Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are studying Zechariah 5, the sixth and seventh consecutive vision experiences for the prophet.
I do not know how you feel about the many different Bible translations out there, but I want to give you a little primer on the three different approaches to one common Hebrew word, hinneh. Hinneh appears twice in Zechariah 5 but it has been frequently used throughout the vision sequence. Almost every time the angelic messenger catches Zechariah’s attention, the messenger uses the introduction hinneh (1:8; 2:1,5; 4:2; 5:1, 9; 6:1). Hinneh occurs over eight hundred times in the Hebrew scriptures. In the prophets, hinneh is one of the highest frequency words.
The King James Version translates hinneh as “behold.” But “behold” has mostly fallen out of modern English usage so the newer translations like the New Living Translation and the International Standard Version swap out “behold” for “look” or “see.” There is no perfect way to translate hinneh. “Behold” is outdated but “look” or “see” lack the weightiness of the Hebrew command. Hinneh really conveys “look, I am about to show you something important.” Of course, there is no one word in English that encapsulates the fullness of hinneh.
I tend to agree with the modern translations like the English Standard Version that decided to keep “behold” despite their stepping away from the King James Version in many other ways. The King James “behold” is so familiar that it has become normalized in the mind of the Bible reader. My least favorite translation method is to leave the word untranslated like the New International Version.
I understand that word-for-word translations are not always necessary but grasping the poetry of the prophets includes following their repetition. Listen to the King James Version of Zechariah 5:1: “Then I turned, and lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a flying roll” (5:1, KJV). And this is the New International Version: “I looked again, and there before me was a flying scroll” (5:1, NIV). The content of the vision introduction is essentially the same. However, leaving hinneh untranslated lessens the force of the passage.
Now my translation soapbox over.
Zechariah’s sixth vision opens with a flying scroll. In my imagination, the scroll is like one of those aerial advertisement banners that fly over busy beaches encouraging people to “Eat at Joe’s.” Obviously, this sky banner is a religious scroll and there is no attached airplane.
An anonymous speaker in the vision asks Zechariah to identify what he sees. The speaker is likely the angelic messenger but the text leaves it vague. Zechariah gives him the dimensions of the flying scroll: twenty cubits by ten cubits (5:2).
A cubit was the standard biblical unit of measurement in Bible times, equal to about eighteen inches, the distance from the elbow to the fingertips. In our terms of measurement, the unfurled scroll was thirty by fifteen feet.
Somehow Zechariah was able to estimate the dimensions of a scroll even though the scroll was in flight. Possibly, the dimensions are a subtle way of connecting the scroll to Solomon’s Temple. The porch or portico of Solomon’s Temple had the same dimensions as the flying scroll (1 Kings 6:3), and so did the cherubim with their wings outstretched across the Ark of the Covenant (1 Kings 6:23-26). The exact dimensions of the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle are hard to discern from Exodus (26:5-18), but some scholars believe the Holy of Holies was also twenty by ten cubits. If the vision is intentionally correlating the scroll with the Temple, the deeper meaning is that God’s holy word is to be upheld, just like his holy place.
The other possibility is that Zechariah is simply partial to numbers. In his visions, the numbers may not be reflective of anything particular but are part of his literary flourishing. His visions include four horseman, four horns, seven lamps with seven channels, two trees, four chariots, and two crowns.
The messenger connects the scroll to “the curse that goes out over the face of the whole land” (5:3). The Hebrew word for curse (’alah) is a term almost synonymous with covenant in the Bible. Zechariah is keeping with other prophets by calling back to the ceremony of blessings and curses at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Described in Deuteronomy 27, after the Israelites first entered Canaan they marked the occasion with a covenant renewal, reciting the blessings they would gain from obedience and the curses they would incur if they violated the regulations. Certain moments in Israel’s history make the grand highlight reel, replayed at every major event as a reminder of their origin story.
Scrolls in the sixth century BCE did not have writing on both sides. Not until the Roman period did scribes ink each side of the parchment. The detail that the scroll had a message scrawled across each side is one more flourish to the surreal nature of this gargantuan flying scroll. From Zechariah’s standpoint, two messages are legible on the scroll. On one side is a warning to all thieves. On the other side is a warning to those citizens who swear falsely in God’s name (5:3). Both the thieves and blasphemers have until now gone unpunished, but Yahweh cannot allow for their violations any longer.
If a banner-like scroll was flying across the sky to grab the attention of every onlooker, why did it only harp on two of the ten commandments? Out of all the biblical commandments, why did the prophet only read off the third and eighth commandments? One theory is that stealing and lying under oath were associated legally with each other in the Persian period. As waves of exiles returned to Judah and reclaimed their ancestral homes and land, there had to have been abuses in the process. Emphasizing these two sins seems historically relevant to this moment in time. Were people stealing the property of others, swearing falsely that certain lands and homes were their own? Any justice system would have difficulty in proving ownership after seventy years of exile. If an honor system was faulty because the people lacked integrity, the system of return would collapse.
