Zechariah 9:11 states, “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit” (NRSV).
From a historical-critical standpoint, which seeks to interpret the Bible in light of its original context, what does “blood of the covenant” mean? How would Zechariah’s original audience have understood that phrase?
There is only one other place in the Hebrew Bible that uses it, and that is Exodus 24:8. In Exodus 24, the Israelites agree to observe whatever God tells them to do. Moses builds an altar at the foot of the mountain, and the Israelites offer peace offerings on it. Moses dashes half of the animals’ blood onto the altar, while he splashes the rest on the Israelite people. Moses says, “See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
But I have a problem with interpreting the blood of the covenant in Zechariah 9:11 in light of Exodus 24:8. The reason is that Zechariah 9:11 seems to express God’s unconditional commitment to Israel. God’s message to Israel appears to be, “You have sinned, but I am bound by the blood of the covenant to set you free from your affliction.” But the covenant of Exodus 24 does not strike me as unconditional, but rather as conditional, in the sense that it makes God’s treatment of Israel contingent upon her obedience.
The Sinai covenant is broken when Israel disobeys. In the Anchor Bible Dictionary’s article on “Covenant,” George Mendenhall and Gary A. Herion say that the sprinkling of blood in Exodus 24 “was a symbolic action in which the people were identified with the sacrificed animal, so that the fate of the latter is presented as the fate to be expected by the people if they violated their sacred promise (i.e., it is a form of self-curse).” But why would the blood of the covenant bind God to Israel’s well-being (as it does in Zechariah 9:11), if it represents a self-curse? In the Hebrew Bible’s theology, Israel broke the covenant and was getting the punishment that she deserved. Why would the blood of the covenant encourage God to free Israel from the bottomless pit, if it represented a covenant that was conditional on Israel’s obedience in the first place (and that Israel broke)?
Could the “blood of the covenant” in Zechariah 9:11 refer to the covenant of Genesis 15? There, God makes with Abraham an unconditional covenant. In a lot of covenants, both parties would walk between the pieces of a slain animal, demonstrating their intent to follow its stipulations. Sometimes, only the lesser person would walk between the pieces to commit his subservience to his superior. But, in Genesis 15, only God walks between the pieces, indicating that he would preserve the covenant regardless of what Israel did. Because of Genesis 15, God’s commitment to Israel is unconditional.
And there are times when God’s covenant with Abraham is invoked to save sinful Israel’s life. In Exodus 32:13, Moses is pleading for Israel after the Golden Calf incident. God wants to wipe her off the face of the earth, but Moses reminds God of his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This (among other factors) influences God to relent from destroying her. God’s covenant with Abraham is a guarantee of Israel’s permanent survival.
So is the “blood of the covenant” in Zechariah 9:11 the blood of the slain animals in Genesis 15? I have two problems with that, both of which overlap. First, Genesis 15 does not use the phrase “blood of the covenant.” And, second, Genesis 15 does not really emphasize blood. Exodus 24, however, has Moses splashing it on the people in a covenant ratification ceremony. So, in my opinion, there is a greater likelihood that Zechariah 9:11’s “blood of the covenant” equals the blood of the covenant in Exodus 24:8.
But how can this be, if the Sinai covenant is conditional? Here are three possibilities:
1. The blood in Exodus 24 atoned for Israel’s sins. In Hebrews 9:18-23, the author treats the blood of the covenant as a purificatory agent, as if it is connected with the forgiveness of sins. Perhaps that idea existed as early as Zechariah 9. Zechariah 9:11 may be saying that God will forgive Israel because of the atoning power of the covenant blood.
2. In Zechariah 9:11, maybe God is looking back with favor at Israel’s eagerness to obey him in Exodus 24. Exodus 24:8 associates the blood of the covenant with “these words,” which are probably Israel’s vow to obey God in everything that he says. In this scenario, God is thinking back to a simpler time, when Israel actually loved him, and that moves him to give her another chance. God does reminisce in such a manner elsewhere in the prophets (Jeremiah 2:2; Hosea 2:14).
3. The blood sealed the covenant between God and Israel, meaning that they had to be committed to each other, no matter what. David Sperling says in his article on “Blood” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary:
“Of special interest therefore is the pericope of Exod 24:4–9 in which Moses concludes a covenant between Yahweh and Israel. He sacrifices twelve bulls and dashes part of their blood on the altar and part of it on the people. The blood is termed ‘blood of the covenant’ (cf. Zech 9:11; Matt 26:28; 1 Cor 11:25). As is evident elsewhere in the Bible, covenants were concluded in order to create quasi-familial relations. Parties bound by covenant regularly employed family terminology. The role of blood was to create an artificial tie of consanguinity…It will be recalled that in Hebrew one refers to a biological relative or a spouse as one’s ‘bone and flesh’ (Gen 2:23; 29:14; 2 Sam 19:13, 14) or simply as ‘flesh’ (Lev 21:2). But it was not feasible physically to mingle the bone and flesh of persons who wished to effect ceremonially a social or political kinship.”
Did the blood of Exodus 24 create a familial bond between God and Israel, such that God became committed to Israel as if she were his own kin? In the laws of the Hebrew Bible, being someone’s relative carried certain obligations. People sought out their relatives’ murderers, and they had to help their kin amidst financial difficulty (Numbers 35:18; Leviticus 25:25). Perhaps God obligated himself to Israel when Moses sprinkled blood upon them. The covenant was sealed, and God was intent on doing his part.