Last week our story was about a widow the contents of whose pitifully poor pocketbook could not support her. This week our story is about a woman who had every material thing wealth could provide. She was married to a man of substance. El-ka-nah was a Levite of the sons of Eb-i-a-saf the son of Korah thus his ancestry is recorded in 1st Chronicles. He was an Ephraimite, a palace dweller, a nobleman who lived on the mountain of the House of Ephraim, a very important person. The text tells us of his prodigious annual offerings at the tribal shrine at Shiloh. He supported two wives. One, Pen-in-nah, was the mother of ten children. The other was Han-nah who was hopelessly childless.
Not every woman wants to have a child and for her the likelihood of becoming pregnant can become a matter of great anxiety and disruption in her personal relationships. By the same token not every couple is able to have children and for those who wish to conceive and can’t it can be a matter of great disappointment that for some woman carry guilt and shame. So with this story we need to be particularly sensitive. Misconstrued, this story could add insult to injury to women in both those situations. That’s why it’s important to see that this story at the start of 1st Samuel is not just about one small family, an old priest, a barren favored wife and her joy. It carries national significance for Israel.
In simple terms, Hannah’s apparent hopeless domestic situation mirrored that of Israel. Israel was in a state of crisis. The Philistines were an ever present danger from the outside and there were even deeper threats coming from the inside. Primarily, the erratic political leadership of the judges had created a situation in which all the people did what is “right in their own eyes” as we are told by the last verse of Judges. The sons of Eli who serve as priests at Shiloh where like others of the priesthood of the day. They are declared to be “scoundrels” who prey upon the people and treat “the offerings of the LORD with contempt”. Political, moral, and religious leadership is in disarray. The big question was whether Israel would survive this generation.
In the middle of this grim picture we are presented with an unexpected story of renewal. The household of El-ka-nah with his wives Han-nah and Pen-in-nah doesn’t look too promising a prospect. Matter of fact this family looks just like a figure for all Israel: Elka-nah comes from a distinguished line, and he is pious according to the order of the day, but his household is marked by internal conflict.
Like Israel, this family is torn by rivalry. Peninnah takes every opportunity to provoke Hannah severely. And like Israel, its future – at least through Hannah – seems hopeless.
In Israel the significance of a woman’s being able to birth a child no doubt caused many women to see their inability to bear children as a personal inadequacy, a failure as a wife and, at least, a great tragedy. For Hannah, rejoicing before the Lord was most difficult. Of course, she had to get beyond the two sons of the old priest Eli, Hophni and Phinehas. For those who are truly righteous, these pathetic excuses for priests cast a pall over genuine worship. Then there was this prevailing sense of grief. And then, adding insult to injury on this annual trek to Shiloh is that she must live in close proximity to Peninnah and endure her taunts. Rabbinical tradition has it that Peninnah would say things like: “Did you buy your older son a cloak today, or your younger son a shirt?” just to rub it in. It is imagined that most of the year the two women lived apart. They wouldn’t have eaten at the same table. But on the annual trek to Shiloh, they must travel and eat together. When the sacrificial meat is eaten, Elkanah would give a portion to each wife, enough to feed their respective families. Can’t you hear Peninnah cruelly tormenting Hannah: “Oh my, Elkanah, what a lovely large piece of meat you’ve given to me and all my children! Oh dear, what nice little piece you have too Hannah.”
It is not that Elkanah, does not try to comfort Hannah. He assures her of his love by giving her a double portion of the meat which has been sacrificed. He makes a sincere effort to compensate for her barrenness, reminding her of how much she means to him and what he intends to be for her. By the way, this doesn’t make things better for Hannah. Indeed, while Elkanah attempts to assure Hannah that her worth does not depend upon giving birth, Hannah’s own perception of her situation has been so thoroughly shaped by the culture’s expectations of what is normal she weeps and is unable to eat or drink.
The truth is that, even today, dominant social expectations about gender roles and family unnecessarily undermine people’s happiness and self-esteem. This results in many tears for people today, it was the same for Hannah. She was unable to join in with the festive meal. On this particular trip to Shiloh, Hannah barely makes it through the meal.
After eating and drinking, Hannah hurries off from the family to find her way to the tabernacle, where she pours out her soul to God. In this crisis, she models a faithful response. She rejects her share of sacrifices that have been handled by the sons of Eli. And she silently refuses her husband’s attempts to console her. And she will not accept the half-comforts of the present order. She goes instead to present herself “before the LORD”. Hannah weeps, prays, and bargains with God. A major theme of her prayer is the way she understands Israel’s God works – by overturning expectations and assumptions that arise from human experience and condition. The way of this Holy One, this rock, is to break the bows of the mighty, to deprive those who are full, to make forlorn those with many children…. Some of this might sound harsh but the point of the poetry is not to take each clause literally but to appreciate that all those places where we see our strength, our security, our wealth and our worth can be lost. The Lord is the one who brings to life, who gives children to the barren, who feeds the hungry, who makes the poor rich and exalts the lowly. Every sense of self-security, any human plan for salvation of one kind or another, is not ultimately life giving. Only the Lord, who judges all the earth, can grant life, and does so in surprising ways and unlikely places. That is the story of Hannah’s prayer. She prays for God to remember her – as Israel might pray for God to remember the covenant. She prays within the framework of the old order of the judges, promising, like Samson’s mother, that she will dedicate the boy as a nazirite. But her prayer also reaches beyond the present order. Hannah asks God to do a new thing.
