Why did the angel make Zacharias ‘dumb’?

In Sunday school a few weeks ago we discussed the birth of John the Baptist. According to Luke, when Zacharias is in the temple he is greeted by an angel who promises him that he and Elisabeth will have a child. Zacharias replies:

Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.

The angel responds by making Zacharias dumb ‘until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words’.

There are a few interesting things about this exchange:

1. Zacharias’ response to the angel is almost exactly the same as Abraham’s response to angel when he is told he will have a son. Luke is apparently drawing an explicit connection to this episode but the different outcome for Zacharias is striking. Abraham receives an assurance whereas Zacharias receives a very physical rebuke. Abraham may not have doubted like Zacharias but Sarah certainly did. She laughs when she and is even warned about mocking God but retains the ability to speak.

2. Gabriel has this effect on people. The angel Gabriel also appears in Daniel chapter 10 and appears to temporarily make some dumb. Yet, even this is a little problematic because later in Luke chapter 1, Mary asks a very similar question to Zacharias: ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?’ (v. 34). Yet, Gabriel does not make Mary dumb, he just gives her a cryptic answer.

3. After Zacharias leaves the temple the people appear to readily ascribe Zacharias’ silence to divine intervention and so it is possible that this were a sign to both Zacharias and the people that God was intervening in the world. Yet, according to Luke, Gabriel makes Zacharias dumb because he did not believe his promise.

4. Speech is a form of power and removing speech from Zacharias emphasises God’s power to bring them a child. ‘Dumb idols’ are a good example of this motif. Certainly Gabriel suggests that this might be a legitimate reading: ‘I am Gabriel… and am sent to speak unto thee… and, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak’. However, it is not clear why Gabriel would have this experience and not Abraham, Sarah, or Mary.

5. When people become dumb in the NT it is often because of possession, almost always by an evil spirit. There is even once instance in Luke when a person is unable to speak because they are possessed. It seems strange that Luke would allow this potential confusion.

There is obviously something I am missing because I do not understand this exchange. What is Luke doing with this story? Certainly the powerlessness motif makes sense but it is somewhat inconsistent with Mary’s experience in the same chapter. Perhaps Luke is drawing attention to how Zacharias and Mary ask their respective questions. Perhaps God makes Zacharias dumb because this would help him learn some important lesson and Luke – who is unaware of this personal dimension – is simply reporting the story. I do not know the answer.

Any thoughts?

Comments

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds the treatment of Zacharias and Mary inconsistent. Certainly it seems to me that in the traditional route in the manual we put the best possible interpretation on Mary’s question, and the worst possible interpretation on Zacharias question. In my more cynical moments, and I don’t like this interpretation, I wonder if Gabriel’s response is because Zacharias is a priest, much older than Mary and Gabriel expects him just to get in line with what he’s told. Never mind that there are practical implications for knowing whether or not one’s wife has conceived yet, at an age when the normal early sign would not be available.
    Gabriel seems rather more patient with Mary, who perhaps as a woman can’t be expected to know the proper way to respond or something…

    But then, who said angels are perfect! Maybe Gabriel jumped to conclusions about Zacharias and was overly harsh, and was told to take a softer line when dispatched to Mary.

  2. There is, in the Greek and the English, a subtle wordplay on the word “know” in the two responses. Zachariah asks how he can know, and Mary asks how it will happen, even though she doesn’t know (different connotation, but the same root verb). I take this to mean that Mary is more open to the mystery of it all. Zechariah wants certainty and gets struck dumb, whereas Mary’s willing to accept that impossible things can happen, although explanations are nice if you can get them. Confirmation bias, maybe, but that’s how I read it.

  3. MargaretOH says:

    One person in my class pointed out that a big difference between Mary and Zachariah is that the angel’s appearance to Zachariah is an answer to years of pleading prayers (and his baby would give him greater status in the community) where as Mary’s vision came unasked for (and her baby would put her in great danger). The class member understood the angel’s actions not as punishment, but to give Zachariah hope that the promise was true. She said that at times she has read unfulfilled promises from her patriarchal blessing and found them incredibly painful because they no longer seemed possible and suggested that the dumbness was not God smiting Zachariah, but actually a blessing to help him believe.

  4. Catherine S says:

    I taught this lesson in Gospel Doctrine a few weeks ago and we spent a good portion of class discussing this very question! We brought up a lot of the possibilities that have been mentioned here already (Zachariah, being a priest, was perhaps held to a different standard, etc). Some thoughts I had: As a pregnant woman, I am very aware every day that there is a human person growing inside of me. Mary would have been similarly aware of the miracle of Christ growing in her womb. Elisabeth, too, would have had very striking physical reminders that Gabriel’s miracle was occurring. Zachariah, as a man, would have had no physical sign or reminder of Gabriel’s prophesy. Being struck dumb, however, would have been a daily, very physical reminder that he hadn’t hallucinated Gabriel’s visit, but that his wife really was going to bear him a son at long last, and that that son was supposed to do the will of God.

