Zechariah 5:1-4 – A Curse on Economic Injustice

Standing in awe of God’s gracious Spirit empowering Israel’s relationship with Yahweh (Zechariah 4), something catches Zechariah’s eye. The first line of the sixth vision highlights the sudden appearance of a strange object. Literally, Zechariah turns around to see what caught his attention, looks up into the sky, “sees” something and “behold,” that is, astonishingly, he sees a “flying scroll.” The rhetorical effect is surprise and wonder.

The angel, the same one standing with him in the previous vision, asks Zechariah what he sees. This functions as a dramatic pause that anticipates the description in the next verse.

What does he see? He sees a scroll that is 30 by 15 feet (literally, 20 x 10 cubits). Scrolls could reach lengths of 30 feet but were usually no more than 12 inches in width. This scroll is like a huge placard similar to a sign trailing a plane with an advertisement or a marriage proposal. The dimensions are significant but the reason why is rather uncertain. Perhaps it is simply large enough to read from a distance as it flies in the sky. Perhaps the dimensions say something about the enormity of the sins which the scroll curses.

One suggestion, that seems to make some sense, is that the dimensions are exactly those of Solomon’s temple portico (1 Kings 6:3) where priestly justice was probably administered (cf. Joel 2:17) and where innocents sought justice (1 Kings 8:31-32; cf. Psalm 7). The previous two visions were located in the temple and were about the rebuilding of the temple. The portico was the place where the curses (oaths) of the law were adjudicated. The flying scroll—a message from God (it is flying!)—is about justice, curses and oaths.

The angel interpreted the scroll in the context of justice. It is a “curse” (or oath) that  covers the whole land of Judah, primarily focused on Jerusalem. Like the Ten Commandments themselves (Exodus 32:15), both sides of the scroll were inscribed with the words of God. The curse, like the Deuteronomic curses of the law (Deuteronomy 27-29, especially 29:11-20), is a threat against covenant-breakers. There is evidence in the Ancient Near East that curses were written on a separate scroll in covenantal documents.

Through this curse, God will remove sin from the land. The curse will enter the homes of covenant-breakers and destroy them—whether their houses are built of timber or stones.  God will execute the curse against these wealthy homeowners. What Zechariah sees envisions a time when God will remove sin from the land of Judah.

But this is where it gets interesting. Upon what sins does the scroll focus? It seems that one part of the picture is the false administration of justice. Boda (Haggai, Zechariah of the NIV Application Commentary) argues convincingly that the NIV’s “will be banished” should be rendered “has been cleared” (see the use of the same Hebrew term in Numbers 5:19, 21). “The curse,” Boda says (p. 294), “is going out because the guilty are going unpunished.”

Who is going unpunished? The angelic interpreter specifies thieves and those who testify falsely in a court trial. Boda links this language to the Holiness code in Leviticus 19:11-18. The problem is economic injustice. The needy and the poor are oppressed and when they seek justice in the priestly courts, they are denied that justice. Under the economic distress of the early Persian period, the poor are denied justice by priests who should protect them from those who are stealing their land and means of sustenance. Boda notes that “swearing” and “falsely” appear together in contexts where one is oppressing or cheating another (Genesis 21:23; Leviticus 19:12; Jeremiah 5:2; 7:9; Malachi 3:5).

The sin of the land is the corruption of the priestly justice system where the poor are oppressed by thieves and their lying witnesses. The “flying scroll,” inscribed with a curse against economic injustice, promises to end this inequity and destroy the homes of the powerful. The sin of economic justice will be removed from the land, says Yahweh, the God of Israel.



5 Responses to “Zechariah 5:1-4 – A Curse on Economic Injustice”

  1.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    i realize i am sometimes on the same train, although, riding close to the caboose.
    that being said…. :-)
    IS their a correlation (sorta like a compare / contrast ) between the study in mark and in Zechariah, a pattern, if you will, in the “renewed earth eschatology” nature these two studies are drawing down to?

    amongst other articles as well ? that you have put up for study and reflection?
    if so will their be a conclusion brought forward ?

    :-)

    always just wondering ?

    you always seem to have a good agenda behind those glasses of yours.
    :-)

    blessings

  2.   Clark Coleman Says:

    This is an interesting interpretation. Boda’s rendering “has been cleared” does not seem to fit the structure of the passage very well compared to the renderings found in translations. The phrase seems to be part of a description of what will happen when the curse enters the home of the thieves and false swearers. Translations that render it as cut off, removed, expelled, cleaned out, etc. fit the sequence of words. The phrase that follows (“according to the writing on one side …. according to the writing on the other side”) fits a picture of the writing having the curse (punishment) on it. If we instead have “has been cleared according to the writing on one side ….” we are going to have to strain our interpretation a bit.

    The false swearers could certainly be false swearers in a court of justice, or just false swearers in general. Keil and Delitzsch favor the latter, but they (inadvertently?) offer support for the former by noting that the two sides of the flying scroll could correspond to the two tablets of the ten commandments; “thieves” refers to the second tablet (“Thou shalt not steal”) and “false swearers” refers to the first tablet (“Thou shalt not bear false witness”). Now, the commandment about false witness is certainly referring to a court of justice, whereas “false swearers” could refer to any false swearing of an oath, including breaking an oath to the Lord. K&D favored the more general case of false swearing but it seems their analysis really points to false witness and not just oath-breaking.

    Of course, false witness is not limited to economic cheating of another. The seriousness of the condemnation of false witness is due in large part to the fact that capital punishment required multiple witnesses; false witness could be a matter of life and death, as well as leading to economic loss or corporal punishment. Similarly, the holiness code of Leviticus 19:11-18 mentions economic thievery, but also all manner of lying, oath breaking, and false swearing, economic or not. I also do not find justification in the text for the logical leap to “wealthy homeowners.” Do we know that timber was reserved for the wealthy?

    It would be easy enough to use one or two words that unquestionably refer to the wealthy, so that we do not have to search for oblique hints. I think that modern commentators such as Boda strain too hard to find “economic injustice” in these passages about sin. The nation had plenty of sin for which it deserved punishment, as symbolized by both tablets of the Decalogue and both sides of the scroll.

    • Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      There are, of course, alternative readings. Whether we think of swearing falsely and theft as the two tablets of the decalogue or as the most prominent object of prophetic scorn in the situation is debatable. These two sins are singled out, it seems to me, rather than representing something more general. To what do they point? What in the situation gave rise to this prophetic witness and highlighted these? I think the combination of the two sins–and as it appears in other prophetic texts in the context of oppression and injustice (cf. Mal. 3:5 s an example)–suggests more than something symbolic of the decalogue. This is an attempt to read contextually in the situation, within the prophetic tradition, and what we will see in Zechariah as well in a few chapters (cf. 7:10).

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