The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Woe to Her (3:1-2)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

Thank you for indulging me during a much-needed hiatus. I am feeling more like myself at the beginning of this final week of October. The exhaustion that nearly took me out served as a good reminder. God has not asked me to do all the things. He’s only asked me to do what He’s asked me to do. There is a difference.

Getting Back to the Scene

We are stepping into the third chapter of Zephaniah. We have read judgments on the people of God and judgments on the nations that raged against the people of God. We have learned that the Lord takes sin seriously. He is gracious, patient and ever-loving, but there comes a time when the clock runs out. The people have refused to heed His warnings. They have not listened to the prophets He sent them. They have continued on down their own path, doing their own thing. God, bound by the honesty of His character, is moved to act, just as He said He would (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).

Woe to her who is rebellious and polluted,
To the oppressing city!
She has not obeyed His voice,
She has not received correction;
She has not trusted in the Lord,
She has not drawn near to her God.

– Zephaniah 3:1-2 (NKJV)

Just a Picture

The city of Jerusalem is cast as a woman here. This doesn’t mean that God is anti-woman. This does not mean that women sin more than men. This is simply a picture of God’s relationship with His people, men and women alike. Such imagrey is abundant in both the Old and New Testaments. Those in covenant with God are often spoken of as “wife” (Israel) and “bride” (the Church).

The wife:

“I will betroth you to Me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me
In righteousness and justice,
In lovingkindness and mercy;
I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness,
And you shall know the LORD.”

– Hosea 2:19-20 (NKJV)

The bride:

And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, “Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.” And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.

Then he said to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!’” And he said to me, “These are the true sayings of God.”

– Revelation 19:7-9 (NKJV)

God uses human terms to explain great mysteries to us. Everyone understands what marriage is. We know what that looks like. Yet, as He so often does, He takes what we know and turns it on its head. Consider:

As a rule, the fathers arranged the match. The girl was consulted, but the “calling of the damsel and inquiring at her mouth” after the conclusion of all negotiations was merely a formality.

In those days a father was more concerned about the marriage of his sons than about the marriage of his daughters. No expense was involved in marrying off a daughter. The father received a dowry for his daughter whereas he had to give a dowry to the prospective father-in-law of his son when marrying him off. (1)

The Father has indeed arranged the match – and that arranging involved Him paying the highest of costs. He receives no payment in return, for there is nothing we can give Him that matches the expense. Nor does He force anyone to enter into the relationship. He respects the voice and choice of the individual.

(As an aside, those who complain in articles and books about the “feminization of the church” should probably take it up with God, since since the whole thing was His idea).

Not Listening

Instead of being holy, the city was filthy and polluted because of shameful sin; and instead of bringing peace (Jerusalem means “city of peace”), the city was guilty of rebellion and oppression. God gave His people to revelation of Himself in His word and His mighty acts, yet they didn’t believe Him or seek Him. (2)

The NKJV renders the Hebrew shâma‛ of verse two as “obey,” but within the imagery of a marriage relationship God is using as He speaks through the prophet, the NASB “heeded” (“she heeded no voice”) is a better translation choice. Scripture teaches that children are to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1) but nowhere does it teach that wives are to obey their husbands. (This is, of course, where the imagery breaks down some, for we are required to obey the Lord).

The point here is not, “Hey! You women! Pay attention. You should be obeying your husbands.” Instead, the point is that God’s people weren’t listening to Him. They had access to His word. They knew how they were supposed to live. They knew what they were supposed to avoid and what the rhythm of life was to be. It is as if they stuck their fingers in their ears and screamed, “I’m not listening! I’m not listening!”

God is ever-speaking, even when He seems silent. In fact, the silence is often an answer, a way of communicating. He is the husband who always has the best interests of His wife at heart. He never does anything out of a desire to harm. He doesn’t try to squash His wife’s spirit. He only wants His wife to live within the protective boundaries He has designed.

“I clothed you in embroidered cloth and gave you sandals of badger skin; I clothed you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your wrists, and a chain on your neck. And I put a jewel in your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidered cloth. You ate pastry of fine flour, honey, and oil. You were exceedingly beautiful, and succeeded to royalty. Your fame went out among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through My splendor which I had bestowed on you,” says the Lord GOD.

– Ezekiel 16:10-14 (NKJV)

Not Correction

My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor detest His correction;
For whom the LORD loves He corrects,
Just as a father the son in whom he delights.

– Proverbs 3:11-12 (NKJV)

They were not listening, so they could not – would not – receive the discipline that justly came their way in the form of: increasingly harsh and gloomy words from the prophets, growing political turmoil, disease, famine and general turmoil.

