And Yahweh said in his heart: “I will not curse the ground again on account of man; for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will not strike all the living again.” (Gen 8:21)
The ending of J’s flood narrative leaves us with a startling revelation—nothing was resolved by wiping out the human race with a flood! The reason given for the cataclysmic event in the first place was the growing evil inclination of man’s heart: “And Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and every inclination of their heart’s thoughts was only evil all the day” (Gen 6:5). Yet the flood does not change this. For the recognition that man’s heart inclines toward evil is also reinstated at the end of J’s flood narrative.
In fact, the author of Genesis 8:21 would seem to be stating an axiom about human nature: man is inclined toward wickedness. This is how the author of J sees humanity, and he places this axiom on the lips of his god as a truth about human nature in general. No cataclysmic event aimed at destroying evil men will change this — a sober, and frightening, realization!
We might observe that the promise not to curse the ground again because of man holds true if we confine ourselves to the rest of the J narrative. But the Yahwist (J) text was a pre-exilic creation. Biblical scribes that witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem wrought by the Babylonians in 587 BC, or of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC, however, presented Yahweh doing just that: cursing the ground, mankind, and its animals.
Behold, Yahweh makes the earth empty and makes it a waste; he turns it upside down, and scatters abroad the inhabitants thereof…
For Yahweh has spoken thus: “The earth withers, and fades away, the world fails and fades away, the lofty people of the earth do fail. The earth also is defiled under its inhabitants, because they have transgressed the laws, violated the statute, broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse has devoured the earth. (Is 24:1-6)
This particular text was written in the wake of the Assyrian invasion of Judah and the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib in 703-701 BC (20 years after he had already wiped out Israel). Here the author resorts to hyperbole (exaggeration) in describing the utter destruction of the land of Judah: that is, the destruction of Judah is envisioned as the destruction of the whole earth. 2 Kings 18:13-17 briefly alludes to this destruction.
The idea of a god cursing the land, his people, etc. due to their disloyalty and disobedience is a common theological and literary trope in ancient Near Eastern literature. In other words, this is not exclusive to the Bible! National disasters were theologically explained as the result of the people’s disobedience toward their national deity. The Moabite stela (9th c. BC) and the Babylonian cylinder seal (6th c. BC) are just two examples of this.
The word of Yahweh: “I will utterly consume all things from off the face of the earth! I will consume man and beast. I will consume the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea. And I will cut off man from the face of the earth. Thus saith Yahweh! (Zeph 1:3)
And the whole earth shall be devoured by the fire of his jealousy. For he will make an end, yea, a terrible end of all them that dwell in the earth. (Zeph 1:18)
The destruction depicted here in Zephaniah is typical of all post-exilic prophetic literature. Most of it is literature written ex eventu (i.e., after the event). The historical event was the destruction of Judah, Jerusalem, Yahweh’s temple, his people, and the land by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Since the theological given was that Yahweh is sovereign and Yahweh is just (see the section on the Deuteronomist’s theology in #6), the national disaster must be explained as the fault of the people, as we saw above in the citation from Isaiah. The author of the book of Jeremiah even expresses this by speaking of Nebuchadnezzar as Yahweh’s servant! The use of fire or destruction by fire is not haphazard. It was how a city was razed to the ground in the ancient world. The archaeological record also attests a burnt destruction layer.
In much of the prophetic literature, the historical destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, err, by Yahweh, was seen as the day of Yahweh’s wrath or judgement. Again, since Yahweh is sovereign and Yahweh is just, the appropriate theological response to the question of why would Yahweh destroy his own people, temple, etc. was that the people must have sinned. In other words, the empirical “evidence” dictates the theology (see #6). Here in Zephaniah that sin mostly takes the form of social injustices—the wealthy exploiting the poor (cf. Amos).
As a final note, I might add that no biblical “prophecy” predicts a coming future day of Judgement or Armageddon. This too is part and parcel to the general public’s misunderstanding about, and misuse of, the Bible. Certainly an ancient “prophet” could have seen the inevitable coming in 589 BC—the Babylonian destruction of Judah—and could have written about it as Yahweh’s imminent day of wrath/judgement. But the coming event was understood as the Babylonian event. This is especially so for the book of Daniel as well, which “prophesies” an imminent coming Judgement where Yahweh would pass judgment on Antiochus IV who was persecuting the Jews (see Daniel section in #6).
Because wars and national disasters continued to occur, and due to later readers of these texts who knew nothing of the historical contexts within which they were written or which they spoke of—much like modern readers—these “prophetic” texts were read and reinterpreted as revealing current or future events of a coming day of Judgment/Wrath. Indeed it was under this apocalyptic fervor that the Jesus movement and later Christianity was born. Such abusive interpretive practices continue to this day by readers who likewise know nothing about, and neglect, the historical and literary contexts of these texts.