This week we are beginning four weeks focusing on events that prepare for the birth of Jesus. The first thing we do is look closely at the story of the first annunciation in Luke, the annunciation of the birth of John to Zechariah in Luke 1:5-23. Our curriculum focuses on verses 8-20, but we’ll be well advised to read the larger story, and perhaps even include Elizabeth’s part in verses 24-25. Some questions on the text are here. Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are reading from the gospel of Luke, indeed almost right from the very beginning. After Luke’s prologue, addressed to “Theophilus,” this is the opening narrative.
We may recall that the gospel of Luke seems unique in its use of elegant Greek, its arguable address to a Gentile audience, its inclusion of some unique material – of which our text this week is one example, and its focus on ethnic inclusiveness, economic egalitarianism, and the role of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s keep asking ourselves what the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth seems to be doing in Luke’s larger narrative. It’s the opening episode – that is, it’s in a narrative stress position. It must matter. How?
Several narrative elements – the elderly couple with no children, Zechariah’s priestly service in the temple of the HOLY ONE in Jerusalem, worship with incense, the appearance of Gabriel, and Gabriel’s prophesy regarding John – pick up and carry forward things readers might know from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Famously, the earliest patriarchal couple, Abraham and Sarah, are explicitly old people who are promised a child, and who have a hard time believing the announcement (see in particular Genesis 17 and Genesis 18). The many other childless couples in the Hebrew scriptures (Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Samson’s parents Manoah and his wife, Samuel’s parents Elkanah and Hannah, the woman of Shunem and her husband) are not said to be old the way Abraham and Sarah are. Surely, Luke meant readers to see Zechariah and Elizabeth as counterparts of Abraham and Sarah?
Zechariah is explicitly identified as a priest in the division of Abijah – one of twenty-four priestly divisions established before the exile (see 1 Chronicles 24:1-18) The descendants of Abijah are mentioned in one of the lists of returnees in Nehemiah, and don’t seem to show up as priests who marry foreign women in Ezra.
The twice-daily service of burning incense outside the inner Most Holy Place is mentioned in connection with the worship in the Tabernacle in Exodus 30. We may already think of incense as a material sign of adoration and prayer. The connection of prayer and incense is made explicit in Psalm 141:2.
The angel Gabriel is specifically named as a messenger to Daniel in Daniel chapter 8, where Gabriel interprets Daniel’s vision, and in chapter 9, where Gabriel arrives with a visionary message as an answer to Daniel’s prayer. Whether or not we ought to assume that Gabriel is also the unnamed “man” who communicates Daniel’s final vision is at least arguable. That “man” communicates an apocalyptic vision that ends with the deliverance of Daniel’s people, “everyone who is found written in the book.” (Daniel 12:1)
The Prophet Malachi (chapter 4) explicitly records a promise of the appearance of the prophet Elijah before this Day of the Lord, for the purpose of turning “the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.” This language will be echoed in Gabriel’s speech to Zechariah as recorded by Luke.
We might also remember that the prophet Ezekiel is at one point prevented from speaking unless specifically permitted by God (Ezekiel 3:22-27) – not as a punishment, but as part of the ongoing object lesson of Ezekiel’s dramatization of the destruction of Jerusalem.
In short, what happens to Zechariah and Elizabeth takes place against a backdrop that gives it deeper meaning: faithful old people whose lives are given special significance by God, specifically in the context of establishing a covenant with humanity; a priest worshipping in the Temple that is the successor to the original place of worship where God was present with the covenant people, the nation of priests; marked by a history of rebellion, exile, and redemption; at the opening of a new – we think, final – chapter in the story of redemption.
Although the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) appears regularly as something to be read in church, its narrative context is something we won’t know is in the Bible if all we know is the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees be warned!
CLOSER READING: Luke lets us know in v5 that the events of our story are taking place in the days of Herod [the Great], king of Judea. That is, a recognizable, specific time and place, identified by a specific constellation of world-historical conditions.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are both genealogically priestly, as is appropriate for the marriage of a priest. This will make any child of theirs a priest, as well. They are righteous “before God” and blameless – exactly like Abraham, who walked “before God” the same “blameless” way in Genesis 17:1). Unlike Abraham, who did not have the benefit of any word through Moses, Zechariah and Elizabeth walk before God in the commandments and ordinances or “righteous acts” of God.
Their names are meaningful. Zechariah means “God (Hashem) remembers,” or possibly “Man of God (Hashem).” Elizabeth means, most likely, “God of the Oath.” The word translated “barren” describing her in v7 is only ever used in the New Testament to describe childless women.
