|Books of the|
Torah | Nevi'im | Ketuvim
Books of Nevi'im
|8. 12 minor prophets|
The prophetic book of the Bible attributed to Zephaniah occurs ninth among the twelve minor prophets, preceded by Habakkuk and followed by Haggai. It is notable for developing a particularly war-like depiction of YHWH, characterizing Him as a being who will take vengeance upon all nations for their offenses against the Israelites. This being said, it is not nearly so blatantly nationalistic a text as the Book of Nahum, as it acknowledges the moral failings of the Chosen People and urges them to change their ways, lest they incur God's wrath as well.
The Book of Zephaniah has been most influential in the Christian and Jewish apocalyptic traditions, where its visceral depiction of the "Day of the Lord" has often been reinterpreted in an eschatological light.
As with many of the Biblical prophets, little is known of Zephaniah, the author of the ninth text in the Hebrew Bible's minor prophetic corpus. In fact, the only extant information on his character is provided by the book's superscription, which attributes the text's authorship to “Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah, in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (1:1, NRSV). This superscription is somewhat unusual, as it is lengthier than most and contains two notable features: first, the name Cushi, which is ascribed Zephaniah’s father, could mean ‘Ethiopian’; and, second, the last listed member of the prophet's lineage is Hezekiah, which could refer to an influential Israelite king. Expanding slightly on the first issue, this attribution of African roots to prophet has proved somewhat contentious, with some scholars accepting the fact without comment and others arguing that it is possible but unlikely, given that "Cushi" was also simply a given name. Similarly, the allusion to a "Hezekiah" in the prophet's lineage is equally perplexing, as it is not clear whether this refers to the king or not. Mason summarizes this unresolvable debacle, stating that "commentators offer the mutually cancelling views that either Hezekiah was so well known he did not need to be called 'king', or that if it were really the Hezekiah he would have been called king!" The royal connection is further problematized by the prophet's harsh indictment of the moral failing of the monarchy and the royal city, though it could conversely be argued that a noble lineage could have given him the authority to make such pronouncements without fear of reprisals. Etymologically, the prophet's name (Zephaniah (or Tzfanya, Sophonias, צפניה, Ẓəfanya, Ṣəp̄anyāh)) means 'the Lord conceals', 'the Lord protects' or, possibly, 'God of darkness'.
Other than the phantasmagorical details in the book's superscription, all other clues into the prophet's character come from the text itself. Of these, one of the most significant is the possibility that the prophet came from a privileged Jerusalemite background, "given his knowledge of the city (1:10-13), its temple rites (1:7-8), and its hierarchy (1:8-16, 3:3-4), plus his concern (1:12-13) and compassion for its citizenry (3:7, 14, 17)."  In spite of these textual clues, it should be noted that some (or even most) of the book's content could have simply been appended to (or amalgamated with) an earlier prophetic text. This thorny hermeneutical question is summarized by Berlin as follows:
[Zephaniah]'s appearance in the superscription may be interpreted in several ways: 1) that he actually said the very words that are preserved, 2) that he prophesied the general contents of the book but a later editor rephrased his words, or 3) that he is a fictive author, a speaking voice, or what literary critics call an implied author. … [After considering these options,] it seems better to take the middle ground: to acknowledge the activity (or at least the tradition of such activity) of a monarchic prophet named Zephaniah, who, in the book ascribed to him by a post-monarchic author or editor, became, in a literary sense, the implied or fictive author.
If the superscription of the book of Zephaniah is a reliable indicator of the time that the bulk of the text was composed, then Zephaniah was a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah, who lived during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.). Offering more specificity, some scholars believe that the picture of Jerusalem that Zephaniah provides indicates that he was active prior to the king's well-publicized religious reforms (c.f., 2 Kings 23), as these reforms would have ostensibly put an end to the idolatrous practices that caused the prophet such consternation. These reforms took place in 622 B.C.E. If these hypotheses are correct, then Zephaniah was the first nabi to be active after the prophecies of Isaiah and the violent reign of Manasseh.
It should be noted that other scholars, such as Pettibone-Smith and Lacheman, have presented evidence pointing to a post-monarchic date (as late as 200 B.C.E.) based on language and theme of the text, although even they are forced to admit that this hypothesized later text would have likely been based on an earlier book. These views (especially those assigning particularly late dates) have not been given particular credence in the scholarly community.
If the text (or at least an early version thereof) can reasonably be assigned to the monarchic period, it would have been written to address certain problematic behaviors among the author’s contemporary Jerusalemites. Specifically, the author of the book of Zephaniah attempts to effect these behavioural changes through the threat of future calamities for “those who have turned back from following the Lord, / who have not sought the Lord or inquired of him” (1:6). The author conceives of a date in the future – the 'great day of the Lord' (discussed below) – when YHWH will judge all the people of the earth. This coming judgment will affect all of the nations, including the author’s own nation of Judah where YHWH is understood to reside. The threats made against Jerusalem, however, are much more specific than the oracles concerning foreign nations. This corresponds to the belief that the Israelites, who understood themselves to be God’s chosen people, were even more culpable than other peoples for living up to their God’s statutes, because they were to be a ‘light unto the nations’. In the writings of later exegetes, the fulfillment of this prophecy is commonly understood to have taken place when Judah was captured by the nation of Babylon and many of its inhabitants were exiled in an event known as the Babylonian captivity.
