As one of the twelve minor prophets, Zephaniah can sometimes get overlooked. When Bible readers call to mind famous prophetic declarations, they might think of Isaiah’s eschatological picture of the wolf lying down with the lamb (Isa 11:6-9), Jeremiah’s new covenant (Jer 31:31-34), or Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (Ezek 37:1-14). However, Zephaniah also contains sweeping theological descriptions of a reconstituted humanity and a restored world. In particular, Zephaniah recalls the Babel episode (Gen 11:1-9) to show how God plans to reverse the confusion among the nations, and to repair the relational rift that began with Babel.
When people settle in the land of Shinar after the flood, Genesis states, “The whole earth was of one language (שפה; saphah)… and they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a tower… and let us make a name (שם; shem) for ourselves’” (11:1, 4). In response, God decides to “confuse their language (שפה; saphah), so that they will not understand each other’s speech” (11:7). The fracturing of one language into many ends in the people being scattered over the face of the earth; rather than remaining united in the worship of one God, the nations would adopt many gods and drift from the God of Israel.
In response to the disunity after Babel, Zephaniah envisions a time when the Lord will repair this rupture among the nations and return the nations to the sole worship of God. To express the magnitude of this eschatological reality, the prophet repurposes the references to “language” and “name” in Genesis. God declares in Zephaniah, “For then I will change [the speech of] the peoples to a clear language (שפה; saphah), that all of them may call upon the name (שם; shem) of the Lord and serve him with one accord” (Zeph 3:9). Whereas those at Babel had their language confused because they wished to make a name for themselves, Zephaniah proclaims that, one day, the nations will reunite in serving God, and thereby reverse the linguistic breach that began at Babel.