The Scriptures make a very clear promise: all Scripture is profitable for teaching, correction, and training in righteousness so that the people of God may be equipped for every good work (see 2 Timothy 3.16-17). I wonder if the apostle Paul, who wrote those words, was reading the same Old Testament I am reading.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe the promise to be true, but there sure are some parts of the Bible where the profitability margins seem to be quite small. For the vast majority, the profitability of the Word of God is obvious, but there are those sections where I seem to leave doing more head scratching than soul feeding. As a general rule, the writings of the prophets seem to fall more into the confusion category than the enlightening category, but even among the prophets there are those parts that are just way beyond the pale. Zechariah 5 might be the poster child for the confused reader of Scripture.
The prophet Zechariah is not well known to even the most avid student of the Bible. He is among the “post exilic prophets,” a fancy phrase meaning that he ministered after the Babylonian exile. He was actually born during the exile into a priestly family, and he joined the few Jews who returned to Jerusalem once Persia conquered Babylon and allowed all of the captive peoples to return home. Once in Jerusalem, this priest was drafted in the ministry of a prophet when he began to have a series of visions. These visions took place on one night in February 519 BC, and they served the encourage the people of God, through the prophet, to finish rebuilding the Temple which had been destroyed by Babylon in 586 BC. By their very nature, visions can be difficult to interpret, but the meaning of most of the visions to Zechariah can be understood with a little effort.
The first night vision (Zechariah 1.7-17) encouraged the Jews because the Lord was once again choosing Jerusalem and pouring out mercy, compassion, and prosperity upon His people. The second night vision (Zechariah 1.18-21) showed that the Lord was judging those nations that had oppressed Judah. The third night vision (Zechariah 2.1-13) encouraged the prophet with a vision of a city filled with people, so large that it was a city without walls. In the fourth night vision (Zechariah 3.1-10), the Lord snatched the high priest, Joshua, as a stick from the fire of judgment, replaced his filthy garments with clean garments, and granted him charge of His courts and access into His presence. In the fifth night vision (Zechariah 4.1-14), the Lord encouraged Zerubbabel with the promise that he would finish the Temple by the Spirit and not by his own might. The sixth night vision (Zechariah 5.1-4) was a call for God’s people to be obedient to His commandments.
Like I said, the meaning of most of the previous six night visions is understandable with some hard interpretive work, but the seventh night vision is a whole other matter. Even the angel, who has been present during the other visions to explain the meaning to the prophet, is not much help to us new covenant readers. But I believe the promise to be true, so there must be something profitable about this vision.
So, with no further delay, let us consider the seventh night vision given to the prophet Zechariah and recorded in chapter 5,
5Then the angel who talked with me came forward and said to me, “Lift your eyes and see what this is that is going out.” 6And I said, “What is it?” He said, “This is the basket that is going out.” And he said, “This is their iniquity in all the land.” 7And behold, the leaden cover was lifted, and there was a woman sitting in the basket! 8And he said, “This is Wickedness.” And he thrust her back into the basket, and thrust down the leaden weight on its opening. 9Then I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, two women coming forward! The wind was in their wings. They had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the basket between earth and heaven. 10Then I said to the angel who talked with me, “Where are they taking the basket?” 11He said to me, “To the land of Shinar, to build a house for it. And when this is prepared, they will set the basket down there on its base.” (Zechariah 5.5-11 ESV)
So many questions to ask, and so little information to help us understand. For instance,
What does the basket (or literally, the ephah) represent?
What is the meaning of lead cover?
Why is a woman the symbol of wickedness
What is the wickedness that is being removed to Shinar?
Who are the two women taking the basket to Shinar?
Why do they have wings like a stork?
What is meant by the statement that a house will be built for the basket?
While all of these questions are difficult to answer, the most difficult of all is why the removal of wickedness ends with the construction of a house for it. Usually, wickedness is destroyed, not merely relocated, so why is it different in this vision?
Understanding the Text
Before we attempt to answer these questions, let us take a closer look at the text itself. In the vision, the prophet sees a “basket” (ESV). Literally, the prophet sees an ephah which is a unit of measurement for dry goods. In the vision, it appears that the ephah is the basket used in measuring out an ephah, which is why the NIV translates it as “a measuring basket.” This basket was “going out” and symbolized their “iniquity in all the land.” The word translated “iniquity” poses a textual problem. The Hebrew is literally “their eye,” but the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) has the word their “iniquity” instead of “eye.” The reason is that the difference between the Hebrew word for eye and the Hebrew word for iniquity is one letter, and there is one Hebrew manuscript that has the word “iniquity.” When the angel identified the woman in the basket as “Wickedness,” it seems that most English translations get it right by translating it as “their iniquity in the land.”
Wickedness is represented by a woman, for reasons that are not very clear. The woman may represent idolatry or immorality, as is occasionally done in other places in Scripture, but that connection is not explicit in this vision. This ephah has a lead cover (NIV), literally a “lead weight.” The heavy lid appears to contain wickedness in the basket so that it cannot escape. Two women with wings like a stork appear and carry the basket to Shinar. It seems that no one really has a good explanation as to the identity of the two women nor why they have wings like a stork. Shinar is the ancient name for the territory that would later become Babylon, as made clear in Daniel 1.2.
The Meaning of the Vision
But what did this vision mean to Zechariah, and how is this vision profitable for new covenant readers today?
Interpretations of this vision seem to head in two different directions. Some commentators understand the vision to be a rebuke on the sin of God’s people in Judah while others understand the vision to be a word of judgment on the enemies of Judah.
The Sins of the Jews
Those who understand this vision to be a rebuke on the sins of God’s people are by no means unified in their interpretation. One Rabbi interprets this as a punishment on the exiles who did not return from Babylon, though this seems unlikely since the basket was taken away from Jerusalem to Babylon instead of remaining in Babylon as some exiles did. Another scholar sees the ephah as the sin of false weights and measures, a sin often condemned by the prophets (see Amos 8.5), but this interpretation fails to address why the wicked would be relocated to Shinar in a new house. Another scholar suggests that the wickedness is the sin of idolatry, and that it is relocated to Babylon where a temple would be built for it. However, it would be strange that two angelic figures would carry it away to a place where a temple can be built for a false god. In fact, any interpretation of the wickedness of the basket that cannot account for the reason that the sin is relocated instead of destroyed seems to be missing a key element of the vision.
The Wickedness of the Enemies of the Jews
The second approach to interpreting the vision holds that it does not refer to the evil deeds of the people of God but to the removal of some anti-Jewish element from the land and its relocation to Babylon, a vision that would definitely give God’s people hope. But what is the wickedness being removed? Some have suggested that the wickedness is the nation of Babylon, but by the time of Zechariah, Babylon had already been removed as they were conquered by Persia. Another view takes full account of “their eye” in verse 6, understanding this to represent an official of the Persian king sent to spy on the progress of the Jews. Another interpreter sees the woman as an allegory of a false goddess worshipped by the Babylonians in Jerusalem before the Jews returned. But none of these possible explanations explain why the wickedness is removed and placed in a house built for them in Shinar.
Modern Day Commentators
A third approach to interpreting the vision is to release the meaning of the vision from any of the specifics of the vision itself. Instead of wrestling to understand the woman in the basket or the removal of wickedness to a home in Shinar and how that related to the historical events of Zechariah’s time, some commentators take the basic idea of the vision and read into the vision various meanings. Consider how the Matthew Henry Commentary interprets the vision,
In this vision the prophet sees an ephah, something in the shape of a corn measure. This betokened the Jewish nation. They are filling the measure of their iniquity; and when it is full, they shall be delivered into the hands of those to whom God sold them for their sins. The woman sitting in the midst of the ephah represents the sinful church and nation of the Jews, in their latter and corrupt age. Guilt is upon the sinner as a weight of lead, to sink him to the lowest hell. This seems to mean the condemnation of the Jews, after they filled the measure of their iniquities by crucifying Christ and rejecting his gospel. Zechariah sees the ephah, with the woman thus pressed in it, carried away to some far country. This intimates that the Jews should be hurried out of their own land, and forced to dwell in far countries, as they had been in Babylon. There the ephah shall be firmly placed, and their sufferings shall continue far longer than in their late captivity. Blindness is happened unto Israel, and they are settled upon their own unbelief. Let sinners fear to treasure up wrath against the day of wrath; for the more they multiply crimes, the faster the measure fills.
