Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 18, 2018

1 Samuel 1:4-20 Commentary

As we inch ever closer to Advent and another new church year, the Lectionary introduces us to yet another woman who loomed large in the history of redemption.  In the contemporary climate of concern about women’s rights and the abuse of women, it is uncanny that the writers of the Lectionary should have long ago designed this year to end with a focus on Esther and Ruth and now Hannah.  Furthermore, Hannah is not just a woman; she is a barren woman in the line of Sarah and Rachel and Elizabeth and, then, the ultimate woman who gave birth miraculously, the Virgin Mary.  Each of those women gave birth to sons who would play world changing roles in the drama of salvation.

Hannah’s son, Samuel, was the key figure in a major transformation in Israel’s history, the move from the judges to the monarchy.  Israel was faced with two crises that threatened its very existence.  The more obvious was the threat from the outside posed by the Philistines.  The more serious was the threat from the inside caused by the immoral behavior of the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, who were in charge of worship at the house of God (verse 3).  The military crisis caused the Israelites to demand a king who would lead them in battle.  The spiritual crisis of corrupt leadership stood in the way of solving that military problem.  Change was needed in Israel if it was to survive.  To put it in ever starker terms, unless there were some major transformations, the Kingdom of God on earth would cease to exist and God’s great move to save the world would be stopped.

In our reading for today, “God begins Israel’s transformation in this time of crisis not with great men and events, but with the distress of a barren woman.  Such a beginning reminds us of the unlikely paths God’s grace often takes, and it signals to us that the coming Kingdom itself is to be understood as the gift of divine grace.”  (The New Interpreters’ Bible)  But the beginning of this story doesn’t feel like grace.  It feels like the exact opposite.

The grand story of God’ gracious transformation of Israel begins with a sad little family drama.  The Lectionary skips over the first three verses, but they set the stage for everything that follows.  Here we learn about the location, the family tree, the complicated marital situation, and, most important, the barrenness of Hannah.  They were just a normal Jewish family (except maybe for the extra wife), living out their lives in a faithful covenant way.

Every year they went up to the sanctuary in Shiloh to offer their sacrifices to Yahweh. We’re not told if this journey was in fulfillment of God’s requirement that every Israelite annually attend the celebration of at least one of the three major festivals, or if this was just a private family service of thanksgiving for blessings given by God.  Most scholars think this was the annual Feast of Tabernacles which occurred at the time of harvest, when Israel remembered their time of living in tents in the wilderness and also celebrated God’s provision in the harvest.  It was a time of thanking God for his past deliverance and for the present fruitfulness of the land.

But it wasn’t that for Hannah.  Not only did the celebration of harvest leave her feeling unfruitful, but also her rival wife made fun of her childlessness.  As they sat at the post-sacrifice meal, the other woman received enough food for her and her multiple children, while Hannah sat alone.  Her loving husband tried to make up for it by giving her a double portion of meat, but that only drew attention to her plight and egged on her bitter rival who couldn’t help but notice that Elkanah loved Hannah more.

Year after year this bitter tragedy kept replaying in Hannah’s life.  Year after year she went up to church only to learn that church made it worse.  Her rival piled on mercilessly.  Hannah wept bitterly and went on a hunger strike.  Her well-intentioned husband only made matters worse with his clueless questions.  “Why are you weeping?  Why don’t you eat?  Why are you downhearted?”  And then the quintessential husbandly gaffe, “Don’t I mean more to you than 10 sons?”

Then, one year Hannah did something different.  After the post-sacrifice communal meal, she stood up and entered the Temple (actually the Tabernacle), passing by Eli the priest as she walked in.  Like Naomi in our last two readings, Hannah “in bitterness of soul, wept much and prayed to the Lord.”  She knew that “the Lord closed her womb (verses 5 and 6),” so she prays that he will now at last open it.  Like Naomi, she feels forgotten by God, ignored by God, even mistreated by God.  So she prays, “O Lord Almighty (literally, Yahweh of Armies, implying great power to do the impossible), if you will only look upon your servant’s misery, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but give her a son….”  This is a model of honest, heartfelt, direct, passionate, bold prayer.

And she adds a vow.  If you give me a son, I will give him back to you; “then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life.”  She ups the ante by binding this boy to a lifelong Nazirite vow that made his commitment to Yahweh even more unbreakable.  This is the vow that would change Israel’s history and, indeed, the world’s condition.  Samuel’s complete dedication to serving the Lord would enable him to stand up to Eli and his corrupt sons, select Saul as the first King of Israel, condemn and dethrone Saul for his sin, and champion David as Israel’s greatest king.  Samuel spoke and acted for God as long as he lived, and Israel and the world were the better for it.  The vow of a barren woman became the Word of the Lord for Israel.

For a woman who wanted a son as badly as Hannah, such a vow seems incredible and even cruel.  Her desire for a son seemed to be the center of her life. Now here she swears that if God gives her the desire of her heart, she will give him back to God as soon as possible.  What kind of mother is that?

