Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we begin the book of Zephaniah, the prophet most extreme in his language but simplest in subject matter. Zephaniah envisions the Day of Yahweh as both near at hand and terrifying in action. Most prophets incorporate a Day of Yahweh motif, but Zephaniah is the only book wholly devoted to the day. By day, the prophets do not mean a 24-hour cycle, but an event, or series of events.
Zephaniah’s introduction includes an extended genealogy: “the word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah” (1:1). No other prophet traces his genealogy back four generations. In some cases, they follow the custom of adding the name of their father to their own name, but Zephaniah goes much further back. Why is Zephaniah breaking the normal convention? One theory is that he is highlighting the credentials of his royal lineage. He stopped on Hezekiah. Is his great-great-grandfather King Hezekiah (716-686 BCE), known for being “good and right and faithful before the Lord his God” (2 Chron. 31:20).
Hezekiah was a common name in the seventh century BCE, and the genealogy does not give Hezekiah the title “king.” However, Zephaniah was speaking to an audience who was perhaps already familiar with his family tree and so he felt no need to give his great-great-grandfather a title.
The other theory that tries to explain the prophet’s motivation for giving a long genealogy focuses on Zephaniah’s father’s name, “Cushi.” Cushi may have been a reference to his father’s Cushite nationality. Cush is the area of modern Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. In the eighth century BCE, the Kingdom of Kush gained power and even took rule of Egypt. If Zephaniah had a Cushite father, he may have felt the need to defend his Judahite heritage.
King Josiah’s Reforms
Zephaniah also writes in his introduction that he ministered during the reign of Josiah (1:1). Josiah ruled for thirty-one years (640-609 BCE) so Zephaniah’s prophecies could have taken shape at any point in those three decades.
Scholars studying Zephaniah try to further pin down Zephaniah’s dating, mostly to understand whether Zephaniah was prophesying before or after Josiah’s reforms. I will not get into it here but knowing the extent of Josiah’s reforms is an important piece to the biblical puzzle in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles.
Josiah inherited the throne at eight-years-old, after the disastrous reign of the wicked King Manasseh. 2 Chronicles reports that when Josiah was still a boy, he “began to seek the God of his ancestor David” (34:2). In Josiah’s eighth year of reign, so at sixteen-years-old, he purged the nation of idols, high places, and sacred poles (2 Chron. 34:3). In his eighteenth year of reign, he restored and purified the neglected Jerusalem Temple (2 Chron. 34:8; 2 Kings 22:3).
Little in the text allows us to determine if Zephaniah ministered before, during, or after Josiah’s reforms. However, one clue that points to a pre-reform date is that Zephaniah has plenty of harsh words for Judah’s leaders. If he ministered after the reforms, the assumption would be that at least the civil and religious leaders had stopped worshipping other gods publicly. Although we can never know for sure, it is possible that Zephaniah helped prompt Josiah’s reforms. If he also was of royal lineage and lived in the palace, he may have had an early influence on the boy king’s life.
But, moving on to the oracle.
Zephaniah 1:2-18 is the announcement of the coming Day of the Lord. The chapter starts with a proclamation of universal judgement. The whole earth bears responsibility for the impending punishment, and not just humanity. Even the animals, birds, and fish are under judgement (1:3). There is a totality to Yahweh’s disappointment in his creation. Zephaniah’s poetic style utilizes repetition to reinforce fright. Three times, Yahweh warns that He will “sweep away” creation. Sweeping humankind and the animals off the face of the earth suggests the Day of Yahweh will match the severity of Noah’s flood.
The word “day” or yom is repeated six times in this passage. Some scholars believe Zephaniah’s six days are a nod to the six days of creation in Genesis 1. The Day of Yahweh, as described by Zephaniah, is an exact reversal of the order of creation. Thus, the one-for-one repetition of the word day. Following in the footsteps of Adam and Eve, the rebellion of humanity has brought down all of creation with it.
Zephaniah further closes the circle of scrutiny around Judah, and then he tightens his focus further around Jerusalem. Yahweh warns, “I will stretch out my hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (1:4). All the nations may be guilty of wickedness but God holds the people of the covenant to a higher standard. He gave them His laws and revealed His truths. Unlike the other nations who at the time may only have sensed the one creator through their conscious, Judah has the privilege of being in a self-revealing relationship with the creator of the universe.
Yahweh’s warning continues, “I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests” (1:4). If Zephaniah was ministering in the first half of Josiah’s reign, before the king’s reforms in 622 BCE, Baal worship was likely flourishing. The kings before Josiah, Manasseh and Amon, left a legacy of tolerance for paganism in the land. If, on the other hand, Zephaniah was ministering after Josiah’s reforms, we see from this verse that Josiah’s great purging of idols and altars did not eradicate the problem. Josiah’s reforms may have gotten rid of pagan worship in public life, but not private. The reforms effectively drove Baal worship and pagan practices underground or pushed them out to the peripheries.
During Manasseh’s reign, the people had not forgotten Yahweh or completely abandoned their own rituals and worship of their national God. Instead, they blended Yahweh worship with the worship of local Canaanite gods and the Assyrian national gods. This blending of Yahweh worship with pagan ritual is called syncretism. To be sure, Yahweh despises it.
Archaeologists working with Iron Age II material remains have found plenty of evidence—statuary, altars, and high places—to confirm that Judeans were not worshipping Yahweh exclusively. They worshipped Yahweh as their national god, but also worshiped the local deities like the Canaanite goddess Asherah and the Assyrian god Assur.
