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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Original Zechariah

The Original Zechariah

The original oracles of Zechariah are characterized by a series of visions that are explained to the prophet by an angel. The interpreting angel appears here for the first time in biblical literature. It becomes a standard feature of apocalyptic literature, beginning with Daniel 7–12 . These symbolic visions disclose the prophet's view of what is really going on in the postexilic period by revealing a dimension of these events, which is hidden from the ordinary observer. So the first vision shows four (presumably angelic) horsemen whom the Lord had sent to patrol the earth. The implication is that God is indeed in control, although the divine activity may not be obvious. The visions in chapter 2 show four heavenly blacksmiths coming to beat down the horns of the nations and an angelic “man” making preparations for the restoration of Jerusalem. In all of these visions the hidden, heavenly activity is reassuring and a source of confidence for the fledgling Jewish community.

High Priest and King

Down to the time of the Babylonian exile, the prophets had been sharply critical of the monarchy and usually also of the priesthood. When Zechariah prophesied, the monarchy was no more, but Zerubbabel, a descendant of the Davidic line, held the position of governor under the rule of the Persians. In the absence of a king, the high priest enjoyed new power and authority. Both Zerubbabel and the high priest of the day, Joshua, had their critics. Zechariah, in sharp contrast to earlier prophets, came to the defense of the community's leaders. The vision in chapter 3 is a remarkable defense of Joshua. In the vision, Joshua stands before the angel of the Lord and is accused by Satan. This is one of the earliest appearances of Satan in the Old Testament. (He also appears in Job 1–2 and 1 Chr 21, 1 .) He has not yet taken on the character of the Devil of later mythology. Rather he is an angel in the service of God, whose mission is to detect and prosecute wrongdoers in the manner of a federal attorney. The fact that Satan is said to bring accusations against Joshua is the prophet's way of dramatizing the opposition to the high priest in the Jewish community. Satan symbolizes Joshua's critics. He receives a stinging rebuke from the angel of the Lord. The point is not that Joshua is faultless, but that criticism is not appropriate when the community is struggling. Joshua is “a brand snatched from the fire” (Zec 3, 2 )—that is, most of the leadership and institutions of Judaism had been destroyed, and what was left should be supported not criticized. So Joshua's faults are cast aside like dirty clothes, and he is affirmed in the sight of the Lord. Zechariah does not give Joshua a blank check. He is charged to walk in the ways of the Lord ( 3, 7 ). Nonetheless, the contrast with earlier prophetic attitudes to the priesthood is striking. In earlier times, religious institutions were often problematic insofar as they bred complacency in the people, and so a prophet like Amos spoke as if the sacrificial cult could be abolished. After the experience of the exile, however, Zechariah recognized the importance of institutions. While they are not an end in themselves, no society can live without them.

The prophet is equally positive about Zerubbabel, who is extolled for laying the foundation of the Temple. The two leaders are pictured as olive trees in chapter 4 , because both priest and king were anointed with oil—hence the title “messiah” or “anointed one.” The people of the Dead Sea Scrolls followed the lead of Zechariah and expected two messiahs, a priestly messiah of Aaron and a royal messiah of Israel. In chapter 6 , the prophet is told to make a crown and to put it on the head of the high priest Joshua. Most scholars have recognized that the text has been altered here. (See the note on p. 1227 , OT.) Originally, it would have provided crowns for both Joshua and Zerubbabel. The coronation of a Davidic prince would have been a highly dangerous undertaking, because the Persian overlords would surely have taken it as a gesture of rebellion. We do not know whether Zechariah ever carried it out. At some point the text was changed to eliminate the crown for Zerubbabel and thus avoid the suggestion of rebellion.

The understanding of the monarchy became increasingly idealized in the period after the exile, when the shortcomings of the actual kings were forgotten. The future king would be the messiah, the anointed one who would make Jerusalem again a holy city ( 8, 3 ). Zerubbabel could hardly have lived up to those expectations if he had been crowned, but his career, and that of Zechariah, helped keep alive the dream of independence for Judah.

The Appreciation of Ritual

Just as Zechariah shows a renewed appreciation for the institutions of priesthood and monarchy, he also has a more positive view of ritual than some earlier prophets. In 5, 5–11 he sees wickedness in the form of a woman, who is put in a bushel container and carried off to Babylon. The vision suggests that wickedness can be gotten rid of by a symbolic physical action. This idea is very similar to the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus 16 and shows that the prophet appreciated the power of ritual. While wickedness cannot be put in a container and disposed of, the ritual action expresses the human desire—and strengthens the resolve—to rid the society of evil. It has its effect on the emotions and motivations of the people who perform it.

Zechariah also appreciated the limits of ritual. In chapter 7 he is asked about the proper number of fast days. He answers that motivation is more important than keeping the exact number. What is most important is to “render true judgment, and show kindness and compassion toward each other” ( 7, 9 ). Here Zechariah echoes the sentiment of Hosea 6, 6 : “it is love that I desire, not sacrifice.” After the experience of the exile and the destruction of the Temple, Zechariah knew that sacrifice was important too, but his priorities are still the same as those of Hosea.

Zechariah 9–11

Two passages in chapters 9 through 11 merit special attention: the messianic oracle in chapter 9 , and the allegory of the shepherds in chapter 11 .

The Messianic Oracle

The messianic oracle in 9, 9f is famous because of its association with Palm Sunday in Matthew 21, 5 and John 12, 15 . The ass was not as humble an animal in the ancient world as in modern times and was the vehicle of nobility in Genesis and Judges, but in the postexilic context it was a throwback to an earlier, simpler time. The hope is for a ruler who will restore Solomon's empire (“from the river to the ends of the earth”) but will avoid the arrogance of the monarchy (symbolized by horses and chariots) and will be closer in style to the Judges.

