Interview with Fr. William Mills

William C. Mills specializes in scripture, spirituality, and ministry. He holds a Ph.D. in Pastoral Theology from the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also the author of A 30 Day Retreat as well as numerous essays, and book reviews that have appeared in America Magazine, Congregation Magazine, Cistercian Studies Quarterly, Pro Ecclesia, Logos Journal, and Theological Studies. (Episode 1)

Inescapable light of Torah: Malachi 3-4

We have come to the final word of the Book of the XII, and the end of the Old Testament for Christians, where the Lord delivered his last plea to his people for them to remain loyal to him and follow Torah. He did not plea on his own behalf, but on behalf of the people, as only those who follow the Torah would survive his approaching dominion.  While the people continued to ask their ignorant questions, the Lord tried to teach them for the last time.  Destruction or life would not come as punishment or reward to individuals, but as two natural outcomes that followed divine wisdom, Torah.  Torah was light–but light as understood in the ancient world. In those days, light came as fire, or lightning, or sunshine. They all gave light, but they burned. It was never entirely beneficent. The instruction lay before the people, but the same light of judgment would destroy the rebellious and disloyal and would heal and give life to those who feared the Lord.

Purification and instruction: Turn back and be generous

After the Lord sent an angel messenger to the people, he himself would come to purify them (3:1-5).  The messenger of the Lord can only bring one message, the Torah or instruction, because that teaching embodies the Lord and his ethic.  The Lord never functioned separately from his word.  The Lord, when he would come, judged.  Hence the word came, and then the consequences of following or disobeying it followed.  As a silversmith eliminates all impurity from the precious metal, as a fuller scrubs out and removes every stain, so the Lord would scrub the people of every action that was not of Torah.  The Lord enumerated sins that revealed lack of trust: sorcery imposes one’s will on the world; adultery expresses dissatisfaction; false testimony serves the self; cheating and oppressing hold back good things for oneself.  Demanding one’s own will, unsatisfied with one’s wife, serving the self, and miserly behavior all betray lack of fear and respect of the Lord as the one who provides all good things in their time.  Torah is incompatible with any such actions.

Though the people fret that the Lord turned away from them, he responded to their obstinate ignorance by reiterating that he consistently loved the people and that the people fickly turned away from him (3:6-12).  The only consistent behavior was the people’s turning away from the Lord by rejecting his statutes.  In a typical fashion, they wondered how to turn back–since they probably never realized that they had turned away.  The Lord replied that they had defrauded him, but that didn’t help them understand any more.  Every time they did not tithe a full amount, they defrauded the Lord and effectively turned away from him.  If they only put him “to the test,” they would realize that gambling on success from the Lord would pay off big.  But the people thought they were playing safe by relying only on themselves and hoarding their produce–never realizing that the bounty they were holding back came from the Lord before they had placed their bets.  The Lord had already showed them grace.

The people also felt that the Lord did not act justly, but they didn’t know that they were rebelling against him by speaking so disloyally (3:13-18).  When they saw those who propspered yet did not follow the Lord, they inferred that the Lord was impotent–so following him was useless.  At the same time, some remained loyal.  On the last day, the Lord would treat everyone appropriately.  Only the loyal would remain, whom he would treat as his sons.  

The appearance of the awesome light of judgment

On that day, the Lord would come as a burning light (3:19-21 [4:1-3]).  He would burn away the disloyal at the same time as he would come to heal those who fear him.  The fearers would trample the wicked, because the latter would already have been reduced to dust under the feet of the righteous.  In this way, Malachi echoed the ideal, eschatological city depicted in Zechariah, which would be filled exclusively with doers of Torah.

We now reach the end of the Book of the XII, and the end of the Christian Old Testament, and we read that the Torah of Moses would save whoever desired loyalty to the Lord (3:22-24 [4:4-6]).  Throughout the Book of the XII, rebelling from the Lord was manifested in turning away from the Lord’s instruction.  Earlier, in “historical time” the Lord attempted to teach the people Torah through their calamities.  Later on, in “eschatologiccal time,” humans would live entirely according to Torah, and no one would survive destruction without it.  As the Prophet Elijah preceded the Lord’s judgment, he would make a last call for families to be reconciled–according to Torah.  As just a few would follow Torah, they would guarantee that not all human beings would perish in this fiery end.

The final appeal

The Torah came from Moses, and further explanation of Torah came from the prophets, depicted here by Elijah.  The people of this chapter–as well as the other ignoramuses of this book–asked ridiculous, self-righteous questions about their behavior.  The burning, purifying heat of the Lord would either sear such erroneous teaching from them, or destroy them completely.  Under the Lord, not only would the rebellious not survive, but they could not survive.  Rejecting the Torah is rejecting the Lord, and vice-versa.  When the Lord would come to rule over the entire world, no folllower of another law could live.

The people fail when the priests do not teach: Malachi 2

After the general rebuke over cultic matters in the last chapter (Malachi 1), the Lord aimed the present chapter at the priests.  The priests did not teach Torah.  The people rejected each other, and the priests abandoned their wives.  They broke brotherhood and marriage through faithlessness.  As they rejected each other as creations of the one god, they rejected the Lord.  In the end, they showed that they were guilty of what they accused their god of: they didn’t know good from evil, justice from injustice.

