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Most readers are familiar with Elizabeth's prophecy over Mary in Luke 1:

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, 42 cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb...5 Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

As far as I can see, there is only one other time when this benediction is given - to Jael the wife of Heber, in the Book of Judges:

Judges 5:

24 “Most blessed among women is Jael, The wife of Heber the Kenite; Blessed is she among women in tents. 25 He asked for water, she gave milk; She brought out cream in a lordly bowl. 26 She stretched her hand to the tent peg, Her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; She pounded Sisera, she pierced his head, She split and struck through his temple. 27 At her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still; At her feet he sank, he fell; Where he sank, there he fell dead.

A more striking contrast is hard to imagine. Mary is called "most blessed among women" for believing what she was told by God's angel with regard to the conception of Jesus. Jael is called "most blessed among women" for killing the Canaanite commander Sisera in the aftermath of an important battle. It has been noted that Jael wooed him to sleep with milk, a motherly act; but beyond that the two women could hardly be more different in their literary characters.

Is the use of "most blessed among women" in these two cases just a coincidence, or is there a reason why this benediction is reserved for these two women alone?

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  • This question like most others presuppose canonical dogma to find clues and meaning through canonical parallels. To find comparisons. More suitable on Christianity SE for the sermon like subjective answers.
    – Michael16
    Dec 20, 2023 at 4:30
  • I'd rather keep it here because a Jewish perspective on the question is especially welcome, Both events take place prior to Jesus' birth. But if it is deemed not kosher here, someone can move it. I will not object. Dec 20, 2023 at 7:22
  • 1
    I too see no reason to exclude the question since the questioner is directly asking a Hermeneutical question. As to whether there is an answer is another issue. But the question is sound on its own.
    – Epimanes
    Dec 20, 2023 at 11:59
  • I'd add that there is no presumption of canonical dogma, either intended or implied. The text states clearly that Mary was blessed by Elizabeth as "greatest among women." That is not dogma but a definite biblical statement, although various Christian doctrines have been informed by it. Dec 25, 2023 at 21:24

4 Answers 4

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In addition to a fulsome answer here, invoking Numbers 6:25 to show that "the source/cause of the blessing is found in God's grace", Numbers chapter 5 reveals another connection between this benediction and the apparently radically different one given to the virgin Mary.

At the start of Numbers chapter 5 the godly prophetess Deborah is inspired (of the Holy Spirit) to compose and write down a song that deals with the entire episode culminating in Jael's action. She and Barak sang this song about deliverance for the people of God from 20 years of oppression from the Canaanites. Two women - one deliverance.

At the start of Luke's gospel, the Holy Spirit is show to be in Elizabeth's womb, in the child to be conceived (vs. 15). Likewise, the Holy Spirit assures the virgin Mary that she has found favour [grace] with God and her child will be holy, begotten, Son of God (vs. 35 YLT). Two women - one Saviour who delivers.

Further, both sets of women knew each other and spoke words of faith to each other, inspired of the Holy Spirit. Deborah's inspired words would be heard sung (in the first instance) by Jael and written down for posterity. Elizabeth and Mary knew each other, speaking personally to each other and about each other; the conversations written down for posterity.

Finally, though two drastically different accounts are on record, all four of the women involved had to show faith in God, and to be willing agents of God's purposes. In Judges, that involved death by nail, leading to liberation for the nation; in Luke that involved life followed by nail-pierced death giving liberation for all who would believe.

Striking parallels, though different eras and circumstances were involved with the two women in the two accounts, the Holy Spirit and faith in carrying out the will of God crucial to all four.

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  • All answers here are good so far but this is particularly insightful. One thing that crossed my mind as well is that Jael was not an Israelite but a Kenite. I don't see a parallel in Mary's case however. Dec 25, 2023 at 21:04
  • also, your point about "one deliverance" is strengthened in the tone of the last lines of the Magnificat: "He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly... 55 according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Likewise, the prophecy of Zechariah later in the chapter refers to "salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,...and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father, and to grant us that, 74 rescued from the hand of enemies, without fear we might worship him" Dec 25, 2023 at 21:10
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One wrestles to find a direct link between the OT and NT passages.

