Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

All about Elizabeth, Luke 1

For some reason, Elizabeth is a Bible woman who never captured my attention. This changed when I read what Greg Forbes and Scott Harrower have written about her in their 2015 book Raised from Obscurity. Their exploration of Elizabeth’s story made me realise what a remarkable person she was. In this blog post about Elizabeth, I rely heavily on Forbes and Harrower’s book. Many of the ideas, and all of the quotations (except for scripture quotations, which are given in italics), are drawn from Raised from Obscurity.[1]

Elizabeth was Blameless yet Barren

During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. Luke 1:5-6 CEB

The Gospel-writer Luke “portrays Jesus and his faithful followers as law-observant Jews.” (p. 37) This is also true for Zechariah and Elizabeth, the first major characters in Luke’s Gospel. As well as being devout Jews, the couple has an impressive Hebrew heritage. Zechariah is a Jewish priest, and therefore a descendent of Aaron.[2] Elizabeth is also a descendant of Aaron. Aaron was Israel’s first High Priest and the brother of Moses. Elizabeth even has the same name as Aaron’s wife (Exod. 6:23).[3] 

They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. Luke 1:7 CEB

Despite their piety, the couple is childless. Old Testament Law plainly states that those who are obedient to God’s ordinances would not be barren (Deut. 7:12-14). So, infertility was seen as a sign of divine disfavour and a great deal of shame was attached to being childless. This shame was felt more acutely by women, as childbearing was considered to be the primary function of women in Bible times. Moreover, infertility was typically believed to be the woman’s failing and not the husband’s.

Several prominent women in Israel’s history had also borne the pain and disgrace of infertility, only to have a miracle child later in life, a child who would become a famous leader. These women include Sarah, whose son Isaac became a patriarch, Manoah’s wife, whose son Samson became a deliverer and judge, and Hannah, whose son Samuel became a prophet and judge. Rebekah and Rachel were also initially infertile. Elizabeth’s miracle child would become the prophet John the Baptiser.

Zechariah’s Fear and Disbelief

One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God . . . . An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John.” Luke 1:8, 11-13 CEB

While Zechariah is serving in the temple, the angel Gabriel appears and announces to him that Elizabeth will give birth to a baby boy.[4] Zechariah is terrified by the angel’s appearance, “a typical response of those who are confronted with the divine.” (p. 39) Even though he is afraid, Zechariah talks to Gabriel and asks, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.” This seems like a reasonable response, but it arose from doubt. Because he doesn’t believe Gabriel’s words, Zechariah is struck dumb and his muteness is used as a sign (Luke 1:20). “So, not withstanding Luke’s previous depiction of him as a righteous and blameless man, Zechariah is ever so slightly diminished in the eyes of the reader.” (p. 39)

Mary’s and Elizabeth’s Faith

. . . God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. . . . The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. Luke 1:26-27, 30-32 CEB

When Gabriel visits Mary a few months later, she also asks a question in response to the amazing message she receives. Her question, however, did not arise from disbelief. She asks, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” It is often noted that Zechariah—an elderly and experienced priest serving in the temple in Jerusalem—doubted the angel, while Mary—a teenager living in a village in Galilee—responded in faith. Mary obediently accepted the astonishing news the angel brought her and replied, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Zechariah’s doubt also contrasts with his wife’s faith. Elizabeth’s faith is remarkable considering she probably received the news about her pregnancy second-hand through her now mute husband. “In contrast to her husband there is no narratival indication of unbelief or surprise on her behalf, only a response of praise for her having conceived.” (p. 39) Furthermore, just as her infertility and late pregnancy echoes the experiences of several prominent Old Testament women, so does her expression of thanks offered to God: “This is the Lord’s doing. He has shown his favor to me by removing my disgrace among other people” (Luke 1:25; cf. Rachel’s words in Gen. 30:23).

