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 reading Zechariah 11, arguably the most enigmatic gloomy section of the whole book. The chapter’s prelude (11:1-3) is a dark poem with the vivid portrayal of personified trees wailing over their own destruction. Shepherds and lions join in with the trees’ lament, mourning their own loss of pasture and thicket. Lebanon’s cedars and cypress burn while Bashan’s oaks tumble in a cascade of destruction.
The poem cries, “the glorious trees are ruined!” (11:2) in reference to the fall of the most prized trees in the Ancient Near East, Lebanon’s cedars. David acquired cedar logs from Lebanon to build his palace (2 Sam. 5:11). Cedar paneling from Lebanon adorned Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:6). Even in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the mythic king risked his life to go to Lebanon’s cedar forest and bring back the precious wood to his kingdom.
To Zechariah’s listening audience, the destruction of the cedar trees, forever associated with strength and glory, demonstrated Yahweh’s superiority. If Yahweh is mightier than the stately cedar tree, he is greater than all things. When the Psalmist praised God’s strength, he compared his voice to the cedar: “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon” (Ps. 29:5).
The difficult part of the poem is interpreting the meaning of the charred forest. Do the wailing trees represent God’s judgement on the nations? If so, Lebanon, Bashan, and Jordan make an odd choice. They are not big players like Assyria or Babylon in the history of the people. Or do the trees portray the coming collapse of Judah? Perhaps they are symbolic of an enemy army descending from the north, starting with a slash and burn campaign through the forests and pastures on her northern border and moving toward Jerusalem.
The answer is unknown because the chapter division influences the interpretation. There is a chance that the chapter division is misplaced and really the tree lament would better fit as the end of chapter 10 than the prelude to chapter 11. At the end of chapter 10, Assyria is “laid low” and Egypt’s scepter departs (10:11). Taking down the pride of Lebanon and Jordan in the tree lament follow that theme. If the poem is a continuation of chapter 10, it is a follow-on prophecy against the nations. If it launches chapter 11, it is a warning for Judah. Only the people of Judah are in focus for chapter 11 and they are under harsh judgement.
Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton first introduced chapter divisions in the twelfth century as a helpful way to locate scriptures. God did not divinely inspire chapter divisions; they are merely practical. It is fair game to challenge their arbitrariness on occasion for the sake of interpretation.
No matter the interpretation or the symbolism, the foreboding poem establishes a change in tone from the future-focused restoration promises of the previous chapter to a present-focused message of calamity. Zechariah 11 is void of the hope and peace of previous oracles. Like falling trees, destruction is inevitable.
The sheep and shepherd motif really revs up in chapter 11. God commissions Zechariah to play the role of good shepherd to the people. The narrative portion begins, “Thus says the Lord my God: Be a shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter” (11:4). Because the negligent shepherds took no pity on their flock (11:5), the sheep are destined for the market, and marked for immediate slaughter.
Interpreters often identify the buyers with foreign kings oppressing the people of Judah. The foreigner buyers go unpunished because the leaders of Judah do nothing to protect the flock. The sellers are likely Jewish elites, collaborating with foreign entities to further oppress the people of Judah. The clue to their identity is that they direct their sarcastic praise to Yahweh, saying “Blessed be Yahweh, for I have become rich” (11:4).
Identifying the buyers and sellers with historical figures in Jewish history depends on the orientation of Zechariah’s prophecy. Is he looking to the past, present, or future? If it is the future, Fare the predictions for the near, distant, or eschatological age? If Zechariah is speaking to the affairs of his own audience, and that is a big “if,” Nehemiah 5 describes a historical event that corresponds with Zechariah’s symbolism. Nehemiah condemns the practice of Judea’s elite who are imposing heavy interests on loans given to poor returnees. In the postexilic community, there were poor people trying to eke out a living as they built back their homes and recultivated their lands. And like in any society, there were those who had already achieved economic security and were trying to grow richer by exploiting the poor.
Nehemiah reminded the community of the deep-rooted bonds of their kinship and the immorality of oppressing their compatriots. In Nehemiah’s case, the elite repented and changed course. There is no way of identifying the exact historical events that Zechariah describes, especially since it is all couched in metaphor. However, the abusive interest program conducted in Nehemiah’s day may have started decades earlier during Zechariah’s prophetic ministry.
