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 13. When the people saw the pierced figure of chapter 12, the nation erupted in mourning and repentance. Chapter 13 provides God’s reaction to those heartfelt cries. As a symbol of his forgiveness, God graciously provides a spring to cleanse the royal family and all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. Just as the mourning was communal, so will be the cleansing. The verse reads, “On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity” (13:1). Sin (hattāt) is moral failings and impurity (nidda) is physical defilement from contact with unclean things. By God’s grace, the fountain of cleansing purifies both and brings fulfillment to the spiritual revival that started in the previous chapter.
Purity rituals were and still are essential to the Jewish faith. The rituals described in Leviticus 12-15 and Numbers 19 are not purposefully hygienic acts, even if they have a public health benefit like the requirement to ritually cleanse after childbirth or self-isolate after contact with a dead body. The rituals are instead symbolic, kinetic ways for humans to declare their purification. Only once impure people have been cleansed can they reenter the community of Yahweh and participate in sacrificial worship.
In Zechariah, with the purifying of the people also comes the cleansing of the land. To protect the restored relationship between Yahweh and his people, Yahweh purges Judah of all forms of residual idolatry and false prophecy. Those two things brought on the corruption and loss of faith in the preexilic community and God does not want the returnees going down that road again. Yahweh says, “I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more, and also I will remove from the land the prophets and the unclean spirit” (13:2).
Cultic pillars and statues are exposed for their emptiness when they are detached from the names and origin stories once associated with them. God was describing a day when even the names of pagan gods would be forgotten. Indeed, who still prays to Baal, Chemosh, Dagon, or Marduk? Most people are either of no faith or faith in the one true god, but polytheism as a practice has mostly faded out. Thomas Cahill in his book The Gift of the Jews writes, “Because of their unique belief—monotheism—the Jews were able to give us the Great Whole, a unified universe that makes sense and that, because of its evident superiority as a worldview, completely overwhelms the warring and contradictory phenomena of polytheism.” (Cahill, 240)
While the problem of idolatry was mostly eradicated in the postexilic community, false prophecy persisted, even if it was not as bad as the situation in Jeremiah’s day when false prophets drowned out the true prophets (Jer. 5:31). We know false prophecy continued in the Persian period because Nehemiah complains about them. Nehemiah describes a scheme where the false prophet Shemaiah was paid off by Sanballat and Tobiah to act as a double agent (Neh. 6:10-13). Shemaiah lied to Nehemiah about an assassination attempt on his life and he tried to convince Nehemiah to hide in the Temple sanctuary. Trespassing into the part of the sanctuary reserved for priests would have discredited Nehemiah in the eyes of the people. Nehemiah did not fall for the plot but the story exposes the sickness of prophets for hire.
Zechariah calls for a ban on false prophets. In his oracle, the community will take the ban so seriously that even if a false prophet is found out, his own parents will stab him to death. Zeal against lying prophets overwhelms even a parent’s love. Zechariah is following the proscription of Deuteronomy. The laws of Deuteronomy dictate that false prophets who try and lure the people away from God with their own dreams and visions should be stoned to death (Deut. 13:5).
To illustrate God’s complete prohibition against false prophecy, Zechariah describes a hypothetical situation where a false prophet tries to conceal his past identity to avoid the death penalty. He gets rid of his uniform, lies about his scars, and invents a different profession.
The uniform of the prophet was apparently a garment made of hair. Zechariah says the false prophets will be so ashamed of their visions that “they will not put on a hairy mantle” (13:4). The prophet Elijah famously wore a garment of hair (2 Kings 1:8). When Elijah passed his prophetic authority to Elisha, he did so by wrapping him in his distinct mantle (1 Kings 19:19). Both Elijah and Elisha held the mantle when they miraculously parted the River Jordan (2 Kings 2: 8,14). False prophets were probably trying to imitate Elijah and Elisha. Wearing a hairy garment was an easy way for the imposters to deceive the people by dressing the part.
In Zechariah’s hypothetical scenario, the false prophet invents a cover story. If someone recognizes him as a prophet, he lies and says he is a farmer (13:5). Zechariah has him stretching the lie even further. He says, “I am no prophet; I am a tiller of the soil, for the land has been my possession since my youth” (13:5).
In the scenario, the false prophet has an anonymous accuser. The accuser asks, “what are these wounds on your chest?” (13:6). Apparently, the prophet, in part of an ecstatic ceremony cut and harmed his own body and the scars remain. The best biblical example of the bloody religious rites so common in the Ancient Near East is when Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal on Mount Caramel to see whose god would send rain. When the Baal prophets received no response after their sacrifice and dancing, they lacerated themselves with swords (1 Kings 18:28). Judah’s false prophets must have imitated the ecstasy of pagan prophets, even though Yahweh forbid self-harm (Lev. 19:28). His answer to the question is ambiguous and exposes his sense of shame. He says, “the wounds I received in the house of my friends” (13:6).
The prophet scenario is suddenly interrupted by a fresh oracle from the Lord. In verse 7, the mood shifts from the funny narrative of the lying prophet to a somber death poem. The shift is drastic, both in form and content. God loudly commands a sword to wake up and strike a shepherd: “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is my associate” (13:7). This command is difficult to interpret in its context. God is allowing, or even commanding, the attack on the shepherd, but shepherd is written with the Hebrew possessive pronoun making it “my shepherd.” The relationship between the shepherd and Yahweh is emphasized again with Yahweh calling him, “my associate.” We are not given more insight into the nature of the relationship. The feeling is that Yahweh sanctioned the death of his shepherd partner.
