John, the Greater Esau: Reflections on Luke 1:39–45


In my exegetical labours on this text, I noticed an interesting biblical connection. John "leaps" in the womb (vv. 41, 44). The Greek word (skirtao) is very rare in Scripture: only Luke uses it in the NT (here and at 6:23); the LXX (Greek OT) uses it only six times (five in the canonical books).

Yet out of those few appearances, Luke uses it here twice to refer to an action in the womb, and Genesis 25:22 also uses it to refer to activity of babies in the womb. Given that scarcity of the word, it struck me that a connection was very likely.

In Genesis 25:22, we have the "struggling" (skirtao) of Jacob and Esau in the womb. Rebekah inquires of the Lord what is happening. He responds that there are two nations in her womb, and the elder will serve the younger.

This is, naturally, very fascinating because John is six months Jesus' senior. And is clearly called to serve Him as His forerunner (Lk 1:17; cf Mal 3:1ff).

It is to be further noted that, as in the case of the previous generation (Isaac and Ishmael), there is a particularization happening with regard to the Abrahamic promises here, where one line stands out as a special line of fulfillment. God had said that although he would bless Ishmael and make him a great nation (which seems to be itself a covenantal promise, connected to Gen 17:6), yet He would establish His covenant with Isaac rather than Ishmael (17:19, 21). Something similar seems to be happening here: not a new covenant relationship, but the making firm of the covenant for a particular person in a particular direction. This specialization of the covenant is given to Jacob rather than Esau; he is the master of his brother. In succeeding generations (i.e. Ishmael-Isaac and Esau-Jacob), the older brother was supposed to submit to God's will and serve his younger brother, recognizing that in a special way he was the "seed of promise."

Fast forwarding to our text, then, we observe in John the Spirit-filled response (note that he was filled with the Spirit from the womb, Lk 1:15) to Jesus that should have characterized Esau's response to Jacob. Even as Jacob was the true "seed of promise," and Esau needed to bear witness to him and serve him — indeed, his own covenant status depended upon it, I think — so it is that Jesus is the one "seed of promise" (see Gal 3:16), and John bears witness to Him and serves Him.

There's more. In the OT, two men were identified as "hairy" (LXX: dasus): Esau (Gen 25:25; 27:11)... and Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), after whom John is clearly patterned (Lk 1:17). We're not told directly that John himself is hairy.. but on the other hand, we are told that he wears camel's hair (Mk 1:6), and seems to be a Nazarite (as indicated by the prohibition to drink wine or strong drink, Lk 1:15). All of this reinforces the notion that John and Esau are connected. James Jordan identifies Absalom as the great Anti-Nazarite (remember his long hair?) who opposed his own blood, revolting against his father. In that line, we can see Esau too as an "Anti-Nazarite." I'm sure there's more reflection that could be done there.

In terms of the way Paul develops the seed-theme in Galatians 3-4, perhaps we can hear an apologetic somewhat along the lines of Romans 9-10. He compares two covenants, a slave and a free. The slavery theme makes me think of the service-theme: the elder shall serve the younger. The old covenant (of which John was the climactic prophet; cf Matt 11:11-13) served as a servant — specifically, a child custodian (paidagogos, Gal 3:23–25) — a servant to the new covenant, which is borne witness to by the Law and the Prophets (Rom 3:21; cf. also 1 Pet 1:12). John is the climax of this witness-service, and he does not attempt to retain any independent authority or identity over against Christ; rather, he confesses, "He must increase; I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). Jesus is the Bridegroom; John is the friend of the Bridegroom, and even as he already leaps for joy in the womb at the sound of the voice of the Bridegroom's mother, he will later say, "He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. And so this joy of mine has been made full" (Jn 3:29). The joy that began in the womb is made full in John's direct witness to Christ. Here is the elder brother's Abrahamic response (i.e. the response that indicates continuation in the covenant), who rejoiced to see Jesus' day, and was glad (Jn 8:56).

Any other response on the part of the servant is a rejection of the promise, a repudiation of the covenant. Thus "Abraham's seed" will become Esau, Ishmael — as in fact Paul iterates in Gal 4:21ff. The old covenant servant, if it does not find its culmination and goal in Christ, is cast forth as Ishmael, because the covenant is defined by the seed of promise. Thus John, as the final old covenant witness, joins his testimony with that of Moses, whose writings accuse the covenant people who reject Christ (Jn 5:45). In the light of all the above, I'm also wondering if some connection is intended between Jacob's crossing of the Jabbok at the time he meets Esau (upon Jacob's return from Paddam-Aram; see Gen 32-33) and John's baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. I'm not sure. Perhaps that's a stretch.

— Tim Gallant

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