Hannah’s grief, Israel’s future

When it comes to the problem of infertility, you’d have to say that a few things have changed in the last three thousand years. One big change, of course, is that we know a lot more about the causes of infertility – in women we know about endometriosis, and hormonal problems, and about the possibility of physical damage to the ovaries. In men we know about low sperm counts and we know some of the causes.

Not only do we know a lot more now about the causes of infertility than humans did 3000 years ago – we can also do a lot more to work around those biological problems. We’ve got technologies they wouldn’t have dreamed of 50 years ago let alone three thousand years ago. Of course some of those technologies raise serious theological and ethical concerns, but without getting into those questions we can say that technological advances mean that in situations where pregnancy and birth might have been impossible three thousand years ago, they are possible today.

A lot has changed when it comes to the reality of infertility.

At another level, though, perhaps the degree of change is a little more ambiguous. Three thousand years ago, Hannah is distraught over her inability to bear children – she is so distraught that she refuses to eat, she is constantly crying. Today we would likely say that Hannah is depressed. There is a deep sadness that has a grip on her heart, on her life.

It’s fair to say that this kind of sadness and grief is at times experienced today by women who are unable to conceive or carry children – experienced sometimes also by their husbands. The proliferation of fertility clinics is testament, at least in part, to the anxiety and grief that comes along with that inability to have children.

Looking back to Hanna’s time, her inability to bear a child brings with it profound social stigma. In that ancient society a woman’s ability to bear children was fundamental to her identity. In that ancient culture everything depended on the fertility of women – children meant financial security since more children meant more workers in the field or shop – having children meant someone to care for you into old age (long before there was such a Canada Pension Plan) – having children meant having soldiers to defend the land against attack. In that ancient culture the fertility of women means everything, and an inability to bear children brings profound social stigma.

Now Hannah has an added disadvantage. She is one of two wives of Elkanah – the other wife being Peninah. And while Hannah hasn’t been able to have children, Peninah has many children. On top of that, there is the fact that Peninah has a mean streak in her. Every chance she has, Peninah provokes Hannah – point out her infertility – remind her of her shame.

So upset is Hannah with her infertility and shame that attends it – so upset at the provocations of Peninah, that she goes to the temple and reaches out to God in desperate prayer. In fact, so desperate is her prayer, that the priest Eli thinks she is drunk. He says to her: “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself. Put away your wine.”

Ok, so here we are, just getting into the story of Hannah – but the challenge for us this morning is that today’s sermon is actually the first in a series on David. Rather abruptly, then, we step back from Hannah for a moment and consider David. Aside from Jesus himself, there is no one who looms larger and no one who takes up more of the narrative of scripture, than David. To understand the history of God with his people, you must understand David. And if you want to understand Jesus, you must know the story of David. Think back to the simplest of element in the Christmas narrative – remember that Mary and Joseph going back to Bethlehem for the census – Bethlehem, which is described as the city of David. Already in the first moment of Jesus’ story, the gospel writers want us to see the connection between Jesus and David.

So now we want to take a step back – to try and sort out the link between David and Hannah. And the best way to do that is to look at the context – by looking at what’s going on in the background of the book of First Samuel? What is going on with the people of God in that book which tells the story of David but which begins with Hannah? Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that the beginning of 1 Samuel represents a time of transition in the life of Israel. In this period Israel has been nothing more than a marginal and disorganized company of tribes. Furthermore, they are under threat from the Philistines. In the face of the Philistine threat, Israel is politically weak and economically disadvantaged. Even more, at the end of the book of Judges Israel is portrayed as community in moral chaos – a community engaged in brutality – a community unfaithful in the worship of God.

Walter Bruggeman writes these words: “As the narrative of Samuel unfolds, we discover that Israel is waiting for a king who will protect, defend, gather, liberate and legitimate the community.” At the beginning of First Samuel, Israel is in a crisis – there is disorganization and moral chaos – they under threat from outside. Israel is waiting for someone who will lead them into a new communal life as God’s people. And this narrative of transition – from chaos and crisis to a new communal life as God’s people – is largely the story of David’s emergence, David’s arrival.

So now we go back to where we left Hannah a moment ago. So upset is Hannah with her infertility and her shame – so upset is she at the provocations and meanness of Peninah, that she goes to the temple and reaches out to God in desperate prayer. And so desperate is her prayer, that the priest Eli thinks she is drunk. He says to her: “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself. Put away your wine.”

