In chapter 5, Zechariah is shown two related visions: a vision of flying scroll, and then a vision of a woman in a basket. These oracles begin a series of visions depicting God setting up his eternal kingdom on earth: first, by preparing his people (5:1-11), secondly by dealing with Israel’s enemies and establishing his reign over the world (6:1-8), and finally by rebuilding his temple (6:9-15).
Preparing His People (Zechariah 5:1-11)
The Flying Scroll
Zechariah is confronted with a vision of a massive flying scroll. The scroll typically symbolizes a law document. In this case, it represents the Ten Commandments. On the scroll, two specific covenant violations are depicted: stealing, and swearing falsely in God’s name.
Why these two commandments?
Consider The Greatest Commandment: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:36-40). Stealing represents a fundamental failure to love one’s neighbor. Swearing falsely in God’s name represents a failure to love and honor the Lord. These two commandments exemplify and encompass all forms of covenant violation, which is defined, in simplest terms, by failure to love God and others. Thus, God is not proclaiming judgment only on those who steal and abuse the name of the Lord, but rather on every Israelite who is guilty of willful covenant violation.
God reveals to Zechariah that those who are willingly committing covenant violations will be “cleaned out” (v. 3), and their homes will be consumed.
Zechariah is shown another vision related to that of the scroll. This time, he sees a woman sitting in a basket. To be more precise, the Hebrew identifies this basket is an ephah. An ephah was a unit of measurement used to measure quantities grain, such as wheat or barley. One ephah equated to about 3/5 of a bushel; a basket of this size would hold about 5 gallons. This is not a particularly important detail, but I took the time to look it up. So there you go.
Anyway, Zechariah’s angelic interpreter reveals that the woman in the basket represents wickedness. Why exactly wickedness is depicted as a woman is unclear.
Perhaps a particular female deity was the object of idolatry for many Israelites. The fact that the basket is taken, in the vision, to Shinar (Babylon) and God’s angels “build a house for it” (v. 11) lends some credence to this theory. Or, perhaps wickedness is represented by a woman because the Hebrew word for sin (rish’ah) is a feminine noun. Whatever the reason, it is not necessary to speculate too much on this.
The “point” of the vision lies in verses 9-11, where God sends two winged women* to take the basket away to Shinar (Babylon; see Genesis 11:1-9), symbolizing the removal of sin and wickedness from the land of Israel. Sin, and those guilty of it, are subjected to a “second exile”, of sorts. Sin has made its home in Israel, but God removes it once and for all and sends it into captivity.
The main idea of Zechariah 5 is simple, but no less convicting: Sin must be removed before God’s Kingdom can truly take hold; both the individual covenant violations of God’s people, and the sin that pervades their land.
Notice how judgment begins with Israel. The higher standard to which Israel was called was also the standard they were judged against. This is serves also as a warning for God’s people today. Just as Israel’s status as God’s people called them to a higher standard of righteousness, our right standing before God under the law of grace does not mean we are exempt from our own calling to be holy and to seek righteousness in our daily lives.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”Romans 6:1-2
* Typically in Scripture, angels are depicted as male. The fact that these women have wings has led some readers to believe these women are, in fact, angels themselves. If these are indeed angels, this is the only occurrence in the Bible of angels being depicted as female. However, Zechariah is specifically shown two “women” (Heb. nashiym), not two “angels” (Heb. malakiym). On the other hand, angels are purely spiritual beings without gender, so it is not out of the question for them to manifest as female, though it would be unprecedented. But we must also remember that we are reading a vision, and visions are typically unconcerned with realism. Zechariah is reporting the spiritual realities being revealed to him in human terms. The exact nature of these two beings is evidently not important to the vision, or else it would have been explained further. Though it’s fun to speculate (at least for me it is), let’s not lose sight of what God is trying to communicate.