Hannah may be the most well-behaved woman in this Subversive Women sermon series. In this story she expresses exemplary faith and devotion for God. She a common example used for the idea of “taking it to the Lord in prayer.” All in all, she feels like enough of a goody-two shoes to be the mother of the king-maker. As we see time and time again, when you hear a birth stories, you know that you are getting the story of someone important. When you hear about a barren woman in the Bible (much less a virgin 😉 ) you know you are hearing the beginning of the story of someone VERY important. The baby born to THIS barren woman will be the last of the judges, one of the great prophets, and the one to anoint kings Saul and David. This story seems designed to prove that he came from good stock.
To be honest, the Young Adult Bible study found her a little bit boring. Hannah is presented as a weeping mess, having internalizing the cultural narrative that her value was based on her ability to produce sons. She is one of two wives of reasonably wealthy man. (No poor man could afford two wives.) Their family goes to the holy place to worship once a year – not three like the really faithful families – but also not less than once. They’re moderately faithful Jews. She has a loving husband, which in and of itself makes her unusual in the Bible. She believes that God is in control of the world, and she seems to believe that a blessing by God’s priest will help her get what she wants. She makes a vow with very serious consequences: she wants a child so badly that she offers the child to God. (This is, of course, a promise she makes good on. She brings Samuel to Eli as soon as he is weaned and then sees him only once a year when she brings him new clothing.) She is a bit of a naive heroine: good, sweet, doing what she’s supposed to do, and sad because her society says she is worthless.
Despite the Young Adult Bible Study, there are a lot of interesting things going on in this story. They’re just hiding rather well! Are there any people in this room who immediately zone out when you hear genealogies – you know, like the one in the very first verse of this story? Me too. However, this one has a point! Hannah’s husband was of the clan Ephraim (one of Joseph’s sons). That is a Northern Tribe, which fits as this is a northern story set in the north. He was of that clan, as were the 5 generations before him. Which means he was NOT AT ALL a Levite. And the Levites were supposed to be the priests and holy men. The baby who will be born will be raised as if he is a priest, but he isn’t one. He is an insert into the holy man tradition. This is particularly relevant because Eli (a Levite) has sons who are corrupt priests, but the clan of Ephraim raises up a good priest. Things aren’t going as they should be. The system is broken.
Like the genealogy, the location has some hidden interest. The story is set in the Temple in Shiloh. Which would be a pretty boring detail except for one piece of historical knowledge: there is no Temple in Shiloh. Shiloh was a worship center, and there would have been official priests working there, but there was no Temple. The Temple would be build by David, who Samuel would make King – and it would be in the Southern Kingdom. This story has the fingerprints of later Southern editors on it, ones who couldn’t quite comprehend a worship space other than the Temple.
Now I mentioned that Hannah was a beloved spouse, which was a bit unique. The expressions of adoration from her husband are totally unique. He asks her why he isn’t worth 10 sons to her – which seems to imply that she’s worth 10 sons to him! Furthermore, he gives her the “double portion” to use in sacrifice. That’s odd. The double portion is the portion the eldest son inherits, where the younger sons each get only one. Hannah’s husband treats her as if she is as valuable to him as his eldest son and heir. He values her as she’d value her eldest son. He sees values in HER. This is particularly interesting because Hannah lacks value in her society. Women were meant to bear male children. That was what they were FOR, and from which their worth was derived. And Hannah didn’t. But her husband didn’t care. He appears to love her for HER, as she is. That may be a reason for some to be jealous of Hannah, but it surely doesn’t make boring. Because being loved can be so transformative in human life, I wonder how much of Hannah strength comes from her husband’s love. She may struggle with what she’s supposed to be (and isn’t) but she also has an internalized sense of self worth. Her husband might have been part of that.
This question of Hannah’s value comes up in her interaction with Eli. But first, we need to mention a few truly subversive things that happened before and during that interaction. First of all, she entered the holy space. I don’t know for sure how the worship space was used in Shiloh, but I do know that women weren’t let very far into the Jerusalem temple. For Hannah, even entering the holy space pushed the boundaries of what women were supposed to be doing. I’m also not sure how appropriate it would have been for Hannah to wander off on her own in public space. I suspect she broke the bounds of normalcy on that too. Then there is the fact that she prays SILENTLY and without a sound passing by her lips. We can tell by Eli’s response that her silence wasn’t standard for prayer.
Now, if Hannah was trying to elicit a response from God, and her deal making surely suggests she was, then why wasn’t she participating in prayer the way it was known to be practiced? Was she simply too focused and authentic in her prayer? I don’t think so! I think humans of any faith tradition are deeply enculturated on how to pray, and one wouldn’t be likely to break out of that in a moment of deep prayer. Instead, I wonder if she wanted to have a PRIVATE conversation with God. She went off by herself, she went into a sacred space that was mostly abandoned, and she spoke to God only in her heart. It seems possible that what she was saying was entirely too personal for anyone to know it. I suspect there was even some shame in it, as would be expected for a barren woman begging God to help her.
Hannah also makes a deal with God, which is not generally recommended, and she makes one of the more radical ones. Her family is moderately faithful. She offers her son as a livelong nazirite, which is UNHEARD OF. The holiest of holy men were nazirites for a year or two. But she offers. (And she does it! – Hannah is faithful to her promises.)
OK. So now we are on her conversation with Eli. Eli comes up and shames her for her despicable behavior – one that he projects onto her rather than one she has participated in. Hannah ANSWERED. She answered the high priest of that place, and she defended herself. She didn’t walk away in shame. She didn’t hang her head. She defended herself and her VALUE. She WAS a worthless woman by the standards she lived in. But she demands respect from the priest anyway. “‘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. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time”
“I am not a worthless woman.” Am I the only one who wants to cheer for her??? Even better it works. Eli may have failed to identify authentic prayer, yet, he is willing to be corrected!! He’s really an OK guy and a good priest, even though me misses some major memos. Eli believes her. That is huge in and of itself, but he also responds to her with a blessing. The blessing clearly matters to her, it cheers her up, and the story seems to think it has to do with her later success in getting pregnant.
Hannah names her son, “God has heard” and says she does so because “I asked him of the LORD”. She sounds a bit like Hagar, naming God, “the God who sees” (even me.) Hannah, whose society has told her that she is worthless, has a partner who believes in her worth, and even with her internal struggles finds that she believes in her worth too. Then it is affirmed. It seems to me that by the time Hannah gets pregnant, she is already sure that she is of value in the world and in the eyes of God whether or not she has a child. In the end, I think that’s what is so subversive about Hannah – that she finds the way to claim her own worth, despite society! May we follow in her footsteps because we are much more useful to God when we realize that we are valuable – and of use in building the kindom. Amen
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
December 4, 2016