Zechariah’s Night Visions – Part 1

I am currently teaching the book of Zechariah. For the class, I am producing a translation that I hope will lend itself to certain reading strategies that current English translations do not easily accommodate. The translation is much in the spirit of Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses. It is followed by comments aimed at lay readers, comments that may explain the logic of a particular translation or certain interpretive issues of the text. If you haven’t read Zechariah’s night visions recently, I encourage you to do so. The text is lively and the theology rich!

1:8I looked in the night and there—a man mounted on a red horse! And he was positioned among the myrtles which were in the deep. And behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. 9And I said, “What are these my lord?” And the messenger who spoke to me said, “I will show you what they are.” 10And the man positioned among the myrtles answered and said, “These are those which Yahweh dispatched to roam about the earth.” 11And they answered Yahweh’s messenger who stood among the myrtles and said, “We have roamed about the earth and see—the whole earth rests quietly!”

12And Yahweh’s messenger responded and said, “Yahweh Almighty, how long will you not show compassion on Jerusalem and on the cities of Judah with which you have been indignant these seventy years?” 13And Yahweh answered the messenger who spoke to me with good words, comforting words.

14And the messenger who spoke to me said to me, “Proclaim saying, ‘Thus says Yahweh Almighty, “I am jealous for Jerusalem, and for Zion I am exceedingly jealous. 15And with great anger am I angry at the nations who are at ease. While I was a little angry, they assisted the disaster.” 16Therefore thus says Yahweh, “I am returning to Jerusalem with compassion; my house will be built in it”—oracle of Yahweh Almighty—“A line will be stretched across Jerusalem.”’ 17Yet again proclaim saying, ‘Thus says Yahweh Almighty, “Again shall my cities overflow with bounty. And Yahweh will again comfort Zion, and again choose Jerusalem.”’”

8. the myrtles which were in the deep. The myrtle is a native evergreen shrub in the region of Palestine. Zechariah places the shrub in the metsulah, a term used elsewhere in Zechariah (10:11) and throughout the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Ex 15:5; Ps 69:3; Jon 2:4) for the deep. Some translations interpret this to be a reference to a glen, ravine, or shadowy location, but its parallel with the mythological two bronze mountains of chapter 6 suggests it should be interpreted emblematically for the powers of chaos which, according to this vision, appear to have been subdued.

red, sorrel, and white horses. These colors represent a spectrum from red, to a red-white mix, to white. The colors are natural both to horses and the surrounding landscape. As such, they may help to illustrate the covertness of their reconnaissance mission.

9. the messenger. The Hebrew word malak is often translated as ‘angel,’ which is itself an anglicized word for the Greek translation aggelos. In English speaking cultures, angels are associated with a particular form of individual. Both the Hebrew and Greek words are more concerned with the function of a particular individual, one whose form may or may not prove fantastical.

10. which Yahweh dispatched to roam about the earth. The scene here and in chapter 6 both share this imagery with the initial scenes in the book of Job where the Sons of God present themselves to Yahweh after having patrolled the earth. This reflects a Persian office—the eyes of the king (cf. Zech 4:10)—that enabled the king to be informed about all that transpired within his kingdom. This created the perception of omniscience, for the king was aware of whatsoever transpired in his kingdom. Likewise, Yahweh, by means of his emissaries, is kept current on the state of his kingdom by means of his riding emissaries.

the whole earth rests quietly. Zechariah may be drawing here upon a line in a taunt that was to be taken up against the king of Babylon recorded in the book of the prophet Isaiah, “the whole earth is at rest and quiet” (14:7). The political landscape of the day was much less subdued than this image suggests, but if read against the backdrop of Isaiah’s taunt, it may reflect the quiet rest the whole earth enjoys in the absence of the oppressive Babylonian world power.

12. with which you have been indignant these seventy years. Yahweh’s messenger appeals to Yahweh on behalf of Jerusalem and the cities of Judah by recalling the prophecy of Jeremiah, that the nations would serve the king of Babylon seventy years (Jer 25:11-12). However, the report of the horsemen in the previous verse asserted that Yahweh has already brought an end to the rule of Babylon. The seventy years have been reinterpreted in Zechariah from a period of Babylonian rule to a period of Yahweh’s indignation against his people and their land.

13. And Yahweh answered the messenger. Yahweh does not speak directly to Zechariah. Earlier prophets had direct access to Yahweh, but Zechariah’s experience with Yahweh is mediated through Yahweh’s messenger.

15. the nations who are at ease. This negative evaluation of the nations does not conflict in any way with the positive evaluation of verse 11. These are references to two separate observations.

they assisted the disaster. This is not a reference to the overzealous punishment wrought by Babylon, but rather to the Persian perpetuation of the current plight of Judah. While Isaiah, Chronicles, and Ezra can look upon the activity of Cyrus and of Persia on behalf of Judah positively, Yahweh’s oracles to Zechariah are less glorifying. Persia has helped to further the disaster experienced by Judah.

16. A line will be stretched across Jerusalem. This echoes a prophetic judgment found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (2 Ki. 21:13, Isa. 34:11, Lam. 2:8). Here, the prophetic reversal turns an oracle of judgment into an oracle of salvation.

17. overflow with bounty. Literally, overflow with good. The idea that good would be overflowing in Palestine suggests abundant rainfall, which would in turn bring forth bounty in and economic stability to the land.


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