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. 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 7. Zechariah 7-8 is a distinct unit, a narrative event occurring between the prophet’s visions and his concluding oracles.
The section opens with a precise date superscription: “in the fourth year of King Darius” (7:1). Right off, we know two years have passed since the prophet experienced his visions (1:1, 7). At this point, around 518 BCE, the Temple construction is proceeding quickly and is only two years from completion (Ezra 6:15). The people are beginning to feel confident of Jerusalem’s reemergence and therefore are paying less attention to their spiritual condition. In this context, Zechariah receives a divine word of warning (7:1), prompted by a visiting delegation of leaders from Bethel.
The narrative explains that the townspeople of Bethel sent a delegation to Jerusalem to settle a dispute in their community about whether they should continue to observe certain fast days. The fast days began in exile to lament the destruction of Jerusalem (7:2-3).
Considering they had returned to Judah and the Temple was almost finished, perhaps there was no longer a point to fasts memorializing Jerusalem’s darkest days. Before digging into Zechariah’s response, it is important to highlight some of the subtle details in these introductory verses.
First, the delegation is from a rural community outside of Jerusalem, indicating that repopulation is occurring beyond the capital. Zechariah and Haggai’s early prophecies expressed hopeful expectation that Jerusalem’s surrounding cities would once again be inhabited, and that appears to be happening.
In Zechariah’s first vision, the angelic messenger asked Yahweh to extend his mercy to both Jerusalem and the “cities of Judah” (1:12) so that the cities would once again “overflow with prosperity” (1:17). The existence of an organized community in Bethel is a great sign! It shows the exiles were returning to their ancestral homelands and felt secure enough to live outside of Jerusalem. The book of Ezra also confirms the resettlement trend and lists out all the hometowns where the exiles returned, including Bethel (2:28).
The second thing to take note of is that the Bethel delegation traveled the twelve miles to Jerusalem to inquire of the “priests of the house of the Lord of hosts and the prophets” (7:3). Something huge is revealed in this verse. The people of Bethel are submitting to the primacy of Jerusalem.
Before the kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians, Bethel had been a cultic religious center that opposed the leadership of Jerusalem in every way. Bethel’s enmity with Jerusalem started during the reign of Jeroboam I, the first king of Israel after the division of the Northern and Southern kingdoms. To compete with the Temple, Jeroboam I placed a golden calf at a shrine in Bethel (1 Kings 12:28-32). The prophet Hosea accused Bethel of “great evil” and rightly predicted her ruin (Hosea 10:15). The prophet Amos also predicted Bethel’s fall (Amos 3:14). As a result, the priests at Bethel charged the prophet of conspiring against King Jeroboam (Amos 7:10-17). According to an apocryphal work, The Lives of the Prophets, a priest at Bethel murdered Amos. With that dark history in mind, it is remarkable that Bethel, once home to a rival priestly caste, is now sending a delegation to Jerusalem to consult with the priests and prophets. Bethel’s recognition of Jerusalem as the religious and judicial center for the country is a positive sign that the restored community is going in the right direction.
In modern terms, Bethel asking Jerusalem’s leaders for a ruling is like a future leader of Russia hiring a team of Ukrainian campaign advisors. Or to use an even more charged metaphor, it would be like Louisiana State University’s football program appointing Nick Saban as a recruiter.
However, there are other subtleties in the text that point to an underlying challenge with the postexilic community. Sprinkled throughout the text are reminders of the Babylonian exile, indicators that the people may have returned to the covenanted land, but they still lack for independence. Sharezer, the leader of the Bethel delegation, has a Babylonian name. And even the prophet uses Chislev in identifying the month of his divine revelation. Chislev is not the Hebrew name for the ninth month but rather the Babylonian name. These Babylonian holdovers are evidence that the community is still burdened by the period of exile. They are still rebuilding their own identity and station.
Getting back to the main point of chapter 7, the question presented to Jerusalem’s leaders pertains to fast days. In exile, the diaspora initiated four fast days as a means of communal lament for their national loss. In the fourth month, they fasted for the loss of Jerusalem. In the fifth month, they fasted for the loss of the Temple. The Babylonians destroyed the Temple on the fifth month in 586 BCE (2 Kings 25:8). In the seventh month, they fasted to mourn the assassination of Gedaliah. When the Babylonians overtook Jerusalem, they appointed a Jewish leader named Gedaliah as governor over the small Jewish community left in Jerusalem. An anti-Babylonian Jewish patriot group assassinated Gedaliah (Jer. 41). His murder humiliated the exiles in Babylon so they initiated a fast day in Gedaliah’s honor. In the tenth month, they fasted to commemorate the launch of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem. Upholding the regular fasts throughout the time of exile was one way of keeping the community together and upholding the memory of their land and holy place.
Bethel’s conundrum, on its own, seems logical. Should the returnees continue to fast for the loss of the Temple when the new Temple is almost rebuilt? A similar question crops up in modern times around Passover. Should the Jews living in Israel say “next year in Jerusalem” at the end of the Seder liturgy when they are already living in a reestablished Israel?
