Elizabeth becomes pregnant
First, Luke outlined Elizabeth’s family background. She was descended from a long line of priests – Luke established this fact right at the beginning of his gospel, because he wanted to counter the slanders that were being bandied around about Jesus’ legitimacy.
Luke wanted to say, loud and clear, that John and Jesus both came from a respectable, well-connected family, so he began by pointing out that not one but both John’s parents came from a priestly family, and that Elizabeth’s father was a priest – this is what is meant by ‘daughter of Aaron’. Her husband Zechariah was a member of the priestly order of Abijah.
Despite her impeccable family background, Elizabeth was barren. In those days childlessness was not just a misfortune, it was a disgrace (see Genesis 16:4, 11; 29:32; 30:1, 1 Samuel 1:5-6, 11, 2:5, 7-8).
But in Elizabeth’s case this could hardly be so, since her reputation was blameless. Instead, there had to be some other reason.
Perhaps, like Sarah (Genesis 18:11) and Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2) she remained barren because God had a greater plan for her. Her barren state would heighten the sense that her impending pregnancy was a miracle.
Having established the credentials of the elderly couple, Luke now set the scene for the first dramatic event.
Zechariah’s priestly section was taking its turn to offer sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem – although the Jewish people were under Roman occupation, they enjoyed a high degree of religious freedom. Temple worship was sanctioned, as long as it did not hide or encourage sedition.
Zechariah had been chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Temple and offer incense as part of the daily worship at the Temple – only the single priest who had been chosen by random lot, and therefore by God’s hand, could enter the sanctuary.
|Immediately inside this gate was the court of Israel, open to every male Jew, priest or layman. Beyond it, in front of the Shrine itself, stood an altar. On either side of the altar was the court of the Priests. Thus, non-priestly men might stand within sight of the altar and take part in the services – but only the priests might actually approach it and the sacred shrine which lay beyond.
The Temple of Jerusalem
It was a pivotal moment for him, since the large number of priests, about 8,000 at that time, meant that any one priest could only expect to offer sacrifice once or twice in his lifetime. Now it was Zechariah’s moment.
A model of Herod’s Temple. Zechariah offered sacrifice inside the doors of the main building, though not in the inner room called the Holy of Holies. Below: floor plan of the Temple enclosure
At about 3pm on this particular day he stepped forward into the sanctuary to offer incense. The people waited outside, as did the other priests. At that moment, an angel appeared at the right side of the altar in front of Zechariah – the right side, because a favored courtier or royal family member always took this position in a royal throne room. This was where the angel now stood.
An angel? What exactly did that mean? Biblical writers gave no specific meaning, but they used this word to show that a human being had received a message from God. What they meant by the word ‘angel’ is an open question. In our skeptical, must-have-proof world we would probably say the same thing in a different way: that a deep conviction of purpose settled on the person involved, guiding them towards a particular course of action.
The angel spoke. It reassured the terrified Zechariah, telling him not to be afraid.
Then it gave him momentous news: his wife Elizabeth would conceive and have a son. Since the hand of God is clearly evident in what is happening, the listener/reader knows that this will be no ordinary child. The angel was specific. The child would have four characteristics:
- he would be great in the sight of God
- he would drink no wine and thus live the ascetic life of a Nazarene, setting him apart from ordinary people
- he would be filled with the Spirit from his conception
- he would prepare for the Messiah and thus be a catalyst between Israel and God.
Despite the extraordinary circumstances, Zechariah quibbled. He expressed doubts that this could happen. He discreetly implied that he was no longer capable of sexual intercourse, and that his wife had ceased menstruating.
here was genuine confusion on his part here, but there was also the sense that he was objecting, as he asked for a sign – just as Abraham did (Genesis 15:8), and Gideon (Judges 6:36-40) and Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:8-11).
The angel responded by naming itself – ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God’. Only the highest officials in an oriental royal court stood in the presence of the king. Protocol demanded that most people bow or prostrate themselves, so Gabriel was telling Zechariah he had committed an offense in not believing the message.
As punishment for his lèse-majesté Zechariah was reduced to silence, probably becoming both deaf and mute. In one way it was a reassuring miracle, but in another it was a punishment, one that would last until the birth of the child set him free.
When Zechariah came out of the Temple he was unable to speak. Clearly something momentous had happened. The priests and people interpreted his silence as proof that he had had some profound religious experience, possibly a vision, but Zechariah could tell them of his experience. Frustrated by his inability to speak, he tried to explain by signing. This had limited success. He finished out his allotted time of office, then headed for home.
Zechariah had doubted but Elizabeth had not, and so now she, not her unfortunate husband, moved into the spotlight, favored above her husband. Home at last, Zechariah found comfort in the arms of Elizabeth. One thing led to another, and she became pregnant – to her surprise and the amazement of her family and friends.
When she realized she was pregnant, she went into seclusion. This meant she did not leave her house for any reason, nor receive any visitors. She stayed like this, leading a calm and quiet life, until her pregnancy became physically obvious to all who saw her.
Mary visits her kinswoman Elizabeth
Mary had been betrothed to Joseph with a formal witnessed agreement, legally binding, between the families of the young people, and a bride price paid to Mary’s family. It was expected that the formal marriage would take place about a year later, when Mary would be taken home to Joseph’s family to live. Since later on in the story Mary returned to her home, not Joseph’s, we can assume that Mary and Joseph were not married at this particular time.
File written by Adobe Photoshop? 5.0
Accustomed as we are to benign images of the Annunciation, and of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus, we tend to blot out the reality of the situation: a young girl was pregnant, her fiancé knew he was not the father, yet the bride price had been paid.
In a Middle Eastern rural community at the time, this sort of situation could easily result in an honor killing of the young girl by her fiancé’s family. What few commentators seem to realize is that Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, about a hundred miles away in Judea, may have been a desperate attempt by her family to save her from this fate, to get her out of the way until some solution had been worked out.
Leaving Galilee and traveling south, Mary duly arrived at Elizabeth’s house in Judea after a journey of about three or four days.
See Bible Maps to trace the route of this journey.
At first glance, this might seem like a commonplace event as two kinswomen, both pregnant, meet each other. But Luke was making oblique references to Old Testament precedents, alerting the reader to a deeper meaning in Elizabeth’s story: read 1 Samuel 1:1-2, Judges 13:2, about a couple like Elizabeth and Zechariah, unable to have children, and Genesis 18:11 which describes an elderly couple who thought they would never have a child.