Alternatively, some bible scholars argue that Zechariah is not performing a prophetic sign-act, but rather experiencing another vision. The prophet is known to share divine revelations in either form. However, the passage follows the same formula of other sign-acts in the Bible. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea are all known for their use of performative role play to express Yahweh’s point. In most cases, Yahweh gives the directives for the role play in narrative form: “Thus says the Lord, go and do such and such.” Three times in chapter 11 Yahweh gives Zechariah a command in this style. In prophetic sign-acts, the prophets often narrate how they obeyed Yahweh’s order. Zechariah, following the formula, switches to first person after God gives the instructions and describes how he carries them out: “I became a shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter” and “I took two staffs” (11:7).
There are props in Zechariah’s role play. First, Zechariah names the two staffs, Favor and Unity (11:7). Within a month of his role as good shepherd, the prophet purges three community leaders (11:8), an act entirely too realistic to be only part of a vision. He has lost patience with them and they apparently despise him as well. Despite the futility of his task, to save a flock marked for slaughter, Zechariah intends to make the necessary corrections in the community.
Historians have combed through Jerusalem’s history looking for three leaders eliminated in a month. It is all conjecture, ranging from kings in Judah’s preexilic past to Roman leaders years later. One theory is that the three rulers represent the main three positions of leadership: prophet, priest, and king.
The whole of the community soon rebels against Zechariah’s leadership and the prophet loses his patience. He angrily denounces them, “What is to die, let it die; what is to be destroyed, let it be destroyed; and let those that are left devour the flesh of one another!” (11:9). God is done with his people and his land. Zechariah is saying that since they have chosen to ignore his message, God will abandon them to the natural consequences of their chosen path. The foreboding image of sheep eating each other may point to the two times in Israel’s history when the people were so starved, they had to resort to cannibalism. Jeremiah prophesied that the devastation of the Babylonian siege would push starved parents to eat their children (Jer. 19:9). According to Josephus, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, starved families consumed their dead.
To further dramatize the termination of the covenant, Zechariah breaks his two staffs Favor and Unity. If his role play was as elaborate as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it is likely that Zechariah performed this act near the Temple. He is decommissioning the tools of his vocation. In the breaking of Favor, God says I am “annulling the covenant that I had made with all the peoples” (11:10). There is no reference in the Bible to such a covenant between God and the nations apart from the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9, which does not seem to apply in this context. Most commentaries interpret the “covenant with all peoples” as the limits God put on the nations in their interaction with Judah. During the Persian period, God kept the nations at bay and the region at peace so the returnees could work on the Temple in peace and the exiles would feel safe to return. Breaking the staff Favor symbolized Yahweh’s retraction of his covenant obligation to guard and protect them from their neighbors.
Zechariah later breaks the staff named Unity which annuls the promise of reunification between Judah and Israel (11:14). The bond of kinship severed all those centuries ago with the breakup of the northern and southern kingdom will stay broken. With Zechariah’s breaking of the Unity staff, he is reversing an earlier more hopeful sign-act performed by his predecessor Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet joined two sticks together as a symbol of the future reunification of Judah and Israel as a unified covenant people (37:15-23). Zechariah may be intentionally demonstrating the cancelation of Ezekiel’s hope, the prophetic ideal of the reunification of the tribes.
The language in chapter 11 is harsh, and difficult to square with the promises of hope and the messianic expectations in the rest of Zechariah. Zechariah is ordering a full-scale stop on all the promises throughout his book until now. Yet, one of the most important prophetic episodes to the New Testament occurs in Zechariah 11.
When Zechariah resigns from his post prematurely, he asks the “sheep merchants” to compensate him for his service as leader. He says, “If it seems right to you, give me my wages, but if not, keep them.” (11:12). He is testing them, allowing them to determine the worth of having God’s voice and instruction in the community through his mediation. Because Zechariah is a stand in for Yahweh as good shepherd, the people’s response to Zechariah is equivalent to the worth they put in God’s covenant. If they had answered correctly, they should have said that Zechariah’s role, like their relationship with God, was of infinite worth. Instead, they insulted Zechariah paying him thirty shekels of silver (11:12). Thirty pieces of silver was the known price for a slave in the Bible (Ex. 21:32). His response drips with derision about the “lordly price at which I was valued by them” (11:13).