Verses 8-9 tell us Zechariah’s priestly division is having its annual turn to serve in the temple. He himself has been chosen by lot to burn incense. That is, according to the thinking of the time, as we understand it, he has been chosen by God. We can’t tell whether this role is for the whole period, or just for this one occasion. At least one source points out that there were lots of priests at this time, so getting to offer incense would be a special privilege – maybe a little like being voted onto a Pastor Nominating Committee in a contemporary Presbyterian congregation. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime high-point priestly experience.
The incense-burning time seems also to have been a good time to be at the temple – maybe, something like attending mass at St. Peter’s basilica (in the sense of being possible, desirable to the faithful, thus popular, and something that draws “a multitude of the people”). If we can take Exodus 30:7 as also a description of first century practice – questionable, obviously – then the ritual lighting of incense would have been daily, in the morning and again in the evening. It would have taken place out of sight of the ordinary worshipper, in the section reserved for the priests, but still outside of the Holy of Holies, the central area of the temple reserved for once-a-year entrance by the High Priest.
An unnamed “angel of the Lord” appears to Zechariah during the ritual. Which predictably throws Zechariah into trouble or shaking, and fear.
The angel delivers a very long speech, taking up vv13-17. This speech includes:
- A statement that Zechariah’s prayer has been heard. The prayer during the burning of incense? Or, a more long-standing prayer? We can’t tell. There’s no mention of any prayer of Elizabeth’s.
- The announcement that Zechariah’s wife will bear a son, and assigning him a name: John, a Hellenic form of the Hebrew name Jochanan, “God is Gracious.” [Source for the meaning of names = Abarim.]
- A long multi-part prophecy about John
- He will be for joy and ecstatic joy or “exultation” or “wild, exuberant joy.” Many will rejoice. Note that this would sound a lot like Abraham and Sarah’s child Isaac, “laughter,” if we didn’t have to seriously doubt that “laughter” is a positive thing in that earlier context.
- He will be great before the Lord.
- He will need to refrain from wine – maybe like Samson and the special oath-takers known as Nazirites. If so, he would also need to wear his hair long, but this is not mentioned. He is, in effect, dedicated to God from before conception.
- He will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb – the first occurrence of this spiritual filling in this gospel, in which it will be a prominent, recurrent motif, and in which it always functions as preparation for ministry.
- He will turn people and turn hearts – echoing the words of the Prophet Malachi. It may be significant that the preparation prophesied by Malachi will prevent the complete annihilation of the “ban” or cherem.
- He will prepare people for the Lord – echoing the words of the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3-5).
Zechariah’s response to Gabriel’s announcement never fails to strike me as remarkably obtuse. Technically, he says “how will I know this”? Well, let’s think about that, shall we? Even without ept’s, even – in view of Elizabeth’s advanced age – without the usual early signs that conception has taken place, pregnancy will presumably become obvious in due course. That’s how he’ll know it: it will happen. He’s surely aware of this. So his real question must be something a bit different from what he actually says – maybe more like, “how can I trust you”?
That seems like a dangerous question to pose to an angel. (“Better to be quiet, and thought foolish, than to speak, and remove all doubt.”) And so it turns out to be.
Now we learn the angel’s name, Gabriel. Which also means “Mighty Man of God” – something he has in common, a bit, with Zechariah. And it sounds like he’s taken offense at Zechariah’s less-than-enthusiastic response to what should have been really good news. Now, explicitly as payback for what Gabriel identifies as “not having trusted” the message about the impending bundle of joy, Zechariah will be silent and once everything has taken place and everyone else also knows it all IN THE SAME WAY ZECHARIAH WOULD HAVE if he’d kept his mouth shut, Zechariah will be able to speak again. [So: “Folks, I would have told you this was going to happen, if I hadn’t temporarily lost the power of speech.”]
The people, who had been praying, are now expecting and wondering – concretely, a response to Zechariah’s taking too long with the ritual. Narratively, however, this is a deeper truth along with some foreshadowing: the people ARE expecting deliverance, one of these days, and WILL BE wondering even more as events unfold.
Elizabeth’s response to the situation comes in verses 24-25: she gets pregnant, she goes into “seclusion,” literally “hides herself,” and she gives the event a positive evaluation: it’s an act of God and a removal of disgrace. A removal of disgrace which may be, nevertheless, somewhat socially uncomfortable? Or, perhaps, something she wants to take very special and complete care of – not exposing herself to any negative influences or experiences? Or, something she wants to treat in a contemplative way? The text itself respects Elizabeth’s hiddenness here. We probably should, too.