“But you trusted in your own beauty, played the harlot because of your fame, and poured out your harlotry on everyone passing by who would have it. You took some of your garments and adorned multicolored high places for yourself, and played the harlot on them. Such things should not happen, nor be. You have also taken your beautiful jewelry from My gold and My silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself male images and played the harlot with them. You took your embroidered garments and covered them, and you set My oil and My incense before them. Also My food which I gave you—the pastry of fine flour, oil, and honey which I fed you—you set it before them as sweet incense; and so it was,” says the Lord GOD… “You built your high places at the head of every road, and made your beauty to be abhorred. You offered yourself to everyone who passed by, and multiplied your acts of harlotry.”

– Ezekiel 16:15-19, 25 (NKJV)

Instead of clinging to the Lord, the people attached themselves to foreign gods, foreign ways of living, foreign alliances. They filled their ears with noise and their days with busyness in order to avoid what they must have somehow, somewhere deep inside, sensed was coming.

Not Trusted in the Lord

He encouraged her to depend upon him, and His power and promise, for deliverance from evil and supply with good; but she trusted not in the Lord; her confidence was placed in her alliances with the nations more than in her covenant with God. (3)

Remember that “whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4, NKJV). We are in no position to judge the Israelites, who so badly wanted to be like everyone else, for this is all too often our own temptation.

Their struggle to trust in the Lord began even before they left Egypt. God was in the middle of rescuing them, of shaping them into a new people, a nation set apart for His glory, and they doubted. They complained. They whined. They made a golden calf to worship (well, according to Aaron it just sort of appeared on its own – Exodus 32:22-24). God didn’t choose the Israelites because they had their stuff together and were super-impressive. He chose them because He wanted to, despite all of their issues.

They just couldn’t seem to collectively and consistently choose Him in return.

Not Drawn Near

He gave her tokens of his presence, and instituted ordinances of communion for her with himself; but she drew not near to her God, did not meet him where he appointed and where he promised to meet her. She stood at a distance, and said to the Almighty, “Depart.” (4)

No listening, no discipline, no trust.

How quick a descent it is into the ice bath that turns the heart frigid.

There is no way to draw near to the Lord, to love Him, without listening. Without accepting His correction. Without trusting in Him. The people of Zephaniah’s day could no more relegate God to the side, sprinkle a little holy on their lives and be about their merry way, than we can.

And so I wonder. Could God possibly be speaking these same words to His bride today?

She has not obeyed…

She has not received correction…

She has no trusted…

She has not drawn near…

Reflection

I cannot help but take these verses personally. They roll around in my mind, exposing things I would rather remain hidden. I invite you to spend some time in thought along with me. As always, don’t head directly for condemnation as you ponder these questions. Allow them instead to bring you closer to the Lord.

  1. How are you disobeying God?
  2. In what areas are you refusing to accept His correction?
  3. Do you truly trust God?
  4. Are you drawing near to Him?

Signature

Sources

(1) Ancient Jewish Marriage

(2) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 156.

(3) Matthew Henry’s Commentary (under the “study this” tab)

(4) Ibid.

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: For Their Pride (2:10-11)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

Back into the pages of the prophet we go.

This they shall have for their pride,
Because they have reproached and made arrogant threats
Against the people of the LORD of hosts.
The LORD will be awesome to them,
For He will reduce to nothing all the gods of the earth;
People shall worship Him,
Each one from his place,
Indeed all the shores of the nations.

– Zephaniah 2:10-11 (NKJV)

Recapturing Context

These verses fall smack in the middle of God’s pronouncement of judgment upon the Gentile (non-Jewish) nations for their cruelty toward His people. Coming directly on the heels of terse words against Moab and Ammon, the theme of destruction continues.

Family Ties

Moab had been harassing Israel for centuries, exactly like cousins who will not get along. (Remember, the Moabites were the descendants of Lot’s incestuous union with his daughter, and Lot was Abraham’s nephew). Just prior to the Conquest of the Promised Land,

Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was exceedingly afraid of the people because they were many, and Moab was sick with dread because of the children of Israel. So Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this company will lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time. Then he sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the sons of his people, to call him, saying: “Look, a people has come from Egypt. See, they cover the face of the earth, and are settling next to me! Therefore please come at once, curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”

– Numbers 22:2-6 (NKJV)

Balak was determined to get the upper hand. No way, no how were the Israelites going to get the best of him. In order to do so, he calls on the services of Balaam, lived in Pethor, identified as modern day Deir Alla, in Jorgan. He is who mentioned in Numbers 31:8 “in conjunction with the five kings of Midian, apparently as a person of the same rank.” (1) His social standing appears to have been based less on politics than spirituality, for it is believed that Balaam

“was from a long line of celebrated diviners, and…he and his family had made their living for several generations cursing or blessing people. It was their family trade. They passed it down, giving their sons names that went along with it, names like “Burning” and “Devourer.” Their family reputation had traveled throughout the entire region. If anyone wanted someone cursed, they would send for a baru from Balaam’s family, since they were the best in the world at cursing people. These baru—regardless of the requester’s religion or political stripe—would, for a price, perform their auguries, say their incantations, make their sacrifices to some particular god, and then curse the other party in the name of that god.” (2)

A sorcerer-for-hire.