Elizabeth’s Prophetic Voice

When Gabriel visits Mary, the angel mentions Elizabeth’s pregnancy, possibly as a kind of sign that will assure Mary that “nothing is impossible for God” (Luke 1:37 CEB), or “no word [rhēma] from God will ever fail” (Luke 1:37 NIV).[5] Mary hurried to Elizabeth’s home in the Judean highlands, a distance of approximately 130 kilometres from Nazareth. Elizabeth and Zechariah are two of the few people who will readily believe what is happening to her. And Mary wants to witness the sign of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

Luke records what happens next.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Luke 1:41-45 NIV

When the pregnant women meet, Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb. This draws attention to “the key relationship that the two children [Jesus and John] will have. It also confirms the previous announcements that Elizabeth’s baby would be filled with the Spirit ‘even before his birth’ (Luke 1:15).” (p. 40)

Elizabeth is known for being the mother of John the Baptiser, the spirit-filled prophet like Elijah who will prepare the way for Jesus. But Elizabeth is herself described as being filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41). This description “is highly significant for Luke’s narrative and theology. For Luke, the Spirit is inseparably linked with the prophetic word . . . . Prophecy is a key theme for Luke and is a mark of the hand of God orchestrating events according to his divine plan.” (p. 40-41) God silenced her husband for a season, but Elizabeth has a prophetic voice. She uses her voice to encourage her young cousin Mary and she uses it to confess Mary’s unborn baby as “my Lord”.

Elizabeth’s Happy Ending

When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a boy. Her neighbors and relatives celebrated with her because they had heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy. On the eighth day, it came time to circumcise the child. They wanted to name him Zechariah because that was his father’s name. But his mother replied, “No, his name will be John” Luke 1:57-60 CEB.

As the angel had foretold, Zechariah was mute for Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy. He was also mute for eight days after her baby was born. So it is Elizabeth who announces to everyone that, breaking with tradition, the baby’s name is “John.” This is the name the angel had told Zechariah to name the boy (Luke 1:13).[6] Zechariah writes the name down on a tablet to confirm what his wife is saying, at which point, he regains the ability to speak. Then Zechariah is also filled with the Spirit and prophesies.

There are celebrations all round at the birth of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s healthy baby boy, and the couple’s shame is replaced with joy and a hopeful future.

Conclusion

Women feature prominently in Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus and they play important roles in his narrative.[7] These women, Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna the prophetess, are portrayed as active participants and reliable spokespeople regarding God’s salvation plan. Moreover, Elizabeth is the first person in Luke’s Gospel, chronologically, to be filled with the Spirit and to prophesy. Her “prophetic action sets the tone, not only for the songs that follow (Magnificat [1:46-55], Benedictus [1:67-79], Nunc Dimittis [2:28-32]), but also for the ministries of John and Jesus.” (p. 41)

As a faithful and prophetic woman of God, who played a key role in events surrounding the birth of Jesus, Elizabeth is worthy of attention.

God is still using his daughters, as well as his sons, as participants and spokespeople in the continuing outworking of his salvation. And he continues to bring joy and hope for those who remain faithful to him.

Footnotes

[1] Greg W. Forbes and Scott D. Harrower, Raised from Obscurity: A Narratival and Theological Study of the Characterization of Women in Luke-Acts (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015), 36-43.
This book can be purchased online at Wipf and Stock and Amazon.

[2] According to the Hebrew Bible, only direct descendants of Aaron could become priests.

[3] The Hebrew name Elisheba may give the sense of “My God is an oath by which one swears.” (Eli means “My God” + sheba, from shaba, means “oath”. Sheba can also mean “seven”, a number denoting completion and perfection.) The Hebrew name Elisheba is transliterated in the Greek New Testament as Elisabet.

[4] In the Hebrew Bible, God or an angelic figure announces, usually to the mother, the birth of a significant son (Gen. 16:10-11; 17:15-19; 18:10-15; 25:23; Judg. 13:3-21).

[5] Compare the angel’s words in Luke 1:37 with the Lord’s words about Sarah who is hearing the news that she will finally have a child, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14).

[6] God also named other significant people: Ishmael (Gen. 16:11); Isaac (Gen. 17:19); Jedidiah, aka Solomon (2 Sam. 12:24-25); Josiah (1 Kings 13:2); Immanuel (Isa. 7:14); and Jesus (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31).

[7] Luke continues to feature both women and men in his Gospel and in his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.

Image

Excerpt from The Visitation by Philippe de Champaigne, painted in 1643-1648. (Wikimedia)

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Book Review: Raised from Obscurity
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Mary and the Women in Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus
Male-Female Pairs and Parallelism in Luke’s Gospel
Old Testaments Priests and New Testament Ministers
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

11 thoughts on “All About Elizabeth (Luke 1)

  1. Wonderful stories!

    I like to think the prophecy/testimony of each of the two women blessed the other with strengthened their conviction that they were living out God’s promises, and not mistaken or deluded in their experiences with God. These assurances would have helped them withstand the skepticism of their families and neighbors.

