To Fight or Not to Fight?

In Zechariah 9:10, we read, “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (NRSV). “He” may refer to God or the new king of Israel, who enters Jerusalem on a donkey.

So Zechariah is saying that Israel will not fight after the Messiah comes, right? Not so fast! V 14 says, “For I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow. I will arouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword.” Zechariah 10:4 states regarding Judah, “Out of them shall come the cornerstone, out of them the tent peg, out of them the battle bow, out of them every commander.” Zechariah 12:6 has, “On that day I will make the clans of Judah like a blazing pot on a pile of wood, like a flaming torch among sheaves; and they shall devour to the right and to the left all the surrounding peoples, while Jerusalem shall again be inhabited in its place, in Jerusalem.” And v 8 contains this profound promise: “On that day the LORD will shield the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the LORD, at their head.”

So Zechariah says the the Israelites will have no weapons, yet they will directly participate in God’s war against their enemies. Is this a contradiction?

I encountered this problem before I read Zechariah, when I was doing my Micah quiet times. In Micah 5:10, we read, “In that day, says the LORD, I will cut off your horses from among you and will destroy your chariots.” The verse seems to refer to Israel’s chariots, for God also promises to end her strongholds, witchcraft, and idolatry. Israel depended on these things rather than God for her security, so God affirms that he will take them away.

Yet, Micah also portrays Israel as actively defending herself at her restoration, even pursuing aggression when necessary. Vv 5-6 says that, if the Assyrians dare to tread on Israelite soil, Israel will raise up seven shepherds and eight princes to rule Assyria with the sword. And vv 8-9 liken the remnant of Israel to a fierce lion who will cut off her enemies.

How can one reconcile this apparent contradiction? I can think of two ways.

1. God will enable Israel to defeat her enemies without horses and chariots. The Israelites will be as they were in the Conquest of Canaan, when the Canaanite nations, not the Israelites, were the ones with the horses and fancy chariots (Deuteronomy 20:1; Joshua 11:4-6; 17:18). But the Israelites had God, and so they defeated Canaan without the advanced war equipment of the day.

Many commentators (e.g., John Gill, KeilDelitzsch) assert that several prophecies were fulfilled under the Maccabees in the second century B.C.E. For example, Obadiah talks about the Israelites defeating Edom, and Judah Maccabee accomplished this, according to I Maccabees 5:3. Also, the Maccabees whipped Greece, as Zechariah 9:14 predicts. As far as I know, the invasion of Assyria (Micah 5:5-6) didn’t happen. But other events did. Yet, did the Maccabees defeat their enemies without horses and chariots?

I’m not an expert on Second Temple history, but I will say one thing: When I searched under “cavalry,” “horses,” and “horsemen” on BibleWorks, the references to them in the books of Maccabees applied predominantly to Israel’s enemies. The exception is I Maccabees 16:4, which concerns a time after the Maccabean revolt. The focus of Maccabees seems to be that the Jews defeated their oppressors against overwhelming odds, since the Seleucids had numerous horses and chariots. Did the Maccabees win without these instruments of war?

My interpretation may work for Micah, but it doesn’t fit Zechariah very well. Zechariah 10:4 mentions the Judeans successfully using the battle bow against their enemies, whereas Zechariah 9:10 states that God will cut off the bow from Israel. So does Israel have a bow or not, in Zechariah’s view? That brings me to my next interpretation:

2. God does different things at different times. In this scenario, Israel defeats her enemies with the bow and other weapons, and, after that happens, God removes the weapons from Israel. This scenario may work. Zechariah 9:10 is about the Israelite king’s reign of peace, which appears to be the goal of his disarmament program. Once war has occurred, there is no longer a reason for weapons. This interpretation assumes, however, that Zechariah 9-10 is not presenting all of its events in chronological order. The parts about God using Israel as a weapon and Judah defeating her enemies with a bow come after Zechariah 9:10, the passage that mentions the king cutting off Israel’s weaponry. Perhaps Zechariah 9-10 offers various musings that are designed to encourage the Israelites.

This interpretation works with Micah 5, on some level. V 9 says that Israel will defeat her enemies, and v 10 affirms that, “in that day,” God will cut off Israel’s chariots and horses. That seems to indicate that, once Israel wins her battles, God will remove the things that she relied on instead of him.

But that puzzles me. If God wanted to show Israel that she should rely on him alone, which appears to be the message of Micah 5:10-15, then why would he allow her to defeat her enemies with weapons? That doesn’t make much sense. If God desires to get his point across, then shouldn’t he defeat Israel’s enemies all by himself, or have Israel fight them without weaponry?

But here’s a possibility: Maybe Israel only succeeds with weapons up to a point. In Micah 5:15, after God promises to remove Israel’s chariots and horses, strongholds, witchcraft, and idolatry, he says that he will execute vengeance on the nations that did not obey. But didn’t Israel already defeat the Gentiles? What is there left for God to do? Perhaps Israel beat the Gentiles up to a certain point, but God needed to finish the job himself. So Israel fights for herself, but, ultimately, she needs God.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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