When Sharezer asks if the returnees should continue the fast, he is ambiguous about the duration of the tradition, asking, “Should I mourn and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” (7:3). Zechariah, as a prophet, sees prophetic importance in the number of years of exile. In his response, he specified that the fast had occurred for “these seventy years” (7:5). He is keeping track of the number of years on purpose because the prophet Jeremiah foretold a 70-year captivity (Jer. 29:11).
Sharezer was looking for a straightforward ruling. If it had been the priests or judges of Jerusalem who answered him, they likely would have deliberated the legal and traditional aspects of the fast to determine a judgement. However, we only hear Zechariah’s response. Prophets usually go an esoteric direction, answering questions with questions. Zechariah takes the opportunity to sermonize about the spiritual condition of “all the people of the land” (7:5), not just the Bethel delegation.
Zechariah does not have a problem with fasting. To be sure, the Hebrew scriptures endorse fasting as a spiritual discipline and confessional exercise, a means to come humbly before the Lord. Zechariah is skeptical of the motivation behind the fast question. He intuits that the question reflects a misunderstanding of God’s priorities for his people.
Zechariah’s response to the delegation is more a rebuke than an answer. Speaking for Yahweh, the prophet asks, “was it for me that you fasted?” (7:5), meaning did the fast serve God or was it self-serving for the community. Was the attitude behind the fast one of humble repentance or self-pity? He probes further, “when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves?” (7:6). If they are truly turning to God in all their thoughts, words, and deeds than the act of regular eating and drinking should also prompt gratitude and piety.
Zechariah is aware of the rich prophetic traditions that preceded him and he alludes to his prophetic predecessors frequently. In fact, all the post-exilic prophets make frequent mention of the pre-exilic prophets. Before the exile, the prophets accused the people of mechanizing the motions of religious ritual without turning their hearts toward God. Zechariah presents that same warning to the new community.
Out of all the prophets before the exile, Jeremiah seems to be Zechariah’s favorite. In Jeremiah 7, the prophet railed against the false sense of security that the Temple provided the people. Zechariah senses that the relative peace in the land and the progressing Temple construction are once again giving the impression that Jerusalem is on a good path and they do not need to examine their inward spiritual lives. Without citing Jeremiah directly, Zechariah synthesizes the preexilic prophet’s message with his own.
Bible commentaries point out the similarities of the message in Jeremiah 7:5-6 and Zechariah 7:9-10. Listen to Jeremiah’s warning from the Temple gate: “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt” (Jer. 7:5-6).
Now listen to Zechariah’s message to the Bethel delegation: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: 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” (Zech. 7:9-10).
In the sixth century BCE, before the exile, Jerusalem and her surrounding cities were “inhabited and in prosperity” (7:7), according to Zechariah’s account. This was the highpoint for Jerusalem, but her punishment lurked around the corner because the people ignored Yahweh’s appeal. To express the fullness of their rejection of covenant obligations, Zechariah uses metaphorical kinetic language. In response to the early prophets, the previous generation “turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears in order not to hear” (7:11). They also “made their hearts adamant” (7:12). (In Hebrew, the wording sounds closer to making their hearts hard.) The implication of the three rebellious body parts is that the people are so determined to leave God that their whole bodies participate. Zechariah wants the community to do some self-examination. How are they responding to Yahweh’s message differently than their ancestors?
Zechariah repeatedly tries to motivate the people toward obedience so the social injustices of their ancestors do not persist in the restored community. How a society cares for its most vulnerable members is indicative of the greater spiritual condition. Israel’s covenant laws, if followed, provide for the needy.
Zechariah is not so concerned with the cancelation of the fast days. That will be made clear in chapter 8. What does concern Zechariah is the indication that the people are slipping back into the lazy faith standards of preexilic Judah. They no longer worship idols or establish apostate sanctuaries, but they are once again focusing on the details of empty worship while missing the greater call for an ethical and just society. They are falsely pious. Fasting has no meaning or value if ethics are absent, faith is empty, and greed abounds.
The ultimate punishment for the wickedness of the preexilic community was that God stopped listening. When the people of monarchic Judah stopped listening to the prophets, Yahweh in turn refused to hear their prayers (7:13). Just like God had threatened from the beginning, their breaking of the covenant led to their banishment from the land. Zechariah’s divine oracle says, “I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known” (7:14).
Zechariah’s message would have stung the ears of his audience. The postexilic generation was still reeling over the meaning of their exile. Why did it happen? Could it happen again? If the exile was the great collective trauma of the people, the prophets were God’s agents sent as counselors and life coaches. Zechariah, Haggai, and Ezra all give the sense that the community was experiencing a crisis of hope. They had very low expectations for their future. Zechariah’s combined oracles in 7-8 should encourage the people that even if their return from Babylon has left them disappointed and does not align with the forecast of the prophets, more is to come, more is to be realized.
The chapter ends without giving the people’s response to Zechariahs entreaty. In Zechariah’s opening sermon, the people responded immediately and humbly to the prophet’s call (1:6). But here, we are left to wonder. If the community does not correct their impending crisis of injustice, Yahweh can overturn the restoration plans. The chapter also ends without an answer to the fast question. That will come in chapter 8. Zechariah, as a prophet, cannot give them divine revelation to dictate their future until they first examine their past and present.
Join me next week in reading Zechariah 8 which will take a positive spin on fasting and feasting.
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