Sunday’s readings hint at ancient Hebrew feast

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated the solemnity of Christ the King. 

By a strange coincidence, it appears as though the ancient Israelites also observed a similar celebration about the same time of the year, in the fall, to honor God’s kingship.

It also appears that Sunday’s first reading, Zep 3:14-18a, bears a connection to that time of celebration.

The prophet assures us: “The Lordhas removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.”

The Old Testament scholar Father Lawrence Boadt, CSP, suggests that connection: “Perhaps the whole series of oracles (of the prophet Zephaniah) were delivered during a week of celebration of the kingship of Yahweh, a feast for which we have no exact information but many hints in the Old Testament.

“It would have taken place in the fall, connected to the New Year’s festival” (from “Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction”).

The timing of these prophecies during this feast of God’s kingship would explain why Zephaniah calls God “king.” But, there may be more to it than just that.

After all, the country also had a human king, Josiah. The Book of Zephaniah dates itself according to his reign:

“The word of the Lordwhich came to Zephaniah, the son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah, the son of Amon, king of Judah” (Zep  1:1).

The thing is, Josiah came to the throne when he was only 8 years old. Until he reached maturity, court ministers ruled in his place. 

Zephaniah condemns these regents because they allow other gods to be worshiped besides Yahweh. Speaking on behalf of God, Zephaniah tells them: “I will destroy from this place (the city of Jerusalem) the last vestige of Baal, the very names of his priests, and those who adore the host of heaven (the stars) on the roofs, with those who adore the Lordbut swear by Milcom” (1:4b-5) 

God is particularly angry with the nobility who are reigning in place of Josiah: “I will punish the princes, and the king’s sons, and all that dress in foreign apparel” (1:8b).

Zephaniah’s prophecy warns Jerusalem of God’s impending punishment on its inhabitants because of their idolatry.

At the same time, his prophecy ends with a note of hope. That is the section that we hear as Sunday’s first reading. Israel’s true king, God, will restore the faithful remnant to greatness and sanctity: “They shall do no wrong and speak no lies” (1:13).

All this will happen, because God dwells in their midst: “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.”

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