Shepherds, Sticks, and Social Destabilization: A Fresh Look at Zechariah 11:4-17

By Foster, Robert L. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Shepherds, Sticks, and Social Destabilization: A Fresh Look at Zechariah 11:4-17


Foster, Robert L., Journal of Biblical Literature


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11:4 This is what Yhwh my God said, "Shepherd the flock set aside for slaughter. 5 Those who are buying them are killing them and do not feel guilty. Those who are selling them are saying, 'Blessed be Yhwh' and T am rich.' And those who are shepherding them do not have compassion on them. 6 For I will not have compassion upon those dwelling in the land," declares Yhwh. "And behold, I will be delivering each person into the hand of their shepherd and into the hand of their king. And they will utterly desolate the land but I will not deliver [the people] from their hands."

7 So I shepherded the flock set aside for slaughter on behalf of the merchants of the flock. And I took for myself two staves. The one I named "Favor" and the other "Ties." So I shepherded the flock. 8 And I got rid of three shepherds in one month. But my spirit grew impatient with them and their spirits lost patience with me. 9 So I said, "I will not shepherd you. Let those who are to die, die. Let those who are to be destroyed, be destroyed. And let those who remain eat the flesh of their neighbor." 10 And I took my staff "Favor" and I broke it to break the covenant made with the peoples. 11 And it was broken in that day. And the merchants of the flock, who watched over them, knew that it was the word of Yhwh. 12 And I said to them, "If it seems right in your eyes, pay me my wages. If not, let them be nothing." So they measured out my wages, 30 silver pieces.

13 Then Yhwh said to me, "Throw unto the molder there the princely sum with which you were paid." So I took the 30 silver pieces and threw them into the house of Yhwh unto the molder. 14 And I broke my second staff, "Ties," to break the family bond between Judah and Israel.

15 Then Yhwh said to me, "Once again take the instruments of a worthless shepherd. 16 For, behold, I am placing a shepherd in the land: those being destroyed he will not care for; the young he will not seek; the ones being broken he will not heal; those being set apart he will not feed; and the fatty flesh he will eat and their hooves rip off.

17 Woe to the worthless shepherd forsaking the flock!

A sword upon his arm and upon his right eye.

May his arm be completely withered and his right eye completely dimmed."

At the turn of the twentieth century, no less a scholar than S. R. Driver described Zech 11:4-17 as, "the most enigmatic [prophecy] in the Old Testament."1 As the twentieth century drew to a close, Edgar Conrad echoed the sentiments of Driver in his own comments on this passage, "The grim development of events suggests a peculiar logic now impenetrable."2 Despite developments during the twentieth century in critical theory used to investigate the biblical text, Conrad found himself in a position similar to Driver, a position with which undoubtedly many readers would concur.

While acknowledging that numerous difficulties attend the interpretation of Zech 11:4-17, I propose to discuss several key issues in order to gain a better understanding of the purpose of this prophetic narrative, both historically and in the book of Zechariah. First, I propose to uncover the identity of the shepherds condemned in this text, a proposal that differs from many of the various approaches in recent scholarship. I think that this identification of the shepherds in the social context of Yehud in the Persian period proves paramount to the second phase of my discussion: uncovering the social situation within Yehud that precipitated the prophetic drama recorded in Zech 11:4-17. Third, understanding the underlying social conflict provides a vista from which to observe the carefully crafted words of this narrative, which are used to convey the condemnation of the social ills envisioned here. As we observe the narrative's portrayal of words and actions, we discover that at key junctures the text is in dialogue with the prophetic message, especially of Isaiah 40-55, undermining any false sense of security that the readers might have based on the various restoration promises in the earlier prophetic tradition. …

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