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 are reading the second chapter of Zephaniah, a prophet who, like Jeremiah, ministered during the reign of the righteous King Josiah. Slightly before this time, Nahum prophesied Assyria’s ruin and Habakkuk envisioned the rise of the Babylonians. It was also during Josiah’s reign that the Book of the Law was rediscovered during renovations at the Temple. Hulda, a prophetess in Jerusalem, authenticated the scriptures. She warned King Josiah that God was soon going to discipline all those who have forsaken the covenant (2 Kings 22:3-13; 2 Chron. 34:14-21). This makes for at least five biblical prophets in the seventh century BCE all sounding the same siren. They are prophets living on the precipice of disaster and there is an urgency to their unified call.
As I mentioned in the last podcast, the context clues in Zephaniah link his oracles to the early part of Josiah’s reign, before the king tried to purge the nation of paganism. Jeremiah came a bit after. His book says he first received the word of the Lord in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign (Jer. 1:2), slightly in the middle of Josiah’s campaign of reforms.
Still, Zephaniah’s descriptions of Judah’s failures in chapter 1 correspond exactly with Jeremiah’s complaints. The people of Judah were committing the same sins of idolatry, injustice, and immorality that led to Israel’s judgement a hundred years earlier. With all the prophets delivering the same warning message, it is shocking that most of Judah still believed Jerusalem, God’s chosen city, was impenetrable to attack. Not until the Babylonians had the city surrounded did they understand the seriousness of the situation.
Time to Repent
Zephaniah follows the common prophetic formula of first announcing judgement and then calling for repentance. Zephaniah exhorts the people: “Gather together, gather, O Shameless nation, before you are driven away, like the drifting chaff, before there comes upon you the fierce anger of the Lord” (2:1). The call is for Judah to gather and repent as a nation. They must urgently seek God’s forgiveness. They are called a shameless “nation” with the Hebrew word, goy. The term in this instance is intended as derogatory since goy refers to foreign nations outside of the covenant.
In this passage, the book switches from the divine voice that dominated chapter 1 to the prophetic voice. The divine voice called out the people for turning their back on the Lord, and now the prophet, in his own voice, is urging them to “seek the Lord” (2:3). The prophet is trying to motivate the people to pursue righteousness and humility (2:3). However, Zephaniah is not guaranteeing that obedience and repentance will save them from the day of judgement. That is not within his domain as messenger. All he can suggest is that “perhaps” it is not too late to influence the outcome.
In the first chapter, when Zephaniah’s book speaks in the divine voice, destruction seems certain. Only in the prophetic voice does the oracle propose an alternative to being swept away from the earth. Besides the tentative nature of his offer, the proposal is a good motivator to prompt a change of behavior. Survival is the carrot and annihilation is the stick.
As the story of Jonah illustrated, nations under threat of judgement may still have time to change Yahweh’s mind. Zephaniah’s compulsion to offer a glimmer of hope suits his name which in Hebrew means “Yahweh has protected.”
Zephaniah addresses all the “humble of the land” (2:3). He seems to be excluding those elite that he targeted in the first chapter who dressed in “foreign clothing” (1:8) and placed more faith in their silver and gold (1:18) than the God of their forefathers. Part of reconciling themselves to God is to stop their habits of conforming to the world and instead follow the ways of the righteous.
Oracles Against the Nations
Zephaniah adds color to the universal declarations of judgement in chapter 1 by delivering specific oracles against five nations. Zephaniah’s oracles against the nations are much less comprehensive than Amos (1:3-2:16), but the purpose is the same. By warning Judah’s enemies about the coming punishment first, the listeners find themselves in agreement with the prophet about the necessity of judgement. The holy Yahweh cannot allow the current situation to continue. Except for the case of Jonah going to Nineveh, the prophets do not deliver their oracles to the nations. They stay and preach to Judah, luring her into agreement. When the last proclamation of judgement is given to God’s own people, the oracle lands hard. They are acting like the nations.
Zephaniah’s selection of nations seems arbitrary. He is demonstrating the totality of the coming judgement by selecting nations from all four of the cardinal directions. In relation to Judah, Philistia is to the west, Moab and Ammon are to the east, Cush is to the south, and Assyria is to the north.
Zephaniah predicts coming desolation for four of the five Philistine cities: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron (2:4). Gath is omitted, perhaps because it was already destroyed at this point. In the early days of the united monarchy, the Philistines were the most irritating of Israel’s enemies. King David was able to beat back the Philistines, but he never quite eradicated their threat.
We do not know what specific military campaign Zephaniah is envisioning. Most likely Zephaniah is forecasting the Babylonian invasion of Philistia under King Nebuchadnezzar II between 604-598 BCE. Zephaniah is the one prophet who does not give a name to the human agent responsible for delivering God’s punishment. Jeremiah and Habakkuk are explicit in their descriptions of the conquering Babylonian army. In Zephaniah, all credit is given to Yahweh as the sole driver of historic events. Yahweh addresses Philistia: “I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left” (2:5). Indeed, so thorough was the Babylonian campaign in Philistia that never again did they appear in written records. No remnant of Philistia every returned. Adding insult to injury, Yahweh refers to the “land of the Philistines” (2:5) as Canaan, the historical name of the area before the Philistines ever occupied the coast.
Ammon and Moab
The next oracle addresses two nations in Transjordan: Ammon and Moab. Amos included Ammon and Moab in his Oracle Against the Nations (1:3, 2:3). Isaiah and Jeremiah also had the nations on their watch list (Isa. 15-16; Jer. 48). But only Zephaniah links the fates of Ammon and Moab together.
