, judgmental pruning. Joel depicts the hope of the people of God as the Spirit coming into Israel and forming a new creation out of the sinful, fallen obliteration of the Assyrian captivity. The Spirit’s renewal of Israel will then naturally be the destruction of the nations who oppress her so that she might be liberated and ascendant again.                                                                                                    Zephaniah adds to Joel’s understanding. While he agrees with Joel that God as Creator has authority to judge his own creation, the prophet uses very little “garden” or “Eden” language, using more pastoral metaphors overall, nor does he use “spirit” language to invoke a concept of a renewed creation. Instead, Zephaniah opts for Flood and sacrifice language. This allows Zephaniah to emphasize the overwhelming creational destruction of the Creator’s judgment and his demand for sacrifice. Such conceptual language allows space for a remnant in creation to survive. Since, clearly, some of humanity survived God’s judgment of the Flood and some sort of atoning outcome is to be expected of the sacrifice of Israel and humanity. Where Joel used the coming of the Spirit in the midst of judgment as God’s gratuitous renewal of Israel and creation, Zephaniah sees the judgment itself as the atoning means by which God purifies Israel and humanity of any and all evil, rebellious elements and people. Zephaniah becomes the first prophet to see that if the nations go through the same process of judgment as Israel they too will be purified to worship God. For Zephaniah this is depicted as the remnants of Israel not only leading the remnants of the nations in correct worship of the Creator god but, in fact, leading these worshipping remnants of the nations to correct worship in the land is remnant of Israel’s sacrificial offering to God. An act reminiscent of the promised Abrahamic blessing for all the families of the earth.

 


[1] 1:4-6

[2] 3:3-6

[3] 3:3-5; Compare with Joel 1:6-7 and Nahum 2:10-12

[4] 2:5-7

[5] 2:4, 8-9, 12

[6] 2:15

[7] 1:2-3

[8] 1:17

[9] Joel 1:2-12

[10] 1:7-9

[11] 1:10-16

[12] 1:17-18

[13] 2:1-2

[14] 2:3

[15] 3:3-5

[16] 3:6-8

[17] Another possible allusion to the initial stories of Genesis. This time the Tower of Babel of Genesis 11 after the Flood destruction.

[18] 3:9-10

[19] 3:11-20

[20] 2:9

Posted by Justin Gill

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