Torah Thursday: Not by might and not by power


This week we have one of the most beautiful and straightforward Haftarot of the year from the book of Zachariah. The portion offers one of the clearest condemnation of the particular blend  of militarism, nationalism, and state-driven religion that dominates the government of Israel today.

The prophet Zachariah falls asleep and receives a vision from God of Joshua standing in between Satan (lit: the adversary) and the angel of God. After telling off Satan, God tells Joshua that he shall get to rule over the people of Israel:

So said the Lord of Hosts: If you walk in My ways, and if you keep My charge, you, too, shall judge My house, and you, too, shall guard My courtyards, and I will give you free access among these who stand by.

God proceeds to place a special seven-sided stone in front of Joshua, which in the next chapter (a few verses after the conclusion of the haftarah) it is explained is the cornerstone for the new Temple.

All of the modern elements of religious nationalism are here: political power and religious power stand together, united in the person of Zachariah. However, the Bible specifically warns us against this interpretation, with one of the most famous verses to emerge from the Prophets:

And he answered and spoke to me, saying, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel, saying: ‘Not by military force and not by physical strength, but by My spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts.

Or, as I learned this verse back when I was doing labor organizing and (ironically) USY: Not by might, and not by power. But by Spirit alone. Shall we all live in peace!

Though to be honest, I actually like the Chabad translation I am quoting from here better as the biblical word for might – חיל – is the same root that the modern Hebrew word for soldier is derived from.

The Bible recognizes that mixing religion and military power in the way that the modern State of Israel has done is a particularly dangerous combination. In this week’s haftarah we are explicitly warned against thinking that a strong military force has any connection whatsoever to Judaism as God wants it practiced.

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