Once again, courtesy of VizReport, we take a fresh look at a prophetic excerpt from Zechariah, composed by the prophet in Persian exile during the reign of King Darius.
Flying Books and Wicked Women
A Study of Zechariah 5
February 21, 2006
(VizReport) A few years ago, I found a web page that contained an interesting interpretation of Chapter 5 of the Book of Zechariah. I was already familiar with the passages being discussed and had always encountered some difficulty in reconciling any of the existing translations with practical logic.
I’ve read some disparaging comments about the author of that page (Michael Rood) by a few other scholars of prophecy. Some accuse him of playing fast and loose with G-d’s word, implying that the prophetical works of the Hebrew religion are sacrosanct. Some say that he’s less than meticulous in his research, and though I do agree to an extent with this charge, I do appreciate his enthusiasm for finding the spirit of these mystical words. So, after some personal soul-searching on the matter, I find myself inclined to dismiss most of the negative press for the following reasons:
- Prophetic literature does not automatically qualify as being the literal word of G-d. That status, in Judaism, is reserved for the Books of Moses. Affirmed prophets are accorded a higher standard of presumed veracity, but their visions, though they may come directly from G-d, are open to a degree of interpretation by the prophet himself.
- The Jewish people have had a long history during which they have managed to preserve their unique identity and traditions despite having lived in close proximity to other cultures in the diaspora, even when those cultures have constituted an overwhelming regional majority. One of the ways in which Jewish identity has been preserved is through the Hebrew alphabet, which has been employed repeatedly and continually to record many other languages in a transliterative style. This is true of Yiddish (German-Hebrew), Catalan & Ladino (Spanish-Hebrew) and Aramaic (Syrian-Hebrew), but it has been adapted for many other languages, including Greek, Babylonian and Farsi. As such, many of the prophets living during the Babylonian exile would not have spoken Hebrew as their primary language, though they may have employed a Hebrew alphabet for their writing. This would necessitate a translation from their hybridised tongue into formal Hebrew prior to their visions being included among the accepted prophetical works, thus providing another opportunity for interpretive error to enter the work.
- It was often many years from the time when a prophet experienced his revelation to the time when his vision was translated and transcribed. In some cases, the time lag was considerably more than one hundred years from reception to final canonisation. And though the Hebrew alphabet would not have changed in the intervening time, popular references certainly may have done so.
With all of this in mind, let’s proceed to examine Zechariah through new eyes.
Zechariah – Chapter 5
5:1. Then I turned, and lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a flying roll (book).
When we think of books, we think of cut pages of paper bound in some type of firm cover. In Zechariah’s day (more than 2,500 years ago), books didn’t have pages, but were written on scrolls made of animal skin or papyrus. So, when he says that he sees a flying book (in some translations) or a flying roll, we know that he means a scroll.
Sacred Hebrew writings are still stored on scrolls (megillot) today, just as they were in Zechariah’s time.
So, he looks up and sees a scroll flying through the air. Some people interpret this as the ascendency of the word of G-d in the latter days, and that may very well be true…or you might not be reading this right now. But it’s possible that this flying scroll has multiple meanings…one of which might be quite literal.
Geometrically, a scroll is a cylinder.
5:2. And he said unto me, What seest thou? And I answered, I see a flying roll; the length thereof is twenty cubits, and the breadth thereof ten cubits.
Zechariah and an angel are conversing. The vision begins to be revealed and the angel asks him what he sees. Zechariah describes the dimensions of the object.
The cubit has been variously defined as being between 18 and 36 inches, depending upon your space-time reference. Context is everything. The most reasonable conversions in this case would be based on either the Royal Egyptian cubit or the Sumerian Nippur cubit.
Jacob’s tribe spent hundreds of years in Egypt and were pressed into the service of the Pharaonic building trades, in an increasingly subserviant capacity. They would have been intimately familiar with the nature of a cubit. This was a portable type of knowledge and it can certainly be expected that it would have travelled with them during the exodus from Egypt.
The construction of Israel’s early cities were based upon use of the Egyptian Royal cubit, as well as a large number of other Egyptian measures. Solomon’s Temple would have been constructed using the same cubit as there was no other practical or precise cubit definition that could have rivaled it amongst the tribes they encountered in Canaan.
Following the destruction of the Temple by the forces of king Nebuchadnezzar, many people were taken away as captives to Babylon. They remained in exile during the remainder of the Babylonian empire’s influence, and through the subsequent Median and Persian kingdoms that came to control the region. During this time, until they were officially released by the edict of Cyrus the Great, they would have become very familiar with the Nippur cubit.
Zechariah recorded most of his visions during the reign of Darius the Mede, so that is a point in favour of the Nippur measure over the Egyptian. But we may simply be splitting hairs by trying to determine the “exact” size of the cubit involved here; the difference between the smallest and largest versions of the two regional standards is less than 2%. In either case, the result is a cubit between 20.38 and 20.63 inches in length.
In all of the existing translations, the size of the flying scroll is said to be twice as tall as it is wide. That would make for a rather stubby-looking scroll having the same relative proportions as a giant sodapop can. That’s one fat megillah!