Instead of confronting Israel directly, Balak hoped to manipulate divine forces, because

…[t]he Moabites did not have much of an army to field against Israel, which is why they did not try to block its way by force of arms. Until recently, they had themselves been subject to the Amorites and had suddenly been freed by Israel’s conquering of Sihon and Og of Bashan. However, they were not at all grateful and decided that they would have to stop Israel themselves.” (2)

A Tale of Two Donkeys

Pause here and go read Numbers 22:22-35. I’ll wait.

Isn’t that fabulous?

The donkey kept Balaam from doing what he wasn’t supposed to do. King Balak hired him to curse the Israelites, but all Balaam could do was bless them. Over and over again he prophecies that God’s people will be strong and prosperous. Balak is frustrated to no end over this turn in events, but Balaam basically says, “I told you so.” He had warned the king that his mouth had been constrained by God.

Despite this, Balak won in the end, for unfortunately the beloved people of God proceeded to make donkeys out of themselves:

Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel.

– Numbers 25:1-3 (NKJV)

On the threshold of success, they make monumentally stupid decisions.

Israel’s men managed to find time to indulge their sexual passion with the local women of Moab. On the verge of Israel’s entering the land and thus realizing the fulfillment of God’s promises to the fathers, there was excitement and stimulation in the air. But it was excitement engendered by Moabite maidens and not by the mighty workings of God. And the sin was not merely of a sexual nature (v. 1). It also included apostasy (vv. 2-3). (4)

What prompted these women?

Interestingly, Numbers 31:16 informs the reader that the impetus behind the scheme of the Moabite seductresses was none other than Balaam of chs. 22-24. Balaam was prepared to share his services either for a fee (chs. 22-24) or gratuitously (ch. 25). He was the kind of person who refused to quit. His malice having been stymied in one instance, he soon stumbled upon another opportunity to express it. Where the potency of spell failed, possibly the potency of seduction would succeed. (5)

Balaam found a way. Despite being confronted by God Himself, the man found a way to express his spite and cause problems in Israel.

No Better Over There

Ammon, the other cousin of Israel, was also a thorn in her side.

In Deuteronomy 2:9, God forbids Moses from leading an attack against the nation. This kindness was completely overlooked, for

…[i]n the days of Jephthah [the judge] they oppressed the Israelites east of the Jordan, claiming that the latter had deprived them of their territory when they came from Egypt, whereas it was the possessions of the Amorites they took (Judges 11:1-28). They were defeated, but their hostility did not cease, and their conduct toward the Israelites was particularly shameful, as in the days of Saul (1 Samuel 11) and of David (2 Samuel 10). This may account for the cruel treatment meted out to them in the war that followed (2 Samuel 12:26-31). (6)

These were the people who threatened to blind all the people of Jabesh-Gilead – just to prove a point (1 Samuel 11). These were the people who humiliated King David’s ambassadors, shaving off half their beards and cutting up their clothes so their buttocks were exposed – for no reason (2 Samuel 10). These were the people devoted to Molech (also rendered Moloch) – a god who demanded human sacrifice.

According to the description in the Jalkut (Rashi…on Jeremiah 7:31), its image was a hollow brazen figure, with the head of an ox, and outstretched human arms. It was heated red-hot by fire from within, and the little ones placed in its arms to be slowly burned, while to prevent their parents from hearing their dying cries the sacrificing-priests beat drums. (7)

I wonder, in this age of tolerance, how people would react if the worship of Molech was revived. “It’s just their way.” “Whatever is true for them is true for them.” “No religion is ‘more right’ than another.”

The sort of disgusting worship that requires child sacrifice casts our love for relativism in a different light, doesn’t it?

Together we Ride

And the LORD sent against him raiding bands of Chaldeans, bands of Syrians, bands of Moabites, and bands of the people of Ammon; He sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the LORD which He had spoken by His servants the prophets.

– 2 Kings 24:2 (NKJV)

Zephaniah tells his audience repeatedly that Jerusalem will be destroyed because of the people’s sins. We know that they chose not to respond in repentance, for this is exactly what happened.

We should understand this verse to mean that God allowed the Ammonites and Moabites to get away with helping in the destruction of Jerusalem, for it would make little sense for God to send someone to commit a sin and then punish them for that sin. (There you go; my non-Reformed flag waves proudly). Centuries of hostility overflowed into one boiling, vicious act. An act of vengeance for vengeance’s sake. Ammon and Moab opposed Israel and delighted in her fall because they wanted to. That’s it.