Most of the pagan worship in Judah and Israel came strictly from a lack of faith. All ancients were reliant on the provision of rain and harvest. They tried hard to cover their bases by praying to multiple gods, not knowing who had more authority. Baal was the local god associated with fertility. The people worshiped Baal in case there was any legitimacy to his connection to the productivity of their land and the fertility of their women and animals. The bonus was that Baal, like all the local deities, required no moral responsibility on the people, no law code. They relegated Yahweh to the position of divine warrior protector since he had miraculously protected Judah from Assyrian attack.
Zephaniah mocks all forms of syncretism. He accuses people of burning incense on the roofs to worship the “host of the heavens” (1:5). We know from 2 Kings that during Manasseh’s reign, the astral cult was not only tolerated, but encouraged. Josiah had to remove altars from the Temple roof (23:12)! Jeremiah, Zephaniah’s contemporary, also condemns the leaders for burning incense to “all the starry hosts” (Jer. 19:3). Zephaniah particularly calls out those “who bow down on the roofs to the host of heavens” (1:5). The action of “bowing down” demonstrates just how far they have strayed in that they are showing reverence and dedication toward these false gods. We know from Hosea the measure of God’s grief when His people abandon him with their whole hearts and go after other gods.
In the ultimate act of syncretism, there are those in Judah who swear by both the Lord and Molech (1:5). God outlawed all pagan worship, but the Molech cult was particularly abhorrent. In Leviticus, Israelites were forbidden from worshiping Molech (Lev. 18:21. Manasseh tolerated Molech worship in the Valley of Bin Hinnom, just right outside Jerusalem’s walls. There they sacrificed their sons and daughters in fire. Yahweh describes the practice as something so terrible it never even entered His mind (Jer. 7:31).
Some of the pagan practices denounced in Zephaniah are quite obscure. For example, Yahweh says that on the Day of Judgement he will punish all those “who avoid stepping on the threshold” (1:9). Here, He is punishing those who are merely superstitious. They are not bowing down to worship or offering up incense. They are stepping over a crack. In the Ancient Near East, people believed spirits dwelled on the threshold of a temple. The best example of this in the Bible is when the Philistines avoided stepping on the threshold of Dagon’s temple (1 Sam. 5:4-5). But superstition has no place in the people of God. He is their provider, protector, and creator. So, adopting alien traditions, like stepping over a threshold, is more evidence of how far they have gone in adapting customs and laws that were never given to them while they ignored the ones that were.
Another indication that Zephaniah may be a descendant of King Hezekiah and part of the royal household is that his prophetic critiques do not target the common people of Judah. Instead, he condemns the rich, royal, and powerful for their lack of faith (1:8-9). While Zephaniah calls out the royal household as part of the guilty, he makes no mention of the king. Josiah was either too young or too righteous to be among the accused.
Zephaniah accuses the “officials and the king’s sons” of wearing “foreign clothes.” Because this condemnation is unique to the book of Zephaniah, we don’t know if he is referring to the wearing of pagan priestly vestments like what is described in 2 Kings 10:22. Or more likely, “foreign clothes” represents one of the many ways they are trying to imitate the customs of the empires. By copying their neighbors, they are rejecting the customs of their “old ways.” Judaism, in ancient and modern times, is a faith that is outwardly recognizable in its measure of observance. To be Torah observant is to set yourself apart in what you eat, wear, and the calendar you keep.
God will root out the merchants who get rich off the poor and focus more on the gathering of luxury goods than obedience to God. Yahweh warns, “all the traders have perished; all who weigh out silver are cut off” (1:11). They have put their trust in their riches, but “neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them” (1:18).
Zephaniah calls for a reverent silence in Yahweh’s presence: “Be silent before the Lord God, for the day of the Lord is at hand!” (1:7). Habakkuk made a similar call for silence (2:20). The silence is the calm before the storm. Zephaniah goes on to graphically describe the terrifying day of Yahweh throughout his book through sights and sounds. When the Day of Wrath comes, the skies go dark and all will hear the scream of Yahweh and the blast of the shofar (1:11-18). Zephaniah says, “the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there” (1:14).
Zephaniah portrays the Lord preparing a sacrifice, and he has invited all the consecrated to the banquet. Normally, the Judean worshipers would present their sacrifice to Yahweh. Instead, on the Day of the Lord, Yahweh is sacrificing them. The ones he went searching for in Jerusalem carrying a lamp (1:12), the ones who “settle like dregs in wine” (1:12). What a chilling reminder that the “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
After reading Zephaniah 1, you can walk away feeling grateful that you are not in the same camp as the Baal worshipers, Molech worshipers, sun worshipers, or even the superstitious. But the prophet adds a caveat in here that landed on me with a thump of conviction.
Also, among the accused, are the complacent: “those who say in their hearts, ‘the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm’” (1:12). Complacency among God’s people led to the other nations disregard of Yahweh. Rather than being a kingdom of priests and a light to the nations to represent Yahweh, they looked like the nations, both in dress and worship. Or they outwardly followed Yahweh but inwardly were lukewarm with no real understanding of what it meant to seek after God. I am certainly guilty of assimilating with the easy parts of my culture, pushing God to the margins of my daily life, and focusing too much of my thought life on trivial things rather than kingdom things. This is why I feel drawn to a daily reading of the prophets. Reading the prophets is like holding up a mirror to recognize the defects in my own spiritual life that would be easy to ignore if it weren’t for these prophetic megaphones that continue to reach through time.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. Read Zephaniah 2 for our study next week and we will talk about the way prophets write switching from prophetic to divine voice whenever they please!
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