I Samuel 1 1-20
David A. Davis
June 3, 2018
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This morning and on most of the Sundays to come this summer, we are turning in our preaching life to the Old Testament. On these first three Sundays of June, the sermon text will come from the Book of I Samuel. The reign of King David is the central story line, the focus of I and II Samuel. But before David and all those stories of Jonathan and Goliath and Uzzah and Michal and Abigail and the ark and Jerusalem and dancing and slingshots and a bow and arrow and witches and music and singing, there is Saul, and there is Samuel, and there is Eli the priest and his two priest sons tagged in the words of scripture as “scoundrels.” And there is Hannah. Our biblical text for today is the story of Hannah. Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Hannah and the boy Samuel, who after he was born and weaned, Hannah, as the Bible says, “lent him to the Lord for as long as he lives.”
You will remember the comical story of the call of Samuel, how God kept calling Samuel in the night but Samuel thought it was the old priest Eli. I Samuel tells of how the young boy served in the temple at a time when “the word of the Lord was rare… visions were not widespread.” The book of Judges ends with the troubling conclusion that all the people of Israel “did what was right in their own eyes.”
The Word of the Lord was rare and everyone did what they thought was right in their own eyes. In other words, when it came to God’s people and faithfulness and righteousness and loving the Lord your God, and having no other Gods before me, things were a mess. So when the narrative of I Samuel points out for the reader that “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground”? That’s a big deal. Samuel is a big deal. The relationship, the communication, between God and Samuel is a big deal.
When it comes to God’s covenant with God’s people, the salvation history of God’s people, it turns with Samuel. God’s revelation to God’s people; God makes a move with and through Samuel. The monarchy, the king, King David, the house of David, God’s promise to David, it didn’t start with a lineage. It didn’t start with a coronation or a royal wedding. It started with Samuel. Which means it started with Hannah.
Hannah only hangs around the world of the Bible for a chapter and a half. She enters stage right as one of the wives of Elkanah and exits with the narrator’s incredible understatement: “The Lord took note of Hannah… and the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord.” I for one, as I read and ponder the story of Hannah in June of 2018, I have decided I can’t read it, I can no longer hear it, in the same way. This living Word of God. If you are anything like me, you won’t be able to ever hear it the same way again either.
[I Samuel 1:1-20 is read]
Over the years I have regularly been invited by the professors at Princeton Theological Seminary who are teaching the introduction to the Old Testament course to participate on a panel to discuss “preaching from the Old Testament.” The class happens near the end of the semester. Students are invited to submit questions ahead of time. The panel members receive a copy of those questions organized by theme by the faculty members.
What we panel members have learned is that we really don’t even have to look at the questions. Not because we know all the answers but because the questions never change. The students change. The faces change. The years change. But the questions remain the same: How do you preach the violence and judgment that runs all through the Old Testament? How do you preach all the complex historical-critical material we have been learning? Do you have to mention Jesus in every sermon even if the lesson is from the Old Testament? How do you preach the apparent contrast between the God of Old and the God of the New Testament? What about some of these difficult, gut-wrenching biblical texts of the Old Testament?
At some point in the discussion I usually try to mention that in my pastoral experience, in my years of serving as a pastor and preacher, one of the most difficult aspects of preaching the Old Testament is something never mentioned in all the questions, the years of questions. It is the dominant theological motif of barrenness and fertility. Hannah is far from the only name. Sarah. Rebekah. Rachel. The mother of Samson. In the New Testament, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.
Over and over again, the reader of scripture is told that God heard their prayer and a child was born. Yet, pastors and preachers and professors and students of the book, all of us know that it doesn’t work that way: when it comes to real life, life in a congregation, having a child, unable to have a child, joy and heartbreak.
I stopped carrying babies at the time of baptism up and down the aisle to introduce them to the congregation way back in the early nineties when I had a child in my arms and looked right into the tear-filled eyes of a woman sitting on the aisle there in the pew who I knew had just suffered a miscarriage. I have rarely felt more helpless as a pastor than the times I have sat with women and men who have poured their hearts out to God just like Hannah and they ask me why God has not heard their prayer, why God has not answered their prayer… and I have no answer to give. For those students in the introduction to Old Testament class, after a year or two of ministry, I bet the questions change.
Such a dominant biblical theological motif in I Samuel. But it’s not the only one, especially if you find yourself hearing an old, old story in a new kind of way. Elkanah had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. The reader is told right from the get-go that Peninnah had children but… Hannah had none.