  5. As always, there’s probably more to the story than we get in these few sentences.

    But to me, the questions of Zacharias and Mary seem like very different questions. Gabriel asks, “Wherefore shall I know this?” I picture him narrowing his eyes suspiciously and thinking, “Show me a sign… how do I know I should believe you?” Well, he got his sign!

    Mary asked “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” She didn’t seem unbelieving, just confused. She wasn’t doubting Gabriel’s words, but she was genuinely having trouble understanding how it was going to happen and asked him about it. I mean, she knew how babies were made, but…

    I think of it this way: when you’re having a trial you can either say “How can you do this to me?” or “How can I get through this experience?” The first seems like sort of a prideful Zacharias thing to say, the second seems like sort of a humble Mary thing to say. Not a perfect analogy, but those are my thoughts.

  6. Jenny Evans says:

    @ Hedgehog

    I didn’t really think of that before. Being older, a priest in the temple, having prayed many years for a son, Zacharias was probably expected to have more faith than he displayed. Where much is given, much is required.

    Mary, on the other hand, was a young girl. Speaking in modern terms, he was more like a GA and she was more like one of the youth in my ward.

    In that light, it kind of makes sense that Gabriel might be a little more patient with Mary and not as patient with Zacharias.

  7. I guess there’s nothing necessarily wrong with assuming that Zacharias is unrighteously doubtful and therefore deserving of a harsh punishment, but I think it’s more interesting and possibly more productive to think of how this sign of dumbness affects everyone else in the story. Unlike Gabriel’s private visit to Mary, Gabriel makes his visit to Zacharias very public by means of this sign. So this incident not only turns Zacharias into a faithful believer but also help others believe. The public nature of the story continues with the later naming ceremony of baby John, when Zacharias miraculously regains his speech. This time Zacharias himself has already gained a certainty of his son’s role, but the people have evidently forgotten that the baby is anything special — THEY are the ones that again need a special sign. Lastly, Zacharias’s interesting relationship with speech is an appropriate complement to John’s role as the voice crying in the wilderness. Both are called upon to convey messages while deferring attention away from themselves. John prepares the way for Jesus’ ministry through his preaching; Zacharias prepares the way for his son’s role through his silence.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Julie has talked about the phenomenon of mixed gender pairs in Luke, with this being an example. Mary simply seeks clarification, since she had not been with a man, whereas Zacharias rejects the notion out of hand.

  9. Perhaps it’s not so much about Zacharis or Mary individually but about the categories they symbolize: Zachariah represents the old, worn out, doubting Mosiac law. Mary represents the new, fresh, curious New covenant.

  10. I agree what “whereby shall I know this” isn’t just a “how?” question like Mary’s, or incredulity like Abraham and Sarah show, but is an explicit request for a sign: “by what shall I know this?” Abraham asks a nearly identical question about the land he is to inherit, though, in Genesis 15:8, and he gets his sign. I suspect that setting matters too, for Zacharias. The first part of the angel’s answer is “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God,” — and I read an implied “what more sign do you need?” They’re still, in a more than ordinary sense, in the presence of God, there in the temple, next to the bread that’s constantly in God’s presence. This isn’t a vision like Abraham’s, that might be misunderstood; this is the Angel Gabriel himself, in the Holy Place! In this setting, do you really need some other sign to be sure that the message is true?

  11. The parallel I thought of was Korihor, actually. Demands a sign, gets struck dumb for a significant amount of time, until its removed by a logical outcome (birth on the one hand, death on the other).

    No idea what to make of it, and it may be more in my mind than anything else.

  12. Another lesson is the parallel between Luke 1:20 and Luke 2:19 – Zacharias was forced to keep his emotions & thoughts in his heart by force, whereas Mary naturally (or instinctively) chose to do so. Sharing testimony is good – but do not share all you know.

    That being said, MargaretOH’s view that this was a blessing to help Zacharias’ faith, resonates with me.

  13. the other Marie says:

    Many of the explanations already given here make sense to me. The difference in the response to Abraham/Sarah/Mary and Zacharias might also be due to the fact that the miraculous-birth-to-old-woman was a new idea when presented to Abraham/Sarah and miraculous-birth-to-a-virgin was a new idea when presented to Mary. In addition to the other reasons Zacharias had to believe what he was being told by an angel in the temple, he had Abraham’s and Sarah’s precedent for the miraculous-birth-to-old-woman idea in the sacred history he claimed to believe in. Just one more reason he had less excuse to doubt what he was being told. I think God gives us scripture and expects us to internalize it to the point that we will be better prepared to encounter him than were those who encountered him first.

  14. Anon this time says:

    This may or may not apply to Zacharias & Mary, but when my son was to receive his patriarchal blessing, I spoke with the patriarch beforehand, as my spouse is atheist (wondering if they could attend the blessing). I thought the patriarch’s answer was very interesting:

    Unbelief all by itself is fine – my spouse was welcome, even if they did not believe in God. However, any kind of animosity or cynicism or other negative attitudes (in addition to the disbelief) would interrupt the proceedings and interfere with the spirit of the Lord.

