In this post, I will talk about an issue that Ehud Ben Zvi discusses in the introduction to A Historical-Critical Study of the Book of Zephaniah. The issue is this: What is the criteria that scholars use to attribute certain aspects of the Book of Zephaniah to a later author or redactor? I talked about a similar issue in a post that I wrote on Otto Kaiser’s commentary on Isaiah 1-12 (see here).
Ben Zvi discusses the meat of the criteria on pages 32-35. Here are some examples of where the criteria come into play (and biblical references will be from the KJV):
1. There are scholars who have argued that Zephaniah 1:2-3 (or parts of it) is late. The passage states: “I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the LORD. I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumbling blocks with the wicked: and I will cut off man from off the land, saith the LORD.” According to Ben Zvi, this passage is considered late on account of its “‘eschatological’ or universal outlook”, and even those who attribute Zephaniah 1:2-3 to Zephaniah think that the part about “the stumbling blocks with the wicked” was an explanatory gloss designed to introduce “an ethical reason for the punishment.” Scholars who date Zephaniah 1:2-3 late may do so because they work with a historical model in which a notion of universal eschatology chronologically comes after prophecy that primarily concerns itself with God’s temporal punishment of Israel. Incidentally, Brian Peckham has a model that is the opposite of that of the scholars Ben Zvi is discussing. For Peckham, the early stage of Zephaniah was about God’s undoing of creation, but later hands restricted its application to Judah and Jerusalem (see here).
2. Zephaniah 2:8-11 states: “I have heard the reproach of Moab, and the revilings of the children of Ammon, whereby they have reproached my people, and magnified themselves against their border. Therefore as I live, saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, Surely Moab shall be as Sodom, and the children of Ammon as Gomorrah, even the breeding of nettles, and saltpits, and a perpetual desolation: the residue of my people shall spoil them, and the remnant of my people shall possess them. This shall they have for their pride, because they have reproached and magnified themselves against the people of the LORD of hosts. The LORD will be terrible unto them: for he will famish all the gods of the earth; and men shall worship him, every one from his place, even all the isles of the heathen.”
According to Ben Zvi, this passage is considered to be late for a variety of reasons: the oracle against Moab and Ammon is stylistically different from that against Philistia in Zephaniah 2; there is a reference to a remnant of Israel; v 11 is eschatological in its notion that YHWH will purge idolatry and the nations will worship him; and the passage does not fit the time of Josiah, but rather the early sixth century B.C.E., which was when Judah was being conquered by Babylon, and Ammon and Moab were particularly hostile to Judah. But Ben Zvi refers to scholars who disagree with these arguments and “accept the Zephanic origin for most or all of these verses”. Against those who regard Zephaniah 2:8-11 as out-of-place, these scholars point “to rhetorical and literary devices that unify the text”. They also maintain that the oracle against Moab and Ammon fits Josiah’s day.
Some have even dated part of the oracle against Philistia late. Zephaniah 2:7 states: “And the coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah; they shall feed thereupon: in the houses of Ashkelon shall they lie down in the evening: for the LORD their God shall visit them, and turn away their captivity.” The reason this is considered late is the phrases “remnant of the house of Judah” and “turn away their captivity”. There is a tendency among many scholars to regard oracles of salvation as late—perhaps because they think that such oracles would make most sense to Israel after she has experienced devastation. But Ben Zvi notes that there are also scholars who disagree with this premise. They say that Zephaniah could have predicted destruction while having nationalistic feelings, and so he predicted that his people would have a future that included possessing the land of the Philistines. Either Zephaniah thought that a future remnant would do this, or some have argued that he envisioned contemporary Judeans doing so.
Ben Zvi states that, if Zephaniah 2:7-11 is accepted as late, then the part that is Zephanic would be the oracles against Assyria and Philistia, the main enemies in Josiah’s day. But, if Zephaniah 2:8-11 is indeed from Zephaniah, Ben Zvi says that Zephaniah’s message was not limited to his political-historical circumstances. Does that mean that Ben Zvi doesn’t buy the argument that Moab and Ammon were problems for Judah in Josiah’s day?
3. I will not post Zephaniah 3, but only a link to it. Zephaniah 3:8-20 is deemed to be late by a number of scholars because of its message of salvation and its notion that other nations will serve the LORD. But Ben Zvi believes that much is lost if this passage is deemed non-Zephanic. First, eliminating this passage means that the prophet had no words of comfort. Second, Zephaniah 3:11-13 talks about the LORD preserving the humble and lowly, who trust God and live moral lives. But, for Ben Zvi, if this is eliminated from the prophet’s message, then why not eliminate as late the similar statement in Zephaniah 2:3, which encourages people to seek righteousness and meekness, a possible path to them being protected from disaster (possible but not definite, for Ben Zvi affirms that the Book of Zephaniah seeks to preserve God’s freedom, meaning that God is not bound to save anyone, but may do so). But, if that is eliminated, there goes the prophet’s social-ethical message!
But there are scholars who accept Zephaniah 3:8-20 as Zephanic, for they see a connection between those verses and Zephaniah 3:1-8 (which is about the corruption of princes, prophets, and priests; God’s unsuccessful attempt to discipline his people; and God’s coming punishment of the nations). They also regard the notion that the nations will serve YHWH to be pre-exilic. Ben Zvi does not list any of these scholars’ reasons for this claim, at least in what I have read so far. I think that relevant information to assessing it would include what other ancient Near Eastern nations did regarding their foreign subjects: Did they require conquered nations to honor the conqueror’s god, in some manner? I have read that Assyria did not, for Assyria permitted a degree of religious freedom, and also considered its subjects to be beneath the worship of Asshur.
Where Ben Zvi stands on these questions, I do not know. He distinguishes between the prophet and the tradent. At the same time, he states on page 13 that “a late date cannot be taken for granted only because the text contains a prophecy of salvation, or because of [a] single Hebrew word that occurs nowhere else but in a relatively late book.”
One more comment: I have often been annoyed by conservative Christians who dismiss the historical-critical method as something that flows from naturalistic presuppositions—as if supernaturalistic presuppositions make the problems of biblical inerrancy (i.e., contradictions, anachronisms, etc.) go away. But I have to admit that the conservative argument makes a degree of sense to me as I read of attempts to date certain things in prophetic books late. Why couldn’t Zephaniah foresee restoration? Otto Kaiser stated that the passages in Isaiah about Israelite captives returning to Israel from around the world came from the Hellenistic Period, for that was when there were Israelite exiles in different countries around the world. But why couldn’t Isaiah of Jerusalem foresee that under divine inspiration? I suppose that these sorts of arguments (i.e., prophets couldn’t foresee the future, so, when it appears that they did so, the passage must be later than the prophets) cannot stand on their own: they need to be buttressed by actual evidence that the Bible has a largely human element. And historical-critics have offered arguments for this (i.e., contradictions, unfulfilled prophecies, re-application of older prophecies, areas in which biblical ideologies reflect past cultures, etc.). But could God still work through or speak through that human element?