Each year, Elkanah would take his family on a pilgrimage to worship and offer a sacrifice at Shiloh. The two priests who served at Shiloh were the scoundrel sons of Eli. It is not until chapter two that the narrator tells of these corrupt priests who “had no regard for the Lord.” They would steal from the food being sacrificed for themselves, sometimes sending their own servant to do the dirty work of getting the better portion. “Give it to me now,” the servant would demand of the worshippers, “or I will take it by force.” The narrator comes right out and announces that “the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord!”
So the yearly trek for Elkanah, his wives, and kids was hardly a pious, rejuvenating, spiritually-uplifting retreat that included a visit with the family priest and sage and all-around pastor who had sort of become part of the family. Add into that toxic religious environment the notion that Peninnah, labeled in the text as Hannah’s rival, “used to provoke her severely, to irritate her” because she couldn’t have a child. According to I Samuel “it went on year by year, as often as they went up to the house of the Lord. Peninnah used to provoke Hannah.” This was more than teasing. It was more than whatever we could fathom as competition among spouses in a polygamous situation. This was bullying. This was abusive. This was Hannah over and over again, year after year, repeatedly being reduced to tears and not being able to eat.
On a first read, it is as if we are to give Elkanah a bit of a pass for his part any way in the family system. After all, according to the translation, he gave Hannah a double portion of what had been sacrificed. He gave her a double portion of what was left after the rotten, sinful sons of Eli took the best and, no doubt, larger part. He gave her a double portion, which in her distress, she wasn’t eating anyway.
A footnote to the reading in the New Revised Standard Version indicates that the meaning of the Hebrew in the verse about Hannah’s portion is uncertain. Another translation indicates Elkanah only gave her one portion and for that portion she should have been grateful because she had no children. As one Hebrew Bible professor told me years ago, the Hebrew in a few parts of I Samuel is a mess. What the professor, what he didn’t say back then, was that the translators and scribes must have been trying to give Elkanah the benefit of the doubt. A pat on the back. There, there, old Ekanah. “He gave Hannah a double portion.” Of course any benefit of the doubt is lost when Elkanah makes the mistake that us men have made pretty much forever, thinking it was, at the end of the day, all about him. “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
After everyone else had finished eating and drinking, Hannah rose. Well, that doesn’t quite to it justice, does it? She made the decision to go back up to the temple. She turned from her husband and his other wife, she turned away from all that nastiness and hurt and stepped with both feet into a less than welcoming religious space so that she could present herself before the Lord. “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.” It was the kind of prayer that comes with clinched fists, and indescribable groans, and breathless sobs, the kind of prayer that comes with sweat-like drops of blood, the kind of prayer that no one should endure and the kind of prayer that way too many have. She continued to pray silently and her lips were moving. “Please, please, please, O my Lord, O my Lord, O my Lord.”
Eli lifted himself off the front step and went to see what this childless woman was up to inside the temple. He thought she was drunk. “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”
“No, my Lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring my soul before the Lord. Do not regard me as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”
Do not regard me as a worthless woman. I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. That old codger of a priest Eli basically says, “Well, God bless you,” and gets out of there as quickly as he can. I Samuel puts it more formally: “Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’” What it doesn’t say is that he was probably already half-way out the door, because Hannah, Hannah, just dropped the mic. Don’t call me a worthless woman when I have been pouring my soul out before the Lord.” Oh, I bet, no kidding, you think, “the Lord took note of Hannah”?
As to that dominant biblical, theological theme of barrenness and fertility, the culmination, the end of the story, of course, is that Hannah conceived and bore a son, Samuel, the child she lent to the Lord for as long as he lived.
But this time, with this read, with this biblical, theological theme, I sort of want to stop right there. Right there with the echo of Hannah’s bold, courageous voice. For a powerless, childless woman dared to speak up and pour out her soul before God and before a world, a religious world that then, and pretty much ever since, would prefer she just keep quiet. One biblical scholar puts it more eloquently. She writes, some of these stories of women in the Bible, “they are not just simple domestic tales with happy endings” but rather, they are stories that tell of how “the initiative of bold women can alter the trajectory of history.”
God’s covenant, God’s covenant with God’s people. The monarchy, the king, King David, the house of David, God’s promise to David, it didn’t start with a lineage. It didn’t start with a coronation or a royal wedding. It started with Samuel. Which means it started with Hannah. A powerless, childless woman who dared to speak up and pour out her soul.
Speaking up and pouring out.
© 2018 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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