Sunday, May 24, 2015

Prodigals and Parables: A (Short) Analysis of Luke 15:11-32

This is short, and I was not allowed to consult commentaries. One thousand words for the win.

The story of the prodigal son is a staple in my evangelical story. People referenced it constantly when I returned to the faith, and I read it that way for a long time: until now. Reading this text within its canonical context and co-text has pushed me to reflect on the nature of the overall narrative in relation to the first-century readers.

Within the larger context of ch14-15, our text sits comfortably after 15:1-7 and 15:8-10, and both sections refer to lost items (coin, sheep). Both pieces are significant as they are parables, but the subject of the younger son in the third unit (v.11-32) indicates that we’ve progressed beyond items into personhood. 14:1 tells us that Jesus “was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath.” It seems that the entirety of 15:11-32 can be aspectivally located within 14:1. All of these stories are being told over a meal, where social privilege is evident (14:7) and situated within that specific residence. Jesus’ address to his host (14:12) indicates that there were no poor at this event (14:13-14), thus indicating a social hierarchy. Crowds, having followed Jesus (14:25), are outside. The meal within the dwelling of the Pharisee illustrates that some were open to Jesus.

15:1-2 indicate that the tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes were all near Jesus, placing implicit mixed social, political and religious pressure. Themes of eschatological reversal play quite heavily here as Jesus emphasizes the ones who would be discarded (15:3-7), and the one who seeks them out. Each parable has an audience of the haves and the have-nots, with the focus on reversal and repentance. Now, Jesus can launch into the parable of the prodigal son, which concerns each listener at this meal.

The story begins (v.11) with a father and his two sons. The younger demands his share of the father’s property. Is it implied that the older son is given his dowry as well (“… he divided his property between them”, v.12)? After leaving for a distant land, the younger son lost everything; the adverb ἀσώτως is used here and only here in the New Testament to describe his life (which is the present active participle ζῶν). BDAG 148 defines ἀσώτως as “wastefully, prodigally.”

The younger son goes to a foreign land (v.14). Perhaps this is rhetorical irony by Jesus, as the one with excess is caught in a land that is now barren; the younger son (Joseph from Genesis 37-50) is not in Kansas anymore. In v.15-16, the younger son’s duty is to feed the owner’s pigs, which are seen as “unclean” animals in Leviticus 11:7-8. There is nothing there for the younger son to “fill himself”; the verb “γεμίζω” indicates a perverse reversal of being “filled.”

V.17-19 tells of the plot point concerning the younger son’s return to his father. He remembers his former status as a well-fed younger son. The people outside the Pharisees’ house identify with this son at this point, as they are perhaps hungry outsiders. The younger son remembers his father’s wealth and how even hired workers had enough bread to eat (v.17). Staple foods like bread are gold in light of starvation. Simply, the younger son wants nothing more than to be a hired hand, a keeping of his current status.

In v.20, the father sees him from far off, indicating that he was looking for him, and knew where he would come from. The father was filled with compassion, and he runs out to him and weeps. A possible intertext for this passage may be Gen. 45:14, where Joseph weeps with his brothers after a long time apart because of horrific actions on the part of his brothers. Here, the roles are reversed: the older embraces the younger this time.

Despite this display, the son blurts out his failures. How often do we still feel the need to remind those who forgive us that we still sinned? The father ignores this and has the slaves (δούλους, not μισθίων); this change may emphasize the status of the slaves in the younger son’s stead. The father does not have his son’s body washed, and instead places rings and robes on him (v.22); a father’s happiness covers a multitude of customs. V.23-24 utilizes the fatted calf, showing us that a grand feast is to commence (a reference to Lev. 9:3 as a “burnt offering?”). What makes this interesting is that the imagery of fresh meat is not lost upon those who are outside and hungry during the telling of this parable. When the older son hears this celebration one can imagine his annoyance at not being invited. Indicating the possible shift of social status regarding “δούλους” and “μισθίων” in v.22, here in v.26 the older son asks the “παίδων” (child, servant) about the celebration.