As in Micah 4 and Isaiah 2 , the messianic age will be a time of universal disarmament. One could scarcely describe Zechariah 9 as pacifistic, however. The logic of the passage is that the Lord will fight for Judah so that “they shall drink blood like wine” ( 9, 15 ). The mentality of this passage is close to what we find later in the apocalyptic books. In Daniel, it is Michael the archangel who fights the battles of Israel. The human role is to maintain purity and be obedient to the law. For Deutero‐Zechariah, the Lord assumes the role of warrior directly, in accordance with much of Israelite tradition (for example, Ex 15, 3 ). The Jewish people will not need the warrior's bow because God will kill their enemies for them.

This oracle could have been written at almost any time in the postexilic period when the monarchy was no more, and the Jewish people, in any case, were not equipped with horses and chariots. If the reference to Yavan (Greece) in verse 13 is original, the setting may be about the time of Alexander's conquests. The modest messiah, riding on an ass, provides an attractive contrast to the mighty Macedonian conqueror.

The Allegory of the Shepherds

The allegory of sheep and shepherds is very widespread in the ancient Near East, with the shepherds representing kings and rulers. The allegory of Zechariah 11 must be understood against the background of two passages in Ezekiel. Ezekiel 34 has an extended prophecy against the shepherds of Israel who exploited their flock. The movement of the prophecy, however, is from judgment to salvation, as the Lord takes over the job of shepherd. In Ezekiel 37, 15–22 , the prophet takes two sticks, representing Israel and Judah, and joins them together, signifying that they would henceforth be one nation under David their king. In Zechariah 11 we also find exploitative shepherds (compare Zec 10, 2f ), but there is no movement to salvation. The flock is designated for slaughter from the outset. The prophet is assigned to shepherd it for a while, but even he gives up on it and in the end they are given over to a foolish shepherd who takes no care of them. The wage of the prophet is the price of a slave, which is the value that the sheep merchants (foreign powers) attach to the God of Israel. It is also the wage of Judas in Matthew 26, 15 . The two staffs of Zechariah 11 symbolize two covenants, one with the nations, and the other between Judah and Israel. Both are broken in the course of the prophecy. In all, then, Deutero‐Zechariah reverses Ezekiel's predictions of salvation.

There is no agreement among scholars as to just when this prophecy was written or what context it addressed. All we can say is that it is an expression of extreme dissatisfaction and disillusionment from the postexilic period. The author of this passage is very far from the trust in the institutional leaders that characterized the original Zechariah in chapters 1 through 8 . There is no confidence here either in the Jewish leaders or in their foreign masters. All the prophet can do is protest, in the traditional language of prophecy: “woe to my foolish shepherd …” Like every great prophet from the time of Elijah, the anonymous speaker of these lines uses the power of the word to proclaim judgment and even to curse. Even if there is little hope of changing the situation, it is the duty of the prophet to testify and to ensure that people see reality for what it is.

Zechariah 12–14

The last three chapters of Zechariah are even more confusing than the previous three. There is persistent criticism of the rulers. Chapter 13 includes a “song of the sword” (compare Ez 21 ) against the “shepherd” and predicts that only one‐third of the people will be spared. More surprising than this is the prediction of the end of prophecy ( 13, 1–6 ).

The Decline of Prophecy

Prophecy had been discredited for various reasons. One was the failure of predictions, especially the prophecies of glorious restoration after the exile. Another was the conflict between prophets themselves and the willingness of some to mislead the people for their personal gain. This had been a problem already in the time of Micaiah, son of Imlah (1 Kgs 22 ) and was severe in the time of Jeremiah. It was only natural then that prophets would come to be viewed with suspicion. In Zechariah 13, 3 even a prophet's parents assume that an oracle spoken in the name of the Lord is a lie.

After Haggai and Zechariah, prophets seem to have lost status. We do not even know the real names of the prophets whom we call Third Isaiah, Deutero‐Zechariah, and Malachi. The visionaries of the Maccabean period attributed their visions to ancient heroes such as Daniel and Enoch. Undoubtedly there were prophets in Judaism in the Hellenistic period (John the Baptist is a late example), but they did not command the same respect as those of the Assyrian and Babylonian eras.

The Final Battle

The motif that runs through these chapters is that of a final battle in Jerusalem. The traditional motif was that in the last days all the nations would assemble to fight against Mount Zion (for example Ps 2; Ez 38–39 ). This motif is elaborated here in chapters 12 and 14. Chapter 12 suggests that there has been some tension between Judah and Jerusalem. Judah must be saved first so that Jerusalem will not gloat over it. Rivalry between city and countryside is natural enough and does not help us identify the situation in which the oracle was composed. In Zechariah 12 the emphasis falls on reconciliation. Jerusalem and the Davidic house will be compassionate and will “look on him whom they have thrust through” ( 12, 10 ). This enigmatic allusion has given rise to endless speculation. Some scholars have thought that the reference was to King Josiah, who was killed in battle at Megiddo in 609 BC, but this oracle is certainly from a much later time. Others have thought the figure is deliberately mysterious like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. John 19, 37 saw the fulfillment of this prophecy in the piercing of the side of Christ on the cross. We cannot now be sure whether the passage referred to a specific individual in its Jewish context. What is clear is that the prophet looked for a time when the leaders in Jerusalem would show compassion for the people they had oppressed and be reconciled with them.

The final oracle, in chapter 14 , also envisages reconciliation between Judah and the nations, so that even the Egyptians will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. There is a threat of coercion, which betrays the prophet's awareness that such a conversion of the Gentiles was implausible. Nonetheless, the future hope of Zechariah 14 is remarkable for its broadminded universalism, insofar as it wants to include the Egyptians in the worship of the true God.

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