1 Samuel 1:4-20 – Barren Hannah goes to Eli the priest, then returns and conceives Samuel with her husband Elkanah.
Daniel 12:1-3 – Michael, the great protector of the people is coming. Everyone whose name is written in the book shall be delivered.
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18), 19-25 – We have confidence to enter God’s sanctuary through the blood of Jesus.
Mark 13:1-8 – The end is coming. Not one stone will be left upon another.
Two more Sundays in Lectionary Year B. Since I’ve written on pretty much all the gospel texts in the three year cycle, I am going to, over the next few years, focus on the Hebrew and Epistle texts from time to time. Today, I am writing on our first text from 1 Samuel. If you would like to read a bit about Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” read my post on November 18, 2012.
1 Samuel 1 gives us an opportunity to preach on one of the prayerful women of the Bible: Hannah.
We learn about Elkanah in the opening verses of 1 Samuel, preceding our reading today. One could read these first three verses as well, to give people background, but the preacher would have to explain all these unfamiliar places.
There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. (1 Samuel 1:1-3)
It may not be worth reading these verses, since you’ll have to unpack it. Apparently the framers of the lectionaries thought so. But for your benefit:
We’re not sure where Ramathaim-Zophim was, but it is identified with Nevi Shmuel (literally “the prophet Samuel”), on the northwest side of Jerusalem. Zuph was the district in which this town resided, named after the ancestor mentioned in this passage, Elkanah’s great great grandfather. Ramathaim-Zophim may also be “Ramah,” where the captives were assembled before being taken to Babylon after the fall of the Southern Kingdom (Jeremiah 40:1). You’ll recall Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more (Jeremiah 31:15 and Matthew 2:18).
We’re told Elkanah has two wives. He must, therefore, be wealthy. Peninnah has children, but Hannah does not. Elkanah went up to Shiloh to make sacrifices, where Eli’s sons were priests. They were scoundrels, by the way, who cheated the people and treated the Lord’s offerings with contempt (financial misconduct). Hannah’s faithfulness is contrasted with the unfaithfulness of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas.
When our text begins in verse four, we find that Elkanah has a favorite wife. Hannah got teased by Peninnah for being barren, so Elkanah gave her double portions. Double portions of what one might ask. There are a number of stories like this in the Hebrew Bible – Jacob and Esau. Joseph’s father’s favoritism incurs his brother’s ire enough to get him sold into slavery.
In a society that afforded women few vocational options, motherhood was the norm. Hannah yearned for a child. At Shiloh, Hannah prayed so fervently, Eli the priest thought she was drunk. Astute readers of the Bible will recall the bystanders at the first Pentecost (Acts 2) also thought those filled with the Spirit were drunk, so much so that Peter had to begin his sermon with the words, “These people are not drunk as you suppose…” When was the last time you prayed for something so fervently that others around you might think you were drunk? When was the last time your poured out your heart and soul?
As a part of her prayer, Hannah made a vow to God: give me a son and I will set him apart as a nazirite. A nazirite (consecrated or set apart) is someone who takes the vow described in Numbers 6:1-21. It basically means no alcohol, no shaving, and no going near dead bodies. This is the kind of fasting vow one takes for a time (think Lent) to draw one closer to the divine. Hannah, however, did not make this vow for herself, but for her child, and not for a time, but for his entire life, until his death. This may seem unfair, and it is, but welcome to the world of antiquity. Hannah dedicates her child to the priesthood of the Lord, if she is so blessed.
Hannah returned home after a chat with Eli. She “knew” her husband Elkanah and eventually gave birth to Samuel (literally: name of God), the prophet who learned to listen to God in the night. The song “Here I Am Lord,” comes to mind.
Her parting words to Eli in verse 18 may sound familiar: “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Mary echoes these words in Luke 1:38 at the time of her miraculous conception: “Here I am, servant of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”
Later, in 1 Samuel 2, Hannah will burst into song, as if in a Broadway musical. The song should also sound very familiar. I will print it here so you can see:
Hannah prayed and said,
My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.
Sound familiar? Luke’s Mary clearly borrows the song of Hannah in Luke 1:47-55. We will be singing this song on the forth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015. Miriam also sings a song of deliverance. Thank God for the songs of women in the Bible.
Infertility is still an issue today. According to the CDC, 6% of women and 2% of men aged 15-44 in the U.S. today are infertile. In antiquity, infertility was assumed to be a female problem. One can tell there is still sufficient stigma, embarrassment, and shame around infertility because people rarely talk about it.
In a world with so many unwanted children, motherhood and fatherhood are almost always within grasp. Adoption is an act of grace that lifts children out of poverty. We need to share this option with families. We also must recognize that we cannot write off the pain of those who grieve their body’s inability to bear children. While adoption is an option, throwing it in the face of those who are struggling with infertility can seem like a slap in the face.
Why is Hannah barren? Is it because she sinned, or her parents or husband Elkanah? Jesus firmly denied this assertion in the gospels when the disciples ask him this same question about a man blind from birth.
Why does God answer Hannah’s prayer and not the prayers of millions of other women and men? Is it because she is more faithful? Is it because she prays so hard Eli thinks she’s drunk? Is it because she makes the vow? All of these answers make God into a magic fountain into which we toss our coins. “The unspoken corollary of this connection is that the presence of a disability indicates lack of faith, moral imperfection, even sin.” (Craig Satterlee, “Learning to Picture God from Those Who Cannot See” p. 49.)
Craig would suggest talking to someone who has struggled with infertility before preaching this passage. How do they hear the passage? What are the potential ditches the preacher wants to avoid? Where is God in this passage for someone who doesn’t get the baby that Hannah gets?
Our personal experience of infertility moved us toward an adoption that has been a blessing beyond compare to us. We cannot speak for those who experienced infertility from start to finish. Susan gave birth to a son, but it was a difficult pregnancy that resulted in an emergency c-section. Afterwards, she wasn’t sure she wanted to risk another pregnancy, and when we finally decided to try, it turned out to be impossible. This road block for us sent us down another path that we might not have considered otherwise. The adoption was an adventure that brought us face to face with the plight of children in the world. It gave us one of the greatest blessings in our lives: Yuliana. It taught us that parenting and family are not about bloodline, in a way I think we wouldn’t have been able to fully grasp otherwise. We experienced the power and presence of God in ways we would not have experienced otherwise. If we could turn back time and magically conceive instead of adopting, we both laugh and concur we would not, not in a thousand years.
Everyone’s experience of life is different. This was Hannah’s. This is how she experienced the blessing of God.
As things will turn out, it will be the son of this prayerful woman who becomes the great prophet, not the errant sons of Eli the priest. Samuel becomes the bridge between the judges and the kings of Israel. Samuel will anoint Saul, the first king of Israel.
The story of Hannah has many lessons. One is that God works often outside the lines of our formal institutional structures, outside priestly and royal lineage, often in ways of the Spirit that we cannot fathom. Another lesson for me here is the fervent prayer and faith of Hannah, who trusts that God will show up and act, somehow, in some way.
Ted Smith (Emory University) reminds us of Brevard Child’s words. Hannah’s song is the interpretive key to the whole, bloody narrative. God often works not through the expected, but the unexpected, not through the proud, rich, arrogant and mighty, but through the humble, poor, lowly, and weak. Let those with ears hear.