Harvey Gillman reflects on reading Zephaniah in violent times.
I must admit that I was not familiar with the prophet Zephaniah nor with his book. In November, 2023, I found that the Old Testament reading that fell to me was Zephaniah 1.7, 12-end. When I began to prepare for it the day before I was troubled. As I stepped to the lectern to read it on the Sunday morning, I was, to put it mildly, perturbed. We were in the full blast of the Israel/Hamas war. The news was devastating, appalling. Fundamentalists on each side believed as usual that God was on their side. I come from an Orthodox Jewish background but am totally out of sympathy with the religio-nationalist aspirations of the Israeli government and disgusted by the religio-fascist declarations of Hamas. As a Quaker I am a pacifist; as one attending also Anglican services, I am often shocked by the images of God portrayed in some of the lessons read during the services. On that November day, I found it almost impossible to read the lesson and at the end could not bring myself to use the usual words ‘The word of God’. I returned to my seat almost in tears. In a conversation afterwards, it was pointed out to me that darkness as well as light were part of the Scriptures and we agreed that the revolutionary dynamism of the Bible is often domesticated on a Sunday morning. We should leave church not always comforted by what we have heard.
What sort of God appears in Zephaniah? Of course the prophets rail against unrighteousness, injustice, idolatry. Destruction is often the inevitable result of dreadful social conditions, the oppression by the rich, the indifference or hostility to the stranger at the gate, the persecution of the widow and the orphan. The Bible is a whole library of books and different writers have different emphases. There is a progression over history also in how God is perceived and how the covenant with the people is understood. Some texts are more universalist than others, more embracing of divine purpose as regards surrounding nations as well as of the Hebrews. Jesus transforms how individuals see the relationship between the individual and God. All this I understand but still to read such a vindictive text at a time of warfare, out of context of the whole message proclaimed in the book has left me still deeply troubled.
To educate myself afterwards I decided to read the whole of Zephaniah (not long, I know!) and try to grasp what the prophet was trying to say. Whenever I read the Bible, I am reminded of Martin Buber’s comment: The Bible is not God’s word to us, rather it is our word to God. Zephaniah was a member of a brutal society, where all power was in the hands of the king, where women were objects of possession. God may be a just king, but a king nevertheless. He has a ‘right’ to be angry when his subjects turn against him. God is also the warrior brutally overcoming his enemies. God is creator of all things also, so he has the ’right’ in his anger to destroy all that he has made. Essentially the book is divided into three parts: doom on Judah – the day of the Lord; doom on the surrounding nations – ironically for insulting God’s people, whom he has just threatened to destroy; and the preservation of a faithful remnant who will be restored to prosperity.
Not only was I troubled to read this in the context of the Israeli/Hamas war, but I was restimulated in my feelings of my own religious convictions, my own anger at religious tribalism. It has led me to wonder what must I reject and what can I accept. My parents, for all that they belong to the Orthodox stream of Judaism were not practising. Indeed my mother was sceptical of some of the demands of religion. They sent me however to a very religious evening Hebrew school and within a few years I considered becoming a rabbi. My disillusion grew however as I realised how exclusive religious adherence was. Not only were certain foods forbidden but certain books. The company of gentiles was frowned upon. When I discovered I was gay – well I was told by my rabbi, who had a degree in psychology that you could not be Jewish and gay! Then I was attracted to liberal Judaism, liberal Christianity, and in my late teens began for a short time attending Quaker meetings. By the time I left for university I told God that I was an atheist. Look at the world, look at the attitudes and actions of religious people. What sort of God inspired such deeds? What sort of ‘sacred’ text could lead to such cruelty? After years in the desert (a very fruitful place), I began reading Buddhist texts, especially Zen. But the divine something would not leave me alone, and I needed a community in which to continue my search and with which to worship. Soon after meeting my partner, I began attending Anglican services as well as Quaker meetings. But I was still troubled by things I heard. Zephaniah has brought it all back.
Here is an angry God who in a fit of rage threatens the earth, all that he has made. No exceptions. I remember getting upset when reading about the Egyptians and their horses being drowned in the Red Sea as the Israelites passed through triumphantly. Why the horses? What had they done? And the Egyptian soldiers, press ganged into fighting no doubt by their commanding officers. And what of the Moabites and the Edomites? All evil no doubt, every one of them? A later universalist strain of Judaism redeems itself somewhat in the story which the sages tell of angels telling God to rejoice at the drowning of the Egyptians. God replies, How can I rejoice, while my children the Egyptians are drowning? What of the surrounding nations in Zephaniah when the brutal warrior god threatens every one of them without exception? Of course the sacred remnant will be preserved. Perhaps.
My worry about monotheism, is that it is an exclusive system built around the personality of an all-powerful transcendent deity, though Christianity has introduced the beautiful ambiguity of the vulnerable immanent Christ. Judaism has another tradition not so much of immanence but of dialogue, almost of challenge. Like Jacob we are to struggle with the angel/God/unknown man. By struggling in the dark we change from Jacob to Israel, we gain our human dignity but go away limping. I have always loved this story. We are not passive recipients of all that happens to us. We demand justice even from a god who calls himself (!) just. Abraham argues with God, Moses and Isaiah do not want to accept their commissions aware of their own sense of inadequacy, Jeremiah talks of bringing charges against God.
One of the stories which has most inspired me was an account by Elie Wiesel of a trial of God held in Auschwitz:
Three rabbis—all erudite and pious men—decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing his children to be massacred. ..The trial lasted several nights. Witnesses were heard, evidence was gathered, conclusions were drawn, all of which issued finally in a unanimous verdict: the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, was found guilty of crimes against creation and humankind. And then, after what Wiesel describes as an “infinity of silence”, the Talmudic scholar looked at the sky and said “It’s time for evening prayers”, and the members of the tribunal recited Maariv, the evening service.
God is indicted for not being God enough. In my early twenties I became for a time an atheist, because I felt betrayed by my understanding of how God should be and how God was or was perceived as being. And yet the sacred pull remains. Prayer remains necessary. In some form. Our view of God is a human projection. Take off one mask only to reveal another. Our indictment of God is an indictment of our own narrow vision. The idea of continuing revelation is helpful to me. We are still living in biblical times. The old angry brutal warrior is part of the human phantasy, which informs part of the biblical text. We need to deepen our understanding and there are hints scattered throughout the biblical text which may guide us. Zephaniah himself ends with a better vision:
I will rescue the lost and gather the dispersed;
I will win my people praise and renown
In a world where once they were despised.
As a universalist I would extend the phrase ‘people’ to all the inhabitants of the earth, including the men (sic), beasts, birds from the air and fish from the sea – and the Egyptian horses. Lost and dispersed we may be, how then shall we be gathered?
Harvey Gillman was formerly a teacher of French and Italian. Then for eighteen years he was outreach secretary for British Quakers. During this period he wrote several books on language, spirituality and religion and most recently Epiphanies, an anthology of poetry. He has led retreats and lectured in several countries.
As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.