Monday, 22 February 2010


Peter Leithart on Zechariah 11:

The best I can make, at this point, of Matthew’s strange conflated quotation of Jeremiah 18-19/Zechariah 11 in Matthew 27:9-10.

Judas took thirty pieces of silver from the Jewish leaders to betray Jesus. Reading this in the light of Zechariah 11, we know that this expresses the contempt of the Jews for Jesus’ labors as the shepherd who seeks to raise up those who are thrown down (9:36). Also in the light of Zechariah 11, there is the ironic hint that Judas functions as the true shepherd of Israel, the shepherd who is shepherding them toward destruction.

Judas throws the money back in the temple, where it comes before the face of God. Innocent blood is “thrown” in the form of money into the presence of God. God will arise and scatter His enemies, and destroy the house defiled with innocent blood.

The Jews know this, and rapidly remove the defilement from the temple by purchasing a field belonging to a potter. This fulfills the thrust of Zechariah 11, which says that the contemptuous wages are thrown into the house of Yahweh “for the potter.” Perhaps “potter” alludes to Yahweh as potter, the “fashioner” of Adam (Genesis 2:7-8) and, more importantly, the potter who formed Israel for Himself (Isaiah 64:8). Potters or “fashioners” are also linked to idolatry in the Old Testament (Isaiah 44, repeatedly).

That allusion to idolatry brings Jeremiah 18-19 into play, which Matthew alludes to by his mention of Jeremiah as the source of the prophecy. According to 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6 and Jeremiah 7:31-32, the valley of Ben-hinnom, also known as Topheth, was a place where innocent blood was shed, where children passed through the fire to Molech. High places were set up for idolatrous worship. It was a “field of the potter” because there idols “fashioned” by craftsmen were worshiped; it was a field of blood because it was the place where human sacrifices were offered. Matthew connects the field purchased by the Jewish leaders with this field of idolatry and the shedding of innocent blood.

The valley of Ben-hinnom, Topheth, Jeremiah says, will become a place of burial. So many will be slaughtered in the coming invasion from Babylon that there will be no place else to bury the dead. The “sacred” grove of Topheth will be defiled by corpses. Matthew also mentions burial, but in Matthew 27, the burial seems to be more a charitable cause.

In the valley of Ben-hinnom, Jeremiah breaks a clay pot, shatters pottery, as a sign of what Yahweh, the Great Potter of Israel, is going to do with the ruined pot of His people. They have filled the land with the blood of the innocent, and so they are going to be shattered. They have behaved like the kings of the earth, resisting the Lord and His anointed, and they will be smashed like pottery (Psalm 2). Matthew issues the same warning to the first-century Jews. They too are a pot destined for destruction.

Finally, Jeremiah 32 might also play a role. There, Jeremiah purchases a piece of land, which is a pledge of Israel’s return from exile, a pledge of their eventual re-possession of the land. Abraham made a similar purchase, importantly a purchase of a burial plot for Sarah, which served as the first bit of land that he owned. Jesus blood, transformed to money, purchases an Abraham-like burial plot in a land that is not His. But it is a pledge of a later inheritance. Jesus’ blood buys the land, and the world.


Jesus’ condemnation of the temple as a “den of brigands” is drawn from Jeremiah’s temple speech. Because of the idolatries, injustices, and bloodthirstiness of the temple authorities, the temple is going to be destroyed.

But the text might also hold a fainter allusion to Zechariah 11. Matthew conflates Zechariah and Jeremiah in chapter 27, and his explicit quotations from Zechariah (your king is coming; strike the Shepherd; thirty pieces of silver) are interspersed throughout the Passion narrative not only with references to Psalms (22; 69) but also to Lamentations and Jeremiah (on Lamentation allusions, see David Moffitt’s 2006 article in JBL).

In his narrative of the shepherd in chapter 11, Zechariah condemns the shepherds of Israel who enrich themselves by selling off the flock. Jesus’ interruption of the buying and selling in the temple is, as NT Wright says, an interruption of the sacrificial procedures. It is also, in the light of Zechariah 11, a symbolic condemnation of the practice of the priests, who enrich themselves on the people, whose perverse priestly work involves slaughtering not flock-animals but the flock of Israel.

Zechariah says that the priests have no more pity for the people than they do for a sacrificial animal (cf. Marvin Sweeney’s Berit Olam commentary on Zechariah). ”No pity” is the demand of herem warfare; making holy war against substitutionary animals is what priests do. They are not to carry out a war of utter destruction against the people. They are not to treat Israel as Canaanites. In response, Yahweh threatens an eye-for-eye punishment. The shepherds have no pity, Yahweh will have no pity. Herem for herem.

Zechariah 11 fits the temple scene in Matthew very neatly. The priests of Jesus’ day are as corrupt as the priests of Jeremiah’s and Zechariah’s day. They make war on the people without pity, “selling” them into slavery (including the slave yoke of oral traditioned Torah) and enriching themselves as a result (much as Eli and his sons made themselves fat by abusing the flock/flock). Jesus’ enacts Yahweh’s coming herem against Jerusalem and Herod’s temple.


A gloss on my comments on Matthew 27 earlier today: Judas is indeed an ironic version shepherd of Zechariah 11. He is hired by the merchant-shepherds for thirty pieces of silver (drawing again on Sweeney on Zechariah). Judas delivers up a lamb, the Lamb, to the priests to slaughter. He is the instrument of the oppressive priests in carrying out holy war against the flock, a mercenary shepherd, and not only the instrument but the exemplar: Judas makes explicit what the priests are generally doing, which is slaughtering the flock of Yahweh to enrich themselves.

He is also the shepherd of Zechariah 11 in renouncing his role. He refuses to be shepherd leading the Lamb to slaughter, and throws his wages back into the temple treasury.


Zechariah ends with “In that day there shall no longer be a Canaanite in the house of Yahweh of hosts.”

How’d we get Canaanites in the house of the Lord to begin with? Sweeney points out that the LXX of Zechariah 11:7 assumes a different vowel-pointing than the MT, and thus has “the Canaanites of the sheep” rather than the “poor of the sheep.” He notes that “Canaanite” can mean “merchant,” which fits the context of Zechariah 11 with its reference to commerce in human sheep. Zechariah ends by promising that the house of the Lord will be cleansed of sheep-merchants who serve only for their own gain. Like Ezekiel 34, Zechariah promises true shepherds for the people of God, shepherds led by and following the example of the divine Shepherd.

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