Scripture: 1 Samuel 1:4-20
As we prepare to reflect on Hannah’s story let us pause for a moment to give thanks for God’s presence in our lives and in our world.
Gracious and compassionate God, your faithful and loving presence has given strength and comfort to those who seek you in every time and place. Help us to feel your presence in this time of worship and in the ordinary moments of our daily lives.
We reach out to you, Holy One, in our times of deepest pain and in our moments of greatest joy. Prompt us also to seek your guidance in the day-to-day decisions and actions of our lives that we may walk in your way of love and peace this day and in the days to come. Amen
It is always significant when the main character in a biblical story is a woman. I say that, not because I am a woman, but because it happens so infrequently. And yet, in the span of two weeks, we have heard the stories of Ruth and Hannah, two women that changed the course of the history of the Hebrew people. These two women are icons of strength, determination, faith and hope in the face of desperate times and circumstances.
As you may remember, Ruth’s story is full of intense drama. Because of circumstances beyond her control, Ruth was forced into a desperate struggle for survival. Difficult decisions were made and a courageous and dangerous journey began with the hope of beginning a new life in a foreign land. Ruth’s love and loyalty to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and her willingness to believe and trust in the God of the Hebrew people made her story so memorable that it was recounted orally and then written and saved for future generations. Another significant factor in Ruth’s story was that after much hardship she married and gave birth to Obed who would later become the father of Jesse who was the father of King David.
If you are beginning to feel uncomfortable with the fact that a woman’s security was essentially connected to being married, and her worth and importance was closely bound with her ability to bear a child, then you have a good basis for understanding something of the challenges and obstacles that Hannah faced in her life.
Hannah’s story is set in the 11th Century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) – more than a thousand years before the birth of Christ. The social, cultural and religious reality of the Mediterranean world then was that it was patriarchal in nature. It is also important to know that it was an honour / shame culture. Women’s status and importance was based on their ability to bear children. A childless woman carried great shame and would not hold a place of honour in the social system of that time and place.
To our 21st century Christian sensibilities, this is outrageously unfair. We live in a society where choice is cherished and respected and we embrace a religious ethos that is inclusive and honours each person equally as a child of God. However, in order to understand the great significance of Hannah’s story in the Judeo-Christian faith tradition we need to remember that three thousand years ago things were very different than they are now.
In the telling of Hannah’s story, as recorded in 1 Samuel, we learn that Hannah was married to Elkanah and that because she had not been able to bear a child, Elkanah also married Peninnah who provided him with many children. As you can imagine, this set up quite a rivalry between the wives. Peninnah taunted Hannah but may have also felt diminished and jealous because Elkanah loved Hannah dearly and gave her a double portion of food at their yearly pilgrimage to the shrine at Shiloh. Hannah suffered great humiliation and the constant presence of Peninnah and her children was too much to bear. When they were at Shiloh, Hannah was in deep distress despite Elkanah’s efforts to assure Hannah of his undying love. Hannah wept bitterly and refused food offered to her. Instead, in a state of deep despair she walked past Eli, the priest who was seated beside the entrance, and went into the shrine by herself. There, Hannah entered a state of fervent but silent prayer. Eli, not recognizing Hannah as a person of value assumed that she was drunk and disorderly and judged her harshly. With conviction and courage, Hannah told him, “I have been pouring out my soul before God. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman…” (1Samuel 1:15-16)
Several things are remarkable about Hannah’s actions. Hannah by-passed the priest entirely and entered the shrine and prayed directly to God. She poured out her sorrow and despair trusting that God would hear her pain and be present with her in her time of need. She promised that if she were to have a son that she would dedicate him as a servant of God.
After her bold and heartfelt prayer it seems that Hannah carried a sense of God’s presence with her and was comforted by an inner peace. The scripture story tells us that she, “went to her quarters ate and drank with her husband and her countenance was sad no more.” (1 Samuel 1:18)
In due time, Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son whom she named, Samuel. And, keeping true to her promise to God, when Samuel was weaned (at about age 5) she took him to Shiloh and left him in the care of Eli, the priest. As a mother, this must have been an unbelievably difficult thing to do. As a woman of that time it was a bold statement of faith and a demonstration of her autonomy as a person of value. Her husband had the power to nullify the vow she had made to dedicate their son to God’s service. That he acquiesced to the strength of her conviction that Samuel was born to serve God is unusual and significant.
Hannah’s story, extraordinary as it is, is more than the story of one woman’s experience. It is what is known as a “meta narrative”; a story that represents the struggles, hopes and dreams of a group of people. The birth and dedication of Samuel came at a time of great upheaval for the Hebrew people. The Israelites were ruled by “judges” during this time which was before the monarchies of King Saul and King David. As an adult, Samuel was instrumental in the transition from the governance of judges to kings. Samuel anointed King David and his predecessor, King Saul. And, Hannah, as his mother is forever remembered for her part in this epic story of the Hebrew people.
Hannah’s iconic importance in the Jewish faith tradition is evidenced today by the yearly recitation of her story and song during the Jewish New Year celebration of Rosh Hashanah. At the cusp of a new year, usually in early Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, Jewish people remember with thanksgiving the stories of their faith tradition and trust in God’s guidance for what is yet to come.
As Christians, as we approach the beginning of our new year on the first Sunday of the Advent season, we prepare for the birth of another child that changed our lives and our world. And, if we listen carefully to the stories of faith in the Hebrew Scriptures we will see how much of an influence they had on the stories of the early Christian communities of faith. One example that springs from today’s reading is the similarity of Hannah’s Song (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and Mary’s Song (Luke 1:46-55).
Hannah’s Song begins, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.” (1Samuel 2:1) Mary’s Song begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…” (Luke 1:46)
Hannah says, “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” (1Samuel 2:2) Mary says, “…for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.” (Luke 1:49)
Hannah says, “God raises up the poor from the dust; God lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.” (1Samuel 2:8) Mary says, “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)
The great reversal of fortunes: the liberation of the oppressed; the restoration of the marginalized to a place of honour; and the desired inauguration of God’s reign of justice are themes common to these songs of praise to God. One thousand years separate these songs but the yearning and passion of people of faith for God’s justice is a common theme.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus was the “anointed one” who points the way to how people of faith can actualize the commonwealth of God. Next Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year, is traditionally known as “Reign of Christ Sunday”. It is a time to reflect on Christ’s life and ministry and how he leads the way to God’s reign of love and justice.
But, today, we recognize and celebrate those who have broken free from the oppressive systems that sought to keep them silent and repressed. We give thanks for Ruth, Hannah, Mary, and all those who are bearers of hope in difficult times.
May we, in the coming weeks, listen carefully to the wisdom of our ancestors in faith and be inspired to do our part in bringing God’s new day to birth in our lives and in our world.
It is my fervent hope this may be so.