Mary Visits Elizabeth
Not only did Gabriel tell Mary that she would conceive and bring forth the Son of the Most High—that is, the Messiah—but he also told her of Elizabeth’s pregnancy in her old age. “She who was called barren is now in her sixth month,” he told her. Mary had been unaware of this, because Elizabeth had gone into seclusion (Luke 1:24).
Elizabeth’s son was to be a Nazarite from birth, and so Elizabeth wanted to avoid all defilement from the outside world and from contact with others. Many years earlier, the mother of Samson had been counselled by the angel to take care during her pregnancy on account of her son being a Nazarite from birth. In Judges 13:4 the angel told her,
4 Now therefore, be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing.
When Gabriel revealed the pregnancy to Mary, however, she immediately made the trip to Hebron (i.e., “the hill country”) where Elizabeth was sequestered in her home. Luke 1:39, 40 reads,
39 Now at this time Mary arose and went with haste to the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth.
We are not told who may have escorted her to Hebron, but the trip from Nazareth would have taken a few days. Hebron was located south of Jerusalem, a few miles beyond Bethlehem. She was to make that trip again in about nine months, this time as a married women, stopping in Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus.
John Leaps in the Womb
We presume that Mary was living with her parents at the time of Gabriel’s revelation, since she was merely engaged to Joseph but not yet married. We see from Luke 1:26 that not only did Joseph live in Nazareth, but Mary’s family also. Luke 1:41 continues,
41 And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
There is another Scriptural precedent for babies leaping in the womb. It is found in the Septuagint translation of Gen. 25:22 in the account of Jacob and Esau, which reads, “and the babes leaped within her.” Rebekah, of course, inquired to know why all the fuss was going on within her. The boys fought for dominance, playing “King of the Hill.”
With Elizabeth, the baby’s leaping was an occasion of “joy,” as she explains in verse 44. Yet both examples of leaping were occasions of prophecy. Doubtless, John leaped for joy within her because he was the forerunner of the One who was then entering the house in Mary. This suggests that Mary was already pregnant with Jesus, perhaps from the day of Gabriel’s visitation.
Elizabeth’s Word of Knowledge
Luke tells us that “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” as soon she heard Mary’s greeting, which was no doubt the usual Shalom, “Peace.” The evidence of Elizabeth’s infilling is seen in her prophetic word of knowledge that seemed to bubble up out of her involuntarily. Luke 1:42-45 says,
42 And she cried out with a loud voice, and said, “Blessed among women are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”
Just as Mary knew by revelation from Gabriel that Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age, so also did Elizabeth know by word of knowledge that Mary was pregnant as a virgin. Further, she knew that Mary, “the mother of my Lord,” was pregnant with the Messiah. Elizabeth even knew by the Spirit that Mary had “believed” the angel’s word, even though it was too early for her to have any physical evidence of pregnancy.
The meeting between Elizabeth and Mary was more than just a joyful occasion of sharing what they had learned by revelation. The house was filled with the glow of revelation that was being learned as it was being prophesied. This was the evidence of the infilling of the Holy Spirit that day. The voice of God was heard, revealing incredible things that previously had been unknown.
Mary too was caught up in the Spirit and prophesied under that heavy anointing. Men today call it The Magnificat. It is recorded only in Luke’s gospel, but it is one of the four earliest hymns (or psalms) of the early church. The four are:
Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55)
Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79)
The Angels’ Gloria in Excelsis (Luke 2:13, 14)
Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:28-32)
Mary’s Magnificat is written as a chiasm, or Hebrew Parallelism. Its opening statement, “My soul exalts the Lord,” has a double meaning. The soul here is compared to her womb, which was soon to be exalted (grow or swell) as “the Lord” developed within her. The word “exalts” (or “magnifies” in the KJV) is from the Greek word magaluno, and it means “to make great, magnify, enlarge, make conspicuous.”
Hence, Mary’s soul was being enlarged with revelation and blessing, even as her belly was being enlarged with “the Lord” in this beautiful word picture. But to show the Parallelism in the Magnificat, we will here quote it in its entirety before commenting on it. The Magnificat is actually written in two stanzas.
Stanza 1: Personal
(Intro) And Mary said,
A…My soul exalts the Lord,
B…And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,
C…Because he has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
C1…For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
B1…For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
A1…And holy is His name.
A and A1 are expressions of praise. First Mary speaks of the Lord growing in her womb, as her belly (soul) is magnified or exalted. “The Lord” is then described in A1, saying, “holy is His name.” What name is this? The answer is in the next sections (B and B1).
“And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior” (Greek: soter). The Hebrew word for “Savior” is yasha, and the word “salvation” is Yeshua. Isaiah 60:16, read literally, says, “Then you will know that I, Yahweh, am your Yesha, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
It is plain, then, that Gabriel told Mary to name her Son Yeshua, which comes down to us in the Gospel of Luke in the Greek form Iesous, which we translate into English as Jesus. Mary was thus telling us in B that her “spirit” within her was rejoicing on account of the “Savior” (yasha, the root of Yeshua) who was growing within her. This is explained further in B1, where she again uses dual imagery, saying, “the Mighty One has done [poieo] great things [megaleia] for me.”