The priests reject the Lord when they do not teach

The Lord described in ch. 1 that the people desecrated their sacrifices, while here he told the priests that he would desecrate the sacrifices if the priests did not pay close attention to what he was teaching them (2:1-3).  Since the heart in the language of the ancient world was the center of intellect–not emotion–“lay to heart” meant “keep in mind” or “pay attention.”  They didn’t keep in mind that the blessings came from the Lord, and so showed disrespect to him.  When they would not give glory to the Lord as they were expected to do, he would end the blessings he had granted them.  The love that he showed at the beginning off ch. 1–that the people didn’t notice–would end.  Moreover, the sacrifices would be the source of the curse, represented by the dung of the festal sacrifices (hag) that he would rub in their faces.

The longevity of the covenant between the Lord and Levi–the father of the priests–depended on how the priests taught (2:4-9).  Since a covenant requires adherance from both sides, the Lord was helping them keep their side of the bargain.  The Lord sent the commandment about honoring him so that the priests of Malachi’s present would allow the covenant to continue.  Levi was a model of behavior because he taught the word of the Lord, the Torah, with faithfulness as a true messenger (“malach”–like the name of the book, “Malachi” my messenger).  As he served the Lord through teaching, he kept others from stumbling.  He fulfilled the true function of the priest: teaching so the people would not apostasize.  (Note that Levi was called before the Egyptian captivity, even though the cult was established at Sinai, after the Exodus.)

In contrast, the present priests no longer taught Torah, and so jeopardized the people’s covenant with the Lord.  If these priests failed to teach Torah, they put the people at risk.  The low estimation of the people in the eyes of the nations came because the people did not follow Torah.  (This state contrasts with the high estimation the Torah-following people enjoy in Zecharaiah 8:20-23.)

Divorce: The final sign of disloyalty

The prophet employed the oft-used image of family and marriage to depict the people’s faithlessness (2:10-12).  They did not treat each other as brothers, children of one god, and so betrayed the covenant of their common ancestors.  They were hedging their bets again, profaning what is holy and marrying (literally, “becoming the master/Baal of”) the daughter of a foreign god.  They showed themselves to resemble the unfaithful whores of Hosea 1-2, whom the Lord would be just in leaving.

So the priests wept over the altar because the Lord rejected them–but they couldn’t conceive that it was because of their own actions (2:13-16).  They broke faith with their wives.  This passage imagines the priests married to literal wives and a metaphorical spouse, the Lord.  Though the marital roles between priest and the Lord appear reversed, the expectations for faithfulness remain the same.  Moreover, since the priests were all men, the image of the priest as husband simultaneously condemned the priests’ conduct towards their literal spouses and towards their god.

Divorce was a horrible offense.  Literal divorce for a powerful man was easy for him but left his wife in a precarious position.   Living as a divorcee meant depending on one’s father for a livelihood with potentially harsh economic consequences if the father was not in a good position to take care of another child.  Remarriage was not common in the acient world, so divorcees could not count on this option.  Thus divorcing one’s wife exposed her to difficulties as opposed to staying married and taking care of her.

In a metaphorical sense, the wife of their youth was the Lord.  Divorcing this spouse meant breaking the covenant, a vow made between the people and the Lord.  Leaving the Lord displayed the most flagrant lack of gratitude towards their god.  

Their weeping exposed their ignorant self-righteousness; they couldn’t imagine what they might have done wrong (2:17).  They asked how they “wearied” the Lord.  They implied that they were more just than the Lord when they claimed that he preferred those who do evil, and that the world as they saw it was unjust because no just god could allow such things to happen: “Where is the god of justice?”  Rather than observe the depths of their betrayal of justice, Torah, and the Lord, they blamed the Lord for their hardships.

The future depends on the priests

This chapter lacked any reference to sacrifice, but laid teaching out as the primary–perhaps sole–function of the priest.  As Torah disappeared from the mouths of the priests, the covenant was in jeopardy–but not from the Lord’s side.  The people became antagonistic with each other as the priests no longer taught them the correct way to live, and the priests themselves treated their wives poorly and abandoned the Lord.  In the meantime, the people became even more self-righteous, assuming that the Lord had abandoned them.  The only hope the people had for survival and for prestige in the eyes of the nations was for the priests to rededicate themselves to teach Torah.

In Zecharaiah much of the discussion around the eschaton revolved around the leadership.  Malachi places the priests clearly at the center of leadership.  In order for the people to look like the eschatological ideal, the priests would have to take the central position not in any cultic or judicial sense, but as teachers of Torah.

The Lord desires honor, not fear: Malachi 1

Zechariah described what would change about human institutions in the eschaton.  All government and rule would be based on Torah.  Individual human behavior would have to change, too.  This is the topic of Malachi.  The people’s incorrect and non-chalant attitude towards service of the Lord would need to look much different if they were going to follow Torah in all their deeds.

Most importantly, they would need to stop hedging their bets.  In Hosea, at the opposite end of the Book of the XII, hedging looked like following an additional deity, just in case one didn’t pull through at a crucial time.  In Malachi, the people hedge their bets by sacrificing the least valuable items.  These actions betray distrust in the Lord, that they have to preserve their own wealth.  Trying to preserve wealth means clinging to human power–which leads back to the previous state of affairs of cyclical destruction.

