Friday, April 10, 2015

And YHWH Remembered Hannah: Reflections on 1 Samuel

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.

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.

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.


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.

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