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|Books of Nevi'im|
|1. Book of Joshua|
|2. Book of Judges|
|3. Books of Samuel|
|4. Books of Kings|
|5. Book of Isaiah|
|6. Book of Jeremiah|
|7. Book of Ezekiel|
|8. Minor prophets|
The superscription of the Book of Zephaniah attributes its 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). All that is known of Zephaniah comes from the text. The superscription of the book is lengthier than most and contains two features. The name Cushi, Zephaniah’s father, means ‘Ethiopian’. In a society where genealogy was considered extremely important because of God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the author may have felt compelled to establish his Hebrew lineage. In fact, this lineage is traced back to Hezekiah, who was king of Judah. The author of Zephaniah does not shrink from condemning the Cushites or Ethiopians. Chapter 2:12 contains a succinct but unequivocal message: “You also, O Ethiopians, / Shall be killed by my sword.” Zephaniah’s familial connection with King Hezekiah may have also legitimized his harsh indictment of the royal city in 3:1-7.
As with many of the other prophets, there is no external evidence to directly associate composition of the book with a prophet by the name of Zephaniah. Some scholars believe that much of the material does not date from the days of King Josiah (ca. 640-609 BCE), but is actually post-monarchic. Three general possibilities are that a person, possibly named Zephaniah, prophesied the words of the book of Zephaniah; the general message of a Josianic prophet is conveyed through the book of Zephaniah; or the name could have been employed, either during the monarchic or post-monarchic period, as a ‘speaking voice’, possibly for rhetorical purposes. Although it is possible that a post-monarchic author assumed the persona of a monarchic prophet to add credibility to his message, there is no evidence to support such a claim.
The prophetic book of the Bible attributed to Zephaniah occurs ninth among the twelve minor prophets, preceded by Habakkuk and followed by Haggai. Zephaniah (or Tzfanya, Sophonias, צפניה, Ẓəfanya, Ṣəp̄anyāh) means 'the Lord conceals', 'the Lord protects' or, possibly, 'God of darkness'.
When it was written
If the superscription of the book of Zephaniah is a reliable indicator of the time that the bulk of the book was composed, then Zephaniah was a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah (or Jeremias). King Josiah ruled over Judah from approximately 640-609 BCE. Some scholars believe that the picture of Jerusalem which Zephaniah gives indicates that he was active prior to the religious reforms of King Josiah which are described in 2 Kings 23. These reforms took place in 622 BCE. Scholars also cite the reference to “the officials and the king’s sons . . .” in 1:8 as evidence that the kingdom was still ruled by a regent for Josiah. The portrait of foreign nations in chapter 2 also indicates the late seventh century.
Zephaniah was probably the first prophet following the prophecies of Isaiah and the violent reign of Manasseh. Both Zephaniah and Jeremiah urged King Josiah to enact religious reforms, which he eventually did.
Other scholars[who?] have presented evidence pointing to a post-monarchic date (as late as 200 BCE) based on language and theme, although the book might still have been based on an earlier composition.
Why it was written
There are two possible reasons for the creation of the book of Zephaniah. Either way, the primary purpose of the book’s composition was to alter the behaviour (particularly religious behaviour) of the author’s contemporary Jerusalemites.
If the book of Zephaniah was largely composed during the monarchic period, the author of the book of Zephaniah attempts to accomplish this change in behaviour through the threat of future calamity 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’ – when the Lord 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 God is understood to reside. The threats made against Jerusalem, however, are much more specific than the oracles concerning foreign nations. This strengthened the belief that the Israelites, who understood themselves to be God’s chosen people, were even more culpable than other peoples for not living up to God’s statutes because they were to be a ‘light unto the nations’. The book concludes by extending a promise of deliverance to the remnant of Israel which remains. The fulfilment 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.
If the book gained most of its present form in post-monarchic period, then the author likely intended to draw upon an understanding of the Babylonian captivity as a punishment from the Lord, urging his own contemporaries not to repeat the mistakes of the past. It is not known whether the religious syncretism, alluded to in chapter one, was a significant issue in post-exilic Judah.
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. Zephaniah includes one of the most vivid descriptions in the prophetic literature of God’s wrath. Yet, it is also unequivocal in its proclamation of a restoration for those who survive the ‘Great Day of the Lord'.
The book of Zephaniah incorporates a good deal of phrases and terminology which are found in 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.
The book of Zephaniah draws upon several themes from the book of Book of Genesis and reverses them. 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 that 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 to each of these works because the Deuteronomistic history covers an overlapping period of time and because the issues which are dealt with in the book of Zephaniah go straight to the heart of the covenant which is reaffirmed in the book of Deuteronomy before Israel enters into the Promised Land of Canaan. The first 3-4 of the Ten Commandments (or Ten Words, Decalogue) contained in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:1-22 directly concern Israel’s relationship with Yahweh. It is this integral component of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel which is threatened by the practices which to which the author of the book of Zephaniah refers in 1:4-6. In this manner, Zephaniah invokes one of the most common themes, not only in prophetic literature, but in the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Zephaniah also draws upon the emerging idea that Yahweh is quite different from the regional or tribal gods of the surrounding nations. Rather, Yahweh is beginning to be understood as the only God and the God who rules over all nations. It was an apparently unique belief in the ancient Middle East that a god could send a foreign nation to execute that god’s judgment (as the Israelites believed Yahweh did with Babylon). In the book of Zephaniah, all nations are portrayed as being subject to Yahweh’s divine judgment.
The book of Zephaniah also interacts with the prophetic tradition – both borrowing from and contributing to the corpus in terms of language and images.
- Berlin, Adele. Zephaniah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible Volume 25A. Toronto: Doubleday, 1994.
- Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897.
- Faulhaber, M. "Sophonias (Zephaniah)." Catholic Encyclopedia. Transcribed by Thomas M. Barrett. 2003.
- Hirsch, Emil G. & Ira Maurice Price. "Zephaniah." JewishEncyclopedia.com. 2002.
- LaSor, William Sanford et al. Old Testament Survey: the Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996.
- Sweeney, Marvin A. Zephaniah: A Commentary. Ed. Paul D. Hanson. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2003.
|Hebrew Bible||Followed by|
|Christian Old Testament|
Translations of the book of Zephaniah: