ORACLES OF ELIZABETH & ZECHARIAH
The comparison of John and Jesus, in terms of their respective Messianic identities, is an important aspect of the parallelism of the two Annunciation scenes (as discussed in the previous notes on 1:15-17 and 1:35). But it also features in the poetic oracles uttered (in the narrative) by the parents of John the Baptism, Elizabeth (vv. 42-45) and Zechariah (vv. 68-79). In the narrative introduction to each oracle, the poetic and revelatory inspiration is attributed to the presence of the Holy Spirit filling the speaker.
Luke 1:41, 67
“….and Elisheba was filled with (the) holy Spirit…and she gave up a great cry (with her) voice and said…” (v. 41f)
“And Zekharyah was filled with (the) holy Spirit and he foretold [i.e. prophesied], saying…” (v. 67)
Like John the Baptist, who was filled (vb plh/qw) with the Holy Spirit even while in the womb (cf. the prior note on v. 15ff), so also his parents (Elizabeth and Zechariah) were filled by the Spirit. This Spirit-motif, introduced in the earlier episode, continues here. It will be further developed in the figure of Simeon (2:25-27), who serves as a pattern for the relationship of the Spirit to believers, and also in the person of Jesus himself (4:1ff, cf. also 10:21).
As previously noted, the idea of a person being filled by the Spirit of God is an important aspect of the Lukan Spirit-theme. It is one of three primary modes of Spirit-experience featured in Luke-Acts. It is also, however, part of an ancient line of tradition regarding the manifestation of the Spirit of God (YHWH) upon chosen individuals in the Old Testament. Indeed, there was a strong tradition of charismatic (and prophetic) leadership in ancient Israel, whereby chosen individuals were gifted with the Divine Spirit, enabling them to function as inspired leaders over God’s people. This was true in the case of Moses and his successor Joshua, as well as the Judges and the early kings of Israel (Saul, David). The specific idiom of being filled, however, is only mentioned in the case of Joshua (Deut 34:9).
Mention should also be made of the references in Exodus (28:3; 31:3; 35:31), of the artisans and craftspeople who made the priestly apparel and the tent-shrine (tabernacle) furnishings. They were uniquely filled with the divine Spirit, giving them the skill and artistry to perform this work. This relates to the situation here with Elizabeth and Zechariah, where the filling by Spirit enables them to exercise a poetic art. Within the narrative context, Zechariah utters a great hymn (the Benedictus, vv. 68-79), and Elizabeth, in her own way, also gives out a short poetic exclamation (vv. 42ff). It should also be noted that the inspired hymn attributed to Mary (the Magnificat, vv. 46-55) is, in a handful of manuscripts and other witnesses, attributed to Elizabeth instead.
There are three aspects of this mode of being filled by the Spirit that I would emphasize here.
1. Ecstatic inspiration. In the ancient prophetic tradition, the divine Spirit comes upon the individual and overwhelms him/her, producing a state of ecstasy, in which the prophet begins to speak with the voice of the deity. Sometimes this is characterized by unusual (or supernatural) signs, as well as strange behavior. In the Pentecost scene in Acts, this aspect of the prophetic experience is realized primarily through the phenomenon of speaking in tongues.
More commonly, however, in both the Gospel and Acts, this ecstatic experience is manifest by a sudden exclamation, made at the spur of the moment, under the influence of the Spirit. We see this, for example, in Luke 10:21f, where the saying of Jesus is presented as an inspired exclamation. In the Lukan Infancy narrative, the ecstasy results in a poetic oracle. This is certainly true in the case of the canticles by Zechariah and Simeon (and also the Magnifcat [by Mary]), which are genuine poems, composed much in the pattern of the Scriptural Psalms. In this regard, it is worth noting the statement in Acts 4:25, how David, as the chosen servant of God, composed the Psalms (specifically Psalm 2) under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
2. The Prophetic communication of the will and purpose of God. This is the fundamental meaning of prophecy, especially as expressed by the Hebrew root abn. A ayb!n` properly denotes, in a religious context, someone who is a spokesperson for God, communicating His word and will to the people. The Greek term profh/th$ has a corresponding meaning, depending on how one understands the prepositional prefix pro/ (“before”). The prefix can mean “beforehand” (that is, predictive prophecy, announcing future events), but it can also be understood in the sense of speaking the message before (i.e., in front of) a gathered audience (such as the Christian community/congregation).
There is certainly a predictive component of the prophetic oracles by Elizabeth and Zechariah (and also Simeon). Far more important, however, and central to the place of the oracles in the Lukan narrative, is what the oracles communicate regarding what God is doing (and is about to do) through the chosen (Messianic) figures of John and Jesus. This will be discussed further in the next note (on 2:25-27ff).
3. Prefigurement of the Gospel. The prophetic oracles uttered by Elizabeth and Zechariah, etc, foreshadow the proclamation of the Gospel by the early believers. In particular, the hymns in the Lukan Infancy narratives find their parallel in the sermon-speeches of Acts. Both are Spirit-inspired utterances made publicly, presented as occurring on the spur of the moment, before an audience. In particular, the utterances by Elizabeth and Zechariah declare the Messianic identity of Jesus, which is also the fundamental message of the early Gospel preaching.
Elizabeth and Zechariah represent the faithful and devout ones under the Old Covenant; but they also, like their child John (also their relative Mary), are transitional figures who stand at the threshold of the New Covenant. Thus, it should be no surprise that, in the context of the Lukan narrative, their Spirit-inspired prophecy anticipates the Gospel preaching of the first believers.
The content of this message is also shaped according to the literary theme and structure of the Infancy narratives. This means, primarily, that it is predicated upon the relationship between John and Jesus. John was a Spirit-filled (and guided) messianic figure, but one who is surpassed by, and subservient to, the greater Messianic identity of Jesus. John himself, in the womb of Elizabeth responds to the presence of Jesus (in the womb of Mary). His ‘jumping’ (vb skirta/w) in the womb (v. 41) is a manifestation of the presence of the Spirit (v. 15). Elizabeth’s prophecy confirms, and develops this theme: Mary is declared blessed because of the “fruit of her belly” (i.e., the infant Jesus), and she is specifically declared to be “the mother of my Lord”.
In the Benedictus of Zechariah we find a much more extensive poetic development, replete with many allusions to Scripture and Old Testament/Jewish tradition. For a detailed study of these allusions, specifically with regard to their Messianic significance, cf. my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”. It is in vv. 76-79 that the traditional language (and Messianic imagery) is applied directly to the narrative context of the relationship between John and Jesus. These are examined in a separate article (in the aforementioned series).
The the traditional themes, developed by Luke, regarding the Messianic significance of Jesus, are brought together in the Simeon episode—the final episode of the Infancy narrative proper. These Messianic themes are connected with the presence and work of the Spirit, and will be discussed in the concluding note of Part 2.