We are not told the father’s words when he emerges from the celebration, but the response from the older son reveals that he views himself as a “δουλεύω” (one who slaves) to his father, thus viewing himself lower than the “παίδων.” The father is shocked, as he believes “all” (πάντα) that he has belongs to his older son. This reveals the selfishness of the older son: his status was never under dispute, and was never at odds with the father’s character and love for his younger son. Thus, when someone lost repents (v.32), we celebrate and rejoice.

The fact that the older brother—now likely representing a Pharisee who is already a part of the kingdom—reacts negatively when the dirty and repentant return to the family of God reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a part of God’s kingdom. This is all over a meal, an intimate setting. Pharisees are already included in God’s kingdom, but to some of their chagrin, so are the outsiders who repent and return. 


NQ

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Suffering and Triumph: An Analysis of Philippians 1:12-30

Paul’s words in Phil. 1:12-30 are often used as a reminder for Christians to “persevere” and “be faithful”; these words, though certainly helpful, are often chanted by brothers and sisters who believe they are in dire straits. Ancient suffering is viewed as superficially equivalent within a first century Western context, and this raises the concern of death in v.21-24. It has become necessary to revisit the paradoxical themes of triumph and suffering within Paul’s personal letter to Philippi.

The letter genre that seems to fit Philippians 1:12-30 is paranetical topoi and maybe gratitude. This is could be due to Paul’s emphasis on “joy” and “rejoicing” throughout this section. 1:12-30 is the follow-up from 1:1-11, beginning with “I want you to know.” This phrase implies a break between sections, moving us in a new direction and suggesting that Paul is intending to update his readers after assurances and prayers (V.8-11). The themes in v.12-30 (joy, love, goodwill) are hinted at in v.1-11 and are to be more fully developed in v.12-30.

Paul’s brief reference to his “imprisonment” (v.13-14) suggests that he was likely under the authority of “the whole imperial guard” (v.13).[1] Where would there be bases of operation for this “impartial guard? Paul speaks of πραιτωρίῳ and some other cognates (c.f. πραιτώριον) appear in Matthew (27:27), Mark (15:16) and John’s (18:28, 33; 19:9) gospels during the crucifixion narratives. Is this theological intentional and significant?

While Paul’s precise location is nebulous, his comments about the motivations of those who profess Christ (v.15-17) are clear and may push readers of Paul to carefully consider the motivations of those who preach the gospel, (“proclaiming from envy and rivalry vs. goodwill” and “love”) since it does not seem to concern Paul as of now (v.18; though see 3:2). Was this an ethnically diverse congregation? Paul ultimately believes that how “Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true,” he will rejoice (v.18-19).

Once Paul has spoken of his hope in deliverance (v.19-20), he then turns to his desire “not to be put to shame.” This phrase echoes Psalm 119:6, where the Psalter proclaims that those look upon God’s commandments “will not be put to shame.” This phrase appears throughout Psalm 119 (c.f. v.31, 46, 80 and 116). Paul’s hope is to exalt Christ with his body, through life or death. In the backdrop of imprisonment, the πραιτωρίῳ, possible disunity amongst the believers (4:2-3), and the opponents in Philippi (1:27-28; 3:2), Paul’s joy is manifested in “boasting” only of Jesus Christ and—subsequently—not of Rome. This will lead to the Christ “hymn” in 2:6-11 where the exaltation of Christ is hinted at already in 1:20 where Jesus “will be exalted (μεγαλυνθήσεται)…whether by life or by death.” Paul will exalt Christ by his death by the manner of his life and by his sufferings (v.21-24). His desire to be “with Christ” may be a Christological claim, possibly echoing Hosea 11:12: “But Judah still walks with God and is faithful to the Holy One [my emphasis].” The echo may illustrate Paul’s relationship with Christ as a suffering one who was yet faithful.

The references to “flesh” (v.22, 24) and “body” (v.21) may illustrate that Paul does not believe that σὰρξ and σώμα may to be used interchangeably and I wonder if this reveals that Paul does not have an entirely negative view of σὰρξ. Rather, he views it as something preferable. The comparative adjective κρεῖσσον is translated as “better” (NRSV; CEB) and “is more necessary for your sake” (NASB). Is Paul thinking from a dualist or monist perspective here?

