1 Samuel 1 – 2:11
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Today we begin a new sermon series rooted in two books
that in truth are just two parts of a single unified story.
Coming out of the Old Testament, the focus of this series, the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, as they were written originally in Hebrew, were in fact only one half of a much larger unified book that also included 1 and 2 Kings.
When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into the Greek language, this very big story known back then as “Kingdoms” was split into four parts or four separate books of the Bible.
Again, our focus for this next year, with some breaks along the way for Holy Week and the summer, is going to be the books of 1 and 2 Samuel.
Many people – believers and non-believers alike – are well acquainted with various episodes from within the pages of these books.
Famous paintings, classic movies, and several analogies have been derived from selected excerpts of 1 and 2 Samuel.
And yet, few people know the whole story that these two books purpose to tell.
Both 1 and 2 Samuel tell the story of how Israel went from
a loose association of twelve tribes to become unified monarchy
– one nation under God led by kings.
By the leading and insight of the Holy Spirit, I believe there is much for us to learn as we move chapter by chapter and story by story through 1 and 2 Samuel – especially in the midst of these times in which we live – and certainly in the aftermath of the events of appalling and disturbing events of this past week in our nation.
One of the overriding themes of this wider narrative is that character counts.
However, as we’ll soon discover, contrary to how the more famous episodes from these two books are framed, there are no human heroes in these stories.
There is no one whom we will encounter that we ought to view as a role model.
Rather in the life of each person that we will follow
– as we witness both a mixture of good and evil in their intentions
as well as great success and devastating failure in their actions
– we will see a reflection of ourselves – of our own familiar flaws
and brokenness due to sin.
Let’s be clear from the outset, the hero of all these stories
is the same hero of all scripture – our Creator, our Rescuer, and our Redeemer.
The character that counts, that is revealed in 1 and 2 Samuel,
is the character of God. It’s important we don’t forget or overlook this.
Because, as Christians, we read and reflect on this story to understand
what happens when we reject God as our king,
our one and only Lord and our Savior,
and put our saving faith in any other leader.
For 1 and 2 Samuel don’t just unfold how Israel became a monarchy
but more importantly why that monarchy failed
and how Israel’s failure ultimately points us to our absolute need for Jesus Christ, the King of Kings who rules with love and justice
by way of mercy, grace, and truth.
This series is going to be an insightful, sometimes challenging
but always edifying journey for us in our growth as followers of Jesus,
in our own shared witness as the Church.
One final word as we begin.
For this series, since we are moving from story to story with 1 and 2 Samuel,
each week we are going to be looking at a larger passage of scripture
than will be read as a part of the message for the day.
So, after the scripture is read each week, keep your Bibles open
during the sermon as I will unpack not just what we heard
but the whole story we are looking at for the week
– in this case, 1 Samuel chapter 1 through chapter 2, verse 11
– a story about a woman named Hannah.
Let’s dive in by hearing the opening to this story
from 1 Samuel, chapter 1, verses 1 – 11.
The saga of the rise of the kings of Israel begins in a surprising way
with the story of a family – a family that, as we heard, is dysfunctional.
We are first introduced to a man named Elkanah.
Elkanah lives in the backwaters of the hill country of Ephraim.
Elkanah is devout man – year after year we are told that he and his family make the journey up to Shiloh – a 15 mile, roughly two-day journey – to worship and sacrifice before the presence of the Lord.
Shiloh has been the site of God’s presence in what is known as the tent of meeting – the portable tabernacle containing the Ark of the Covenant since Joshua first led the Israelites into the Promised Land of Canaan.
Elkanah is a husband with two wives, Hannah and Peninnah.
The fact that Hannah is listed first probably indicates she was Elkanah’s first wife.
And the likely reason why Elkanah ended up with his second wife, Peninnah
is indicated by the ongoing difficulty Hannah has been facing
– she has been unable to bear any children.
Infertility is a very painful reality to endure for anyone wanting to have children. Some watching today may have or may be struggling with an inability to get pregnant. As much as words are insufficient, I want to recognize anyone facing such a devastating hardship for whom this story hits a little too close to home. I also want to acknowledge while some women have had their story parallels Hannah’s journey – not all women have or will. Let us lament and pray with all women who are still waiting and hoping to conceive a child of their own.
With this in mind, in Hannah’s time and place, her childlessness was
no less agonizing than it is today but perhaps even more so
given her culture was one which especially prized children.
Back then, the addition of children once grown added to the workforce of a family – especially in an agrarian society.
In the ancient world, having children were a couple’s retirement plan as elderly persons looked to their sons and daughters to care and provide for them when they could no longer do so for themselves.
The addition of children to a family also was viewed as contributing to the growth of the nation in terms of its economy or as needed, its military defense.
All of this resulted, tragically, in the dignity and value of a woman
being reduced to her capacity as a mother, by how many children she had.
In a patriarchal society, where a woman’s worth was linked to her ability to have children, Hannah is particularly vulnerable.
Without any children of her own,
she has no security for herself once her husband, Elkanah, dies.
To add insult to injury, any problem of infertility was primarily viewed
to be a failure on the part of the wife and not the husband.
The Torah, specifically the book of Deuteronomy, seemingly was clear
implying that faithfulness to the covenant relationship with God would lead to fruitfulness rather than barrenness.
Therefore, in the eyes of the surrounding community, the fact that Hannah remained childless would be viewed as a divine curse – presumed as resulting from some unconfessed and unresolved sin in her life.
This leads to something I want to point out here. Because of this faulty interpretation of scripture that I’ve just shared, the writer of this story assumes that the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb.
However, nowhere does the Lord ever explicitly declare that He has does this – intentionally or purposefully or actively prevented Hannah from being able to conceive a child. Hannah’s infertility could be for a variety of reasons but none of them ought to be directly tied to the Lord’s will or purpose.
In the ancient world, given how prized children were,
persistent infertility was viewed as legitimate grounds for divorce.
Elkanah, however, does not avail himself of this legal option.
He loves Hannah despite her ability to conceive a child.
His love for Hannah, however, does not stop Elkanah from taking a second wife
– Peninnah, a woman who has no trouble at all giving him both sons and daughters.
Elkanah tries to compensate for the presence of another woman in their home by openly favoring Hannah. We are given a specific example of this favoritism.
Each year when the Elkanah takes the whole family up to Shiloh
to worship the Lord, he would give Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice.
A little background here. When we think of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament, we tend only to remember the ones given for atonement – for the forgiveness of sins – where the sacrifice is burned as holy to the Lord and nothing is consumed by humans. But in the laying out of all the worship details in the book of Leviticus, there are other types of sacrifices. In particular, there something known as the fellowship sacrifice – a way of just saying thank you to God. In this case, portion of the sacrifices were consumed by the person offering the sacrifices and that person’s family.
Typically, each member of the family should receive one portion of the sacrifice.
In this instance, Elkanah gives Peninnah and her children one portion each. Elkanah loves Hannah and gives her a share of the offering beyond what she could normally expect. He clearly wants to honor her and to soften the reality that she is due only one portion because she has no children.
However, Elkanah’s favoritism towards Hannah only intensify a pre-existing rivalry between his two wives. Resentful and probably jealous of Elkanah’s affection towards Hannah, Peninnah is anything but gracious towards Hannah. Instead she uses the power of her privileged position as a mother with children to taunt and torment Hannah for her childlessness.
And so, this went on – can we imagine it? – year after year
– until one day, we are told,
Hannah lost her appetite for anything but her own tears.
As her well-meaning but clueless husband tries to console her
with an appeal to romance by remarking, “Hey babe, at least you’ve got me. Isn’t being married to me better than having tens sons?”
Hannah reaches her breaking point.
She can no longer put on a happy face – eating and drinking in celebration for the fruitfulness of the past year’s harvest – when still, after all this time, her womb remained barren.
Getting a little extra steak once a year means nothing to her
when her hunger, her desire for a family of her own remains unsatisfied.
Hannah is depressed. Hannah is downhearted. Hannah is bitter.
But instead of continuing to hold all of this inside,
Hannah gets up and marches straight into the presence of the Lord.
Her vulnerability, her frustration,
her social status, the scorn of her community does not hold Hannah back.
Hannah, in her deep distress, goes to the one and only court of appeal
– the highest one imaginable – as she lifts her eyes and her voice to heaven
– crying out to the Lord.
She took all her bitterness, all her pain, all her hopes and dreams,
and laid them at the feet of God.
Still today there persists bad, harmful teaching within the Church that asserts one’s anger or insistence before the Lord are obstacles to prayer. But as we observe Hannah in this moment, nothing could be further from the truth.
Her desperation and doggedness – her demand to be heard, her refusal to keep silent – is what fuels the honesty, the focus, and the transparency of her conversation with God.
As Hannah later describes her engagement with the Lord,
she is pouring out her soul.
This is the kind of rawness and boldness in prayer we hear in the complaint and lament songs in the Book of Psalms. Laying everything on the line and offering it all up to God is the kind of praying Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. There is no formality, no pretense, no formula in these kind of conversations with the Lord. This is wrestling with God and refusing to let God go until He answers. This is simultaneously yielding and abiding in the Lord – giving everything up – whatever we think we’ve got – and receiving only what God can give.
Hannah prays to be seen. Hannah prays to be remembered.
Hannah asks for a son.
However, Hannah not only asks for something from the Lord,
but also promises something to God.
She makes a vow that, if God will bless her with a son,
she will in turn give that son back to God to serve Him.
Her talk of no razor will touch her son’s head is a reference
to what is known as a Nazirite vow. Explained in more detail in Numbers, chapter 6, in the taking of such a vow one was committing to live a life of sacred separation and exclusive dedication to God.
Samson took a Nazarite vow. So did John the Baptist. So did the apostle Paul. Nazarite vows usually were temporary commitments for a season of service to the Lord.
Hannah, however, has vowed to dedicate her yet to be conceived son as the Lord’s servant for his entire life.
This is crucial because it clarifies something important here.
Hannah’s prayer was not a tit-for-tat – a bargain wherein if God gave her what she wanted, then she would give the Lord something in return.
Hannah’s prayer reflects a shift in her focus. While she still absolutely longs to bear a child, in her willing release of this child – nowhere does the Lord ask or command her to take this vow – in Hannah’s willing release of this child, she is acknowledging her ultimate fulfillment – her redemption – are not found in being able to have a child but in her relationship with God.
The Lord alone is her joy and her salvation.
This is further underscored by how she walks away from this moment – something I’ll address in a second.
But first, let us step back and realize that Hannah is being watched.
While she is praying, a priest named Eli
who is seated at the doorpost of the tabernacle,
sees Hannah’s mouth moving but doesn’t hear anything
coming out of her mouth.
Instead of recognizing Hannah’s prayer from the heart, Eli,
whom we will learn more about next week, assumes she is drunk.
Not being very pastoral, Eli harshly rebukes her and tells Hannah to move along.
In the patriarchal culture of Israel, women were to be seen and not heard. More than this, in the pecking order of wider society, women were near the bottom while priests were pretty close to the top.
My point is most women being challenged by another man, especially a priest, even if incorrectly assessed would have remained quiet and deferential.
But not Hannah.
Her boldness continues as she does not let Eli’s rebuke pass without comment.
And her response is perfect
– respectful of Eli’s authority while also setting him straight.
She counters his accusation of having been drinking
by telling him that she is actually pouring out her soul to the Lord.
Hannah insists that she is not to be viewed as a “worthless woman” but rather a deeply troubled woman who brings her deepest anxieties and pain right to the very person that she should be addressing – our Father in Heaven.
To Eli’s credit, he does not ignore but listens carefully to Hannah’s impassioned response. Realizing he has made a mistake Eli reverses his position. Instead of rebuking Hannah, Eli offers her his peace and offers a prayer of blessing to her.
Hebrew grammarians say Eli’s statement to Hannah can be read either as a prayer for God to grant her petition or as a promise of that the Lord will answer.
Whatever the case, Hannah finds great comfort in Eli’s words.
She leaves no longer downcast. Upon returning back to her husbands, Hannah now eats and drinks with Elkanah. Hannah’s disposition is changed.
The question is what changed for Hannah.
What moved her from sadness to contentment?
Normally, we might expect such a change to result
after someone gets what they want, what they asked for.
Typically, we would anticipate Hannah’s demeanor and outlook to shift
if and when she gets pregnant – after she has birthed a child.
And yet, before Hannah receives any promise of a son, before discovering whether or not God would answer her prayer, Hannah is restored and renewed
– joyful enough to reengage her marriage and her community.
For Hannah, nothing has changed in terms of what she wants or desires.
What has changed for Hannah is she realizes all that she needs – her identity,
her true source of security and joy – is in her relationship with God.
The rest of this story is very much worth reading
but not the focus of this particular message.
Here’s a quick recap.
God answers Hannah’s prayer and some time later, she bears a son.
Hannah names her son, Samuel.
Once Samuel is weaned, Hannah brings Samuel to Eli at the tabernacle in Shiloh and dedicates him to the Lord’s service, just as she promised.
As Hannah releases her son’s life into God’s hands, she prays at beautiful and memorable prayer or song of thanksgiving at the start of chapter 2.
Again, to reinforce this crucial shift in Hannah’s life perspective, this prayer is more than just a song of thanksgiving for the birth of her son, Samuel. It is more broadly a song of thanksgiving for Yahweh – for who God is in our lives and in this world.
In many ways, Hannah’s prayer prophetically anticipates many of the themes we will encounter throughout the rest of 1 and 2 Samuel.
Hannah’s song will become a repeated chorus through the scriptures. It will serve as the inspiration for what is known as the Magnificat, the Spirit-inspired song of Mary, uttered in the midst of her pregnancy with Jesus.
Declaring God’s care for and lifting up of the hungry, the empty, and the vulnerable alongside the Lord’s judgment and humbling of those who arrogantly boast in their own power and oppose His way of treating others, Hannah’s song expresses a manner of leadership and governance that is contrary to the world’s expectations. “It is not by strength the one prevails,” Hannah sings, but only by the power of God. We prevail and our leaders succeed, only insofar as we remember from where our true life and strength comes.
At first glance it seems odd that what is supposed to an account of the rise and unification of a nation of people should begin with a seemingly random, personal story of a depressed woman mourning over empty womb.
However, what we need to understand is Hannah’s infertility
mirrors the barrenness of Israel at this point in her history.
We will dig more into this background later
but suffice to say, Israel is bereft by social, political, and economic difficulties.
Less of a nation and more a fragile confederacy of 12 individual tribes,
Israel’s future is questionable as division and darkness mark her day-to-day life.
There is violent political division and economic difficulty.
Widespread religious corruption and spiritual apathy are rampant.
The road ahead is unknown and uncertain
– appearing more like a dead-end than any sort of path forward.
The chaos of this moment in history for Israel is perhaps best reflected in the very last line of the historical book that precedes 1 Samuel, the book of Judges: “In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
Does this sound eerily familiar to anyone else?
The last line of the book of Judges hints at the solution
the people of Israel perceive as the answer to all their problems.
They just need a king like all the other nations
and then everything would get resolved
– the people would all come together.
Spoiler alert here – and hang on to this one.
The revelation of 1 and 2 Samuel is not that the people need a king.
They already have a king.
The people don’t need a new, better, worldly leader.
The people just need to recognize and follow their one, true leader
– the best leader we all have – God.
Clearly, given the events of this past week – let alone this whole election cycle – we in America, at least, still haven’t learned this lesson.
In our current political climate, too many Christians in both political parties remain convinced that our problems will be solved and God’s agenda for all people will be solved if only we elect the right candidate, if only we have the right person in office. Too many professed followers of Jesus not only live out of but themselves perpetuate a doomsday like fear if the wrong political candidate is elected.
Underneath all of this – Israel’s desire for a worldly king
or fervor over electing the right political candidate
– underneath all of this – is longing for power – the means to get what we want, the ability to control our own destiny.
In our personal lives, when our hopes are crushed, when our dreams remain unrealized, when we experience loss or when we face confusion about the future, our identity – our sense of self, our sense of purpose and security about our future can become wrapped up in what we don’t have, in what we lack.
And in response, the temptation is to work harder, to beg, borrow, or steal. Either in our frantic persistent to make whatever it is – whatever we’ve decided will complete us – happen or in our perpetual state of despair – our belief that our life is meaningless or over – we can lose ourselves in self-destruction – self destruction that fractures rather than builds community.
And in response to this great temptation that will be given into by Israel,
that threatens to bring us down both individually and collectively as a nation,
we have the simple but insightful story of Hannah.
A weary and disheartened woman who confronts her powerlessness
by turning to the only One who is powerful – the Creator and Sustainer of all life, the Lord and Savior of all that is good.
Hannah’s prayer is an admission of her impotence – an acknowledgement that she can do nothing to open her womb – only the Lord can open such doors.
Hannah makes no claim, does not boast of being owed anything,
and asserts no capacity of her own.
All Hannah expresses is a stubborn insistence in the goodness of YHWH
– of God who sees, who moves, who acts.
And in response for being able to experience the touch,
the movement, and the work of the Lord,
Hannah further avows to keep nothing for herself
but to offer everything back to the God.
The point of this story is not be like Hannah.
The point of this story is to come to perceive,
to understand what Hannah discovers
– that while we all have very real wants and desires,
the only One we need – the only true life and salvation
we have is our relationship with God.
The story of Hannah is a reminder that God comes to the rescue of those truly in need – helping not those who help themselves but those who cannot help themselves.
While God loves and reaches out to all people,
the Lord’s partiality is towards the poor and the needy
– towards those who acknowledge their poverty and their powerlessness
– their need for Him.
This is the Lord’s partiality because only those who confess their absolute dependence upon Him and their complete reliance of His grace can truly receive and abide in His presence, His power, and His leading of their lives.
Only God can transform barrenness to fruitfulness,
mourning to dancing, death to life.
Only God can create a new historical possibility where none exists.
Only God in Christ is the One who walks out of a barren tomb –
what is for anyone else an insurmountable dead end
– and brings the resurrection of hope and the promise of a new beginning.
Just as the word of God brought light and hope to Hannah’s life,
it remains the answer to the crises we face today.
1 Samuel 2 is the last word we hear of Hannah in the scriptures.
But the story of her transformation endures as a beacon of hope
for all who feel isolated and alone,
for all find themselves misunderstood and abused,
for all who have nothing but a profound awareness of their helplessness,
and for all who, in response, throw themselves unabashedly
on the mercy and compassion of
the God who is powerful where we are powerless,
the God who is good – the God who sees, who moves,
who acts – for our good – always. Amen.