In Zechariah 11:4-17, God gives Zechariah an assignment: he is to play a shepherd who ditches his flock. Zechariah gets upset at three of his shepherd co-workers, so he decides to abandon the flock to slaughter. He breaks two staffs, called Unity and Favor. Breaking the staff of Favor represents annulling the covenant with the peoples, and breaking Unity symbolizes dissolving the family ties between Israel and Judah. When the shepherd goes to get his wages, he receives thirty pieces of silver, which is the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32). The price is called “lordly” and “goodly,” depending on the translation that you use (here, the NRSV and KJV, respectively), but that is probably sarcasm.
So who’s the shepherd supposed to represent? Who is Zechariah playing in this skit? Most commentators say that the shepherd is God. And that interpretation is reasonable, for v 6 says:
“For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of the earth, says the LORD. I will cause them, every one, to fall each into the hand of a neighbor, and each into the hand of the king; and they shall devastate the earth, and I will deliver no one from their hand.”
Zechariah seems to be imitating God in the sense that he abandons the flock, as God says he (God) will do.
But there are things about this interpretation that don’t sit well with me. Why would God get upset at being paid thirty pieces of silver? The shepherd left his flock. He’s a bad shepherd! He doesn’t deserve more money.
Vv 4-5 say: “Thus said the LORD my God: Be a shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter. Those who buy them kill them and go unpunished; and those who sell them say, ‘Blessed be the LORD, for I have become rich’; and their own shepherds have no pity on them” (NRSV).
God stresses that the people who buy the sheep go unpunished. Is he saying that they should be punished? Do I detect some moral outrage here? That would fit what God says elsewhere about bad shepherds (Jeremiah 12:10-11; 23:1-8; Ezekiel 34). As a matter of fact, look at what Zechariah (or, more precisely, Second Zechariah) states about shepherds and the flock of Judah–in the previous chapter: “My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for the LORD of hosts cares for his flock, the house of Judah, and will make them like his proud war-horse.” God cares about his flock. Much of Zechariah 10 is about God’s compassion for Israel. Is he the type who would ditch his people and expect a good payment as a reward?
Vv 16-17 are interesting: “For I am now raising up in the land a shepherd who does not care for the perishing, or seek the wandering, or heal the maimed, or nourish the healthy, but devours the flesh of the fat ones, tearing off even their hoofs. Oh, my worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May the sword strike his arm and his right eye! Let his arm be completely withered, his right eye utterly blinded!”
One can interpret this to mean that Israel has lightly esteemed God as their shepherd, and so God will send them a bad shepherd who doesn’t care about her. That makes some sense. But v 17 calls a shepherd who deserts his flock “worthless.” Does God condemn himself when he says that, assuming that he is the shepherd who deserts his flock in vv 4-14?
Could vv 4-14 refer to a bad shepherd, which means a bad leader of Israel? Such a shepherd doesn’t care about his flock. He competes with other shepherds for power and prestige. He doesn’t care about the unity between Israel and Judah. The bad shepherd is not concerned about the covenant, which includes his responsibility before God to shepherd Israel.
That fits much of Israel’s history. Shepherds competed against each other for power, as Northern Israel had a lot of dynasties, assassinations, and power plays. The actions of Israel’s leaders led to disunity between Northern Israel and Judah. Rehoboam’s stubborn hunger for power influenced Northern Israel to secede, and Jeroboam resorted to idolatry to keep North and South separated.
Such a shepherd does so poor of a job, that thirty pieces of silver are too generous of a payment for him.
I will admit that v 6 makes my interpretation somewhat problematic. My argument relates vv 4-14 to Israel’s bad leaders throughout history, not to God, whereas v 6 says that God will ditch the flock. But maybe that just means that God will punish Israel and her bad shepherds, not that he himself lacks concern for his flock. After all, divine punishment sets the stage for Israel to receive good shepherds, for a change.