Saturday, November 11, 2006

Zechariah the Priest

December 17, 2006
Luke 1.5-25, 57-80

Luke, writing to Theophilus, the Jewish high priest of 37-41 A.D., is careful from the very beginning not to overtly condemn the temple establishment, per se. His concern is with those who have distorted or manipulated the temple system, not with the system itself. And this is most evident in his telling of Zechariah's tale, the very beginning of this story concerning Jesus.

Consider Zechariah's status: a priest of the division of Abijah (1.5, 8; Abijah being the eighth division in rotation according to 1 Chron 24.10, 19); husband to Elizabeth, a daughter of Aaron (1.5); righteous and blameless before God, as regards his commandments and statutes (1.6). These are remarkable traits, highly esteemed among first-century Jews, and expected of the temple establishment.

Consider the details of the story: Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the temple and offer incense before God (1.8, 9). While before the Lord, he had a vision, a visitation from an angel of the Lord, Gabriel (1.11ff.). At Gabriel's appearance, Zechariah became afraid (1.12). After performing his service and receiving the vision, he exited the Holy Place to find the multitudes worried (1.21-23).

Consider one detail pertinent but lacking in this story: When the priest would offer incense in the Holy Place on the Day of Atonement, he would say a brief prayer before exiting. If the priest was to die inside, the other priests on duty would hve to retrieve his body without entering the Holy Place. Therefore, the prayer of the priest needed to be brief, lest the people grow concerned about his predicament. Two Jewish texts illustrate this:

Mishnah, Yoma 5.1: "He did not make the prayer long so as to frighten Israel."

Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 42c (regarding an incident that happened to a high priest, Shim'on the Righteous who served as high priest around 200 B.C.): "Once a certain high priest made a long prayer and [his fellow priests] decided to go in after him - they say this high priest was Shim'on the Righteous. They said to him: 'Why did you pray so long?' He said to them: 'I was praying that the temple of your God would not be destroyed.' They said to him: 'Even so, you should not have prayed so long.'"

So, when Zechariah exited the Holy Place in late fashion, the people waiting outside would have naturally been worried. When the angel of God appeared before Zechariah while he was offering the incense, he “was troubled when [Zechariah] saw [Gabriel], and fear fell upon [Zechariah]” (1.12). This was a natural reaction from Zechariah, as any activity out of the ordinary in the Holy Place may have spelled death for the priest. But the angel assured him to not be afraid, that his [customary] prayer had been answered (1.13). Luke does not say that Zechariah prayed. It is assumed by Luke that his reader, Theophilus, would have understood the procedure.

This story is told by Luke to demonstrate a faithful priest's actions, to show that this priest had God's favor, against whom Luke will later contrast the corrupt high priests.

Furthermore, Luke has shown that Jesus' forerunner, John, is of good priestly stock. Though John did not follow in his father's footsteps occupationally, his teachings were rooted in the temple establishment (for example, baptism as cleansing of sin). We will see why this is so important later. For now, let it be noted that at the very beginning of Luke's story about Jesus we find a faithful Jewish priest.

Read Luke 1.5-25, 57-80 and consider how Luke has set up his story about Jesus. Recall or reread the stories of John, and what he taught. Recall the instances in which Jesus behaves in seeming opposition to the temple establishment (such as his cleansing of the temple). Consider what Theophilus, the high priest of 37-41 A.D., might have been thinking after having read this far in Luke's story. Perhaps use elements of Zechariah's prayer as a prayer for yourself and/or your children.


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