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ZEPHANIAH (Heb. צְפַנְיָה), Judean prophet whose activity is dated to the reign of King Josiah (639–609). In addition to the usual mention of his father's name (Cushi), his ancestry is traced back four generations to *Hezekiah, possibly the king of that name. If so, Zephaniah was a distant relative of King *Josiah (cf. Zeph. 1:4). He lived in Jerusalem and prophesied there. It has been suggested plausibly that "Cushi" refers to the prophet's ultimate African origin in the area conventionally rendered "Ethiopia," but actually corresponding to contemporary Sudan (Rice). Note also the positive reference to *Cush in Zephaniah 3:10 (cf. Ps. 68:32).

Book of Zephaniah


The Book of Zephaniah is the ninth book of the Latter Prophets. The Qumran sectaries wrote a pesher (a commentary making use of fulfillment exegesis) on the book, relating it to their own times. The name צְפַנְיָה means "YHWH has hidden," or "YHWH has treasured." The genealogy given in Zephaniah 1:1 traces Zephaniah's ancestry back four generations to a certain Hezekiah, who some have identified with Hezekiah, king of Judah (715–687 B.C.E.), although this identification is sometimes doubted because Hezekiah is not referred to as king (Zephaniah's genealogy was already debated by medieval Jewish commentators). According to the superscription, Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of King Josiah (640–609 B.C.E.). Some scholars would date the work during the reign of Jehoiakim (609–598 B.C.E.); others prefer postexilic dates or at least significant postexilic additions. Ben Zvi opts for an exilic or postexilic dating but despairs of recovering an original seventh-century Zephaniah, or his sayings. The present author is of the opinion that the basic material in Zephaniah corresponds well enough to the period of Josiah's rule, so that with the exception of some later interpolations, the traditional dating offers the best solution

An apparent 50 years' silence of prophetic inactivity is shattered by the forceful and articulate voice of Zephaniah. The long reign of Manasseh (687–642 B.C.E.) witnessed the promotion of cults of other divinities alongside Yahweh, a situation which the Hebrew prophets, with their zeal for the worship of Yahweh alone, opposed. The abuses attacked by Zephaniah in chapter 1, such as astral worship (1:4–5) and aping foreign customs (1:8–9), are largely those decried in Kings (II Kings 21:2–9; 23:4–7), which Josiah's reform (621 B.C.E.) sought to eliminate. The external situation was even more ominous. The breakup of the mighty Assyrian empire with the attendant cataclysmic upheaval was already causing a premonition of doom to pervade the international atmosphere. Such a time was propitious for a sensitive person, steeped in the cultic and literary traditions of his people, to arrive at a deepened meaning of the swiftly approaching Day of YHWH.


Despite recent attempts to fragment and/or rewrite the Book of Zephaniah, the overall structure of large units of the book as well as its rhetorical features argue strongly for the basic integrity of the work. The assumption that all passages of hope and eschatological statements must be postexilic is no longer tenable. In fact, there is little in the book that does not fit the historical period in question, nor is there serious internal inconsistency. The style exhibits the magnificent artistry of the author, who utilizes many poetic devices (see Avishur) and reaches sublime heights in the famous hymn concerning the "Day of YHWH" (1:15ff.), "a day of wrath is that day." The Vulgate's translation of yom evrah ha-yom ha-hu ʾ by "dies irae dies illa" inspired the medieval hymn "Dies Irae," which remains part of the Catholic Requiem Mass. The book also contains the beautiful "Zion Hymn" (3:14–17).


Chapter 1 begins with a prophecy of total destruction (asof, asef, cf. Jer. 8:13) of all life and of the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem in particular. There is not one word of hope. No one is to be spared. The sin of the people, especially that of the leaders, is pictured in stark and graphic detail: they worship Baal and the host of heaven, they swear by their king (malkam; though a god rather than a human king may be referred to here), and turn away from following YHWH. This judgment speech is set within the framework of an ominous portrayal of "The Day of YHWH" in which Zephaniah carries further the concepts of Amos (5:18–20) and Isaiah (2:6–22). This day, portrayed as the day of YHWH's sacrifice, will be a day of utter darkness and gloom, whose sound of howling and wailing stands in sharp contrast to the silence with which the people are called into YHWH's presence: "Hush before the Lord YHWH" (1:7).