She is more than a mother who understands the hackneyed saying that “all our children are simply on loan from God.”  She is a woman whose life is really centered on God.  She attributed her barrenness to God; she prayed to God; she made a vow to God; she is blessed in God’s name; and she gives her son to God.   As her song in the next chapter of I Samuel makes powerfully clear, she believes in a sovereign God who controls everything.  In words that foreshadow Mary’s Magnificat, Hannah sings of a God who “send poverty and wealth; he humbles and exalts.”  Even in her most bitter moments, Hannah remembers that God is God and that God is Yahweh, the covenant One who is committed to bless his children.  So, she willingly gives back to the God who has given his all to her.

Eli doesn’t have such a high opinion of her, at least initially.  Her bitter tears and her mysteriously moving mouth convince Eli that Hannah is a sad drunk, probably from over imbibing at the communal meal after the sacrifice. He has seen it before. He rebukes her and urges her to kick the habit by getting rid of her wine.  But when she protests that she was only praying, pouring out her soul to Yahweh, Eli does an immediate pastoral reversal.  Instead of condemning her, he blesses her with a priestly benediction that reversed her mood and her life.  Her tears dried, her face no longer wore the marks of misery, and her appetite returned.  Clearly, she believed what the old priest had said.

She was right in her faith.  Upon returning to Ramah (a town that will know its share of tears after the birth of the Messiah), Hannah welcomes Elkanah to her bed.  In direct answer to her prayer, “The Lord remembered her… she conceived and gave birth to a son.”  And in direct acknowledgement of God’s role in this birth, she names her son Samuel, which sounds like a Hebrew word that has to do with asking.  “This is what I asked for. This is a result of Yahweh hearing my plea, because I asked Yahweh for him.”

Our text ends there, leaving out Hannah’s fulfillment of her vow, bringing a very young Samuel to serve in the Lord’s house, and singing her great song about God’s sovereignty.  We are simply introduced to Samuel here, learning of the miraculous origin of this pivotal figure in Israel’s history.  What are we to make of this reading?  How shall we preach it?

Many preachers have made much of Hannah’s character, using this text to urge today’s women to be as honest, vulnerable, direct, and strong as Hannah.  Her bitterness over her hard luck lot in life and her faith in the sovereignty of God present a great model for women struggling with their own issues in a godless world.  Other preachers have focused on her passionate prayer in the temple.  This is how we should pray when we are in distress—not politely with carefully chosen words, but from the heart with powerful emotions and ragged words.  Still other preachers point to her vow and her willingness to dedicate her son to God from the very beginning.  This is the kind of motherhood we need today—God centered women who raise their children for the Lord.  What a different world it would be if there were more Hannah’s.  Who knows how the world might change if we raised more Samuel’s.

While these homiletical approaches to this text are plausible and practical, I don’t think this story is in the Bible to teach those kind of lessons.  This is not about moral lessons; it is about salvation history, about the way God used unlikely people and unhappy circumstances to work his sovereign will in saving the world.  Even as the author of I and II Samuel was clearly teaching Israel about the mighty acts of God that changed the course of Israel’s history, so we should preach on this story as part of the Gospel.  Hannah is a type of Mary, a channel of grace to the world, from whose womb would come a man who would change Israel, even as Jesus changed the world.

That emphasis on God’s world-changing grace in Jesus Christ can be applied to our own lives when we are barren and bitter.  Out of Hannah’s misery came the mediator who would affect the greatest change in Israel’s history (after the Exodus and the return from Exile).  Out of Mary’s misery came the Mediator who would save his people from their sins.  In our misery, we trust God to remember us, answer our prayers, and send His Son to deliver us.

Please Note: Year C Advent and Christmas Resources are available on CEP.

Illustration Ideas

In the late seventies, Lewis Smedes wrote a memoir of his life called, My God and I, which goes all the way back to his childhood in Michigan in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  His family immigrated from the Netherlands and Smedes’ father died when he was very small, leaving his mother with four children.  He was told that as the undertakers carried his father’s body out of the house, his mother moaned in her native Frisian, God is “zoo suur (so sour).”  Subsequently, what a hymn calls “the sweet hour of prayer” was never sweet in their house.  He found himself weeping whenever they met with God as a family for prayer.  Meeting with God seemed to be a sadness for his mother, too, whether at home or in church prayer meetings.  Though Smedes could not understand her native language, he could recognize her sobs and tears and heaving.  (Quoted in Goldingay’s commentary on I and II Samuel.)  For Hannah, too, the hour of prayer was initially sour, though eventually sweet.

In a comment that struck me as painfully relevant to the current political scene in the United States, one scholar pointed out that the twin crises in ancient Israel were intertwined.  The moral corruption of Hophni and Phinehas and the military threat from the Philistines could not be fixed independently.  In fact, this scholar pointed out that the crisis of leadership had to be corrected before Israel was ready to deal with the Philistines.  As long as those immoral men were leading the country there could be no resolution of the international crisis.  God got them out of the way, brought a better but still flawed Saul onto the scene, and finally, in David, crowned a leader who was a man after God’s own heart.  Then the Philistine situation could be dealt with.


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