Monday, 9 September 2013

Thoughts on Hannah (Samuel 1- 3)

The story of Hannah is that of a barren woman whose fertile co-wife Peninah torments her to the point of despair and whose husband counsels her to be happy with his love ("Am I not worth ten sons to you?") Peninah is, as I heard a pastor say this morning, the voice of culture. In Hannah's time not having children- or not having sons- meant you were socially worthless. Your husband might still love you, as Elkanan loved Hannah, but the voices of the culture of Israel BCE would tell you that as a woman, a wife, a mother- as a member of society, you were worthless. In our time we would not be tormented for not bearing children. Ours is not a collectivist but an individualist culture, and in ours we are made to feel worthless for not securing individual accomplishments- a beautiful body, wealth, status, uniqueness.

Hannah's response to her plight, to the taunts of her co-wife and kind but foolish minstrations of her husband is fascinating. Having heard the condemning voice of Peninah and the loving but blind voice of Elkanan, Hannah stands up and takes matters into her own hands. She turns away from culture, and even away from love, and turns to God.

But what does Hannah say to God? "If you give me a son, I will give him to you." She vows that Shmu'el will be a Nazir and will serve all his life in the temple at Shiloh. Effectively she has placed herself in a forever secondary position in his life, and placed God forever first. Hannah would visit Shmu'el at Shiloh once a year (and touchingly give him a handmaid linen ephod to wear while serving in the Temple) but he will grow up in the precincts of the Holy, consecrated to God.

This is an amazing story if you stop to reflect on it. It seems clear that Hannah desperately wants a son. Yet she vows to God that if she is given one she will offer him to God. In being a barren woman given a son by God Hannah embodies Sarah imanu (our mother) as well as all of the matriarchs who at times were barren and were given a child by God. God's gift of miraculous conception to righteous women appears again and again in the shaping of Israel. More powerfully Hannah's offering of her only son to God embodies Abraham our father's offering of Isaac to God. In other words Hannah embodies in herself both Sarah and Abraham. There is also a sense in which Hannah may transcend Abraham: she offers her son freely, not because of being commanded.

Hannah's loss is no small thing. In her household she will still dwell as a woman without children helping the scornful Peninah to raise hers. She may have shown herself fertile and blessed by God, but her son will not contribute to the economy of the family and Hannah's social status is likely to remain low. So her offering entails real loss and real humiliation alongside the triumph of conception.

As for Hannah's son, Samuel, he will come to serve in the Temple alongside the sons of Eli, both of whom are corrupt (2:12). Eventually Samuel will be called to announce God's judgement against Eli and his sons. Through Samuel God "again appears at Shiloh" (3:21). Samuel goes on to be a judge and prophet and preside over the establishment of the Davidic lineage- the lineage of the Messiah Yeshua. That lineage will, of course, get off to a false start when Saul, the first anointed one over Israel, proves a false coin. Samuel will then, in accordance with God's word, chose David son of Yeshe, whose lineage will eventually produce Yeshua. As Peter J Leithart points out, Samuel, Hannah's son, prefigures in some sense John the Baptist who will prepare the way for Yeshua. Hannah's exultant prayer seems to take in all of this at a glance: her prayer exalts the messianic tasks of enriching of the poor, strengthening the feeble, raising up the poor and needy (2:4-8). It also celebrates YHVH's cutting off of the wicked, breaking of His adversaries, and the extension of his justice to the end of the earth (2:9-10). Most amazingly, Hannah exalts God's power of resurrection: "YHVH...brings down to sheol and raises up". Finally the prayer ends with YHVH giving "strength to His king" and exalting "the horn of his anointed/messiah" (2:10).

This prayer, which was certainly written by Hebrew scribes who knew nothing of the career of Yeshua, prefigures it to an amazing degree. Yeshua will indeed reverse the values of the world in His being and His actions- he will raise up the poor and the weak and be raised from the dead by YHVH to break the adversaries of God (sin) reigning as King, exalted by God forever as Messiah.

Does Hannah do something to warrant this vision of the great movement in the history of the world that her son will preside over? Accepting that she embodies at once Sarah and Abraham and produces an heir who will prophetically preside over the regeneration of Israel- what motivation brings her into this luminous path?

What is it to Hannah to have a child just to give him away? One explanation: Hannah's pride has been wounded. She wants above all to prove that she can have a child- that she is in fact a whole woman. She is willing to give Shmu'el away to God in exchange for this vindication. I think that this is plausible. Hannah's celebratory song (2:1-10) does in fact exult in deriding her enemies (2:1) and praises God in several examples for his power to reverse status (2:4-8). This seems like the speech of a woman who has turned to God chiefly for her own vindication and exultation, even at the cost of giving up the very thing she has proved that she can (with God's help) produce.

The story of Hannah, then, is that of a woman faithful to YHVH in the degenerate time of the Judges who finds herself barren and scorned by the wicked Peninah. She turns to YHVH to be vindicated. Yet in order to accomplish this she does a remarkable thing- she embeds her own salvation in a gift to YHVH. In so doing she seems, in a sense, to tie together the exaltation of herself and YHVH into one movement.

Hannah must have known that the "house of Eli" who ran the Temple at Shiloh were corrupt. In offering up her son Samuel to God, does she act not only for her own pain but for the pain of God? If so Hannah includes within herself at once chutzpah, transcendent vision, sympathy for the pathos of God and dedication to His glory. In offering Samuel to YHVH perhaps she acts at once for herself, for Israel, and for her God. Her over-arching concern is vindication- of herself, of Israel, and of God's saving power.

Hannah is richly rewarded. God blesses her and she bears three sons and two daughters (2:21). But even granting that Hannah acts out of love for God and Israel we are still left with the fact that a key part of her motivation is her own vindication before a society which would render her worthless. This is perhaps not as selfless or noble a desire as we would wish in a spiritual hero. We should perhaps remember here that in the Tanakh Israel often turns to YHVH for the satisfaction of all of its normal emotional needs- safety, justice, peace, plenty- and at times vindication, triumph and even vengeance. Israel turns like a faithful child to its powerful parent. Save me! Feed me! Avenge me!

And when Israel is righteous and sincere and wholehearted in its turning to God, God grants Israel her wishes. Perhaps the simple truth is that in return for Hannah's sacrificial gift God gives her vindication because the fact is that is what she wants. Poteach et yadecha u matzbia l' kol chai ratzon. You open up your hand and fulfill every living things desire (Psalm 145).That is what she has asked for. It is Hannah's wholehearted trust (emunah) in God that wins His response and secures what she wants. The fact is Hannah wants to be vindicated even more than she wants an actual son. God rewards her both with vindication and with children, perhaps because of her being true to her difficult sacrificial pledge, or perhaps because of her righteousness, or perhaps because of the love for God and Israel implicit in her acts and prayer. We can speculate, though the text does not seem to tell us.

God turns in love to those who love Him, and gives us what we ask for. I don't want to be too quick in making little of Hannah's passionate desire to be vindicated before her "enemies". It does make me thoughtful, however. The lesson here is, of course, that we should be very careful about what exactly we want. If God will reward my innermost desires by fulfilling them then- speaking for myself- I had better, as St Augustine taught, bring order and good direction to my desires.

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