Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 November

In which both of them prophesy to one another.

Luke 1.39-56

When I teach from the gospels, it tends to throw people. Y’see, most of the interpretations we hear in American churches are based on cessationism, the belief prophecy and miracles only happened in bible times, and don’t anymore. As a result of this false, faithless belief, popular Christian culture isn’t familiar with how prophecy works. So when they read about prophets in the bible, they don’t understand what these people are doing. Either people don’t recognize what they’re saying is prophecy, so they miss it altogether; or people interpret everything based on how they imagine prophecy works—and they’ve got some pretty immature ideas.

Starting with why Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth. I kid you not: I’ve heard it preached Mary went to Elizabeth because she wanted to hide her pregnancy. ’Cause that’s what women did in the past when they got pregnant outside of marriage: They went to “visit relatives” for a while… then came back with a new “baby sister” or “cousin.” (Or, if they aborted or gave up the baby, nothing.) Supposedly this is what Mary did: Hid.

Baloney. When Gabriel told Mary she was gonna have a miraculous birth, she knew how babies re made; she naturally wanted to know how this was possible. Gabriel’s answer, as I pointed out, wasn’t all that satisfactory. But for proof, for confirmation—’cause prophecy requires confirmation—Gabriel pointed to Elizabeth. She was pregnant. Mary didn’t know this—nobody knew this—’cause Elizabeth was in seclusion. Lk 1.24 But here was the proof Mary’s pregnancy came from God: “Your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age… and she was called sterile.” Lk 1.36 KWL And if you think that’s impressive, wait till God’s next miracle.

I know; people claim Mary had no doubts whatsoever, and totally believed Gabriel. But that’s not consistent with the scriptures. Why would she then rush to see Elizabeth?

Yeah, let’s check out that passage.

Luke 1.39-45 KWL
39 At that time Mary quickly went to a city in the Judean highlands.
40 She entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.
41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the fetus in her womb jumped.
Elizabeth was Holy Spirit-filled, 42 and exclaimed loudly,
“You’re blessed above all women; the fruit of your womb is blessed!
43 How is it the mother of my Master might come to me?
44 Look: When I heard the sound of your greeting, the fetus in my womb jumped for joy.
45 How awesome for she who believes the things the Lord told her will be fulfilled!”

If Mary had any doubts, this took care of that. Elizabeth was pregnant, just as Gabriel told her; and Elizabeth herself prophesied about what was happening to Mary.

The prophet Elizabeth.

Again, the way this passage is often taught, Elizabeth’s prophecy was a fluke; she wasn’t ordinarily a prophet. But when John jumped, the Holy Spirit in John also jumped—jumped her, threw her into an ecstatic (or hysterical) mindset, and worked her like a ventriloquist works his dummy. Seriously, that’s how people teach Old Testament prophets worked. They didn’t speak by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; 2Ti 3.16 it’s more like they took dictation.

There’s not just ignorance in this interpretation; there’s a certain amount of sexism too. But I won’t go there today.

When you translate eplísthi Pnéfmatos Agíu i Elisávet woodenly, you get the KJV’s “Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost.” It’s not a bad translation. Trouble is, people too many folks claim the “was filled” bit means Elizabeth was, at that very instant, filled with the Spirit: They treat the verb as present tense. It’s not. It’s a non-English tense called aorist, which actually has no time attached to it. Aorist tends to be translated as past tense ’cause we figure it at least happened some time past. (The bible was written 20 centuries ago, after all.) But no; it means Elizabeth was already filled with the Spirit. Not right at that moment: Already. Long before. Long enough before so people would know her prophetic utterances were valid prophecies, and just the crazy hormones of a loopy pregnant woman.

