The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition: Zechariah 12:10

Zechariah 12:10

I have already posted an article in this series on Zechariah 9-14, but the interpretive difficulties surrounding 12:10 require a separate detailed treatment. The use of Zech 12:10 in three different lines of early Christian tradition clearly attest to its importance. It was applied specifically to the death of Jesus, but also related to his exaltation (to heaven) and future return. In this regard, it was similar to Daniel 7:13-14 (discussed in a previous article), and, indeed, the two Scriptures came to be associated quite closely in the early tradition.

For the background of the so-called Deutero-Zechariah (chaps. 9-14), consult the aforementioned article. Chapters 12-14 represent the second of two divisions (some commentators would include the book of Malachi as a third division). The eschatological aspect takes on greater prominence in these chapters, developing the Prophetic theme of the “day of YHWH”, as it came to be understood in the Prophets of the exilic and post-exilic periods—as the day when YHWH will judge all of the nations, collectively. The expression “on that day” (aWhh^ <oYB*), which occurs repeatedly in chaps. 12-14, refers to this eschatological “day of YHWH” theme.

In fact, the Judgment of the Nations is referenced and described in two oracles here—in chapter 12 (vv. 1-9) and again in chapter 14 (vv. 1-15). The basic scenario is the same in each case: the nations will assemble together for an attack against Judah (Jerusalem), though in actually it is YHWH who has gathered them, to bring down Judgment upon them, destroying them completely. The book of Revelation drew heavily upon these oracles (along with Ezek 38-39 and Joel 3) in its visions of the Last Judgment (14:14-20; 19:11-21; 20:7-10).

In the attack by the nations, YHWH will protect His people (Judah/Jerusalem), and will do battle on their behalf. The result will be salvation for Jerusalem and complete destruction for the nations, as is declared in verse 9:

“And it will be, in that day, (that) I will seek to destroy all the nations th(at are) coming upon [i.e. against] Yerushalaim.”

If verse 9 states what YHWH will do to the nations on “that day”, verse 10 explains what will happen to Judah/Jerusalem. There are two components to this declaration in v. 10, the first being rather easier to understand than the second:

“And I will pour out upon (the) house of David, and upon (the one)s sitting (in) Yerushalaim, a spirit of (showing) favor and of (request)s for favor” (10a)

The key phrase is <yn]Wnj&t^w+ /j@ j^Wr. The nouns /j@ and /Wnj&T^ are related, both derived from the root /nj (“show favor”). While /j@ (“favor”) is often used for the favor shown by YHWH, here it is better understood as the willingness by the people of YHWH to show favor themselves. A spirit (j^Wr) has come over them, a result of God’s own Spirit that is “poured out” on them at the beginning of the New Age (on this Prophetic theme, cf. Isa 32:15; 44:3; 59:21; Ezek 11:19; 18:31; 36:26-27; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29). This new spirit in/on them changes their whole attitude and mindset, their way of thinking and acting. It is a spirit of peace and wholeness, after generations of wickedness and violence, that both show favor to others and makes sincere requests for favor to be shown in turn.

This bond of peace is part of the “new covenant” established between YHWH and His people in the New Age. And, in this Age of Peace, the “house of David” once again exercises rule over Jerusalem; this doubtless relates to the early Messianic expectation we find at various points in the exilic and post-exilic Prophets (cf. my earlier article and throughout the series “Yeshua the Anointed” [esp. Parts 6-8]). The coming King announced in 9:9-10 probably reflects this same expectation of a new ruler from the line of David. Some in the late-6th century held out hope that the Davidic line would be restored in the person of the governor Zerubbabel, but this was not to be. After his successor (Elnathan), the “house of David” no longer holds any ruling position over Judah (the Persian province of Yehud).

The second component of verse 10 is more problematic:

“And they will look to me [or, to him], (the one) whom they stabbed, and they will mourn over him like (one) mourning over his only (child), and they will have bitter (grief) over him, like (one griev)ing bitterly over (his) first-born.”

The question that has vexed commentators is: who is being mourned and who was “stabbed”? But before addressing that question, it is necessary to deal with a textual point regarding the suffix of the preposition la# (“to”). The Masoretic text reads yl^a@ (“to me” ), that is, to YHWH; but this seems to contradict the context of the following reference to “(the one) whom they pierced” (the phrase being marked by the direct-object particle –ta#). Many commentators would emend the text here to wyl*a@ (“to him” ); and, defective spelling (wla) would allow for the confusion between w and y (that is, yla instead of wla), cf. Meyers, p. 336.

These textual and syntactical questions relate directly to the interpretation of verse 10. There has been a tendency, among readers and commentators alike, to try and identify the ‘one who was stabbed’ with some contemporary or historical figure (or event). The text, as we have it, simply does not allow for such precision, nor does it seem to be warranted upon a careful reading of the passage. In such matters, one is best served by letting the text be one’s guide, deriving a plausible interpretation through a sound and careful exegesis.