Suffering is dominant in the Old Testament (Ps. 4:2; 9:13 with its reference to “shame”). Paul may also be invoking the servant song in Deutero-Isaiah 52:13-15 as an intertext, where the servant “shall be exalted and lifted up.” In essence, the “suffering” of Deutero-Isaiah 53:3, together with Paul’s repeated emphasis on “boasting” and “joy” throughout Phil. 1:12-30, establish the paradox of gladness in suffering for the sake of Christ. This may also be a reference to martyrdom, as Paul intimates elsewhere that the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess. 4:17). Imitation is thus a primary point for Paul here, and Christ will be the ultimate example of imitation in ch.2. Because of Paul’s conviction of this (v.25-26), he participates with the Philippian community, sharing with them “abundantly” as they boast “in Christ Jesus.” The Old Testament backgrounds demand further research.

The use of the adverb Μόνον in v.27 may indicate that Paul has moved away from his circumstances and applies the previous section to the Philippians. The emphasis on unity (“one spirit”… “one mind”) illustrates the probable conflict brought by “opponents” in v.28. This is the first time Paul has said he’s heard of troublemakers in Philippi, and there is little indication about how he’s heard of these adversaries (c.f. 1 Cor. 1:11), though his co-worker Epaphroditus may have told him these things while in his presence (2:25; 4:18).

God has given believers the chance “to believe” (πιστεύειν) but also “to suffer” (πάσχειν). These two active infinitives suggest that Paul views them as a consequence of the other: belief, followed in conjunction (ἀλλὰ καὶ) by anguish. Paul’s conclusion asserts that modern Christians who have not suffered—unlike many of their ancient brothers and sisters—should reevaluate their lives in light of ancient tragedies. We do not come to Christ in order to have a safe reality; we come to Christ because He is the only King that saves. Paul brings his argument around with a bittersweet reminder that he is still in his previous condition (v.30).

Paul’s suffering has still not ceased, despite his continual joy.

NQ

[1] πραιτωρίῳ (imperial guard) is elsewhere used in its dative neuter singular form in Acts 23:35: Paul is to be placed in Herod’s headquarters, which may suggest Rome or Ephesus as a possible place of writing.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Fuller Forum: Reflections About Reflection

This post comes from my time in Dr. Sechrest's Paul class. We were required to attend the Fuller Forum. These are my reflections. 

Throughout the Fuller Forum conference, police sirens repeatedly beset Walter Brueggemann’s plenary lectures as the persistent wailings echoed throughout the packed chapel. As Brueggemann spoke, the student body was repeatedly aware of the almost profane nature of the sirens resounding throughout a sacred space such as a church and this tragic reality forced us to consider how justice, grace, and law are to be reflected in the life of the church.

Having been made aware through my various readings in Paul and the Old Testament, I thought I was becoming more aware of empire and the economics of the day. Nothing prepared me for being this wrong. The challenge of economy is a persistent theme throughout the Old Testament and Brueggemann hammered this home with passion and unpredicted delicacy. My question is this: in light of the Old Testament’s emphasis on economic equality and it’s condemnation of financial exploitation, how do we as a church work within the confines of government without betraying or compromising our mission as a church?

In reflecting about Brueggemann’s plenaries and the multitude of speakers (a highlight being able to see my priest John Goldingay preach with his trademark green socks peeking out from some affluent trousers), I would like to challenge this conception of a “dynamic” relationship with God. While I’m very sympathetic to this portrayal of God in the Old Testament, I am reserved to consider Brueggemann’s statement (and I must paraphrase): “This relationship between YHWH and Israel is open, fractured, and on going. It is not settled.” I wonder if this is completely accurate. For example, YHWH always seems committed to Israel throughout the Old Testament, and even YHWH’s fierce denouncement of the Israelites in Exodus 32:7-11 seems to suggest that YHWH is still settled on Israel in some sense. It is said of Moses “of you I will make a great nation” (v.10). It could be that the Old Testament offers a myriad of pictures of YHWH, and so we are free to generalize and avoid being bogged down in details. However, YHWH almost always seems committed to Israel as a corporate body, even when all seems lost.