To display his repulsion to the people’s ingratitude, Yahweh instructs Zechariah to fling the silver at the potter. Likely, the event took place near the Temple and there was an artisan potter under the employ of the Temple. Potter’s workshops were often near refuse heaps as a practical means for disposing of their scraps. Perhaps Zechariah’s throwing the money at the potter is a way of saying he was throwing it away entirely. No interpreter quite understands the significance of the potter in the action.
The gospel of Matthew imports this section of Zechariah as foreshadowing an event in the life of Jesus (Matt. 27:3-10). On the night before Jesus’s crucifixion, Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. When Judas spotted Jesus the next morning bound and led off to trial in front of Pilate, he regretted his actions. He confessed to the Temple priests that he had betrayed innocent blood. He tried to give the money back to the priests and elders but they refused to put it in the Temple treasury since it was “blood money.” Judas flung the money at them anyways and he hung himself. They used the silver to buy a potter’s field where they could bury non-Jews. Oddly, Matthew credits Jeremiah for the prophecy rather than Zechariah.
Here is what the gospel says: “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me” (Matt. 27:9).
Why does Matthew attribute the Zechariah passage to Jeremiah? First, ancient writers did not follow our modern standards for quotations and citations. We cannot put the expectations of the Chicago Manuel of Style on them. We know from Dead Sea Scrolls like the Temple Scroll that it was a permissible practice in the first century for scribes to make scrolls blending assorted passages of scripture. Perhaps there was a topical scroll that blended Jeremiah’s potter metaphors with Zechariah’s reference to a potter. Maybe Matthew is generically referencing the topical scroll by merely naming its most prominent literary prophet.
Another interesting note is that a few details in Matthew’s account are different than Zechariah’s narrative. In Matthew, the priests buy a potter’s field with the silver. In Zechariah, the prophet flung the silver at the potter. Still, the thirty pieces of silver and the action of flinging it at a potter or buying a potter’s field is similar enough for Matthew to consider it a Messianic typology fulfilled in Jesus.
For Christians, the Hebrew scriptures offer many typologies for Jesus. Typology is a type of symbolism in the Bible that points to Christ. It is easy for Christians to allegorize any part of the Hebrew scripture as a sign or symbol for the coming of Jesus. And certainly, there are big themes about God’s redemptive saving works from Genesis to Revelation as he extends his covenant love and grace to all who believe. However, to take every detail in the Hebrew scripture and try to pin it on Jesus often makes us miss the point of the Hebrew passage on its own merit.
As a practice, the best way to know if a passage in the Hebrew scriptures is a typology for Jesus is if the New Testament makes the claim. The New Testament is our cheat sheet. If it says Jesus fulfilled a passage from the Old Testament than the interpretation is dependable. Matthew’s use of this passage in Zechariah is a perfect example. His point is that just as Zechariah was rejected as the good shepherd, Jesus was rejected as the good shepherd (John 10:11). And just as God implicated the whole community in the devaluing of Zechariah’s role, he implicated the first century community in failing to see the purpose of Jesus’s saving mission.
In the last act of this prophetic play, Yahweh commands Zechariah to “take once more the implements of a worthless shepherd” (11:15). With two staffs broken, the prophet needs new shepherding equipment. Because the people are being foolish, he wants them to experience a foolish leader. Yahweh will permit this foolish shepherd to rule and his poor leadership will portend the destruction of the community. The bad shepherd will hardly even concern himself with the people. He will “not care for the perishing, or seek the wandering, or heal the maimed, or nourish the healthy” (11:16). The worthless shepherd ignores all the duties of his role.
Thankfully, the chapter ends with God punishing the worthless shepherd according to his crimes: “Let his arm be completely withered, his right eye utterly blinded!” (11:17). A blind or maimed shepherd is useless. This is the first time in the whole of the chapter, that God intervenes on the community’s behalf. It provides a much-needed word of comfort to an otherwise woeful narrative. Thankfully, chapter 11 is not the last word in Zechariah. The fog of doom lifts with the final division of the book in the last three chapters.
Join me next week reading Zechariah 12.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. For all of the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at www.thejerusalemconnection.us/
I don’t say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.
Send me a message. I will respond. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.