A family feud in the Christmas story? Thursday, 4th Week in Advent – Luke 1:57-66
God commanded both Abraham and Moses to circumcise male babies when they are eight days old (Genesis 17:9-14; Leviticus 12:3). John’s circumcision, while routine, nevertheless marks Zechariah and Elizabeth as faithful in their observance of Jewish law. That is to be expected, of course, given that Zechariah is a priest (v. 5; see also v. 6).
In the culture of the Israelites, the name of a child was very significant. God sometimes changed the name of a person, such as changing the name of Abram to Abraham, of Sarai to Sarah, and of Jacob to Israel. At other times, God gave the name of the child before birth. Such is the case with both John and Jesus.
The drama of our text has to do with a family argument over the name which was to be given the child of Zacharia and Elizabeth. Names were important in that culture, and were supposed to embody something of the importance or character of the person or to make some sort of statement or to express some sort of faith. The naming of a child would normally be a parental function, but these neighbours and relatives try to influence this naming to honour Zacharia by naming the child after him. The question which we must bear in mind as we approach our study of this passage is, “why would Luke bother to include the account of a family argument over the name of a child?” There are two theories.
The naming of the son after his father implied that this child would walk in the steps of his father, that he would carry on the father’s name, and thus his work as well. Had John been named ‘Little Zach,’ he would have been expected to grow up as a priest, just like his father. He would thus have gone about with his father as he carried out his priestly duties, learning how to do things, just like his daddy did them. To be named by any other name would have implied just the opposite. John would not follow in his father’s steps.
Yet there are others who argue that it would be unusual to name a son after his father, because sons are usually known by their given name in addition to their father’s name as in “Simon, son of Jonah” (Matthew 16:17). If Elizabeth were to name the baby Zechariah, he would be known as Zechariah, son of Zechariah, an awkward phrasing. These neighbours and relatives are willing to ignore that problem to honour Zechariah, probably out of their pity at his muteness.
They motion to Zechariah, as if he is deaf as well as mute. We have no evidence that he is deaf aside from this verse. People often assume that a mute person cannot hear, which is often but not always the case. That seems to be what is happening here.
One of the first and strongest impressions we gain from these verses is the sense of the prominence of Elizabeth, and of her determination for her son to be named “John” rather than “Zacharias.” Her actions may well have been considered inappropriate by those who observed her. Thus, for Elizabeth to be outspoken and insistent may have shocked them as totally “out of place” for a woman. Nevertheless, Elizabeth did so, and Luke strongly implies that she was both godly and right in so doing.
The neighbours and relatives who attended for the circumcision had their well-worn expectation about the child’s name. But they had to learn that it is God who chooses the name and the destiny of this child. Perhaps, with every child, God moves the world in a new direction.
Zechariah has been dumb for almost nine months, but now he can speak and his first words are a song of praise. Everyone recognized that John was going to be an exceptional child. It is clear that Zechariah understands that his son will be the for-runner of the Messiah. He rejoices because the coming of the Messiah is now very close.
Today, think about your own name. And thank the Lord, for your name, which is written on the palm of His hand.