When Dr. Cleveland asked about segregated churches, Brueggemann stated a possible solution (and I again paraphrase): “Meet in the middle over certain issues…we need to keep repenting of our tribalism.” While this is entirely necessary, I wonder if Brueggemann’s statement does not go far enough. Of course it may depend upon the issue, but I wonder it may be more necessary to suggest that denominations as a concept are what the problem is—or at least contribute to the problem. The very logic of a denomination is that it places parameters around what function as identity markers within a specific people group that resides within a specific people group. I do not want to demonize denominations, as my denomination (American Baptist USA) has been incredibly faithful and gracious. I do wonder, however, if the church can gather around a specific creed (Nicaea, Athanasian) and allow our rougher edges to be sanded off by one another. To be one in Christ ought to imply deference to the other, and a desire for unity within diversity (1 Cor. 12). 


NQ

Friday, April 24, 2015

Justice or Judgment in Amos 5:24?

Should מִשְׁפָּ֑ט be translated in Amos 5:24 as “justice” or “judgment?” מִשְׁפָּ֑ט is primarily defined in BDB 4941 as “judgment” and “justice.” In the assigned literature (Hosea, Amos, and Micah), the noun appears 8 times. Modern translations translate מִשְׁפָּ֑ט in Amos 5:24 as “justice” (CEB, NRSV, NIV, ESV). I will, however, suggest that מִשְׁפָּ֑ט is best translated as “judgment” in Amos 5:24.

Amos 5:7’s use of מִשְׁפָּ֑ט is correctly translated as “justice” because God is exhorting Israel to return, but instead they have turned “מִשְׁפָּ֑ט” into wormwood, suggesting that a good thing has become corrupt (the CEB translation: “throw justice to the ground”). V.15 is another exhortation for the remnant to “establish justice,” and while God desires to be gracious, v.15 is somewhat more ambiguous. מִשְׁפָּ֑ט could be translated as “judgment” could be viewed positively as something done by the remnant. But “justice” seems more coordinate when paralleled with the call to “hate evil and love good,” especially in Amos 6:12 where there is a contrast as something good (מִשְׁפָּ֑ט) is turned into something that resembles “poison.” However, these references likely appear in a different paragraph from v.24, as the next paragraph seems to begin in v.18 and proceed to the end of the chapter. This potential break may illustrate that מִשְׁפָּ֑ט will be better translated as “justice” in v.24.

Hosea 5:11 states, “Ephraim is oppressed, crushed in judgment” (NRSV). V.9 specifies that “Ephraim shall become a desolation in the day of punishment.” The references to being “punished” (v.2) and “devoured” in v.7 illustrate the judgment of God. 10:4 contains the other use of מִשְׁפָּ֑ט and it also seems to be better translated as “judgment” for two reasons: first, the reference to “litigation” (NRSV) rising up like “poisonous weeds” in v.4 suggests the destruction of a crop, which is the life for many. Second, the language of destruction following v.4 seems to affirm God’s judgment and the general usage of battle language in v.13-15. Hosea’s use of מִשְׁפָּ֑ט seems more coherent with “judgment.” Micah’s two references seem to affirm the translation of מִשְׁפָּ֑ט as “justice” as 3:9 concerns a perversion of something good, and in 6:8 “justice” seems more coordinate with “kindness” rather than judgment, which involves a more negative connotation.

This brings us to Amos 5:24. The use of מִשְׁפָּ֑ט seems most likely to be a reference to judgment, as the repeated expression “the Day of the Lord” (v.18, 20) may illustrate. The text in v.18 and v.20 specify to whom God is speaking: it is those who actually desire this Day of Judgment, which is a day of terror (Joel 2:31; Lam. 2:22). Is. 13:6 states this day of the Lord “will come like destruction,” which suggests an eschatological judgment. While I am not entirely settled on my choice, I find the translation of “judgment” in Amos 5:24 to be a better contextual fit, especially in light of the Day of God’s judgment. 


This study is of course limited, and I don't pretend that it is exhaustive. I was limited to 500 words. However, given the limitations, it is safe to say that Amos 5:24 is indeed best translated as "judgment." I also have not had Hebrew yet, so I am limited by that as well.

