Connections 06.05.2016: Perhaps…

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Zephaniah 1:4-6, 14-16; 2:3

I read the Scripture passage for today’s lesson and thought, “Well, that’s cheerful.” Of all passages in the Bible, the hardest ones for me are those that speak of God’s laying waste to lands and people and animals—sometimes, it seems, indiscriminately. In these few verses, God stretches out a hand against the nations, cuts off the enemies of God (1:4), and brings a day of wrath, distress, anguish, ruin, devastation, darkness, and gloom (1:15). And the most difficult part of this lesson text? Zephaniah 2:3, which contains no certainty, no sure protection, no hint of heavily lavished grace. Instead, the “humble of the land, who do his commands,” are urged to continue to “Seek the LORD…seek righteousness, seek humility.” Their reward for their faithfulness is that “perhaps” they will be protected on the day of God’s wrath.

Perhaps?

In passages like these, it’s hard to find the gracious, loving, forgiving, slow-to-anger God that we know from other Scriptures. And yet isn’t this the same God?

How could it be the same God? This passage reminds me of the days when I feel fed up as a parent. I’ve told my daughters the same thing over and over again, and they still don’t seem to heed me. When that happens, I’ve been known to throw my hands in the air and make a sweeping judgment: “From now on, you will not watch any television during the school week because it keeps you from your other tasks!” “From now on, I won’t buy clothes for you since you can’t take care of them!” “From now on, we won’t let you have sleepovers with your friends because you act like children from the pits of Hades the next day!”

And then come their small voices: “But we’ll do better next time, Mama. If we do things right for a few days, could we please have [insert privilege] back?” I may soften a little, but I have to keep a strong front for them, even as I realize the rashness of my generalized judgment. So I answer, “Maybe.”

Maybe…. Perhaps….

Passages like these in Zephaniah seem to describe such a human God. This God is acting like a fed-up mama who reaches the breaking point. I have to remind myself that such Scriptures were written by people who interpreted events the best way they could. They described God in such human ways because they were human too.

There may be times when God does feel like a fed-up mama or daddy. We certainly give God plenty of reasons to feel that way! Regardless of how we interpret God’s movement in our lives, though, we can be certain that God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isa 55:9). We can only begin to grasp the motivations of the Lord. As for me, I’m going to keep trusting that God does love me and is working all things together for good (Rom 8:28).

Discussion

1. What other Bible stories show God unleashing a sweeping judgment against sin?
2. How do the characterizations of God in these stories and in our Zephaniah passages make you feel?
3. Why do you think we attribute such human qualities to God? In what ways might that help us understand God better? In what ways might it hinder our full understanding of God?
4. What do you think it means to be “hidden on the day of the LORD’s wrath” (Zeph 2:3)?
5. What Scriptures (such as Rom 8:28) do you cling to when God’s ways seem frightening or confusing? How do these help you balance other descriptions of God? How do they make your understanding of God more complete?

Reference Shelf

Judgment on Groups in Jerusalem, 1:4-6

Zephaniah 1:4-6 shifts from the universal perspective of Zephaniah 1:2-3 by pronouncing devastation against those performing syncretistic acts in Judah and Jerusalem only. Interpreters treat this change in various ways: (1) using judgment on Judah to illustrate the universal judgment of 1:2-3; (2) as the sign of a new independent unit; or (3) an earlier source (1:4-6) that has been given a broader setting for Zephaniah as a literary entity.

Zephaniah names the addressees as Judah, Jerusalem, the remnant of Baal, and the idolatrous priests. The phrase “every remnant of Baal” is difficult to understand as an element of the early Josianic years because the reforms had not begun. Rather, the phrase implies that some action has already been undertaken against the worshipers of Baal when one reads this unit in light of Zephaniah’s superscription (see “Baal Worship” in Hos 2:7). The next addressee, which the NRSV translates as “idolatrous priests,” is treated differently by the MT and LXX. The NRSV, however, follows the LXX by omitting “with the priests” after “the name of the idolatrous priests.” In doing so, the NRSV changes the focus of the text as a quick comparison with the NAS (which more closely follows the MT) demonstrates. In the MT, the anticipated judgment of 1:4 affects all Judah, not just the Baal worshipers. The assumption is that all are guilty.

Zephaniah 1:5 condemns the syncretistic practices of the late seventh century. After nearly a century or more of Assyrian rule in the region, and after the lengthy reign of Manasseh (who is condemned in the Deuteronomistic History for his inclusion of astral deity worship in the worship of YHWH), the reforms of Josiah are portrayed as a strong renunciation of religious accommodation and play a role here. This verse condemns foreign worship: the worship of the astral deities, a prominent feature of Assyrian religion, and the worship of “Milcom.”

James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Micah–Malachi, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011) 713–15.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters, and watching television shows on Netflix.

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