The Old Testament Figures Hidden Behind the Annunciation

Behind the Annunciation stand several familiar Old Testament figures like Eve, Sarah, and Hannah.

But there is another set of hidden figures who foreshadow Mary’s encounter with the angel. They include a warrior judge, an assassin widow, and a runaway slave.

‘The Lord is with you’

The first thing the angel tells Mary is, “The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). These words of consolation echo a similar statement an angel made to an ancient Israelite, Gideon, who was a judge:

The messenger of the LORD appeared to him and said: The LORD is with you, you mighty warrior! (Judges 6:12).

 

This context is quite different than the one in Luke. Earlier in the chapter we learn that God has allowed the Midians, a nation of nomads, to oppress the Israelites because of their sins. The situation was so dire that the Israelites were hiding out in mountains and caves, as their enemies decimated their livestock and reduced them to ‘utter poverty.’

Enter Gideon, the man God appointed to lead the Israelites to victory.

So far, the story seems to have little in common with Mary’s, but as the narrative continues several parallels arise. First, like Mary, Gideon questions the angel:

“My lord,” Gideon said to him, “if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are his wondrous deeds about which our ancestors told us when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ For now the LORD has abandoned us and has delivered us into the power of Midian” (verse 13).

The angel responds:

Go with the strength you have, and save Israel from the power of Midian. Is it not I who send you? (verse 14).

The angel, likely a pre-Incarnate Christ, reaffirms that God is with Gideon, who is being sent on a mission. Mary too is empowered to go on a mission for God. Immediately after the Annunciation, Mary hurries to her cousin Elizabeth’s. She is constantly on the move in the infancy narratives, presenting Jesus in the temple and later seeking him out after he stays back in Jerusalem after Passover. In the Gospel of John Mary helps launch Jesus’ own mission at the wedding at Cana.

The kingdom of God that Jesus brought to earth was unlikely any on earth. The visible kingdom of ancient Israel had might warriors like Gideon but in the hidden kingdom of heaven the virgin mother was its mightiest warrior.

‘Blessed are you … above all the women on earth’

The angel declares that Mary is favored and full of grace, recalling one particular Old Testament woman Judith to whom King Uzziah said:

Blessed are you, daughter, by the Most High God, above all the women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth, who guided your blow at the head of the leader of our enemies. Your deed of hope will never be forgotten by those who recall the might of God. May God make this redound to your everlasting honor, rewarding you with blessings, because you risked your life when our people were being oppressed, and you averted our disaster, walking in the straight path before our God” (Judith 13:18-20).

This speech also brings to mind Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary in the Visitation. Judith, who is said to be above all other women, is undoubtedly a Marian figure. However, as with Gideon, the circumstances are different than Mary’s. This speech comes after Judith, who was a widow, had snuck into the camp of the enemy Assyrians and beheaded their commander, Holofernes. Judith triumphantly returns to the Israelites, displaying the head.

Judith seems very much a rough-around-the-edges woman, unlike the beautifully docile handmaiden we imagine Mary to be. But Mary engages in a combat of her own, as prophesied in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmities between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed: she will crush thy head, and you will lie in wait for her heel.” Eve here is promised a redemptive reversal of what has just happened, where she yielded to Satan’s temptations.

Although the gospel does not mention any contact Mary has with Satan, her role in the Incarnation of the Word is the opening salvo in the war between the kingdoms of heaven and hell. Just as Judith beheaded the enemy commander, so also Mary strikes a fatal spiritual blow against Satan.

‘You are now pregnant and shall bear a son’

In Genesis 16, Hagar becomes pregnant with Abram’s child and is subsequently mistreated by his wife, Sarai. So she runs away, finding herself in the wilderness. At a spring, she is visited by an angel who tells her,

You are now pregnant and shall bear a son;
you shall name him Ishmael,
For the LORD has heeded your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
Alongside all his kindred
shall he encamp” (verses 11-12).

Ishmael means ‘God has heard.’ God has responded to what we can infer was Hagar’s cry for with the promise of a powerful son. Once again, the material circumstances are different, but the connection between the two pregnancies is obvious — they are formally announced by an angel, involve powerful sons, and arise out of complicated family dynamics. (Hagar’s pregnancy through her mistress’ husband made her mistress jealous; Mary’s pregnancy initially prompted St. Joseph to want to quietly divorce her.)

Though Mary personally was not in the kind of dire straits that Hagar was, she certainly stands in for the nation of Israel as a whole, which was in its own spiritual desert waiting for its Savior to bring it life-giving water.

Conclusion

In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to Mary as ‘woman’ — affirming her universality. As the above examples indicate, Mary isn’t only prefigured by Old Testament women struggling to conceive. She also encompasses the stories of warriors like Gideon, assassins like Judith, and runaway slaves like Hagar. In the Annunciation, Mary stands in for all of humanity, seeking the powerful presence of God and awaiting His words of salvation.

image: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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