Archaeologists routinely find teraphim, small household gods, at Judean and Israelite sites that date to the centuries before the Babylonian exile. Archaeologists notice an absence of idolatry in the communities of returnees after the exiles returned, the Persian period. Also, before the exile, the people consulted diviners and listened to self-declared prophets about their dreams. The prophet Micah accuses the diviners of lying to the people to console them (Mic. 3:7). Jeremiah accuses the people of following false prophets because of their comforting lies, while he was the unpopular prophet because he predicted the truth of exile and offered correction, not comfort (Jer. 27:9-10). False prophets told the people what they wanted to hear instead of what they needed to hear.
After the exile, the people were attentive to the words and warnings of Haggai and Zechariah. They relaunched the Temple building project in response to Haggai’s exhortation (Hag. 1:12) and they repented of their failings after Zechariah’s first sermon (Zech. 1:6). In chapter 7, Zechariah emphasized their moral and ethical shortcomings (7:8-12) with no word on idolatry.
All this begs the question, if the returnees were not worshiping idols or upholding false prophets, why is Zechariah warning them against the practices? It may be that Zechariah is warning the people not to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. His book started with the command: “do not be like your ancestors” (1:4). Or his message implies that syncretism will be a future temptation in the restored community. They need to be on guard. When Alexander the Great will take over the Mediterranean region in two centuries (332 BCE), the Greeks will import their enticing culture with them. Hellenism will divide the Jewish community into two camps, the religious and assimilated.
Zechariah warns that if the people go after false gods and prophets, they will be like sheep who “suffer for a lack of a shepherd” (10:3). Chapter 9 started the sheep and shepherd imagery by describing God’s people as “the flock” (9:16). The rest of the book continues the sheep motif.
God says his anger is “hot against the shepherds” (10:3). He is describing a problem with Judah’s leaders in contrast to his own good shepherd qualities. The identity of the bad leaders is unknown. Presumably, it is not Joshua or Zerubbabel because Haggai and the first part of Zechariah judges them favorably. We do not know the composition date for the last unit of Zechariah. By the time of its writing, perhaps a new generation of priests, judges, and civil leaders assumed leadership. With Judah part of the Persian empire, there is also the possibility that the bad shepherds are imperial officials. If that were the case, Zechariah is wrapping the anti-imperial message in the shepherd metaphor.
Despite the unknown identity of the corrupt shepherds, Yahweh is the good shepherd. After promising to purge the bad leaders, he says “for the Lord of hosts cares for his flock” (10:3).
Before the exile, Israel and Judah had a long string of unrighteous kings. 1 and 2 Kings highlight the centuries-old problem of bad leadership. After their return, they had to go without a king. Still, Zechariah promises to raise up human leaders capable of reviving the nation. Zechariah’s cornerstone, peg, and battle bow (10:4) passage is difficult to interpret. But all three are likely designations for future leaders or messianic titles. The peg may apply to a leader who will uphold the lineage of David. The prophet Isaiah portrayed Eliakim son of Hilkiah as the critical peg propping up the royal household before the Assyrian attack (Isa. 22:22-24). The battle bow is maybe a general allusion to a successful military leader for Judah.
“The cornerstone” is the title that has the most obvious messianic application. A cornerstone is the stone laid where two walls meet so it is critical to the integrity of a structure and must be large and strong enough to withstand the weight. The prophet Isaiah is responsible for popularizing cornerstone as a Messianic title. Isaiah wrote, “See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation” (Isa. 28:16).
After the death and resurrection of Christ, Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, interpreted the cornerstone prophecy as sign for Jesus. Paul wrote, “Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone; in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:20-21).
Zechariah predicts total transformation for Judah from a flock of scattered sheep to a “proud warhorse” (10:3). Zechariah describes them as stirring up dust and shaming their enemies in battle. The source of their newfound military power is Yahweh. Zechariah says, “Since the Lord is with them as they fight, they will overthrow even the enemy’s horsemen” (10:5).
For the last six verses in Zechariah 10, the prophet turns his attention from Judah and focuses on the promises pertaining to Israel. He says, “I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph” (10:6). The House of Joseph is another name for Israel, the ten tribes that made up the northern kingdom and were exiled by Assyria. Probably one of the most common points of confusion for Christians reading the Hebrew scriptures is misunderstanding the various synonymous names for the northern kingdom. Zechariah uses all the labels interchangeably: Israel, Ephraim, and House of Joseph.
When the northern and southern kingdoms split in 931 BCE, after the death of Solomon, the ten tribes of the north became known as Israel. The two tribes in the south became known as Judah because Judah was bigger than the tribe of Benjamin. In the Hebrew scriptures, Israel is another name for Ephraim. Ephraim was the largest and most important of the ten northern tribes. The house of Joseph is synonymous with Ephraim because Joseph was the father of Ephraim and Manasseh. Ephraim was the younger of his two sons but the recipient of the firstborn’s blessing from Jacob (Gen. 48).