But if our attention shifts to the parallel context in Luke 1:28, we have some fruitful meat to chew on.

The state of the text

Luke 1:28 has an interesting variant. It has the same added blessing as we find in Luke 1:42. It is true that this could be an expansion from Luke 1:42. But that would not account for such widespread support from such early church fathers such as Eusebius, Tertullian, Ambrose and Augustine. Likewise, witnesses as old as Vercelli, the Peshitta, Alexandrinus, Bezæ, and the Ephraemi Rescriptus include the longer reading.

The implications of the Lukan text

BDF lists this passage as an example of typical blessing formulas that are common in both OT and NT usage:

(5) The traditional interpretation of ἵλεώς σοι, scil. ὁ θεὸς εἴη, Mt 16:22 (Debrunner earlier; Bauer5; Mlt. 240 n. on p. 181 [285 n. 2]; Büchsel, TW iii 300f.) lacks the support of the Vulg. absit a te, with which KJV ‘Be it far from thee’ incidentally agrees. Acc. to Katz, ThLZ 1957, 113f., this ἵλεως is not the Greek word for ‘merciful’, but one among the homonyms selected because of similarity of sound (Thack. 38) to render חָלִילָה with dat. ‘profane, far be it from . . .’. It appears in the LXX at 2 Km 20:20, 23:17 = 1 Chr 11:19, 1 Macc 2:21 and, as a hexaplaric variant, in 1 Km 12:33, 14:45, 20:2, 9, 22:15 where it replaces the better Greek μή μοι γένοιτο or μὴ γένοιτό μοι. In Mt it is a Septuagintism, followed by the doublet οὐ μὴ ἔσται σοι τοῦτο, whereas Lk 20:16 and Paul in many passages agree with the earlier LXX, writing μὴ γένοιτο (Bauer s.v. 3a). The Syriac has חסי = ἵλεως = חָלִילָה (Mt 16:22). The marginal version of KJV, ‘pity thyself’, which is taken from Luther, stands for a connotation of Syriac חסי, but the comment of I. E. Rahmani, Les liturgies orientales et occidentals (1929), 108f., as quoted by Stendahl, The School of St Matthew (1954), 112 n. 2, is vitiated the moment we accept ἵλεως as a Septuagintism. For obvious reasons no secular parallels can be adduced. In an expression which is so closely modeled on the Hebrew pattern it would not be safe to speak of an omission of the copula.—Ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ Lk 1:28, ἐπικατάρατος πᾶς ὃς ... (ὁ . . .) G 3:10, 13. Doxologies: εὐλογητὸς ὁ θεός (2 C 1:3 etc.) = Hebr. בָּרוּךְ אֱלֹהִים. Cf. on the one hand R 1:25 ὅς ἐστιν εὐλ., 2 C 11:31 ὁὢν εὐλ.; on the other LXX 3 Km 10:9 γένοιτο εὐλ., Job 1:21 εἴη εὐλ. Ἐστιν appears, however, to be in the mind of the NT authors. Also cf. G 1:5 ᾧ ἡ δόξα with 1 P 4:11 ᾧ ἐστιν (A om. ἐ.) ἡ δ.—Χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη, ἡ χάρις ... μεθ̓ ὑμῶν etc.; cf. χ. ὑ. κ. εἰ. πληθυνθείη 1 P 1:2, 2 P 1:2, 1 Clem introduction, similarly in the introductions of Pol Ph and MPol (cf. εἰρ. ὑ. πληθ. LXX Dan 3:98).

(F. Blass, A. Debrunner, and Robert W. Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Accordance electronic ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961), 71.)