The shepherd’s death results in the scattering of the sheep. Without a caretaker, they lack protection against predators and the harsh environment. As has been the case with all of Zechariah’s shepherd metaphors, we know the sheep represent the people of Jerusalem and Judah. Two thirds of the people will perish. A third will live but only after they persevere through another exile. The persecution in captivity will refine their faith. Yahweh says, “I will put this third into the fire, refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested” (13:9). Refinement by fire bookends our chapter that opened with cleansing by water.
After the period of persecution, the people are restored into a right relationship with Yahweh: “They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people, and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God’” (13:9). The image of God calling upon his people and their answering him wholeheartedly is the climatic resolution in the tension that has been running through the last unit of Zechariah. For Zechariah’s audience, the message was heavy. Afterall, they were supposed to be the prophesied remnant, the ones who survived exile and returned to rebuild. Now, Zechariah is kicking the blessing can down the road. He is building a new remnant theology for future survivors of another exile.
The shepherd motif is the unifying link between the last six chapters of Zechariah. Shepherd metaphors most commonly lend themselves to positive descriptions of leaders carrying out their duties as shepherds who provide for and protect their flock. Shepherd units are brought in and out at regular intervals with each shepherd scene getting progressively more severe (10:2-3; 11:1-17; 13:7-9).
In chapter 10, corrupt shepherd leaders are disposed and Yahweh takes the leadership role himself. In chapter 11, Zechariah is appointed as good shepherd but the people reject him. As a result, a foolish shepherd leader leads the people to their own destruction. String together these two shepherd themes and Zechariah seems to be saying the sheep are to blame for their own fate, not the shepherds, buyers, or sellers. In Zechariah 12, the prophet introduces a pierced figure who is not described as a shepherd but it seems like he is the same as the stabbed shepherd in chapter 13. Only with the death of the stabbed shepherd do the people see their own guilt, mourn, repent, and ultimately receive forgiveness. All blame is removed with the cleansing fountain and refining fire.
The identity of the shepherds is never clearly laid out other than Zechariah’s role play. The pierced figure of 12:10 was not referred to as a shepherd, but many scholars naturally connect the “one whom they have pierced” with the stabbed shepherd in chapter 13. In neither case does Zechariah say outright that the shepherd was killed. However, if the two are the same, the level of mourning in chapter 12 points to a death. If the pierced figure and the stabbed shepherd are the same, the outcome of the death is explained differently in chapter 12 and 13. When people accept moral responsibility for the pierced figure’s death, they are redeemed in their admission of guilt. When the shepherd is stabbed, the sheep are scattered. Peace is not immediate in coming but instead they must go through an extended period of persecution.
I have mentioned in previous episodes that Zechariah heavily relies on the preexilic prophets. The identity of Zechariah’s pierced figure in chapter 12 and the stabbed shepherd in chapter 13 s sound very similar to Isaiah 53’s suffering servant. Isaiah said, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Zechariah’s prophecies in 12 and 13 echo Isaiah’s suffering servant. If Zechariah’s audience picked up on the allusion, they would have understood that the message retained the hope of salvation.
Have Zechariah’s prophecies about the stabbed shepherd been fulfilled? Plenty of New Testament commentaries interpret Zechariah 13 as fulfilled in the events that played out in Jerusalem in the first century CE. If Jesus is identified as the stabbed shepherd, Yahweh’s associate, then the first century Jews of Jerusalem could be those sheep scattered shortly after the shepherd’s death. In 70 CE, forty years after Jesus’s death, General Titus and the four Roman legions eliminated the Jewish armies, breached the city walls with battering rams, slaughtered the Old City’s defenders, and set fire to the Temple. The Jews who stayed to fight were mostly enslaved or killed over the next several decades of revolt. Jews fled all over the Mediterranean world and Roman empire, becoming the permanent diaspora.
I would caution against this connection of Zechariah 13 with the Jewish Roman war. As a rule of thumb, we interpret the prophets in their own historical and cultural context. When the New Testament shows us that there is another dimension to the prophecy, one fulfilled in the life and death of Jesus, then we read the Hebrew prophets through that lens. But if the New Testament does not give us license to do so then it is a good idea to resist the temptation.
Although Christians can make the prophecy fit nicely into the events that took place after Jesus’s death and resurrection, Jesus interpreted Zechariah’s prophecy differently. In three of the gospels, Jesus quotes Zechariah 13:7 (Matt. 26:31; Mark 14:27; John 16:32). At the Mount of Olives, the night before Jesus was crucified, he quotes Zechariah and identifies himself as the stabbed shepherd and his disciples as the scattered sheep. Jesus said, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (Matt. 26:31).
In the gospel of John, the dialogue also incorporates Zechariah 13’s promise of peace on the other side of persecution. Jesus tells the disciples, “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution but take courage: I have conquered the world!”
The messages of Zechariah and Jesus are the same. They do not promise protection from exile or persecution. In fact, both guarantee difficult times. What Zechariah and Jesus promise is the reward of faith that has been refined by fire.
Join me next week reading Zechariah 14, the last chapter.
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