Of course, it is possible for "justice" and "judgment" to be two sides of the same coin, but I was not given the option of having my cake and eating it too. :)
 
NQ

Friday, April 17, 2015

Echoes of the Old Testament in Revelation 13


In reading Revelation, one cannot imagine a more Old Testament saturated New Testament epistle. The imagery in ch.13 depicts a monstrous behemoth arising from the sea, a place of bubbling chaos that in other texts gives way to a Leviathan (Job 3:8). This multifaceted beast is most probably derived from Daniel 7, especially as it is similar to various animals found there (a bear and a leopard in Dan. 7:5-6; c.f. Rev. 13:2). John of Patmos describes this beast as singular, whereas Daniel describes it as a plurality and both beasts act similarly: speaking with arrogance (Dan. 7:8) or uttering blasphemies (Rev. 13:5). John’s singular beast has many of the same characteristics as Daniel’s three other beasts, but John seems to blend these allusions together. For example, the beast has the body of a leopard (v.2), feet of a bear (v.2), and a mouth like a lion (v.2): all of these characteristics are found in the individual beasts in Daniel 7:4-6. Daniel’s story culminates with the fourth final beast in Dan. 7:7 where it is described as “different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns,” which is echoed in John’s telling of the story in Rev. 13:1, where the beast described also has ten horns. Perhaps John sees and uses Daniel 7 in a blended fashion, using each separate image to inform a collective entity.
 
A quotation is found in Rev. 13:10. In Jeremiah 15:2, God is responding to what appears to be apostasy committed by his people, and when God quotes his people as saying “where shall we go” he responds as such:

“Those destined for pestilence, to pestilence, and those destined for the sword, to the sword; those destined for famine, to famine, and those destined for captivity, to captivity.”

The incorporated imagery suggests that John is keen to invoke the history of apostasy in Israel, with the hope that this inserted image will jar his readers into remembering what happens to them when they worship other gods. In Jeremiah 15:3, God follows this up with this phrase “I will appoint over them four [my emphasis] kinds of destroyers…” and he describes these kinds as various animals that consume life. This suggests a warning also to those who would forsake God in times of persecution. 

The phrase “the book of life” appears at least once in the Old Testament. Psalm 69:28 refers to “the book of the living.” Contextually, the reference in Psalm 69:28 refers to the security of the believer of being included in God’s deliverance from oppression. This climaxes in 13:10 where John uses “the book of the living” as “a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (v.10). The call for perseverance in the face of abomination and desolation is mighty in John’s apocalyptic narrative and it is one that all should heed.

NQ

Mutuality, Solidarity, and Singleness in Corinth: Musings

Small Church in Corinth
Corinth was similar in so far as they believed one could be involved in sexual conduct without any repercussions. While many in the church today would not yoke themselves to that, a church—and society—that is steeped in “victimless” pornography is not far removed from the sexual conduct in Corinth.

Another pressing issue for Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 is mutuality in marriage, and singleness for other brothers and sisters. What is more fascinating about this is how Paul presents a picture of husband and wife yielding to one another; in a culture that prioritizes the individual over and against the corporate nature of community, Paul’s admonitions are precise and completely at odds with how the evangelical church functions. In Christian circles, marriage is the prime rib of human experience, and singleness is viewed as a problem. Paul’s preference for both men and women to remain single in the Lord shows us two things: first, Paul did not view singleness as separation from a community of believers, but that they would be united to a community and able to serve more fully as a community. Second, Paul wants both men and women, single or married, to be full participants within the community of Christ. 

We need to encourage singleness in our churches, and maybe demonstrate this as brothers and sisters who embody the single life for the Christians who cannot be married (whether they be gay or straight). Solidarity with the other is a Christian virtue, and we tarnish it by not participating in the life of all the members of our community. Paul is eminently practical here.

