Theological interpretation and Biblical criticism: Zech 4.1-14

Zechariah 4:1-14 presents an interesting textual conundrum.  Read the following:

And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. 2 And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. 3 And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” 4 And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” 5 Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” 6 Then he said to me, “These seven are the eyes of the LORD, which range through the whole earth.” 11 Then I said to him, “What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?” 12 And a second time I answered and said to him, “What are these two branches of the olive trees, which are beside the two golden pipes from which the golden oil is poured out?” 13 He said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” 14 Then he said, “These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.” (ESV Translation)

Not very tricky, right?  Apart from having to rephrase the question in v.12, this is a pretty logical section of text.  Did anyone notice, however, what I did here?  I performed a slight of hand by removing vv. 6b-10a.  The canonical passage reads as follows:

And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. 2 And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, with seven lips on each of the lamps that are on the top of it. 3 And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.” 4 And I said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” 5 Then the angel who talked with me answered and said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” 6 Then he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts. 7 Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!'” 8 Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 9 “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. 10 For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel. “These seven are the eyes of the LORD, which range through the whole earth.” 11 Then I said to him, “What are these two olive trees on the right and the left of the lampstand?” 12 And a second time I answered and said to him, “What are these two branches of the olive trees, which are beside the two golden pipes from which the golden oil is poured out?” 13 He said to me, “Do you not know what these are?” I said, “No, my lord.” 14 Then he said, “These are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth.”

What just happened here?  What is added?  How does this parenthetical interruption change the direction of this text?  Some interpreters simply write this off as a redactional insertion: “Who cares what this passage means, we’ve just uncovered the subversive actions of the tradents responsible for the final form of Zechariah!”  And yet even if this is a redactional insertion (very possible, in my estimation), are we really to believe that the redactors were too stupid to realize that they had just mucked up a perfectly logical text?  Someone was sure to notice this eventually!  No, the question needs to be asked: how does this interruption affect the meaning of Zech 4.1-14?

Brevard Childs, commenting on the interpolation here and in Zech 2, writes the following:

Through the outpouring of the divine spirit (Isa. 11.2) the mountains are transformed into a plain (Isa. 40.3f.) and the foundation of the earthly temple built by Zerubbabel adumbrates the heavenly temple of the new age (Ezek. 40ff.).  In sum, both oracles now serve further to support the new eschatological role which the framework has assigned to the visions. (Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, pg. 478.)

Suddenly a text recounting Zechariah’s vision of the lampstand is transformed not only into social and political support for Zerubbabel, but into an eschatological vision for the future.  The temple rebuilding project being delayed by the returnees is being interpreted by the final form of Zechariah, not simply as a return to pre-exilic Judah – life as normal – but as an entry into eschatological fulfillment.  This interpolation and others like it help drive towards the surreal scene in Zech 14 where the Mount of Olives is split in half and Jerusalem is raised over all the surrounding country leaving the rest of Judea as a plain before it.

In the end, I’m not sure I would have even slowed down to look at this had critical methods not forced me to pay attention to phenomena like this.  Had I not, I would have been in the best of company; John Calvin doesn’t even acknowledge this oddity in his lectures on Zechariah.  Yet what are the possibilities here for theological exegesis?  It seems that a critical read of the text has opened up an interpretive horizon that is indeed profound!

______________
Andrew

5 thoughts on “Theological interpretation and Biblical criticism: Zech 4.1-14”

  1. Hey Andrew, this is Damon from WSC/Fuller, been enjoying your blog. I do believe that your exegetical and theological points are sound and that the eschatological aspect of the passage does jump out especially when read in light of the rest of the book. However, I am not sure historical-critical methodology was necessarily needed to discover it. Wouldn’t a careful reading of the entire text have uncovered the eschatological reading of Zech 4? Especially after reading the entire book (I believe that is the main contribution that Childs makes). Also, doesn’t it become a bit speculative to speak of logical consistency? Especially in light of tradition history criticism (I’m thinking primarily of Niditch here) and their arguments concerning oral sources of the text? I found it interesting that the BHS seems to block off Zech 4:6b-10a as poetry; at least I think it does. I am reading up on inset psalms in narratives where it is argued that they may have served as communal songs during the reading of the texts. If so, it should perhaps allow us to think of other possible reasons of seemingly inconsistent (illogical) flows of texts besides redactors (though additions may still have occurred). Just interested in your thoughts about this especially considering your Reformed background.

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  2. That’s a good point – i.e., that a careful reading would have noted an eschatological point to the text. And you’re absolutely right, a section like vv. 6b-10a is not necessarily the result of a later redactor. I believe that Childs even suggests as much, though I might be wrong here. There is a lot of imagery going on with the seven flames and all, certainly latent with theological and eschatological possibilities.

    As for logical consistency, I’ve heard people try to delineate pentateuchal sources simply via what would make more sense by omitting or filling in and I don’t want to get caught doing that. Still, there is something very striking about these verses. The oracle to Zerubbabel is very odd, at least located here. I’m thinking of the oddity of 1 Kings 8.12-13 which is likewise strange and has been subsequently relocated by LXX to 8.53-54. Now Zech 4 doesn’t mix things up in the LXX, so that isn’t an exact parallel, but it makes me wonder if any other ancient writers wondered about these verses in Zech.

    I guess I was most surprised by the fact that MGK and Calvin don’t even acknowledge the oddity here. My point in suggesting historical-critical methods is only because many who are unwilling to admit editorial work will either do cartwheels to force a text to sound easy, or they will ignore it. I’m sure this was not the case of Calvin (it’d be a bit anachronistic to say so), but I’m not sure about MGK. (Was he just ignoring the feature? Childs has accused him of ignoring problems elsewhere.) In this sense, you are right though; a careful read could reveal this (as is the case of LXX in 1 Kings 8) apart from reference to modern day redaction critical tools.

    Interesting note on the inset Psalms. Interesting note on Niditch too. I’m still chewing on her method. The really big question here is whether these texts are meant to be performed orally. I’d like to think so (my appreciation for David Carr is revealed here), but something like vv.6b-10a doesn’t seemed to be marked with wiederaufnahme or even worked into the flow of the text narritively as is something like 1 Chron 16.8-36.

    Anyway, there are so many questions involved in these sorts of texts. I’m afraid my comment back is pretty scattered. You raise some good points and ask some questions I don’t have answers to. I’ll definitely need to keep chewing on this interuption/parenthesis/whatever in 6b-10a and see what sorts of things become clear. Zerubabbel is such an odd character anyway, I wonder about his presence or absence in many parts of Zechariah.

    I’d love to grab coffee sometime if you’ve got the chance … I’m such a novice at the prophets!

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  3. Thanks for the reply, I completely agree with your concern about wanting to recognize difficult aspects of the text and being able to discover a good explanation. I’m just amazed that Childs actually referenced MGK! Even for criticism! I shouldn’t have given the impression that I believe the passage was an inset psalm (though I am trolling for a dissertation topic). Zechariah is a difficult book and Zerubabbel is a bit odd. Next time I’m around will give you a call, but please don’t expect any light about the prophets from this novice! Thanks again.

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  4. Oh come on, Damon … when I was slogging through Jeremiah last quarter, I kept thinking, “I should give Damon a call … he’ll put me straight on all this!”

    Richard – the sermons should start showing up on Christ Reformed Church’s website. Nothing spectacular promised though! We’ll see how this works out!!!

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