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Bible Q

Why were Satan and the angel fighting over the high priest? (Zechariah 3)

The first question, before answering why Satan and the angel were fighting over the high priest, is to ask, what is a vision? Is a vision a view into real events happening in heaven? Or is a vision a kind of symbolic parable told by a prophet to illustrate a point.

Of course the answer is that it depends on the vision. When Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder he did see something that probably has some correspondence with reality (even if we know that angels do not literally need a real ladder). However the political visions in a book like Zechariah relate directly to political issues on earth. It is possible that the prophet really did see these things in dreams, or that he saw some, and styled his words in the form of visions for others, but either way, the things appearing in a book like Zechariah — four horsemen, flying scrolls and so on — are not real.

A Vision of Jeshua the High Priest

Zechariah 3:1-10
Then he showed me Jeshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2 And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” 3 Now Jeshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. 4 And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” 5 And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by.

6 And the angel of the Lord solemnly assured Jeshua, 7 “Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here. 8 Hear now, O Jeshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch. 9 For behold, on the stone that I have set before Jeshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day. 10 In that day, declares the Lord of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.”

Historical background

The visions in Zechariah all relate to events in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Zechariah son of Iddo himself appears in both books (Ezra 5:1, 6:14, Nehemiah 12:16). There are two possible candidates for the Satan of Zechariah — one in Ezra, one in Nehemiah:

(Option A) Ezra – adversaries oppose the rebuilding of the Temple.

It is possible that the Zechariah 3 vision relates to the first wave of opposition faced by Ezra:

Ezra 4:4-6
Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build 5 and bribed counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. 6 And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation [Hebrew sitnah, from the same root as Satan] against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.

But the timing of this first wave of opposition may be too early to fit with the visions in Zechariah. Which moves us on to Nehemiah:

(Option B) Nehemiah – adversaries oppose the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.

The opposition was led by Sanballat, personally threatening Nehemiah and hiring “false prophets” among the Jews to oppose Nehemiah, and contradict the true prophets Haggai and Zechariah.

Neh.2:10 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.

Neh.2:19 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they jeered at us and despised us and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?”

Neh.4:7 But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry.

Neh.6:1 Now when Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies heard that I had built the wall and that there was no breach left in it (although up to that time I had not set up the doors in the gates), 2 Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono.” But they intended to do me harm. … 12 And I understood and saw that God had not sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him.  … 14 Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.

As part of Sanballat’s opposition he succeeded in coopting the priests. He did this by two connections, the marriage of his daughter to the grandson of the current high priest Eliahib (i.e. great-great-grandson of the deceased high priest Jeshua), and by financial means connected to use of the temple storerooms.

Neh.13:28 And one of the sons of Jehoiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite. Therefore I chased him from me.

So the family tree of Eliashib, the serving high priest, looks like this:

  • great-grandfather, Jozadak (died in exile in Babylon)
  • grandfather Jeshua (returned with Ezra, built the altar in Ezra 3:2 — but probably deceased by Zechariah 3)
  • father Joiakim (only mentioned in Neh.12:10, 26 — not active after retirement after 50)
  • Eliashib (the current high priest in Nehemiah, Neh.3:1 — approaching or past retirement at 50)
  • son Jehoiada (also of age to serve as high priest — in his 30s)
  • grandson Jonathan (married to daughter of Sanballat — probably a teenager)
  • great-grandson Jaddua (Neh.12:11)

There is also a second possible marriage link from Eliashib to the other enemy, Tobiah, indicated in Ezra 10:18 and Neh.13:4.  In this case the main relationship was financial:

Neh.13:7-8 … and came to Jerusalem, and I then discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, preparing for him a chamber in the courts of the house of God. 8 And I was very angry, and I threw all the household furniture [commercial furniture?] of Tobiah out of the chamber.

The renting of a temple storeroom is more significant than just the loss of the grain and oil due to the Levites, and the poor for whom they were to administer temple offerings. The leasing of a temple storeroom to Tobiah probably indicates a sinecure in the actual business of the grain and oil, a profitable business for Tobiah and Sanballat, and no doubt a kickback to Eliashib and his son Jehoiada. In this way the cleansing of the temple (by Nehemiah) and breaking up of the intermarriage (by Ezra and Nehemiah) correspond to the angel in the Zechariah 3 vision pulling “Jeshua the high priest” from the fire and giving him new clean clothes.


This then gives the interpretation of the vision as follows:

  • Jeshua = deceased high priest, friend of Ezra and Zerubbabel, representing the honour of his family.
  • dirty clothes = the intermarriage and financial corruption of his sons and grandsons.
  • Satan = not so much Sanballat in person, but the appeal of temptation to the high priests.
  • Angel of the Lord = Nehemiah as God’s chosen vessel.

The important point, again, is that this is a vision, these are not real events. We should also remember that the prophets — those who saw a regular series of visions, who almost ‘produced them to order’ as events unfolded — were in greater control of the content of their visions, and the presentation of these visions to the people of Israel, than the one-off personal visions experienced by Jacob, Joseph, the boy Samuel, Mary the mother of Jesus, and so on.

  1. This passage is a direct influence on the NT temptation narratives (Matthew 4, Mark 1, Luke 4) due to the way it is rendered in the Greek Old Testament. Because Jeshua in Greek is “Jesus”, and Satan in the Greek version of Zechariah 3 is “diabolos”. Consequently it would be obvious to the original (Greek-speaking) recipients of the NT Gospels that they were meant to infer a parallel with Zechariah 3, and that the “devil” in the NT temptation narratives is also to be understood as symbolic, or a parable.
  2. There is a connection to this passage also in Jude 9 where the verse about the devil contending with the angel Michael for the “body of Moses”, is followed in Jude 22 by direct quotation of Zechariah 3:2-3. The verse Jude 9 appears to have two sources of influence:  (1) common Jewish myths about the role of Michael as the undertaker who took the bodies of the dead (Adam, Abraham, Moses) for burial in the garden of Eden; (2) this passage in Zechariah 3, or more likely a wrested interpretation of Zechariah 3. In this case the “body” is actually of deceased Jeshua, but as the high priest he is also representative of the “body of Moses”.

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