Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Canticle of Zechariah

Every day, those who pray Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours recite the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), also sometimes called the Benedictus. This is the song that the evangelist Luke attributes to the father of John the Baptist after John's birth. Zechariah was struck mute by the angel for doubting that God could give him a child in Elizabeth's old age. The gospel for today, the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist, relates how nobody was willing to accept Elizabeth's assertion that the child be named John. Zechariah, who had been mute since the angel announced John's conception, wrote on a tablet, "His name shall be John," and his voice returned.

What I find interesting about the Canticle of Zechariah is something that I learned while reading an essay by Karl Keating in his book Nothing But the Truth. The essay was about different theories among scripture scholars regarding the dating and origins of the four canonical Gospels.

The Benedictus, the song of Zachary, is given in Luke 1:68-79. In Greek, as in English, the Benedictus seems unexceptional as poetry. There is no evidence of clever composition. But, when it is translated into Hebrew, a little marvel appears. In the phrase "to show mercy to our fathers," the expression "to show mercy" is the Hebrew verb hanan, which is the root of the name Yohanan (John). In "he remembers his holy covenant," "he remembers" is the verb zakar, which is the root of the name Zakaryah (Zachary). In "the oath which he swore to our father Abraham" is found, for "to take an oath," the verb shaba, which is the root of the name Elishaba (Elizabeth).

Keating goes on to quote from Jean Carmignac in The Birth of the Synoptics:

Hebrew has a great preference for plays on words, and it takes great pleasure in making reference to similar sounds, which facilitate the task of memorization. Another typical case is hidden in the Our Father (Matt. 6:12-13), in which the word "forgive" corresponds to the root nasa, "debts and debtors" to nashah, and "temptation" to nasah. Is this yet another case of mere chance? Isn't it reasonable to think that these words have been chosen by design in order to produce a sort of internal rhyme?

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