Zechariah 9:11–12

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This coming Sunday (3/28/21) is Palm Sunday, and that means, according to the “Historic” One-Year Lectionary from Lutheran Service Book, we’ll be hearing again the Zechariah’s prophecy that Jesus fulfills. While this is the second time we hear the account of Jesus trek into Jerusalem (the first being Advent 1), this is the only time Zechariah’s prophecy is heard. The question for this brief and by no means exhaustive exegetical foray is this: How should we translate Zechariah 9:11–12?

Why am I asking this question? Well, it is because these verses are translated in various ways that do not match the Hebrew, and the Hebrew at face value is also difficult and odd.

A Few Familiar English Translations

Let’s look at a few English translations. The first two are the English Standard Version and the New King James Version. The ESV is the standard (de facto “official”) version within The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The NKJV is another version of the Scriptures commonly used within the LCMS. Finally, the New International Version, since it also commonly used within the LCMS and was previously the “official” version of Synod.

  • “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” (ESV)
  • “As for you also, Because of the blood of your covenant, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to the stronghold, You prisoners of hope. Even today I declare That I will restore double to you.” (NKJV)
  • “As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.” (NIV)

Looking at the ESV and NIV, along with many other English translations (cf., Zech 9:11, Zech 9:12), we can see a common way of translating this verse (“because of the blood of my covenant with you”). The NKJV also bears witness to the other common way of translating this verse (“because of the blood of your covenant”). In fact, the NKJV’s translation is more literal with the Hebrew.

The Jewish Study Bible

Another translation for consideration, however, is The Jewish Study Bible (JSB). As far as the clause compared above is concerned, the JSB fits within the ESV/NIV family. But the rendering is far different from these two, and this puts it into a category all its own.

  • 11f You, for your part, have releasedg
    Your prisoners from the dry pit,h
    For the sake of the blood of your covenant,
    12 [Saying], “Return to Bizzaron,i
    You prisoners of hope.”
    In return [I] announce this day:
    I will repay you double.”

Now, the several footnotes along with the editorial brackets (“[]”) lets us know that the Hebrew is difficult, which is also hinted at by the difference in the translations mentioned above. We will first see those footnotes and then consider them, albeit out of order, below.

  • “f”: “Exact meaning and connection of vv. 11–12 uncertain.” (JSB, 1259)
  • “g”: “Taking shillaḥti as a second-person singular feminine form, with Septuagint; cf., Judg. 5.7 with note. (Ibid.)
  • “h”: “I.e., a pit that serves as a dungeon rather than a cistern (both are called bor in Heb.)” (Ibid.)
  • “i”: “Perhaps a nickname (“fortress”) for Samaria (Heb. Shomeron).” (Ibid.)

Footnotes “h” and “i” were included only for the sake of completeness, but since they are inconsequential to the subject at hand, I will not discuss them further. Footnote “f” helps explain the use of the editorial brackets in Zechariah 9:12. Since the translators’ think that there is a difficulty in connecting these two verses, they include this editorial “[saying]” as an attempt attempt to make sense of the connection between the two verses.

While Footnote “f” shows the need for this present study, footnote “g” really opens up discussion. There are actually two things two wrestle with in this footnote. First, the translation of the Septuagint and the Hebrew of Judges 5:7 and the JSB’s footnote for said verse.

Judges 5:7

7 Deliverance ceased,
Ceased in Israel,
Till youc arose, O Deborah,
Arose, O mother, in Israel!

Judges 5:7 (The Jewish Study Bible)

While the JSB translation is possible, as footnote “c” says, “Heb. qamti, archaic second-person singular feminine.” (JSB, 520) Most English translations (ESV, NIV, and NKJV included), take (qamti) as first-person singular (“I”), which is the standard form. (cf., Judges 5:7) For what it is worth, Keil and Delitzsch, the great German Old Testament Scholars from two generations ago, also take it as “I.” (cf, Keil and Delitzsch, vol. 2, 310ff.) Martin Luther also takes it as “I.” (Luther Bibel 1545).

