Elisabeth was descended from Aaron the high priest, and lived with her husband Zachariah in the hills of Hebron, about 30 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean hills. Like her husband, she was a devout believer in God, following the law and all the ordinances, living a godly life. Elisabeth – or Elisheva in Hebrew – means “God has promised”.
Yesterday we looked at Zachariah – his name means “God remembers”. Now, what happens when you put these two names together? You get “God remembers what he has promised”. So what was the promise that God was going to remember? His last promise in the last book of the Old Testament was to send a Forerunner – specifically Elijah the prophet – before the day of the Lord. Do you begin to see how names are so significant in the bible!
However, there was a problem: Elisabeth bore one of the greatest stigmas in her culture of the time – she was barren, childless. The Jews looked upon children as "a heritage from the Lord" (Psalm 127: 3), seeing in them sources of strength as well as of blessing—"Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them" (Psalm 127:5); "your children, like olive-plants, round about thy table . . . thus shall the man be blessed that fears the Lord" (Psalm 128: 3-4)—very naturally looked upon the opposite state of childlessness as a grave misfortune. The wife who presented her husband with no such tangible blessings or supporters felt that her aim in life had been missed. "Give me children or else I die!" was the plea of Rachel (Gen 3: 1) when she saw Leah adding child after child to Jacob's household. Elisabeth must have felt that she was a failure, and had no doubt by now resigned herself to the fact that she would die childless.
Unlike Hannah (1 Samuel 1:5), Luke does not specifically tell us that “the Lord had closed her womb”, however we cannot discount God’s intervention in Elisabeth’s life in the same way, since he clearly had a great plan for her. By now, Elisabeth was probably well into her 50s, which in those days was considered to be well beyond child-bearing years. To her credit, she did not become bitter towards God, but remained faithful, supporting Zachariah in his priestly ministry. They were growing old together – had they given up hope of God hearing their prayers?
So she was probably totally unprepared for what happened when Zachariah came home from what she thought was just another regular tour of duty in Jerusalem. The first thing she had to become reconciled to was the fact that he could not speak to her, having been struck dumb by Gabri’el. That would have been a shock in itself. But then – the news of what the angel had said to Zachariah, and the promise of pregnancy… could she believe it… should she raise her hopes? Life was beginning to take on a new perspective – and what should she make of who the promised child was to become?
But then – the miracle happened, and she found that she was pregnant! God had indeed done what he had promised. Can you imagine the joy that Elisabeth must have felt – and Zachariah too – how they would have rejoiced together that God had blessed them in this way!
For the next five months Elisabeth kept herself shut away from the outside world. We can only surmise why she did this: was it to give herself time to meditate on all that the angel had said? Or maybe she wanted to wait until it was physically clear that she was pregnant so that everyone would have to believe what had happened? It is clear that in Elisabeth’s mind she did not want to become the centre of attention, she wanted the glory to go to God.
In the sixth month, Elisabeth received a visit from her cousin Miriam (Mary). We will look at her story in more detail later, but she, too, had had an encounter with the same angel, Gabri’el, and had been told that she was to bear a son, who was to be the Messiah. Now, a fifteen or sixteen year old girl needs someone to talk to about these sort of things, after all, there was a lot to take in and process!! And the angel had mentioned that Elisabeth was also to bear a son, so Miriam knew that this distant cousin was just who she needed to spend some time with. However, there was a problem. Miriam lived in Nazareth in the Galilee, whereas Elisabeth lived in Hebron in the Judean hills, a journey of about 120 miles. But Miriam had a strong character – God knew she would have to be in view of what lay ahead of her; she determined to make the journey. In those days, a teenage girl would not make this kind of journey alone – she would join a caravan, where there would be protection and safety in numbers. There would have been relatively frequent caravans from Galilee to Jerusalem, so Miriam would join one of these; she may have travelled on an ass, but more likely would have walked. The direct road, which would have saved them about 40 miles was too dangerous, crossing Samaritan territory; the caravan route would take them to the east side of the Jordan, down the Roman road to Jericho where they would re-cross the Jordan and begin the climb up to Jerusalem. On arriving at Jerusalem she would have stayed with relatives until she could pick up with another group travelling to Hebron. The whole journey would have taken about a week.
But finally Miriam arrived at Elisabeth’s house. As she entered the house and gave her customary greeting, a strange thing happened to Elisabeth. Her baby suddenly leapt in her womb! And then she understood in her spirit, a wonderful revelation of what that meant: her baby was responding to the baby that Miriam was carrying. And all this revelation burst forth in her spirit before Miriam had said any more than “hello!” Her baby leapt for joy in the presence of the Messiah. All at once Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy: “Blessed are you among women… blessed is the fruit of your womb… blessed is she who believed.” Now these three blessings are interesting because Elisabeth used two different word that are translated the same in English. The first two “blessed is” are based on the greek word “eulogeo” (our English word euologise is derived from this). This is blessing in which the individual receiving the blessing is not instrumental in its impartation in any way, so it does not depend on the attitude of the person being blessed. The third “blessed is” uses the word based on the greek “makarios” –this is the word Yeshua uses in the sermon on the Mount – and implies blessedness (or happiness) predicated upon the attitude of the one being blessed. In other words, Miriam’s first two blessings were because of what God had done, but the last was because of her response to the first two, because she had believed what the angel had told her. I guess Elisabeth understood how Miriam’s response had been so different to her husband’s on receiving the news from Gabri’el. Incidentally, this event also confirms very clearly that the human spirit is very much part of every baby at conception, and that abortion does not just terminate a foetus, but it actually ends a complete human life.
We are nearing the end of Elisabeth’s part in our journey. Miriam stayed with her for three months, probably up till the time John was born, then left to return to Nazareth to face Joseph and her family. Elisabeth gave birth to John, and after eight days they brought him to be circumcised. This was the time when the child would be named, and they assumed he would be called Zachariah after his father. But Elisabeth told them his name was to be John. In fact, she said it quite forcible – “No indeed,” very emphatic in the greek, “his name will be John”. Slightly taken aback, the priest appealed to Zachariah for confirmation. Zachariah was still unable to speak, and in fact he was almost certainly deaf as well. The word used in the greek for dumb is almost always associated with deafness as well. And Luke 1: 62 says they made signs to Zacharaiah – why would they do that if he could hear them? So they brought him a writing tablet, and on it he simply wrote “John is his name”. Again this was emphatic – because the greek always puts the emphasis on the first place in the sequence of the sentence. Immediately his hearing returned and his tongue was loosed and he was able to speak again. His first words were to bless God for his goodness. The testimony of all that had happened and everything that God had done spread like wildfire through the Judean hills, and everyone marvelled at the way God’s hand was clearly on the child. We’ll take a little look at him tomorrow.