    It’s hard to understand how many generations failed to grasp the counter-culture significance of the ministry and prominence given these women (and others) by God.

    1. I think they blessed each other. I chose the picture at the top of this post because of the reassuring and interested expression on Elizabeth’s face, as well as her hug, while Mary seems to be telling her what has happened.

  2. I really liked this; but you make no mention of the Ark?
    Have you considered it?

    At The Visitation Mary visits Elizabeth in….

    “The hill country of Judea”.
    John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeths womb at the sound of Mary’s voice.
    Elizabeth says “Who am I that the Mother of my Lord should come to visit me?”
    Mary stays 3 months there.
    The whole house was blessed.

    Luke has woven here an exact reply of 2 Samuel 6…..which Jewish readers would recognise

    The Ark is taken to “The hill country of Judea” .
    David leaps & dances before it.
    He says “Who am I that the Ark of the Lord should come to visit me?”
    The Ark stays there 3 months.
    The whole house was blessed.

    Luke is very aware that he is writing Typologically; for those with eyes to see.
    In the very same section Mary’s wonderful Magnificat is a retelling of The Song of Hannah. (1 Sam 2)

    At The Annunciation, The Angel says God ‘s Holy Spirit would “overshadow” Mary.
    This was The exact language of the “Shekinah” that overshadowed The Ark of The Covenant in Ex 40. when God’s real presence was manifest.

    He is telling us that, at that moment of conception, Mary became The Ark of The New & Eternal Covenant.
    The Old Ark contained 3 objects.

    (1) Mose’s stone tablets (The Word of God)
    (2) Manna.(The Bread of Heaven.)
    (3) Aaron’s Rod. (The High Priest)
    These three (inanimate) objects made the Ark so holy that Uzzah was struck dead for touching it.
    By the power of the Holy Spirit, and with Mary’s consent, Mary gave living flesh to these three things in one person….Jesus, who is
    (1)The Living Word of God
    (2) The bread of Life in the Eucharist, as Jesus explains at great length in John 6.
    (3) The High Priest and the sacrificial lamb.

    Luke tells us Mary is The true Ark.
    And John portrays her thus as well. Revelations 11:19 -12:17 (Chapter divisions being an addition)
    Mary is portrayed, in immediate rapid succession, as..
    God’s Ark in Heaven now.
    Queen of Heaven. (The mother of the Davidic King [Messiah] was always his Queen. She became Intercessor/”Gebirah” for her people. The 12 stars of Zodiac/Heavens or Israel/Apostles)
    Mother of The Messiah.
    Opponent of Satan/Dragon/Serpent (See Gen 3:15)….New Eve
    Mother of “her seed who keep God’s commandments”…..The Church (represented by JOHN at the cross)

    Mary represents, in her very person, not just the Church, but the very height of what God’s grace can do for human nature; and the extent of God’s willingness to totally identify with humankind. Though only human, her perfect co-operation with His grace, is our model & His masterpiece; and our hope for what God can do for mortals who co-operate with his grace.
    She is crafted by The Father to be his own Mother & Ark
    She is Mother of The Son
    And she is The Bride of the Holy Spirit.

    EITHER
    Mary is “The Bride of The Holy Spirit” for all etenity
    OR
    Our God is a God who “uses” women. He does one-night-stands and scarpers. He does not covenant nor marry; He impregnates her with His holy child & then discards her!

    Humankind has been most astoundingly honoured, dignified & graced in this humble Jewish maid
    Did The Jews worship The Ark? No!…..but they vastly venerated it.
    An observer could be trained to interpret their veneration as “idolatry”
    And it’s very hard to get Protestant Christians, who have been prejudicially-trained to interpret hyperdulia of Mary as idolatry, to reframe Catholic/Orthodox veneration of Mary in this light.

    1. Some interesting ideas, Len.

      However, I disagree with your either-or proposition. There are more than two ways to understand how God uses women, and how he uses men, for that matter. Also, importantly, Mary consented.