NQ

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Love and Participation in Philemon: Reflections


A dominant theme is how a hierarchical structure can (or even if it should) exist within the body of Christ. The master/slave relationship was rarely seen as reciprocal though there may have been leeway as regards the rights of slaves (Gorman, 7-8). But, what I think we see is Paul’s pressing for Onesimus’s freedom. For instance, Paul’s strong and consistent use of “in Christ” applies here because Paul can claim that he is “bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,” thus seeming to imply that both master and slave are ‘in Christ’ and that Paul is as well: this is fitting as love is a grand Pauline theme (1 Cor. 13), and he consistently applies his principle here in a sensitive situation. Indeed, Paul’s claim for Philemon to “refresh my heart in Christ” may place the abolition of slavery directly within the freedom the Gospel offers (c.f. the “in Christ” language of Gal. 3:28). When there are no divisions within the body of Christ, we must then ask why the church attempts to perpetuate such division in—for example—excluding women from the pulpit, and why our individual churches do not include minorities in positions of equal standing in the Church. 

The character of the Church (and Paul is writing to a church here! See v.1-2) is one of participation in unity, where there is no slave or free in Christ. Paul’s advocacy for Onesimus seems to open up a seat at the table of fellowship.

NQ

Friday, April 10, 2015

And YHWH Remembered Hannah: Reflections on 1 Samuel

MY CONTEXT
A preacher does not usually give a sermon from 1 Samuel. This is common in much of evangelicalism, and it is certainly an experience I share. The Old Testament is generally set aside in favor of the New Testament, in the same way that one trades in a jalopy for a modern sports car. However, the most gripping element of this text is the reference to a “nazarite” in v11; my mind immediately returned to the story of Samson and the concept of being set apart. Because of this, I feel like I have always missed the centrality of Hannah who, in some sense, is the one who is set apart from the beginning and she is the one who sets Samuel apart. Because of the centrality of Samuel’s mother Hannah to this chapter (and the beginning narrative as a whole), I feel that the chapter is far more sensitive towards women than I previously imagined when I first read it.

CO-TEXT
My former film professor would always stress to use that the first ten minutes of the film were always the most important. It has to hook the audience in and give sufficient reason to justify the remainder of the film. I sense that this integrates quite well with 1 Samuel 1. For instance, we sense that Hannah is the underdog, beloved by her husband, but barren and at the mercy of her husband’s other wife. The themes of promise and fulfillment are present, as Hannah makes a pledge to God for a son, and God remembers her and fulfills her promise.
A larger theme is Divine Remembrance, as God remembered Noah (8:1), Abraham (19:29), Rachel (30:22), and many other patriarchs and matriarchs. Another potential theme is that Hannah seems to be consistently misunderstood, by both her husband Elkanah (v8, “am I not more to you than ten sons?”) and the priest Eli who chastises her as a drunk (v.14). The trajectory of the narrative pushes us toward Samuel, but through the witness of his mother. We, of course, sense the parallel with Samson who was a Narazite (Number 6; Judges 13:5-7), though we are uncertain about the future of the potential son of Hannah, for Samson’s tale ultimately ended in violence and death. Will Samuel share in Samson’s fate? However, for the purpose of this chapter, both Hannah and God are at center stage among many participants, co-texts, and players.

TEXT AND OBSERVATIONS
1Sam. 1:1 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. 2 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.

Culturally, Elkanah’s having two wives does not seem to warrant special attention from an ethical standpoint. What is interesting, however, is the instruction found in Deuteronomy 21. Elkanah was apparently not dissatisfied with Hannah not being able to conceive, for the Torah stated that if he were unsatisfied, he could release her (though he could not sell her or treat her as a slave, v14). The lineage is interesting, as Jeroham is a name mentioned all throughout 1 Chronicles. What is most fascinating is Deuteronomy 21:15-16’s brief instruction to a man with two wives, and how there is no preference to be shown to the children, even if the man preferred one wife over the other. Yet in the 1 Samuel narrative, Peninnah’s children are not mentioned by name. One wonders if this is incidental or not, and has implications for Samuel perhaps being the preferred child from Elkanah’s preferred bride. Hannah’s not having children (אֵ֥ין) is the same particle used of Sarai in Gen. 11:30, suggesting a possible narrative continuity.

1Sam. 1:3 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.

Why is it that Elkanah goes alone? Are women not permitted or encouraged to worship and sacrifice to God at Shiloh? I confess to finding this odd. An interesting note is my Hebrew interlinear places two Hebrew nouns side by side and translates them as “yearly yearly.” One wonders if this is intentional, or is Elkanah is representing them all implicitly.

1Sam. 1:4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb.

