It was “in the days of King Herod of Judea,” says the Gospel of Luke, that the angel Gabriel appeared to an elderly man named Zechariah, a member of the “priestly order of Abijah” who served God in the Temple (Luke 1:5). Zechariah was married to Elizabeth, who herself was of priestly stock and a cousin of Mary, but the couple was childless.
Zechariah was offering incense on the golden altar in the Temple, just outside the Holy of Holies, a very great honor. When he saw the angel, he was terrified. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John” (Luke 1:13).
Luke may have modeled this verse on the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, in which God told Abraham that “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call him Isaac” (Genesis 17:19). Luke then added another narrative layer, inspired by the story of Hannah and Elkanah in the first book of Samuel. Like Sarah, Hannah was unable to give her husband a child. She prayed to God, and promised that if she bore a son, she would raise him to become a Nazirite—a person devoted to the service of God. “He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants,” Hannah pledged, “and no razor shall touch his head” (I Samuel 1:11). In Luke’s Gospel, the angel tells Zechariah, “He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:12-15).
And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.
The angel foretold that the boy would minister to the “people of Israel ... with the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:13, 16-17). Zechariah could not believe the angel’s words, because he and his wife were already advanced in age. “How will I know that this is so?” he asked incredulously. In response, Gabriel struck him deaf and mute until the day that his son would be born. Everything came to pass as the angel had foretold. “After those days,” Luke continues, “his wife Elizabeth conceived” (Luke 1:24).
Entries in this series are excerpts from the National Geographic special issue 50 Most Influential Figures of the Bible, which was adapted from Who's Who in the Bible: Unforgettable People and Timeless Stories from Genesis to Revelation, published by National Geographic Books.