The prophet Tsephania (Zephaniah) was active during the same time as Y’remiyahu (Jeremiah), and like his contemporary, was concerned with the sack of Jerusalem and conquest of Yehudah. Like Yermiyahu, Tsephania was not a professional prophet, but a man of position and pedigree. While Yermiyahu was a priest closely related to the High Priest and a descendant of Hilkiah, Tsephania was the great-great-grandson of King Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah).
As a member of the extended royal family and of the nobility, Tsephania had access to information and to an influential audience. As the descendant of a great king, he also had the freedom to criticize his relatives in ways commoners could not. So, while Yermiyahu used his position to launch a legitimate attack on the priesthood and the professional prophets, one of Tsephania’s early volleys in chapter one aims squarely at King Josiah’s (Yosiyahu’s) sons (1:8):
…I will punish the officials and the king’s sons and all those clad in foreign clothes.
Given the history of the time, “foreign clothes” would seem to be a metaphor. The three sons who succeeded Yosiyahu (Yehoyachaz, Yehoyachim, and Zedekiyahu) all conspired in pursuit of personal aggrandizement with the foreign powers that were jockeying for power in the region: Egypt, Assyria, and Chaldea.
The behavior of Tsephania’s cousins, though, is but one item in a long laundry list of faults the prophet condemns in his opening diatribe. He condemns the general popularity of various idolatrous practices, including the veneration of stars in the name of HaShem. He also condemns those who avoid stepping on thresholds, a superstition identified in 1 Shmuel 5:5 as associated with the worship of Dagon, the patron deity of Nineveh, whose imagery Yonah evoked. And he condemns the worship of Malkam, the Ammonite iteration of Molech.
Tsephania makes multiple references to ineffectiveness of precious metals in saving those who offend. While these might be references to the corruption of the wealthy, especially those merchant’s who bring in or adopt foreign habits, they also keep in line with the condemnation of idolatry. Precious metals had long been used to create idols and fetishes, so Tsephania may well be referring to people who produce or purchase metal idols, much as Yeshaiyahu (Isaiah) 40:19 did before him.
But HaShem’s wrath, according to the prophet extends beyond the actively corrupt and idolatrous. It includes those who react to wickedness with indifference. The abstention from wrong-doing is not sufficient; HaShem holds the nation accountable when it permits wickedness to prosper in its midst and when it perverts justice. Those who turn a blind eye are just as guilty as those worshiping foreign gods and consorting with foreign kings.
Why do bad things happen to good people? In this case, Tsephania asserts, because they aren’t good. The good people mind their own business, and thereby shirk their responsibility to keep the nation in compliance with the Covenant. It is a message closely related to the responsibility Yehezkiel (Ezekiel) 3 later bore in warning the wicked to change their ways: if he failed to warn them, he would be held responsible for their guilt.
It is in this view, the judgment of the kingdom as a single unit, that Tsephania invokes imagery from Torah and other prophets to flesh out his message in urgent, graphic poetry. His opening line, referring to the utter destruction of life in the land evokes imagery from the flood story of B’resheit (Genesis). His description of the nature of HaShem’s judgment closely parallels Amos 5’s warning not to desire it. Tsephania says that people will build houses and not live in them and plant vineyards, but not drink the wine. Here he makes a very direct reference to Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6, reversing the promised blessings associated with entering the land. At the end of the first chapter, he uses firey imagery to describe the destruction of Jerusalem and Yehudah, referring back to the wildfire once described by Yoel.
Most importantly, Tsephania insists, like Yehezkiel (whose prophecies begin around the end of Tsephania’s activity), that the judgment is at hand, and he does not describe it as conditional. This is something, he asserts will happen, and very soon, not in the distant future. But chapter two offers some hope.
Echoing the messages of Yoel and Yonah, Zephaniah calls on the people to repent. Judgement will come, and very soon. Of that, the prophet has no doubt, but he gives a glimmer of hope that those who repent, the humble, will be spared. Those who do not, he says, will be blown away like chaff, an interesting turn of phrase. As other prophets described, those against whom HaShem judges are dedicated to Him for destruction, much like a sacrifice. Yehezkiel 5 famously shaved his head and then consigned a portion of his hair to fire, a portion to the wind, and a portion in folds of his robe for safekeeping. Here, we have a slightly earlier prophet using a similar metaphor to anticipate the destruction of some of the nation and the dispersal of the rest.
