(5) In the reign of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the division called after Abijah. His wife, whose name was Elizabeth, was also a descendant of Aaron. (6) They were both righteous people, who lived blameless lives, guiding their steps by all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. (7) But they had no child, Elizabeth being barren; and both of them were advanced in years.
This passage introduces the reader to Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. The connection to the priest Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are both from the line of Aaron, and the coming birth of John the Baptist, the last "Old Testament" prophet, is important because it establishes continuity from the law and temple based religion, the Old Covenant, to Jesus and the New Covenant. The priestly heritage also establishes that John the Baptist would be in line to become a priest.
By placing these events during the reign of Herod, known often as Herod the Great, we know that these events happened no later than 4 B.C.E. as Herod reigned from 37-4 B.C.E. He was appointed King of the Jews by the Romans. Herod was an influential but ruthless ruler who funded great building projects including refurbishing the Temple. Priests were divided into 24 divisions which served the Temple twice a year. For Zechariah, this was the division of Abijah. On the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles all 24 divisions would serve totaling over 20,000 priestly servants.
Both, Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous and blameless. It is important to establish that Elizabeth's barrenness was not a result of any personal sin. It is also an interesting passage in light of Romans 3:10 where Paul argues that none are righteous. This should not be read as any sort of individual perfection. Nor should the statement that they guided "their steps by all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord" be read as a legalistic salvation. Galatians 3:10-11 argues that the law does not justify, only faith. However, built into the law were expressions of faith and contrition. As such, this should likely be read not only that they fully kept the acts of the law but that they kept the spirit of the law and thus were guided into true faith in God.
Barrenness had cursed this couple for their long lives. It would have been a personal shame for Elizabeth and interpreted by many of her contemporaries as a sign of divine disfavor. They were likely well past childbearing age giving the reader a sad picture of a faithful old Jewish couple without the blessing of children and no one to care for them. Historically, Jews were not considered old until they passed the age of sixty. So while it is impossible to ascertain their exact age, we can assume they were likely over sixty. The point is clear though, they were righteous. Yet, they had no children. The miracle to follow is a sign of God's grace and power.
Interestingly, Zechariah means "Yehweh has remembered" and Elizabeth means "the oath of God". Together their names state "Yehweh has remembered the oath of God." Remembering and fulfilling that oath is exactly the story of Luke's account of Jesus.
The Faith on View Biblical Commentary project is meant to be collaborative. It begins with the researched ideas of Rondall Reynoso but we all have a great deal to learn. Therefore, we encourage thoughtful responses, questions, and challenges. If convinced the above commentary will be updated. We do require, however, that this dialogue be carried out in love. Comments that are vulgar, insulting, or inappropriately aggressive will be removed.