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2018-12-15

December 15: Luke 1:5-6

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Note of the Day | No Comments

Luke 1:5-6

Today’s article begins the second part of the Advent/Christmas series, in which a specific verse or passage in the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke will be discussed each day. I begin with the Lukan narrative, and the opening verses Lk 1:5-6:

“It came to be, in the days of Herod king of Yehudah {Judea}, (that there was) a certain sacred-official [i.e. priest] with (the) name Zecharyah, out of the regular (priestly) turn of Abiyah, and the wife [lit. woman] for him (was) out of the daughters of Aharôn {Aaron} and her name (was) Elisheba. And both of them were just [i.e. righteous] in front of God, walking in all the (thing)s placed on (them by God) and (the) just (command)s of the Lord, without fault.”

As most Christians and students of the New Testament are aware, in the Gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus is set parallel to the birth of John the Baptist, with the two accounts intertwined and connected throughout the narrative. The parallelism is more or less clear and precise, as for each figure (John and Jesus) there is:

  • A heavenly (Angelic) announcement of the child’s conception and impending birth, which includes a pronouncement regarding the child’s future destiny and role in God’s plan, following the pattern of similar scenes in the Old Testament
  • A miraculous birth
  • News of the birth being spread to neighbors and people in the surrounding area
  • Mention of the child’s circumcision and application of his name (given previously by the Angel)
  • An inspired oracle-hymn (or hymns), drawing heavily upon Old Testament imagery, which declares the child’s future role in God’s deliverance of his people
  • A notice regarding the child’s early growth, patterned after the Old Testament Samuel narrative

Other details only confirm and enhance these essential points. The Lukan narrative begins with John and his parents (Zechariah and Elizabeth), here in vv. 5-6ff, which sets the scene for the Angelic announcement. The section 1:5-25 may be divided into four parts:

  • Introduction of John’s parents (5-7)
  • The Angelic announcement to Zechariah, Part 1—Of the child’s birth and destiny (8-17)
  • The Angelic announcement to Zechariah, Part 2—The sign of the birth (18-23)
  • The Fulfillment: Elizabeth becomes pregnant (24-25)

From the standpoint of this series, the mention of John’s parents in vv. 5-6 is also significant as they are essentially the first names which appear in the narrative. They are venerable Hebrew names which ought to be examined briefly:

  • Zechariah—Hebrew [W]hy`r=k^z= (Z§½ary¹h[û]), transliterated in Greek as Zaxari/a$ (Zacharías). It is a sentence-name, which essentially means “Yah(weh) (has) remembered”; as such, it is one of many Hebrew (and Aramaic) names, still in use at the time, which contain a hypocoristic (shortened) form of the divine name (cf. the recent article on Yawheh). There are at least thirty men with this name mentioned in the Old Testament (and deutero-canonical books), including the famous 5th-century Prophet and an earlier priest who was stoned to death in the Temple court (2 Chron 24:20-22; cf. Luke 11:51 par) on the order of the king.
  • Elizabeth—Hebrew yb^v#yl!a$ (°E_lîše»a±), likewise transliterated into Greek— )Elisa/bet (Elisábet). The meaning of her name is a bit harder to determine; typically it has been rendered “God [°E~l] is my oath (i.e. the one to swear by)”, but it possibly could mean something like “My God [°E~l] is the one who satisfies, brings satisfaction”. In any case, it too is a sentence-name incorporating the divine name °E~l (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. “God”); cf. the earlier article. It is an ancient Hebrew/Israelite name, but found only once in the Old Testament (the wife of Aaron, Exod 6:23 [cf. below]).

It is unlikely that the author of the Gospel (trad. Luke) intended to convey the significance of these (Hebrew) names to his Greek readers, though he may have been familiar with their basic meaning. However, the underlying (historical) tradition he records tells us something important about the family background of Zechariah and Elizabeth. We may note two key points:

  • Indication of religious devotion in the worship of the (one) Creator God, Yahweh/El
  • A connection with the priestly line

Both points are made clear by the author in vv. 5-6. To begin with, Zechariah is specifically described as a priest, among those who served at regular periods in the Temple. In the case of Elizabeth, her lineage is identified even more precisely when she is referred to as one “from [lit. out of] the daughters of Aaron“, that is, a descendant of Aaron, bearing the same name as Aaron’s wife. Both of John’s parents should thus be regarded as coming from the Aaronid priestly line.

Concerning the first point, while one might assume that men and women from priestly families are (or at least ought to be) devout persons, the Gospel writer makes this quite clear for Zechariah and Elizabeth personally, in verse 6. The first clause (6a) states: “And they were both just/right(eous) in front of God”. The adjective di/kaio$ (“just, right[eous]”), used frequently throughout the New Testament, becomes an important keyword in Luke-Acts, appearing as a title of Jesus in Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14. It is also used of Simeon (Lk 2:25), a character sharing many features in common with Zechariah. The “righteousness” of Zechariah and Elizabeth is explained in 6b; note the chiastic structure of the clause, following the Greek word order exactly:

  • walking
    —in all
    ——the (thing)s placed on (them)
    ——the just (thing)s
    —of God
  • without fault

The participle poreuo/menoi (“traveling, walking”) carries the sense of regular, habitual behavior. This “walking”—that is, a particular way of life and conduct—is said to be “without fault” (a&mempto$) in “all the (thing)s…of the Lord” (e)n pa/sai$tou= kuri/ou). These “things of the Lord” are specified by two nouns:

  • e)ntolh/—usually translated “command(ment)”, but rendered above more literally as something “placed on” a person, i.e. a charge or duty which is expected to be observed or carried out. It refers here (in the plural) primarily to the various commands, injunctions, precepts, etc, in the Old Testament Law (Torah) which Israelites were to observe, in faithfulness to the covenant established with them by God.
  • dikai/wma—this noun, related to the adjective di/kaio$ (“just, right[eous]”), refers essentially to something which is regarded or declared to be right and just. Here, in the plural, it is parallel with e)ntolh/, referring to all of the commands, etc, in the Torah (the Old Covenant) which God has declared for his people, and which were to be fulfilled.

The adjective a&mempto$ (“without fault”) does not mean that Zechariah and Elizabeth were perfect or sinless, but that there was nothing wicked or improper in their daily life—their ethical and religious conduct—which was in clear violation of the Torah or God’s Law. All of this detail in verses 5-6 serves two main purposes for the author in terms of the narrative which follows:

  1. It introduces the important motif of the faithful/righteous ones in Israel, who remain obedient to God and patiently await the fulfillment of His promises.
  2. It establishes the Temple setting of the annunciation scene (i.e., explaining what Zechariah would be doing there), which likewise becomes a vital theme, both in the Infancy narrative, and throughout Luke-Acts. The Temple setting takes on even greater prominence in the episode(s) in Lk 2:22-38 (cf. also vv. 41-50).

A subsidiary (narrative) purpose is to clarify the notice in verse 7 regarding the childlessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth. For a woman to be barren, or a family to be without children, was unusual and regarded as a reason for shame in the ancient world (cf. verse 25). The Gospel writer is essentially making clear that Zechariah and Elizabeth being childless was not the result of any specific sin or impiety on their part.