The Greek word, poieo, means “to make, to cause, to author, to produce, to bear, or to shoot forth.” The word megaleia is from megas, which is the same word that Mary used earlier saying, “my soul exalts or magnifies the Lord.”
It is clear, then, that Mary was using these words to convey a double meaning. First, God was exalting her in her inner spirit; and second, the Mighty One was causing her belly to be exalted as the Savior was developing in her womb. But the prime focus in this chiasm is found in the center, found in verse 48:
C…For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
C1…For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
In Hebrew Parallelism the central thought is positioned in the middle, which in this case is C and C1. It is then, perhaps, surprising to see Mary as the focus of attention in Stanza 1. It is intensely personal, but more important is Luke’s purpose in recording this event.
In those days women were usually considered to be mere bondslaves to men. Their value was in their ability to produce children on behalf of their husbands. Even Mary’s humility in verse 48 seems to reflect this. Yet she identifies herself as God’s bondslave, not the slave of men. And because she has been blessed to bring forth the “Savior,” (i.e., Jesus, “Salvation”), she will be counted as “blessed” by all generations.
Mary Elevated to her Proper Position
Luke’s underlying purpose is to present Mary as one of the first examples of the equality of women that Jesus advocated in His ministry. This was a radical departure from the cultural norm in that day. Even though the Hebrew Scriptures give examples of women who held high positions, such as Ruth, Deborah the prophetess (and a judge), and Esther, in later years such respect was largely eroded. Kenneth E. Bailey writes:
The Old Testament offers some high points regarding the place of women… However, a deterioration seems to have taken place in the inter-testamental period, as seen in the writings of Ben Sirach the aristocratic scholar of Jerusalem who lived and wrote in the early second century B.C. For Ben Sirach women could be good wives and mothers and are to be respected. But if you don’t like your wife, don’t trust her (Sir 7:26). Be careful to keep records of the supplies you issue to her (Sir 42:6-7). Deed no property to her during your lifetime and do not let her support you (Sir 33:20; 25:22-26). Women are responsible for sin coming into the world and their spite is unbearable (Sir 25:13-26). Daughters are a disaster.
Indeed, to Ben Sirach a daughter was a total loss and a constant potential source of shame (Sir 7:24-29; 22:3-5; 26:9-12; 42:9-11). There is no discussion of women apart from their relationship to men, and Ben Sirach’s list of heroes of faith records only males (Sir 44-50). A low point is reached where Ben Sirach writes,
“Do not sit down with the women; for moth comes out of clothes, and a woman’s spite out of a woman. A man’s spite is preferable to a woman’s kindness; women give rise to shame and reproach (Sir 42:12-14).” [Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 189-190]
For Luke, then, Elizabeth and Mary are the first women to be set forth as an example of how God’s attitude toward women differed from the Jewish culture of the day. The fact that Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit in Luke 1:41 served as an example of how God might touch a woman without defilement and how women might prophesy. Mary’s immediate prophetic response confirmed this. While such acts of God may seem quite normal for us today, the culture in the first century was quite different and is still reflected in certain religions.
The Magnificat, Stanza 2
As stated previously, Mary’s Magnificat is in two sections. The first stanza is personal, the second is communal in Luke 1:50-55,
A…And His mercy is upon generation after generation
to those who fear Him.
B…He has done mighty deeds with His arm,
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
C…He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
C1…He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
B1…He has given help to Israel His servant,
A1…In remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his offspring forever.
Analysis of Stanza 2
A sets forth God’s extended mercy “to those who fear Him.”
A1 sets forth mercy specifically “to Abraham and his offspring.”
B sets forth salvation (deliverance) in general by means of judgment.
B1 sets forth salvation for Israel specifically.
C sets forth humiliation of rulers and exaltation of the humble.
C1 sets forth exaltation of the poor (hungry) and humiliation of the rich.
In each section of this stanza we see two lines in a couplet, with the exception of B1, which has only one line and seems to be incomplete. What was Luke thinking? More important, what was God thinking when He inspired Luke to drop that line? When we compare B with B1, we would expect to read B1 to say something like:
He has given help to Israel His servant,
And cut off the nations.
This would have been how the average Judean would have written it in those days. But this would have gone contrary to Luke’s purpose, as well as it being contrary to the mission of Jesus Christ. Hence, the very absence of this line in the Magnificat shows a type of divine deletion or correction in men’s viewpoint. The blessings upon Abraham and Israel, and upon the humble and the hungry, come at the expense of the proud, the rich, and the powerful, but not at the expense of other ethnic groups or nations.
The very absence of this single line, then, speaks volumes, because if anyone else in that time had written the Magnificat, the missing line would have been their favorite. But stanza 2 is communal in nature, and so the other nations are not excluded from the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is to include all nations.
After the Magnificat, Luke continues his narrative in Luke 1:56,
56 And Mary stayed with her about [hosei, “as it were, about, nearly”] three months, and then returned to her home.
The Greek term hosei, usually translated “about,” is not an imprecise measure of time. The way we use the term “about” in English gives much more latitude than it does in Greek. We should understand that Mary stayed with Elizabeth exactly or almost exactly three months. Because she came in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Doctor Luke was telling us that Mary stayed to assist in the birth of John.
She then returned to her home in Nazareth.