The Historical Context of Zephaniah’s Ministry

Scholars are in agreement that Zephaniah exercised his ministry in Jerusalem prior of the reforms of Josiah. The editorial introduction to the book says that Zephaniah was active during the reign of King Josiah, the son of Amon, and the grandson of Manasseh. Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign in 640 B.C. and he died in Megiddo in 609 B.C. in a battle against Neco, the king of Egypt (2 Kings 23:29).

It is clear from Zephaniah’s oracles that his message provided the impetus for Josiah’s reform in 622 B.C. (on Josiah’s reform, here and here). Zephaniah’s influence on Josiah’s reform will be the focus of my next post. In this study, I want to consider the historical context of Zephaniah’s ministry.

When Zephaniah began his prophetic ministry, Judah was a vassal of Assyria. At the end of the eighth century B.C., Hezekiah made an effort to gain independence from Assyrian domination. When the seventh century dawned on Judah, Hezekiah was still in power, and still a vassal of Assyria. Hezekiah’s attempt at independence and freedom from Assyrian control failed and he was unable to break the yoke of oppression.

During the reign of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, the Assyrian empire was the dominant power in the Ancient Near East. After the Assyrian army was decimated by a plague in the days of Isaiah, it is possible that Sennacherib invaded Judah for a second time and only Hezekiah’s death saved him from severe retribution at the hands of Assyria (on Sennacherib’s invasion, here).

After the death of Hezekiah in 687 B.C., his son Manasseh (687-642) ascended to the throne of Judah. Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king. At the time Manasseh became king, he had two choices about the future of his kingdom. He could rebel against Assyria and refuse to pay the annual tribute or he could continue as a vassal of Assyria and guarantee the stability of his kingdom and receive protection from Assyria. Because of the dominance of the Assyrian empire in the Ancient Near East and the strength of its army, Manasseh had no other choice but to desist from any attempt to gain independence from Assyria. Manasseh accepted Assyrian sovereignty and declared Judah to be a loyal vassal.

Because of his voluntary subjugation to Assyria, Manasseh was highly criticized by the writers of the book of Kings and he was declared to be an evil king: “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, following the abominable practices of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 21:2).

Since Manasseh chose to become a loyal vassal of Assyria, he abandoned the religious reforms of his father Hezekiah. During Manasseh’s reign, Assyria controlled the economic, religious, and political life of Judah with a strong hand.

Manasseh’s policy of submission greatly affected the religious life of Judah. Manasseh promoted the Assyrian worship of the “host of heavens” (2 Kings 21:3). These deities were Asshur, Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, and the worship of the sun. Manasseh promoted Canaanite religious practices in Judah: the worship of Baal and Asherah (2 Kings 21:3). He also promoted other pagan practices: child sacrifice, fertility religion, magic, and divination (2 Kings 21:6). In addition, Manasseh persecuted the followers of Yahweh, driving them underground (2 Kings 21:16).

During the long reign of Manasseh, Assyria continued to dominate Mesopotamia. Assyrian power reached its zenith with Esarhaddon (680-669), who was the commander of the Assyrian army when his father Sennacherib died. After reestablishing Assyrian power in Babylon, Esarhaddon renewed the Assyrian policy of total conquest established by his predecessors by campaigning throughout his vast empire to confront rebellious vassals. In the chronicles of his kingdom, Esarhaddon boasted of conquering rebellious vassals in Palestine and deporting them to other regions of the empire.

Esarhaddon invaded Egypt, conquered Memphis, captured the royal family, and looted the treasures of Egypt. The prophet Nahum (Nahum 3:8) mentioned the conquest of Thebes by Esarhaddon in 663 B.C.

Manasseh reigned for 55 years, longer than any other king of Judah. During his reign Manasseh reversed the policies of his father. Hezekiah’s commitment to God did not influence the religious life of of his son. Manasseh’s evil deeds surpassed even the evil reign of Ahaz, his grandfather.

After Manasseh died, his son Amon became king of Judah and continued the political and religious policies of his father. After two years on the throne, some of Amon’s officials conspired against him and assassinated him in his palace. But, a group of landed Judeans, known as “the people of the land,” killed all those who had conspired against King Amon, and then made Josiah, Amon’s son, the new king of Judah.

Josiah (640-609) reigned for thirty-one years in Jerusalem. Josiah was considered one of Judah’s greatest kings: “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25).

When Josiah became the king of Judah, the Assyrian empire was on the verge of collapse due to internal strife in the struggle for the throne of Assyria. In the midst of the political struggle in Assyria, the Babylonians, led by the Chaldean prince Nabopolassar (626-605), gained independence from Assyria by defeating them outside Babylon in 626. Nabopolassar became the founder of the neo-Babylonian empire, an empire that lasted until its demise and fall in 539 at the hands of Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia.

It is within this political maelstrom that the prophet Zephaniah proclaimed the Word of the Lord. His ministry and his criticism of the religious practices of Judah served as a wake-up call to people who were against the religious innovations introduced by Manasseh.

The struggle between Assyria and Babylon provided a window of opportunity for Judah to embark on serious religious reforms. The preaching of Zephaniah set the stage for a radical transformation of the religious life of the people. The Lord called and sent Zephaniah to the people of Jerusalem to proclaim that the terrible Day of the Lord was at hand. This is the reason Zephaniah was compelled to proclaim the word of the Lord.

Other Studies on Zephaniah:

Prophets in Israel

Zephaniah the Prophet

Zephaniah and the Palestinians

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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7 Responses to The Historical Context of Zephaniah’s Ministry

  1. Dear Dr Mariottini,

    This comment is off-topic and off-the-wall, but I hope you'll read it. I want very briefly to reopen your Velikovsky study of a year or so ago. I have three points I would like to make:
    1) The historical reconstruction does not depend on the planetary phenomena Velikovsky posited; they are an irrelevance.
    2) Without the reconstruction, there is no atrchaology of the Old Testament Settlement and Early Kings periods.
    3) The strongest element of Velikovsky's case is that, in every Mediterranean country except Egypt, there is a "Dark Age" of 400-500 years during which (in most countries) the world seems to have been virtually uninhabited. Not only do artefacts of c. 700 BC directly overlie those of c. 1200 BC, but they are in many cases intermingled in the same strata.

    Coincidentally, the archaeology of the surrounding countries prior to c. 350 BC is dated by cross-refernce to Egyptian chronology.For a detailed treatment of the problem as it applies to Greece (directly citing the works of the archaeologists involved), see the unpublished manuscript by Velikovsky and two historians of ancient Greece, The Dark Age of Greece, at http://www.varchive.org/dag/index.htm .

    I apologise for thus intruding, but if you bother to follow the URL, I believe you will find it extremely interesting.

    Regards,

    Don Mills (London)

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  2. This is an amazing post, Dr. Mariottini.

    Do you think that the "Prayer of Manasseh" found in the Apocrypha texts of the Catholic Bible is authentic? Do you think that the tradition that he killed Isaiah is also true? I'm not sure. I'd like to know what you think about it. The Bible states that Manasseh repented but it doesn't tell us what he said to God.

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  3. Marcus,

    Thank you for your comment. In answer to your questions: 1. The Prayer of Manasseh is apocryphal. It is possible that other prayers of Manasseh existed, but none of them is original. 2. According to an apocryphal book called The Assumption of Isaiah, Manasseh killed Isaiah. The book says that Isaiah was sawn in two. This may be the reference in Hebrews 11:37.

    Claude Mariottini

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  4. Dear Don,

    Thank you for this information.

    Claude Mariottini

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  5. Don,

    On Egyptian chronology, you should read this article published by the BBC.

    Claude Mariottini

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  6. Dear Dr Mariottini,

    I have litle doubt that you don't want to engage in a long exchange on a subject you thought closed, so I'm particularly touched that you bothered to reply. On the subject of C14 dating, though, we have a basic problem, summed up by one Egyptologist in this way: "When a C14 date agrees with what we think, we put it in the text, When it doesn't disagree too badly, we put it in a footnote. If it disagrees altogether, we leave it out".To illustrate: there have been prior C14 tests of material from Tut-Ankh-Amen's tomb.

    In 1964, three wood scraps were dated by the U of Penn Lab as being from a couple of centuries after Tut-Ankh-Amen's death. A later (1971) test by the British Museum, on short-lived plants (palm kernels and reeds from a mat), produced dates from the 9th Century BC–about 500 years after the date normally assigned to Tut-Ankh-Amen, but almost exactly where Velikovsky placed him historically.The scientists concerned refused to publish these results, because they were so discrepant from what was "known" to be true. We know of the results only from the scientists' correspondence; see http://www.specialtyinterests.net/carbon14.html.

    As the science historian De Grazia wrote, "science is what scientists do, not what they say they do."The BBC article (thankyou for the ref.) quoted a Cranfield scientist as saying, "We used seeds and plant material from Tutankhamun's tomb, which is very precisely dated." The question is, how is it precisely dated? There is certainly no inscription anywhere that says, "King Tut was buried here in 1323 BC", or 1328, or any of the other "precise" dates given for his death! The dating was worked out by an "astronomical" method ("Sothic dating"), which Egyptologists have long trusted over the discordant results of C14 dating.

    The astronomical method is now discredited in many respects; of the three widely-separated dates "provided" by it (all other dates being reconstructed between those three), the earliest is now universally rejected; the second fails to provide a place or date to tie it to (so these have to be guessed); and the third provides a name (Amenhotep I), but no calendar date, so its hisotrical date is set on a-priori grounds ("we know when Amenhotep I must have lived, so that must be the right date").Despite their many flaws, Egyptologists have stuck with the "Sothic" dates, even when seriously challenged by C14 dating, because they had almost nothing else to turn to.There remains a lot more here than meets the eye. But with that thought I'll thank you for your courtesy, and leave you in peace.

    My very best wishes to you,

    Don Mills (London)

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  7. Don,

    Thank you for your comment. As I have mentioned several times in previous comments, I do not accept Velikovsky’s theory about his revision of history and chronology. As I mentioned in my post, Velikovsky’s theory is based on the event of the Exodus.I cannot accept the fact that the plagues of Egypt were caused by the planet Mars. I cannot accept his view that The Admonitions of Ipuwer is the work of an eyewitness of the exodus. I cannot accept the proposal that the Amalekites of the Bible are the Hyksos of history. Once I reject these basic Velikovsky’s assumptions then the rest of his views become unacceptable. This is the reason I do not want to continue to discuss Velikovsky’s views.You can read my post today on Egyptian chronology.

    Claude Mariottini

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