An Israelite woman doing the work of a man is found infrequently in the Scriptures, but Anna is one of the exceptions. Luke 2:36-38 pictures Anna in the Temple court busy with the office, and in the traditional role, of a Hebrew prophet. Her example should be an encouragement to every gifted woman who has been called to lead and to serve by the power of the Holy Spirit in one of the Christian churches or mission fields around the world today.
A True Israelite
Anna’s Hebrew name was written “Hannah,” the mother of Samuel in the Old Testament (1 Sam 1:2), and means the “gracious one.” Like Hannah, who went up to the temple “year after year” to ask the Lord for a son, Anna was also a woman of prayer. The song of Hannah records the first mention in the Scriptures of Israel’s king as “His Anointed” (i.e., the Messiah of the Lord, 2:10).
Anna’s Jewish family is confirmed by her father Phanuel, whose name is Hebrew for the “Face, or Presence, of God,” and is related to the place-name Peniel by the brook Jabbok where Jacob prayed and wrestled with God (Gen 32:30). She belonged to the Israelite tribe of Asher, headed by Asher who was born to Zilpah, Leah’s maid, with a truly Hebrew name meaning the “happy one” (Gen 30:12, 13).
Asher’s sons inherited the coastal region above Mount Carmel in northwest Israel. In the reign of Hezekiah, however, a few Asherites migrated to Judah (2 Chr 30:11), and lived near Jerusalem for many years. It is likely that Anna’s family descended from one of them.
A True Worshiper
It would not be easy for a widow like Anna to be in the temple, “worshiping night and day,” twenty-four hours a day, “fasting and praying” and keeping it up for sixty-two years! We can assume she was married at fifteen, since this was normal for Jewish girls pledged to be married, and that her husband died seven years later, when she was twenty-two. Subtract twenty-two from eighty-four and the total time of service would be sixty-two years.
Fasting was part of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Moses commanded, “You must deny yourselves” (Lev 16:29, 31), which really means “to be afflicted, or humbled.” This was the proper response of a contrite people, truly repentant for their sins. Anna was one person the priests could always count on to give an example of fasting in worship.
The Israelites did not fast with long faces! The prophet Zechariah mentions the “fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months.” He called them “glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah,” to remind all that they should consider self-denial not a painful, but a joyful duty toward their God.
While the priests were praying for their people and interceding for their transgressions in the “Holy Place” of the temple, the most devout of the congregation stood in the court outside with the musicians and singers to echo their prayers and sing praises to the Lord. Luke informs us that the widow Anna was daily found there among these worshipping believers.
A True Prophet
The prediction of coming events was not the primary work of God’s inspired prophets. Samuel explained to the people that “the prophet of today used to be called a seer,” i.e. a predictor the future. The term he used for prophet is nahhi, meaning a spokesman or interpreter for the king, or for God. Israel’s great prophets were more occupied with preaching, or speaking clearly the “Word of God,” than with foretelling things to come.
Inspired women, as well as men, exercised the prophetic gift in Israel. Among these women were Miriam, sister of Moses (Ex 15:20); Deborah, leader of Barak and his army (Jud 4:4); Huldah, adviser of Josiah and Hilkiah the priest (2 Kings 22:14); Noadiah, who spoke for Sanballat (Neh 6:14) and Isaiah’s wife (Isa 8:3).
In the early church there were women “filled with the Spirit” speaking to the crowds at the temple, as foreseen by Joel (Joel2:28-29, Acts 2:18). Phillip had four daughters with this gift (Acts 21:9), and Paul recognizes the woman who “prays or prophesies” in the church (1 Cor 11:5).
Anna, then, does not stand alone, but joins a long tradition of gifted women who were able to speak for the Almighty God to his people. The Holy Spirit first gave her the insight to recognize in Mary’s child the eternal Son of God, then the appropriate words of thanksgiving, probably from one of the Psalms, and finally she was empowered “to speak about the child” to the Messianic Jews gathered there around her (Luke 2: 38). Perhaps the first Christmas sermon to be recorded in church history was preached by a woman!