I certainly consider it possible, maybe even probable, that this text would indeed include more archaic forms of Hebrews. Judges at this point is recording events that occurred roughly 230 years after the Exodus, circa 1446 BC. Zechariah, however, lived about 700 years after Deborah and almost 1,000 years after the Exodus. That this archaic form does not occur in the Torah would testify to the truly ancient nature of the form, and if this were already archaic in Judges 5, how much more so in Zechariah!

Now, the Septuagint (the ancient Koine Greek Translation of the Old Testament) does neither “you” nor “I.” Rather, the Septuagint uses the third-person singular feminine: “she.”

  • A spokesman was gone in Israel, he was gone, until Deborah arose, because a mother arose in Israel. (Judges 5:7, Codex Alexandrinus)
    [ἐξέλιπεν φραζων ἐν τῷ Ισραηλ, ἐξέλιπεν, ἕως οὗ ἐξανέστη Δεββωρα, ὅτι ἀνέστη μήτηρ ἐν τῷ Ισραηλ.]
  • Powers were gone in Israel, they were gone, until Deborah arose, until a mother rose in Israel. (Judges 5:7, Codex Vaticanus)
    [ἐξέλιπον δυνατοὶ ἐν Ισραηλ, ἐξέλιπον, ἕως οὗ ἀναστῇ Δεββωρα, ἕως οὗ ἀναστῇ μήτηρ ἐν Ισραηλ.]

While there are differences between the two Codices for the Septuagint, they both agree on “she.” There are a few possibilities for the LXX differing from the Hebrew.

The first is that the Greek Translator did not understand the archaic second-person singular form but could tell that the first-person singular (the simplest rendering of the Hebrew form) did not fit, and so the translator dodged the issue. The second, more likely in my opinion, is that the translator was offering a loose translation of the Hebrew’s “I,” which recognizes Deborah as the one who is speaking. Since this is a song that “Deborah and Barak sang” (Judges 5:1), the LXX translator moves the speaker into the third-person to account for two individuals singing one song. Finally, this song’s use within ancient Jewish Liturgies could also account for the translator shifting it into the third-person.

Now, the proclivities of the translator(s?) of Judges to render the Hebrew more literally or freely would be a far lengthier study in itself. We consider the Septuagint not only because it differs from the Hebrew. The true import of the Septuagint’s version(s) of Judges 5:7 is that it disagrees with the assessment of the Jewish Study Bible regarding the Hebrew form in Judges 5:7. Moreover, we consider the Septuagint in Judges 5:7 since the Jewish Study Bible uses the Septuagint as a defense for rendering Zechariah 9:11 with “you.”

Zechariah 9:11–12 (The Septuagint)

First, when it comes to comparing the Greek Judges 5:7 and Zechariah 9:11, we must keep in mind that the same person did not, or most likely did not, translate both Judges and Zechariah. They may not have even been translated at the same time! Finally, each translator would have had different skill in rendering Hebrew into Greek, and also each would have a different methodology of translation, that is, translating more literally or more freely. Be that as it may, the Septuagint is important in understanding Hebrew since those translators were certainly more contemporaneous with the original manuscripts.

Second, it is true that the Septuagint translator renders it with “you,” but it is equally true, as seen below, that the translator of Zechariah 9:11–12 either plays very loose with his translation or does not understand the Hebrew due to its difficulty. Thus, using the Septuagint as a defense for a significantly antiquated form in Zechariah, is shaky at best. Granted the text is odd, more on that below, but the JSB does not make sense when it cites the Septuagint when there is an agreement in verb form from a couple verses that are poorly translated. This is especially so when the Septuagint disagrees in verb form from the other verse sighted by the Jewish Study, viz., Judges 5:7.

  • And you, in the blood of the covenant, sent out your prisoners from the lake that does not have water. Sit in a fortress, O prisoners of the Synagogue, and instead of one day of your sojourning I will repay you double.
    [καὶ σὺ ἐν αἵματι διαθήκης ἐξαπέστειλας δεσμίους σου ἐκ λάκκου οὐκ ἔχοντος ὕδωρ. καθήσεσθε ἐν ὀχυρώματι, δέσμιοι τῆς συναγωγῆς, καὶ ἀντὶ μιᾶς ἡμέρας παροικεσίας σου διπλᾶ ἀνταποδώσω σοι.]

