Zephaniah: Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

 Woe to the city of oppressors,
rebellious and defiled!
She obeys no one,
she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord,
she does not draw near to her God.
Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her rulers are evening wolves,
who leave nothing for the morning.
er prophets are unprincipled;
they are treacherous people.
Her priests profane the sanctuary
and do violence to the law.

Zephaniah is bound to create a bit of cognitive dissonance for Biblical inerrantists. The writer identifies himself as  ” Zephaniah, son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah”. He then proceeds to announce impending doom coming for Judah, along with the surrounding nations, because of their continuing sins against God and neighbor. There’s nothing new about that motif; the problem is the time frame. Zephaniah’s invectives, which include the royal family,  occur in the time of Josiah. Elsewhere in the Bible, Josiah is portrayed as a very good king, in fact one of the best as measured by his singlehearted devotion to God and attempts to stamp out idol worship. The priests and prophets who are castigated as being unprincipled, treacherous, and profane would have included Hilkiah, Josiah’s mentor, as well Jeremiah and other prophetic luminaries. as  So what’s going on here?

Some more literally-minded scholars will attempt to harmonize the discrepancy by assuming that Zephaniah’s prophecies are from very early in Josiah’s reign, when he was still a minor, and before the Book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy) was discovered during temple renovations. That doesn’t really make sense to me, especially as Zephaniah invokes judgement not on the king himself, but on the “king’s sons” And as we know in historical hindsight, that’s exactly what happened. Whether you judge them on political or theological criteria, Josiah’s sons were bad kings, and their poor leadership led to Jerusalem’s conquest and the Babylonian exile. So other scholars think Zephaniah was written after the monarchy came to an end.

I’ve always wondered why Josiah met such an early and untimely end, considering that the books of Kings and Chronicles present him in such an unwaveringly positive light.According to the prevailing traditionalist theologies of the time, that should not have happened. God rewards the good guys with health, wealth, and long life, while punishing the bad guys with the opposite. Clearly, that was and is an inadequate understanding of God and the way God works.

I see the Bible is a rich and living book not because God magically dictated every word to an auto-writing scribe, but because it contains so many different perspectives. We all try to make sense of what is going on around us, and see the world through our own lenses. Perhaps Zephaniah’s writings date from the time of Josiah, but from his vantage point things were not going so swimmingly. Perhaps they are from a later time period, one in which the exiles struggled to make sense of history. Regardless of when it was written, Zephaniah says to me is that things are always more complicated than they seem. As Paul observed, we “know in part and prophesy in part” and “see through a glass darkly”.  Or as Mulder and Scully might say, “The truth is out there somewhere”.

I appreciate the Bible as a record of humanity’s evolving understanding of God. For me, acknowledging that its writers were a diverse group of people, each with their own particular perspective, doesn’t diminish but enhances my faith. The details may differ, but the story is the same: There is a God; he wants us to live in love and justice with each other; and he is always working with and through us to make that happen.  And that’s good news to me.

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Chronicles: Israelite History, Take Two

 

When Solomon had finished the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, and had succeeded in carrying out all he had in mind to do in the temple of the Lord and in his own palace, the Lord appeared to him at night and said:“I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.  I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there. As for you, if you walk before me faithfully as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe my decrees and laws,  I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a successor to rule over Israel.’ But if you[a] turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot Israel from my land, which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. This temple will become a heap of rubble. All who pass by will be appalled and say, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’ People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who brought them out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them—that is why he brought all this disaster on them.’”

“Can it be that it was all so simple then, or has time re-written every line?”

Or so the song goes. I think the concept is true, not only when it comes to our own memories, but also  for the collection of testaments we call the Bible.  Its authors were less concerned with getting all the facts and dates correct than with trying to understand who God is and how human beings relate to him. That’s a complex subject with many perspectives, so it’s not surprising that people who lived in different circumstances and different times have understood God differently.

The books of Samuel/Kings and the books of Chronicles tell the same stories of the rise and fall of the Israelite monarchy, but from different perspectives. In the Jewish Bible, Samuel/Kings are part of the “Former Prophets”, with rabbinic tradition ascribing the prophet Jeremiah as primary author/editor. Chronicles is found in a separate section, the “Writings” and was written later, possibly as early as the immediate post-exilic period but possibly as late as the Hellenistic period.

In the Chronicler’s retelling of  Israelite history, the lives of “good kings” like David and Solomon are rather whitewashed: no Bathsheba affair, no rebellion by Absalom, no turning to the worship of foreign gods by Solomon. The peace and prosperity enjoyed under Solomon are described in detail and have an almost Camelot-like flavor. Samuel/Kings and Chronicles share the perspective that generally good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, with “good” and “bad” being defined as obedience vs. disobedience to God. I think the Chronicler left out the juicy bits about David and Solomon for a theological reason: he wanted to emphasize the correlation between good behavior and good times.

What some see as contradictions in the Bible, I see as evidence of an incredibly rich and diverse collection of personal testimonies. The Bible is less a book of history than a book of theology, and an evolving one at that. As times and circumstances and understandings of God change, stories are told and retold, events interpreted and reinterpreted, and details emphasized or omitted. In the New Testament,  Jesus is often quoted as saying “You have heard it said of old (this) but I say (that). Later, apostolic luminaries like Peter, Stephen, and Paul  retell  the stories of Israel’s history, but with a different spin: Jesus was the promised Messiah.

It doesn’t bother me that the Bible contains many different perspectives of the story of God’s intersections with humankind. To me, that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s what makes the Bible a living book, one that is not bound by time or space, but speaks anew to every age and circumstance and person.  And that’s good news