This touches upon another naïve assumption of people who know nothing about prophecy: They assume when they hear prophecy, they’ll “just know” it’s prophecy. They’ll “know in their knower,” is the way it’s described. They’ll know like a Mormon just knows God is real; like a child just knows there’s a Santa Claus. One of the things about prophecy, they insist, is that God’s true followers—real Christians like them—know real prophecy, whereas other folks doubt or reject it, or question it and make God angry. Where they get these ideas, I dunno. I’m guessing naïveté, wishful thinking, or fear. They sure don’t come from bible.

No; Mary took Elizabeth’s prophecy seriously for two good reasons: It confirmed what the angel had told her; and Elizabeth already had a reputation for hearing from God. Elizabeth had been filled with the Holy Spirit for quite a while before this meeting. God hadn’t picked just anyone to be the mother of his Messiah’s prophet: He picked another prophet. Someone who could raise him and encourage him in his gift. Someone who wouldn’t be freaked out or alienated by the Spirit’s power working through her boy, because she was plenty familiar with it in her own life.

She and her husband, as we’ll see when we get to Zechariah’s prophecy later. Both John’s parents were prophets.

The Magnificat.

And here we discover Elizabeth, Zechariah, and John aren’t the only prophets in the nativity stories. ’Cause Mary’s response to Elizabeth wasn’t merely, “Oh good; this confirms what the angel told me.” Mary also began to prophesy. Yep; God hadn’t only picked prophets as his forerunner’s parents. He likewise picked prophets as his own parents.

Mary’s prophecy is called the Magnificat |man'| from the first word of its Latin translation, magnificat anima mea Dominum/“my life magnifies the Lord.” Goes like so.

Luke 1.46-56 KWL
46 Mary said, “My life knows how great the Lord is.
47 My spirit rejoices over the God who saves me,
48 because he looked at the lowness of his slave.
Look: From now on, every woman will call me awesome,
49 because the Almighty did a great thing to me. His name is holy.
50 His mercy, to those who fear him, lasts for generations.
51 His arm performed powerful things.
He scattered those who were overconfident in their thinking.
52 He pulled dynasties from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
53 He filled the hungry with good things.
He sent the wealthy away empty.
54 He supported his child Israel, remembering mercy
55 as he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and his perpetual descendants.”
56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months, and returned to her house.

The Magnificat is also called a poem, ’cause it is: Hebrew poems repeat concepts instead of rhyming phrases. Some imagine Mary composed it on the spot… or believe the Holy Spirit did and Mary was just repeating the words he whispered into her spiritual earbuds. Mainly because they prefer to believe Mary was some illiterate peasant girl, and how on earth did she know all those bible references she made throughout her poem?

What bible references? Glad you asked. These.

Luke 1.46 KWL
Mary said, “My life knows how great the Lord is.”
2 Samuel 2.1 KWL
“My heart is happy in the LORD.”
Luke 1.47 KWL
“My spirit rejoices over the God who saves me […]
Psalm 35.9 KWL
My life exults in the LORD.
His salvation thrills it.
Psalm 111.9 KWL
He sent the ransom for his people:
He instructed his child in his holy covenant.
His name is respected.
Luke 1.50 KWL
“His mercy, to those who fear him, lasts for generations.”
Exodus 20.5-6 KWL
5B For I’m your LORD God: I’m El-Qanná/‘Possessive God.’
I have children suffer consequences for their parents’ evil
—and the grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—when they hate me.
6 But I show love to a thousand generations
when they love me and observe my commands.”
Luke 1.51-52 KWL
51 His arm performed powerful things.
He scattered those who were overconfident in their thinking.
52 He pulled dynasties from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
1 Samuel 2.7-8 KWL
7 “The LORD makes people either destitute or rich.
Some he lays low; some he exalts.
8 He lifts the poor from the dirt.
He exalts the needy from the landfill.
He puts them in the seat of rich patrons.
He assigns them positions of honor.
For the things which hold up the earth are the LORD’s.
He set them up.”
Luke 1.53 KWL
He filled the hungry with good things.
He sent the wealthy away empty.
1 Samuel 2.4-5 KWL
4 “The experts’ bows are cracked.
The stumblers are belted with courage.
5 The well-fed have hired themselves out for bread.
The hungry have stopped being hungry.
Psalm 107.9 KWL
The prowling life is satisfied.
He’s filled the starving life with goodness.
Luke 1.54-55 KWL
54 He supported his child Israel, remembering mercy
55 as he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and his perpetual descendants.”
Micah 7.20 KWL
You’ll give Jacob the truth.
You’ll show love to Abraham.
You swore these things to our ancestors long ago.

