Ben Zvi on Baalism, Ha-Aretz, Unfulfilled Prophecy, and Non-Literal Language

I’m continuing my way through Ehud Ben Zvi’s A Historical-Critical Study of the Book of Zephaniah.  I have four items for today:

1. On pages 66-67, Ben Zvi tries to interpret Zephaniah 1:4, which states: “I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims with the priests”.  For this item, I will focus on Ben Zvi’s comments regarding “I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place”. (Scriptural quotations will be from the KJV.)

Ben Zvi states the following: “Baal as the name of a deity occurs many times in the OT.  The polemic against the cult of Baal in Judah (with, and perhaps, the exception of Athaliah’s pericope in 2 Kgs 11) is in fact a polemic against Yhwistic cult carried out in ‘illegitimate ways,’ from the point of view of the deuteronomic/deuteronomistic movement.  Thus, in these polemic texts, Baal actually stands for YHWH, but YHWH who is worshiped ‘illegitimately’.  Consequently, Baal in Zeph 1:4 cannot be considered a separate transcendental deity who is to be ‘cut off’ by YHWH.  But, regardless of this, or any other identification, Baal can hardly mean a deity in Zeph 1:4.  [S]ince one can ‘cut off’ only what exists, it would imply that the Judean[s] have been worshiping a transcendental deity, Baal.  This deity, although inferior to YHWH, would continue to exist until the day in which YHWH will cut it off.  Although the theme of ‘bringing down’ the other gods is attested elsewhere in the OT (e.g., Zeph 2:11; Ps 82), it never occurs in announcements of judgment against Israelites or Judeans, even if in numerous cases these announcements are based on a cultic indictment.”

So Ben Zvi does not think that Zephaniah 1:4 is about YHWH bringing down Baal because (1.) Israel identified YHWH with Baal, and YHWH wouldn’t say that he will bring down himself, and (2.) assuming that Baal was a deity separate from YHWH, it is unlikely that Zephaniah is saying that YHWH would kill Baal.  At least we don’t see that sort of message in announcements of judgment against Northern or Southern Israel!  Ben Zvi is open to Zephaniah 1:4 meaning that YHWH will cut off the cult of Baal, or an object representing Baal, but not Baal the god.

I am puzzled by Ben Zvi’s claim that Baal stands for YHWH, and thus Baal in Zephaniah 1:4 cannot be a transcendental deity who is separate from YHWH.  (I agree with Ben Zvi’s conclusion, but not entirely with his way of getting there.)  First of all, if Ben Zvi is sure about this, then why does he undercut his claim by presenting a scenario in which Baal is a deity separate from YHWH?  Second, while there are indeed passages that indicate that YHWH was identified with Baal (Hosea 2:16 predicts that the Israelites one day will no long call the LORD “Baali”), there are also passages in which YHWH and Baal are depicted as separate beings.  For example, in I Kings 18, there is a competition between the prophets of Baal and Elijah, the prophet of YHWH, to see which god will send fire from heaven.  Would this competition make any sense, if Baal and YHWH were deemed to be synonymous?

Ben Zvi does not defend his claim in this book, at least not in what I have read so far.  But he does refer to pages 356-363 of his 1987 work, Judah in the Days of the Assyrian Hegemony: History and Historiography.

2.  Zephaniah 1:18 states: “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of the LORD’s wrath; but the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of his jealousy: for he shall make even a speedy riddance of all them that dwell in the land.”

The word translated as “the land” is ha-aretz, which can also mean “the earth”.  Is Zephaniah talking about the destruction of all the land of Judah, or all the world?  And how can one tell?  Ben Zvi looks at different passages:

Joel 1:14: “Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry unto the LORD”.  Here, Ben Zvi thinks that ha-aretz means the land of Judah, probably because the inhabitants of it are told to gather at the house of the LORD.

Zechariah 11:6: “For I will no more pity the inhabitants of the land, saith the LORD: but, lo, I will deliver the men every one into his neighbour’s hand, and into the hand of his king: and they shall smite the land, and out of their hand I will not deliver them.”  Ben Zvi says that this passage “probably refers to the inhabitants of the earth”, perhaps because “his king” implies that we are dealing with more than one king, meaning that more nations than Judah are the topic here.