The people’s self-righteousness blinds them to their show of disrespect to the Lord.  This chapter includes dialogue where a “chorus” asks how they’re committing the sin the Lord identifies.  The prophet uses this technique to uncover the people’s willful ignorance.

Does the Lord love us?

The people don’t understand how the Lord has loved them (1:1-5).  Lost inside their own minds, they didn’t see what real rejection looks like–Esau (also called Edom).  The Lord rejected any kind of civilization Edom tried to build, and when they tried to rebuild.  The people of Israel could look from its seat of power and see that Edom could never establish itself.  That the people could ask this question from a position of comfort proves how much the Lord loved them.  That they didn’t know the answer demonstrates that they had disassociated the reason for their success and wealth from the Lord.

Did we disrespect the Lord?

Even though the Lord was worthy of the greatest glory of the people, they disrespected him through their thoughtlessness (1:6-9).  When the Lord declared that he is due the highest honor, the people didn’t realize that they had scorned the Lord at all.  Their ignorance continued as the priests didn’t understand how they defiiled the altar.  

The priests and the people wanted to hedge their bets by offering their worst animals for sacrifice.  Flocks lived out in the wilderness, vulnerable to predators, who would pick out the weakest for their prey.  The people preemptively offered these blind and lame animals for sacrifice; why not, since they were going to die anyway?  This was a better idea–in the eyes of the corrupt people–than offering strong, healthy animals that would help the rest of the flock.  The Lord shamed them by pointing out that they would never offer such a lousy offering to a governor, so why offer it to the Lord, worthy of even more honor?  The people could only hope for the Lord’s mercy after such an affront.

They forgot that the Lord provided the good and the bad; all belonged to him and was a gift.  By offering the least and the worst, they were saving the best, just in case they would be in need later.  Their lack of faith in the Lord’s provision displayed their underlying apostasy, in spite of their pious actions of offering sacrifice.

As a result, the Lord was ready to close up the temple–he didn’t need the piety of the people (1:10-14).  The Lord didn’t want perfunctory sacrifice; he didn’t need sacrifice at all.  Moreover, nations from the far reaches of the world actually honored the Lord, unlike the people.  The people treated the table (ie, the altar) with no respect; even though they vowed to offer a strong animal, they still offered a weak animal.

Fear and no gratitude are the problem

The people interacted with the Lord out of fear of want, not out of gratitude for what they had.  In their minds they separated the Lord from their wealth; he only wanted something from them, which they begrudgingly provided.  They felt entitled to what they had, even keeping it when it was promised to the Lord.  Their entitlement and fear underminded their cultic practice, and the Lord was willing to end the cultic sacrifice altogether when he saw the lack of correct attitude.  Because the people did not link the Lord with their bounty and existence, they could no longer perceive his love for them.  The Lord exorted them to turn to him with the correct attitude of respect, or he could turn to any one of a number of nations who would do so.

One people and one will manifested in Torah: The eschaton in Zechariah 13-14

The actions of Torah as the only word: Zechariah 13

The actions of Israel will declare the Lord’s teaching, the Torah, in the eschaton.  First, though, he has to cut away humanity’s worst elements, and then he must purify what remains.  When the Lord overturns every aspect of society, only then will people be willing to forsake their own ego to manifest Torah in all things.  Reconstructing humanity, though, will require destruction and suffering–but the result will be worth it.  Torah will become so obvious in the people’s merciful actions towards one another that no one will even need to prophesy; one would assume that a prophet in those times could only be teaching something other than–and so contrary to–Torah.  Once the Lord brings humanity to its knees and Torah permeates everyone’s actions, the Lord will once again declare the people to be his own.

Following on the previous chapter, this section begins with cleansing (13:1).  After the people changed their ways and wept for their enemies, the Lord allowed their sin and uncleanness to be cleansed with living water.  The pure water confirmed the new state of their heart.

As the water purified the people, the Lord also removed the idols and prophets from the people (13:2-6).  The objects of removal, prophecy and idolatry, make an unlikely pair, as prophecy sounds ok, while idolatry and an unclean spirit are clearly not ok.  What do they share that both need to be removed?  The passage goes on to display the seriousness of removing prophecy, as the parents are willing to remove it, even at the expense of dispatching their own child (13:3).  Moreover, no prophet would claim to be a prophet, and would even deny it if others would ask (13:4-6).

No prophet is needed in this eschatological period because the Torah dominates all the people’s actions.  The people would treat each other according to Torah, so much so that the nations would become jealous and want to move to Jerusalem (Zechariah 8:20-23).  The people would manifest the Torah, and their actions would declare the Lord’s instruction.  As a result, no prophesy declaring the word of the Lord, is necessary.  Any word that coincided with the people’s actions would be redundant, and any word that did not coincide would be a lie for the speaker’s gain.  In either case, the prophet constructs this word that is not Torah.  Such a construction is the work of one’s hands, a word that does not save; in other words, it’s an idol.

In the end, the Lord would preserve his people from destruction, only to allow it to undergo testing and purification (13:7-9).  The Lord would strike down the shepherd of the people to allow the flock to be vulnerable (13:7), and then he would kill off two-thirds of them (13:8).  He put the remaining third in the fire, to be purified like gold (13:9).  This test, like the water in Jerusalem, would also purify the people.  They would show their pure loyalty to the Lord because they would ultimately turn to the Lord as their god, and he would respond as to his people.  One hears the echo of Hosea 1 in the cry of the Lord to the people.  Now that he made them vulnerable, subjected them to difficult purification, he declared them to be his people.  Suffering has made the eschatological people the most reverent and loyal ever, further exhibiting their purity to a level never seen before.