    I have thought upon that many times since – surprised that (according to this particular Patriarch) unbelief, in itself, is not the problem, but the judgments and superior attitudes we add to it are.

  15. I wonder if it might not have something to do with Heavenly Father’s knowledge of which kinds of trials or consequences are most likely to bring us around and humble us. The inability to speak (and possibly to hear, as well; see Luke 1:62) may have been a consequence that would strike the (older, presumably well-educated, priestly) Zachariah the right way, making him unable for a number of months to hold forth and pontificate amongst the other men of his community at whatever passed for the local coffee shop. “Be still and know that I am God” in literal action. Another man may have needed a different trial to produce the same result.

  16. I think all of the above interpretations are plausible. I also wonder if it had something to do with dealing with negative social consequences when spiritually significant events occur. As was noted above, being struck dumb was typically seen as punishment or evidence of possession. While Zacharias was able to transmit the details of his angelic encounter, I’m sure there were skeptics who felt he was seriously unrighteous based on his embarrassing condition. In the same vein, Mary would have faced ridicule with her pregnancy, since God’s involvement in helping an unmarried girl get pregnant seems, on the surface, pretty ridiculous. Zacharias and Mary, in a sense, were both getting a taste of the judgment and rejection their sons would experience. Just an interesting thought that popped in my head while reading this post and the comments.

  17. An idea I put forward in my blog (mormonboke.wordpress.com) last week:

    Zacharias

    In our Gospel Doctrine class last Sunday our teacher posed an interesting question. She asked us if Gabriel smiting Zacharias so that he was deaf and dumb seemed a bit harsh and why it was done. (Note that Luke 1:20 only says ’thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak’ but in verse 62 his family make signs to him indicating that he couldn’t hear).

    There are a number of possible reasons:
    ◾Zacharias may have doubted Gabriel’s message
    ◾He seems to have asked for a sign (‘Whereby shall I know this?’)
    ◾It was a witness to the people at the temple that something miraculous had occurred
    ◾It was a witness to his family when he was healed on insisting on John’s name.

    It seems to me at least possible that there is a further reason. Zacharias was individually a righteous priest but the priesthood in general had become corrupt. The authority of the old priesthood was about to be swept away and a higher priesthood was to come about through Jesus Christ whose forerunner Zacharias’ promised son was to be.

    Bruce R. McConkie wrote:

    “This miraculously-born son of Zacharias was the last legal administrator of the old dispensation, the first of the new; he was the last of the old prophets, the first of the new. With him ended the old law, and with him began the new era of promise. He is the one man who stood, literally, at the crossroads of history; with him the past died and the future was born.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:113)

    Further, D&C 84:26-27 says:

    And the lesser priesthood continued, which priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel;

    27 Which gospel is the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments, which the Lord in his wrath caused to continue with the house of Aaron among the children of Israel until John, whom God raised up…’

    I suggest that the striking deaf and dumb of Zacharias could symbolise that the old dispensation was to be replaced by a new one ushered in by John and that the priests of the old dispensation, who Zacharias represented in the temple that day, would no longer hear the word of the Lord or be His voice on the earth.

  18. mary asked for the science of how it will be achieved despite having this strange appearance in her room whereas Zachariah asked for a sign from the angel of the Lord as he stood by the altar of incense in the temple by the veil! Ironically Gabriel softly rebukes this lack of faith by making Zachariah himself the sign for 9 months for everyone around him.
    But the distinction between the two responses is clearly that Mary’s question is not a lack of faith.
    We shouldn’t judge Zachariah too harshly from this I’m sure his wife enjoyed those 9 months of relative quiet! And Zachariah proves his strength and faith when he later gives his life to protect his son John from Herod’s soldiers.
    http://Www.urimandthummin.blogspot.com

  19. builderwill says:

    Many have the belief that angels don’t have agency, that they act only a vessels of the divine. But if we look a bit deeper I believe we see that non-mortal beings have just as much agency as mortal beings and are just a prone to making choices that reflect their individuality. Some angels may be given strict instructions from the divine about the delivery of their message and some may be given just the bare outline and how they deliver the message is up to them. I like to think that Gabriel represents the latter. I also believe that the difference in Zachariah’s and Mary’s treatment may have been a personal peccadillo. Maybe he (Gabriel) was having a bad day and Zachariah’s question seemed a bit impertinent and wounded his pride so he taught Zachariah a lesson. Maybe he was a little sweet on an attractive young lady and gave her the benefit of the doubt. Of maybe we have absolutely no idea and have have to play JRH and make up what we want to make the story fit our own narrative.

  20. Zachariah says, “Whereby shall I know this.” “I” – Gabriel says, “I,” “I,”… Listen you old goat, this is not about you, this is about John. You have gotten to the point where you think you’re important. I’ll just shut you up for a while… until the one that is important arrives. Thinkle on that for about nine months while you regain your humility. – Just sayin…