The imagery of blown chaff carries a deeper metaphor, though. The Temple, which will be destroyed in this particular judgment (the Chaldean Conquest), was founded on the threshing floor of Arunah the Yebusite, where HaShem ceased his judgment against David, ultimately leading to His Covenant with the house of David and the descendants of Shlomo (2 Shmuel 24). Yet all this history, the prophet seems to imply in his choice of metaphor, is no different than the chaff from the grain Arunah once threshed, and may just as easily blow away from that same mountainside.
What follows is the enumeration of the other lands HaShem will judge: Philistia, Ammon, Moav, Kush, and Assyria. All were indeed invaded around the time of the Chaldean Conquest.
Philistia, Ammon, and Moav were conquered in the same campaign as Yehudah. The condemnation of the latter two likens the level of impending destruction to that of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is an allusion to B’resheit’s account of the origin of the founders of these peoples. Moav and Ben Ammi were the sons born to Lot and his daughters after they fled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Both were tributaries of Assyria, and therefore shared Assyria’s fate after the fall of Nineveh. Philistia was a rebellious tributary of Assyria.
The kingdom of Kush, a Nubian kingdom in present day Sudan that shared a border with Egypt, had previously conquered Egypt and founded a royal dynasty there. The Assyrians invaded Egypt, forced the Kushites south into Kush, and set up a new, ethnically Egyptian dynasty a few years before the Chaldean conquest of Assyria. This Egyptian dynasty was really a puppet government for the Assyrians, but Necho II, an Egyptian Pharaoh, launched a campaign attempting to conquer lands to the east and stem the western advance of the Assyrians, his patron cum adversary. Before pushing eastward, Necho recruited Yehudah, Moav, Ammon, Philistia, and other peoples in the same region as his allies and pawns. He hoped to use them both on the frontlines and to maintain his supply lines as he pushed eastward.
Yermiyahu, among others, cautioned against forming an alliance with Egypt, knowing that Necho had the interests of Egypt at heart, not those of the Levant. Necho’s ambitions were crushed by the Chaldean conquest of Assyria. His son, Psamtik II, unable to find glory to the east and eager to secure his position in Egypt, attempted to erase his father from the historical record, hired Greek and Phoenician sailors to build a Navy and pursue ambitious projects, and launched a campaign against Kush to the south. His army destroyed multiple major Kushites cities, including their capital, forcing the Kushites to move the capital to Meroe. Kush never fully recovered.
After Yehudah’s neighbors were laid waste, in the Return from the Exile, Persia made Jerusalem the regional capital, putting Yehudah’s newly freed citizens in charge of the peoples in the area. All these conquered lands delivered their tributes to Jerusalem. The emperor even made them help to pay for the construction of the Second Temple.
Of course, Assyria was also destroyed when Chaldea took Nineveh, the city that delayed its downfall through repentance in Yonah. In Tsephania’s treatment of Nineveh, he resorts to metaphors that he echoes very closely in chapter three when discussing the fate of Jerusalem. This is especially interesting since Yoel presents a similar counterpoint to Yonah.
Ending with a message of hope, Tsephania closes with poetry foretelling the Return from the Exile under Persian protection. His imagery is lush, describing a time of abundance and prosperity. And his prediction would later be confirmed by Nehemiah’s account of the rebuilding of Jerusalem under Persian patronage.
Tsephania’s analysis of the situation is spot on, and it confirms the analyses of preceding prophets, who identified Assyria as HaShem’s instrument of judgment, that would ultimately be cut down for its hubris and cruelty; Chaldea as the instrument of a second judgment, in part against Assyria, likewise to be destroyed for its hubris and cruelty; and finally by Persia, as a third instrument of regional judgment.
Contributed by Rachel Kight.