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.

Amos: A Call to Social Justice

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—
 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
    and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
    so that my holy name is profaned;
 they lay themselves down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
    wine bought with fines they imposed.

Although there are many passages in the Law and the Prophets which warn that God is not happy when the game of life is rigged in favor of the upper classes, no one sounds the call for social justice as clearly as Amos. Along with  Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah, Amos is set in the 8th century BC, “in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel“.

Life for the upper classes in the time of Jeroboam II seemed to have been pretty good. Israel enjoyed military successes against Syria and a booming economy based on trade with Assyria and Egypt. But Amos warns that all is not well in God’s eyes. There is tremendous and accelerating income inequality. The rich and powerful take advantage of the poor and marginalized to become even richer and more powerful, and they live lives of hedonistic unconcern for the least among them. God is angry, and  his judgement is on the way. Amos hears God warning the Israelite one-percenters: “I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end” and “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.”

Amos presents God as being particularly upset with those who see themselves as religious, but do not express their faith in acts of justice and mercy. God is disgusted by their pious, empty acts of worship, and  many who long for the “day of the Lord” are in for an unpleasant surprise. It will not be what they expect. ” Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall and was bitten by a snake.  Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

We know the rest of the story. Amos gets reported to the king for his unpatriotic, heretical prophecies and Jeroboam tells him he should just leave the country if he doesn’t like the way things are. Nothing changes, and  Israel eventually falls, ironically to their former trading partner Assyria.

Amos is a very scary book to me, because I can’t help but see many parallels between the world in which Amos lived so many centuries ago, and the one in which we live today. Income equality is a serious and growing problem. Too many people go through life like hamsters on a wheel; the faster they run and the harder they work, the farther behind they fall. We have plenty of people today who profess to a form of religion while denying its substance. Preachers of the prosperity gospel distort the words of Scripture into promoting  something completely different from the gospel of Christ. And like Amos, those who attempt to issue words of warning are maligned and ignored. Martin Luther King famously quoted Amos in his “I Have a Dream” speech.  If you’ve never read the entire transcript of Jeremiah Wright’s infamous sermon, here’s a link. He certainly seems to be channeling Amos, “colorful metaphors” and all.

So where’s the good news in Amos? In the midst of all the dire warnings, there are words of hope. Some are conditional: there is still time to change the behaviors that have set Israel on an accelerating course into judgement. Amos implores them to “seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” And amazingly, some are unconditional. One day, God is going to put right what humans have caused to go so terribly wrong: “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.”

God is in control, and working, with and without our help, to fix all that is broken and wrong in the world he created and called “very good”. And that’s good news to me.

Jeremiah/Lamentations: When All Seems Lost

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.‘”   –Tolkien

Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land strives and contends! I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me. -Jeremiah

It would be understatement to say that Jeremiah lived in difficult times. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen, and the southern kingdom of Judah was about to be overthrown as well. Jeremiah understood the cause of the looming defeat of God’s chosen people to be due to their unfaithfulness to God. I find it interesting that Jeremiah first began to hear from God in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign, and Josiah was a pretty good king by Biblical standards. Following a couple of pretty bad kings (his father and grandfather) Josiah took the throne at the age of eight.  After the boy-king grew up, he instituted a number of serious reforms “in the eighteenth year of his reign”. Josiah intended to get  the people right with God, by force if necessary, and continued his efforts until his death about five years later “in the thirty-first year” of his reign. Although Jeremiah composed a lament after Josiah’s death, he doesn’t mention Josiah’s reforms. I have to wonder if Jeremiah and Josiah had more interaction than the Bible records. Perhaps Jeremiah’s warnings were part of the impetus behind Josiah’s urgency in making changes.

In any event, Josiah was killed in a battle with Egyptians he probably shouldn’t have fought, and his reforms turned out to be short-lived. Perhaps the people didn’t really buy into them, but were only pretending to be faithful to God in order to avoid the consequences of violating their kings’s orders. Josiah’s sons were not good kings according to any kind of Biblical or political standard, and things went downhill rather quickly after they took charge. Jeremiah continued to prophesy “through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile”.

