Sunday, December 03, 2006

Zechariah and Gabriel

This morning I went with my wife to the evangelical church. The pastor was starting his Christmas series of sermons, called My Christmas Prayer! which will cover passages from Luke's nativity narrative, with a focus on God answering prayer. (It's subtitled The Christmas Story by Dr. Luke, which I suppose gives the Evangelist some credibility in our modern, expert-focused culture, but leaves him safely in the realm of academia without any troublesome notion of personal holiness, as in Saint.) This first segment comes from the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, where God supernaturally provides them with a son. The preacher understood Gabriel's reference to Zechariah's prayer in the way that I have always heard it (and thought about it myself)--that he and Elizabeth had spent decades praying for a son, and finally God was answering them. (And poor Zechariah just wasn't ready for an answer after so long with no response, which led him to respond skeptically and end up mute for the next nine months.) After coming home, I decided to read Bl. Theophylact on this passage and found a somewhat different take: "Surely Zacharias was not praying for a son. Was he not praying for the sins of the people?"

Theophylact's "surely" comes from the traditional understanding that this was in fact the Day of Atonement, and what would have been foremost on Zechariah's mind as he offered in the temple was not his own desire for a son, but the sins of the people. Even putting that thought aside, if one should question whether it was necessarily the Day of Atonement, he was in fact serving in the temple, and something important was going on, because everyone was outside praying while this was going on. That much is clearly stated in the text. What kind of priest would have been thinking about his own personal needs under such circumstances, rather than those of his people? Furthermore, when you stop and think about it, if Zechariah and Elizabeth were clearly past childbearing age, it's unlikely that they would have been praying regularly for a son even then. Being righteous people, they would have accepted that God had chosen not to give them children and moved on with their priorities.

So, Theophylact goes on to give two possible readings of what's going on here. Either way, the answered prayer is the prayer about the sins of the people. One option is that John will be an answer to that prayer, because he will call the people to repentance and prepare the way for the one who will take away those sins. The other is that Elizabeth's pregnancy and the child to come are a confirmation that God has in fact heard Zechariah's prayer. Either way, the birth is not the object of the prayer, but the unexpected means of its fulfillment or the confirming sign that it will be answered. This makes a great deal of sense to me. It reinforces the notion that God answers prayer in surprising ways, but it turns the emphasis to prayer for bigger, deeper spiritual issues, particular when offered for the sake of others, rather than prayer for our own desires. And God answers the prayer by providing what Zechariah and his wife couldn't even bring themselves to hope for. How cool is that?

Another interesting reading from Bl. Theophylact comes in v. 20, where he understands siopon to mean "deaf" rather than "mute." He doesn't seem to address any question here over what the word might mean. It is the participle form of a verb meaning "to be silent," and is usually translated "mute," which makes what follows ("and unable to speak") redundant. If it means here "to be in silence," i.e., unable to hear, the two afflictions are different but complementary. Perhaps it is only the desire to avoid redundancy that led to this interpretation, but it would also explain why they signal to Zechariah rather than ask him vocally what to name John. I've understood it as a misunderstanding--that because he couldn't talk, they assumed he couldn't hear--but it would fit quite nicely if he was in fact struck deaf and mute. And Theophylact's point is well taken, that it was a fitting response, that "for not giving heed, he was chastened with deafness; and for speaking back, he was chastened with muteness."

I find it a particularly interesting interpretation, in light of the fact that he finishes out his days of service in the temple. When I was at the Society of Biblical Literature conference, I attended a session on deafness in the Bible, in which one of the presenters argued that it was possible for a priest of Israel to serve while deaf. He looked at the priestly literature (mostly Leviticus, with some other material from the books of Moses) and found that while for instance blindness would disqualify a man from being a priest, deafness would not. He also noted that the rituals performed in the sanctuary were for the most part done without any need to speak, even to the point of including several hand gestures, which may suggest that they had a whole system worked out to maintain a "holy silence." It would fit that Zechariah was able to finish his service, even if he was deaf and mute.

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