Tag Archives: Rhetorical criticism

Zephaniah the Preacher

Zephaniah

The legitimacy of rhetorical analyses of the New Testament has been an area of lively debate in scholarly circles. For anyone who was not at IBR this last year, the tension in the room during the dialogue between Stan Porter and Ben Witherington III was a bit uncomfortable to say the least. The question is, “should the text of the New Testament be studied as texts that would first have been preached?”

While New Testament scholars have greater difficulty coming to a consensus on this question, those who study prophetic literature can enjoy much more common ground. For, before the  prophets’ messages were recorded, they were proclaimed to Israel and Judah. And as any good preacher knows, the power of a well managed illustration can hardly be underestimated.

In a previous post, I mentioned a paper I am presenting to a Prophetic Literature seminar on the rhetorical function of the remnant motif. Though I have since shifted the emphasis of my paper to a literary approach, I remain intrigued by the rhetorical usage of the motif, especially as it appears in negative contexts against both Israel/Judah and the nations. One instance that i found particularly stimulating was in the book of Zephaniah

In chapter 1, Zephaniah details the judgment of Yahweh “against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (v. 4a). Judgment is warranted for patterns of idolatry and syncretism, which had apparently seeped even into the king’s household (v. 8). In describing the objects of Yahweh’s judgment, Zephaniah says “And I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal” (v. 4c). The phrase “remnant of Baal” has posed difficulty for many scholars, as it appears at first enigmatic.

Yet, the remnant here, paralleling the idolatrous priest in the following clause (v. 4d), evidences its intrinsically negative character. Furthermore, when set in conjunction with the other wicked groups mentioned in verses 4-6, the remnant appears to refer to more than the idols themselves, identifying, rather, a group of people.

The reason for the appropriation of “the remnant of Baal” in reference to a group, presumably of Judahites, may at first appear enigmatic, but when assessed on a rhetorical level, the motif provides insight into the situation in Judah. Marvin Sweeney notes that there exists a “tendency of biblical traditions to employ the language of the Canaanite cult to polemicize against YHWHistic practices that were not considered to be legitimate.”[1] 

Hence, what Zephaniah describes is a band of syncretistic priests acting not as the religious leaders of the holy remnant of Judah, but rather as the remnant of Baal. Such an image would certainly provoke the attention of his original audience.

In my view, Zephaniah’s ministry coincided with the Josianic reforms of. 622 BC, and was indeed influential in its success. Thus, the announcement of judgment by Zephaniah, accords with Josiah’s purging of syncretism during the early stages of restoration. The proclamation of Zephaniah during this time functioned to undergird and validate the king’s program of reform. And the remnant motif was a potent rhetorical device to motivate the people to reject lawlessness and embrace a posture of covenant fidelity. Zephaniah was indeed an able preacher.

 

[1] Marvin A. Sweeney, Zephaniah: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis; Fortress, 2003), 68.

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The Calm before the Storm

The site has been quiet for several weeks. Lately, the whole of my writing efforts have been exhausted on a paper for a doctoral seminar on Prophetic Literature entitled “A Remnant Will Return: An Analysis of the Rhetorical Function of the Remnant in Isaiah and Zephaniah.” Though I will make further comments in upcoming posts, I wanted to catalog some initial observations derived from my research.

The general thesis of my paper is that in utilizing the remnant motif, focusing particularly on Isaiah 1-12 and Zephaniah in its entirety, the prophets portray the remnant community with both positive and negative connotations to invoke their hearers to return to a posture of covenant faithfulness.

At this point, two introductory problems emerge: the commission to Isaiah to deaden the sensitivities of his hearers (Isa 6:9-10) and the dating of Zephaniah’s prophetic ministry in relation to Josiah’s reforms. Here, brief comments must suffice.

The first problem arises from the tension of Isaiah’s commission to harden the hearts of Israel by his prophetic message and my contention of his intention to persuade his audience by use of the remnant motif. While Yahweh certainly declares the purpose/result of Isaiah’s ministry, one may wonder if Isaiah’s proclamation was  indeed hopeless, for his audience, after all, was destined to reject his message. Yet the book of Isaiah itself stands against such a claim. For, before the words of the prophet were penned, they were preached. Even if his audience was to be hardened, leaving his words for future generations (Isa 8:16), the pathos of his oracles can hardly be missed. As such, Isaiah sought to call his contemporaries to repentance, employing an illustrative rhetorical strategy.

To the second problem, ie. the context of Zephaniah’s ministry, I am inclined to locate his proclamation in the early period of Josiah’s reforms. The superscription of the book identifies the context of Zephaniah’s office as the reign of Josiah, which spanned 640-609 B.C. From an internal perspective, features of the text may give an indication of an early date of Zephaniah’s oracles. One such indication is the condemnation of idolatry, more specifically syncretism, as alluding to a period when such practices were, at least partially, still in effect. The purge by Josiah would make such a context favorable for Zephaniah’s forceful proclamation to bring the work to completion. Hence, Zephaniah, in my view, played a significant role during the course of the reforms, though they proved to be short lived.

Doubtlessly, many take divergent views to both the above points, but the point remains: the prophets employed imagery and rhetorical devices to evoke a response from their audience. Among others, the remnant motif functions as such a device. I will explore both the positive and negative contexts of the remnant in upcoming posts. In the meantime, I would welcome any of your initial thoughts.

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