All the people’s suffering has enactment of Torah as its goal.  This process is painful: it requires the total destruction of every manifestation of the human ego.  Torah would permeate the society through enactment by every individual as every individual looked out for the other rather than himself or herself.  Speaking Torah aloud would become redundant.  In the present of Zechariah, prophets are required to continue to teach Torah so that the people will gradually internalize this teaching.  In the eschaton, the people would be clean.  Their sin and uncleanness come from doing their own will, constructing their own idols, following their own teaching.  Once they turned to mourn their enemies (Zechariah 12), they would have manifested purity through perfect manifestation of Torah.

Only one people, one will remains: Zechariah 14

Only one people would exist in the eschaton: the Lord’s.  No longer would the people do their own will in contradiction to the Lord’s; those people would disappear.  Every person would recognize that their origin came from the Lord as a symbolic Exodus.  The Torah would permeate the city to such an extent that the people would live in a perpetual state of holiness.  The cycle of violence and human suffering would end because every opponent of the Lord would melt away while the Lord’s people would thrive.

The scenario of Zechariah 13:7-9 played out again in 14:1-3, as a siege against Jerusalem.  The Lord would rouse the nations against the city, leaving some Jerusalemite survivors, but then turn back to fight against the nations.  This is the typical cycle we’ve seen all throughout the Book of the XII, although here in the abbreviated space of three verses.

Another epiphany descends on Jersualem in 14:4-9.  The Lord’s appearance caused the mountains around Jerusalem to split and the valleys to fill in.  This reminds the reader of the other epiphanies in the Book of the XII, especially Micah 1:2-4, characterized by nature melting before the Lord.  In addition to crushing the mountains, the Lord would come with light, overshadowing the light of the sun and moon.  Again, this reminds the reader of the first day of creation (Genesis 1:3-5), where there was light but no sun or moon.  Jersusalem would also become a source of water, as rivers would flow in either direction from the city.  The Lord would stand over all the earth as the only king and only deity.  The eschaton would resemble the beginning of creation: water running through the land, no mountains, valleys, sun, or moon, but only the Lord.

The Lord promised to establish Jerusalem above the rest of the world as his city (14:10-11).  The Lord flattened the entire world so that no place would stand above another–except his own city, where he would preside by means of his Torah among his people.  The city would remain inhabited forever, never again to be destroyed.  An eternal Jerusalem would be the capitol of the eschatological land.

Those who would stand against the capitol would melt away (14:12-15).  The Hebrew word “rot,” as we see in the JPS and RSV translations, implies a plague.  The word also means “melt.”  The image of the nations in the plain melting away evokes a reversal of the image of the Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14).  Rather than muscle and flesh joining onto bone, the flesh of the enemies of the Lord would melt away before the Lord.  Jerusalem and Judah would despoil their enemies in a final battle.  Moreover, not only would the nations melt but even their animals and livestock.

All the nations would prove their loyalty to the Lord annually, on the festival of Sukkot (the Hebrew word for “booths”) (14:16-19).  Sukkot commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, as the people would remember their transitory state by living in temporary structures.  In this way, Sukkot reflects similar ideas as the feast of Passover; as the food of Passover evokes the Exodus, so does the dwelling of Sukkot.  In the eschaton, all the nations would act like Israel, as the recipients of the blessing of Exodus, and commemorate this feast as they bowed down to the Lord.  Recognizing the temporary dwelling of the people in front of the only eternal city, Jerusalem, manifested the nations’ obediance to the only Lord.

Because the Lord’s presence would be manifest through the people’s actions of Torah, holiness would permeate Jerusalem in the eschaton (14:20-21).  The everyday pots would reach the same level of holiness as the pots used in the temple to hold the sacrifices.  All of the people would be holy enough to bring forth their offerings.

The final sentence offers a puzzle in Hebrew, because it could mean that there will no longer be a “trader” or a “Canaanite.”  If the former is correct, it would emphasize that the people no longer have need of trade because now everyone is taking care of each other, and no one has any want.  If the latter is correct, it would emphasize that everyone in the city is now Israelite.  In Zecharaiah 9:5-7 the Lord declares that the Philistines would be “like a clan in Judah.”  Perhaps in the present context, the Lord declared that anyone offering sacrifice to and obeying the Lord is an Israelite.  In either case, though, Torah would underlie all activity in Jerusalem and be the source of their purity.

The eschatological people would belong entirely and exclusively to the Lord.  They would obey him/Torah, and would be superlatively pure.  The Lord would eliminate any individual or people who did not bow down to him.  They would melt away into nothing.  The ideal for the people is to serve one another so that no one would be in want, and no divide would exist any more among people.  Other nations would be eliminated or assimilated, while Israel would be purified.  The eschatological people would dedicate themselves completely to Torah, and dedication to Torah would define the eschatological people.

Mercy frees the people from judgment: Zechariah 11-12

Zechariah 11 begins with unusual pessimism.  In the eschaton, everything is supposed to change, but in this chapter, the Lord immediately related how he would destroy everything: the tall, proud trees and the verdant pastures (11:1-3).  The powerful and prosperous would suffer.