Before proceeding, mention should be made of another interpretive difficulty in verse 11:

“In that day the mourning will be great in Yerushalaim, like (the) mourning of Hadad-Rimmon (in) the plain of Megiddo.”

The comparison with the “mourning of Hadad-Rimmon” is obscure, with the exact point of reference uncertain. Two possibilities have been suggested:

    • It is a reference to the Canaanite deity Baal Haddu (= Hadad), who was thought to control (and was manifest in) the storm and rain. In Canaanite myth, Baal Haddu ‘died’ with the end of the spring rains and the onset of the summer heat. He was mourned for a time, but he came back to life, returning with the rains. Ritual mourning for Baal was tied to this mythology, just as it was for Tammuz (= Sumerian Dumuzi, cf. Ezek 8:14). Worship of Baal Haddu, in some form or to some extent, was relatively common through much of Israel’s history, and it is certainly possible that a ritual mourning for Baal took place in the plain of Megiddo, though we have no direct evidence for this.
    • The reference is to the death of king Josiah at Megiddo in 609 B.C. (2 Kings 23:29-30). In the parallel account in 2 Chronicles (35:20-26), we read how Josiah’s burial was the occasion for great mourning, and the implication is that this came to be a regular (annual) rite that has continued “to this day” —that is, into the Chronicler’s own time, which could well be near to the time of Zech 9-14.

The second option seem more likely, given the clear association of mourning with the site of Megiddo attested by the contemporary account in 2 Chronicles.

With this in mind, I present here four different lines of interpretation (of verse 10) for which one can make a relatively strong (or at least reasonable) case.

1. Some commentators would identify YHWH as the one “whom they have stabbed”. This is based on a literal reading of the text, accepting the MT 1st person suffix (y-) on the preposition (la#), and then treating the following phrase (marked as a direct object) in apposition: “they will look to me, whom they stabbed”. In this case, the stabbing would be figurative, presumably signifying a betrayal of the covenant through idolatry and worship of other deities, etc. With the new spirit that comes over the people, they collectively repent of their sin with great mourning. This line of interpretation might be seen as further support for the view that  the “mourning of Hadad-Rimmon” referred to ritual worship of Baal-Haddu (cf. above). Now the significance of the mourning is reversed: the people mourn for their lack of loyalty to YHWH, which had been demonstrated through worship of deities other than YHWH (such as Baal-Haddu).

The following three interpretations assume that the person who was stabbed is different than YHWH. Emending the 1st person suffix (on the preposition la#) to the 3rd person would result in a clearer text: “they will look to him whom they stabbed”. If the 1st person suffix of the MT is retained, it creates a more difficult syntax: “they will look to me, (on account of the one) whom they stabbed”, or possibly “they will look to me, (along with the one) whom they stabbed”.

2. The verb rq^D* indicates that the person was “stabbed”, but not necessarily killed; that is, the emphasis is on his being wounded. If we follow this distinction, it is possible to read vv. 10-11ff as reflecting the new spirit possessed by the people in the New Age. The spirit of peace has so taken hold that one now mourns over someone who is wounded like one would the death of an only child or firstborn son. According to this interpretation, the person who was stabbed serves as a general figure, for anyone who is wounded. The reason why the person was wounded is less important than the fact of wounding, just as one would mourn the death of a child, regardless of how or why the child was killed.

3. Some commentators would prefer to view the stabbed figure as representative of a particular group. Along these lines, the prophets of YHWH are a likely candidate to have been ‘stabbed’ by the people (and/or their leaders). Hostility toward the (true) prophets is very much a theme in these chapters, illustrated most vividly in the ‘Shepherd narrative’ of 11:4-16 (on which, cf. my recent discussion). Several points may be cited as confirmation for this line of interpretation:

    • The other occurrence of the verb rq^D* (“stab”) in these chapters relates to the stabbing of a false prophet (13:3); if that was done rightly, then, by contrast, the stabbing of a true prophet was a great wrong that should be mourned.
    • Historically, hostility toward the prophets led, at times, to violence against them; this was well-established in Old Testament and Jewish tradition, with the death of Uriah (by the sword, i.e. stabbing) being a notable example (Jer 26:20-23).
    • Hostility toward the prophets of YHWH was often rooted in the messages of judgment that they brought against the people (and their leaders); such messages were naturally unpopular, but the scenario depicted in chapters 9-14 could easily have led to violence against one of God’s prophets. The breakdowns within society, coupled with the threat of attack from powerful foreign nations, created an unstable environment where violence would be increasingly common.

With the onset of the New Age, the people would feel a burden to repent of such an act (or acts) of violence, and a collective period of mourning would be altogether appropriate for the occasion.