Awesome to Them

God’s response?

These two arrogant nations would wind up like Sodom and Gomorrah, wiped off the face of the earth (Genesis 19; note the connection here with Lot). No more would they insult either the nation of Israel or the God of Israel. (See Amos 1:13-2:3 for further evidence of the wickedness and inhumanity of these two nations). (8)

He would reduce them to nothing. Not because He is mean. Not because He takes delight in punishing people. There comes a point when time runs out. Chance after chance was both extended and rebuffed. The people of Moab and Ammon refused to turn to the Lord in repentance and desire for restoration (I speak in generalities, for no doubt that there were individuals among those nations who sought the truth). As He had promised to preserve and protect the children of Abraham (and we can extend that promise to both the physical and the spiritual offspring), He was moved to act.

And there is the mystery, the tension. How is it that God is preserving and protecting when struggle, suffering and even death come to those He claims as His own?

The deeper I go into Zephaniah, the more I realize that God is entirely other. As Isaiah wrote,

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

– 55:8-9 (NKJV)

Sometimes we suffer as the direct result of our own actions, as the people of Zephaniah’s day would experience and as we have experienced (even when we don’t want to admit it). Other times the suffering comes without logical explanation. I’m not sure that the best course of action when baffling storms arise is to sit and attempt to decipher their origin. There are days, seasons, when we must simply lower our heads and let the winds blow, confident in His presence, sure that He sees the whole picture when we cannot.

Reflection

  1. If you’ve never read the story of Balaam, take some time now and do so. You’ll find it in Numbers 22-24. What do you think of this episode in Israel’s history? How does it strike you that God would use a donkey to get through to someone? Can God use any means He wants to speak to people?
  2. There are two primary ways God reveals Himself to us: general revelation (creation) and special revelation (the Bible). What are some things in creation that have pointed you to God? What are some Scripture passages that are especially meaningful to you?
  3. Read Judges 10-11 for a taste of Israel/Ammon relations. Fair warning – as with the rest of the book of Judges, it’s a tough read. More than a bit of blood and gore, but it provides helpful background for the judgments in Zephaniah.
  4. Is God awesome to you, or do you have a sort of “me and my buddy Jesus” attitude? Why? What needs to change?
  5. Read Zephaniah 2. What stands out to you now?

Signature

Sources

(1) Balaam

(2) Pethor

(3) Ibid.

(4) Asbury Bible Commentary

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ammonites

(7) Molech

(8) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 151.

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: All You Gentiles (2:4-9, 12-13)

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

On our plate today is a large amount of text accompanied by a lot of commentary (that barely scratches the surface). Let’s dive right in:

For Gaza shall be forsaken,
And Ashkelon desolate;
They shall drive out Ashdod at noonday,
And Ekron shall be uprooted.
Woe to the inhabitants of the seacoast,
The nation of the Cherethites!
The word of the LORD is against you,
O Canaan, land of the Philistines:
“I will destroy you;
So there shall be no inhabitant.”

The seacoast shall be pastures,
With shelters for shepherds and folds for flocks.
The coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah;
They shall feed their flocks there;
In the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening.
For the LORD their God will intervene for them,
And return their captives.

I have heard the reproach of Moab,
And the insults of the people of Ammon,
With which they have reproached My people,
And made arrogant threats against their borders.
Therefore, as I live,”
Says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel,
“Surely Moab shall be like Sodom,
And the people of Ammon like Gomorrah—
Overrun with weeds and saltpits,
And a perpetual desolation.
The residue of My people shall plunder them,
And the remnant of My people shall possess them.”

“You Ethiopians also,
You shall be slain by My sword.”

And He will stretch out His hand against the north,
Destroy Assyria,
And make Nineveh a desolation,
As dry as the wilderness.

– Zephaniah 2:4-9, 12-13 (NKJV)

Narrative Shift

I’ve grouped these verses together because they address the same thing: Judgment on Gentile (non-Jewish) people, specifically for their failure to support and embrace the people of God.

The nations named may represent all the Gentiles, since these nations correspond to the four points of the compass: Assyria (north), Cush (south), Moab and Ammon (east) and Phillistia (west). (1)

It feels a like narrative whiplash. The prophet has been chronicling Judah’s sins, their need for repentance and the judgment that will fall on them if they refuse. It’s almost as if God laid His hand on the man’s head and suddenly turned his neck in the opposite direction, forcing him to take in a new scene. Why?

