The book of Zephaniah presents the oracles of the prophet, Zephaniah the son of Cushi the son of Gedaliah the son of Amariah the son of Hezekiah. Traditional Jewish and Christian exegesis views this Zephaniah as the author of the book. Unfortunately, this individual is not mentioned elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible and so little is known about him. The name Zephaniah (Hebrew, ṣěpanyâ) is derived from the Hebrew root, ṣpn, “to conceal, hide, treasure,” and a shortened form of the divine name,“the LORD.” The root ṣpn may be employed in reference to the LORD's treasured saints (Ps 83:4), the concealment of the LORD's servants from evil (Pss 27:5; 31:20 [Heb.[31:21]]), a designation for the LORD's treasured city of Jerusalem (Ezek 7:22). The Hebrew name, ṣěpanyâ, therefore appears to mean, “the LORD has treasured/concealed”; the same name is used of three other individuals in the Bible and the root also occurs in the name Elizaphan (variant “Elzaphan” and in nonbiblical names. The Greek form of the name, sophonias, is a transliteration of the Hebrew).

The lengthy genealogy for the prophet is unusual, although not impossible (note the reference to Jehudi the son of Nethaniah the son of Shelemiah the son of Cushi in Jer 36:14; see further below). Many interpreters speculate that the reason for such a genealogy is the prophet's descent from King Hezekiah the son of Ahaz of Judah (ruled ca. 715–687 B.C.E.). Unfortunately, such identification cannot be confirmed as no son of Hezekiah by the name of Amariah is known to exist. The Peshitta reads the name Hezekiah (Syriac, ḥzqyh) as Hilkiah (Syriac, ḥlqyh), although the reading may be attributed in part to similarities in the Syriac letters zayn and lamadh.

The name of Zephaniah's father, Cushi, has also sparked controversy. The term “Cushi” (Hebrew, kûšî) is sometimes employed as a name for an Ethiopian or a person of (black) African descent, although in such cases it usually appears with the definite article—namely, hakkûšî, “the Cushite/Ethiopian” (e.g., 2 Sam 18:21, 22, 23, 31, 32; Jer 38:7, 12; 39:16; 2 Chr 14:9 [Heb. [14:8]]). Even so, the term kûšî may also be employed as a proper name—for example, Jehudi the son of Nethaniah the son of Shelmiah the son of Cushi (Jer 36:14), whose name presents another lengthy genealogical chain like that of Zephaniah, and Cushi the Benjaminite concerning whom David sang in Psalm 7. Further complicating the issue is that the second reference to the Cushite in 2 Samuel 18:21 appears without the definite article; this suggests that the ethnic designation, too, may have been occasionally employed or understood as a proper name.

Location in Canon.

The book of Zephaniah appears as the ninth book in the Book of the Twelve Prophets (the “Minor Prophets”) according to both the Masoretic Text and the standard order of the modern critical editions of the Book of the Twelve Prophets in the Septuagint. The superscription for the book (Zeph 1:1) dates the career of the prophet to the reign of King Josiah ben Amon of Judah (r. 640–609 B.C.E.). The placement of Zephaniah following the book of Habakkuk, which focuses on the Babylonian subjugation of Judah in 605 B.C.E., and prior to the book of Haggai, which calls for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple in the early Persian period, has prompted interpreters to read the scenarios of punishment outlined in Zephaniah as references to the Babylonian exile.

Textual Evidence.

Modern critical editions of the book of Zephaniah are based on the Leningrad (or St. Petersburg) Codex, which is dated to circa 1009 C.E. and constitutes the oldest complete manuscript of the entire Hebrew Bible. Earlier Masoretic manuscripts of Zephaniah appear in the Cairo Codex of the Prophets, copied and pointed by Moshe ben Asher in 896 C.E., and the Aleppo Codex produced by Aaron ben Asher in 915 C.E., which was considered authoritative by Maimonides but was partially destroyed in Syrian pogroms against the Jewish community at the time of the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Modern critical editions of Zephaniah in Greek are based on Codex Vaticanus (Vatican Greek Manuscript 1209), which dates to the mid-fourth century C.E., although many other, typically later, manuscripts are also employed in the reconstruction of the text.

