How do the people reject the Lord?: Zephaniah 1

Zephaniah, like the other prophets among the 12, asserts the Lord as the entire system of the universe.  He is, as I always tell our class, the bad and the good, the storm and the shelter from the storm (from Nahum 1).  The first chapter of this book presents Zephaniah as a brash insider, a relative of the royal family, yet two generations younger than the king.  He fiercely attacks the lukewarm faith of the rich, who believe that they have secured their own well-being.  Because of these people’s lack of complete trust in the Lord, the same god will bring war and violence to teach them that he alone can save and protect them.

A genealogy begins the chapter, laying out the prophet’s royal lineage (v. 1).  Zephaniah is the great-great grandson of the famous king, Hezekiah, and he prophesied during the reign of King Josiah, the grandson of Hezekiah.  So Zephaniah was prophesying to his grandfather’s cousin (technically, Zepheniah’s first cousin, twice removed).  The Bible does not mention Amariah, son of Hezekiah, elsewhere, so it could be that Zephaniah’s relative, Hezekiah, was different from the king’s grandfather with the same name; the name was relatively common.  Nevertheless, the image of a young prophet confronting his esteemed, elderly relative, as well as a blue-blood speaking against his own family, begins the book with a significant reversal of the reader’s expectations.

The Lord levels creation

To begin the prophet’s speech, the Lord “levels” all of creation, both in the sense of “flattening” creation through destruction and of “equalizing” everything.  First, he reverses the process of creation by wiping out humans and land creatures, then birds, and then fish (vv. 2-3; compare Genesis 1).  Then he emphasizes destroying all of humanity in v. 4, reminiscent of the same action in the flood in Genesis 6.

Second, every human–Israelite and Gentile–receives equal treatment, which would have scandalized an ancient reader.  Every inhabitant of Jerusalem and Judah will be destroyed.  The Baals will be destroyed, and the name of every priest–significantly, priests both of the Baals and of the Jerusalem temple–along with them (v. 4).  The Hebrew text says “every remnant of Baal.”  King Josiah was famous for eliminating the Baals and the high places of Canaanite worship from the land.  Since the king is already old, his reforms already took place–and did not succeed entirely.[1]  The prophet thus indicts Josiah for not completing his reform.  Zephaniah scandalously condemns both the reform of this “good” king and the “legitimate” priests of Jerusalem.

Third, the Lord condemns every shade of disloyalty towards him (vv. 5-6).  Those who soundly reject the Lord and bow down to the heavenly host and those who hedge by swearing both to the Lord and to Malcam (probably an Ammonite deity); those who have turned away from the Lord altogether; and those probably should turn to him, but don’t bother; all of these are under judgment.

The Lord would like to have you for dinner . . .

In light of the impending destruction and the condemnation the people have brought upon themselves, the Lord is preparing a feast–but are the people the guests or the main course (vv. 7-11)?  In the ancient world, the feast was not simply about killing an animal, but also about cooking and sharing the animal with the family and community.  So preparing a feast at first sounds like good news: an invitation to a feast.  The Lord sanctifies them so that they can partake in this holy meal.

Or does he sanctify them to serve them as the main course?  While he prepares the feast, he is punishing the king’s officials and sons for dressing like foreigners, ritually recognizing foreign deities by “stepping over the threshold,” and sowing violence and rebellion in the court.  Here it sounds like the slaughter will take place among the people, not on behalf of them.  The Lord’s wrath will first come as an economic crisis, eliciting howls and groans from the people, from which their money cannot preserve them.  The Lord will not serve but consume the rich and wicked.

Rejection of those who are comfortable

Once the Lord removes the obviously bad people from the land, he will search out the lukewarm for destruction (vv. 12-18).  He will search through every corner of Jerusalem for the people for whom the Lord is irrelevant, who don’t believe the Lord will act (v. 12).  These people are the comfortable ones, and the Lord will destroy their homes and vineyards through war and violence (vv. 13-17).  The prophet emphasizes that wealth will not help them when the whole land is “consumed” (v. 18).  The wealthy are comfortable with their wealth, unconcerned with what the Lord does; they believe have secured themselves.  As violence comes upon them, they realize the false nature of what they believe to be a safe existence, free from the possibility of being derailed by the Lord.

Equality under the Lord

The Lord plans to equalize the classes.  The rich will learn that their wealth cannot preserve them when confronted by the Lord.  Moreover, they will learn that the Lord, while he is the source of the battle and violence to come, is the only shelter from destruction.  The Lord is the entire system: he is the storm and the shelter from the storm.  They would like to think that the storm comes by itself, and wealth–with its foreign alliances, houses, and comfort–is the shelter from the storm.  The Lord plays no part, in their minds.  As a result, the Lord has to teach them that he brings the violence and he can protect them from it.  The prophet challenges his own royal family with the hope that complete dependence on the Lord for all things may result from this violent action–if they learn their lesson.

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[1] Cutting off the priests of Jerusalem along with those of the Baals proved too scandalous even to the translators of the Greek Septuagint, who translate this verse as, “…and I will cut off from this place the names of the Baals and the names of the priests,” which would have been interpreted as the priests of Baal, without reference to the Jerusalem priests.

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