This change

…indicate(s) the sweeping nature of the coming storm. All will experience it, not only Judah, but also her ancient foes. (2)

We’ve moved from one layer of prophecy to another. Jumped from a narrow view to a wider view. No person who has ever existed has managed the escape the eyes of God. He sees all. Knows all.

Will judge all.

Philistia

The Philistines entered Canaan from the west around 1200 B.C.,shortly after the Israelites had entered from the east. The two peoples struggled for control of the land, Philistia gaining the upper hand until the time of David. According to this oracle (2:4-7), the inhabitants will be totally destroyed… (3)

Who were these Philistines? The prevailing (but disputed) theory is that they originated somewhere in the Aegean Islands off the coast of Greece, with some pointing to Crete as the most likely springboard. According to Joshua 13:3 and 1 Samuel 6:17, their territory consisted of five cities (Ashkelon,  Ashdod, Ekron, Gath and Gaza), referred to as a pentapolis. Archaeological evidence, though not definitive, links them to the Mycenaeans, though whether they were the direct descendants of those who walked the halls of Knossos or were connected to and influenced by the “first Greeks” through trade is unknown. The discovery of a burial site near Ashkelon in July 2016 will shed further light on the shadowy origins of these most famous of Old Testament foes. (4)

We all know the name of one Philistine: Goliath, the giant, brought down by the faith (and the stone) of David, a teenaged shepherd who would go on to be Israel’s warrior-poet King. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel record additional struggles and interactions between the people of the coast and the people of the Promised Land. The funniest of these is found in 1 Samuel 5. In summary, the Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant and mayhem breaks loose. (Just pause now and read it. Highly entertaining).

The Philistines remained a thorn in Israel’s side for so long because of the incomplete nature of the Conquest (the book of Joshua covers this period; the people were to utterly destroy every people group then occupying the Promised Land. It’s uncomfortable reading, both when they do as God commands and when they don’t. We have to remember that God’s ways aren’t our ways [Isaiah 55:9]. We don’t see things the way He does). They actively harassed God’s people, stealing their goods and livestock and oppressing them however they could.

They fall under judgment for their treatment of the Israelites, but also for their rejection of God. The Philistines lived around and among people who knew the truth for centuries. There is no doubt that they (in general) had to make an active, conscious decision about who they would worship and how they would live.

The conflict continues to play out today. We hear about it every time something happens in the Gaza Strip.

Moab and Ammon

Regarding these nations, the oracle

…indicts them for insulting and taunting the people of God. Israel and these two peoples who were the descendants of Lot through his daughters (Ge 19:30-38) had fought often through the centuries over the territory of Gilead. (5)

Nearly everything about Lot’s life as recorded in Genesis flies past the PG-13 mark. It’s hard to have sympathy for him. First, he’s greedy, taking the best of the land when given a choice by his uncle, the patriarch Abraham (Genesis 13). He then proceeds to get captured (Genesis 14) because he wasn’t exactly smart in choosing where to settle (Genesis 19). Lot gets a few points for recognizing God’s angels when they come to enact judgment upon Sodom (Genesis 19:1-2), but then he loses them when a crowd of men wants to rape the angels and he goes, “Nah, take my daughters instead.”

After fleeing Sodom (at which point his wife turns into a pillar of salt because she wasn’t exactly a paragon of awesomeness, either), he proceeds to get rip-roaring drunk and have sex with those same daughters. Now, I ask you: How drunk and stupid does a man have to be to have sex with his daughters?! They had kids by him, so the chances are good that this happened more than once. (And yes, the daughters are equally icky for initiating the whole thing).

Blame nature, blame nurture, blame whatever, but with a beginning like this, it’s not hugely surprising that the nations that developed from the men named Moab and Ben-Ammi were the way they were. I don’t doubt that their hatred for their Israelite cousins can be traced right to this spot. It’s not hard for me to imagine Lot sputtering and spitting about his more fortunate relative, poisoning future generations with bitterness. (This is, of course, conjecture and generalized. I could be very wrong).

The bright spot in Moab/Israel relations is recorded in the book of Ruth. That’s a story we ladies can cheer over and it doesn’t have anything to do with Boaz and romance. God used an unlikely woman from an unlikely place. She had a son named Obed, who had a son named Jesse, who had a son named David. Ruth, the peasant woman from Moab, is part of the lineage of Jesus Christ.

Ethiopia (Cush)

This nation was located in the upper Nile region. Some students think the references includes Egypt, another long-time enemy. (6)

Warren Weirsbe’s is not off-base in his assessment here. There are scant biblical references to actual interaction between Ethiopia (sometimes rendered Cush) and Israel, while Egypt’s animosity toward their former slaves is evident. There were times when one kingdom dominated the other; the struggle went back and forth for centuries. However, it is possible that this reference has something to do with Zephaniah’s ancestry.

