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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — Build or Help Build (Zechariah 6:15)?

Categories Hebrew and You

Two of the things to look for in interpreting the biblical text is the roles of God and of people (see Grasping God’s Word, chs. 3–5 for a list and discussion of 23 things to look for, including these two). One of the important features in Zechariah is the role of the Gentiles in the plan of God.

The Construction of the Second Temple

This was a time when the Gentiles were not allowed to participate in the rebuilding of the Temple. At that time, Gentiles, who had been exiled into Judea by the Assyrians, approached Zerubbabel asking to help build the Temple, because “like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him.” Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the other Jewish leaders refused their aid, however, and this led to the Gentiles seeking to discourage the Jews from rebuilding (Ezra 4:1–4, NIV).

A Curious Verse

It is within this context that a verse appears that must have been quite startling to the original readers. In Zech 6:15 the Lord predicts a time in the future concerning another “Temple” after Zerubbabel’s when “those far off” would come and not be refused. Here is where the versions read differently.

Zechariah 6:15a Text and Two Types of Translations

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From a Type 1 translation, one might infer that the Lord was predicting that this new Temple would be built by Gentiles instead of Jews. That certainly doesn’t sound right! From a Type 2 translation, the meaning is that Gentiles will help the Jews build this later Temple. That certainly sounds better, but the problem is that there is no Hebrew word behind the English word “help.”

Zechariah 6:15a Masoretic Text

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Collocations of Verbs

In Hebrew, as in English, the joining of one word to another can change the meaning of the word. Most commonly this occurs with verbs and prepositions (see Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 95–96, or other more complete grammars). For example, in English, if I hear of a person who acts, my first thought is of someone in the theater, TV, or movies. If I hear of a person who acts up, I think of someone misbehaving.

The word for “build,” בָנָה (bānâ) is normally followed by a direct object, just as in English. For example, Josh 6:26, “who rises up and rebuilds this city,” אֲשֶׁר יָקוּם וּבָנוּ אֶת־הָעִיר הַזֹּאת, the function word אֶת, marks a definite direct object.

In Zech 6:15a, וּבָנוּ (ûbānû), is followed not by a direct object, but by a prepositional phrase, בְּהֵיכַל יְהוָה, (behêkāl YHWH), in which the first letter, ב (b), is a preposition. In sentences with “build” and a direct objects, a prepositional phrase with ב indicated a location. For example, see 2 Chr 33:15, וְכָל הַמִּזְבְּחֹות אֲשֶׁר בָּנָה בְּהַר בֵּית יְהוָה, “and all the altars which he built on the mountain of the house of the Lord,” in which what was built was the altars, and the place was the mountain; they did not build the mountain, of course.

In Zech 6:15, there is no direct object. Does the preposition (1) simply mark the direct object, as in translation Type 1, or (2) does it mark the place where building is done with some other implied direct object, or (3) does it mean something more idiomatic, as in Type 2?

The collocation is not common. Besides our passage, I have found only Neh 4:10, 17, in which the object of the preposition is wall. The wall was rebuilt by many people working on different parts. They were not building other things on the wall, they were building onto the wall that existed in broken down pieces. So, meaning (3) is the best.

Zechariah 6:15 seems to have meaning (3) also. The idea is not that the Gentiles will be building some unspecified things in the Temple area. The Lord is predicting that the Gentiles will one day build onto the later Temple itself. They will not build alone, and they will not build the temple in its entirety, but they will build with the Jews who are faithful to the Lord and to his purposes. Translation Type 2, as in NIV, brings out the idea quite well.

Connections to the New Covenant

This new, later Temple is seen in the NT as a temple not made with hands (1 Cor 5:1; Heb 9:24). It is a Temple made up of the people of God themselves (1 Cor 3:16–17; 1 Pet 2:5). The Gentiles do not replace the Jews, they labor with them, and together they both form and build onto the “Temple,” the faithful people of God (Rom 10:11–13; Eph 2:14).

Gentiles ought to be grateful that by God’s grace they have been grafted in to join with their Jewish believers to participate in the building up of God’s kingdom until he returns (Rom 11:11–21).

Let all God’s people be active builders, and let them all say together, “Maranatha!”

(Image:"Reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem." Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)


lee-fieldsLee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.

Learn more about Lee’s innovative work in biblical languages and instruction.

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