The words of Debbie Lynn Friedman’s Not By Might, Not By Power and Elliot Z. Levine’sLo b’ḥayilare taken from the Book of Z’khar’ya [Zekhari’a/Zechariah] (IV:6), one of the twelve prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible that, although the nomenclature can be misleading, are often known collectively as the “minor Prophets”—because of their lesser length compared with the so-called major Prophets. The religious-historical significance of the former group is not necessarily less than that of the latter.
Z’khar’ya, chronologically the second of the three postexilic books of the Prophets, addresses the period of the restoration of the Second Temple and has presented serious challenges of interpretation even to the most astute biblical exegetes and scholars. Giants among such medieval Jewish commentators as Rashi and Ibn Ezra acknowledged the often problematic obscurity of the prophecies of Z’khar’ya (who is also thought to have been a priest) and the difficulty in elucidating, decoding, and explaining his eight visions. It is generally accepted as clear, however, that one of the central themes—especially in the first eight chapters—involves the prophet’s encouragement of the resumption and completion of the rebuilding of the Temple in fifth-century B.C.E. Jerusalem following its destruction earlier in that century by the Babylonians. The reconstruction project had begun upon the return to Judea from Babylonian captivity under the joint leadership of Zerubbabel (of the Royal House of David) and Joshua the High Priest, when the new Persian emperor, Cyrus—following his conquest of the Babylonian Empire—issued a proclamation permitting all those Jews who wished to return and rebuild the “House of God” in Jerusalem to do so. For various reasons, the project had been interrupted at the time of Z’khar’ya’s visions and prophecies.
Z’khar’ya’s concerns and prophecies in this connection are not confined to the physical resumption of the Temple’s reconstruction. They address adherence to the Divine spiritual, ethical, and moral teachings, which alone will ultimately render a rebuilt, rededicated, and functioning Temple, the center not only of a restored Jewish sovereign state but also—in messianic terms—of the all-encompassing “kingdom of God” on earth that will embrace all individual nations and peoples under an inclusive umbrella of monotheism and righteousness.
Meanwhile, God’s own “return” to the rebuilt Temple—viz., the resumption of direct communion with the Divine through restored Temple rituals and the people’s reassured reliance on God’s sustenance and protection—is predicated on the people’s collective repair of its lapses and on its own rededication to living as a holy people (am kadosh, a people voluntarily close to God) in accordance with His laws and teachings. Hence, the third verse of the first chapter of this book: “Return unto Me, the Lord of Hosts has declared, and I will [then] return unto you.”
Chapter IV describes Z’khar’ya’s fifth vision, in which he sees a seven-branched, golden candelabra that appears to have its own miraculously perpetual supply of oil to remain forever lighted—viz., without need for replenishment by humans—and is flanked on either side by an olive tree. A bowl stands above it, fed by oil from the trees through two spouts, and the bowl thus furnishes the oil to the candelabra through seven pipes—symbolizing the eventual restoration of both the Temple in all its ramifications and the Jewish state under Divine grace. An angel delivers a Divine message to Zerubbabel with an assurance of ultimate success that has also been seen as a warning. Rashi connected that promise to Z’khar’ya’s vision of the candelabra as a reminder that the ultimate permanent restoration, with all its unspoken or undefined spiritual as well as political ramifications, would, in the end, be accomplished only by Divine doing. Just as the candelabra was not furnished with oil by any human act—so goes Rashi’s reasoning—so the Temple will be restored in all its significance not merely by the strength of Zerubbabel’s “hands” (i.e., his leadership as well as the efforts of the workers whose sheer physical strength was needed for construction) but by the spirit of God. Therefore the admonition in verse 6: “Not by might, nor by power [human strength], but by My spirit [alone], adonai the Lord of Hosts has said.”
Some modern commentators have read into this verse a warning to Zerubbabel not to go beyond the physical reconstruction of the Temple to attempt to restore the sovereign kingdom by armed force, for that accomplishment will depend not on any military endeavor or even success, but on the spirit of God and godliness.
Z’khar’ya’s visions and pronouncements predated by many centuries the postbiblical period surrounding the story of the Maccabean-led revolt against the Greco-Syrians, which forms the basis of the festival of Hanukka. Whatever Z’khar’ya’s words may mean, or however they may be decoded, this part of the sixth verse of Chapter IV was extracted from its context in its application to Hanukka. But according to some understandings of rabbinic reservations, there were rabbis—some of whom had misgivings about what had become the accepted legend of that guerrilla war (documented only by the unavoidably self-serving Maccabees themselves)—who became concerned that Jews might see the Hasmonean victory as the result of purely human paramilitary strength, devoid of the Divine spirit and role. Even in pursuit of legitimate objectives, they feared, the Maccabean example might wrongly inspire a glorification of warfare and military adventure, which could embolden Jews to undertake aggressive military campaigns without the authority and guidance of the Divine spirit. It thus became customary in some traditions to recite or sing Zekharaia IV:6 in connection with Hanukka celebrations.
History is not without incidents in which untrained guerrilla fighters prevailed against seasoned forces of colonial powers that had superior numbers and far greater experience. Yet from purely historical and military analytical perspectives, it still remains unclear with regard to this particular episode how the Maccabees and those Jews whom they galvanized to join in the struggle could have succeeded in forcing a surrender and virtual truce by which all prohibitions against Judaic worship, observance, and life were lifted. Various hypotheses have been advanced to explain in rational terms the Greco-Syrian relinquishment of their goal of reconfiguring Jerusalem as a “little Athens,” with the complete religious assimilation of the Jews. One such supposition proposes that, although the Greco-Syrians could have been fully capable of crushing the revolt, they were anticipating a possible future Egyptian invasion. In that event, they would have had reason to back down and ensure that the Jewish population and its leaders would remain on their side rather than defecting to and assisting the invading enemies as perceived liberators.
In any case, given the established tradition of the story of the successful armed revolt, invoking this verse from Z’khar’ya could help ensure that the religious dimension remained attached to it. The verse—all the more so when divorced from its original context—could suggest that without God’s guiding spirit, the paramilitary effort would not have succeeded. Certain modern interpretations have gone further to read into the verse and its superimposed Hanukka association a form of proverbial admonition that human physical might does not in itself “make right”; nor, in this reading, can might succeed permanently without the “spirit of God.”
Elliot Z. Levine’s setting of the verse extract cleverly combines its original Hebrew with a standard English translation. The two sets of words sometimes alternate, while at other times they are sung simultaneously by different voices superimposed on each other. The modal incipit is treated canonically, and the imitative counterpoint and contrasting homophonic passages recall the style of a Renaissance madrigal.
Sung in Hebrew and English
Text: Zachariah IV:6
Not by might, nor by strength by by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts.
Performers: The Western Wind
Translation: Gerald C. Skolnik