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Two contrasting figures appear at the opening of the Christian era: an old man and a young girl. In separate narratives, Luke's literary artistry draws attention first to one and then to the other.
He is Zechariah, resident of Jerusalem, the centuries-old religious center of Judaism. A priest whose knowledge of divine things has been seasoned with the years, Zechariah is astounded by an angel's proclamation that he and Elizabeth would give birth to a son.
She is Mary, resident of Nazareth, a small village removed both in distance and in spirit from Jerusalem. A young teenager whose knowledge of God has been fostered by deep insight into the Scriptures, Mary is astounded by the angel's greeting. Yet she listens intently to his annunciation that she, a virgin, would bear God's Son.
Zechariah doubted, but Mary believed. Perhaps the symbolism is unintentional on Luke's part, but it is there nevertheless: the old era, long past with the close of the Old Testament, receives its final reprise with the incredulity of a man. The new era, about to be proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, begins with the faith of a woman.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus
It would be too much to say that ancient Near-Eastern patriarchalism, which embraced even the people of God, ended with Zechariah, or that Mary symbolized the new woman in ministry. The Old Testament did contain positive teachings and examples regarding women, and Mary and other women of her times would therefore have had outstanding models of faithful women of God.
Perhaps Mary's poetic nature responded to the invitation of Miriam, Moses' sister, to the Hebrew women to "sing to the Lord" in celebration of the Exodus from Egypt (Exod. 15:20-21). Miriam, described in that passage as a prophetess, appears in what seems to be a leadership role in Micah 6:4, where God says, "I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam."
Deborah was likewise called a prophetess. Even before she led the Israelite troops to a significant victory and before Barak refused to assume leadership, Deborah "was leading Israel" (Judg. 4:4).
Another prophetess, Huldah, was chosen above her contemporaries Jeremiah and Zephaniah to declare God's will for the people when the law was rediscovered in the temple (2 Kings 22:8-20; 2 Chron. 34:14-28).
Mary's biblical models probably also included Esther, who risked her life for her people at a time when God seemed to be silent (the name of God does not even appear in the Book of Esther). King Xerxes' favorite, Vashti, had been discharged because she would not let him use her by having her display her beauty in public. The king also decreed that all women in his realm should respect their husbands. He then found Esther, and she became Vashti's successor. The narrative goes on to trace the various ways in which Esther skillfully used her official and personal relationships with the king to bring good both to her cousin and guardian, Mordecai, and to her people Israel.
Surely, as Mary listened to readings from Genesis, she reflected on the figure of Sarah, that good woman who was a victim of ancient Near Eastern customs, and on Ruth, celebrated for her devotion and faithfulness. There were dark figures of women in the Old Testatament as well. Their stories need not be recounted here, but even in the lives of some of them Mary could find encouraging evidence of the grace of God. One need think only of the prostitute Rahab, who chose to facilitate the invasion of Joshua and his forces against her own pagan city (Josh. 2:1-21; 6:22-25).
The noble wife of Proverbs 31 certainly was an exemplary figure for Mary. In addition to running the household and caring for her family, as one might have expected from a woman of her generation, she involved herself in various profitable commercial ventures. She had "strength and dignity," spoke with wisdom, and gave "faithful instruction" (Prov. 31:25-26).
If there is any doubt about Mary's acquaintance with the Old Testament, that should be dispelled by a study of her song, the Magnificat. It catches not only the spirit but also the vocabulary of Hannah's prayer at the dedication of Samuel. The parallels are obvious as each of these women, though in very different circumstances, celebrated God's gift of a son.
The intertestamental period must have had its heroes for Mary also-women as well as men. The towering figures of this era, especially the Maccabeans, who revolted against foreign pagan oppression, have become more honored with the passing of the years. But certainly in Mary's time there were many traditions-some were factual, some legendary-about the brave people who resisted violence and moral evil. It would be surprising if Mary had not known of these. The story about the outstanding woman of the times, Judith, is an example. It features Judith as a beautiful and devout widow. When her city was under attack, she won her way into enemy headquarters and next to Holofernes, the leader. She killed him and brought his head back to her people. Would Mary not have learned stories like this-even those that were pious legends? Judith seems to be an expression of ideals drawn, at least in part, from the outstanding Old Testament women mentioned above, with additional dashes of heroics that remind us of such characters as the redoubtable Jael and the woman who dropped a millstone on the head of Abimelech in the rowdy days of the judges (Judg. 4:21; 9:52-53).
While the book of Judith specifically intends to show how God worked through weak vessels, nevertheless, Judith is portrayed as a woman of great strength. This applies also to her faith. She sought to live in accordance with laws of ritual purity, and she was faithful in prayer. She is also a model of wisdom. In spite of her questionable use of her beauty and deceitful shrewdness, her story obviously commended itself to the writer's contemporaries and their descendants. As a result, the figure of Judith stands as a model that was greatly admired. She is
consistently depicted as superior to the men with whom she is associated.... The author may be saying that God's power is operative through the weakest of human agents. Nonetheless, Judith is no weakling. Her courage, her trust in God, and her wisdom-all lacking in her male counterparts-save the day for Israel.
Another woman celebrated in the apocryphal writings and perhaps known to Mary was Susanna. The story of her faithful obedience to God is preserved in one of the additons to the Book of Daniel. In yet another apocryphal work, named after the pious Jewish figure Tobit, Mary would have found a rather different citation of a model. In one of Tobit's frequent expressions of praise to God, he lauds God's gift of Eve to Adam as his helper and support. He apparently attributed to Eve a certain amount of moral strength that Adam needed.
Mary would therefore have had several models of faithful women both in Scripture and in the intertestamental stories. The Magnificat shows that as a young woman she had a firm grasp on the nature of God and his work in history and in her own life. Mary speaks there of God's greatness, holiness, mercy, deeds in history, and faithfulness to his covenant. Her reference to the needed reversal of the fate of rich and poor shows her sense of social justice. Mary has been the object of both excessive adulation and unnecessary belittling. But the portrait in Luke's birth narratives and the further unfolding of her experiences in the Gospels reveal a woman who both loved God and needed to grow in faith.
Mary's Growth as a Woman of God
Mary's growth was of a most unusual nature: she had to come to terms with the unique nature of her Son. She had to recognize that his apparent brusqueness (e.g., "Didn't you know ..." [Luke 2:49] and the address "Woman, ..." [John 2:4 and 19:26 KJV]) communicated, not disrespect or insubordination in his relationship to her, but rather the difference in their ultimate relationship. In that respect they were not so much mother and son, but woman and divine Savior.
Excerpted from Daughters of the Church by Ruth A. Tucker Walter Liefeld Copyright © 1987 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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