(Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7)
June 10, 2006 in Israel
June 17, 2006 in the Diaspora
Joshua, the High Priest, is summoned before the divine court. An angel, his defense attorney, stands at his side while, at his right, stands Satan, his accuser, ready to incriminate him. The angel confronts the Satan for abusing Joshua: \”The Lord rebuke you, O Accuser; may the Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! For this one [Joshua] is a brand plucked from the fire (ood mutzal may-eish).\” (Zechariah 3:2)
We are never told explicitly what Joshua is accused of nor are we informed in what way he is to be considered \”a brand plucked from the fire\”. It is likely that the plain or \”pshat\” meaning of this expression refers to the fact that Joshua\’s father was exiled (Haggai 1:1; 1 Chron. 5:40-41) and his grandfather (2 Kings 25:18-21) executed by the Babylonians while Joshua has returned to reclaim his rightful position. (NJPS notes)
The Talmud offers an alternative explanation. In a midrashic interpretation, it makes an ahistorical association between the image of Joshua as \”a brand plucked from the fire\” and a story about two sinful false prophets, Ahab ben Kolaiah and Zedekiah ben Maaseiah, found in the book of Jeremiah (29: 21-23). Jeremiah assails these two false prophets for using their positions as prophets to procure sexual favors for themselves. He predicts that the Babylonians will roast them alive as punishment.
The sages retell the story this way: \”What brought about their punishment? They went to Nebuchadnezer\’s daughter: Ahab said to her, \’Thus said God, Give yourself over to Zedekaiah\’; while Zedekaiah said to her, \’God said to give yourself over to Ahab.\’ So she went and told her father, who said to her, \’The Lord of these [Jews] hates unchastity; when they again approach you send them to me.\’ When they came to her again, she referred them to the king, who said to them: \’Who told you to do this?\’ They replied: \’The Holy One Blessed Be He.\’ The king retorted: \’But I have asked Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (Daniel\’s friends), who have informed me that it is forbidden.\’ They answered him: \’But we are prophets like them, and God said it to us and not to them. The king responded: \’So you shall be tested like them.\’ [They were cast into the fiery furnace and survived.] The false prophets replied: \’But they are three and we are two.\’ The king replied: \’Then choose someone to accompany you. They answered: \’Joshua the High Priest,\’ thinking, \’Let Joshua be brought, for his merit is great, and he will protect us.\’ So he was brought and they were all thrown into the furnace. The two false prophets were burnt up, but as to Joshua the High Priest, only his garments were singed, as it is written: \’a brand plucked from the fire.\’ The king asked Joshua: \’I know you are righteous, so why were you singed?\’ He answered: \’Since there were wicked men along with me, the fire was empowered to do its work.\’ This accords with what people say: \’If there are two dry pieces of wood and a wet one, the former burn the later.\’ (Adopted from Sanhedrin 93a)
This story not only explains why Joshua is described as a \”brand pulled from the fire\” but also offers a number of other valuable lessons. It is important to note that the phenomenon of wicked religious figures using their authority to do evil is not a new thing. Jeremiah makes it very clear that we must be aware that it exists and that it is a false representation of religion, deserving serious punishment. Joshua, in this story, also makes us aware that no one remains unscathed by this behavior. Even truly righteous people get scorched by the acts of the wicked.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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