The overlapping parallels are quite important to consider. For, in the NT context here (when the longer reading is considered with the rest of the words in the thought-unit) we quickly see that the cause for her being blessed is not found in Mary at all. Her being blessed is not found in her obedience. Instead it's found in God in several ways:

  • Gabriel calls her “κεχαριτωμένη” (Λουκᾶν 1·28 THGNT-T). She has been shown God's undeserved love. It came to her unasked, unearned, unforced.
  • Gabriel gives her the typical OT blessing formula: “ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ.” (Λουκᾶν 1·28 THGNT-T). And again, it is not Mary who is with God (showing her faithfulness to him). It's God who is with Mary.
  • So, in that context, as we consider the longer reading, the final blessing makes sense: "ευλογημενη συ εν γυναιξιν". She is blessed among women. But this state of being blessed is not caused by her. Instead it is caused by God, flowing from his grace.

Implications of the OT text

The Judges text reads:

  • ”תְּבֹרַךְ֙ מִנָּשִׁ֔ים יָעֵ֕ל אֵ֖שֶׁת חֶ֣בֶר הַקֵּינִ֑י מִנָּשִׁ֥ים בָּאֹ֖הֶל תְּבֹרָֽךְ“ (Judges 5:24 HMT-W4)
  • "May Jael, out of women, be blessed—the wife of Hever the Kenite. Let her be blessed out of other women."

The difficulty in this whole section of scripture is the distinction between parataxis and hypotaxis. Greek likes hypotaxis. Greek usage likes particles and prepositions that show how the structure fits together (e.g. ⲇⲓⲟ, ⲁⲣⲁ, ⲁⲣⲁ ⲟⲩⲛ, ⲱⲥ, ⲱⲥⲁⲩⲧⲱⲥ, ⲓⲛⲁ, ⲱⲥⲧⲉ, etc.). Hebrew, on the other hand, doesn't have the same linguistic toolbelt. And stylistically, Hebrew prefers stacking two thoughts side by side letting you figure out the logical/structural connections as you go (parataxis).

This is important, since in a very real way, (in my opinion) it's far better to understand her being blessed not as a result of her hammering a stake into Sisera's head. But instead, her blessing flows from the same source as so many other blessings in the OT: God's grace and mercy. As an example of this, one can look at the Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6 and very quickly see that the source/cause of the blessing is not found in the repeatedly unfaithful Israelites. Instead, the source/cause of the blessing is found in God's grace ( ”יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ“ (Numbers 6:25 HMT-W4) )

Connections and Conclusions

It is exceedingly difficult to draw a direct line from OT usage to NT usage specifically narrowed down to one woman to another woman. But there is a connection found in God's grace in both the OT and NT usage. In that specific context both Jael and Mary are blessed—but not because of them. Instead, the better (in my opinion) understanding is that the cause/source of their blessing is found in God.

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I am not sure there is a definite answer to this question but here are a few suggestions.

Mary

Mary is remembered for several personal characteristics including: humility, bravery (for the nasty gossip and innuendo she would endure), faithfulness, submission, etc.

Jael

Jael is remembered for several personal characteristics including: cunning, resourcefulness, bravery, intelligence, etc.

The characteristic that these two women appear to share is bravery/courage (and possibly intelligence??) which may be the cause of their common benediction.

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Jael is one among a number of women in the OT who can be viewed as types for whom Mary is the antitype.

Old Testament Types of Mary

The Old Testament anticipates, announces, and points to the New Testament. The two relate to each other like promise and fulfillment. Looking from the New Testament back into the Old Testament, we recognize a number of women of importance who prefigure Mary in some aspects of their destiny, personality and vocation.

The benediction “blessed among women” is bestowed upon Jael in the OT for her role in defeating the enemy of Israel. That the same words are again applied to Mary serves to highlight her role in defeating the spiritual enemy of Israel/mankind. And because both are women and humble of station, they are able to magnify God’s power in a way that those of greater rank and might cannot (cf Lk 1:46-49).

The physical elements in Jael’s narrative prefigure the spiritual elements of Mary's in the NT. But as the physical yields to the spiritual, the similarities in their stories give way to reveal stark differences in the role assigned to each. While Jael’s role involves a death-causing action, Mary’s is based upon life-giving faith; their individual stories can thus be viewed as reflecting the larger themes of the Old and New Testament.

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