Blessed Are We
Given the rare occurrence of "women only" scenes in Scripture, it is all the more significant that Luke bookends his gospel with them. He begins with Elizabeth and Mary and he ends with the women who observed Jesus' burial and went to the tomb on Easter morning (Lk. 23:55-24:4).
As one commentator points out, "The first two chapters of Luke invite the reader into the world of women and begin the story of Jesus from their perspective." (Reid, 55)
A Scene in Which Rivalry between Women Is Missing
One could certainly argue that the women listed above were only doing what needed to be done. Still, among these scenes of drunken incest in a cave, the bartering of husbands in a field, and murder in a tent, the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth looks pretty wholesome. There is no sense of opposition or rivalry between the two women. Their relationship is less like the bitter rivalry between Rachel and Leah and more like the collaborative effort between the sister and mother of Moses and the Pharaoh's daughter, or the amicable relationship between Ruth and Naomi. The relationship between older woman and younger woman present in Naomi and Ruth finds a parallel in that of Elizabeth and Mary.
A Scene in Which Women Are Blessed
In this scene of Elizabeth and Mary, both women are portrayed as having received a blessing and of being empowered by God to play a part in conveying a blessing to future generations. They are by no means the first such women in Israel's history. Elizabeth is one of several Israelite mothers of sons important in God's purposes for his people. Like several of them, Elizabeth was enabled to bear a child by the special favor of God.
- Sarah (Gen. 17-18; 21:1-7)
- Rebekah (Gen. 25:21)
- Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29:31-30:24)
- The mother of Samson (Judg. 13)
- Hannah (1 Sam. 1:1-2:10)
Elizabeth expresses her praise to God for, in her words, "taking away the disgrace I have endured among my people" (Lk. 1:25). Sarah praises God in similar fashion in Genesis 21:6-7.
Mary's pregnancy belongs to this series of miraculously favored women, but also transcends it because it is virginal (Bauckham, 58). The theme of Mary as blessed is a refrain in Luke's gospel. Beatitudes are bestowed on Mary by Elizabeth (Lk. 1:45), by Gabriel at the Annunciation (1:28), and by the unknown woman in the crowd (Lk. 11:27). This is reminiscent of the beatitude bestowed on Jael, a fierce heroine of the Book of Judges near the end of Deborah's Song "Blessed among women be Jael, blessed among tent-dwelling women" (Judg. 5:24). In the scene of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, both women have been blessed with insight into their respective roles in God's plans. Mary receives an angelic revelation of the identity of the son she will bear. Elizabeth receives a Spirit-inspired insight into the identity of the child Mary carries (1:41-45).
A Scene in Which Women Are Agents of Liberation
Just as women in Israel's history have been blessed, so they have been empowered to bring liberation to their people. In the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha a series of women are portrayed as human agents in God's deliverance of his people from their enemies, taking their place alongside such male figures as Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and David.
- Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives (Ex. 1:15-21) who spared the lives of Hebrew baby boys in rebellion against the Pharaoh's orders.
- Deborah (Judg. 4-5) whose inspired leadership led to victory for Israel over the Canaanites.
- Jael (Judg. 4:17-22; 5:24-27) who murdered Sisera, the Canaanite leader.
- Hannah (1 Sam. 1-2) who committed her only child to the priesthood in gratitude to God.
- Esther who used her beauty and brains to save her people from annihilation by the Persians.
- Judith, who decapitated Holofernes and brought about the liberation of her people from foreign reign.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.