At church this morning, the pastor preached about the story in Luke 1, which is about the birth of John the Baptist.
Zechariah was a priest who was old, and he and his wife, Elizabeth, wanted a child. Zechariah’s priestly section was on duty, and he was selected by lot to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and offer incense. At the right side of the altar of incense, the angel Gabriel stood. Gabriel promised Zechariah that Zechariah’s wife would bear a son named John, who would cause many to rejoice and would turn many people to God. This son would not drink alcohol. Because Zechariah was old, he was skeptical about this promise, so Gabriel said that Zechariah would be mute until the promise was fulfilled. For months, Zechariah was holding in the excitement of what he had seen and heard. When John was born and Zechariah could finally speak, Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, delivered a long prophecy about what John would do and how that fit into God’s plan for Israel.
There are two aspects of this story that have long bothered me, and I will interact with those, while also sharing how my pastor this morning interacted with those aspects.
A. Why was Zechariah in the sanctuary of the Temple? I thought that only the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and that occurred only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).
The answer to my question is probably that there were three places in the Temple. There was the courtyard, which was where the bronze altar for the burnt offering was, along with the bronze laver for washing. Further inside of the Temple/Tabernacle was the Holy Place, which had the golden lampstand, the table for the shewbread, and the golden altar of incense. Further inside, and behind the veil, was the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant was. (Well, it was not there during the time of Zechariah, but that was still considered to be a very holy place.)
The high priest could only enter the Holy of Holies, behind the veil, on the Day of Atonement. But Aaron entered the Holy Place right outside of the Holy of Holies at other times. He was to burn incense every morning (Exodus 30:7-8) and regularly keep the lamps burning (Leviticus 24), and bread was to be arranged on the table every Sabbath (Leviticus 24). See here for a blog post, which includes a helpful map of the Tabernacle. I should also mention Hebrews 9:1-7’s distinction between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Vv 6-7 say: “Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people” (KJV).
Many commentators interpret Luke 1 in light of the twenty-four courses of priests in I Chronicles 24. According to I Chronicles 24, there was an order for these courses of priests to come into the house of God. Some commentators who are Christian believers and accept Luke 1 as historical use the alleged timing of Zechariah’s “turn” in the Temple to calculate Jesus’ birth. In any case, only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and that occurred only once a year. But perhaps the other twenty-four courses of priests, depending on when their turn was, came into the Holy Place at other times and fulfilled the duties required for that: keeping the lamp burning, burning incense, etc. Zechariah’s duty in Luke 1 was to burn the incense.
The pastor was saying that Zechariah, by lot, got the job of going into the sanctuary and offering incense, whereas other priests (perhaps in his course, or section, that was on duty) got more menial jobs, such as sweeping the ashes. I thought that the Levites, not the priests, were the ones who did the menial stuff. But who knows? Would the Levites have been allowed into the Holy of Holies to clean? Maybe not, since they had a lower level of holiness than the Aaronide priests. I Chronicles 23:28-29 says, however, that the Levites cleaned the holy objects and were in charge of the bread laid out on the table, both of which pertained to the Holy Place. Yet, II Chronicles 29:18 presents the Aaronide priests entering the inner part of the House of the LORD to cleanse it. Could the Levites perform their duties for the Holy Place, without actually entering it? Perhaps the Aaronide priests brought out the holy objects for the Levites to clean, or the Levites gave the Aaronide priests the bread to take into the sanctuary.
I should mention that there is a Christian tradition that Zechariah was the high priest and that the events in Luke 1 occurred on the Day of Atonement. See here. Maybe this tradition was wrestling with the same sort of question that I had. I am not convinced that Zechariah was the high priest, however, for Luke 1:8 says that he was in the sanctuary burning incense because it was his section’s turn to be on duty, and he was chosen to burn incense by lot. These were the reasons that he was there, not any high priestly status.
B. A second question that I have concerns Zechariah’s prophecy. Zechariah seems to talk about Messianic expectations that many Jews of his day had: Israel would be saved from her enemies and serve God without fear (Luke 1:71-74). Zechariah was excited because he thought that his son John had something to do with that. But that did not happen. Rather, Israel’s Roman oppressors destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E.
Perhaps Zechariah’s prophecy was conditional: if Israel repented at John’s preaching, then God would save Israel from her enemies. There is good reason to think this. Luke 7:30 states that the Pharisees and lawyers, by not being baptized by John, rejected God’s plan for themselves. Jesus in Luke 13:34-35 says that he desired to gather Jerusalem together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but Jerusalem was not willing, and thus her house is left to her desolate. In Acts 3:19-21, Peter seems to be telling the Israelites that, if they repent, God will blot out their sins and send Jesus to inaugurate the restitution of all things.
I have problems with this approach, however. For one, Zechariah does not appear to be making a conditional prophecy: he seems to be saying that John will (not might) bring people back to God, and that God will save Israel from her enemies; in a sense, that happened, for John did help convert many people. Luke 7:29 mentions tax collectors who were baptized by John; but there were influential people who did not receive John’s preaching. Second, there is an indication even early in the Gospel of Luke’s story of Jesus that the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus was not God’s Plan B in case Israel failed to repent, but rather was God’s plan all along. Simeon tells Mary when Jesus was a baby that a sword will pierce her soul (Luke 2:35), which may refer to the sorrow she would feel at Jesus’ crucifixion.
Can all of this be reconciled? Perhaps. Maybe early Christians believed that Jesus’ death was part of the eschatological pangs that would precede Israel’s deliverance from her enemies. Or perhaps the hope was that, after Jesus died for the sins of Israel, Israel would repent, and God would send Jesus back to do what the Messiah was expected to do (Acts 3:19-21). The hope may have been that John set the stage for that, or cultivated the soil for it, by bringing people to repentance and receptivity to what God was about to do.
Turning to my pastor’s message, the pastor was saying that Zechariah was excited because John was involved in a new way in which God would relate to people. God would no longer simply be in the Temple, amidst smoke from the incense, but would be out there, with the people. I would be hesitant to say that Luke has a view of the incarnation, of God becoming a human being in Jesus. At the same time, I would agree that a case could be made that John and Jesus were bringing God “out there.” John was baptizing, offering forgiveness of sins outside of the Temple. Jesus’ ministry was bringing God’s healing and forgiveness to people, allowing them to experience God more tangibly. Jesus still respected the Temple in the Gospel of Luke and encouraged lepers to follow the Torah’s procedure (Luke 17:14) after being healed, but, in a sense, Jesus was bringing God “out there.”