Women Christmas

Oddly, Luke chooses to begin his narrative with a couple who will soon drop out of the tale and never be heard of again! This is hardly normal story-telling practice, and we will be wanting to know why he does it. Also noteworthy is the extraordinary density of Scripture allusions in this opening scene.

We are confronted with a classic scenario from the Jewish Scriptures. The righteous couple, elderly and yet still childless, the wife cursed with barrenness. Think Abraham and Sarah, Rachel and Jacob, Hannah and Elkanah. (Traditional story-patterns of this sort are called ‘type scenes’).

Luke tells the story in the short, paratactic phrases of Hebrew prose-style (i.e. they are each joined to the next with ‘and’). These particular phrases are borrowed from the life of Abraham: the couple were ‘righteous before God’ (Gen. 15:6) walking before the Lord in all his commands and statutes (cf. Gen. 26:5 LXX) blameless (cf. Gen. 17:1). The were well advanced in days (cf. Gen. 18:11 LXX). But they had no children because Elizabeth was barren (cf. Gen. 11:30 LXX).

These intertextual links raise the problem of promise and fulfilment – which Luke nominated as the big-picture theme of his narrative (1:1). Abraham and Sarah had received the promise of offspring, but were barren, still waiting for the promised child. In the prophets this experience of Israel’s first fathers becomes a symbol of unfulfilled promise, a symbol ultimately used to characterise the whole nation (see, e.g. Isaiah 26:16-18). Israel had been promised a bright future, yet had failed to ‘bear fruit’ to God.

By describing John’s parents in terms of this archetypal Hebrew story, Luke sets up the problem that will drive his Gospel narrative: the child promised to Abraham has yet to come. The offspring who will possess the land, the seed who will ‘inherit the gates of his enemies’ (Genesis 24:7, 22:17) has not appeared. Israel still lives, like Abraham, in a land they do not possess. Pagans still dominate her cities. Israel’s story of longing is ongoing, her plight unresolved. After centuries of waiting, still the nation has not seen the promised blessing.

Now it is clear why Luke has chosen to open his narrative with this couple, whom we will not follow for long: Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old-age and childlessness are representative of Israel. After their long history, they are still a barren nation. By using this technique, Luke achieves a great deal of theological introduction to his story in a few words. He begins at a moment of tension in the life of this couple, and that tension sets the scene for the whole nation. Will Yahweh ever fulfil his promise?


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