Thursday, October 23, 2014

Zechariah: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The Prophet Zechariah by Michelangelo (1512) from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

The prophet Zechariah was a contemporary of the prophet Haggai.  He prophesied between 520-518 B.C.E. from Jerusalem, when Israel was a vassal state of the Persian Empire under Emperor Darius “the Great.”  Under Darius, many Jews living in exile in Babylon and Persia were allowed to return to their homeland.  Darius’ imperial policy allowed for localized control of provinces, and a certain respect for different cultures and religions.  Thus, for example, the Jews were allowed to re-build their temple and continue their worship practices.  This was good politics for Darius, and was seen as a divine blessing by the Jews.  Into this period of rebuilding stepped the prophet Zechariah, whose visions and messages were deeply tied to the social, political, and religious concerns of the Jews in early 6th century B.C.E Jerusalem.

Relief of Darius the Great from the ancient city of Persepolis

The first half of Zechariah is a series of visions similar to the visions experienced by Ezekiel and Daniel, which are meant to give symbolic commentary on the spiritual life of the Jewish community.  During most of the visions, Zechariah is accompanied by an angel, who offers (often cryptic) explanations. The first vision is is of four horsemen.  The angel says they are messengers from God to patrol the whole earth, and are heralds of a new era of peace for Jerusalem.

"The Four Horsemen" by Gustave Dore 

The second vision is of four horns and four blacksmiths.  These are meant to symbolize the great nation who defeated and scattered Israel, specifically Babylon.

The third vision is of a man with a measuring line, measuring Jerusalem.  The angel explains that this means that the holy city will be re-built and re-populated.  It is a hopeful vision.

The fourth vision is of the high priest Josuha and Satan (which means “the accuser”).  This is only the third time Satan is mentioned in the Bible so far.  Unlike the demon we picture today, this Satan is a member of a heavenly court, like a divine lawyer.  Joshua the priest is dressed in flithy clothes.  An angel takes off his dirty clothes and places clean, priestly garments on him.  Josuha is now prepared to be a spiritual leader of the new community of returned exiles.

The fifth vision is of a lamp stand with a bowl on top of it, and seven more lamps on the bowl (quite a balancing act!)  This is a reference to the temple, which had lamp stands and bowls as an important part of its architecture.  It is meant to indicate that God will again dwell in the temple when it is rebuilt.

The Golden Lampstand Makes a Menorah.

The sixth vision is of a flying scroll.  This is meant to symbolize the fact that the laws of Moses will again take effect.  The spiritual life of the community will resume as it had existed before.

The seventh vision is of a woman (probably a Babylonian diety) in a basket.  This idol is silenced and carried away back to Babylon.  This is meant to symbolize the fact that idolatry will not exist in the new Jerusalem.  People will only worship Yahweh.

The Woman in the Basket

The eighth and final vision is of the four horsemen, this time riding four chariots.  These are meant to emphasize that God has power over the whole world, even the powerful Persian empire.

After the visions, the prophet reminds the people of the true meaning of all this religion stuff: “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”

"Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor..."

The second half of Zechariah contains a series of oracles, another common prophetic device.  Oracles are pronouncements to the people about how to act, and about what they can expect in the future.  The word “oracle” can also be translated “burden,” which I find a fitting description of the prophet’s mission.  Prophets often experienced suffering and solitude on account of the “burden” of their messages, which were often a mix of comfort and tragedy.

The first oracle begins with a hopeful message that God will return to dwell in Jerusalem, and that it will be re-populated and prosper again.  Even children will play in the streets.  The people are encouraged to take courage and not be afraid, and to begin the process of rebuilding.  God will bless them.  The people will be joyful.  Foreigners will come from all around to Jerusalem, the holy city, and will seek the Lord.

The second oracle is less hopeful for foreign nations.  Like many prophets before him, Zechariah gives pretty intense judgements against those who oppressed Israel, places like Tyre, Sidon, Damascus, Aram, Philistia, etc.  Things will not bode well for these “foreigners.”  In these cases, I feel like the nationalism of the writer creeps into an otherwise lovely text.

After judgment is rendered on foreign nations, a king will take the throne of Israel once again, who will inaugurate an era of peace.  New Testament writers interpreted some of these passages to refer to Jesus.  Zechariah contains this famous passage of the humble king entering Jerusalem on a donkey:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey…
and he shall command peace to the nations…”

Gospel writers Matthew and John quoted this passage in reference to Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem, just before he was crucified.  The fact that Jesus was crucified and that He did not inaugurate an era of peace on earth (at least not politically), seemed to indicate to many Jews that Jesus was not, in fact, the messiah.  Christians interpreted things differently, of course.

"Jesus Enters Jerusalem and the Crowds Welcome Him" by Pietro Lorenzetti (1320)

If I was grading the book of Zechariah, as I grade hundreds of college English essays, I would probably make one comment between chapters 10 and 11: “Create a smoother transition.”  There is a radically abrupt shift in tone and content between these two chapters.  Chapter 10 ends on a note of hope and peace.  Chapter 11 begins with terrifying imagery of fire, destruction, lions, and slaughter: “Thus says the Lord my God: Be a shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter…For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of the earth, says the Lord.”  If I was grading Zechariah, I would also make these comments: “Feels off topic” and “I’m unclear about your thesis.”  Chapter 11 is a confusing anomaly, and I don’t understand it.

The prophecy of Zechariah ends with a full-blown end-of-days apocalypse.  There will be a massive world war in Jerusalem (why does Jerusalem always suffer so much?).  Foreign nations will siege Jerusalem, plunder houses and rape women.  But then God himself will fight for his people and will win, and reign over the whole world.  I’m fairly certain that the writer of the New Testament book of Revelation was inspired by the book of Zechariah.

As I near the end of the “prophetic” books of the Bible, I must say I’m impressed by their literary intensity and creativity.  They contain psychedelic imagery, poetry, verbal smack downs, cryptic oracles, and full-blown end-of-days apocalyptic scenes.  Regardless of your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), these ancient writings are gems of world literature, and well worth reading.

"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by Sharlene Linskog-Osorio


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