BNG is pleased to partner with Baker Publishing Group and Perkins School of Theology at SMU to present a twice-weekly Advent reflection series written by Jack Levison. The reflections will be published every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the season.
It is difficult to imagine what Elizabeth felt as her leathered body cradled a baby. Luke describes her experience in terms not of a swollen belly or an aching back or the seasons of gestation or the glow of pregnancy or the precarious straits of birth. Luke describes her experience in terms of the Holy Spirit.
Then, six months after Zechariah was told Elizabeth would nurture a prophet in her womb, Mary visited with the news of her own pregnancy. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord’” (Luke 1:41-45).
What gushes, inspired, from Elizabeth is praise and blessing. Twice she calls her younger cousin blessed (eulogēmenē) and once more, blessed (makaria). Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, blesses and blesses and blesses once again.
“This is not a tame telling, a whispered word of encouragement, sisterly advice murmured sideways.”
This is not a tame telling, a whispered word of encouragement, sisterly advice murmured sideways. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud voice. For a sense of the intensity of that experience, we need to pause over these words.
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the word “fill” (millē), means absolute fullness. A pregnancy comes to term — is filled (Genesis 25:24). A period of purification is completed — filled (Leviticus 12:4, 6).
Spaces, too, are filled. When Egyptian houses are filled with swarms of flies, more than a few flies can be expected (Exodus 8:17 in Hebrew or 8:21 in Greek). When the hem of God’s robe fills the temple, more than a tip of the garment occupies the inner sanctum (Isaiah 6:1). When Jeremiah protests that the land is filled with idols, he means to say the land is polluted to the full (Jeremiah 16:18). When the Jordan fills its banks, the river floods those banks (Joshua 3:15).
Birthing, swarming, polluting, flooding. Filling. Elizabeth was filled to the brim with the Holy Spirit.
“Elizabeth was filled to the brim with the Holy Spirit.”
Filled with the Spirit, Elizabeth exclaimed. This Greek word occurs only five times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, all of them in the books of Chronicles, where worship with trumpets and cymbals and harps and lyres is raucous, riotous and rambunctious. In the very last use of this word (anephōnēsen), the Israelites gathered in unison with trumpets and harp-singing and acclamation, and “raised a sound with trumpets and cymbals and instruments of songs … And the house was filled with a cloud of the Lord’s glory” (2 Chronicles 5:13).
Just as the house had been filled with a cloud of God’s glory in a moment of unbridled praise, so now Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit in a moment of unbridled — perhaps even raucous, riotous and rambunctious — praise.
Finally, Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, exclaimed with a loud voice (kraugē megalē). This seems rather at odds with her persona as the righteous, blameless, elderly, dutiful wife of Zechariah. It is. Luke adopts this phrase in just one other instance, toward the close of the book of Acts, where he describes a violent confrontation between Pharisees and Sadducees, prompted by none other than the Apostle Paul. The skirmish grew so violent that the Romans sent in soldiers to squelch it (Acts 23:9-10).
Perhaps Elizabeth, after five months of seclusion, with a baby bumping around in her belly, couldn’t help but shout blessings at the top of her lungs, filled, as she was, with the Holy Spirit.
Jack Levison holds the W.J.A. Power Chair of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. He is known for his groundbreaking work on the Holy Spirit and topics both biblical and theological. This column is excerpted from his book An Unconventional God. Used here with permission of Baker Publishing, © 2020.
Also in this Advent series: