Sunday, June 6, 2010

Zechariah: His name the only name

Of the last six prophets I read, Zechariah was my favorite. The first six chapters contain nine of the trippiest visions in the entire Bible, which all came to Zechariah in a single night. And starting in chapter nine, Zechariah embarks on two massive oracles that, as near as I can tell, revolve around four events in Israel’s future: the coming war with the Seleucids (predicted in detail in Daniel 8 and 11), the first coming of Jesus, the destruction of the Jewish nation in 70 AD, and the second coming of Jesus. The four events all run together in the narrative, and it’s only with the benefit of partial hindsight that we can distinguish between them (or, alternately, our historical perspective causes us to read these events into the oracles).

Chapter 9 is the craziest example of this:

V. 9:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Most Christians readily identify this with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem five days before his crucifixion, riding in peacefully on a donkey.

V. 10:
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River [Euphrates] to the ends of the earth.

This part could be seen either as Jesus inaugurating a kingdom that spreads peacefully through love, service and the work of the Spirit, or a prediction of the final political peace Jesus will bring at his return.

V. 11-12:
As for you [Daughter of Zion], because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.

This passage can be pretty straightforwardly interpreted as declaring the spiritual freedom that Jesus would bring to the former prisoners of sin.

But then...

V. 13:
I will bend Judah as I bend my bow and fill it with Ephraim. I will rouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword.

So the peace agenda is out, then? And where do the Greeks come from?

If is to be trusted, outside of Daniel and Zechariah, the words “Greek” or “Greece” appear only four times in the Old Testament. Greece is not a big player in Israel’s history until the intertestamental period, when Alexander the Great conquered Judea, and his heirs, the Seleucids, tried to destroy Judaism. This didn’t go over so well, and as the Book of Maccabees (according to what I’ve heard, somewhat inaccurately) details, the Jews resisted and eventually drove the Greeks out of the land, restoring Jewish independence for a brief time, and giving the Jews something to celebrate during Christmastime.

So...that war must be what Zechariah is talking about here, right?

V. 14-15
Then the LORD will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning. The Sovereign LORD will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south, and the LORD Almighty will shield them. They will destroy and overcome with slingstones. They will drink and roar as with wine; they will be full like a bowl used for sprinkling the corners of the altar.

The Bible (at least the Protestant canon) is curiously silent on the merits or demerits of the Jewish resistance against the Seleucids. Daniel describes the war and persecution that is coming in great detail, but never mentions the Maccabee rebels directly, as far as I can tell. We are reassured that the evil king, Antiochus, will be destroyed, “but not by human power” (8:25 – he died of illness in Persia). Daniel 11:33-35 says only, “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them.” So who are the insincere? Does Daniel here bless the resistance? Does Zechariah?

Perhaps I should add the Books of the Maccabees to my reading list.

Anyway. In Chapter 11, Zechariah assumes the voice of Christ, and bitterly narrates his rejection by the Jewish religious leaders. God gives Zechariah charge of the “flock marked for slaughter” – so-called because “I will no longer have pity on the people of the land.”

“So,” Zechariah says, “I pastured the flock marked for slaughter, particularly the oppressed of the flock.”

“You hypocrites!” Jesus said. “Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:15-16)

But soon the flock turns on Zechariah, and Zechariah declares, “I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish. Let those who are left eat one another’s flesh” – a graphic description of the siege conditions in Jerusalem during the war with the Romans in the 60s AD.

“Then,” Zechariah says, “I took my staff called Favor and broke it, revoking the covenant I had made with all the nations.” The nations will now come against Jerusalem to attack it.

Zechariah tells the flock, “If you think it best, give me my pay.” So they give him thirty pieces of silver – “the handsome price at which they priced me!” – and he throws the silver into the temple, to the potter.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.

- Matthew 27:3-7
The rejection of the shepherd brings disaster:

“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land,” declares the LORD, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it.”

- Zechariah 13:7-8

“I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it; the city will be captured, the houses ransacked, and the women raped. Half the city will go into exile...”

- Zechariah 14:2

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

- Luke 19:41-44

But in the second oracle, which starts in chapter 12, Zechariah blends together what appear to be two separate attacks on Jerusalem – the one in 70 AD, which brings mass slaughter and exile to the Jews, and a second, in which God “will make the leaders of Judah like a firepot in a woodpile, like a flaming torch among sheaves. They will consume left and right all the surrounding peoples, but Jerusalem will remain intact in her place” (12:6). Chapter 14 portrays the LORD himself coming down to the Mount of Olives, returning just as he left (Acts 1:11), splitting the mountain in two, and making the enemy troops go crazy and start killing each other. When the Jews see Jesus, “the one they have pierced,” returning, God will send a “spirit of grace and supplication” on the Jews, and they will be seized with remorse for what they did to the shepherd. “The weeping in Jerusalem will be great, like the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo [where King Josiah was killed]” (12:10-11).

Evangelical dispensationalists often read this passage as a prediction of a future war between the State of Israel and the Arab states, perhaps allied with Iran, Russia and Europe under the leadership of the Antichrist. Interestingly, Orthodox Jews read it almost the same way. According to Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg (The Accidental Empire, p. 260-262), in the wake of the 1973 war, in which Israel triumphed, but suffered greatly and acquired no new land, Orthodox Rabbis turned to Zechariah for an explanation of the war’s meaning: “[Rabbi Yehudah] Amital explained [that] the war was part of the messianic process. Any war over the Land of Israel was actually a war over Jerusalem, and so fulfilled the prophet Zechariah’s vision of the battle for Jerusalem at the end of history.”

The Reformed theology in me rebels against this interpretation, since in Reformed theology, there is only one people of God throughout history: the church, first in the form of early Israel, now in the form of the borderless, multilingual, multicultural body today. The implication is that the Jewish race and culture no longer has anything but a historical significance to redemption (cf Romans 9:4-5). But what, then, to make of Zechariah's prophecies? Perhaps a battle between Israel and the world powers is coming, and God will intervene to put an end to war and empire once and for all. I dunno.

In the end, though, the message of Zechariah and the rest of the prophets is crystal clear:

“The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name” (14:9).

Amin. Allahu akbar.

1 comment:

  1. If you decide to add the intertestamental books to your list, I recommend picking up a copy of "The New Oxford Annotated Bible," which has the whole shebang in it.