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)
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.