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Strong Women of Faith-FIRL Blog: “HANNAH”
Faith in Real Life Blog
Strong Women of Faith: “HANNAH”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
July 22, 2022
1 SAMUEL 1
She (Hannah) 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.”
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.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”…
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.” And they worshiped the Lord there.
This passage is instructive on two major and interconnected levels. First there is the woman Hannah and second there is the question of how this story fits into the larger biblical narrative. We must appreciate both to understand why Hannah’s story is our story.
Hannah’s story begins with her inability to bear children. It is hard to appreciate the stigma she had to endure. Childlessness was seen as an act of God and a sign of God’s disfavor. It was hard enough to bear the unfilled yearning, but on top of that was moral judgment. Hannah’s life was hard. Fortunately, for this was not always the case for childless women,we are told that her husband, Elkanah, loved her. But, unfortunately, we also discover he was clueless.
He wanted to support his wife but he did not know how. “On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah (Elkanah’ other wife) 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.”
This kindness, however, did not address Hanah’s barrenness and probably exacerbated the rivalry between the two wives. Peninnah “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.” Elkanah takes his wife’s pain and makes it about him—-“Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” He does not understand that his well intentioned kindness ended up shaming Hannah for not being sufficiently grateful.
It hardly gets any more real life than that. Each of the characters in the story expose ordinary human interactions. Sometimes, with Hannah, we desperately want something but year after year, we are disappointed. Sometimes, again with Hannah, we are unfairly targeted. Sometimes, with Peninnah, our jealousy (and our need for position) keeps us from appreciating our blessings and we tear down instead of build up. And sometimes, with Elkanah, our best intentions miss the mark and we are bewildered that we are not appreciated. All of these things went on thousands of years ago and all of these things go on today.
The story continues with Hannah moving her lips but praying silently. The chief priest, Eli, thinks she is drunk and chastises her. Hannah defends herself saying: “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.” Recognizing her anguish and her piety, Eli offers hope: “Go in peace; the God of Israel grants the petition you have made to him.”
Hannah conceives, has a son and honors her promise to give up her son, Samuel, and offers him to God (as a nazirite—a kind of priest in waiting–to serve Eli in the temple). Her sacrifice is often thought of as her ultimate devotion to God—giving up the son she had longed for. But as with some of the other women in this series, it may also be more complicated. The gift for Hannah was relief from the stigma of barrenness as much as it was having a child. Faithfulness and fidelity often emerge from complex weaves. Some marriages stay intact because of the mortgage payment. Part of Ruth’s fidelity to Naomi may well have been that she had burned her bridges with her own family. “Pure” motives (as well as pure people) are hard to come by and are certainly not the standard God requires for his purposes.
If we only read this much of Hannah’s story, it is fairly common to focus upon how Hannah’s perseverance in prayer was ultimately rewarded.. She not only holds on to her faith through years of disappointment, she brings her deepest heart, She presents herself whole and is transparent to God—’speaking out of her great anxiety and vexation.’ But unfortunately, Hannah’s piety can be used to support a transactional understanding of God. If we are good enough, pray enough, persevere enough, God will reward us—as he did with Hannah. Even with caveats about ‘thy will be done’, it is hard not to use the outcomes of our lives to measure God’s responsiveness to prayer. Hannah was given what she asked for. She was vindicated. Isn’t that what it means to be blessed?
This theme is repeated in the larger context of Hannah’s story. She is part of the explanation of how Samuel, an outsider to the priestly line, becomes a judge, a prophet and the priest. Normally, the priestly line was inherited and the line would have continued with Eli’s sons. But Eli’s sons are ‘scoundrels’. They steal the sacrifices of the people and profane their responsibilities. God punishes Eli for his bad parenting and promises that Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will both be killed—on the same day. Eli’s strength will be taken from him and his line will be broken. If this doesn’t make all of us who are parents shiver—nothing will. As the prophecy promises “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind.” This faithful priest is Samuel. He is an unexpected leader born of an unlikely source—a barren woman.
The mechanism to explain the fall of Eli and the rise of Samuel is reward and punishment. Good deeds are rewarded. Bad ones are punished. Hannah is faithful and is rewarded. Eli fails as a parent and he and his entire family is punished. Don’t get caught in the ‘fairness’ of the punishment. Its function in the story, as with Hanna, was to explain Samuel rise. It demonstrates the faith that God will find a way even when his people are sinful and dishonest. When we use reward and punishment as the means to explain God working his purposes out, it is a short leap to thinking of God as the great accountant in the sky—greatly to be feared. Reward and punishment is a major thread in the biblical understanding of God but it is an understanding that is limited and flawed.
We want to measure the efficacy of prayer by the outcomes we observe. But in real life, we are painfully aware that is not how prayer works. All too often, our most heartfelt prayers—for others and ourselves end in disappointment. Cancers keep growing, dementia progresses, loved ones continue to face disability and death, women who want children remain childless. Typically we can blame ourselves— wondering if we could have prayed better or wondering if God thinks we are unworthy. Or, we can blame God— perhaps God wasn’t listening, doesn’t care or worse yet, isn’t there in the first place. In any case, it is an incredibly painful place—’filled with anxiety and vexation.’ This was the torn soul that Hannah brought to God. In real life, I know no one who has not been frustrated and disappointed with prayer. We don’t talk about it. (After all, such thoughts are not faithful and in themselves might be what disqualifies from God’s favor.) But Hannah’s despair is something most of us have experienced.
In real life, the human desire to have our pain eliminated—or at least explained. It is not until Jesus that our understanding of God shifts from a God who fixes things to a God who shares our suffering. In real life, when you have cancer, it usually is not cured. In real life, some genuinely bad people live very well and some genuinely good people live very poorly. The trick is to find a way to live the life we have—and to find a way to continue to love.. That does not sound very good when you have cancer or when you are childless but those are real life hardships we rarely escape. Do not use Hannah as the lottery winner of prayer. Some people win the lottery but I wouldn’t want to base my life on that improbability.
That said, we live in the promise that following Jesus leads us to life that gives life. It is just not what we expected or necessarily wanted. Jesus demonstrated a more excellent way. He showed us that there is incredible redemptive power in sharing our human pains. If you have met such a person, it is a gift beyond price. It makes God’s promise that nothing in life can separate us from the love of God concrete and real. Life and love remain possible where it seemed impossible. Love and regard is possible—even from a cross. It gives us a way to love no matter what happens to us. That is what we believe about Jesus and what we believe is promised to us.
That was Hannah’s faith. It was terrible for her but she stayed in relationship with God. She did not understand. She was anxious and angry. Her faith allowed her to keep coming year after year—whether or not she had a son. It is easy to think we can measure God by Hannah’s son but I would hold that she found life through her perseverance. In spite of conflicting feelings, she risked disappointment and ridicule. She kept coming to God. She may even have kept coming because it was her last desperate hope rather than any confidence in the Lord. It doesn’t matter. She kept coming. Once again, God does not need purity. Do not idolize her. God asks that we turn toward her not that we be her.
Trust the God who shares our most fearsome hardships. There is nothing in life or death that can separate us from the love of God. That is the promise that saves us and gives life.
Let it be so.
Two quotes came across my computer this week. “We all have two lives. The second starts when we realize we only have one.” (Confusius) and “Remember that sometimes not getting what we want, is a wonderful stroke of luck. (Dalai Lama).