An excellent commentary about a stunningly beautiful prophetic book. Zephaniah is a poet of wondrous complexity and emotive power, and Adele Berlin brings just the right literary sensibilities to draw out the poetic dimensions of this prophet.
Four good things about the commentary:
1. Berlin does a great job showing Zephaniah’s dizzying, multidimensional wordplay. Zephaniah messes with words with the same reckless abandon as Shakespeare or MF Doom, and Berlin delights with her catches. Best of all, Berlin shows the aural power of the words, how the sounds themselves convey multiple layers of meaning. This is a prophecy meant to be heard to be believed.
2. Zephaniah, like all Hebrew poetry, is a dense forest of intertextual vines, connecting the poem to the rest of the Biblical canon. Berlin helpfully traces the ways that Zephaniah links to creation, the flood, Babel, Deutero-Isaiah, and the Psalms, just to name a few. Having learned from Berlin, I am now “hearing” Zephaniah in surprising places in the New Testament, too.
3. As a Christian, it is really good for me to read commentaries from a Jewish perspective. Berlin cites a wide range of historical Jewish sources, which wonderfully broadened my understanding.
4. Most importantly, again and again Berlin opts to preserve the strangeness of the text over against emendation and harmonization. She does this because of her commitment to literary interests over text-critical interests, and I am grateful for it, because it keeps Zephaniah’s poetry vivid, bizarre, and unfinalizable.
And, three not-so-good things about the commentary:
1. Berlin follows modern historical-critical consensus in ascribing a late date to the work, so that all of the prophecies are after-the-fact. This robs the book of a certain level of revelatory power, and at certain points even seems to militate against the meaning of the text itself. Can God, the LORD “in your midst,” speak in history?
2. A book as raw and daring as Zephaniah invites (demands?) reflection on the character and doctrine of God, but Berlin leaves this issue out of her comments, focusing only on textual and literary concerns. At times it feels as if the commentary, for all its richness, is avoiding the most critical existential questions posed by the prophet.
3. On a related note: From my particular perspective as a Christian preacher, this commentary is necessarily incomplete, since it leaves the questions of New Testament fulfillment entirely unanswered. Interestingly, the early church fathers did not write much about Zephaniah, either, leaving the book open and in need of more Christological and figural reflection. But that is a book for another person to write…