This opening sounds like a return to the harsh language of Micah 1:2-4, where the Lord melted the mountains, or Nahum 1:4, where he dried up the waters and destroyed the forests.  Zechariah doesn’t sound like anything changed, even though up to this point the prophet was speaking about the bright future of the eschaton.  The people’s actions in response to victory after the siege of Jerusalem, however, showed how everything has changed in the most important way: in the heart of the people.

The sheep owners reject the good shepherd: Zechariah 11

Terrible shepherds took over the flock (11:4-6).  The owners speculated and enriched themselves by buying and selling the sheep entrusted to them by the Lord.  The buyers ate them; the sellers thanked the Lord for the “blessing” of making money off of the sheep.  The Lord decided to turn away, to punish them by letting them deal with each other.

The prophet began to shepherd the sheep destined to be eaten (11:7).  Zechariah tried to tend the sheep with his staffs, “beauty” and “unity.”  These names represent the means by which the Lord had tried to take care of the people.  He offered a covenant to the people, which gave them the beauty of the Torah and unity with each other.  These would guide them and keep them safe.

But the shepherds left (11:8).  Zechariah left the sheep to themselves, and they devoured one another (11:9).

The prophet destroyed his staff, “Beauty,” and so annulled the covenant.  The beauty of the Torah in their midst was gone (11:10).  At that point the owners saw the end of the covenant, symbolically acted out by the prophet.  As the shepherd, he was owed wages, so they paid him 30 shekels of silver (11:11-12).   He took the payment and put it in the temple.  Then he destroyed the other part of the covenant that guided and safeguarded the people: he broke the staff of “Unity” between Judah and Israel (11:13-14).

The Lord doomed the flock to a lousy shepherd who wouldn’t take care of the sheep.  Once the flock was lost and devoured, the shepherd would himself be judged.  The leaders and people would all end, decimated and scattered (11:15-17).

The flock lacked a shepherd.  The Lord tried the covenant to guide them, but they had no interest.  Rather than take care of the poor and enjoy the results, the rulers got ahead any way they good and buttressed it against any outside attack.  When the prophet tried to guide them through the word of the Torah, they bought him off, and the prophet rejected any profit he may have gained.  Unfortunately, the people were in the same position they always found themselves in.  How is this any different?  What evidence is there of the eschaton?

Side note: The payment to Zechariah is drawn upon in Mathew 26:15, when the chief priests offer this price if Judas brings Jesus to them.  The analogy establishes the chief priests in Matthew as the owners of the sheep in Zechariah, and the price to get the shepherd they don’t like, Jesus, out of the way.  The covenant of beauty and unity between Judah and Israel is ended, so Judas (=Judah), perished at his own hand.

Unexpected reaction: Zechariah 12

An attack on Jerusalem was coming (12:2). This is surprising, since it looked like this would no longer happen.  Previously, it looked like the appeal of a city following Torah would prevent any attack (a Torah-based insurance policy).  Perhaps by means of this unanticipated siege the city would receive its due for rejecting Torah and not taking care of the weak.

The attack came, but Jerusalem unexpectedly defeated all her enemies unequivocally.  The Lord described Jerusalem as a rock that everyone hurts themselves on when they try to move it (12:3), and as a brazier of fire or a torch among dry vegetation (12:6).  Even the weak in Jerusalem would be like David’s house, and David’s house like gods (12:8).

Already we see a new order.  The people were wicked as before, but instead of bringing in the Gentiles to teach the people a lesson, the Lord grants them glorious, undeserved defeat.

The inhabitants of Jerusalem responded in a new way: they lamented their enemies’ death.  The Lord was the actor: he poured out a spirit of pity and compassion on every Jerusalemite, so that they mourned their enemies’ deaths like the loss of their own son (12:10).  Every individual, every family, every social class would weep alone (12:12-14).  Ironically, a new unity formed; after unity broke with the covenant, lamentation reunited them.

The Lord allows a new way

The shepherds of Jerusalem acted evilly, though they should have changed their ways.  The Lord brought a besieging army, but granted Jerusalem decisive victory.  In victory the people did not become self-righteous because the Lord granted them defeat.  They lamented and mourned for the death of their enemies.  They displayed the practice of the Torah in their city, as they viewed the unity of all humanity under the Lord and the value of every life to the Lord.  More important than military victory, the Lord granted victory over the human desire to glory in supremacy.  He gave them a broken heart so they could continue to follow the Torah.

The eschaton now looks like it would not be free of war or of pain.  Thanks to Torah, it could be free of callousness towards the weak or of indifference towards foreigners–even hostile ones.

No more power to oppress: Zecharaiah 10

The eschaton will end people’s suffering as it alters the constant cycle the people find themselves in.  Their suffering always came from a systematic process: 1) the people would disobey the Torah and cease to take care of one another and 2) the Lord would use the greed of another nation to oppress them.  3) When the people learned their lesson, they would return–until 4) they disobeyed again.  For the new state of affairs in the eschaton, the people would permanently remember the Torah (1) and the Lord would end the power of the nations to oppress (2).  In Zecharaiah 10 the Lord dismantled human power and ended his curse in order to populate the land with obedient former exiles.

