Zechariah 11:1-17 – Tale of Two Shepherds

The idyllic description of a restored (enlarged borders) and united (Judah and Ephraim reunited) Israel in Zechariah 10:4-12 under a peacemaking king (9:9-10) is shattered by an opening lament in Zechariah 11:1-3. The shepherds of Israel lament the destruction of the land of Lebanon and Bashan (or Gilead).

While some think the lament envisions the wailing of the nations whose lands were destroyed, it seems best to link Lebanon and Bashan in Zechariah 11:1-2 back to Lebanon and Gilead in Zechariah 10:10. Ephraim is promised land as an inheritance but now the shepherds (leaders; cf. Zech 10:1-3) of Israel lament the destruction of that promised land. The cedars are burned and fallen, the forests of Bashan are cut down, the rich pastures are destroyed and the lush Jordan thicket is devastated. The land has lost its value and has become uninhabitable. There is no inheritance. Israel’s leaders, therefore, lament.

Why do Israel’s shepherds lament when the previous message is filled with such hope, joy and promise? That is the tale of two shepherds which Zechariah narrates in Zechariah 11:4-17.

Zechariah, as Yahweh’s representative, becomes a shepherd over Israel, God’s flock. In fact, Zechariah enacts a story in his narrative. This enactment announces the reality of the situation from the divine perspective and it also anticipates future events.

Yahweh describes the situation in which he has called Zechariah to become a shepherd over Israel. Symbolically, Zechariah is taking on a royal task, the Davidic task. Zechariah assumes this role metaphorically or allegorically in order to announce God’s judgment on the situation.

Israel’s shepherds do not protect their flock but they sell them to buyers who slaughter them. They are motivated by profit. “Praise Yahweh, I am rich!” they say. Instead of protecting them, they send them to the slaughter. This may allude to earlier condemnations of economic injustice in Zechariah (7:9-10; 8:10) where neighbor abused neighbor for the sake of profit.

Whatever the case may be, God’s judgment has returned to Israel—he will no longer pity them or rescue them. Rather, God will “hand everyone over to his neighbor and his king.” God will give them over to their own devices, practices and self-destruction. The leaders of Israel will complete the slaughter of their own people. The “king” will oppress the land without relief.

Zechariah plays the role of a good king—perhaps symbolizing Zerubbabel—who pastures the flock compassionately as he cares for the oppressed among them. He uses the tools of a shepherd—two staffs (e.g., “rod and staff” in Psalm 23)—to care for the flock. One staff is called “Favor” and the other “Union.” The names are significant. The former typifies covenantal blessing while the latter refers to a pledge such as the land grants to the tribes of Israel (Joshua 17:5, 14; 19:9; Ezekiel 47:13). Boda (Haggai, Zechariah: NIV Application Commentary, 464) translates it “Inheritance.” The staffs, then, represent God’s protection (blessing) and gifts (land). Consequently, the good shepherd (Zechariah symbolically) is able to eliminate the corrupt shepherds (“three” is probably a symbolic number for totality or completeness).

But, just as God—the Shepherd of Israel—was often rejected by Israel, so this good shepherd (Zechariah/Zerubbabel) is rejected by the people. This resistance to God’s gracious blessing and covenant life wearies God and thus he rejects them and removes the good shepherd. Instead, he will let the consequences of their sins devour them as they destroy each other.

As a rejected shepherd over Israel, Zechariah performs three “sign-acts”—prophectic actions that symbolize or embody divine messages: (1) he breaks the “favor” staff (11:10), (2) he throws his payment into the temple (11:13), and (3) he breaks the “union” staff (11:14). Each of these acts reinforces the message—God has appointed an abusive shepherd over Israel in lieu of his good shepherd because the people rejected him.

First, he breaks the “Favor” staff which revoked the covenant God had made with the nations. This probably refers to God’s protection of Israel from the nations. God had destroyed Babylon and returned Judah to the land. But now God will no longer protect them from the nations. Thus, Israel will be continually oppressed by the nations in the post-exilic period.

Second, as a resigned leader, he asks for his wages. They paid him thirty pieces of “weighed” silver. The fact that he was not paid in coinage may indicate an early Persian date as coinage becomes more common in the middle Persian era. He was paid the price of a slave (cf. Exodus 21:32). He returns the insult by throwing the money into the temple treasury. The word “potter” can refer to metal workers (smelters) as well and silver workers in the temple may have been employed in some kind of idolatrous activity (so Boda). Both worked in the temple supplying vessels for the temple cultus. Consequently, the returned money may symbolize rejection of the temple leadership and activity.

Third, he breaks the “Union” staff which revoked, for the time being, God’s pledge to reunite Judah and Ephraim in the land. There would be no grand reunion at this time. Instead, the land itself would become a source of hostility and woe (as the lament indicates). Some see an anticipation of the role of the Samaritans in this sign-act who will occupy Ephriam’s land in the future.

Replacing the good shepherd (Zechariah/Zerubbabel) is a “foolish/worthless shepherd.” The term “fool,” reflecting the wisdom tradition, indicates a corrupt or immoral leader. God raises up or installs this leader in Israel as a way of giving the people what they want. And the corrupt leader does what corrupt leaders do—they devour the helpless and marginalized (Boda suggests “exhausted” is a better rendering than “healthy” in Zechariah 11:16). This shepherd abuses his flock rather than caring for them. He leads them to the slaughter.

Though God appointed him, Yahweh nevertheless issues a “woe” against the corrupt leader. This leader, who deserts his flock, will suffer the consequences of his own actions in blindness and disability. In other words, God will not leave this corrupt shepherd unjudged.

But what of Israel? The nations? And the land? What will become of God’s promises? Ah….Zechariah has yet another “oracle” (Zechariah 12-14).

While Zechariah (or whoever the writer is) describes a situation in his own time as corrupt leaders remove or supplant Zerubbabel (or whoever it may be), early Christians heard in this message a part of their own story. The despised shepherd is the rejected Messiah for whom leaders paid thirty pieces of silver (cf. Matthew 26:14-15; 27:6-10), the leaders detested him and Jesus spoke a word against the temple leadership of his day (cleansing of the temple; Mark 11:12-26), and the nations (Romans) oppressed the leaders. They saw the suffering Messiah in this text, but they also saw a triumphant Messiah in Zechariah 12-14.

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