Finally, I do not fault the Jewish Study Bible too terribly on this point. They are in a sense grasping at straws in their attempt to render an odd section of Hebrew. Bearing in mind, of course, that the Septuagint had various translators spanning many years, my critique here is one of consistency. If the Septuagint supports you in one verse and you sight it, you should also sight it when it opposes you, especially when you are comparing two verses attempting to clarify the language of the passage.

Alternative Translation

גַּם־אַ֣תְּ בְּדַם־בְּרִיתֵ֗ךְ שִׁלַּ֤חְתִּי אֲסִירַ֙יִךְ֙ מִבּ֔וֹר אֵ֥ין מַ֖יִם בּֽוֹ׃
שׁוּ֚בוּ לְבִצָּר֔וֹן אֲסִירֵ֖י הַתִּקְוָ֑ה גַּם־הַיּ֕וֹם מַגִּ֥יד מִשְׁנֶ֖ה אָשִׁ֥יב לָֽךְ׃

Zechariah 9:11–12 (BHS)

So, what alternative is there? First, I propose a slight emendation to the punctuation of Zechariah 9:11. Second, I also propose an addition to the text. I’ll take each in turn. But first, let us see the text translated as literally as possible:

  • Indeed you, in the blood of your covenant, I send your prisoners from the cistern in which there is no water. Return to the stronghold, O prisoners of hope, indeed today announcing double I will return to you.

Now, when it comes to the punctuation of Zechariah 9:11, there is no etnach ( ֑ ) in the verse. (This punctuation often marks the middle point of a verse.) Now, not all verses have them, but due to the oddity of the verse, having one, I believe, would help. I propose changing the mahapakh ( ֚ ) under “I send” (shillaḥti, שִׁלַּחְתִּי) to an etnach ( ֑ ). Doing so renders the first half of Zechariah 9:11 as “I send even you in the blood of your covenant.”

What of the second half? Here I propose adding the direct object marker (אֶת־) and “and” (וְ) before “your prisoners” (asiraik, אֲסִירַ֙יִךְ֙). This word could have been omitted through haplography, the accidental deletion of a word. The emendation would be: גַּם־אַ֣תְּ בְּדַם־בְּרִיתֵ֗ךְ שִׁלַּחְתִּי [וְאֶת־]אֲסִירַ֙יִךְ֙ מִבּ֔וֹר אֵ֥ין מַ֖יִם בּֽוֹ׃ This is possible considering the letters involved.

The Hebrew ending (ti, תִּי) in “I send” (shillaḥti, שִׁלַּחְתִּי) includes taw (ת) and yod (י). And “your prisoners” (asiraik, אֲסִירַ֙יִךְ֙) begins with aleph (א). “And” (וְ), combined with the direct object marker (אֶת־), contains aleph (א), taw (ת), and waw (ו). Now, waw (ו) could look like a yod (י) depending on the era and a scribe׳s penmanship. Thus lifting his eyes from the text in order to write, the scribe accidentally skipped over this Hebrew particle. Thus, the second half of Zechariah 9:11 would be translated, “And your prisoners from the cistern in which there is no water.”

Thus I offer the following translation of Zechariah 9:11–12:

I send out even you, in the blood of your covenant, and your prisoners from the cistern in which there is no water.

Return to the stronghold, O prisoners of Hope! Today I am declaring, “I will return to you double.”

Christological Considerations

There are clearly Messianic implications of this text, obviously due to its use in the Gospels, but also by the mere fact that Jesus, the King of the Jews, rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. According to Hebrews 9, the blood is Christ’s covenant, and He indeed is our Hope (“In Him the Gentiles will hope,” Mt 12, Rom 15, Is 11:10).

We are the Lord’s prisoners (Eph 4), His spoils (Luke 11). He comes with the blood of His covenant (Heb 9) and brings us up from the pit. (Luke 10)

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