It is fascinating to consider Elkanah’s preference for Hannah in this section. In an ancient context, it seems that he’s going above and beyond many husbands. The fact that Deuteronomy 21 and elsewhere had to present rules about how husbands may or may not treat their wives indicates that mistreatment abounded. Indeed, the mentioning of “sons” here possibly foreshadows that possible preferential treatment of Samuel would be forthcoming. It seems that מָנָ֥ה includes a semantic range involving “distribution” and “choice selection.”

What an interesting final part of a verse. God closed her womb. A similar scenario is presented in Genesis 29:31 regarding Leah and Rachel. In some sense this may be intended to provoke a response from Hannah (which will happen later), but it could also be a reference to a tragic state of affairs involving Hannah’s age (as the reference to “year by year” in v.3 may indicate some significant passage of time). Either way, God has a hand in this and it is certainly ambiguous.

1Sam. 1:6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. 7 So 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. 8 Her 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?”

A repeated reference to God’s activity on Hannah’s body, but we now have external pressure placed upon Hannah, and this adds up “year” upon “year” (c.f. v.3). I imagine this was an awkward and troubling dinner setting for Hannah, especially as the years have passed by with her rival wife provoking her. It is somewhat humorous in a dark way, as Elkanah seems to attempt to understand Hannah, but completely misses the issue. In some ways, he answers his own question with “why are you sad” when he ends with the comment about “ten sons.” I wonder if Hannah felt incredibly burdened due to the cultural expectation placed on wives to bear children, and that she was somehow a failure as a wife by not being also a mother. Elkanah is certainly not lacking in empathy, and this makes him a nuanced and compelling supporting character.

1Sam. 1:9 After 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. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. 11 She 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.”

Aside from the uncomfortable dinner, Hannah’s distress seems to climax here as she prays. She acts of her own volition to promise her son, seemingly against a cultural expectation that the (potential) father would have control over this matter. Given Elkanah’s previous tenderness towards her, one can assume that she did so of her own freedom and knowing he would not challenge a pledge to God. Her prayer is especially powerful: “do not forget your servant.” This is deeply haunting, especially in light of the tale of the oppressed in all lands who are not remembered. Will God remember her, is the essential question. Psalm 10:12 seems to sum this up nicely with “Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget [my emphasis] the oppressed.” תִשְׁכַּ֣ח seems to sometimes be used in the context of imploring God not to forget the one in distress (Ps. 44:24; 74:19; Proverbs 4:5) and its an apt verb for Hannah to use here.

As it happened in Judges where Israel went astray into violence and depravity, the reader here may be curious about how this new nazirite will behave under God’s command. She assumes sovereignty over Samuel’s destiny, declaring for him to be a nazirite and the ethical restrictions on the life of a nazarite are similar to the one’s prescribed in Numbers 6 and the reference is clearly parallel to Samson’s hair in Judges 13:5, “for no razor shall touch his head.”

1Sam. 1:12 As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But 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. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

Eli is surprisingly harsh for a priest. For it says that Hannah was not making any noise. In some sense, one wonders to what extent Eli is comparable to a jaded pastor who thinks they have seen it all already. Perhaps it is a sexist attitude, a presumption that Eli offers in bitterness. If this is not the first time Hannah has arrived to the house of the Lord, is there a chance she has come in drunk before, and Eli is referring to the past where she did so? Or does grief simply overwhelm her and it is a visible equivalent to being intoxicated? Given also that she is known as someone who cannot bear children (presumably), his condescension reveals a deeply embedded cultural prejudice towards the role and worth of a woman. Hannah’s response, however, is gracious and straightforward. She may placate him with self-depreciation (c.f. the “worthless woman” comment) and makes it about her deep personal grief, hoping to strike a chord with Eli.

1Sam. 1:17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And 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. 19 They 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.

