I finished Ehud Ben Zvi’s A Historical-Critical Study of the Book of Zephaniah.
Ben Zvi believes that there were three stages of the Book of Zephaniah: a compositional stage, a pre-compositional stage, and a post-compositional stage. At the compositional stage, there was a post-monarchic composer of the Book of Zephaniah, who was writing for a community. This community was obviously privileged, for it was literate enough to understand the Book of Zephaniah’s word-plays and allusions to other writings that eventually made their way into the Hebrew Bible. At the same time, the community saw itself as oppressed, humble, and poor, much like the community that produced the anwim Psalms. The community of the Book of Zephaniah did not have a political program that anticipated the restoration of the Davidic monarchy, but rather it exhorted people to wait on the LORD to save Israel. The author of the Book of Zephaniah spoke in the name of a known prophet from Judah’s pre-exilic period, and he viewed himself as that prophet’s successor.
Regarding the date of the book, Ben Zvi’s discussion of the Oracles Against the Nations (OAN) was informative. According to Ben Zvi, the OAN criticized the nations for not recognizing that the LORD is God, but they did not presume that God required the nations to actually worship him, for that was only a command for Israel. Ben Zvi states that the author selected for his book the oracles that were fulfilled, in order to buttress Zephaniah’s authority as a prophet. Unlike other prophetic writings, however, the Book of Zephaniah did not talk about Egypt and Edom, for these nations had not been conquered at the time that the author was composing his book. The Kingdom of Edom was conquered in 553 B.C.E., and Egypt was conquered by Cambryses in 525 B.C.E., and so the OAN must have been composed before that time—in the early days of the post-monarchic period. Moreover, for Ben Zvi, the absence of any indication of Hellenistic influence in the book indicates that it was written before the Hellenistic Period. A significant issue that has occurred in this commentary by Ben Zvi concerns unfulfilled prophecies. Ben Zvi states that certain events in the Book of Zephaniah were believed to have already been fulfilled, whereas the salvation oracles were deemed to have a future fulfillment. And the Book of Zephaniah itself encourages its audience to wait patiently.
According to Ben Zvi, the pre-compositional stage presented the remaining Judahites engaging in pastoral activities, whereas the compositional stage downplayed that, focusing instead on the remnant in the city of Jerusalem, which may have been Gedaliah’s group, or the remnant after his assassination. Ben Zvi sees no evidence that the pre-compositional stage reflected a single Zephanic source, from a particular social perspective, and he cites Zephaniah 1:4-6 and 3:3-4 as examples of diversity at the pre-compositional level. (Personally, I do not see how the two contradict each other, but they do address different subjects.) Ben Zvi is highly skeptical of scholarly ability to recover the words of the original Zephaniah, but he does acknowledge that certain pre-compositional traditions were accepted as Zephanic, and so the author of the Book of Zephaniah felt compelled to use them.
For Ben Zvi, the post-compositional stage was concerned about theodicy, and it sought to highlight that Jerusalem and Judah fell on account of sin. Granted, previous stages made that point as well, but there are additions to the text that appear to reflect that point-of-view.
In my opinion, this wasn’t the easiest book to read, for Ben Zvi was open to a variety of perspectives throughout the book, and the conclusion was where he really set forth his own point-of-view. Before then, although he did give his own opinion, I had a difficult time identifying it because he went through different opinions and possibilities. But I appreciated Ben Zvi’s sensitivity to the history of biblical interpretation—as he interacted with Jerome, medieval Jewish commentators, and John Calvin’s commentary. Ben Zvi also discussed issues that are of interest to me, such as unfulfilled prophecy, and why religious communities passed on books whose prophecies did not come to pass.