An Oracle to a Worried People
Encroachment and Occupation
Commentary by Eric C. Smith
Zechariah 9 is an expression of identity and solidarity in the face of a foreign invasion. It is a meditation on the links between land, people, and divine presence invoked to protect both.
In 1970, a group of citizens occupied land under the Coronado Bay Bridge in San Diego, California. The land had been designated for a park, but when construction began on a government building on the land instead, members of the surrounding neighbourhood protested by blocking construction until the promise to build a park was kept. A year later, after much negotiation, Chicano Park was created—the name signifying the shared ethnic belonging of those who had protested for its creation.
A number of murals now decorate the space, including this one, which commemorates the ‘takeover’ of the land where the park now sits. The Takeover features scenes from the occupation of the site, including protesters surrounding the bulldozers, others planting and tilling the land, and images of triumph and strength. A later restoration of the mural corrected an error in the painting: the flag raised was the flag of Aztlan, not the flag of Mexico—a shared ethnic belonging rather than a modern national one—and so the latter was painted over the former (former shown here). The flag, like the park itself and this mural, is an expression of the pride of indigenous peoples, and a form of resistance against encroachment on lands and erasure of cultures that pre-existed the bulldozers and the city of San Diego for thousands of years. Another part of the mural depicts the first celebration of Earth Day in the United States in 1970, as a symbolic moment in which the degradation of green and open spaces began to meet resistance.
Zechariah 9 expresses similar fears about erasure and encroachment, and it exhibits a similar pride in belonging and the expression of identity. Faced with violence and incursion from outsiders, the prophet spoke oracles of hope and resistance, judgement and national unity. That same spirit animated the activists who took over the land under the bridge that is now Chicano Park.
Avalos, David. 2011. ‘“Chicano Park Takeover” A Complete Success, 26 August 2011’, www.laprensa-sandiego.org [accessed 23 September 2020]
Barrera, Mario. 2005. ‘Chicano Park, San Diego’, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States, ed by Suzanne Oboler and Deena J. González, 4 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Beware of Greeks Bearing Arms
Commentary by Eric C. Smith
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, it buried the Roman city of Pompeii under ash and pumice. Seventeen centuries later, when a grand house known as ‘The House of the Faun’ was excavated in 1831, workers found an impressive mosaic.
Measuring 2.72 x 5.13 metres, it depicts the Battle of Issus (333 BCE) in vivid detail. A tangle of Greek and Persian soldiers, horses, spears, and shields, the scene is one that captures the heat of battle, but that also focuses the viewer’s attention on two figures: King Darius III of Persia on the right, and Alexander the Great on the left.
Dated to the late second or early first centuries BCE, the mosaic shows that even centuries after his death, Alexander was captivating the imaginations of Romans, who perhaps by the Republican period were beginning to admire Alexander’s vision of an oikumene—an ordered world bound together by empire. Alexander’s territory famously stretched from his home in Macedonia to the Ganges in the Indian subcontinent, encompassing vast expanses of land and tying them together through language, culture, institutions, and of course imperial strength.
Although Alexander’s empire appeared glorious and valorous in the mosaic in Pompeii, his advance provoked anxiety and fear along his route to India. Assuming Zechariah 9–14 dates to the fourth century BCE (other scholars date it—along with Zechariah 1–8—to the aftermath of the Babylonian exile in the sixth or fifth centuries BCE), Zechariah 9 might preserve some of that anxiety.
Masking fear in bravado, this chapter speaks of the Lord who will protect and conquer, of a king who is to come, and of restoration and plenty. It speaks as a nationalist oracle to a worried people: ‘For I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow. I will arouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword’ (9:13 NRSV).
The Greeks, led by Alexander, were amassing on the horizon, and the oracles of Zechariah 9 speak to the anxiety they provoked among the people they encountered. One can almost hear the hoofbeats of warhorses behind the words of Zechariah 9:8, at the same time brash and plaintive: ‘No oppressor shall again overrun them’.
Cohen, Ada. 1997. The Alexander Mosaic: Stories of Victory and Defeat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
‘Tyre Has Built Itself a Rampart’
Commentary by Eric C. Smith
This fifteenth-century French manuscript illustration from a history of Alexander’s career probably draws on accounts of a Crusader siege of Tyre in 1124 to fill in the details of the Greek conquest of the city nearly fifteen centuries earlier. It depicts a moment as the armies of Alexander the Great marched eastward. Very little slowed them down, but the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre—located on an island just a kilometre from the coast of present-day Lebanon—posed a problem.
The city had forty-six-metre walls towering over the sea, making any attack difficult. Tyre retreated behind its fortifications, but Alexander built a causeway from the mainland to the island, breached the walls, and took the city, killing many of its inhabitants and selling many more into slavery.
To this day, Tyre is an isthmus rather than an island, still connected to the mainland by Alexander’s ambition in the form of the causeway.
