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Politics of Scripture

Destabilizing Divine Presence, Fracturing Joy

What if Zephaniah’s addressees had a right to mourn, lament, and rage against the wrath of Yhwh? Afterall, Yhwh’s favor is fickle in Zephaniah, entirely contingent on a particular obedience and only coming after the divine wrath is spent.

14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
   shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
   O daughter Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgements against you,
   he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
   you shall fear disaster no more.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
   do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
   a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
   he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18   as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
   so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 I will deal with all your oppressors
   at that time.
And I will save the lame
   and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
   and renown in all the earth.
20 At that time I will bring you home,
   at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
   among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
   before your eyes, says the Lord.

Zephaniah 3:14–20, NRSV

As I opened Zephaniah to begin writing this week’s essay for the Politics of Scripture, I was first struck by the irony of reading Zephaniah on the third Sunday of the Advent season—for many, a Sunday marked by the lighting of the “Joy” candle. Of course, this week’s assigned text opens with a ringing call to “sing aloud,” “shout,” “rejoice,” and “exult” (verse 14), a series of commands that may appear an obvious reason to associate the passage with the joyfulness of an approaching Christmas season.  

But, for those of us steeped in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible, the verses starkly contrast the preceding chapters of Zephaniah, where Yhwh’s day occupies center stage (1:7, 14; 2:2). That day, according to the prophet, called for anything but joyful singing. In the book, it is described as a day of warfare, ruin, devastation, distress, and bloodshed—viscerally and perhaps literally a “day of darkness and gloom” (1:15). Read with this in mind, Zephaniah 3:14’s exhortation to wholehearted celebration in shout and song is an irony indeed, one predicated on the shifting character of Yhwh’s presence.

Yhwh’s presence brought punishing disaster. But now, Yhwh’s presence brings joyful song.

Yhwh’s presence elicited terror. But now, Yhwh’s presence eliminates fear.

Yhwh’s presence produced economic and agricultural failure. But now, Yhwh’s presence generates prosperity and renown.

Given the whiplash created by the rapid turning in the text, it’s not at all surprising to me that Daughter Zion and Israel, the addressees of 3:14, must be commanded (the Hebrew has a series of four imperative verbs) to sing—joy is not obvious on the heels of Zephaniah’s previous prophetic activity. What logic occasions this reorganization of responses to the presence of Yhwh?

If we read with the ancient redactors of the Hebrew scriptures, those scribes who gave us the superscriptions at the beginning of the prophetic books, we find ourselves instructed to read Zephaniah in the mid- to late-seventh century BCE. This is the period in which King Josiah reigned, and he reigned in a time of rapid domestic and international political change.

Around this time, the Neo-Assyrian empire both reached its peak and suffered its final collapse. Judah, where Josiah is placed on the throne, had already been subjugated to Assyrian dominion for over a century. Indeed, while Judah’s early interactions with empire may have been buffered by Israel, they had felt the full force of imperial pressure since the fall of Samaria in 722 and suffered the consequences of resistance under the reign of Hezekiah in 701. Since then, the nation had remained a loyal vassal, quietly complying with Assyria’s demands and faithfully making tribute payments throughout the reign of Manasseh.

According to the compilers of Israel’s history in 1–2 Kings, however, Manasseh’s faithfulness as a vassal to Assyria, coupled with his acceptance of the religious pluralism of ancient Judah, was apostasy to Yhwh. Further, it is likely the case—as the earlier prophet Micah exhorts—that the growth of Judah’s agricultural economy came through the exploitation of many of the land’s agricultural producers and perhaps even the land itself. As Judah’s economy joined the international scene by engaging in trade with Philistia and making payments of silver and gold to Assyria, many among its own population suffered. As is so often the case, the “peace” of Manasseh’s reign may have been anything but for the average Judahite.

Against this backdrop (skipping over the brief reign of Manasseh’s son Amon) Josiah ascended the throne. . . and Zephaniah was apparently no supporter of the political and religious landscape Josiah entered.

Thus, in the first two chapters of the book, each of the major political players are recipients of the divine wrath. Judah is first, occupying prominence of place in chapter 1. Then, in chapter 2, both Philistia, the major economic center of the period, and Assyria, the imperial power of the day, are promised divinely visited devastation. According to Zephaniah, the heart of the ancient economy—the agricultural productivity of the land at sites such as Ashkelon and Ekron (mentioned in 2:4)—would be de-cultivated and made suitable only for grazing sheep and goats.

Little hope is offered in these chapters. The only hint of escape is for those deemed “humble” and “righteous” to hide themselves from the outpouring of divine wrath on Yhwh’s day (2:3). Even as our chapter begins, there is no sign of a relenting of Yhwh’s punishing presence. In fact, as Wilda Gafney argues, it is only in the final pouring out, the emptying of Yhwh’s fury, that a turning is made possible (3:8). Fully spent, Yhwh sets about creating a people in Jerusalem whose tongues may rightly praise him and whose bodies may rightly serve him (3:9).[1]

These are the tongues called upon to break their silence, or perhaps end their mourning, in 3:14–20.