Zephaniah appears among the manuscripts of the Judean desert as well. The scroll of the Twelve Prophets from Wadi Murabbaʿat (Mur 88), written in the early second century C.E. prior to the Bar Kochba revolt (132–135 C.E.), constitutes the most extensive witness to the pre-Masoretic version of the Book of the Twelve Prophets. The manuscript displays only minor variations from the Masoretic Text and preserves chs. 1:1; 1:11—3:6; 3:8–20. The Naḥal Ḥever Greek scroll of the Twelve Prophets (8HevXIIgr) is the oldest known witness to the Greek text of the Book of the Twelve Prophets. The manuscript preserves chs. 1:1–6; 1:13–18; 2:9–10; and 3:6–7. It is written in two hands, the first of which dates to the late first century C.E. and the second to the late first or early second century C.E. The Greek text represents a somewhat rough translation of a proto-Masoretic text. Some argue that the manuscript constitutes a proto-Theodotion or kaige-Theodotion recension of the text that was designed to revise an earlier Septuagint text so that it would correspond more closely to the proto-Masoretic version, although no such earlier Greek text is known to have survived.

Historical Context.

Modern critical study of the book of Zephaniah generally affirms that the prophet Zephaniah is to be placed within the historical context of the reign of King Josiah of Judah and his program of religious reform and national restoration in the late seventh century B.C.E. Josiah sought to restore the original twelve-tribe Davidic-Solomonic kingdom by reuniting Judah with the former northern kingdom of Israel (devastated by the Assyrians in 722/721 B.C.E.) under the rule of the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem. A purified and refurbished Jerusalem Temple would serve as the religious center of the newly reunited kingdom, and religious practice would be based on the teachings of a book of divine instruction (Heb. “torah;” NRSV “law”), generally identified with an early form of Deuteronomy, which had been discovered during the course of Temple renovation (see 2 Kgs 22–23). Insofar as Deuteronomy calls for the worship of one God, the LORD, at the one sanctuary which the LORD chooses, presumably Jerusalem, as well as the observance of the LORD's expectations, Josiah's reforms functioned as a reconstitution of the covenant that had originally bound the twelve tribes together under the LORD. In such a scenario, Zephaniah functioned as a prophet who called upon the people to abandon foreign religious observance and to rededicate themselves to the worship of the LORD at the Jerusalem Temple.

This view of Zephaniah has been complicated by modern scholarship, which has argued that the present form of the book has been extensively edited in the postexilic period so as to portray a three-part eschatological scenario of judgment against Jerusalem and Israel at large (Zeph 1:2—2:3); universal judgment against the nations (2:4–15); and universal salvation for both Jerusalem/Israel and the nations (3:1–20). Factors contributing to this view include: (1) the placement of Zephaniah between Habakkuk and Haggai (see above), which led to the view that the book anticipates the Babylonian exile; (2) the allegedly typical nature of the tripartite eschatological scenario for the organization of prophetic books; (3) the portrayal of universal punishment against all the earth in 1:2–3, which draws upon language and concepts from the Priestly layer of the Pentateuch; (4) the interpretation of the Day of the LORD in 1:2—2:3 as a day of universal, eschatological judgment; (5) the portrayal of judgment against all of the nations in 2:4–15; and (6) the portrayal of restoration in 3:1–20, including the acknowledgment of the LORD by the nations and the metaphorical portrayal of the Daughter Zion figure, in terms analogous to those of Second Isaiah (see especially Isa 49–54).