  3. This: “God silenced her husband (the priest) for a season, but Elizabeth (the regular “layperson”) has a prophetic voice.”
    A harbinger of the whole gospel of God’s “great reversal” at work. Should be considered seditious literature by any who would try to restrict women’s roles in the church !

    1. It’s tragic that the “reversal” concept, a key attribute of the kingdom, never caught on in the church.

      As I’ve said elsewhere, in Jesus’ kingdom the humble are exalted, the lowly are the greatest, and the last are first. But we don’t see this in many church communities.

  4. Marg, I have recently been thinking about Elizabeth, especially during this season with the Advent readings around her narrative. I appreciated your comments around Elizabeth and how she so often she seems to elude attention. And yet, how unfortunate this is, because she is an incredible woman and mentor of the faith. She was obedient and prophetic and full of faith as evidenced by her comment, “The Lord has done this for me,” she said, “In these days he has shown his favour and taken away from my disgrace among the people.”And of course as evidenced in her prophesizing and comments to Mary.

    I also thought it interesting in this narrative how God silences Zechariah and makes him mute, while retaining Elizabeth’s voice. And in Joseph and Mary’s relationship, we hear from Mary, but Joseph is absent and unheard.

    While I totally agree with your comments around Elizabeth reassuring Mary, I also imagine that Mary reassured Elizabeth as well. So I see a mutuality to their relationship. Where each woman provides reassurance and support and mentorship to the other. I think this is suggested when Elizabeth asks, “But why am I so favoured that the mother of my Lord should come to me. As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Her response suggests she felt incredibly favoured (privileged, helped, reassured) by Mary’s visit and that anyone who has believed and trusted in the Lord’s word would be blessed. Their stories fit together, were so connected, that I picture their relationship being a mutually beneficial, mentoring relationship. Where Elizabeth, as the elder more experienced woman, mentored and supported the younger Mary through this experience, and especially through the first months of her pregnancy. And in return, Mary was there to support Elizabeth with her amazing faith and as Elizabeth faced her late-in-life pregnancy. I also believe there was a distinctive, reciprocal relationship between these two women due to the very unique circumstances around their pregnancies and the children they were carrying, both fulfilling a unique and necessary role, in this narrative being written by God. I also imagine, that given their unique circumstances, Elizabeth finally conceiving in her old age, Zechariah becoming mute, Mary becoming pregnant, that there would have been lot of discussion and attention directed towards them from their communities. Being together, they would have provided each other much needed companionship, understanding, and faith, in what were such noteworthy circumstances.

    One final thought. You mention Elizabeth’s infertility would have been seen as a divine disfavour within that culture and community. Although I was aware of this cultural belief, it did occur to me as I read your thoughts, that while she and her community may have seen it this way, God did not. For while they may have seen it as divine disfavour, He had a divine plan to wait. Choosing to open her womb to conceive John, according to His timing. So her womb being closed for such a period of time, was actually a divine favour or occurrence, rather than being a sign of his disfavour. God had plans for the perfect timing for her pregnancy, a timing that fit in with the unfolding narrative and preparation for Jesus’ conception and arrival.

    I always enjoy your insightful posts! Thanks for your thought provoking and rich writing.

    1. Hi Anne,

      Joseph is very much in the background in Luke’s version of the nativity. In Matthew’s version, Mary is more in the background than Joseph. Different authors using different source materials reflecting different perspectives.

      I agree with you. I think Elizabeth’s infertility was part of God’s plan, so God did not look down on Elizabeth’s infertility. Rather, he had his eye on her (in a good way), waiting for the right time to give her a miracle child.

      I also love the mutual encouragement of Elizabeth and Mary. I’m very grateful for the network of my online female friends and the mutual encouragement this network provides.

  5. Nice article, I too have read more about the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah who are the parents of John the Baptist and thought it was fascinating. Although their story is quite short I became more curious about her role in Mary’s life and the thing they had in common was giving birth to miracle babies, for Elizabeth having a child so late in her life and Mary giving birth the son of God when she was virgin and the fact both their sons became important figures in the later years, one became a prophet and preacher and the other was Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Good post once again. God Bless.

  6. I think this story is a remarkable where God is involved moving people from shame to honor.. He Does… He always Does…
    thanks so much

    1. Reversal and exaltation are part of the gospel message. 🙂

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