Almost as if a switch was thrown, Hannah leaves the tabernacle with a whole new continence. It was as if her prayer was already answered. The Rabbi’s say that the literal translation of the text is that she no longer had her face, meaning the face of anger. Her face was not sad anymore. She eats and drinks and shares the company of her husband. And, “in due time” – in God’s time, we learn from the text – she conceives and bears a son. She names him Samuel. While Samuel will come to play the seminal role in Israel’s salvation, this is not Samuel’s story. It is the story of Hannah. She is the one who drives the action. It is her voice we hear more than any other. She is the subject of the key verbs. Hannah refuses comfort, waits, prays, insists on her prayers in the face of priestly rebuke, and ultimately conceives, bears, and even names her son. The Revised Common Lectionary stops the narrative at verse 20, as if Hannah’s work were done in the work of giving birth. But 1st Samuel goes on, describing Hannah’s active role in making a sacrifice and then recalling her great song of praise. Although her distress involves matters of gender, household and family, her song of praise has a much wider scope. Her joy leads her to praise the God who not only gives children to the barren, but also “raises up the poor” and “lifts the needy”. She is not concerned only about her own liberation, but speaks also about the liberation of others. In this respect, Hannah offers a model to those today who desire relief from unhappiness and persecution. Similarly to Hannah, a lot of people sometimes experience the realm of family, gender and sexual matters as a source of unhappiness and may call upon God for assistance. However, Hannah’s example in prayer warns all of us against excessive preoccupation with our own situation. A desire for justice for ourselves should lead to a desire for justice for others.
Hannah’s prayer has long offered hope and encouragement for those who are led to struggle for justice and against oppression. She is a curious combination of assertiveness and humility yet single-minded in her determination: she goes to the shrine alone, after making a scene, to make a request that her own husband explicitly finds unnecessary. And in her prayer and in her answer to Eli, she presents herself as a person deserving attention not because she is great in virtue and power but because she is a sincere and unhappy servant of God. Given Hannah’s assertiveness, praying alone in the public shrine, and gender, it is particularly surprising and pleasing to find that Hannah’s prayer provides the paradigm for the “optimal prayer experience” in rabbinic literature. As Hannah is the only woman whose prayer to God is recorded in the Bible. Even the Rabbis look past Hannah’s gender to her humanity and use her prayer to teach how all people, male and female, should pray. The discomfort we feel with distinctions made in the text between those who are destined for everlasting life and those who are destined for everlasting contempt is a reminder that after all, the distinction between those who deserve everlasting life and those who deserve everlasting contempt can too easily be used to justify disdain for those whose lives do not conform to dominant cultural norms. Hannah is a model for what it means to live faithfully in days that seem Godforsaken. She is a model for Israel and for us.
Samuel is the fruit of Hannah’s faithful refusal to be comforted by anything less than a gift from God. He is the bridge between the old and the new. He is a culmination of the old order: from a distinguished family, blessed by Eli, and all but conceived at the cultic center of Shiloh. But 1st Samuel also wants to stress that he represents this new thing that God is doing. His birth is clearly a work of God, a fresh kindling of the spark of Hannah’s faithfulness. God has remembered the covenant, just as Hannah prayed, but not to simply re-established the old religious and political orders. Samuel will go on to play the decisive role in legitimating a new order that will culminate in David’s kingship, the defeat of the Philistines, and the concentration of religious, political, and economic authority in Jerusalem. Hannah, who in her prayer of thanksgiving, prays not just for herself and from her own experience, prays on behalf of the whole nation. Moreover, in the story she prays in anticipation of what Israel’s experience will be. The Lord will prove to be the people’s rock, their strength, their protection. Hannah shows us the way – she asks God to do a new thing. And God does. And when we are in such dire place and we fear danger both from within and from without, dare we enter God’s presence as does Hannah and ask that a new thing be done in us?
1 Samuel 1.1-3
1There 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. 2He 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. 3Now 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.
4On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
9After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” 12As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
19They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.” 21The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. 22But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and remain there forever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.” 23Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may the Lord establish his word.” So the woman remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him. 24When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh; and the child was young. 25Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. 26And she said, “Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. 27For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. 28Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” She left him there for the Lord.
2Hannah 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. 2“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3Talk 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. 4The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5Those 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. 6The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8He 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. 9“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. 10The 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.”