All the blessings given to Judah in verses 4-5 guaranteed military strength. All the promises given to Israel guarantee return and restoration. Yahweh says, “I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them” (10:6). Earlier prophets forecasted the reunification of Judah and Israel (Isa. 11:11-16; Jer. 3:11-18). Thus far, waves of returnees had arrived in Jerusalem from Babylon. Two hundred years have passed since the Assyrians deported and dispersed the ten northern tribes throughout their vast empire. There had yet to be a wave of returnees from the northern kingdom.
In exile, the Babylonians allowed the community of Judah to live together and form a diaspora. Assyria did the opposite. They dispersed the people of Israel throughout the empire, leaving them vulnerable to assimilation. If you know anything about even modern Judaism, it is hard to practice the faith without community. The prophets knew only a miracle would bring back the House of Joseph.
Yahweh is aware of the seeming impossibility of their reemergence. He declares, “I will signal for them and gather them in, for I have redeemed them” (10:8). The verbiage here retains the sheep metaphor in the background. The Hebrew word “signal” is also translated as “whistle.” God is whistling like a shepherd to signal his flock. The basis of their redemption will be through his great mercy. Their return will result from hearing his call. Zechariah continues, “Though I scattered them among the nations, yet in far countries they shall remember me” (10:9).
The return of the ten tribes is the practical thing at the forefront of the minds of Zechariah’s audience. They know they can only go strong through numbers, and they wonder if Israel will be reincorporated into their new community. Yahweh is explaining, through the prophet, that the restoration of his relationship with Israel is at the forefront of his plans.
Yahweh says he will facilitate the return of all the exiles from “the land of Egypt” and he will “gather them from Assyria” (10:10). In Zechariah’s day, the Assyrian empire was long gone; a reference to Assyria feels misplaced. Zechariah is most likely conjuring up the image of what Assyria and Egypt represent in the history of Yahweh’s people.
After the breakup of the northern and southern kingdoms, the people of God found themselves stuck between the struggle for dominance between Egypt and Assyria. By the sixth century BCE, Assyria disappeared. The primary conflict shifted to Egypt and Babylon who both tussled over control of Judah.
The returnees had little hope that the cycle of violence would end with their restoration in the land years later, even with a vanquished Assyria and Babylon and a weakened Egypt. Zechariah is speaking directly into their communal pain when he pronounces, “the pride of Assyria shall be laid low, and the scepter of Egypt shall depart” (10:11).
God promises once the exiles return, “I will bring them to the land of Gilead and to Lebanon, until there is no room for them” (10:10). Gilead and Lebanon are odd choices for a promise directed at Israel. You would expect a reference to the capital Samaria, not random border towns. But put in the context, the prophet is saying once all twelve tribes have returned, the population will swell to the point that they expand into the periphery. Also, Gilead and Lebanon had rich grazing lands which may connect to the shepherd and sheep motif.
Zechariah 10 closes with a callback to the Exodus from Egypt: “Theyshall pass through the sea of distress, and the waves of the sea shall be struck down, and all the depths of the Nile dried up” (10:11). In the Hebrew scriptures, the Exodus is the paradigm for God’s miraculous saving acts. The crossing of the Red Sea is the ultimate symbol of the extreme steps Yahweh is willing to take to rescue his people. Whether or not it was deliverance from Babylonian captivity or deliverance from the Assyrian dispersion, every wave of returnees to the promised land was a Second Exodus.
Even today, in modern Israel, Jews who flee lands of oppression are performing a Second Exodus. The Jews who make Aliyah to Israel from far away lands like Ethiopia and India are believed to be connected to the ten northern tribes. From what Biblical historians can tell, during Zechariah’s time the northern tribes never returned in large numbers. But they did begin to repopulate the Galilee region during the period of the Maccabees, only to eventually be rooted out of the land again by the Romans in the first century CE. In the grand sweep of God’s redemption plans for his people throughout history, it may be that the twentieth century was witness to the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecies in the rebirth of the state of Israel. Today, people often call the ten northern tribes the “lost tribes” of Israel. In the Bible, they do not stay lost forever. In fact, the naming of the state of Israel shows the enduring power of the dream of all twelve tribes being reincorporated into one nation.
When David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the modern Jewish state on May 14, 1948, no one knew the name of the new state. Possible names that floated around were the State of the Hebrews, Zion, Judah, Judea, or the Land of Israel. They decided against Judea or Judah. At that time with the war clouds looming, it was unsure if the state would include Jerusalem. The Negev was going to make up the largest percentage of the new state and it did not feel right to extend the ancient name for Jerusalem to the desert. The derivative of Judea would be Jewish. Citizens of the new state would therefore be called Jewish, but Ben Gurion knew not all the citizens would be Jewish. The problem with Zion is that the derivative is Zionists. Since Zionism was already a global movement, it seemed counter-productive to reduce the Zionist identity to only those living in the land. At the very last minute, they voted on “Israel” which was then cemented with Ben Gurion’s announcement: “We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” With that a new identity was formed from an ancient identity.
Join me next week reading Zechariah 11. If you thought chapter 10 was heavy on the shepherd allegory, just wait for chapter 11.
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