Power reimagined

The eschaton required that human power end its reign.  Human kings follow human reason, which requires that once they gain power, they must continue to accumulate power, through bigger, stronger dwellings and military forces.  At some point, the most powerful stands below none but the Lord, who marshals the might of nature to deflate the puffed up.  Kings will then try to predict the ways of the Lord/natural phenomena so they can protect themselves.

The Lord would build the eschaton by raising up the weak to rule.  They have nothing to lose, nothing to protect.  They count on the Lord for his bounty, rather than worry about losing to him; they have nothing to lose.  They hope in the Lord rather than fear what he will take from them.  Their hope would be the source of their strength and rule.

When the people tried to understand the Lord, they over-complicated his will for them; he only desired that they follow his Torah.  The Lord was the master of both the powerful storm and the benign rain, the bringer of destruction and prosperity (10:1).  Knowing that the Lord can bring destruction sufficed to worry the people.  To hedge their bets, however, they needed to know what was coming.  As a result, the powerful attempted to use other means of divination from rolling dice (teraphim) to reporting dreams (10:2).  This mentality skewed their priorities and led them to fortify their cities, build up wealth, and strengthen their army–all means to secure their prosperity.  The Lord explained that spending on alms according to his Torah rather than fortifications would have secured them.

The Lord visited the people multiple times to re-iterate his Torah and the problem with the people’s mentality by negating their attempts at self-protection.  A “visit” from the Lord could be positive or negative, depending on the people’s obedience to Torah.  He would “visit” the shepherds and he-goats (the leaders and strong among the people)–bad news–and would “visit” the flock–good news (10:3).  The weaker members of the flock would form the foundation of this eschatological kingdom: the “cornerstone” of the city and the “stake” at the base of the tent, and “bow” for military victory (10:4).  In spite of perceived weakness, they would prevail in any fight because the Lord was with them as their hope was with him (10:5).

The powerful would lose power, and even the means to continue to accumulate power.  The weak would form the basis of the new society.  The society would not become any weaker, however; the Lord would be with them as they dealt with their enemies.

The cursed children restored

If we read the Book of the XII as a whole, the restoration of the people in Zechariah 10 responds to the curse and restoration described in Hosea 1.  The people, whose rejection of the Lord landed them in exile, would return to the land thanks to the Lord’s compassion.

After the end of the curse, the Lord related to his people in a new way, characterized by mercy and attentiveness.  In Hosea 1, the Lord said,

And she conceived again, and bore a daughter. And He said unto him: ‘Call her name Lo-ruhamah [“Not mercied”]; for I will no more have mercy upon the house of Israel, that I should in any wise pardon them. But I will have mercy upon the house of Judah, and will save them by the LORD their God, and will not save them by bow, nor by sword, nor by battle, nor by horses, nor by horsemen’ (Hosea 1:6-7).

After the people’s actions in Hosea demonstrated their disjunction from the Lord, he rejected them.  He promised he would restore them later, and in Hosea 1:12 the Lord re-formed the people and called them “Ruhamah,” meaning “Mercied; receiver of mercy.”  Zecharaiah 10:6-7 used the same word, where the Lord had mercy (rahamti) on them.  In addition, the Lord would pay attention to the people again, reversing the state of affairs in Zechariah 7:13.

The people would also return in overwhelming numbers from every land of captivity.  Hosea 1:10 promised that the people would “be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered,” and in Zecharaiah 10:10, “[Enough land] will not be found for them” on their return.  The returnees would come from Egypt, the land of the original slavery, and Assyria, the land of the first exile.  All the power of those nations would end, continuing the idea of the end of human strength.  Then the people would be in the land and would “walk” in the name of the Lord.  Some commentators have translated this last phrase as “walking around,” but “walk” here connotes obedience.  The power of the nations would end, and the former captives would live obediently in the land attended to by the Lord.

Mercy and attention would transform the nature of the Lord’s people.  They were accursed, living among the nations without the Lord to help them.  As those nations continued to build up their power, Israel were beaten down even more.  Once the Lord had compassion on the people, the power of the nations ended and the people came to prosper in the land as they obeyed him.

Mercy and obedience

The Lord ended human power and inaugurated his reign.  The weak would rule, not the strong.  The weak would come from the exile to live and prosper in the land.  The eschaton would oppose the current state of affairs where strong humans oppressed the weak, and this oppression came from lack of mercy from the Lord.

This word of hope to Israel came with a condition, that they continually walk in the Lord’s ways.  Disobedience required re-education, and re-education necessitated further oppression at the Lord’s hand.  The evil of the exile could produce good, as long as the people learned their lesson.  The eschaton would assure the continuous obedience of the people coupled with the Lord’s compassion.  Both reflect the new reality, where humans no longer build up power at one another’s expense, but protect themselves by caring for one other.

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.

Focus on Torah, not on the temple: Zechariah 7-8

As the temple was being rebuilt, the people forgot what was most important: living according to Torah.  They thought the work was done when the temple was complete.  The Lord, therefore, needed to remind them that the destruction and rebuilding of the temple were distractions; the Torah is the correct frame of reference.  The temple was destroyed because of ignoring Torah, and adherence to Torah lay at the foundation of the eschatological city.

