Merchant or Canaanite?

“there will no longer be a Canaanite or merchant in the house of the Lord.” — Zechariah 14:21

The final verse of Zechariah leaves the translator with an interpretive dilemma. The act of translating is never an exact science. Words have multiple meanings in every language. So the translator becomes the reader’s first step of interpreting the Bible.

Here in Zechariah the Hebrew word could be translated as Canaanite or as merchant. Most translations seek the original historical context. Clearly the Jews excluded the Gentiles from the Temple. They saw this as a part of staying ritually pure, enabling their worship of God. So Canaanite seems the obvious choice.

But the counter to original understanding is Jesus. To choose merchant turns the passage into a prophecy that Jesus physically acted out in overturning the Temple.

NT Wright in the New Testament and the People of God outlines the cultural context into which Jesus was born. The nation was again conquered, now by Rome. But their belief system was greatly influenced by a passage in Daniel, the “abomination of desolation“. This passage was believed to have been lived out a few centuries prior, when another foreign power sacrificed a pig on the Temple altar to Zeus. This defiling started a rebellion and the Jews won their freedom (beginning the Hasmonean Dynasty — celebrated at Hanukkah).

Jews of the first century believed that God would again act on their behalf and cast out the foreign power. So committed to this belief – Wright states it was “dangerously determinative” – the nation teetered constantly on revolt. Before, during, and after the life of Jesus Rome put down rebellions. Thousands were executed and crucified. Leading eventually to the First Jewish Roman War (66-73ad), when the Temple was leveled.

In Barabbas – the insurrectionist – the Jews literally choose the way of the sword, over the way Jesus.

Which begs a very important question. What if the historical Jewish understanding is fundamentally flawed?

I started a “Lawn Chair Bible Study” (Covid) on Zechariah because of another book by Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (both books are from his Christian Origin series). There he proposes Zechariah 9-14, among others, as a seminal OT passage for Jesus. I had studied most of the other passages, but barely touched Zechariah. So I decided to dive in and drag my church with me.

Honestly my first reading of the chapters had me a bit worried. It was so violent. But it occurred to me I wasn’t reading it like Jesus. When I started to look for Jesus I began to see him in every chapter. Not just the obvious places, like chapter nine (king riding on a donkey), but in the flock marked for slaughter tied to the payment of 30 pieces of silver (11:4, 11:12), in the stone that injures (12:3), in the fountain (13:1, especially as that water flows out 14:8), and more.

If Jesus was the fulfillment of all these passages, what was the meaning of the violence? It is still present… historically the Jews assumed the violence was directed at the enemies of God. And they were correct. But they were incorrect in assuming their enemies were the same as God’s enemies. They mistakenly believed the Canaanites (now Romans or Gentiles) were who the Messiah came to destroy. Quite the contrary, Jesus came to save these “enemies” by destroying the true enemies, Satan and Sin.

The people who will be destroyed are those who refuse the way of Jesus. The people who choose to continue in the ways of this world. And, as Jesus prophesied, that is exactly what happened, “not one stone will be left on another“.

As we read the Old Testament, we must be wary of the reading that misses Jesus. Namely the historical reading of the Jews. While there is much value in historical context, part of the history is the choice of Barabbas over Jesus. We must choose Jesus.

It is through His eyes, His Spirit, we should read the entire Scriptures.

There we see the way of salvation, as the last verses of Zechariah declares: “14:20 On that day holy to the Lord will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, and the cooking pots in the Lord’s house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. 21 Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite merchant in the house of the Lord Almighty.”

In Jesus the barriers to forgiveness have been kicked out. We don’t have to buy our way in, nor be a certain race, or go to a specific place. Instead everyone has available instruments (“every pot”) of the temple, the grace available for the forgiveness of sin.

In you are interested in the Lawn Chair Bible Study on Zechariah 9-14, here are PDFs of the four weeks of lessons. On the one side I outline the historical timeline from Babylon to the Destruction of the Temple. The other side dives into Zechariah 9-14 (please forgive my typos!):

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