The book of Zephaniah consists of three chapters in the Hebrew Masoretic Text. In English versions, the book is divided into four chapters. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible supplies headings for the book as follows:
|1:2-13||The Coming Judgment on Judah|
|1:14-18||The Great Day of the Lord|
|2:1-15||Judgment on Israel's Enemies|
|3:1-7||The Wickedness of Jerusalem|
|3:8-13||Punishment and Conversion of the Nations|
|3:14-20||Song of Joy|
It is important to note that there are a number of different sub-divisions in use for the text with no clear consensus.
Despite its relatively short length, the book of Zephaniah incorporates a number of common prophetic themes, most particularly in its vivid description of God’s wrath (as encapsulated in the 'Day of the Lord') and its proclamation of a restoration for those who survive this "Great Day."
This 'Day of the Lord', which depends on a particularly war-like characterization of the Hebrew God, is described in detail in the first chapter of the book:
Though this notion was commensurate with the eschatological vision of later prophets, it was not itself eschatological, in that they events that it describes were not seen to represent the terminus ad quo of human history. Instead, it represents the religious aspirations of a society that is utterly convinced of their deity's power (and inclination) to take a direct role in historical reality:
In developing this notion, Zephaniah also draws upon the emerging idea that Yahweh is more mystically potent than the regional or tribal gods of the surrounding nations. Specifically, the book sees the beginnings of a more expansive theology, which situates Yahweh as the only God and the God who rules over all nations—an apparently unique belief in the ancient Middle East. In this cultural sphere, the demesnes a god were thought to begin and end with their respective tribe's borders, a belief that the Israelites flouted with their conviction that their god could act against Assyria, Edom, and other nations. Indeed, the book of Zephaniah characterizes all nations as being subject to Yahweh’s divine judgment, as demonstrated in the quotations below:
Likewise, God's vengeance is described in terms that seem to reverse the creation account described in the Book of Genesis. For instance, the opening verses of the book of Zephaniah are reminiscent both of the creation and of Noah’s flood. Chapter 1:2-3 declare that “I will sweep away everything / from the face of the earth says the Lord. / I will sweep away humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air / and the fish of the sea.” The order of the creatures to be destroyed in Zephaniah is the opposite of the order in which they are created in Genesis 1:20-27. It is also worth noting than in both Noah’s flood and Zephaniah’s Day of the Lord, a ‘remnant’ survives God’s wrath.
It is also not surprising that the book of Zephaniah bears marked similarities to the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history. Similarities might be expected between these works because the Deuteronomistic history covers an overlapping period of time and because the issues that are dealt with in the book of Zephaniah (namely the apostasy of the Israelites) go straight to the heart of the covenant Mosaic (and Deuteronomic) covenants. In brief, the first 3-4 of the Ten Commandments contained in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:1-22 directly concern Israel’s relationship with its God. It is this integral component of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel that is threatened by the practices that are bemoaned in the first chapter Zephaniah:
The book of Zephaniah incorporates a considerable number of phrases and terminology from other books of the Bible. This suggests that the author of Zephaniah was familiar with and drew upon earlier Israelite religious tradition and also that later biblical writers regarded the book of Zephaniah as an authoritative (or at least respectable) work in the prophetic corpus. Faulhaber describes the text's stylistic character as follows:
[Zephaniah]'s prophecy is not strongly differentiated from other prophecies like that of Amos or [Habakkuk], it is confined to the range of thought common to all prophectic exhortations: threats of judgment, exhortation to penance, promise of Messianic salvation. For this reason Sophonias [Zephaniah] might be regarded as the type of Hebrew Prophets and as the final example of the prophetic terminology. He does not seek the glory of an original writer, but borrows freely both ideas and style from the older Prophets (especially Isaias [Isaiah] and Jeremias [Jeremiah])…. The language of Sophonias is vigorous and earnest, as become the seriousness of the period, but is free from the gloomy elegiac tone of Jeremias. In some passages it becomes pathetic and poetic, without however attaining the classical diction or poetical flight of a Nahum or Deutero-Isaias. There is something solemn in the manner in which the Lord is so frequently introduced as the speaker, and the sentence of judgment falls on the silent earth (i, 7). Apart from the few plays on words (cf. especially ii, 4), Sophonias eschews all rhetorical and poetical ornamentation of language.
The preceding article incorporates some content from Easton's Bible Dictionary (1897), a text that is now in the public domain.
All links retrieved September 29, 2019.
Translations of the book of Zephaniah:
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