Friday, October 10, 2014

Zephaniah: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The book of Zephaniah indicates at the beginning that it was spoken/written during the reign of king Josiah of the southern kingdom of Judah.  If you recall, Josiah is portrayed in the books of Kings and Chronicles as a good king who instituted religious and political reforms that reestablished obedience to the laws of Moses, temple worship, and a purging of other gods.  Josiah is presented in these “historical” books as a shining example of a king who “walked in the ways of the Lord.”  However, in reading the book of Zephaniah, one does not get this impression.  No mention is made of Josiah’s reforms.  Instead, the prophet denounces Judah and its rulers for idolatry, oppression, and general wickedness:

“I will stretch out my hand against Judah,
and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal
and the name of the idolatrous priests…
And on the day of the Lord’s sacrifice
I will punish the officials and the king’s sons
and all who dress themselves in foreign attire…
At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps
and I will punish the people…”

"The Prophet Zephaniah" by John Singer Sargent (19th century)

The prophet uses the language of Genesis, of the flood story, to describe how he will utterly destroy not just his faithless people, but everyone on earth.  This is in direct contradiction to the covenant promise God made with Noah, that the Lord would never again do this:

“I will utterly 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
I will make the wicked stumble.
I will cut off humanity
from the face of the earth, says the Lord.”

Perhaps these prophecies were spoken before Josiah’s reforms.  Perhaps his message is that Judah can still be saved, and this is the sentiment with which the book ends:

“On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.”

But this restoration, according to the prophet, must be preceded by an inevitable disaster and judgment.  In this way, Zephaniah’s message is similar to most of the prophets, with its familiar pattern of sin—punishment—restoration.  The book of Zephaniah, like many prophetic books, contains some rather disturbing/vengeful depictiions of God’s wrath against foreign nations:

The word of the Lord is against you,
O Canaan, land of the Philistines;
and I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left…

Moab shall become like Sodom
and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,
a land possessed by nettles and salt pits,
and a waste forever.

You also, O Ethopians,
shall be killed by my sword.

And he will stretch out his band against the north,
and destroy Assyria;
and he will make Nineveh a desolation,
a dry waste like the desert.”

As with prior prophets, God’s wrath is seen as an act of nationalism.  The nations will be destroyed so Israel can inherit the land.  Modern readers like me will probably be disturbed by God’s dealings with foreigners.  The common religious person's response I’ve heard to these passages is “Well, those people were wicked.  They deserved judgment.”  But I don’t think anyone today could get behind the destruction of a whole nation, regardless of their religious or political beliefs.  Today, we call this genocide.  Perhaps these oracles of judgment reflect more of the prophet’s own xenophobic view of foreigners, rather than God’s.  If, however, Zephaniah’s depictions of God do indeed reflect God as he is, this is a scary, nationalistic, violent God—very difficult to worship, especially if you are not Israeli.

"Wrath of God" by Raymond Thompson (1998)

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