For some reason, Elizabeth is a Bible woman who never captured my attention. This changed when I read what Greg Forbes and Scott Harrower wrote 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.
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 true, also, for Zechariah and Elizabeth, the first major characters in Luke’s Gospel. As well as being devout, observant Jews, the couple have an impressive Jewish heritage. Zechariah is a Jewish priest, and therefore a descendent of Aaron. Furthermore, 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).
They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. Luke 1:7 CEB
Despite the piety of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the couple are 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 who would become a famous leader: 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. 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 may seem like a reasonable question, 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 come 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 in Gen. 30:23).
Elizabeth’s Prophetic Voice
When Gabriel visited Mary, the angel told her about her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy, possibly as a kind of sign that will demonstrate to Mary that “nothing is impossible for God” (Luke 1:37 CEB), or “no word [rhēma] from God will ever fail” (Luke 1:37 NIV). So Mary hurries 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 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). 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.
Women feature prominently in Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus and they play important roles in his narrative. 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.
 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.
 According to the Hebrew Bible, only direct descendants of Aaron could become priests.
 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.
 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).
 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).
 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).
 Luke continues to feature both women and men in his Gospel and in his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles.
Excerpt from The Visitation by Philippe de Champaigne, painted in 1643-1648. (Wikimedia)
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