This commentator sees the woman in the basket as the “sinful church and nation of Jews” in their later corrupt age sinking under the weight of their sins to the lowest hell, the gravest of which is the crucifixion of Christ and rejecting the gospel.
Another commentator/pastor, Ron Daniel, offers the following interpretation for the vision,
Commentators are all over the place with what this represents, but I believe that what I’m going to share with you tonight is by far the most Scripturally-based of the many theories. I believe that Wickedness is the same woman who we see in Revelation….This woman is the mother of harlots and of all abominations. “Wickedness” is certainly an accurate description of her. What is her name? Babylon…. If this wicked system personified as this woman began in Shinar, and will be relocated to Shinar, she must currently be somewhere else. Where is that? Revelation 17:9 tells us that she sits on seven mountains. And, according to more than a dozen ancient writings, the city called “the city of seven mountains” was Rome. Nowhere today are harlotry and abominations more obvious than in Rome. The corruption of Biblical truth, idols worshiped in the name of God, and false religious practices purported to be Christian permeate the city….She will be stripped of her religious garments and revealed for what she really is – a commercial system. Her false religion removed, she will be relocated to her place of origin – Babylon, in the land of Shinar, in the middle of modern-day Iraq, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
Daniel’s interpretation of Babylon in Revelation notwithstanding, it seems that this commentator is chasing one too many rabbits. He understands the woman to be Babylon, which is symbolic of false worship, the ultimate false worship being Rome, the center of the Catholic Church. So, according to this interpretation, the woman in the basket is Rome, and is carried away to Shinar during the end times, during the Great Tribulation.
I offer the two interpretations above simply to illustrate a point. When we come to a confusing prophetic vision, we must resist the temptation to allow our confusion with the vision to seek meaning in the vision by abandoning the vision itself. The original meaning of the vision must have meant something to Zechariah.
A Possible Solution
Elie Assis, a professor in a university in Israel, has offered another interpretation in an article that was published in Vetus Testamentum journal in 2010. While Assis’ interpretation is not perfect, it seems most convincing to me. He understands the wicked woman in the basket to represent the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin mentioned in Ezra 4.
1Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, 2they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” 3But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.” 4Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build 5and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. 6And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. (Ezra 4.1-6 ESV)
These adversaries were brought to the land of Judah by the King of Assyria, an event made even clearer in the book of 1 Kings,
24And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities. 25And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” 27Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” 28So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord. (1 Kings 17.24-28 ESV)
Just like some of the Jews were deported to Babylon when Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar, some people from Babylon were deported to the cities of Samaria when the King of Assyria conquered that territory.
The “Samaritans” are a people group with an infamous history. New covenant readers know them best as the people hated by the Jews during the time of Christ. So much so that Jesus made one Samarian the hero of one of His parables to illustrate what it meant to love one’s neighbor (see Luke 10.25-37). The Samaritans were viewed as “half breeds” by the pure Jews. The Samaritans of the first century were the results of the deportations of Assyria several hundred years earlier. When these Babylonians were deported to the cities of Samaria, they intermarried with the Jewish people of the region, and after hundreds of years, the pure Jews no longer viewed them as the people of God.
But during the days of Zechariah, these Samaritans were still considered foreigners from Babylon, foreigners who had been instructed in the “law of the God of the land” (see 1 Kings 17.27) but who were not part of the people of God. So, when they offered to help in the construction of the Temple, Zerubbabel refused their help. In anger, the Samaritans worked to discouraged the Jews and even gave false reports to the Persian authorities to halt their work. These Samaritans are the very reasons why the Temple had not yet been completed in the days of Zechariah.