We discussed previously that there is little known about the prophet himself. The reference to Hezekiah 1:1 could imply his belonging to the royal house. However, Zephaniah was “the son of Cushi” and

…there are at least four plausible reasons for naming someone Cushi: the individual was actually a Cushite from Cush; the individual had a Cushite mother, father or grandparent, and therefore looked like a Cushite; the individual had Judahite parents, but was born in Cush; or in the individual was named in honor of the Cushites, since they were a powerful military ally in the struggle against the Assyrians. (7)

Intriguing possibilities here. I am inclined to agree with those who believe that Zephaniah was a descendant of King Hezekiah, because it makes little sense that he would mention some random guy in the opening of his book. I think he was establishing credibility. But what if he had to establish that credibility because he was the result of forbidden intermarriage somewhere along the line? Or what if he was the son of traders or even ambassadors and was born afar off? There’s no way to know, but the idea that he had connections to this other, doomed nation makes the weight of his job even heavier somehow.

Assyria

Assyria also is indicated for the sin of pride (vv. 13-15) as she declares that she alone exists with none (god? city?) like her (v. 15b). Her safety or security is falsely placed in her own military prowess. This is a challenge to the sovereignty of Yahweh, and he sentences her populous cities to be reduced to habitations of wild animals. (8)

The powerhouse of the region, Assyria had destroyed Judah’s kinsmen, the people of the kingdom of Israel. They killed as many as they could, deporting and marrying whoever was left. (This intermarriage would eventually bring about the Samaritan people who pop up so often during the life of Jesus).

Assyria was the region in the Near East which, under the Neo-Assyrian Empire, reached from Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) through Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and down through Egypt. (9)

The big kahunas. The bullies. The folks who produced Tiglath-Pileser, one of the greatest and simultaneously most brutal kings of ancient history. (Incidentally, Tiglath-Pileser would be an awesome name for a dog, if only it didn’t mean “my trust is in the son of Esharra/Ishara.” All these cool-sounding ancient names and their connections to false gods…). Jonah ran away and spent time inside a big fish rather than go to Nineveh and preach to these folks. That’s how bad they were and how deep the hatred was for what they did.

Around to Now

Each of these nations treated God’s people poorly. He brought each one to a crashing, never-to-recover-from end. Yes, people still live in those areas, but never again have they risen to dominance. They chose to reject God. They chose to harm His people. He responded.

How do the Gentile nations of 2016 treat the people of Israel?

What I’m about to write will offend some of you, so prepare yourselves: There are deep and lasting consequences for refusing to support Israel. The Palestinians do not have a right to rule that land. Islamic nations and peoples do not have the right to murder Jews. This does not mean that the Palestinians should be homeless or that Muslims should be exterminated. Far from it. What this does mean is that God is a covenant-keeper. He gave that slice of earth to Abraham and his descendants. The literal children of Abraham own the Promised Land. They have no forfeited their right to it because of their (general and, I believe, temporary) rejection of Messiah. The covenant is completely dependent upon God. (True story – read Genesis 15. Abraham slept through the whole thing). The spiritual children of Abraham must rally around them. The nations of the earth would do well to champion the little nation that could.

I abhor war and violence. My support for Israel does not mean that I agree with every stance and action of the government. I believe that any Palestinian who wishes to live peacefully and chooses to submit to Israeli leadership should be left in peace. Really, I think that’s probably what the average Jewish citizen of Israel, tired of bombs and guns and fear, wants as well.

In Acts 7, Stephen is stoned to death, becoming the first Christian martyr. A man named Saul witnessed the event, approving of it, holding people’s coats so they could throw better. In Acts 9, this same Saul is struck blind, falling from his mount to the hard ground below. He hears,

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

– 4b (NKJV)

It is God Himself speaking. He takes the troubles of His children personally. I don’t believe that God has given up on the Jewish people. I don’t believe that He has abandoned them. Surely He feels their troubles as keenly as He does those of the Gentile Christian. And surely this is a fiercesome thing indeed.

In closing,

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go into the house of the LORD.”
Our feet have been standing
Within your gates, O Jerusalem!

Jerusalem is built
As a city that is compact together,
Where the tribes go up,
The tribes of the LORD,
To the Testimony of Israel,
To give thanks to the name of the LORD.
For thrones are set there for judgment,
The thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
Prosperity within your palaces.”
For the sake of my brethren and companions,
I will now say, “Peace be within you.”
Because of the house of the LORD our God
I will seek your good.

