A Brand Plucked from the Fire
Haftarah for B’halot’cha, Zechariah 2:14–4:7
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
This week’s haftarah reading concludes with one of the most familiar and beloved verses in Scripture: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zech 4:7b). It’s such a rousing conclusion that we might overlook the rest of Zechariah’s vision. But there’s much more in this vision, which we need to see afresh today.
The prophet sees the high priest, Joshua, standing before the angel of the Lord with ha-Satan, the adversary, “standing at his right side to accuse him. 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?’” We can see that Joshua’s garments are filthy—unfit for priestly service—but the angel says, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments” (Zech 3:1b–4).
Joshua is restored and equipped for service, but how did his garments become unclean in the first place? An old Jewish interpretation is that Joshua got polluted because he was among those who tolerated intermarriage during the days of Ezra. Rashi says that he is the priest mentioned by name in Ezra 10:18:
Now there were found some of the sons of the priests who had married foreign women: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib, and Gedaliah, some of the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brothers.
Jeshua here is Yeshua in Hebrew, of course—the same name that our Messiah was given by his parents and that we use today. (Which leaves alternative “authentic” names of Messiah like “Yahshua” or “Yahushua” without any biblical basis. Yeshua appears in the Hebrew Bible, those names do not.) But whatever the source of Joshua/Yeshua’s defilement, the Lord decrees mercy, not judgment. The accuser is to be rebuked. This priest is a brand, a burning branch plucked from the flames of exile, and God still has a purpose for him. The Hebrew word for “brand” can also be translated “firebrand” as in Isaiah 7:4 and Amos 4:11—a branch drawn out of fire that bears fire itself as a crude torch. The light-bearing Joshua/Yeshua is a hint of the Yeshua to come, who will be plucked out of the fires of suffering and death to bear light to the world.
From out of the conflagration of exile and adversity comes a flame, however feeble, which God values and protects. The fire threatening destruction of God’s people ignites a flame that serves God’s purpose. Despite all the difficulties of the struggling Jewish community of Zechariah’s day, the fire of God’s Spirit still burns among them in the person of Yeshua the high-priest.
The classic Christian commentators Keil & Delitzsch note:
The priesthood of Israel was concentrated in the high priest, just as the character of Israel as the holy nation was concentrated in the priesthood. The high priest represents the holiness and priestliness of Israel . . . which had been graciously bestowed by God upon the nation of Israel. (citing Kliefoth, another commentator, on Zech 3:8)
God’s response to Israel’s failure is to graciously restore what he had graciously bestowed—a priestly service that will benefit all the nations (see Zech 2:15 [2:11]). God’s response to Israel and its high priest in this vision is a word of encouragement for us within the Messianic Jewish community today.
Those of us who have been leaders and participants in our community for years can become discouraged and disheartened. Forty or fifty years into our Messianic Jewish journey we remain in many ways a struggling remnant. We find ourselves still divided on key issues and still seeking a firm foundation to build on. Like the high priest, we have sons and daughters who have wed themselves to foreign women and men, to foreign loyalties and beliefs, to foreign priorities. We constitute a community that can feel besieged and on the verge of being overwhelmed. We cannot be satisfied with our impact upon the wider Jewish community or our success in drawing Jewish people to their Messiah, Yeshua.
The words of the prophet bring great encouragement to us, however, for like Joshua the priest we are a brand plucked from the fire. The Messianic Jewish community was born out of the fires of alienation between the Jewish people and the Jewish Messiah, out of the age-old estrangement between the Jewish community and the body of Messiah. We have a long way to go, but this simple fact of our existence remains astounding and transformative.
The angel’s rebuke on behalf of Joshua shouldn’t be seen as making excuses for Joshua’s failures. Yes, he has fallen short, but he is a brand plucked from the fire and God has a purpose for him still. We also have fallen short, but we are like Joshua, a brand plucked from the fire, and God has a purpose for us as well, which he will accomplish by his Spirit despite our shortcomings.
With such a vision in sight let's hear anew Zechariah’s words of empowerment: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord of hosts.