But this understanding of Zephaniah breaks down on closer examination. First, there is no tripartite eschatological structure that is typical of the prophetic books. Such a model is apparently derived from the portrayal of divine judgment and salvation in the world as articulated in Christian theology and subsequently imposed on the interpretation of the prophetic books—including Zephaniah—which do not fall neatly into such subsections. Second, the universal perspectives of the book are not limited to the postexilic period but are typical of Judah throughout the monarchic period, particularly since the Jerusalem Temple (like most temples in the ancient world) was thought to function as the holy center of creation. Third, the Day of the LORD is based in Temple liturgy and sacrifice that calls for judgment against all who would oppose the LORD, but it does not necessarily portray eschatological judgment. Instead, it functions as a rhetorical device that combines threat and exhortation to persuade people to devote themselves to the worship of the LORD rather than to be numbered among those who would suffer punishment. Fourth, the nations mentioned in 2:4–15 hardly constitute a portrayal of all the nations of the earth, but focus instead on those that are of particular importance to Judah in the late seventh century—namely, Philistia, Moab, Edom, Cush (Ethiopia), and Assyria. Fifth and finally, the recognition of the LORD by the nations was always a concern in Judah from the days of Davidic-Solomonic rule over Israel's neighbors, and the portrayal of Daughter Zion's restoration drew upon the traditional portrayal of Israel or Jerusalem as the bride of the LORD who would suffer the LORD's punishment in times of threat against the nation (see, e.g., Hos 1–3; Jer 2; Ezek 16) and enjoy the LORD's mercy when the threats had passed (see Isa 49—54).

Contents and Structure.

Apart from the superscription in chapter 1:1, which was obviously written by someone other than the prophet, and the brief portrayal of restoration in 3:20, which clarifies the enigmatic language and imagery of 3:19, the book appears to be a unified composition that calls upon the people to seek the LORD and thereby to avoid the punishment threatened against them should they fail to do so. Such an agenda is easily identified with the prophet Zephaniah who would have delivered such an instructional address to the people of Jerusalem in an effort to convince them to support King Josiah's program of religious reform and national restoration.

The formal structure of the book may be presented as follows:

I. Superscription: The Word of the LORD to Zephaniah in the Days of Josiah (1:1)

II. The Message of Zephaniah: Seek the LORD! (1:2–3:20)

A. Announcement of the Day of the LORD (1:2–18)

1. Report of the LORD's oracular speeches concerning punishment of those who abandon the LORD (1:2–6)

2. Announcement of the Day of the LORD as a day of punishment against those who abandon the LORD (1:7–18)

B. Parenesis to seek the LORD (2:1—3:20)

1. Exhortation: Seek the LORD! (2:1–4)

2. Elaboration (2:5—3:20)

a. Woe speech illustrating the LORD's punishment of nations (2:5–15)

b. Woe speech including the LORD's restoration of the bride Jerusalem/Israel once the punishment is complete (3:1–20)

Reception History.

Given this structure, it is not surprising that the book of Zephaniah was read in later times as a portrayal of impending restoration following a period of divine judgment. The discovery of the Murabbaʿat and Naḥal Ḥever scrolls suggests that Zephaniah and the rest of the Twelve Prophets were read during the period leading up to the Bar Kochba revolt as a promise of deliverance for those who would seek the LORD. The late second century C.E. Apocalypse of Zephaniah, attested in the Stromata (5:11) of Clement of Alexandria, portrays the prophet's journey to the fifth level of heaven where he joins the angelic hosts after witnessing the punishment of a sinful soul. The New Testament does not cite Zephaniah directly but does allude to the book several times: for example, Matthew 13:41 (Zeph 1:3); Revelation 6:17 (Zeph 1:14–16); 14:5 (Zeph 3:11); and 16:1 (Zeph 3:8). Rabbinic tradition views Zephaniah as a righteous man who was the teacher of Jeremiah (b. Meg. 15a). According to Pesiqta Rabbati 26, 129b, Jeremiah spoke on the streets during the reign of Josiah whereas Huldah spoke to the women and Zephaniah spoke in the synagogues.

[See also HABAKKUK and HAGGAI.]


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Marvin A. Sweeney