The temple destroyed, not rebuilt, is primary: Zechariah 7

Some individuals approached the Lord, misunderstanding the meaning of the temple.  They were wrongly wondering about the meaning of the rebuilding of the temple, not the meaning of its destruction.  Now that a new temple was rebuilt, a question arose: did the people still need to lament the destruction of the first temple (7:1-3)?  This took place in year 4, month 9, day four, of King Darius, about two years since the last date given (Zecharaiah 1:7), so the temple was probably well under way or finished being built.  (It took seven years to build the first temple; see 1 Kings 6:38.)  Messengers, or maybe dignitaries, come to ask the priests in Jerusalem.

The Lord reminded the people that he is not affected by fasting and that the people’s fasting is for the sake of the people (7:4-14).  The people fasted for 70 years, since the first temple was destroyed.  The intake of food did not benefit the Lord; its goal could only be to affect the people.  The people, however, did not understand how it should have affected them.

The Lord taught them consistently since before the first temple, and the people chose not to follow the teaching.  While the Lord wanted them to show justice to one another and compassion on the weak, they wilfully ignored him.  As a result of their turning a deaf ear to him, the Lord chose to turn a deaf ear to them, and so sent them into exile.  The land was destroyed.

The Lord changed the question of whether to fast, and brought into focus the reasons for the exile.  The people misplaced their focus.  Rather than think about the temple per se, the people needed to remember why the temple needed to be rebuilt.  As they wanted to refocus on a rebuilt temple, they needed to remember the destroyed temple.

Torah, not temple, is primary: Zechariah 8

The Lord would not deviate from his plan.  While his former plans taught the people harshly, his present plans would allow them to live peacefully.  The people would not live in ease, though, but would have a continuous duty to perform: carrying out the Torah.  The work of rebuilding the temple did not mean all the work was done; their obedience to Torah was the important action.  The safety and joy of Jerusalem because of the people living according to the Torah would attract the nations as was previously prophesied.

The Lord, in his desire to love Jerusalem, re-established her as a joyful, safe place (8:1-8).  The Lord was fiercely loyal to Jerusalem, like a husband to his wife.  Often, the relationship between deity and people is referred to metaphorically as a marriage.  A people who worships other gods resembles a wife who goes after other men.  In the present case, the Lord will live with his wife, and she will be faithful.  He will secure her and keep her safe.  The appearance of the very young show that their is abundance and safety in the city.  The old people display lack of war; people are reaching old age.  For those returning from exile, the Lord promises a city of ultimate safety.

The people have a responsibility, though, to follow the Torah (8:9-13).  The ones asking about the fast were curious about the deed of the temple that had been completed; the Lord needs to emphasize that the deed of the Torah was ongoing, that there was still work to do: “Let your hands be strong, you who hear in these days these words from the mouths of the prophets” (8:9).  The Lord will make this city prosper, as long as the people follow the Torah, the Lord’s teaching (8:10-13).  He made the people suffer as they treated each other unjustly, but the city will become a place where they are safe with one another as they follow the Torah and so flourish.

The Lord showed he is trustworthy in punishing the people, so he would be trustworthy in working for their good (8:14-17).  As he turned a deaf ear to their cries because of his decision to do evil to them, he would just as stubbornly carry out his plans to do good.  He only expects that the people will treat each other justly and with integrity.  As we have seen to this point, the people would be made up of those who want to follow the Lord’s will humbly.  The nature of the people, therefore, would keep them on track for this expectation.

As long as the people love honesty and integrity (also can be translated “peace”). the fasts will become feasts, because the reason for insecurity would be gone (8:18-19).  The emissaries wondered if the fasts could end because the temple was restored.  The Lord, though, retold why the temple was destroyed.  The people should not have been fasting because of the destruction of the temple, but because their forefathers’ insistence on ignoring the Torah caused its destruction.  While the temple was clearly restored, the reestablishment of the Torah was an open question.  They would have to make it so by acting justly to one another and taking care of the weak.  If they did so, the reason for fasting would be gone and feasting could resume–but because of Torah, not the temple.

The nations would envy the safe, just city of Jerusalem (8:20-23).  The nations would all want to come to the Lord, begging that the Jews take them along. (The term “Jew” is not common in the Old Testament.  It is used in early literature for “residents of Judah; Judahites” and in later literature as “Jew,” which would have previously been “Israelite.”  During the Persian period, the residents of Judah were beginning to be identified with Israelites.)  They would have heard that God is with the Jews, which would be apparent because the Torah would be the rule of the community who takes care of each other.

These words of the nations fulfil the promise made in Isaiah 7:11, about the son being born “Immanuel,” “God is with us.”  Moreover, it reverses the curse of Isaiah 4:1, where the destitute women grabbed hold of a single man for the sake of his name and to take away their reproach on the day that the Branch would rule a Jerusalem where all the city was holy.  The nations, therefore, would reveal the fulfilment of this promise.

The Lord would fiercely persevere with his plan to inaugurate a peaceful, joyous Jerusalem, but expected the people to follow Torah above all.  More concretely, the citizens would live in a new way compared to their forefathers, working hard to support each other and the weak in the city.  By fulfilling the Torah, the promise from Isaiah would be fulfilled as the nations desired to follow Israel to the city.

All hinges on following Torah

The people’s vision had to be refocused.  They asked about fasting with reference to the destruction of the temple, when they should have been asking with respect to the sins of their fathers.  The Lord had a plan for the eschatological city that he would follow no matter what.  All those who followed the Torah would live in the city.  Nations would hear about the peace and prosperity of the city of Torah, and those of the nations who wanted to follow this law would come to.

