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Chicano Park Takeover by Felipe Adame, Octavio Gonzales, Victor Ochoa, and Guillermo Rosete
Battle of Issus between Alexander and Darius III, from the House of the Faun, Pompeii by Unknown artist
Attack on the City of Tyre, from the History of Alexander the Great by Unknown French artist

Felipe Adame, Octavio Gonzales, Victor Ochoa, and Guillermo Rosete

Chicano Park Takeover, 1978, Mural, Chicano Park, San Diego; California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives, Dept of Special Collections, Donald Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9010, Photo: © James Prigoff

Unknown artist

Battle of Issus between Alexander and Darius III, from the House of the Faun, Pompeii, c.100 BCE, Mosaic, 272 x 513 cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Bridgeman Images

Unknown French artist

Attack on the City of Tyre, from the History of Alexander the Great, 15th century, Manuscript illumination, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, Dutuit 456, fol. 58v, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY; Photo: Bulloz

A Delicate Theodicy

Comparative Commentary by

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).

 

References

Cohen, Shaye D. 1987. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: John Knox Press)