Book of Zephaniah
|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.
Authorship and Historical Context
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.
Dating the text
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:
- The great day of the Lord is near—
- near and coming quickly.
- Listen! The cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter,
- the shouting of the warrior there.
- That day will be a day of wrath,
- a day of distress and anguish,
- a day of trouble and ruin,
- a day of darkness and gloom,
- a day of clouds and blackness,
- a day of trumpet and battle cry
- against the fortified cities
- and against the corner towers.
- I will bring distress on the people
- and they will walk like blind men,
- because they have sinned against the Lord.
- Their blood will be poured out like dust
- and their entrails like filth (Zephaniah 1:14-17).
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 Christian theology this 'day' became the Last Judgment. For the prophets, however, the Day of Yahweh does not mean any exact forensic investigation; it is a day of war, on which God will come in a rushing theophany accompanied by cosmic phenomena, such as storm and lightning. In a flash he will finally consummate the auras evoked by the deeds of all sinners and evil doers (i.e., he will utterly destroy the wicked) and then set up a new mispat which will endure forever.... [It is] a day which actually is Yahweh, in which his godhead will take fully visible form.
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:
- Woe to you who live by the sea,
- O Kerethite people;
- the word of the Lord is against you,
- O Canaan, land of the Philistines.
- "I will destroy you,
- and none will be left."
- The land by the sea, where the Kerethites dwell,
- will be a place for shepherds and sheep pens (Zepheniah 2:5-6).
- will be a place for shepherds and sheep pens (Zepheniah 2:5-6).
- "I have heard the insults of Moab
- and the taunts of the Ammonites,
- who insulted my people
- and made threats against their land.
- Therefore, as surely as I live,"
- declares the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel,
- "surely Moab will become like Sodom,
- the Ammonites like Gomorrah—
- a place of weeds and salt pits,
- a wasteland forever.
- The remnant of my people will plunder them;
- the survivors of my nation will inherit their land" (Zephaniah 2:8-9)
- "You too, O Cushites,
- will be slain by my sword" (Zephaniah 2:12).
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:
- I will stretch out my hand against Judah
- and against all who live in Jerusalem.
- I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal,
- the names of the pagan and the idolatrous priests-
- those who bow down on the roofs
- to worship the starry host,
- those who bow down and swear by the Lord
- and who also swear by Molech,
- those who turn back from following the Lord
- and neither seek the Lord nor inquire of him (Zephaniah 1:4-6).
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.
- See, for example, Robert A. Bennett "Zephaniah." The New Interpreter's Bible, (Vol. VII). (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994-2004), 659.
- See, for example, Adele Berlin. Zephaniah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible, Volume 25A. (Toronto: Doubleday, 1994), 66-67. Given her discomfiture with the original suggestion, Berlin is likewise unconvinced by the argument that the prophet's lineage includes Hezekiah as a means of off-setting the perceived "foreignness" of the text's author.
- Rex Mason, "Zephaniah." The Oxford Bible Commentary, Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 604.
- Berlin, 65-66. See Zephaniah 3:1-7 for an example of the prophet's critique of the royal city.
- Faulhaber (1912).
- Bennett, 660.
- Berlin, 32-33.
- Bennett, 660-661; Mason, 604.
- As Louise Pettibone-Smith and Ernest R. Lacheman. "The Authorship of the Book of Zephaniah." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 9(3) (July 1950): 142, argue, "the book is almost as definitely pseudepigraphic as Daniel and should, like Daniel, be read against the back-ground of 200 B.C.E. Luckily the survival of a name (I:1, Zephaniah) in connection with the old oracle (1:4 ff) gave it its place in the Book of the Twelve." Conversely, J. Philip Hyatt,in "The Date and Background of Zephaniah." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 7(1) (January 1948): 25-29, offers a more compelling rationale for choosing a marginally later date: "Many of the difficulties in the interpretation of this book can be removed if we date it in the reign of Jehoiakim (609-598) instead of in that of Josiah. Internal conditions which could have incited the prophecies of Zephaniah existed in Jehoiakim's time as well as before 621; and the international situation under Jehoiakim, especially toward the latter part of his reign, was more suitable to this prophecy than was the state of affairs under Josiah. This view makes it possible to retain as genuine the oracles concerning Moab and Ammon, the Ethiopians, and Assyria (2:8-15), and probably also the Philistine cities (2:4-7). It requires only that we consider the superscription in 1:1 as editorial, and inaccurate regarding the date of the prophet, as is true with the superscriptions of some other prophetic books or coilections" (25).
- Berlin, 34; Mason, 604.
- See, for example, Berlin's summary of Ben Zvi's research (35-37).
- Klaus Koch. The Prophets: The Assyrian Period. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 161.
- See, for example, Michael De Roche, "Zephaniah I 2-3: The 'Sweeping' of Creation." Vetus Testamentum 30: Fascicle 1 (January 1980):106 states: "The crux of Zephaniah's oracle, however, is that he reverses the order of these beings from that in the creation account. Thus, Zephaniah is not simply announcing judgement on mankind, nor is he only disqualifying Yahweh's promise of Gen. viii 21. Zephaniah is proclaiming man's loss of dominion over the earth, and more importantly, the reversal of creation. The allusion to the flood exists, but it is secondary to the allusion to creation."
- Berlin, 74-75.
- See, for example, Pettibone-Smith and Lacheman (1950).
- Faulhaber "Sophonias (Zephaniah)" Catholic Encyclopedia (1912).
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
The preceding article incorporates some content from Easton's Bible Dictionary (1897), a text that is now in the public domain.
- Bennett, Robert A. "Zephaniah." The New Interpreter's Bible (Vol. VII). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994-2004. ISBN 0687278201.
- Berlin, Adele. Zephaniah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible Volume 25A. Toronto: Doubleday, 1994. ISBN 0385266316.
- Davidson, A. B. (Reverend). The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905.
- De Roche, Michael. "Zephaniah I 2-3: The 'Sweeping' of Creation." Vetus Testamentum 30: Fascicle 1 (January 1980): 104-109.
- Faulhaber, M. "Sophonias (Zephaniah)." in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912.
- Hirsch, Emil G. & Price, Ira Maurice. "Zephaniah." JewishEncyclopedia.com. 2002.
- Hyatt, J. Philip. "The Date and Background of Zephaniah." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 7(1) (January 1948): 25-29.
- Koch, Klaus. The Prophets: The Assyrian Period. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982. ISBN 0800617568.
- LaSor, William Sanford, et al. Old Testament Survey: the Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996. ISBN 0802837883.
- Mason, Rex. "Zephaniah." The Oxford Bible Commentary, Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0198755007.
- Pettibone-Smith, Louise; Ernest R. Lacheman. "The Authorship of the Book of Zephaniah." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 9(3) (July 1950): 137-142.
- Sweeney, Marvin A. Zephaniah: A Commentary, Ed. Paul D. Hanson. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003. ISBN 0800660498.
- Williams, Donald L. "The Date of Zephaniah." Journal of Biblical Literature 82(1) (March 1963): 77-88.
All links retrieved November 20, 2023.
Translations of the book of Zephaniah:
- Jewish translations:
- Tzefaniah - Zephaniah (Judaica Press) translation with Rashi's commentary at Chabad.org
- Christian translations:
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