Next, Ben Zvi discusses Jeremiah 4, which I will not post, but here is a link to the chapter if you want to read it.  Ben Zvi says that Jeremiah 4:11-18 focuses on Judah and Jerusalem, and that, while Jeremiah 4:19-22 “enlarges the perspective of Jer 4:11-18”, v 20 “clearly refers to Judah and not to the entire earth.”  Then, Jeremiah 4:23-26 appears to present a picture of universal desolation—in which ha-aretz becomes without form and void (cp. Genesis 1:2), the heavens have no light, the mountains tremble, the hills move, there is no man, the birds of the heaven have fled, the fruitful place becomes a wilderness, and the cities are broken down.  But Ben Zvi does not view this passage as describing the unraveling all of creation, for its statement that the birds fled indicates that there was some place for them to flee.  Consequently, Ben Zvi contends that even this passage posits a “large but geographically limited destruction.”

Ben Zvi then looks at Deuteronomy 32:22: “For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.”  Ben Zvi does not think that this passage is describing the destruction of the entire world, however, for the chapter is about God’s punishment of Israel, plus verses 26-27 indicate that people (Israel’s enemies, and men of the nations) continue to exist.

Ben Zvi concludes that Zephaniah 1:18 is ambiguous—and may even be a rhetorical double-entendre that expresses the views of Judahites, who saw their own annihilation as “subjectively tantamount to a total destruction”.

3.  On page 139, Ben Zvi states: “Writing a ‘story’ about a prophet calling the people for repentance, in order to produce the material basis for personal or communal reflection, is an entirely different activity than actually calling the people to repentance.”  Here, Ben Zvi is reiterating an idea that he expressed in the introduction: that the Book of Zephaniah may include Zephaniah’s prophecies to his contemporaries, but it is not a complete transcript.  After all, Ben Zvi points out, reading the Book of Zephaniah takes ten minutes, and it was unlikely that Zephaniah spoke that short of a message!  Ben Zvi affirms that the Book of Zephaniah was a book for communities after the time of Zephaniah, a book that underwent redaction.  For Zephaniah’s contemporaries, Zephaniah spoke a message of repentance.  Subsequent communities, however, saw Zephaniah as a story about a prophet calling people to repent—and they reflected on that story.  Moreover, the Book of Zephaniah offered them hope.

On pages 149-151, Ben Zvi discusses a question that is relevant to the issue of Zephaniah and subsequent communities of interpretation: How did post-monarchic communities view Zephaniah’s prophecies about the wrath of YHWH? 

Did they think that these prophecies were fulfilled in the past?  According to Ben Zvi, “their very existence was the most convincing proof that it was not the case.”  Zephaniah predicted a vast destruction—and these Judahites were still around.  The communities could denounce Zephaniah as a false prophet, but they did not do so, for they transmitted his prophecies from generation to generation.  They could conclude that Zephaniah’s prophecy of destruction concerned the distant future—and that would coincide with eschatological interpretations of prophetic books, which applied their messages to the far-off future.  Or they may have concluded that Zephaniah’s prophecy was partially or metaphorically fulfilled.  On the basis of such passages as Zephaniah 2:3, communities may have concluded that God preserved the righteous and the humble—which was why there were still Judahites around.

4.  Ben Zvi talks about non-literal language in his discussion of Zephaniah 2:4, which states: “For Gaza shall be forsaken, and Ashkelon a desolation: they shall drive out Ashdod at the noon day, and Ekron shall be rooted up.”  Ben Zvi does not take that as a literal, historical account of what happened to the cities, or of what Judahites envisioned happening to the cities.  Rather, he believes that the literary practice of paronomasia is going on in this verse—and paronomasia is a play on words that sound alike.  Still, Ben Zvi does maintain that the verse is conveying “the sense of general disaster that will befall the country”.  At this point, I wonder why paronomasia cannot be used to convey what Zephaniah believed would actually occur.  Why separate literary artistry from an attempt to describe things literally?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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