Luke 1: 5-25 – Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist: Part II

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In Lk 1: 15, the angel announces the greatness of John the Baptist (Cf. Lk 7: 28) and the type of ascetical and spirit-filled life he will lead. John the Baptist’s abstention from wine and strong drinks may indicate that he is set apart, like Samson and Samuel, for the Lord by a Nazirite vow (Cf. Num 6: 2-3; Judg 13: 3-5; 1 Sam 1: 11). John the Baptist will not drink strong drinks but will be filled with the Holy Spirit, the prophetic Spirit of God. And his prophetic mission will be directed by the Spirit towards conversion or return of Israel to God. His role is further defined in terms of the role of prophet Elijah. He will be one who “will go before the Lord” as Elijah was expected to do (Cf. Mal 3: 1, 23; 4: 5-6; Cf. also Mal 2: 6; Sir 48: 10). John the Baptist, like a new Elijah, endowed with God’s Spirit and power, will go before the Lord. (Even though the Messiah is not mentioned here, Luke has the Messiah in his mind when he wrote this passage).

Zechariah’s objection (Lk 1: 18) can be understood as an implicit request for a sign confirming the divine promise. Similar reactions are often found in the Old Testament ‘Call Narratives’ (Gen 17: 17-18; 18: 10-14; Judg 6: 36-40; 2 Kings 20: 8-11) and they are not considered reprehensible. Moreover, the sign is often given in answer to the request. The dumbness of Zechariah too is to be understood as a sign given to him by which he is to know that God’s promise will come true. To this understanding of the function of the sign an interpretation of its being a punitive act is also added.

Zechariah’s dumbness renders him incapable of imparting the customary priestly blessing to the people. His condition is understood by the people who were waiting for him as a sign or consequence of a vision granted to Zechariah (Lk 1: 22). In a similar apocalyptic vision granted to Daniel we find the appearance of Gabriel (Dan 9: 21) and the dumbness resulting from such a vision (Dan 10: 15-16). Besides this aspect, in the Lukan plan, Elizabeth’s five-month seclusion (Lk 1: 24) together with Zechariah’s dumbness will ensure the concealment of God’s intervention with regard to Elizabeth’s pregnancy for some time. Moreover, Zechariah’s dumbness and the loosening of his tongue later become a sign for his relatives and neighbours to recognize God’s intervention in the birth and naming of John the Baptist (Cf. Lk 2: 57-66). That is probably the reason why Zechariah’s dumbness has to continue, even after the child is born, till the eight day, i.e., till the manifestation of John the Baptist to the neighbours and relatives (Lk 1: 57-66).

The conclusion of the story tells us about Elizabeth’s seclusion for five months. This seclusion for five months is necessitated by the course of events in the Lukan narrative. Because, according to Luke, the pregnancy of Elizabeth has to be announced by the angel five months later (“in the sixth month”) (Lk 1: 26; Cf. also Lk 1: 36) as news and is to serve as a sign for Mary (Lk 1: 36). The seclusion of Elizabeth thus explains why Mary was prevented from coming to know of it prior to the angelic announcement. Luke concludes the episode with a note of the fulfilment of the promise and that of the praise of God by Elizabeth for being delivered from the shame of barrenness (Lk 1: 25).

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