Divine Judgment on Judah, Part II   Leave a comment

Above:  Icon of Zephaniah

Image in the Public Domain

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READING ZEPHANIAH, PART II

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Zephaniah 1:2-2:3

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Certain ambiguities exist in the Hebrew text.  These give rise to competing scholarly and theological interpretations.  Yet the text is clear about other matters:  God was mad, idolatry continued to be rampant and intolerable, divine judgment on the people and the royal family was on the way, social injustice (especially economic injustice) was ubiquitous and still intolerable to God, and there was still no time to repent.  This last point contrasts with First Isaiah (Isaiah 6), in which the time to repent had passed.  Overall, the imagery of Zephaniah 1:2-2:3, set in the context of the Day of the LORD, should be familiar to one who has recently read Hosea, Amos, Micah, and First Isaiah recently.

Certain details require explanation:

  1. Milcom (1:5) was the chief deity of the Ammonite pantheon (1 Kings 11:5, 7, 33; 2 Kings 23:13).
  2. The alternative translation to “Milcom” is “Malcam,” or “their king.”  This may be a human monarch, YHWH, or a false god.
  3. “The king’s sons” (1:8) refers to the royal family, the House of David.  Those responsible for leading the people astray bear greater accountability before God.
  4. Idolatry is apparent in 1:4-6, 8-9.
  5. People are foolish and sinful to commit fraud, exploit others, and be complacent.
  6. Another theme from earlier in Hebrew prophetic literature repeats:  Circumstances may seem good and pleasant.  The kingdom may be faring relatively well.  Nevertheless, the circumstances are about to get very bad.
  7. 1:14-16 is the basis of the Latin Dies Irae, formerly part of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass.
  8. The imagery of the Day of the LORD is vivid.  The powerful language addresses a situation of long-term, collective, and unrepentant violation of the Law of Moses, despite many messengers of God having called for repentance.  Divine patience is not infinite.  Neither is divine judgment.

Seek the LORD,

all you humble of the land,

who have observed his law;

Seek justice,

seek humility;

Perhaps you will be sheltered

on the day of the LORD’s anger.

–Zephaniah 2:3, The New American Bible–Revised Edition (2011)

That “perhaps” is ominous.

The Hebrew text in 2:1-3 is somewhat ambiguous and, in scholarly terms, corrupt.  Therefore, an exegetical debate about the identity of the “shameless nation” (2:1) is robust; the text is vague.  2:1-3 sits between a section condemning Judah and a section condemning foreign nations.  Also, the Hebrew word translated as “shameless” can also mean “not desiring God” or “not desired by God.”  Circumstantially, the position of The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition (2014), that Judah is the addressed nation makes sense to me.  Yet other study Bibles I consult interpret 2:1-3 to apply to foreign nations instead.

This ambiguity does not disturb me.  Even if I err in interpreting 2:1-3 to have applied to Judah, my ultimate point remains unaltered.  These texts, in the Hebrew language, indicate editing that has created confusion about historical interpretation.  I acknowledge this reality; I do not ignore or seek vainly to reconcile the irreconcilable.  Yet I remain focused on the text’s meanings for today.  When is too late to repent?  And why might not repentance shelter people from the wrath of God?

Certainly, one person’s actions affect other people.  Also, membership in a society means that one suffers and benefits based on what other members of that society do or do not do.  This may seem unfair.  It may even be unfair.

Stating the obvious may answer a question partially.  Such a partial answer may prove unsatisfactory.  So be it.  I wrestle with the two questions I asked:

  1. When is too late to repent?
  2. Why might not repentance shelter people from the wrath of God.

Certainty is antithetical to faith.  I, as an Episcopalian, welcome doubt, my old friend, and greet questions warmly.  I affirm that “I don’t know,” is frequently the best and most honest answer.  Faith is about walking humbly with God, not knowing the answers.  My model of faith is Jewish, not Muslim.  Jews get to wrestle and argue with God; Muslims submit to God.

I agree that repentance should shield one from the wrath of God.  It does not always do so, however.  I also argue that no time should be too late for repentance.  I disagree with Isaiah 6 in so doing.

God calls people and peoples into a positive relationship with each other and Him.  God does not call us to shut down our minds.  No, God calls us to bring ourselves to the relationship.  God calls us to trust Him, acknowledge our complete dependence on Him, and take care of each other.  Trusting does not entail a lack of arguments and misunderstandings.  We can know of God what God has revealed.  The fullness of God, however, is a glorious mystery.  The proper response includes awe.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 3, 2021 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN XXIII, BISHOP OF ROME

THE FEAST OF CHRISTIAN GOTTFRIED GEISLER AND JOHANN CHRISTIAN GEISLER, SILESIAN MORAVIAN ORGANISTS AND COMPOSER; AND JOHANNES HERBST, GERMAN-AMERICAN ORGANIST, COMPOSER, AND BISHOP

THE FEAST OF FRANCES RIDLEY HAVERGAL, ENGLISH HYMN WRITER AND COMPOSER

THE FEAST OF OLE T. (SANDEN) ARNESON, U.S. NORWEGIAN LUTHERAN HYMN TRANSLATOR

THE FEAST OF WILL CAMPBELL, AGENT OF RECONCILIATION

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