Elkanah loved Hannah, probably more than he did Peninah. His choice to gift her with a double portion, at their feasts at Shiloh, only fueled Peninah’s resentment.
Hannah’s grief over her childless state was deep and profound, however, despite Elkinah’s attentions. She wept bitterly and continually, and was unable even to swallow her portion at the feast at Shiloh. We don’t know how much of her sorrow sprang from the experience of being socially devalued and vulnerable, as a childless women were, and how much simply reflected grief over not having a small one to hold in her arms.
Elkanah did his best to comfort her, but he really didn’t get it. His question “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” confirmed his view of himself as the proper focus of Hannah’s world. Why didn’t he tell her, instead, “How much more to ME are YOU than ten sons.” No, he didn’t get it.
Finally, one year, Hannah took her case into her own hands. After Elkanah’s performance of the ritual sacrifice and the family feast, she went to the sanctuary on her own, to address her God directly. There she wept, and she poured out her heart. She begged God to grant her a son, offering a vow that if God would grant her petition, she would dedicate her son to a life of abstinence in God’s service. (In those days, it seems that parents felt they could make life decisions on their children’s behalf. It wouldn’t happen today.)
Poor Hannah. Having already lived with Peninah’s derision and Elkanah’s insensitivity, she was not yet done being misunderstood. As she wept and prayed, the priest of the temple, Eli, was silently watching her from the shadow next to the doorpost. Instead of thinking of how he might offer support, Eli assumed that Hannah must be drunk, and he called out, rebuking her for her presumed behavior.
But Hannah, I am happy to say, stood up for herself. She denied the charge of drunkenness and explained to the priest that she was petitioning God out of great distress. Somehow Eli was moved by her words, and SAW her. Eli offered his blessing.
And Hannah’s sorrow began to lift. And in due time, she gave birth to the son she had hoped and prayed for, naming him Samuel. And as she had promised, she returned to Shiloh to give him in service to God as a servant to Eli.
And Hannah prayed a loud and triumphant hymn of both praise and of prophecy. She not only exulted in God’s goodness and strength, but she proclaimed the promise – as would another young woman generations in the future - that God would overturn the fortunes of the world: God would “break the bows of the mighty [and]… raise up the poor from the dust… for not by might does one prevail.”
I LOVE the story of Hannah. Biblical scholars tell us that its importance is that it begins the story of Israel’s transition from a tribal confederacy to a monarchy under Saul, David, Solomon, and their successors, and, they say, it locates the narrative in the jurisdiction of God. Well, this is all true.
I am more interested in it for the ways in which, as scripture always does, it shows us who we are. Among the many ways we might see ourselves in Hannah’s story, I’d like to look at two.
Firstly, Hannah is all of us. She struggles with a deep sorrow that weighs on her heart. There are times when she does ok with it, but there are other times when she can simply think of nothing else, feel nothing else. Part of the pain of Hannah’s grief is that she feels alone in it. Her rival sneers at her and her husband suggests, in effect, that she should just get over it.
None of us live a life free from this kind of numbing, isolating sorrow. Fortunately, for most of us this kind of sorrow, when it comes into our lives, is transitory, in part because of the simple resilience of the human spirit and because of the support of those around us who love us, but also because we have help available in the form of skilled therapists and, when we need it, modern pharmacology.
And, as Hannah knows, God is with us. When we are in deepest distress and feeling most alone, it is easy find ourselves in a place where we feel abandoned even by God. But we never are abandoned by God.
One of the things I regret about this story, as it is told in I Samuel, is that when Hannah appeals to God for help, her problem is fixed by Hannah receiving what she wants. We are not promised that God will grant our desires. What we ARE promised is that God will be with us in our sorrows, and that God will see us through to a life beyond our immediate pain, to a place where we can see that there is still light and meaning, despite the burdens we carry.
The second way in which I think today’s story show us who we are is that we are all Peninah. Peninah is privileged by her capacity for childbearing, a gift that she neither earned not has responsibility for. And instead of being grateful for her blessings and feeling and acting with support and love for the one who is not similarly blessed, she looks down on Hannah and USES her superiority in social status to reinforce Hannah’s inferiority.
So let’s ask ourselves:
How often do we who are socially and economically privileged show insensitivity – at best – to those who are without our advantages?
How often do we, instead of seeking ways to share privilege and to lift up those without power or status, succumb to the tempting rationalization that we deserve what we have, and that those without just haven’t worked hard enough to change their lot?
How often do we in fact, through our action or inaction, reinforce the structures of policy and practice that hold us all into our designated roles in society? How hard to we work at challenging our cultures assumptions and priorities?
Hannah is clear, in her song, that God is working at bringing justice, and that this means favoring the disempowered. She advises us:
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.
She declares that:
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.
In other words, it is not our power or status in this world that pleases God, even if it may please us and other people. What pleases God is whether we can learn to see as God sees, and it is the choices we make in using what we are given.
Hannah prospered in the end. I Samuel chapter two tells us that after Samuel birth and apprenticeship to Eli, she had more sons and daughters. I wonder what longterm effects her grief and her redemption had on Hannah, and whether things got better between Hannah and Peninah. I’d like to think they did.
May we hear God’s word, and may we be changed.
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