Zephaniah the Prophet

Prophet Zephaniah
Old Russian Orthodox Icon
18th Century

This is my second post on Zephaniah. Read the first study in this series by clicking here.

The book of Zephaniah is the ninth book in the collection known as the Twelve Minor Prophets. These twelve prophets are classified as “Minor Prophets” not because they were minor in significance nor because their message was not relevant to their society. Rather, they are called Minor Prophets because their books are not as large as the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Zephaniah was a prophet who ministered in Judah during the reign of Josiah (640–609 B.C.). A careful study of the message of Zephaniah indicates that Zephaniah began his prophetic ministry before the religious reforms of Josiah.

A quick survey of the Minor Prophets will reveal that biographical information about the prophets is minimal. Zephaniah is the only canonical prophet with a detailed genealogy. The book of Zephaniah is the only prophetic book that provides extensive genealogical information about a prophet’s family. The four-generation genealogy found at the beginning of the book traces Zephaniah’s lineage back to Hezekiah. The genealogy introducing the ministry and message of Zephaniah says:

“The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah, in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (Zephaniah 1:1).

This editorial information in the book tells the reader many things about the prophet. First, the superscription tells that Zephaniah was active during the reign of King Josiah, who ruled in Jerusalem in the seventh century B.C. Thus, it is very probable that the message of Zephaniah provided the impetus for the Josianic reforms. The religious reforms of Josiah took place in several stages: “In the eighth year of his reign [632 B.C.], while he was still a boy, he [Josiah] began to seek the God of his ancestor David, and in the twelfth year [628 B.C.] he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the sacred poles, and the carved and the cast images” (2 Chronicles 34:3). Josiah’s reform found its culmination with the discovery of the book of the law of Moses in 622 B.C. (on the reforms of Josiah, read here, and here).

Second, the superscription says that Zephaniah was a descendant of Hezekiah. There are three persons named Hezekiah in the Hebrew Bible. In addition to Hezekiah, the King of Judah, and the great-great-grandfather of the prophet Zephaniah, the only other Hezekiah mentioned in the Bible was the leader of a family that returned from the Babylonian exile (Ezra 2:16). Whether the Hezekiah mentioned in the genealogy of Zephaniah was the Judean king who reigned in Judah in the eighth century B.C. is debated by scholars (more on Hezekiah here, here, and here). However, since Zephaniah is the only prophet who has provided an abnormally long genealogy, the attempt to identify Zephaniah’s ancestors may be an indication that the superscription is trying to convince the readers of the royal ancestry of Zephaniah.

The attempt to provide the genealogy of a prophet’s ancestors to the fourth generation is quite unusual. The primary purpose of a genealogy is to provide legal information about a person. Thus, the genealogy at the beginning of Zephaniah’s book is designed to add credibility or integrity to the message of the prophet. Thus, it is possible to conclude that the mention of Hezekiah in the genealogical list of Zephaniah was of special importance.

Robert Wilson, in his book, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), p. 279, wrote: “Linear genealogies of this type have only one function: to ground in the past an individual’s claims to power, property, or position.”

If the intent of Zephaniah’s genealogy was to prove that the prophet was a member of the royal family, one would think that the redactor would specifically mention that Hezekiah was the king of Judah. Yet, the linear genealogy found in the book is very common in the Old Testament and does not make an attempt to emphasize any of the persons named in the genealogy other than the prophet himself.

For this reason, whether this Hezekiah was the king of Judah has been a topic of debate among scholars. While some accept the fact that Zephaniah was a member of the royal family, others have rejected the view that Zephaniah was related to King Hezekiah. Personally, I believe that the Hezekiah mentioned in the genealogy of Zephaniah was the one who ruled in Judah in the eighth century B.C.

Third, the genealogical information at the beginning of the book says that the father of Zephaniah was Cushi. In the Hebrew Bible, the name “Cush” has two meanings. Generally, the word “Cush” is translated as Ethiopia. The name “Ethiopia” probably means “the land of the people of burnt faces.” The name given to the land was a reference to the dark skin of the people who lived in Ethiopia (see Jeremiah 13:23). The word “Cush” also appears as the names of two people in the Old Testament. Cushi was the great-grandfather of Jehudi, an officer in King Jehoiakim’s court. The other person who was called Cushi was the father of Zephaniah.

Since the name Cushi is generally identified with Ethiopia, some people think that Zephaniah was a foreigner. For instance, David T. Adamo, in his book Africa and the Africans in the Old Testament (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), p. 116, called Zephaniah “The African Prophet.” Adamo believes that since Hezekiah had more interaction with Africa than any other king of Judah, Hezekiah married an African woman who then gave birth to Zedekiah’s grandfather. Adamo concludes: “Thus to find an African as one of these prophets means that Africans have contributed to the total development of ancient Israel” (p. 119).

It is doubtful that Zephaniah’s father was an Ethiopian or an African. There is no doubt that in the past there were intermarriage and foreign influence in the Judean royal family. However, the fact that all the ancestors of Zephaniah have Hebrew names, indicate that his ancestors were Judeans. In addition, the listing of a genealogy with four generations was probably designed to prove that Zephaniah was not a foreigner, notwithstanding the name of his father and that he was a full Israelite and a member of the royal family.

If Zephaniah was a member of the royal family then one would understand the significant influence that he might have exercised in the religious formation of the young king. If Zephaniah was a relative of Josiah, he probably had access to the young king at the time the king was growing and receiving advice from people who were committed to the ancient religious traditions of Israel.

His passionate message against the social and religious evil present in Judean society developed in the young king a sense of urgency that eventually led him to call Israel to turn from their evil ways.

Zephaniah was called by God to proclaim an urgent message. The Lord placed his messenger in a strategic place and gave him a special mission: to call the king and the people of Judah back to the ancient traditions of Israel.

STUDIES ON THE PROPHET ZEPHANIAH

Prophets in Israel

Zephaniah the Prophet

The Historical Context of Zephaniah’s Ministry

Zephaniah and the Judgment of God

Zephaniah and the Palestinians

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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