Jeremiah is a young man when he begins to preach, and his entire adult life seems to have been given entirely to proclaiming words he believes God wants him to say but no one wants to hear. He foresees disaster coming upon his country, and not only does no one heed his words, he is often ridiculed and punished for saying them. Other prophets claim to speak for God and contradict what he says. Political leaders see him as treasonous, because he advises submission to rather than fighting against the invading Babylonian armies.  He is imprisoned, put in the stocks, threatened with death, and thrown into a muddy cistern. The king cuts up the scroll on which Jeremiah has written the words he has heard God saying, and burns it. Feeling used and abused by both God and humans, Jeremiah wishes he could choose not to speak, but he literally can’t help himself.

“You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”

Jerusalem falls as Jeremiah had predicted, and the Babylonians set him free, probably because they’d heard that he advised the residents of Jerusalem to cooperate with their Babylonian conquerors. His freedom to move about is short lived, however, because he continues to receive and pass along what he hears God saying, and that advice runs contrary to what the surviving remnant of people want to hear. They think if they go to Egypt they won’t have to submit to Babylonian rules and regulations, but Jeremiah knows that the Babylonians are coming for Egypt too, and that things will be infinitely worse for them there. Jeremiah is forced to go with them to Egypt, where he presumably will die along with the other refugees. The last we hear from him, he is still proclaiming “the words of the Lord” in Egypt, and his countrymen are still ignoring what he has to say.

I don’t think that if Jeremiah were given a choice, he would have chosen the times in which he lived.  And unlike Frodo in Tolkien’s story, Jeremiah didn’t live to see a rewarding outcome to what he decided to do with the time he was given. And yet, because of his faith in a faithful God, he foresees a restored and renewed Israel:

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

Even if we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, even if we don’t see the results of the good we try to do, even if the arc of the moral universe seems not to bend at all, even if all seems lost, God is still there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear him. But wait, there’s more! Not only is God still there, God is still working with and through and in spite of us.  Somehow, God will manage to work past all the foolishness and stubbornness and injustice and evil that humans both cause and suffer. And that’s good news.


Good Kings, Bad Kings

 

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.  He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.  As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.  He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites.  He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.  Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord’s command.

The books of Kings pick up where the books of Samuel leave off. David dies, and his son Solomon becomes king after a brief power struggle with his older brother. Solomon starts off fairly well, asking God for wisdom to effectively govern his people, but then things start to go downhill. He builds an elaborate temple for God and palace for himself, along with a number of other ambitious projects requiring a great deal of taxation and conscripted labor. His primary method of international diplomacy seems to have been marrying into the families of the surrounding nations, and he did quite an astonishing amount of that. He also seems to have not fully bought into the idea of monotheism and decides to cover his bases by building places of worship for gods other than Yahweh. So Solomon, who ruled the united kingdom of the twelve tribes at its zenith at about 1000 BC, is given rather mixed reviews. The nation splinters in two after the death of Solomon; and over the next few hundred years, Judah and Israel are ruled separately by kings of varying competency.  Israel falls to the Assyrians in 722 BC and Judah to the Babylonians in 586 BC. (click here for a bit more of this history)

For the writers of Kings, good kings were those who were unwaveringly committed to the God of Israel and actively discouraged the worship of other gods, often by quite violent means. Most of them, with a few notable exceptions like Hezekiah and Josiah, failed miserably at this task. From this perspective, Israel and Judah were conquered not because of bad leadership on the part of their monarchs, or because of the greater strength of the invading armies, but because the people had strayed from following the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

So what’s the good news in the sad story of the decline and death of a nation as told in the books of Kings? I think it lies mostly in the fact that we know what happens next. The concept of monotheism is developed and refined in the crucible of exile. Prior to this time, most people understood that gods were not only many, but also localized. Yahweh was the god of the Israelite people, just as Ashtoreth, Chemosh, and Molek were the gods of the peoples who occupied the surrounding lands. Sometimes there were divine territorial overlaps, resulting in several dramatic  “my god can beat your god up” stories, the most famous of which is probably Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal. If gods are limited to particular territories, then it follows that God wouldn’t leave his home territory and accompany the exiles to Babylon.

Somehow, sometime, somewhere in Babylon the exiled Israelites began to understand that God was bigger than they thought. God wasn’t limited to the land of Israel, but was with them in Babylon. The dwelling place of God was not a place in space and time, but a place in the heart. There is no where they could go, or be taken, where God would not be with them. As Paul expressed it so beautifully many centuries later,

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And that’s good news.