The Israelites had a long fraught history with the Ammonites and Moabites. Because they were a cousin nation, descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, they had a protected status during Joshua’s conquest. God instructed the Israelites to leave Moab alone (Deut. 2:9) for he had allotted them their land. King Balak of Moab did not feel the same allegiance of kinship. When the Israelites passed through his territory on their way to Canaan, he hired the seer Balak to curse the Israelites (Num. 22-23).
Kinship was not enough to maintain peace between the Israelites and Ammonites either. When King David sent envoys to convey his condolences for the death of the Ammonite king, the action was mistaken as a threat and bloody conflict broke out between the nations (2 Sam. 10).
Zephaniah’s oracle accuses Ammon and Moab of taunting Judah and building up pride in their own strength. Zephaniah does not explain the reason for the self-reliance and insults but it may be that since they too managed to survive Assyria’s military campaigns, they poked at Judah’s insecurity about the destruction and exile of Israel.
The origin story of both the Ammonites and Moabites is that they descended from the incestuous relationship between Lot and his two daughters after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:36-38). Zephaniah’s declaration that the fate of each nation shall be like Sodom and Gomorrah (2:9) is meant as an ironic callback, complete with a reference to “salt pits.”
Once again, the oracle includes a restoration promise to Judah. She will inherit the empty lands of Moab and Ammon, taking full possession of the territory promised to Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 13:14-15). There is a sense in these passages that what wasn’t accomplished by Joshua will be taken care of by the sweeping judgements of Yahweh.
Zephaniah’s inclusion of Cush seems odd considering they are the most distant and less known of the nations listed. If the other prophets provide any template for oracles against the nations, one would expect Edom, a more immediate neighbor, or Egypt, a historical menace to Israel. Perhaps Zephaniah’s inclusion of the far-off nation of Cush is meant to show the reach of Yahweh’s hand on the Day of the Lord.
Cush is Ethiopia in modern times, or Nubia in antiquity. Around the early seventh century, Nubia’s king took power in southern Egypt. But in 663 BCE, Assyria attacked and overtook Thebes, the most prosperous city in Egypt. This devastating loss effectively ended Kushite rule in Egypt.
Though the fate of Cush was clearly to end in military defeat, the military goes unnamed, instead giving the credit to Yahweh alone: “You also, O Cushites, shall be killed by my sword” (2:12). Commentaries often project the fall of Thebes into Zephaniah’s oracle. The prophet does not give a rationale for Cush’s punishment. She is not accused of pride like Assyria or insulting Judah like Ammon and Moab. Nor is Judah promised to occupy the lands of Cush. But later, in chapter 3, Cush will be referenced again as one of the far away places from which the exiles will return (3:10).
Finally, Zephaniah has his sights on Assyria. No good seventh-century prophet would leave out the oppressive vile empire to the North. At the time of Zephaniah’s composition, the once powerful Assyria was weakened and on her last leg.
Zephaniah predicts the fall of Nineveh (2:13) just as the prophet Nahum had already done. This is the only historical event referenced in Zephaniah. The once magnificent city will become a “dry waste like the desert” (2:13). Nineveh was famous for its elaborate water systems, and its position on the bank of the Tigris River made water seem like an endless resource. But, so thorough will be its destruction that the water-rich city will be an arid desert. The creatures of the earth will find opportunity to rest in the city’s quiet empty ruins. With Philistia, Ammon, and Moab, it is the remnant of Judah who later takes possession of the land. But Assyria is not part of the covenanted land, so in her case, the animals are the beneficiaries.
Three times in Zephaniah’s oracles against the nations, the prophet unexpectedly inserts a message of hope (2:7,9,11). His prophecies do not promise that reforms will cancel the impending disintegration of Judah, but he does promise the salvation of a remnant. The oracle against Philistia includes this message of hope for Judah:
“The seacoast shall become the possession of the remnant of the house of Judah, on which they shall pasture, and in the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening. For the Lord their God will be mindful of them and restore their fortunes.” (2:7)
Some scholars read nationalist ideas into this passage. Believing Josiah was an expansionist king, the message of hope for Judah is misconstrued as a threat directed at Philistia, Moab, and Ammon. Was Zephaniah providing his king a prophecy about expanding borders to the coast and into Transjordan? I don’t think so. That would change the message of the prophetic text entirely. It would also put Zephaniah in the camp of lying prophets that Jeremiah accused of offering false promises of peace or “deceit of their own minds” (Jer. 14:13).
When Yahweh promises that one day Judah will occupy Philistia’s abandoned fields and homes, He is reaffirming his commitment to the covenant promises. Also, there is no data that supports a campaign of expansion for Josiah, neither archaeologically or historically, and it is not in the biblical text either. Instead, the abrupt message of hope retains the remnant motif that we see all throughout the prophets.
The remnant will not have it easy, as we read in the testimony of Lamentations. Their lives will be brought to near ruin. Urban life will be destroyed (2:7; 3:13). After the return from exile, they will slowly rebuild and squeak out a living in the wreckage of their old kingdom. It is not as though all the righteous in the land will survive and all the wicked will be punished. Justice on earth can never be so clear cut. But with the words of the prophets fresh in their ears, the hope in the remnant, and for those in exile, is that the adversity will produce righteousness, and their brokenness will foster humility. And this will be the gathering of all the humble in the land that Zephaniah described.
For the next two weeks I won’t be releasing a Bible Fiber because I am going to Israel! I will be there until the end of May and then in June we will start back up with the last chapter of Zephaniah. So, take a quick pause in the Bible Reading Challenge and then we will get back to it this summer.
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