4. Another possibility is that the person who is stabbed alludes to the false prophet who is to be stabbed (same verb, rq^D*), according to the directive of YHWH in 13:3. That latter reference reflects the situation in the New Age, when the land (and its people) will be purified of all forms of false religion, of which false prophecy is a prime example. However, it must be emphasized that the main point of reference is false religion and idolatry. While it is necessary, according the standards of holiness presented in these chapters, to stab (and presumably put to death) the false prophet, the very existence of such false religion in the midst of Israel is reason for the people to mourn. The reference in 12:10 implies that there are false prophets among the people, and, with the onset of the New Age, they will be stabbed (according to 13:3); thus, one may say of such a person, “the one whom they stabbed”. The mourning in vv. 11-14 is not on account of the stabbing, but for what the stabbed person represents: the presence of false religion and idolatry among the people.

Of these four possible lines of interpretation, I would tend to favor the third (#3). The fact that a prophet-figure is “stabbed” (using the same verb) in 13:3 increases the likelihood that a similar point of reference is in view in 12:10. Also, the nature of the mourning in vv. 11-14, and the way it is described, suggests that the cause of the mourning is the injury (and/or death) of a particular person, and one who should be cherished—comparable to the death of a beloved child, or of a virtuous king like Josiah (cf. above).

Zech 12:10 in the New Testament

The early Christian interpretation (and application) of Zech 12:10 is closest to approaches 1 and 3 above. In approach 1, God (YHWH) is the one who is stabbed; while, in approach 3, it is a true prophet of YHWH. However, given the focus in the Passion narrative on Jesus as the royal/Davidic Messiah, it is possible that early Christians (including the New Testament authors) assumed that the stabbed figure of Zech 12:10 was the (Davidic) king–perhaps the same king mentioned in 9:9-10. This would certainly cohere with the basic line of Gospel Tradition, as well as the arc of the Passion narrative:

    • Jesus enters Jerusalem as the King (9:9-10)
    • He is struck (13:7) and stabbed (12:10)—i.e., his suffering and death (by crucifixion)
    • The promise of his resurrection/exaltation and future return (at the time of Judgment)—the eschatological context of chapters 12-14 (12:1-9; 14:1-15ff)

When it comes to the actual application of 12:10, there are three New Testament references, representing at least two separate lines of early Christian tradition. In all three, the verse was applied to the death (crucifixion) of Jesus. This naturally fit the idea of Jesus being “stabbed” (or “pierced”), i.e., his hands/wrists and feet pierced by nails on the stake. However, the Gospel of John quotes the Scripture specifically in reference to the piercing of Jesus’ side (19:34f, 37).

In the Gospel of Matthew, it occurs as part of the Eschatological Discourse. The climactic “Son of Man” saying (Mark 13:26 par) has apparently been modified to reflect Zech 12:10:

“And then the sign of the Son of Man will be made to shine (forth) in (the) heaven, and then all the offshoots [i.e. tribes] of the earth will beat (themselves), and they will look with (open) eyes (at) the Son of Man coming upon (the) clouds of heaven with great power and splendor.” (24:30-31)

The verb form ko/yontai (“they will beat [themselves],” i.e., in mourning) almost certainly is an allusion to the LXX of Zech 12:10. Interestingly, while the context of 12:10 clearly refers to the people of Judah/Jerusalem looking and mourning, Matthew’s application seems to assume that the prophecy (“they will look… they will mourn”) refers to all the nations. Since the Synoptic “Son of Man” saying here also alludes to Daniel 7:13-14 (cf. the prior article), we have a juxtaposition of two key Scriptures that tie the death of Jesus to his exaltation and future return (from heaven) at the end-time Judgment.

All of these features that we see in Matt 24:30-31 are brought out with greater clarity (and simplicity) in Revelation 1:7, where the eschatological context of the Scripture is even more prominent. Again, the author (and/or the visionary) has combined Dan 7:13 with Zech 12:10, in reference to Jesus’ end-time appearance:

“See, he comes with the clouds, and every eye will look at him, and even (those) who dug out of him, and all the offshoots [i.e. tribes] of the earth will beat (themselves) over him”

The verb e)kkente/w (“dig out”) is used for the ‘stabbing’ in Zech 12:10 (vb rq^D*)—i.e., digging out a hole in the flesh by piercing it with a sword or spear. This verb is relatively rare in the LXX, occurring just 9 times, but it is not used in Zech 12:10.

The curious verb used in the LXX, katorxe/omai, “dance over” (perhaps in the general sense of taunting, etc), may be the result of the Hebrew root rqd (“stab”) being accidentally reversed (and misread) as dqr (“skip about, dance”).

Moreover, the only occurrence of e)kkente/w in the New Testament happens to be the citation of Zech 12:10 in John 19:37 (cf. above), where it refers to the piercing of Jesus’ side with the spear (which, in the narrative, is described with the verb nu/ssw, “pierce, prick”). This would seem to be an example of the book of Revelation sharing in the wider Johannine tradition. In any case, the use of the verb here is almost certainly meant to echo the account of Jesus’ death in the Johannine Gospel.

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