‘Tyre has built itself a rampart’, the prophet says in Zechariah 9:3, ‘and heaped up silver like dust, and gold like the dirt of the streets’ (NRSV). Trade had made the city very wealthy. ‘But now’, Zechariah continues, ‘the Lord will strip it of its possessions, and hurl its wealth into the sea, and it shall be devoured by fire’ (vv.3–4). Just as the anticipated successful defence of Judah against the ‘sons of Greece’ would be attributed to the patronage of God and the strength of native sons a few verses later, the sack of Tyre was seen as the work of the Lord, who was patronizing Judea and using the Macedonians as a weapon against Tyre. The armies of Alexander were enemies when they approached Judea, but they were instruments of God’s wrath against Tyre. These verses about Tyre are a major reason many scholars see Zechariah as an oracle about the fourth century BCE, rather than the sixth or fifth century BCE post-exilic period.
Even after its fall to Alexander, the city remained important and resistant to subsequent attacks until an army of Franks and Venetians arrived in the twelfth century CE. The papal bull that would have authorized that siege and the broader ‘crusade’ of which it was a part is not extant, but it is not difficult to imagine that such a document would have made reference to Zechariah 9:3–4.
Chinnock, E. J. (trans.) 1884. Arrian: The Anabasis of Alexander, 2.16–24, pp. 117–34
Mixter, John R. 2005. ‘Alexander’s Triumph at Tyre’, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History: 34–43, 80–81
Felipe Adame, Octavio Gonzales, Victor Ochoa, and Guillermo Rosete :
Chicano Park Takeover, 1978 , Mural
Unknown artist :
Battle of Issus between Alexander and Darius III, from the House of the Faun, Pompeii, c.100 BCE , Mosaic
Unknown French artist :
Attack on the City of Tyre, from the History of Alexander the Great, 15th century , Manuscript illumination
A Delicate Theodicy
Commentary by Eric C. Smith
The roots of belonging are often sunk in crisis. When faced with a threat from outsiders, nations and peoples make common cause, finding solidarity with each other in the presence of danger.
Zechariah 9 is marbled with both the anxiety of the threat and the strength of solidarity, the latter framed theologically. ‘On that day the Lord their God will save them’, reads 9:16, ‘for they are the flock of his people’ (NRSV). The confidence is undergirded by political and military hope: ‘Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he’ (9:9). The prophet can vividly imagine the actions of the ‘sons of Greece’, but equally vivid are the solidarities and belongings of nationhood and peoplehood. The Lord belongs to Judea and Judea to the Lord, and together, Zechariah declares, enemies need not be feared.
Alexander’s advance across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond to India inspired fear in his time and admiration long after the man and his rule had faded. Two basic options were available to cities and territories in the path of the Macedonian armies: capitulation or resistance. The mosaic at Pompeii and the illustration of the siege of Tyre both speak to resistance, putting into images the spirit displayed in the text of Zechariah 9. Though Jerusalem experienced no siege like the one at Tyre, Alexander’s defeat of the Persian Empire meant that Judea fell under the control of Alexander, and more importantly, remained under the control of the Ptolemies and Seleucids for centuries.
The stinging military defeat envisioned in Zechariah never came to Jerusalem at Alexander’s hands, but all of Palestine and its neighbours were thoroughly Hellenized, absorbing Greek language, customs, religion, and institutions. Accommodation and resistance to Ptolemaic and Seleucid rule were characteristic and defining examples of the broader patterns of relationship to outside powers that Israel and Judah experienced and narrated. From the Torah’s narrative of captivity in Egypt to the Roman rule of the New Testament, the negotiation of power lies beneath the Bible’s storytelling. Occasionally it bubbles to the surface, as it does in Zechariah 9.
This part of Zechariah—and chapter 9 in particular—speaks to and from a people staggering under the threat and presence of imperial violence. Violence and warfare pervade this chapter, appearing both as the glory of conquest (glory of the sort we see in the mosaic at Pompeii) and the terror of being conquered (conquest of the sort we see in the illustration of the sack of Tyre). Zechariah 9 turns both the glory and the terror to theological purposes, claiming the protection of the Lord while also seeing the destruction of surrounding places and peoples as divinely sanctioned and arranged. (The creator of the French manuscript would likely claim the same divine warrant for the later Crusade.) This is a carefully tended ecology of fear, and a delicate theodicy: violence comes from our God, but our God protects us from the violence of others. ‘I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that no one will march to and fro’, declares 9:8, ‘so that no oppressor shall again overrun them’. God is the guard of God’s own dwelling, but not even this divine protection can keep out the fear of unknown enemies on the approach.
The memory of violence and the promise of divine protection flow together in the expectations—in the dreams—of Zechariah 9:9–10. A king comes, victorious and not defeated, humble but warlike, to restore all that had been lost to war and more, to rule to the ends of the earth. Like the murals decorating Chicano Park, the prophet imagines and celebrates what it would be like to have a realm of one’s own, inhabited by a people relieved of the weight of violation and loss, with a future free for living. ‘Today I declare that I will restore you double’, says 9:12. This text occupies and claims the future in the same way the protesters in San Diego claimed the space of Chicano Park for artistic visions of solidarity and belonging.
In Zechariah 9, there is nothing to be feared from Alexander or any other invader, because the prophet opens up a space where God stands guard and a king comes, riding towards the restoration of all that had been lost. It is no wonder that Christian exegetes—beginning with the Gospel writers—have placed this passage from Zechariah at the centre of their claims of Jesus as messiah, seeing Jesus in the prophet’s proclamation of a king, remembered and re-enacted each Palm Sunday: ‘Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (Matthew 21:5).
Cohen, Shaye D. 1987. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: John Knox Press)