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November 15, 2009
1 Samuel 1:4-20

The story of Ruth, which we have been reading these last two weeks, was placed in the time of the Judges, before there was a king in Israel. We now move to the story of the birth of Samuel. Samuel is the last of Israel’s judges, but in a way he is more than that. He fills the role of a military and political leader as did the judges before him but he also acts as a priest and is in some ways the forerunner of the prophets to come. His life makes way for the later kings of Israel.

The story of Samuel’s birth is in fact his mother’s story as she struggles with her own barrenness and the derision of others that arises in such circumstances. We should remember that the story is told in the context of ancient belief that ‘barrenness’ was the problem of a woman and that a wife who did not bear children in a marriage was likely to bear shame in society and sometimes even in her family. In last week’s story of Naomi and Ruth we saw the other side of this situation with the joy among neighbours and friends at the birth of Obed, Naomi’s grandson, and the honour afforded his grandmother (Ruth 4:13-16).

In this week’s reading, Hannah suffers not only a personal sense of disappointment, but she is constantly reminded of her own ‘failing’ by the presence of Elkinah’s other wife, Peninnah, and ‘all her sons and daughters’. In spite of her husband’s love and favour (1 Sam. 1:5) and his encouragement (v. 8) she laments her situation. Whenever they went to the house of the Lord Hannah was provoked by the rival wife. The location in which this constant derision took place, the house of the Lord, underlines the fact that ‘barrenness’ was not just thought of as a particular woman’s problem, i.e. some failing of hers, but it was seen as the result of the Lord’s action toward her (v. 5). The Lord had closed her womb. As readers we are not told why. We know of no sin that would justify this action by the Lord. This further underlines Hannah’s plight. She not only bears the pain of social and family scorn, she feels the scorn spiritually too. This is exacerbated by Eli the priest of Shiloh who sees Hannah moving her lips silently as she prays, and presumes she is drunk (vv. 12-14). Eli’s conclusion may seem hasty to us but we ought to remember that the act of silent prayer, while quiet familiar to us, was not common in ancient times. People usually prayed aloud, as they would have read if they knew how. Eli’s accusation, even if understandable, adds salt to Hannah’s wounded spirit. There is, of course, some irony in this story. It will be Eli in 1 Samuel 3, for whom Samuel ministers in the sanctuary, who will recognise that Samuel has been called by the Lord. Eli’s role as priest is flawed and Samuel will eventually replace him. It will be Eli who will recognise that the voice Samuel hears is that of the Lord calling. Here in ch. 1, Eli does not recognise Samuel’s mother calling to the Lord. His rather off-handed blessing of Hannah in 1 Sam. 1:17 points to the very action of the Lord in all these events.

This picture of Hannah reminds us of the story of Israel’s matriarchs in Genesis, each of whom was barren for some time before she finally bore the son(s) who would become the ancestors of Israel. Like Sarah before her, Hannah bears the scorn of a rival wife because of her barrenness (Gen. 16:3). Hannah stands, therefore, in a long line of Israel’s mothers. In spite of her grief, we know that she will give birth to a son who will be significant in the life of his people. And in her grief, which we know will be temporary, she shares with those mothers who have preceded her. She stands in the way of the Lord’s dealing with his people.

With the celebration of Christ the King next week (also known as the Reign of Christ) and with our thoughts now about to turn to Christmas and the birth of Jesus, the story of Hannah also directs our thoughts toward the future. The story of Samuel’s birth in this week’s reading has some strong connections to the story of Jesus’s birth. The prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (the psalm for this week) has similar themes and words to the song of Mary, Jesus’s mother, in Luke 1:46-55. Hannah’s struggle as she longs for a child stands, therefore, not only at the end of a long line of matriarchs in Israel, but joins with a continuing line of birth stories that point, from the perspective of our Christian faith, toward the birth of Jesus, another prophet, priest and ‘king’ of the Lord.

Finally we should not pass over the pain and grief felt by Hannah as she prays for a child. Her pain, expressed so strongly in vv. 7 and 10, not only indicates that the birth of her son stands in a long tradition of births in Israel. It also underlines the nature of the Lord’s involvement in the world through his people. The Lord works in and through those who are, in many ways, oppressed or sorely placed in the world. It is through the ‘meek’, to use the words of Jesus, that we see the working of the Lord. He chooses a barren, despised woman in an obscure family in Israel to bear a prophet and leader of his people. He chooses an impatient old priest who rather hastily draws incorrect conclusions about others to be the bearer of his word. He chooses an aging barren mother to be the ancestress of Israel; and he will choose a young virgin at risk of derision, rejection and possibly worse if found pregnant before engagement, to be the mother of the one who will be the hope of all his people. At this time as we approach the celebration of the reign of Christ, and in looking forward to the joy of Christmas, we are reminded that all those within our society who are rejected by others – the homeless, the drug addict, the asylum seeker, the person of another faith new to our society – are the ones with whom the Lord works, and whom he calls his own.

1 Samuel 2:1-10

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