Progressive reflections on the lectionary #2

Luke 2: 22-40

Progressive reflections on the lectionary #2

We take a short break from the breathless storytelling of “Mark” to visit the parable type tale of the ‘presentation’ of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem as told by “Luke”.

The passage includes a number of Luke’s classic motifs: the pairing of a male and female character, clever narrative devices, and heavily symbolic language.

Two new characters are presented: Simeon, who looked forward to the ‘consolation of Israel’ and Anna ‘the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.’

Simeon is said to be both righteous and devout, while Anna, who has been living and fasting in the temple is said to be of ‘a great age’. She was married for seven years, and has either been widowed for a further 84 years, or has lived to 84. Luke is vague about which.

There are lots of rabbit holes to go down, but I’m just going to reflect briefly on the symbolism of Anna, and to a lesser extent Simeon, in terms of what’s called ‘restoration eschatology’.

In other words, I’m asking what meaning they have in terms of the fixation of the 1st century Jews on the restoration of God’s (scattered) chosen people, to their promised land.

This was not a side issue then – the restoration was THE KEY THING for the Jews of the second temple time. The covenant between Israel and Yahweh had to be restored, ultimately that involved the bringing back together of God’s scattered people – because this was the job of the promised Messiah.

Neither is it a side issue now, understanding the belief in the restoration of Israel helps explain some of what is happening now in Palestine.

Like “Matthew”, Luke works hard to present Jesus as the Messiah, and here he uses historical/prophetic references to do this.

Already, in Luke’s story, the shepherds have visited, to remind us of the great shepherd king, David, whose ‘line’ the Messiah must be from.

Key, though, in Luke’s account is the figure of Mary, whose politically revolutionary song (The Magnificat) sets out the character of Jesus that Luke will go on to portray. It’s not so clear to us, perhaps, unless we’re steeped in Jewish history, but Mary’s song has a pretty straightforward reference back to Leah whose servant Zilpah was the mother of Asher from whom we now hear that Anna is descended – (compare Gen 30:13 with Luke 1: 48-49).

Luke uses a trademark narrative device, a kind of transitional pause after Simeon’s speech, to focus attention on Anna, and then provides us with a wealth of biographical information about her.

He tells us that Anna is of the tribe of Asher – notably Asher means ‘blessed’ (see above). Phanuel, who Luke says is Anna’s father, is the Greek version of Penuel/Peniel which means ‘face of God’. Don’t forget that the great patriarch Jacob got the name Israel after wrestling with God at Peniel, its symbolism is really important.

The tribe of Asher is symbolically important too, for at least two reasons. Firstly Asher was one of the tribes that was lost, taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 721 BCE.

The ‘Jews’ of Jesus time are Southern Kingdom people, descendants of the exilic returnees the tribe of Judah (hence the name), the smaller tribe of Benjamin, and some Levites. Note, then, that Anna is not a ‘Jew’, but an ‘Israelite’. Just like not all porpoises are dolphins, so not all Israelites are Jews.

Anna was one of the other nine and a bit (usually referred to as ten) dispersed/lost tribes of Israel, descended from Asher, which was also the most northern of the northern tribes. Significantly, for the people who were concerned about what the prophets had to say, this is part of the territory in which the prophet Elijah was active (1 Kings 17 & 18). Anna’s genealogy is doing a lot of symbolic work!

Anna’s numbers are significant too – seven represents ‘abundance’ so her marriage was one of abundance. Her widowhood, or whole life, is linked to the number 84 (7x12). Twelve meant ‘perfection’ so 84 represents abundance and perfection. She has lived a kind of perfect life, making her an ideal type of poor, pious, Israelite.

Anna and Simeon together constitute the legally important ‘two witnesses’ to Jesus’ messianic status: see also Luke 24: 13-35. They also represent the proper acceptance of Jesus as Messiah by the Jews and the rest of Israel. They’re a kind of ideal type representation of each group.

Luke brackets his story with these two characters, telling us that Simeon “looked forward to the consolation of Israel" (v25) and then that Anna speaks about Jesus to all those "who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem" (v38).

The principal theme of Luke’s story, then, is that the restoration/reunification expectation of Israel is to be fulfilled in Jesus. Given the ongoing disaster in Palestine, this expectation has real contemporary relevance.

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Image: Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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