In Luke 1:25 we read Elizabeth’s words, “25 ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.'” But what favour? She is pregnant. So what disgrace? She had been barren.
Deuteronomy 7:12-14 paints a picture for us. “12 If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your ancestors. 13 He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land—your grain, new wine and olive oil—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you.14 You will be blessed more than any other people; none of your men or women will be childless . . . .” Elizabeth’s childlessness, rightly or wrongly, would have been seen by her contemporaries of her or Zechariah’s sin.
As Zechariah was a priest, of good reputation (he had not been barred from his temple functions), then in many’s minds the fault must have been Elizabeth’s. This in people’s minds would be the issue of unfaithfulness/adultery. Numbers 5 : 20f reads, “ But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— 21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”
Remember the Middle East in the 1st Century was obsessed with the ideas of shame and honour. In fact, they believed that honour was a limited commodity like gold or silver. If you had it, someone else didn’t. Shame likewise could diminish the honour someone held, making more available for you. So quick judgement of Elizabeth by her peers would be in keeping with her culture.
In addition to the perceived sin, and shame versus honour considerations, Elizabeth’s barrenness had a practical aspect as well. Children were security for the future. There were no pensions or retirement plans. It was your children that took care of you in your old age. No one else would!
So even on a personal level, Elizabeth would have “felt cursed” by the lack of children. Her pregnancy with John was a blessing on several levels. She had a carer for her dotage. Zechariah had an heir. People’s mutterings about sin in the family were proven for naught.
This is a wonderful little passage. Elizabeth is moved from a state of “disgrace” to “favour.” Her relative sinlessness (for all people are sinners), is shown to her fellows. Her future is for the time being secured. And in the end, a great prophet enters the world through her.
As a side point, let us be quick to recognise favour in others, and slow to shower disgrace.