As she reaches out to God in prayer, Hannah makes a kind of bargain with God – “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me and not forget your servant, but give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death.” She makes a kind of bargain with God, yet a bargain in which she seeks the glory and service of God – “If you will give me a son, I will give him back in service to you. If you take away my shame, by giving the gift of a child, I will offer that child in service to you.” It is a bargain that will take away her shame, yet a bargain that also shows her attentiveness to the service of God and God’s people. She offers her desperate prayer.

Eli thinks that she is drunk. But when she explains herself to him, explains her anxiety and vexation, the priest offers a word of benediction: Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”

We read in the text, “The Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son.” She gave him the name Samuel, and as she had promised, she dedicated him to God’s service. When he was weaned from the breast – she brought him to the temple where he would be raised and trained as a priest of God.

Why is this story of Hannah at the outset of 1 Samuel?

Why is this story of Hannah at the outset of the narrative of David?

In it’s own right it is a dramatic story:

We can’t take anything away from the pain of Hannah,

We can’t take anything away from Hanna’s persistence in prayer,

We can’t take anything away from the grittiness of her experience.

We can’t take anything away from the hard thing she did in giving up her son to God’s service.

This is Hannah’s story, Hannah’s strength, Hannah’s faith.

But Hannah’s private story, when it is set within the context of I Samuel, when it is set within the greater narrative of God’s people – then her personal story takes on a broader meaning. First Samuel is a narrative of transition from chaos and tribal disorganization and moral crisis to a new communal life as God’s people – it is a story of God’s people waiting for God to do a new thing – the story of God’s people waiting for God to do something they couldn’t do for themselves.

Hannah’s story, when it is set at the beginning of First Samuel becomes a sign of hope and promise for God’s people. What God has done for Hannah, God will do for God’s people.

God has brought Hannah from shame to celebration.

God will do the same for Israel.

God has brought Hannah from hopelessness to joy.

God will do the same for Israel.

God has brought her from faith to fulfillment.

God will do the same for Israel.

Even in her own song – a song in which she sings of God lifting up the lowly,

of God feeding the hungry,

of God helping the needy,

of God blessing the faithful.

In her own song she concludes with these words: “The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

In her own song Hannah makes a prophetic transition, from her own experience of God’s goodness – her own experience of God’s astonishing mercy – to a sense of what God will do for his people. And how will God do that new thing – he will do it through the gift of a king. David.  God’s people are waiting or a king. They are waiting for David.

When we consider our lives; when we consider the life of Hannah; when we consider the life of our world. It is easy to get trapped in a naturalistic account of everything.

I have previously mentioned the little book written by the well-known New Brunswick author, David Adams Richards – his little book entitled God is. He does not write from a specifically Christian point of view, though he was raised within Catholicism. But in his book, Richards reveals his astonishment at those who naively write God out of the narrative of our world and lives – in his own particularly cantankerous way he describes what he calls the puffery and naïveté of those who look with disdain on the people of faith.

The narrative of First Samuel represents a similar dismissal of such puffery and naiveté. The story of Hannah is set as a reminder of God’s compassionate intervention in our lives and world. This is no natural history – not a natural history of Hannah’s life and not a natural history of Israel. Yes, each of those stories is inevitably bound up with human brokenness and human pain – each of these stories is bound up with of events that flow, cause and effect, one into another. But the wonder of the story is the wonder of God’s gracious intervention.

Out of human barrenness God gives the gift of a child.

From a situation of disorder and chaos God gives a new future.

Into a circumstance of sadness, God brings the gift of a song.

In response to human faith and prayer and bargaining God acts, speaks.

To have a living faith, day by day and week by week – in our individual lives and in our shared life – is to trust just these possibilities – is to remind one another of just these possibilities. To exclude them is to misunderstand the story of Hannah. To exclude such possibilities is finally to misunderstand our own lives.

We celebrate God’s gracious intervention – in the life of faithful, broken, prayerful Hannah. We celebrate God’s gracious intervention – as we will see it in the life of faithful, broken, prayerful David. We celebrate God’s gracious intervention – in our own faithful, broken, prayerful lives.

Thanks be to God.

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