– Psalm 122 (NKJV)

Reflection

  1. Why do you think there is such a long history of the world, in general, hating the Jewish people? Where and how have you seen this hatred expressed? (The Holocaust is of course a glaring and horrifying example, but try to think more broadly).
  2. Is God right to judge nations for how they treat Israel? Don’t head for the Sunday school answer of “yes.” What do you really think?
  3. Read Romans 9-11. Contrary to some teaching, these chapters are not about the Church, and they are about far more than the doctrine of election. There is one road of salvation, and it is plainly paved with the blood of Christ, but has God given up on Israel? Has He turned His back on her?
  4. What is your stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? If you’ve never really thought about it before, take some time now and do some reading. Then do as the psalmist says and pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
  5. Read Zephaniah 2. What stands out to you?

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 150.

(2) Asbury Bible Commentary

(3) Ibid.

(4) Discovery of Philistine Cemetery May Solve Biblical Mystery

(5) Asbury Bible Commentary

(6) Weirsbe, 151.

(7) From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race

(8) Asbury Bible Commentary

(9) Ancient Assyria

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Culture

The Lord your God in your midst,The Mighty One, will save;He will rejoice over you with gladness,He will quiet you with His love,He will rejoice over you with singing.” (1)

Gentle Reader,

Ancient national Israel, from its beginnings in the wilderness through the Divided Kingdom and Exile right up to the time of Christ, was a world very different from our own. Its members were people who struggled with the same sins and had the same hopes and dreams we do today, people we could probably relate to over a cup of coffee, but the way that struggle played out and the way those dreams were expressed is foreign to us. The Bible is a transcendent text inspired by the immanent God; its truths are applicable to every time and place. Nevertheless, we cannot understand a book like Zephaniah without coming to grips with the surroundings in which it was written.

Village Life

We already touched on the fact that the economy of ancient Israel (united and divided) was based on a system of bartering. Coinage existed and was certainly in use by the Roman period, but the change from “good for good” to “money for good” was gradual. The average person living in one of the many villages wasn’t going to have access to pouches and pouches of coins. He would trade a portion of whatever crop he had grown (remember, this was an agrarian society) with someone who had what he needed or wanted.

Water was a necessity, so groups of families would cluster around wells and from there villages grew. There were a handful of walled towns outside of Jerusalem, but these weren’t much bigger than the villages. Homes were small, made of baked clay, wattle-and-daub or straw brick materials. Often an outside staircase led to the roof, providing more living space during mild weather. Most families had a few animals, such as sheep or goats, who lived in the home with them (unless they were dedicated to the keeping of livestock, in which case the animals would have been too numerous, requiring a separate shelter, such as the one that served as a maternity ward the night Jesus entered the world in His Incarnate form [Luke 2:7]).

The average home looked something like this:

Here families would live and love and work and play and eat and sleep, just as we do today.

Men engaged in commerce, farming and the day-to-day governing of the towns. (The “town gate”in Ruth 4 alludes to this; this was where what we would think of as the “city council” would meet). Women had a lot to do in order to keep the home running:

…most of the women who lived in a village would probably have had some sort of garden as a source of food, flowers and pleasure.

Needless to say, the homes of the rich were more spacious and made of better material. A poor woman would have swept a beaten clay floor, while a rich woman would have had a servant sweep a tile floor. Only the richest would have been fortunate enough to live in a stone house despite the parable stressing the importance of stone for the foundation. The less wealthy would have had to do without a fireplace, but a simple brazier supplied all the heat that was necessary in such a pleasant climate; except for the supper rich all cooking was done in the outdoors.

The market was located just outside the walls of the town.  Unless she were rich enough to have servants, every woman would have to pay regular visits to buy the necessities. Civic business was conducted there also, but unless the woman herself was involved she would have no reason to be present.

While having children was a woman’s most important achievement, the bulk of her day to day life was spent in raising them, keeping the house clean and cooking meals.  The Jews were by and large light eaters, but they enjoyed their food and were happiest when guests were present. Bread was a part of every meal. Without modern preservatives, fresh loaves had to be baked every second day or so. Since flour did not come in a bag from the supermarket it had to be freshly ground between two stones every time new loaves were desired. Whether it was barley bread for a poor family or wheat bread for a well off one, it was the woman’s job to grind the grain and kneed the dough. The loaves were usually round and placed directly on the coals of an open fire. The best flour was mixed with oil, mint, cumin, cinnamon and even locusts to make a cake. A sort of honey doughnut was made by frying it in a pan.

Cow’s milk was known but it was not used very much. Sheep and goats were preferred and their milk could also be used to make butter or cheese. Honey was the most common sweetener, but juice from grapes or dates could also be used. A special treat was a meal of locusts. When boiled in salted water they tasted somewhat like shrimp.  If dried in the sun they could be kept for use at some other time of the year, when they would be ground into a powder and mixed with wheat flour for biscuits or simply moistened with honey or vinegar.

