Saturday, May 04, 2024

Mining the Minors: Zechariah (16)

Zechariah begins with eight visions, continues with four messages, and finishes with two oracles, literally “burdens”, a word often used to refer to prophetic revelations of the future. Each oracle spans three chapters, the first beginning in chapter 9 and the second commencing with the first verse of chapter 12. I have called the first oracle “against the nations” because it commences with words of coming judgment concerning the nations immediately west and north of Israel, later going on to mention Greece, Egypt, Assyria and other ethnic groups further afield.

There’s plenty about Israel in the first oracle as well, but it’s definitely more general than the second oracle, which is specifically “concerning Israel”, Judah included.

III. Two Oracles

1/ Against the Nations

Zechariah 9:1-4 – Introduction (Tyre)

“The oracle of the word of the Lord is against the land of Hadrach and Damascus is its resting place. For the Lord has an eye on mankind and on all the tribes of Israel, and on Hamath also, which borders on it, Tyre and Sidon, though they are very wise. Tyre has built herself a rampart and heaped up silver like dust, and fine gold like the mud of the streets. But behold, the Lord will strip her of her possessions and strike down her power on the sea, and she shall be devoured by fire.”

An Ancient Geography Lesson

The territories named in this introduction were mostly coastal cities on the Mediterranean (Tyre, Sidon, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod), or inland from it (Damascus, Hadrach, Hamath, Ekron), to the immediate west or north of the rebuilding Judah. Hamath marked what some call the “ideal border” of Israel, territory held inconsistently throughout its history. Tyre and Sidon were originally Phoenician; Hadrach, Damascus and Hamath originally Syrian (Aramean); and Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron and Ashdod were all Philistine city-states. Philistia was a territory settled by an ethnically homogeneous people, but could not properly be called a nation as it was almost never under centralized rule.

When Zechariah wrote about these city-states, all, Tyre included, were vassals of the Persian Empire, the largest empire in the history of the ancient world. Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians had ruled over each city-state successively, with Tyre maintaining the greatest independence because of its uniquely defensible location. Today’s geographic divisions would put all these cities in either Lebanon, Syria or the Gaza Strip. All these nations are enemies of the modern state of Israel to one degree or another, and all these territories have a history of hostile relations with Jews and Israelites going back millennia, notwithstanding many changes in ethnic makeup of their inhabitants over the centuries.

So then, these were not distant empires but close neighbors to the returned exiles. Despite being relatively inconsequential on the world stage at that point in time, the Lord says he has his eye on all these.

Tyre’s Demise and Revival

The fulfillment of these first four verses is primarily a matter of historical record, though prophetic scriptures have a way of applying themselves multiple times over the course of history. Prophetic history doesn’t so much repeat as sing successive choruses of the same song.

Zechariah singles out Tyre as an object lesson for those dwelling in the Gaza Strip. With respect to Tyre and Sidon, the word “wise” refers to intellectual efficiency, not prudent moral conduct. As mentioned, Tyre paid tribute to the Persians and respected their dominance in the ancient world of the day, but remained one of the greatest pagan cities of its time, a center of trade and wealth accumulation. The city was unique in that it was located both on the mainland and on a Mediterranean island about a kilometer off the coast. The Phoenicians had walled the entire island right down to the sea, in some places to a height of 150 feet, and walled the city on the mainland (Old Tyre) as well. As Zechariah put it, “Tyre has built herself a rampart.”

When Zechariah wrote these oracles, probably in the early fifth century BC, it was business as usual in Tyre. That would continue to be the case under Persian rule until the king of Tyre imprudently offended Alexander the Great in 332 BC. The Macedonians besieged the island by building a stone causeway out from the mainland that still exists today, silted into a peninsula, and later attacked the island fortress from the sea as well. Upon capturing Tyre, Alexander killed approximately 8,000 Tyrians, 2,000 of these by crucifixion, sold 30,000 more into slavery, and burned the city to the ground, just as Zechariah had prophesied. Stripped of her possessions? Check. Her power struck down on the sea? Check. Devoured by fire? Check.

So then, the prophetic trajectory of this first part of the oracle is about 200 years. Zechariah is not talking about events the people of Judah could expect to see in their lifetimes. Tyre would eventually be rebuilt, with much of the new city constructed atop Alexander’s causeway. However, the city has never regained its former status, though it briefly became an important commercial center under the Romans. In the seventh century AD, Tyre fell to Muslim Arab armies, and was liberated in 1100 AD by Europeans, then recaptured by Muslims in 1291. In the late 1600s, it was occupied only by poor fishermen.

