184. The ‘Dancing’ Foetus in Luke 1:41, 44 (skirtaō)

Within the NT only the author of Luke’s Gospel employs the verb skirtaō “exuberant springing motion, leap, spring about” (BDAG, 930). In one segment of his account of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, Mary visits the house of Elisabeth, a relative (Luke 1:36), who also has become pregnant through divine agency. As Mary enters Elisabeth’s home and shouts her greeting, Luke says that “the baby in her womb leapt and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:41). A few verses later Elisabeth reveals to Mary as soon as “the sound of her greeting came to her ears, the baby in my womb leapt with joy” (1:44). The only other place where this verb skirtaō occurs in the NT is at Luke 6:23. Jesus has declared that his followers should experience blessing when other people revile them because of their association with the Son of Man. “Rejoice in that day and leap (skirtēsate).”

Classical Greek writers used this verb frequently. For example, Homer (Iliad 20.229) describes the leaping action of horses with this verb. In one of his fables Aesop (13.3.2) describes fishermen dancing for joy because of the huge catch of fish they thought they had made. The tragedian Aeschylus uses the verb to describe the effects created by blasts of wind (Prometheus Vincta 1084).Plato indicates that the gods have given humans the ability to feel rhythm and express harmony and people demonstrate this at a very young age as they jump around (Leges 2.653e). However, the verb does not occur in Greek medical treatises to describe the movement of a foetus in the womb. So Luke’s use of this verb in 1:41,44 does not seem to have any medical basis.

Many commentators have observed that the language and style expressed in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel shows considerable affinity with that employed in the Greek translation of the OT, known as the Septuagint. When we examine the many documents that constitute this Greek translation, we find seven occurrences of skirtaō, reflecting diverse Hebrew terms. For example, in Psalms 113(114).4 the poet describes the response of creation to Yahweh’s liberation of Israel from Egypt and declares that “the mountains skipped (eskirtēsan) like rams,” repeating the same image in v.6. The prophet Jeremiah, in one of his oracles against the Babylonians, condemns them because they “were frisking about (eskirtate) like heifers in pasture” because they gained victory over the Israelites.

The text that throws the most light on Luke’s usage, however, occurs in Genesis 25.22. Rebecca, the wife of Isaac, is barren. So Isaac prays that Yahweh would alleviate this condition (Genesis 25.21). Without an heir, the covenant promises would remain unfulfilled. It seems that Rebecca discerns she is pregnant with twins  when “the children were cavorting (eskirtōn) within her.” When she asks Yahweh what this means, he reveals to her “that two nations are in your womb” (Genesis 25.23). I note the similar themes of barrenness, unexpected pregnancy through God’s intervention, and revelation from God indicating the significance of the unborn children, that occur both in Genesis and in Luke.

I would suggest that the writer of Luke knew the story of Isaac and Rebecca and the birth of the twins, Jacob and Esau, as it was translated into Greek. He adapted the language used in the story to describe Elisabeth’s experience in Luke 1:41, 44. The leaping of the foetus seems to be instigated by God to indicate the remarkable nature of these events. This is an expression of joy (Luke 1:44) in response to God’s initiative and reminds the mother in particular that her child is the result of God’s special grace and perhaps indicates the unique role that the child will play in God’s economy.

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