Eli seems to relent from some of his condescension, and blesses her. Hannah returns to the table to eat and fellowship with Peninnah and Elkanah. The significance of a return to fellowship and a meal cannot be underestimated. Throughout the Old Testament it seems that to eat and drink with another person is to be in communion with them (Ex. 24:11), or in some cases be seen in excess (Judges 19). That Hannah returns to fellowship with her husband seems to indicate that she is relieved and at peace. The emphasis on they both going together in the morning to worship suggests a repair in the relationship, whereas Elkanah is the only one mentioned at the beginning to who goes and worships (c.f. v.2-3). Maybe this was the first time Hannah knew that God has heard, and to be heard is to be affirmed in a truly human sense: to be known by God is a wonderful Old Testament theme (Psalm 44:21).

The reference to “knew his wife” is a fairly word (וַיֵּ֤דַע) found throughout the Old Testament referring to sexual intercourse (Adam and Eve in Gen. 4:25), though it is not limited to sexual intercourse in some circumstances. In other instances the word seems to refer to mental knowledge (2 Chron. 33:13); the implied writer of this story seems to use the word in a fuller sense. Elkanah knew and knew his wife.

1Sam. 1:20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the LORD.”

I’ve heard that Samuel does not precisely mean, “I have asked him of the LORD.” Instead, a friend who knows Hebrew said it is something like “heard of [or from] God.” This makes good sense, as it seems to place the activity of God’s hearing (or remembering) to the forefront as the one who “heard” and “acted.” This all happened in due time, which may intimate that Hannah becoming with child was the point all along. I’m reminded of St. Paul’s doxological proclamation in Romans 11:33: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” What is most powerful is that this episode occurs after Hannah and Elkanah (if they were ever at odds) seem to have reconciled fully with one another. The birth of Samuel is thus a consequence of a restored marriage, with implications possibly towards a restored Israel, though this remains to be seen.

1Sam. 1:21 The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the LORD the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. 22 But 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.” 23 Her 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.

This time, perhaps because of the previously restored relationship, Elkanah’s entire household comes with him, unless we were meant to believe that Elkanah was representing his entire household as a type of figurehead. It is interesting that Hannah has the freedom to refuse to go up to the house of the Lord, telling her husband (presumably for the first time) that she has made a vow, which Elkanah takes with the utmost seriousness as vows are highly esteemed in Israel. Numbers 30:2-3 mentions both men and women making vows, so Hannah is certainly with Torah to make an independent vow to God provided Elkanah does not disagree. He does not, a seemingly more sensitive man. This is, after all, his son too.

The question lingers, however, about why Hannah did not immediately take Samuel to Eli. Perhaps she wanted to be more involved in his upbringing, and I cannot fathom the pain of giving up your only child. Maybe she is staving off the inevitable, but I suspect it is because she knows she has freedom to take her own initiative.

1Sam. 1:24 When 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. 25 Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. 26 And 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. 27 For this child I prayed; and the LORD has granted me the petition that I made to him. 28 Therefore 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.
 
For me, the most interesting part of this text is the paragraph break in the NRSV. The emphasis is surely upon the final sentence, as Hannah’s final word to Samuel is “he is given to the LORD.” In cinematic terms, it is the final lingering shot that the camera holds, watching Hannah turn and leave Samuel there. It is powerful that Hannah is grateful to God for Samuel and says that she has “lent” (הִשְׁאִלְתִּ֙הוּ֙) him to God. It looks like this is the only time that specific word appears in the Old Testament, so this usage is especially significant to the implied writer’s narrative. Does Hannah harbor some optimism for Samuel to be returned to her someday, hope against all hope? According to the rest of the Samuel character arc, this does not happen. The story suggests otherwise, and one suspects that Hannah, based on her interaction with God and the fulfillment of his promise, that there may yet be mercy. It does not make her story a tragedy, but reveals the humanness of finite human beings. In the end, we hope for Hannah and Samuel’s reunion—this side or the next.

FINAL INTERPRETATION

The author is intent on setting up a grand story, but takes an entire chapter to establish the bleakness of the human condition as seen through the eyes of a barren wife. This prologue forces us to consider Samuel’s unique upbringing and his future through the lens of a broken society that has yet to be fully healed, and the importance of this is to establish, ultimately, the working of God in human history. The original audience likely saw Samuel as a mighty man, a man conceived from a strong woman through the power and promise of God, with the intent to restore Israel. The beginning of Samuel is filled with pain and loss, but also fulfillment and hope. God in his mercy has not forgotten us and God in his love did not forget them.