Is the word used to express the breadth of the scroll specific to the measurement of width? Actually, when the discussion pertains to scrolls, the most important defaults are height (or length) and circumference (not diameter) — also called the “girth”. This is because scrolls are sealed with cord — and in order to obtain the correct cord length, one must think of the scroll’s circumference. This is also very important when considering how many scrolls can fit into an ark, because they must fit in the depth as well as the width. And, furthermore, knowing the circumference of the object allows one to optimise the use of space owing to the rounded nature of the scrolls.
So, if we look at the cubit as being roughly 20.5″ and measure its height and circumference, we are left with a scroll that stands at just over 34 feet tall and a little more than 17 feet around. That gives it a width (or diameter) of less than 5.5 feet.
5:3. Then said he unto me, This is the curse that goeth forth over the face of the whole earth: for every one that stealeth shall be cut off as on this side according to it; and every one that sweareth shall be cut off as on that side according to it.
Obviously, these menacing scrolls are going to be everywhere at a certain point in time. Nations will accuse each other of cheating and lying. They will threaten each other with these accursed “scrolls”.
5:4. I will bring it forth, saith the LORD of hosts, and it shall enter into the house of the thief, and into the house of him that sweareth falsely by my name: and it shall remain in the midst of his house, and shall consume it with the timber thereof and the stones thereof.
The power of these flying scrolls is beyond what the prophet could ever have imagined. Here are weapons that not only kill people but can completely ‘consume’ even the stone and wood of houses. The word “house”, as an aggregate term, can also mean a city.
5:5. Then the angel that talked with me went forth, and said unto me, Lift up now thine eyes, and see what is this that goeth forth.
The angel says that Zechariah should note the next item to proliferate upon the earth.
5:6. And I said, What is it? And he said, This is an ephah that goeth forth. He said moreover, This is their resemblance through all the earth.
An “ephah” is a basket or a measurement, and was used in very much the same way that a contemporary farmer might say that he has fifty bushel-baskets of potatoes. The word itself is not originally Hebrew, but Egyptian, and is another example of both a term and a functional mechanism (like the Royal cubit) that was taken out of Egypt when Jacob’s tribe departed.
Although the word “ephah” had a very specific volume measurement under Egyptian industrial and agricultural standards, in the common parlance of the post-exodus period the word came to be synonymous with containers in general, rather than a specific standard unit.
The angel tells Zechariah that these containers are going to be in widespread use and that the same basic type of container will be used all over the globe. While this draws our attention to the notion of shipping containers, we’ll soon see that these containers, though widely distributed, are highly specialised.
5:7. And, behold, there was lifted up a talent of lead: and this is a woman that sitteth in the midst of the ephah.
In the container, we are told, there sits a woman. However, we must lift up a leaden cover in order to see her. How bizarre, one might think, unless we look at the terms used in this sentence.
The concept of lead, aside from its particular uses that might vary from one culture to another, hasn’t changed. We’ve already negotiated our way toward an understanding of what constitutes an “ephah”. So, the only other word that needs to be explored is “woman”. It’s also the only thing that doesn’t really “fit” on a logical basis.
In Michael Rood’s analysis, he realises, in a great leap of insight, that there are a number of words in Hebrew that are similar to “ishah”, meaning woman. Two of these words are concerned with the concept of fire: aish (or aisha) and isheh. The former (in masculine and feminine form) is used to describe a flame, while the latter means an “offering” by fire. In either case, these words can have a holy aspect, but such power can also have a darker side.
5:8. And he said, This is wickedness. And he cast it into the midst of the ephah; and he cast the weight of lead upon the mouth thereof.
While it would certainly be wicked to keep a woman in a bushel and cover her up with lead, it’s much more likely that a powerful form of “fire” could be described as wicked. The angel makes no delay in sealing the container up with lead once again.
Some translations portray the angel as pushing the woman into the basket and shoving lead into her mouth! Not nice at all.
Properly, the lead is cast into the mouth/opening of the ephah, and not the mouth of the woman. Also, the text says that he casts “it” into the ephah, not “her”. Errors with the personification of objects can be common in translation of unfamiliar material, especially if there is a poetic twist to the wording, if it is antiquated, or if the concepts are completely foreign to the translator.
Our simple container/ephah now sounds more like a warhead than anything else. In fact, the payload is so wicked that it needs to be encased in lead.
5:9. Then lifted I up mine eyes, and looked, and, behold, there came out two women, and the wind was in their wings; for they had wings like the wings of a stork: and they lifted up the ephah between the earth and the heaven.
When the prophet looks up again, he sees two “women” (read “fires”) with long wings, like a stork. This isn’t the “flying scroll” because it is not described as having wings at all. A missile usually only has small fins near its base. The container with the wicked fire is carried away into the sky by something with two flaming engines and broad wings. The passage seems to say that the engines were mounted on–or in–the wings and that air blew through them. He makes it clear that it is the combination of fire and wings that allows the vessel to fly.
5:10. Then said I to the angel that talked with me, Whither do these bear the ephah?
And where does this jet take the warhead…?
5:11. And he said unto me, To build it an house in the land of Shinar: and it shall be established, and set there upon her own base.
They are taking it to a specially-customised facility in Sumeria (an area that formerly comprised most of southern Iraq and southwestern Iran) where it will be set up on its own platform.
Only the “ephah” needed to be flown there as the “scrolls” (missiles) were already quite abundant, in Shinar and elsewhere.