The hard work would continue.  The eschaton did not indicate the end of toil.  It pointed to an era where all work would strive towards harmony with one’s neighbor and care for the needy.

Faithfulness requires the evils of captivity: Zechariah 5-6

These chapters established the moral character of the eschatological land.  In ch. 5, the Lord judged every nook and cranny of the land and then removed the unfaithfulness of the people from the land to Shinar, Babylon.  In ch. 6, the Lord commanded his spirit to rest in Babylon.  His spirit animated the un-people of Israel so that they could come forth.  The treasure they brought out of exile became the symbols of rule in the land afterwards.  As faithfulness was removed from the land, the humility gained from captivity pervaded the land.

Apocalyptic literature often employs bizarre images to make its point.  Such images stick in one’s mind and force one to grapple with what those images represent; the text can draw one’s attention to the principle concept of the author.  Thus a flying scroll can represent judgment, and a woman in an ephah basket can represent unfaithfulness.

The scroll that judges and the removal of unfaithfulness: Zechariah 5

A flying scroll of curses that can enter into people’s houses, appeared in a vision in 5:1-4.  While the created order changed systematically throughout the past several chapters and books of the XII, the Torah is one thing that stayed the same.  The curse that went out to everyone judged according to the original 10 Commandments, represented here by the sins of stealing and false oaths.  This scroll, unlike those known until then, could move on its own.  (Perhaps this scroll’s mobility drew from the image of the Lord’s mobile chariot in Ezekiel 1-3.)  It could move with such power as to enter into someone’s house to destroy it.

The next image, of a woman in a basket born by women with stork wings, represented the unfaithfulness of the land (5:5-11).  Generally, the Lord is personified in the Bible as a man and the people as a woman.  Significantly for the present context, the first chapter of the Book of the XII, Hosea 1, depicts the relationship thus.  While it is not PC in our society to do so, the assumption was that the husband protects and provides for the wife, and the correct wife serves the husband faithfully.  The woman who does not return gratitude and faithfulness for the provision she receives, is considered unfaithful.  Thus Israel, the Lord’s people, is often depicted as a woman.  The flying women seal off the wickedness and remove it from the land.  In this eschatological reality, wickedness will be sent far away–to Shinar, in Babylon, where it will form the basis of an idolatrous shrine.

Once judgment according to the Torah penetrates every corner of the land, the Lord’s servants will remove unfaithfulness.  A new purity will pervade his eschatological land, and the wickedness will be removed to Babylon.  A sharp divide emerged: wickedness would remain exclusively in Babylon, and faithfulness exclusively in the land.

The Lord’s glory coming out of Babylon: Zechariah 6

This chapter traced the voyage of the people, from Babylon to the land.  We read about the Lord’s glory, namely, his ability to create something out of nothing.  In this case, he created a people out of an enslaved and wicked non-people by his spirit.  The people, therefore, had nothing to boast about, as their existence depended completely on the Lord.  By reminding them of their humble origin, he could found the eschaton on the humility of the people.

Reminiscent of Zecharaiah 1:8-12, the Lord sent out chariots with horses throughout the land in 6:1-8.  In the earlier scene, the angel was upset when the horsemen came back from their reconnaissance to report peace throughout the land.  The Lord promised to overturn the powers around, so this promise was not coming to pass.  In this instance, the charioteers were commanded to walk all around the world.

Those going to the North (referring to Babylon, who always came in and out of Israel through the North) received a special command: to see the ultimate results of the Babylonian captivity.  Because of their suffering, and because of the Lord’s mighty act at liberating them from Babylon, the remnant that emerged from captivity displayed the Lord’s glory.  The Lord’s spirit animated them, made them a people and brought them to life (cf. the spirit animating the dead bones in Ezekiel 37).  By coming out of Babylon, they show the Lord’s glory by living by his spirit.

In the next section, the glory of captivity metaphorically crowns the eschatological rulers with the literal gold brought from Babylon (6:9-15).  The prophet took the gold and silver from those who came out of captivity to create two crowns, one for Joshua, the High Priest, and one most likely for the Branch, Zerubbabel.  This scene recalls the captives from Egypt during the Exodus who “borrowed” the gold and silver of the Egyptians, effectively plundering them without a fight.  Those riches, however, created the golden calf, an idol and mockery of the Lord.  In the eschaton, the gold and silver will crown the new rule of humility to the Lord’s Torah.

As the captives departed from Babylon, they left the spirit of the Lord in their trail.  Their walk of liberation was animated by the spirit.  When they came to the land, their bounty from Babylon formed the symbols of power for the new rulers.  Both their departure from Babylon and arrival to the land originate in the humbling, dehumanizing captivity, and this humility formed the basis of the eschaton.

Good is faithfulness

The wickedness, represented by a woman, was related to the good, which was always rooted in the captivity.  By grace the Lord led the people from captivity, like in Exodus, establishing them as a people.  When the people understood deeply their personal and corporate existence as completely dependent on the Lord, they would be motivated to remain faithful to him.  A return to the belief that they were masters of their own destiny, a destiny in which the Lord played only a small part, would form the kernel of wicked unfaithfulness.  Goodness in the eschaton would always have to keep one foot in the captivity as the motivation for faithfulness.