Chapter 2 begins as an oracle of woe against Jerusalem and Judah (2:1–3), which continues the motif of a judgment by fire and calls upon the faithful to actively strive for justice, righteousness, and humility. Perhaps a remnant might be saved (cf. Amos 5:14–15). The warning and promise are supported by an oracle against the Philistines and other coastal people (2:4–7), whose destruction would mean salvation and pasturing for the remnant of Judah. This oracle begins and ends with a double use of roots (הִתְקוֹשְׁשׁוּ וָקוֹשּׁוּ – whose meaning is unclear – verse 1, and וְשָׁב שְׁבוּתָם, verse 7; cf. 1:2; 3:20). It may be closely related to the material in chapter 1, providing at least a ray of hope for the faithful remnant. The oracle against Moab and Ammon (2:8–11) is generally regarded as reflecting a later period. However, Moab had long been known for its pride (cf. Mesha Stele and Jer. 48:26–30), an evil which was of special concern to Zephaniah (cf. 2:3; 3:11–12). The chapter concludes with a short statement against Cushites, perhaps referring to the Cushites in Egyptian military service, and a detailed and vivid description of judgment against Assyria and Nineveh, an oracle which appears to have been uttered around the time of the destruction of Nineveh in 612 B.C.E.

Chapter 3 begins as an oracle of woe against Jerusalem and its leaders. This prophecy might very well have been written after the Deuteronomic reformation (621 B.C.E.) and before Josiah's death (609 B.C.E.), reflecting doubts concerning the depth of the reform, a view also expressed by Jeremiah. Following the accusation (3:1–7), the announcement (3:8–13) repeats the threat of total destruction (cf. 1:18), but is transformed by the rhetorical use of כִּי־אָז ("but instead") in verses 9, 11 into a salvation oracle. Zephaniah 3:9 makes use of the ancient Near Eastern motif that distant peoples spoke "twisted tongues" (CAD L, 213), and prophesies that all peoples will have clear speech so that all will call upon the name of YHWH and worship together at His holy mountain. The prophet then breaks into a joyous and exultant Zion hymn (3:14–17), rejoicing that YHWH, the King, in their midst, has taken away their sentence and given victory. His use of the Zion tradition emphasizes his belief that the future is in the hands of YHWH, who alone can change the nature of the people so that they can be humble and righteous (cf. Hos. 2:21–22). The chapter and the book conclude (3:18–20) with an ingathering of exiles, presumably a late addition, so that the people of YHWH might be restored and given fame and praise.


A.B. Davidson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (1896); S.R. Driver, The Minor Prophets (1906); J.M.P. Smith, Micah, Zephaniah and Nahum (ICC, 1911); G.A. Smith, The Book of the Twelve Prophets, 2 (1929); O. Procksch. Die kleinen prophetischen Schriften nach dem Exil (1929); G. Gerleman, Zephanja: Textkritisch und literarisch untersucht (1942); S.M. Lehrman, Zephaniah (1948, 1961); J.P. Hyatt, in: JNES, 7 (1948), 25–29; C.L. Taylor, The Book of Zephaniah (1956); A. George, Michée, Sophonie, Nahum (1958); D.L. Williams, in: JBL 82 (1963), 77–88; A. Deissler, Sophonie (1964); F. Horst, Die zwölf kleinen Propheten: Nahum bis Maleachi (1964); K. Elliger, Das Buch der zwölf kleinen Propheten, 2 (1967); M. Bič, Trois-prophètes dans un temps de ténèbres: Sophonie-Nahum-Habaquaq (1968). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: G. Rice, in: Journal of Religious Thought, 36 (1979), 21–31; J. Roberts, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (1991); E. Ben Zvi, A Historical-Critical Study of the Book of Zephaniah (1991); idem, DBI, 2:669–73; Y. Avishur, in: Z. Weisman (ed.), Tre Asar Bet (Olam ha-Tanakh; 1993), 118–35; A. Berlin, Zephaniah (AB; 1994); J. Keselman, in: ABD, 6:1077–80; M. Sweeney, Zephaniah (Hermeneia; 2003).