The political tone of the book does not dissipate in the lectionary reading. Rather, having rejected all other loci of governance, domestic (3:3–5) and international (2:5–7, and 13–15), Yhwh claims kingship for himself in 3:15: “The king of Israel, Yhwh, is in your midst.”

Indeed, the activities of Yhwh in these final verses of Zephaniah are decidedly political in nature, mimicking the activities of ancient empires as they consolidated power. This is especially revealed if we separately consider the two addressees of the passage: Daughter Zion (or Daughter Jerusalem) and Israel.

It is common to take “Daughter Zion” and “Israel” as synonymous here. This is especially the case if one only reads the text in English translation, obscuring the specificity of the Hebrew pronouns, which can be grammatically marked as masculine or feminine, singular or plural. In this case, the Hebrew text employs two sets of pronouns: The feminine singular address to “Daughter Zion” and the masculine plural address to “Israel,” both introduced in verse 14 (feminine singular “sing aloud,” “rejoice,” and “exult,” and masculine plural “shout” in the NRSV’s translation).

Here, Daughter Zion is best understood as the personified city, Jerusalem, the chosen capital for Yhwh’s kingdom. Zion is addressed throughout verses 15–19 (in those feminine singular “you” pronouns of the English translation). Yhwh, like all good ancient kings, has chosen his Nineveh (or, perhaps, Babylon or Persepolis)—the heart of his rule in the ancient geography. Having already created the type of citizens he desires (3:9–10), he sets about celebrating his city, peeling back its judgements, banishing its enemies, and removing its fear.

Israel, in contrast, is only addressed directly in verse 20 (again, the “you” pronouns of the English translation, but this time they are masculine and plural in the Hebrew). Much like the ancient Empires of Zephaniah’s time, here Yhwh sets about a population relocation project. Mimicking Assyria’s deployment of forced migration as a strategy of war, assimilation, and imperial development, Yhwh promises to gather the scattered Israelites and return them to Judah.

Of course, this may be a welcome intervention—it certainly seems as though Zephaniah (and his redactors) understood it as such. Still, the intervention was also economically and politically strategic. As ancient empires knew, successful local agricultural economies depended on human (and other-than-human) labor. Further, an influx in population and a display of royal power could garner recognition, or renown (verse 20), internationally.

Thus, we have Yhwh declare “I will gather you” (verse 20), rather than “you will return”—this is Yhwh’s project and Yhwh is agent. The book then closes with final note of “joy,” praise resounds among the peoples of the earth at the sight of the gathered-in Israelites.

Notice, however, that despite the opening command that Daughter Zion and Israel sing and shout in joyous exultation, neither have made a sound in this passage. Instead, what the prophet declares is the turning of Yhwh’s presence; Yhwh rejoices over his city; and the nations praise Yhwh’s success in bringing Israel back to the land. In a final irony, those called to shout aloud are silenced.

Undoubtedly, this call to break silence even in present distress could be read in two ways. On the one hand, to sing out in joy even against one’s circumstances may be perceived as a sign of hope and an act of resilience—a reading that may even suit an advent season. On the other hand, however, we may read the prophets call a kind of suppression. Perhaps the prophet calls for singing when lament or even outrage is warranted. Afterall, the call to sing is predicated on the presence of Yhwh . . . and the presence of Yhwh is unstable in the text. Recall:

Yhwh’s presence brought punishing disaster. But now, Yhwh’s presence brings joyful song.

Yhwh’s presence elicited terror. But now, Yhwh’s presence eliminates fear.

Yhwh’s presence produced economic and agricultural failure. But now, Yhwh’s presence generates prosperity and renown.

What if Zephaniah’s addressees had a right to mourn, lament, and rage against the wrath of Yhwh? Afterall, Yhwh’s favor is fickle in Zephaniah, entirely contingent on a particular obedience and only coming after the divine wrath is spent, a pattern decidedly reminiscent of cycles of abuse in intimate partner relationships.

So, after all, perhaps my initial reaction to the text was warranted. Perhaps it is ironic to read Zephaniah in the season of Advent, for the lighting of the candle of Joy. If that’s the case, we could close the book and move on to the gospels, a popular move in many Christian faith communities. Or, alternatively, we could allow a careful consideration of the passage during the Advent season to call on us to enter a conversation with Zephaniah about the character of divine presence and the nature of joy itself.

In contrast, this latter kind of reading strikes me as especially timely during Advent, when “O Come Emmanuel” resounds in churches and preachers speak of the past, present, and future coming of God’s presence in the Christ-child. Those of us who preach and teach in Christian communities, in this season of preparation, might ask ourselves: Who are we preparing for? How have we, like Zephaniah, imaged the divine after the patterns of our own political preferences? And, who might we be unjustly silencing in our calls to rejoice in that god’s presence?

[1] I use the gendered pronouns “he, him, and his” for Yhwh throughout. Yhwh is gendered male in the Hebrew text, and, in historical reflection, I prefer to preserve the ancient community’s understanding of deity. In contrast, those of us dialoguing with Zephaniah today rightly re-orient our understandings of God, recognizing gender as an inadequate category for divinity.

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