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)
9 An Oracle
The word of the Lord is against the land of Hadrach
and will rest upon Damascus.
For to the Lord belong the cities of Aram,
even as all the tribes of Israel;
2Hamath also, which borders thereon,
Tyre and Sidon, though they are very wise.
3Tyre has built herself a rampart,
and heaped up silver like dust,
and gold like the mud of the streets.
4But lo, the Lord will strip her of her possessions
and hurl her wealth into the sea,
and she shall be devoured by fire.
5Ashʹkelon shall see it, and be afraid;
Gaza too, and shall writhe in anguish;
Ekron also, because its hopes are confounded.
The king shall perish from Gaza;
Ashʹkelon shall be uninhabited;
6a mongrel people shall dwell in Ashdod;
and I will make an end of the pride of Philistia.
7I will take away its blood from its mouth,
and its abominations from between its teeth;
it too shall be a remnant for our God;
it shall be like a clan in Judah,
and Ekron shall be like the Jebʹusites.
8Then I will encamp at my house as a guard,
so that none shall march to and fro;
no oppressor shall again overrun them,
for now I see with my own eyes.
9Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass.
10I will cut off the chariot from Eʹphraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
11As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your captives free from the waterless pit.
12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
13For I have bent Judah as my bow;
I have made Eʹphraim its arrow.
I will brandish your sons, O Zion,
over your sons, O Greece,
and wield you like a warrior’s sword.
14Then the Lord will appear over them,
and his arrow go forth like lightning;
the Lord God will sound the trumpet,
and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south.
15The Lord of hosts will protect them,
and they shall devour and tread down the slingers;
and they shall drink their blood like wine,
and be full like a bowl,
drenched like the corners of the altar.
16On that day the Lord their God will save them
for they are the flock of his people;
for like the jewels of a crown
they shall shine on his land.
17Yea, how good and how fair it shall be!
Grain shall make the young men flourish,
and new wine the maidens.