The vision of the wicked Samaritan being removed from Jerusalem would indeed be a word of encouragement for Zerubbabel and the Jews. This might also explain the reason why the basket represented “their eye,” for it was their false reports and spying on the Jews that was hindering their efforts. This interpretation also explains why the wickedness is relocated to Babylon since Babylon is the homeland for the adversaries of Judah. They were being returned home, which is why the vision contains an image of a house being built for it.
There are definitely aspects of the vision yet to be explained. For instance, why is wickedness represented by a woman? Assis offers that the temptation to be led astray by a seductress is used often in Proverbs to describe the temptation of folly and wickedness. But, there is still no good explanation for the winged women who carry the basket away. Assis suggests that these two women represent Israel and Judah who will cooperate to remove the Samaritans from their neighborhood, but that interpretation seems unlikely to me.
Just to Confuse Things Even More…
In trying to sort through all the information, we must also look at the links between this story and the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis for this is the other place in the biblical material where Shinar is mentioned. In the table of nations, we are told that the kingdom of Babel was located in Shinar (Genesis 10.10). It was in the land of Shinar that the people decided to build a tower to make a name for themselves and to prevent them from being spread all over the earth (see Genesis 11.2-4). In both the story of Genesis and the vision of Zechariah, a building is built in Shinar. The Genesis account begins with the people settling in Shinar and then being scattered by the Lord whereas the vision of Zechariah begins with the people scattered from Shinar and ends with them returning home to Shinar.
The parallels between the two stories are interesting, but are they significant? Assis believes them both to speak of the ethnic divisions of people groups, an issue clearly of concern to the returning Jews (see Ezra 10 as the people confess their sin of intermarrying with foreign women). The vision then is encouraging the returning Jews not to intermarry with the Samaritans. While the connection between Zechariah’s vision and Genesis 10-11 is interesting, I think Assis makes too much of it in advocating that this particular vision is advocating the Jews to separate from the foreigners among then.
The Meaning of the Vision For Today
If Assis’ interpretation is right, and I think he is at points, then the vision of Zechariah 5.5-11 was given to the prophet to encourage the Jews that the wicked Samaritans who had been opposing their efforts to rebuild the Temple would be removed from Jerusalem and resettled back in their homeland, the land of Babylon. Unfortunately, while this interpretation seems to take into account the bulk of information better than any other interpretation, the primary problem with this understanding of the vision is that historians know of no movement of Samaritans back to Babylon. But this is an argument from silence. All we know is that historians know of no major migration of Samaritans back to Babylon in the 5th century BC, but historians cannot tell us whether or not a few key individuals were relocated to Babylon during the days of Zechariah.
In other words, since an earlier vision told Zerubbabel that he would complete the Temple by the Spirit of God, and since a key obstacle to his doing so were the adversaries of Judah, perhaps the path to success required the removal of this key obstacle. Scripture tells us that Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, Rehum, and Shimshai all endorsed a letter to the King of Persia against the Jews (see Ezra 4.7-8). Later, Tattenai, the governor, also wrote a letter to Darius requesting the work on the Temple be halted (see Ezra 5.6-17). Ezra told us that Darius rejected Tattenai’s claim and ordered that the local authorities allow the Temple to be rebuilt, but we are not specifically told that Tattenai was recalled to Babylon, only that he complied with the King’s orders (see Ezra 6.13).
But what happened to Bishlam and the others? What happened to the myriad of other government officials that spied out on the progress of the Jews and reported it back to the various kings of Persia? What if the vision of Zechariah did indeed come true? What if these adversaries of Judah, at least key leaders, were recalled back to Babylon, back to their homeland, enabling the rebuilding project to continue? Perhaps this is the best way to understand the vision.
If this interpretation is true, how is this profitable for new covenant readers today? Simple. The word of the Lord is this: The King of Kings has the power to remove obstacles from the path of those who carry out the work of God, even if those obstacles are people in positions of authority. Not by might, not by power, but by the Spirit of God. This word is not only encouraging to Zerubbabel, but it is also encouraging to us today. When the Lord gives us a vision, He is powerful enough to carry it out. And if that requires the removal of a person who stands in the way, then He is capable or orchestrating the necessary events to make that happen.
God can make a way where there seems to be no way. Amen.