I Samuel 1: 4-20 and I Samuel 2: 1-10
A few years ago before Thanksgiving I asked students about their favorite part of the meal and Lisa told me the unsavory story of the time one of her relatives mistakenly put salt, rather than sugar, in the pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie being her favorite holiday treat, it was a big disappointment and a long year, waiting for a properly-made pie to show up the next Thanksgiving.
On our Advent-themed retreat last weekend, Ryan shared that, in addition to all the traditional Thanksgiving foods, his family always has stuffed shells. As much as the turkey and gravy, he looks forward to those shells every holiday.
Cranberries are among my most favorite Thanksgiving foods. When I was a kid we always had the jellied kind that comes in a can and I looked forward to those showing up on the table each year. In high school, my step-grandmother from the Dakotas introduced into our family a wonderful home-made cranberry mold with oranges and walnuts and I wondered how I’d ever loved the canned stuff. I asked her for the recipe one year when I was in seminary and ever since I’ve been in charge of this dish for the family meal – even on the other side of the family.
Annual holidays bring annual traditions and Thanksgiving is so close now we can taste it. It’s just the other side of a few more classes! Annual holidays celebrate family foods and family traditions, helping us to fall back into our roles as sister, brother, cousin, grandchild. Family holidays can also highlight longstanding misunderstandings or hit on our sore spots. In my family, even after decades of my being a vegetarian, there are family members who ask – every year – What, exactly, do you eat? You mean, you don’t like turkey? When did you stop eating meat?
I find that amusing but I also know what it’s like to have a sore spot that gets bruised when you get together with the extended clan. Hannah had a sore spot that Peninnah loved to push on. The passage from I Samuel reads, “[Hannah’s] rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord has closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her” (I Samuel 1: 6-7). It wasn’t bad enough that Hannah lived daily with the sadness of infertility. It wasn’t bad enough that Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, had taken on a second wife who had subsequently borne children for him.
True, “Hannah” does mean “charming, attractive” and Elkanah married her first and loved her best. He even brought her double portions of the sacrificed meat. But that only pointed out to her how alone she was. And it didn’t help that Peninnah’s name means “fertile, prolific” (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. II, p.973).
When she would cry about it, unable to eat, her husband would try to console her. He’d say things like, “Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (I Samuel 1: 8). We talked last week about the value in Israelite culture of having sons. Remember how the women who celebrated the birth of Naomi’s grandchild sang the praises of Ruth then, saying that she was better for Naomi than seven sons would be? (Ruth 4: 15). Here is that sentiment again. Except for one thing: Did you notice that Elkanah doesn’t say to Hannah that she is more to him than ten sons? He says it the other way around. He loves her and he takes good care of her, but somehow he is missing the depth of her despair (www.gbod.org). She still wants the sons.
What does this sound like to you? There are overtones of Sarah’s and Rachel’s stories from Genesis (16; 29-30), and Elizabeth’s from Luke (1). Women who wanted children desperately and suffered a long time while waiting for them. As one scholar puts it, “We have been conditioned by Scripture to expect something extraordinary from a child born to a woman who was once barren” (www.gbod.org). We know at this point in Hannah’s story that it won’t be the end of her story, don’t we?
This holiday season – this year at the temple – Hannah can’t take it anymore. She takes off for the temple to see God. Worked up, she prays and promises to God that if she is given a son, she’ll commit him to God as a nazarite for his whole life. She promises to keep such a son from wine and haircuts and from touching the dead. Usually nazarite vows were for a certain period of time but Hannah promises up front to keep these vows for life.
She’s crying and praying, wringing her hands. Where else can she go? Back to the household with Peninnah and all her kids? About this time the temple priest, Eli, takes notice of Hannah. We find out later in I Samuel that he hasn’t been a great priest and that’s apparent here, when he can’t tell the difference between a woman praying or rip-roaring drunk. He can’t seem to figure out why her lips would be moving without sound. Hannah explains to the dullard that she’s been pouring out her soul to God and the text says that she describes herself as “deeply troubled” (v.15).
A better translation would be “hard, obstinate, or stubborn of spirit” (NIB, p. 976). Well, that’s not exactly the same thing, is it? Here she is, pouring out her deepest need, the painful unfulfilled longing of her heart. Clearly, she is deeply troubled. But, through tears, she describes herself as “stubborn of spirit.” Determined, pesky, unable to give up on want she wants.
Eli hasn’t the slightest idea what Hannah’s been so stubborn about but he tells her that whatever she asked will be given to her by God. She goes on back to her family and the next day the head home. When they get there Hannah and Elkanah have sex and it’s at this point that, the text says, “the LORD remembered her” (v. 19) and she conceives and eventually bears a son, named Samuel.
Later, after he’s weaned, Hannah makes good on her promise and brings Samuel to the temple. And it’s here that she sings her prayerful song to God, today’s second reading. She sounds so much like Mary (Luke 1) here, doesn’t she?
My heart exults in the LORD…There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God…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…He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap…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” (I Samuel 2: 1-2, 4-5, 8-9).
Hannah’s song, with its wonderful echoes in Mary’s magnificat, reminds us that we’re about to enter the season of unexpected birth. And reading about Hannah now reminds us that the wonderful story of God’s salvation does not start with Mary and Jesus; they are part of a long long story (NIB, p. 983). And it reminds us, as Hannah sings, that power does not prevail – “not by might does one prevail” (2: 9). God did not choose a queen to give birth to Samuel or to Jesus. God chooses poor, ordinary, overlooked women. And, in Hannah’s case, we know she was stubborn, too.
What about that stubbornness? What makes her so stubborn here? She has this gaping need and she won’t shut up about it, right? She wants a child and she wants God to know this, in no uncertain terms. It’s a need beyond her control to satisfy. She is wholly dependent on God for this one and she refuses to give up without making her case.
It can be scary to encounter someone like this, so determined and in touch with such a profound and hurting need. And it can be a good reminder that we’re all just like that. It can be liberating.
Around here people talk about “needing an A” or “needing a class to get into grad school” or “needing that internship.” But it seems we have a hard time talking about our deepest needs – maybe because we have a hard time admitting our need in the first place. In our daily living we prefer to live as if we don’t need much of anything from God. We mouth prayers about relying on God but we hope we can just get it done ourselves.
But Hannah knows something we don’t. God wants to hear this. It’s when she pours her heart out to God, holding nothing back and exposing her deep need, that God hears and answers her prayer. God wants to hear the deepest cries of our hearts. And God responds to them. The story of Israel’s longing for a king stems from the tears of a barren woman in misery. There is no place too desolate to start. Someone may think you’re an unraveled drunk. Keep going. Someone in your family may poke at your sore spots. Keep going. It may feel weird to rely on God in a culture of hyper-self-reliance. Keep going. Who knows where your story will end up?
Thanks be to God!
© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis