Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
14th of November 2021
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Hannah is one of the characters in the Hebrew Scriptures that I appreciate most. I first became interested in her because of her name; ‘Hannah’ is part of my surname and my Scottish grandfather’s name was ‘Samuel Hannah’ so of course my ears pricked up when I heard of ‘Hannah, mother of Samuel’ in Sunday School. But even for those of you who do not share her name, Hannah is a woman well worth getting to know. Here we are, two weeks before Advent, listening to the tale of a miraculous birth that is a precursor of the miraculous birth that we will celebrate at Christmas. Like Mary, Hannah is a marginalised woman of faith who sings a song of justice in response to God’s intervention in her life. Like Mary, Hannah is a role model for all of us.
This year we have spent possibly too much time hearing the saga of David, Israel’s great king. Many preachers see David as an example for us, and excuse his rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah because David repents after an indictment by the Prophet Nathan, but I have never been able to read David that way. So I am pleased that the story of David begins not with David himself, not with Saul who preceded him as king, not even with Samuel who anoints him, but with Samuel’s mother, Hannah, a barren wife at a time when to be barren was a cause of desperation. David’s story begins not with a great man, but with an oppressed woman.
Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah. Elkanah’s wife Penninah has children, but Hannah does not. Hannah has all the pain and hunger of a woman who wants children and cannot have them, in a society that would see her lack of children as something God has done to her. Hannah follows in the footsteps of the great matriarchs of Israel’s history: Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, and she anticipates Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. All these women were barren until God gave them a child, and in every case the child had a special purpose and was given by God as a gift not just to the mother, but to all the people. Hannah stands in a long line of Israel’s mothers.
Hannah is not just barren; she’s also mocked for her barrenness by her co-wife. Ironically, this would happen just as their husband Elkanah was offering sacrifices to the Lord to cover their sins. After the sin offerings, he would make a peace offering and distribute portions of this offering to his family so that they could eat a meal together celebrating peace and reconciliation. Yet it was at this moment, when peace and unity were to be savoured, that Peninnah taunted Hannah. Elkanah may love Hannah, but since he cannot prevent Peninnah from verbally abusing her it is unsurprising that his love is not enough for her.
Hannah does what people in her situation have always done – she calls on God. Because she is praying silently Eli thinks she is drunk. It is a good thing Eli redeems himself later in the story by recognising that it is God who’s calling Samuel, or Eli would be the very model of how not to be a priest. As it is, he adds his blessing to Hannah’s prayer, and she leaves comforted. ‘In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, [God has heard] for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”’
In the beginning of the story which will eventually lead to the kingship of David, we see God working in and through the meek and oppressed. He chooses a barren, despised woman in an obscure family in Israel to bear a prophet and leader of his people. This is the way the Lord always works, as Hannah recognises in the prayer of exaltation that we hear today instead of one of the Psalms. Hannah is an individual woman who has been given a child, but the words she prays are of national thanksgiving. Her song rejoices that the Lord is the one who brings to life, who gives children to the barren, who feeds the hungry, who makes the poor rich and exalts the lowly. She looks to the future and celebrates that God ‘will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed’. Hannah’s song reminds us that in Advent, which will begin in two weeks’ time, we too will be waiting and preparing for the coming of God’s anointed. Hannah also reminds us that it is the Lord who is our rock, strength, and protection. It is only the Lord who can grant life. Hannah’s story shows us that he does so in surprising ways and unlikely places.
Hannah responds to God’s intervention in her life by giving to God the thing that is most precious to her, the very child for whom she had prayed. After she had weaned Samuel she went back to the house of the Lord at Shiloh, back to Eli, and told him, ‘I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.’ (1 Samuel 1:26-28) Then, every year, at the yearly sacrifice, Hannah brought a robe for Samuel to wear as he served the Lord with Eli. Last week, listening to the story of the poor widow, we saw someone whose actions in giving ‘all she had to live on’ may have been a harbinger for what Jesus was about to do on the cross. But I would argue that Hannah gave up even more than the widow. The widow only gave herself; Hannah gives her first-born son. The widow’s actions were the actions of Jesus; Hannah’s actions were the actions of God the Father. Because of her gift, Samuel became a prophet and anointed two kings of Israel.
We are about to enter Advent, when we, like Hannah, will be waiting for the birth of a first-born Son. Because of the astounding and unlikely miracle of the Incarnation the child for whose birth we will prepare is both the son of the great King David and the Lord, God’s anointed one, the Messiah. When Mary is told about his coming she sings a song modelled on Hannah’s, in which she praises the God who upsets all expectations, and she voices the deep and dangerous hope that in response to human injustice God will bring justice. Both Hannah’s and Mary’s songs are deeply political songs about the way God wants the world to be; a world in which the hungry are ‘filled with good things’ (Luke 1:53), in fact the ‘hungry are fat with spoil’ (1 Samuel 2:5); a world in which God lifts the needy from the ash heap to sit with princes (1 Samuel 2:8) while the proud are brought down from their thrones. (Luke 1:52) Both Hannah and Mary sing of a world overturned.
Hannah’s story and her song, Mary’s story and her song, remind us that God is always with us in surprising and unexpected ways. During Advent we prepare to welcome the Holy One, a baby born to a poor family in a country under occupation, a child who had to flee a ruler who wanted him dead and seek refuge in a foreign country, a Jewish child when being Jewish was no safer than it is today. The astounding and unlikely miracle of the Incarnation came about because of Mary’s courage and faith, emulating the faith and generosity of Hannah. Let us remember both Hannah and Mary, their courage, their faith, their generosity, and their commitment to a world of justice, through Advent. Courage, faith, generosity, and justice are gifts we can all offer God and our neighbours at Christmas. Amen.