Today, Tyre is the fourth largest city in Lebanon. Its modern inhabitants are of Arab descent rather than Phoenician. Israel staged airstrikes against Hezbollah in Tyre as recently as 2023.

Zechariah 9:5-8 – Introduction (Philistia)

“Ashkelon 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; Ashkelon shall be uninhabited; a mixed people shall dwell in Ashdod, and I will cut off the pride of Philistia. I 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 Jebusites. Then I will encamp at my house as a guard, so that none shall march to and fro; no oppressor shall again march over them, for now I see with my own eyes.”

The Philistine Backstory

Next, Zechariah accurately describes the impact of Tyre’s destruction by Alexander on the Philistines not too many miles to the south, once again, 200 years prior to the actual events. The original Philistines were probably Caphtorites, possibly from Crete, forcibly relocated to the Gaza area by the Egyptians around the time Israel invaded Canaan. Like Tyre, these Philistines were subjugated successively by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome, so these cities were still around, filled with inhabitants who could quiver in their sandals when Tyre finally fell, and would do so for very good reason.

But at the time Zechariah prophesied, the Caphtorite Philistines had already been largely conquered and dispersed by Nebuchadnezzar. Unlike the Jews, few returned to their ancestral homeland and that original ethnic group is now lost to history, their major cities eventually resettled by Phoenicians migrating from the north. By the Hasmonean Period (between testaments), those major cities were mostly Judean, though the Philistine names stuck. They all exist today. Ekron, Ashkelon and Ashdod are now inside the borders of post-1949 Israel, while Gaza City is under Palestinian control.

The word “Palestine” is the Greek equivalent of “Philistine”, though the ethnic mix living in the Gaza Strip today is largely Arab. The term “Palestinian” originally referred to anyone living between Syria and Egypt, frequently including Jews. This is somewhat ironic, given the historic use of the term “Philistine” among the ancient Israelites, which basically signified nothing more ethnically specific than “non-Hebrews living in the Promised Land”, much as “Greeks” later became a euphemism for Gentiles more generally.

Cutting Off the Pride of Philistia

With all this in mind, it could well be that the fulfillment of these eight verses is primarily a matter of historic record. If, at the time of Alexander’s demolition of Tyre, the inhabitants of the Philistine cities to the south were fellow Phoenicians like the Tyrians and Sidonians, they would have had distant relatives in Tyre and more than a passing acquaintance with the city’s history and splendor. So of course Ashkelon would be afraid, Gaza would writhe in anguish and Ekron’s hopes would be confounded, far more so than if the Caphtorites, who were no relation, had remained in Gaza. In the wake of Alexander’s conquest of Tyre, any claim to political autonomy on the part of the great Philistine cities was entirely abandoned. There is some evidence that after destroying Tyre, Alexander swept south into Canaan to ensure the coastal cities of Philistia did not become a maritime threat, though he did not trouble the Jews. So there was no more king in Gaza. The pride of Philistia ceased to be discussed, and a mixed people, including Judeans, began to occupy not just Ashdod but the other formerly Philistine cities in the early second century BC.

With the influx of Jews into Gaza in the Maccabean period came Judaism, and an abandonment of the abominable pagan practices of the original Philistines. To say Philistia would be “like a clan in Judah” during this period would not be putting it too strongly.

Like the Jebusites

The Jebusites were a Canaanite tribe that held what is now called Mount Zion prior to David’s conquest of Jerusalem. Even then, David did not destroy them completely. Some continued to live among the Israelites, including Araunah, who sold David the threshing floor that became the site of Solomon’s temple. The remaining Phoenician Philistines of Ekron would become “like the Jebusites” in the sense that they would live side by side with the Jews who moved into their territory and made it an Israelite possession until AD70.

Again, we can regard these promises as largely fulfilled in the intertestamental period, though the last sentence seems to point to a future date. Taken literally, the claim that “no oppressor shall again march over them” has yet to be fulfilled, though some consider Alexander the Great sparing Jerusalem (when he did not spare Tyre) a candidate for a possible fulfilment. At other times, however, the Greeks and Romans most certainly did as they pleased in Israel (Antiochus Epiphanes especially comes to mind), to the point where ordinary Jews in the first century were ready to support any movement or person that might offer God’s earthly household messianic relief.

The phrase “now I see with my own eyes” probably refers back to the statement that “the Lord has an eye on mankind”, and might be best translated as the NIV has done, with the words “now I am keeping watch”. Indeed he is, and will continue to do so. A day is coming when all of Gaza will once again belong to Israel, and it may be that the Palestinians of future generations who receive Israel’s Messiah as Savior and King will enjoy the same benefits of living among the people of God as did the conquered Jebusites of David’s day and the overwhelmed Philistines of the intertestamental period.

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