[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
Luke begins by laying some social, cultural, political, and religious groundwork. The tension in the story becomes palpable as Luke pits the promises of God against both the political aspirations of human rulers and the faith-testing circumstances of life. This tension between historic reality and prophetic expectations surfaces frequently in the birth narrative (1:5-2:52), and shows that Jesus has come to both fulfill and redirect the prophetic expectations of the Jewish people (see Green 1997:59 for more).
The birth narratives are not just about Jesus, but also about John. Luke weaves a beautiful tapestry through intertwining the parallel birth and childhood narratives of John and Jesus (Green 1997:47), which is a typical pattern used by Luke throughout his writings. As the two are compared and contrasted, Luke shows Jesus to be superior in every way. “John is born out of barrenness; Jesus is born of a virgin. John is great as a prophet before the Lord; Jesus is great as the promised Davidic ruler. John paves the way; Jesus is the Way” (Bock 1994:68).
Furthermore, the birth narratives reveal information about John and Jesus to the reader which characters in the story will have to discover on their own. In this way, the birth narratives anticipate and foreshadow the rest of the gospel (Green 1997:49). The reader is led to ask, “Will the characters discover the truth about Jesus?” As the reader watches the characters (including John, see 7:18-23) learn about who Jesus really is, the reader is led on a similar path of discovery to see if what has been revealed about Jesus in the birth narratives is in fact true.
1:5a. Luke masterfully begins his narrative by mentioning Herod, the king of Judea. This not only provides a time period for the following events (King Herod ruled from 74 BC – 4 AD), but also sets the stage for the entire narrative. The presence of King Herod on the throne in Jerusalem would have been a sore spot for the Jews during this time (cf. Green 1997:58).
First of all, this was because Herod was a terribly wicked and ruthless king. The Roman Empire had a policy of controlling regions in their Empire through native kings or military strongmen. Palestine was one of the last areas to be conquered by the Roman military, but after victory, “Julius Caesar and Marc Antony chose the ruthless young military strongman Herod to control Palestine. …It took Herod three years and the help of considerable Roman military aid to subdue his subjects, who put up persistent resistance. Once in control, however, he established massive military fortresses and ruled with an iron fist, allowing no dissent and requiring demonstrations of allegience to his own and Roman rule. Indeed, Herod became the emperor Augustus’s favorite client king” (Horsley 2003:32).
Near the end of his life, he became more paranoid and ruthless than usual and had his wife and several of his sons executed because he thought they were trying to take the throne. These actions caused Caesar Augustus to state that it was better to be Herod’s pig (Gk. hus) than his son (Gk. huios; Horsley 2003:33). Later, as Matthew 2 reveals, he ordered that all Jewish boys two years old and younger be killed. Again, this was an attempt to preserve the throne. As he neared death, he feared that nobody would mourn his passing, and so he ordered that when he died, many prominent men of the city be killed. In this way, there would be mourning in Jerusalem on the day of his death.
However, the primary reason the Jews did not like Herod on the throne is that by their understanding of Scripture, he had no right to rule over Israel. In Genesis 49:10, God promised that the scepter would not depart from Judah until Shiloh (i.e., the Messiah) comes. In other words, the authority to rule Israel would remain with the tribe of Judah until the Messiah arrived. Though it had been a long time since any person from the tribe of Judah had sat on the throne in Jerusalem, the Jewish Rabbis had decided that Genesis 49:10 could still be fulfilled through the authority of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, and specifically, in their right to practice capital punishment on Jewish criminals.
Nevertheless, the tension in the story remains. Herod, an Idumean (of the Edomites), was on the throne. Though he could trace his ancestry back to Abraham, it was through Esau, not Jacob. So from a Jewish perspective, Herod had no right to rule, and yet the Roman government had set him up as “The King of the Jews.” His presence on the throne posed a threat to the promises of God.
1:5b. Luke next introduces Zacharias and Elizabeth. The name Zacharias means “Yahweh has remembered again” and Elizabeth means either “my God is the one by whom I swear” or “my God is fortune” (Bock 1994:76-77). The names of both individuals fit well with the account which follows.
Luke also records some of the genealogical record for Zacharias and Elizabeth, which for a Jew, is like a badge of honor.
Zacharias was a priest of the division of Abijah. There were some 32,000 priests in Israel at this time, divided into 24 divisions (Green 1997:68). Each division would serve in the Temple for two separate weeks out of the year (Lightfoot 1989:11; Bock 1994:76), and the rest of the year they would serve and minister in their home town. The order of Abijah is eighth in the rotation (1 Chr 24:10), which means that Zacharias probably served sometime in December-January.
Elizabeth, being a descendant of Aaron, was also from a priestly family. Though not required, it was considered honorable if a priest marrioed a woman from a priestly line, as this helped preserve the pure priestly lineage (Lightfoot 1989:13; Bock 1994:76). It was also honorable for Elizabeth, being a descendant of Aaron and married to a priest (Green 1997:61). Luke records all of this to show that Zacharias and Elizabeth were doing everything to the laws and traditions of the Jews, and their position was one of privilege and prestige.
1:6. The key thing about this couple, however, is what Luke records next: they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. With this description, Luke draws a parallel between Zacharias and Abraham (Gen 15;6; 17:1; 18:19; 26:5). Luke reveals that Zacharias and Elizabeth were devout Jews, obedient to the entire Jewish law. As obedient and faithful Jews, and with their priestly pedigree, there were many promises of God that they could expect to be fulfilled to them. One of them was that if the Israelites obeyed God and remained faithful to Him (as Zacharias and Elizabeth had done), God would bless them with children (cf. Exod 23:22-26; Deut 7:12-14). Therefore, “we can hardly anticipate any news of childlessness — or any other tragedy for that matter” (Green 1997:65; cf. Bock 1994:78).
1:7. However, Luke records that Zacharias and Elizabeth had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years. Due to the promises of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, Israelites believed that if a woman was barren, it was because God was punishing the couple for sin committed by either the husband or the wife.
This raises the tension about how an obedient and faithful Israelite couple could be past the child-bearing years, and yet be without children (Malina 2003:225). “Childlessness was a sign of divine punishment and a source of shame…a consequence of God’s curse” (Green 1997:65-66). Quite possibly, there were many whispers and rumors in the Jewish community that Zacharias and Elizabeth were not as righteous as they appeared. After all, the logic was clear: she was barren, and God’s promises do not fail. Therefore, she or Zacharias must have sinned (cf. this line of thinking in John 9 when the disciples encounter a man who was blind from birth). Though she was honored for being of a priestly family, she was dishonored for being barren (Green 1997:61).
The barrenness of Elizabeth is parallel to the barrenness of Israel. Like Elizabeth, Israel was barren in that it had no prophet, no king, and the land was being ruled by foreigners. As the narrative unfolds, Luke shows that by removing shame and reproach from Elizabeth, God also begins to remove the shame and reproach upon Israel (see Green 1997:62). In both situations, God will perform the impossible.