“Same Ole” Testament: The Gospel According to Zechariah, Part 4

Zacharias_(Michelangelo)
Part 1 of this series is here.

Today we are looking at the historical context of Zechariah 3:1-8.

Grasping the agony and anxiety, and hope pulsing through the book of Zechariah necessitates a look into the world of both the exiled, the restoration community, and their Persian overlords. Beginning with a short survey of Persian political movement relating to the Jewish community, our project will then move to look at God’s people themselves, and finally the two men so prominent in the book, Zechariah and Joshua.

The exile of Judah spanned roughly seventy years from the final destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon until the decree of Cyrus of Persia that subjugated peoples might return home and rebuild under the names of their respective deities. As traumatic and disheartening as the loss of the temple was, all evidence suggests the exilic community adjusted extremely well even reaching high political office in their host country.1 All this while, their countrymen in Palestine wallowed in poverty and despair devoid of leadership, wealth, and most organization. It is little wonder then only around forty thousand people returned, and when Nehemiah arrived a hundred years later, Jerusalem still remained sparsely populated?2

The Persian Empire, so crucial to the reestablishment of Jewish worship, emerged from a tribal coalition of Aryan ancestry around 700 B.C. with the rise of the powerful Achaemenid dynasty. This is the dynasty from which the great kings so familiar to world history came, Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes. It was Cyrus especially who finally forced Babylon to capitulate and extended Persian rule from Central Asia to the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. In 538 B.C., flush with victory, he issued his famous decree, but died in battle on a few years later defending his newly won territory. This unfortunate event was only the beginning of what would become a chaotic international scene serving as the backdrop to Judah’s restoration. After Cyrus’s death, the new king, Cambyses II immediately undertook a massive campaign into Africa. While meeting some success, he no sooner completed this task, when a usurper challenged his throne, claiming to be the king’s brother whom he murdered to gain power. Though Cambyses died under mysterious circumstances on the way home to reclaim his authority, an uprising led by Darius swept the imposters from power.3It was Darius who reigns as king during the time of Zechariah. His relevance to the biblical record is seen in several places. First, he widely standardized many facets of life including highways, coinage, and government administration. Secondly, he took a personal investment in numerous large building projects throughout the empire, including the temple in Jerusalem.4 To this end, the king himself served as a mediator when the Samaritans and Tattenai, a local ruler, claimed the Jews had no right to rebuild God’s temple. Darius ordered the royal archives searched and upheld the claim allowing construction to resume.5

The move toward “other worldly eschatology” by Zechariah and others from the more political oracles of the past is thought by many scholars to be the result of a power struggle within the post-exilic community for control of the “restoration cult.”6 This intriguing theory presupposes that the “sons of Zadok,” the dynasty possessing the high priesthood for much of Israel’s history, consolidated their power over society during the exile and were determined to keep it upon the restoration of temple worship. The theory goes to suggests a nationalistic fervor ignited by Darius’ visit, explains the apocalyptic nature of Zechariah as an attempt to initiate a plan for an attainable eschaton under Zadokite leadership.7 Other then being based on a flimsy historical reconstruction (people were ready to risk rebellion against Persia only fifteen years or so after Cyrus?), such ideas also face gaping biblical problems, which reveals the weakness of approaching Scripture from a purely sociological standpoint.8   Scripturally, this view is totally dependent on Zerabbabel being the Branch, and this, as has already been demonstrated, is completely impossible.

It was during the second year of Darius’ reign that Zechariah begins his ministry. There has been some dispute over the biblical record stating two different people as his father, both Iddo and Berechiah. It seems most likely that he is the grandson of Iddo the priest mentioned in Nehemiah 12:4, though it is difficult to be dogmatic on the issue.9 Regardless he was likely, as Ezekiel, a priest who also served as a prophet. Though ancient traditions claim he was older, there is a reference in chapter two of his book that suggests the prophet to be a young man during the time of his preaching and writing.10 Other than this, there is little else one can determine with any degree of certainty, except that his preaching apparently met great success as the people surged up from their lethargy and finished the work of building the temple, whose foundation had being laying fallow for sixteen years.11

The final historical piece of the exegetical puzzle, the primary player in Zechariah 3:1-8 as well as other post-exilic works, is Joshua the high priest. His grandfather was the chief priest killed by Nebuchadnezzar. Though it is difficult to say for certain, it appears Joshua was raised in Babylon and was one of the first to return upon Cyrus’s decree. He also seems to have been receptive to the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah as well as the rebuilding of the temple. From what is recorded he lived an exemplary life and served Israel faithfully as a priestly ruler alongside Zerabbabel.

Next time, we will wrap it up with a few concluding thoughts.

Peace,
Ben

Sources:

[1] Kingdom of Priests, 483

[2] Ibid, 505.

[3] Ibid, 501.

[4] Cook, 71.

[5] History of Israel, 430.

[6] Hanson, 209.

[7] Hanson, 245

[8] Rose, 251.

[9] Wilson, 288.

[10] WBC, 168.

[11] Ezra 6:14-15.

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