Another theory is that stealing represents a violation of man’s relationship with man. Swearing falsely in the name of God represents a violation of man’s relationship with God. Since Mount Sinai, the Jewish people have emphasized the sanctity of God’s name. No one was to invoke God’s name insecurely or even casually when making an oath. Together, those two commandments cover the whole scope of the law. Together the two commandments offer the broader picture of all the covenant regulations: love God and love your neighbor. If God was going to start fresh with this postexilic nation, he expected them to hold to his laws.
Yahweh warns Zechariah that he will punish the guilty. Yahweh says he is sending “it” out to “abide in that house and consume it, both timber and stones” (5:4). The “it” in this prophecy is most likely still the flying scroll, as it represents God’s standard which the people have failed to hold. The scroll transforms from a method of messaging the people to a weapon for punishing. What is terrifying is that the punisher does not sweep over the house, like when the Angel of Death swept over the homes of the Egyptians. This agent of Yahweh lodges in the home for the night, dismantling every piece of timber and wood until nothing remains.
In 5:5, the vision shifts from a flying scroll to a flying ephah. Once again using the Hebrew introduction, hinneh, the angelic messenger asks Zechariah to look up and identify the vision. In our second scene, the prophet beholds a basket “coming out” (5:5). The basket is an ephah, a common tool of measurement for buying, selling, and storing grain. Ephahs were commonly found in the fields, in storage units, and at the markets. This ephah may have originated in the Temple sanctuary where ephahs were used to measure grain offerings. Before the exile, the ephah was equivalent to about five gallons of dry goods. After the exile, the meaning of ephah morphed and historians believe the term applied to almost any size basket.
The angelic messenger explained to Zechariah that the basket symbolized the sin of the people (5:6). He then lifted the lid to the basket and saw a women crouched inside. Apparently, the women had been in the basket the whole time without the prophet knowing. The woman must have stood up because the angel had to thrust her into the basket and seal it with a weighted lid to prevent escape (5:8). Wickedness was trying to enter the community in Judah, but the angel’s job was to keep wickedness out of the restored community.
The passage explains that the woman was “wickedness” made manifest. Why should a women represent “wickedness”? Most scholars believe a woman is described as personified wickedness because the noun in Hebrew is feminine. There are commentaries who take the game of identification further, connecting the women to Eve or they imagine the women is a statue that represents either the local goddess Asherah or Ishtar. In my opinion, the angelic mediator is present to elucidate all the meaningful aspects of the visions. If the angelic mediator does not identify the woman with anything other than wickedness, I do not presume to read more into the text than the divine tour guide.
With wickedness shut up in the ephah, two women with stork-like wings appear. The passage describes the “wind in their wings” (5:9). The Hebrew word for wind, ru’ah, is the same as the word for God’s spirit so the women may be helped along supernaturally. They lift the basket and fly “between earth and sky” (5:9). In prophetic speak, “between earth and sky” is the place where the earthly and spiritual realms touch (Ezek. 8:3).
The winged women are transporting the basket to Shinar (5:11). The Biblical writer is intentional in his use of Shinar, the ancient name for the land of Babylon. From the earliest of days, the people of Yahweh equated Babylon or “the land of Shinar” with the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Babel was the capital of human arrogance and rebellion against God. Babylon was also right in the center of human history, the most ancient source of human civilization.
The Bible has a certain respect for Babylon’s antiquity, evidenced in the story of warrior king Nimrod and his great success in the land of Babylon (Gen. 10:8-12). Still, in the big story of the Bible, Babylon was rooted in evil from its outset. The Babylonian Empire’s destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE was a continuation of her rebellion against Yahweh. Exiling the people of Judah to Babylon was the ultimate insult. Their rebellion landed them in the heart of godlessness.
During the exile, the Babylonians religious and cultural practices influenced the Judeans. The stories of Daniel all transpire in Babylon’s elite circles and yet Daniel was able to uphold the covenant even in exile. Daniel had to be one of the exceptions. How many stories go untold of those Jews who could not resist bowing to golden statues or eating unclean foods? We know from the book of Jeremiah that the exiles living in Egypt were blatantly worshiping Egyptian goddesses and ridiculing the prophet for trying to correct their ways (Jer. 44). One would assume the same thing was going on in Babylon’s urban areas. Zechariah’s vision symbolizes the removal of foreign pagan practices from the community. The winged women deposit wickedness on her own pedestal in a shrine built for her in Shinar, essentially returning evil back to its birthplace.
The flying scroll vision and the flying ephah send the same message. God promises to restore the people, the Temple, and all of Judah. But the community must institute reforms to make sure that they are keeping to the covenant. In vision four, God reminded them that they were forgiven and did not bear the sins of their forefathers. But he also does not want them to repeat the mistakes of the past generations. God had warned the people when they first entered the land, after the Exodus, that anyone who even thinks secretly in their hearts about disregarding God’s will have God’s curses descend on them (Deut. 29:19-20). The flying scroll is the Public Service Announcement to remind the community that the covenant is mutual.
Obedience secures blessing. Disobedience invites a second exile. If God finds wickedness in the community, the punishment will be banishment, just like the woman in the basket. A second exile could happen again if the people are not diligent in purging the wicked. The last two chapters of Ezra show how much the people feared another exile and the extreme steps they took on a national cleansing campaign. They understood that a commitment to the Torah and a spiritual revival were essential to the salvation of their land and people.
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