Overthrowing human power, the Lord’s power remained: Zechariah 9

Humanity is its own worst enemy.  The separations among nations and their need to establish themselves over one another in attempts to rule the land, cause misery.  If humanity would ever prosper, human power and division would have to be eliminated.  The Lord planned to initiate just such a state of affairs in the eschaton.  He would overturn the powerful, assimilate the nations, and establish a king and army who reflected weakness, not strength, so that the Lord would remain as the only power in all the land.

Don’t just beat ’em: Join ’em

In the eschaton, the Lord would demonstrate his might.  He would dwell not just in the land, but also outside it.  He would bring down the mighty Gentiles, and bring them into Israel.  The Lord would prove he does not identify exclusively with the land or people of Israel, for the earth and humanity belong to him, not vice-versa.

The Lord’s rule expanded to the land of the Gentiles and through every part of humanity.  Hadrach and Damascus (9:1) are in Syria, just outside of the land, and the Lord’s dwelling was there–outside the land.  Not only the land, but all of humanity belong to him, as we read in the next line.  It is translated in various ways, such as “All men’s eyes will turn to the Lord–like all the tribes of Israel” (JPS) or, with very slight emendation, “To the LORD belong the cities of Aram, even as all the tribes of Israel” (RSV).  I translate more literally: “To the Lord belong the eye of man and all the tribes of Israel.”  From the smallest center of the human being to the totality of the Lord’s people, every level, every unit, lay under the Lord’s authority.  As the Lord dwelt anywhere as his sovereign right over all the earth, so all of humanity belonged to him.

The Lord showed his might by defeating the supposed might of Tyre and Sidon in 9:2-4.  The ancient world knew of the impenetrability and wealth of Tyre, an island fortress and trade gateway off the coast of modern-day southern Lebanon.  While they gathered unimaginable wealth, they could not withstand the force of the Lord manifested in the primal elements of fire and water.

The traditional enemies of Israel, the Philistines, would even come under the Lord’s aegis in 9:5-8.  The Philistines had been at war with the Israelites from the time of the Judges, and archaeologists believe that the Philistines came to this area around 1000 BCE.  They brought with them unclean practices, characterized in this section by consuming blood and the meat of unclean animals.  Once the Lord would defeat them city by city and replace their dignity with a “bastard” (mamzer) king, he would cleanse them by ending their ritually impure dietary practices and join them to his people.  As he cleansed Joshua the High Priest, so He would cleanse their impurity.  Ultimately, the Philistines would become the “remnant”–a term up to now used to speak only of those from Israel.  Moreover, the Lord would protect the Philistines.  The traditional enemies of the Israelites would implausibly join the Israelites.

The Lord showed his expansive rule.  He dwelt outside the land, in Syria, yet all of humanity belonged to him.  The most powerful, independent cities of the time could not withstand him.  He overturned the long-time enemies of the Israelites and even brought them into the fold of Israel.  All lands and people would come together under the Lord.  This critiques any who might think that the land or people of Israel stood above any other, for from the viewpoint of the Lord, they all lay equally beneath him.

Unlikely might

Any one nation’s struggle for power never lasted for long, and it always produced suffering.  The Lord needed to overturn the human desire to rule by force.  He would institute an un-king who would parade into the city on an un-steed, and who would lead an un-army.  The Lord alone would stand at the front of the “army” and would fight by himself, undermining any humans’ attempts at power.

The Lord would establish human rule, but in a way that overturned all that the world knew to that point.  First, he would establish the king, the Branch (9:9-10).  Instead of coming into the city in triumph on a war horse or in a chariot, as was customary for a conquering king, he would come on a humble donkey.  Yet he would abolish war and he would rule the world.  He would rule without strength.

After establishing a “king,” the Lord would establish an “army” second (9:11-13).  He would release the prisoners from the dry wells and send them back to the land.  (Note that Ephraim is addressed here as a woman, establishing the metaphor of deity-husband protecting his people-wife.)  These are the “sons of Zion” that the Lord would deploy against his enemies, the sons of Javan (“Greece,” according to some translators).

With such a counter-intuitive “military” force, the Lord made himself indispensable by standing in front of the army (9:14-17).  As the whirlwind, the Lord would defeat the enemies of his people.  At the same time, he would save the people on that day.  He would prosper the people as a good shepherd gives good pasture to his sheep.  He was the storm who defeated enemies and the shelter from the storm who protected friends.

Once he set up a humble king and freed prisoners as an army, the Lord made himself the only viable protection for the people.  Whereas in earlier books in the XII, the Lord requested and demanded that the people choose him.  In the eschaton, the Lord remained the only option.  No human attempts at power would corrupt this period of history as they had during every other period.

No more choice

To inaugurate the eschaton, the Lord had to remove the most problematic of human institutions: human rule.  First, he had to remove the cities in power, and remove himself from the center of power.  Then, he rubbed out the line that defined Israel over their enemies, the Philistines.  He next substituted the king and an army with the weak, lining himself up as the only power.  The Lord was the storm and the shelter from the storm.  The people would only take care of each other and prosper under the Lord’s protection.  Hitherto, strength, kings, army, and war caused human suffering; the Lord replaced all of them.

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