Dinner was expected to include lots of vegetables, beans, lentils, cucumbers and onions being the most common.  Middle-income families might supplement their bread and vegetables with some fish, kid or lamb.  Chickens were rare but pigeons were plentiful. Only the very rich could afford “a fatted calf.” Food was strongly seasoned: pepper was expensive but they used mustard, capers, cumin, saffron, coriander, mint, dill and rosemary. There was almost always a local wine to wash it all down. (1)

Both men and women would educate their children, largely through an oral tradition. The average person may not have been able to write well or at all, but literacy was widespread enough so that at least a few in the village, always the rabbi (they weren’t called that until roughly the time of Christ), would have been able to read the Torah, for it was important to know and understand its precepts so they could be lived out and passed on to others.

Tribes

Village life cannot be understood apart from the Tribes.

Jacob, whose story takes up several chapters of Genesis, had 12 sons: Reuben,Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. (He also had at least one daughter, Dinah [Genesis 34]). As those sons had families, those families began to identify themselves as descending from a particular son, and thus the tribes were born (except Joseph; his descendants identified with his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, because Jacob blessed them on his death bed [Genesis 48]. They were “half-tribes,” keeping the total number at 12. Just go with it).

After leading them out of slavery and through the years of wandering, God divided the Promised Land among the tribes, ensuring that each one had an appropriate amount of land. (Except for the Levites, who were the priests. They would be engaged in the business of worship instead of farming, so they got some cities instead). Numbers 32-36 records God’s commands regarding this process and Joshua 14-22 records how the commands were carried out, resulting in a map that looked something like this:

Division of Promised Land to the Children of Israel

Extended families living together were the norm:

Within the tribal structure, the family served as the core of Israelite life.  It defined the way each individual fit into society.  These kinship relationships could be biological or forged.  For example, land was passed down from one generation to the next, with one son–usually the firstborn–receiving an extra portion.  In the event that a male heir was lacking, the patriarch of the family had the option of adopting a son who would become the heir to the family estate.

In addition to adoption, kinship ties were also forged through marriage.  Such familial ties served as a means for Israelites to interact with one another, exchange goods, and settle or prevent conflicts.

As ancient Israel was a patriarchal society, the role of women was circumscribed.  While women’s experiences varied according to the communities and centuries in which they lived, ordinary Jewish women’s lives centered on their families. Jewish women married in their teens (the average age varies according to geography and time period, from 13 to 18) and went to live with their husband’s families. (2)

Religion

Above all, ancient Israel (and the Kingdom of Judah, to whom Zephaniah wrote and among whom he ministered) was a place of religion. There was no distinction between the sacred and the secular. God ruled over all. There were instructions, carefully laid out in the book of Leviticus, for how a person was to live her life. The calendar was governed by a cycle of sacrifices and celebrations, outlined in Leviticus 23.

Though it turns our stomachs, the people would have been very accustomed to the sights and smells associated with animal sacrifice. (There were grain and drink offerings as well). (3) Though we may not fully understand the reasons for eating kosher, they knew nothing else. Every part of their lives was lived according to God’s standard.

Well, was supposed to be lived according in God’s standard. In Deuteronomy 28, part of Moses’ lengthy farewell sermon, the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience are clearly laid out. In chapters 29 and 30, he calls on his audience to reaffirm the covenant made at Sinai. Unfortunately, it took only the death of Joshua and his generation (those who succeeded Moses in shepherding the people) for the nation to turn away from the covenant (Judges 2:10-11). Though there were always those who were faithful to God, the rest of Israel’s history as recorded in the Old Testament is one of back and forth and eventual slide into total rebellion before the Exile in Babylon.

Zephaniah ministered during the last upward movement toward God that the Kingdom of Judah experienced under the leadership of Josiah. His words, and those of Jeremiah, were God’s final offer before the destruction of Jerusalem. (4)

Reflection

  1. There are many differences between our world and that of ancient Israel. What similarities do you see?
  2. Read Deuteronomy 28-29. Was God, speaking through Moses, unclear? Could the people ever truly claim they “didn’t know?”
  3. Read Hebrews 9-10:18. What were the animal sacrifices meant to convey? To Whom did they point? Why are these sacrifices no longer necessary?
  4. Read through Zephaniah again, this time imagining yourself a member of that society. What stands out to you?

Until next time.

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) Daily Life in Ancient Israel

(2) Ancient Israelites: Society and Lifestyle

(3) Offerings and Sacrifices

(4) Note: God did not completely abandon His people, as seen in the during-Exile books of Daniel, Ezekiel and Esther, and the post-Exile books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggi, Zechariah and Malachi. He is faithful to His covenant. Nevertheless, His glory or felt presence left the Temple (Ezekiel 10) and would not return until the presentation of Christ (Luke 2:22-38).

Image: House in Ancient Israel

Map: Division of the Promised Land

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.