The reason there’s so much from the other scriptures in the Magnificat is because Mary did know her bible, and the Spirit took what was already in her, inspired and empowered her, and as a result she made this poem of it. Turns out Mary was a poet. Maybe even a musician. Maybe untrained, but with strong natural talents God put in her long before she said this. Then again maybe someone had trained her; we don’t know. All we have is her poem.

In any event, you can see why I find the Christmas song “Mary Did You Know?” to be irritatingly condescending.

Far from uneducated.

Yeah, in the past people didn’t see men and women as equal. (Also too often true of the present.) So boys would get an education, and girls would not. Jewish boys would be sent to Pharisee schools, or synagogues, to study under a rabbi, and girls would stay home and be taught by their parents. Boys would learn to read and write and do math; girls might learn these things, but not always. Depended on how practical, or how educated, their own parents were.

But Pharisees rightly recognized it was stupid to leave girls too ignorant. After all, how are Jewish women gonna follow the Law, and raise their kids to follow it, if they hadn’t been taught it themselves? So the Mishnah includes the ruling, “A man is obligated to teach his daughter the Law.” Sotah 3.4 Of course, other rabbis in that same passage disagree, but since first-century synagogues had women’s sections, it kinda proves the majority did feel educating women was important. So, Friday nights, when the whole Pharisee community went to synagogue for Sabbath services, women went too. They were segregated from the men, in a section in the back, so they wouldn’t get in the way of the men up front. They weren’t permitted to ask questions of the rabbis during the service, for that was seen as disruptive. But they were expected to listen and learn.

The Magnificat demonstrates Mary had learned: She knew her bible. She knew how God was described in the Prophets: He turns the world upside-down in order to set it right. The key to Mary’s thinking is in the line, “He scattered those who were overconfident in their thinking.” If you think you know how the world works, but your thinking is biased by your own comfortable position, are you in for a shocker. Fellow Americans, pay attention.

Mary began by pointing out how her life and spirit—the immaterial parts of her, which moderns refer to as our “consciousness”—recognize God’s greatness. Partly in comparison with her position, “the lowness of his slave,” because it’s how she thought of herself. Partly because she realized she’s now part of salvation history: She referred to “the God who saves me,” for Jews recognized the whole point of Messiah is salvation. Her son’s name Jesus means “the LORD saves.” She didn’t yet know how he’d save; only that the first step was to get born and raised. And she got to raise him.

Much too much emphasis is made on how Mary birthed Jesus, and not enough on how she raised Jesus. Probably ’cause Christians unconsciously think since Jesus is God, he didn’t need anyone to raise him: He already knew everything, and knew better. Remember how he taught the scribes in Jerusalem when he was only 12? Or how the folks in his homeland wondered where he got all his wisdom? But we forget Jesus gave up his divine privileges to become human. This includes his all-knowingness. The only knowledge he took with him was that of the Father. The rest he had to learn—from his mom and dad.

Mary appreciated all God had done for her, the honor he’d given her, and said “His mercy, to those who fear him, lasts for generations,” loosely quoting Exodus. She knew God likes to use the lowly, who recognize God’s might better than the mighty do. The lowly appreciate him more. God scatters the overconfident, knocks down dynasties, fills the hungry and empties the wealthy, and looks out for Israel—an occupied vassal state of the mighty Roman Empire—because it was founded on God’s relationship with their trusting ancestor Abraham.

Yep, Mary understood how God worked. It’s why she was well-equipped to raise him.