Zephaniah 1-3, Jonah 1-3

This week we get past the 8th century (700’s) BCE, to prophets whose original voices assumed that Israel had already fallen to Assyria. The editions we read have been long since revised and edited in light of the Babylonian exiling of elites from Jerusalem in 597 and destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 584 BCE. These documents are transmitted through the Persian permission for a Second Temple, till Roman destruction of a final monumental Herodian edifice in 70CE.

The opening text of Zephaniah places the prophet explicitly in Judah during the reforming days of Josiah. Can you reconcile the condemnations with a reform king attempting repentance? Is there an implied other voice, or implied other audience, that fits the wide geography threatened, and the reassurance to the humble suffering ones? I think I can imagine a cloud of witnesses nodding.

The ‘day of the Lord’ is getting a lot of development in Zephaniah, beyond what we heard last week from Micah. It’s pretty bad news for those currently at ease, and a hope of vindication for those currently in extreme troubles. Which are you, or your neighbours and community? The city – Jerusalem or any urban centre of affluence – takes on a personality and is condemned at length.

Our ecumenical lectionary only echoes Zephaniah once in 3 years, in Easter season of Year B, with the closing hopeful verses of chapter 3. Is that promise what an original Zephaniah would have selected as the highlight of the book? As Detroit, not far from here, returns from burnt abandoned slums to new urban farming, does the vision of a city turned to pasture fit our future?

Jonah, begun in the latter 3 days of this week, takes a different literary form from the rest of the Twelve. There is more biography than autobiography, more of a fable than a historical account. Where and when do you place a real Jonah, fleeing Joppa and Tarshish, in a ship avoiding Nineveh? How’s your history and geography, based on our reading? This story doesn’t work as good journalism, long before the whale appears to swallow the prophet!

You know the narrative: Jonah refuses a divine call to warn Nineveh, sailors throw him overboard to a whale, he survives to accept a repeated call. He delivers the message of threat, the city repents, and punishment is withheld – making the prophet pout in disappointment without a fiery vindication.

Assyria’s capital Nineveh was key to the 8th century fall of Israel, but already in the 7th century and beyond, the Babylonians and in turn the Persians, Greeks, and Romans had overtaken that imperial centre with their own. The name works more here like the Baghdad of Ali Baba tales, for a moral fiction. What’s your favourite take-away message from Jonah?