Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. Luke 2:36-38 NKJV
Several years ago my husband and I found ourselves in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles, surrounded not only by the history of the Bible, but also immersed in the culture of the land.
During a day tour of some well-known biblical sites, our group listened as the minister explained the significance of the particular location. Distracted by the sounds of happy people walking down a nearby road, we all turned to look. “It’s a wedding procession,” our guide explained as the celebrants continued on their way.
It occurs to me now that what we witnessed was probably very like a day in the life of Anna so many hundreds of years ago. I can imagine her, very young, perhaps 13 or so, dressed in her elaborately embroidered wedding clothes and adorned with jewels, gifts from her future husband. She may have been only 12 when the marriage was arranged, her father, Phanuel, accepting the customary dowry as a sort of compensation to him for the loss of an “asset.” Then the yearlong betrothal period began, the future union assured.
Phanuel came from the somewhat insignificant tribe of Asher, his family likely a part of a small devout group of exiled Israelites who returned after their Assyrian captivity. It is possible that Anna, from a very young age, was taught to anticipate the arrival of the promised Deliverer of Israel.
From wife to widow
What were those early years of marriage like for Anna? I wonder. Children were a blessing from God, and the more the better, especially if they were sons. There is no record of children for Anna, and being barren would have been a source of great grief. But that was only the beginning.
Seven years after that joyous wedding procession, Anna found herself suddenly widowed and vulnerable. Her options were few: return to her father’s home or enter into a levirate marriage. The Scriptures make no mention of either in Anna’s life, so quite probably she eventually sank into a life of poverty.
A lifetime later
By the time we meet Anna in Scripture she is old—at least 84 and possibly even past 100. She has found sanctuary and fulfillment within the temple precincts, probably living in a small cubical adjacent to the Court of the Women. Luke says she “did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.” And with good reason.
Eyewitness to a dangerous world
Anna’s world had been fraught with conquest and violence. In her lifetime she had witnessed the Roman general Pompey arriving with his legions in Jerusalem. She lived through the bloody Jewish rebellion as Rome tried to divide their territory. She survived horrifying events as Herod mounted a siege attack on Jerusalem in 37 B.C. to quash all resistance to him as “King of the Jews,” and the resulting slaughter of its inhabitants, even those seeking refuge in the temple.
It must have been distressing to watch political maneuverings during temple proceedings among the religious leaders of the day. Year after year she endured, and year after year she faithfully served God, praying and fasting and clinging to the hope of redemption in Jerusalem.
Prophetess, mentor or both?
Anna is called a prophetess. Did she have a special gift of being able to foretell specific future events? She certainly looked for the Messiah and spoke often about that hope.
Or was she a mentor? Matthew Henry’s Commentary comments on Luke 2:36: “Perhaps no more is meant than that she was one who had understanding in the scriptures above other women, and made it her business to instruct the younger women in the things of God.” (From Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Modern Edition, Electronic Database, 2003, Biblesoft, Inc.) Whatever the case, her dedication was rewarded in an unexpected event.
Blessings and thanksgiving
On a very special day a young mother named Mary brought her firstborn son to Jerusalem to dedicate Him to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice of purification. Anna must have witnessed or even assisted in such activities often over the years, but this occasion was much different. Simeon, a just man waiting for the consolation of Israel, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit offered a special blessing over this tiny infant whom he cradled in his arms.
Overhearing Simeon’s words, Anna knew that she had just seen the child destined to become the light of the gentiles and the glory of Israel. Luke says, “And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (2:38).
A life in three verses
Though Anna’s life is reduced to only three verses in the whole of the Bible, those three verses provide an inspiring portrait and model of a truly godly woman—one who didn’t flag in her dedication to God, her service to others or in her unwavering hope for the future
A very insightful piece on Anna the Prophetess. She’s my favourite biblical woman and I named my daughter after her.
I came to figure out what “living seven years after her virginity meant.” I feel a little better about it now.
And thanks for your comment and for stopping by, Erica.
This is incredible. It is amazing to think of the amount of life, and life well-lived, behind those three verses, and a great reminder that sometimes the most beautiful people come from the most difficult circumstances. Thanks so much for sharing!
Thanks, Karen, for the studies and work you’ve done to set Anna’s life in context for us. What she lived through as a widow, trusting in God, reminds us that she chose to be faithful to God,
to serve Him and to rejoice in the things He values. Thank you for including the historical perspective that Anna had to deal with political maneuvering and violence, that her life, though lived in the Temple was not easy. In reading your blog on Anna, I see her now as a mentor as well as prophetess.