Being Mute as a Sign of Seeing? Zechariah in Luke 1:22

I am preparing a discussion on the growth of Mary traditions in the New Testament for my Sexuality and Christianity course, and I came across this passage that, frankly, I had not thought too much about before:

When he [Zechariah] did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. (Luke 1:27)

What I want to know is how these elements relate to one another: does Zechariah becoming mute signify to others that he has seen a vision? If so, how? Why? Or are they too separate elements?  He was mute, and, through some other means, the people realized he had seen a vision?

On the one hand, the story explicitly states that Zechariah is mute because he disbelieved the angel of the Lord, Gabriel (Luke 1:20), who appeared to him who said that his wife, Elizabeth, would give birth in old age (cf. Abraham’s and Sarah’s laughing at the same idea in Genesis).  It is his punishment.  Moreover, in the subsequent verses Zechariah uses hand signals to communicate, so perhaps he did so here as well?  Apart from some ancient sign language, I am sitting here trying to imagine what these hand signals would look like.

On the other hand, there seems to be a connection between being mute and having a vision.  Why would this be so?  Let’s look at a micro-genre in biblical literature called the “prophetic call narrative.”

Isaiah 6, which the Zechariah account most resembles, Ezekiel 1, Jeremiah 1, and Exodus 3 all fit the prophetic call narrative pattern.

1.God calls, and usually there is some fiery elements.  Isaiah sees Seraphim, which are supposed to be fiery and often represented in ancient material culture as winged serpents.  Also smoke fills temple, implying fire.  God calls in Jeremiah, but without the fireworks of Isaiah.  In Ezekiel 1, however, God calls with extraordinary pyrotechnics.  Of course, God calls Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3.

2. Prophet is reluctant, usually with reference to the mouth.  Isaiah says he is a man of unclean lips.  Jeremiah says he cannot speak because he is too young.  Ezekiel is less reluctant, but he does collapse at the vision (Ezek. 1:28).  Moses is the most reluctant prophet of all, refusing God’s mission several times due to being “slow of speech” (Exod. 3:11, 13; 4:1, 10, 13)

3. God reassures, again with reference to the mouth.  A seraph touches Isaiah’s mouth with a live coal and cleanses his lips and his sins.  God reassures Jeremiah that he is not too young and God will tell him what to do.  God also touches Jeremiah’s mouth, literally “putting words in his mouth” (Jer. 1:9).  God sets Ezekiel up (Ezek. 2:1-2), and even makes him eat a scroll with God’s prophecy on it (Ezek. 2:8-3:3).  For each of Moses’ objections, God offers reassurances – and he needs a lot of them – reminding him that God is the one who gives speech or makes people mute (4:11-12) and also offering Aaron as his mouthpiece (4:14-17).

4. God sends, gives prophet the message.

5. There is usually an association with the priesthood.  Isaiah is in the temple when he has his vision, just like Zechariah in Luke 1.  Jeremiah is of a priestly family.  Ezekiel is also a priest.  Moses establishes the priesthood, setting up Aaron technically as the first high priest, but it seems that Moses also fulfills the role of speaking with God in or at the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting.

Zechariah in Luke 1, too, is a priest in the temple (#5) when he has a vision of an angel of the Lord (#1).  While the messenger is an angel instead of God, it still works, since the ancient biblical texts often oscillate between LORD and angel of the LORD.  The message is about the birth of John the Baptist, so not a typical prophecy; in a sense, John will receive the call, but Zechariah, too, eventually prophesies when his tongue is untied (Luke 1:67-79).  Again, the prophecy is about his son (#4). Zechariah, too, shows proper reluctance (#2), the reluctance of fear (1:12), but also improper reluctance of doubting the angel (like Abraham and Sarah do) (1:18).  The twist here is that the reluctance is not about his mouth or his speech, but his lack of speech is a consequence of his reluctance, reversing, it seems, this part of the pattern.  Nonetheless, he is properly reassured of his fears (Luke 1:13) and his punishment is reversed once signals his acceptance of the angel’s message by naming his son “John” (1:63-64) (#4).

Zechariah, therefore, fits the pattern.  Like in the pattern, there is a strong association with prophets and mouth problems, which are highlighted at the moment of vision.  The difference is that in most of these cases God heals or reassures the mouth problem; the vision is not the cause of the mouth problem.  It picks up God’s annoyed response to Moses that God is the one who makes human’s ability to speak or muteness.  As God could give it, so God could take it away.  So, perhaps that is why when a priest who normally could speak comes out of the temple without the ability to speak, with this pattern in the back of one’s mind, one would infer that he had a divine encounter.

Or maybe he did have some effective form of non-verbal communication.


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