The Politics of Hannah’s Opened Womb—1 Samuel 1:4-20; 2:1-10 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

As political theologians we may be peculiarly vulnerable to the error of neglecting—or even denying—the significance of the obscure and personal struggles and victories of the faithful that do not assert themselves onto the grand public stage of society. We have much to learn from Hannah’s recognition that, in God’s answer to her prayer for a son, the seeds of a dramatic social and political upheaval had been sown.

4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth.13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ 15 But Hannah answered, ‘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. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ 17 Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ 18 And she said, ‘Let your servant find favour in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

19 They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’

***

Hannah prayed and said,
‘My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.


2 ‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
6 The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.


9 ‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
10 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.’

Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film, Children of Men, depicts a human race which has been inexplicably infertile for a couple of decades; hope has failed and humanity stumbles towards the yawning grave. When women’s wombs die, the world becomes a mausoleum, its lingering living occupants but fleeting shadows surrendering to the engulfing pitch of Night. In Children of Men, the miraculous birth of a child provides a flickering hope for humanity, the possibility of a new beginning.

Such a world is reminiscent in certain respects of the world of Israel that is described at the opening of the book of 1 Samuel. Israel languishes under wicked and spiritually dull rulers. In a threefold parallelism, we are informed the word of the Lord was not heard in those days (3:1); that Eli, the high priest, was losing his sight (3:2; cf. 4:15); and that the lamp of God will soon be extinguished (3:3). This is a world without light—without the light of revelation and prophetic vision, without the light of both spiritual and physical perception, and without the symbolic light of God’s presence. What little light remains is guttering and about to be snuffed out, as the world of the tabernacle will fall back into a dark and formless state. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas—in stark contrast to his namesake who stood against apostasy in Numbers 25—are wicked and corrupt priests, who despise the offering of the Lord (2:12-17) and violate the women at the tabernacle door, the virgins who were to represent Israel’s holiness as the Lord’s betrothed bride. Eli himself is very old and the woman, Hannah, with whom the story begins, has a closed womb and is sorely provoked by her fruitful counterpart, Peninnah. The story is thus framed in terms of themes of hopelessness, social decay, corrupt power, and bitter struggle with oppressive and ascendant rivals.

During their yearly visit to Shiloh for worship and sacrifice, Hannah leaves the festivities in order to cry out to the Lord at the tabernacle, weeping in her anguish. She vows to the Lord that, if he gives her a son, she will dedicate him to the Lord’s service as a lifelong Nazirite (like Samson and, later, John the Baptist, also both children of formerly barren women).

Strikingly, Eli mistakes the fasting Hannah’s ‘pouring out of her soul’ (v.16) to the Lord for drunkenness, displaying his lack of spiritual perception. Elsewhere in Scripture, drunkenness is a motif that appears in contexts of divine reversal and Eli’s misperception may be an intimation of the greater stirrings that are afoot at the beginning of 1 Samuel. The wicked, with dulled perception and judgment on account of their intoxication (Isaiah 28:7-8), are made to reel with God’s terrible cup of wrath. Later in 1 Samuel, Eli will topple off his seat of judgment (4:18), like a drunk man losing his balance. The words of the righteous will also appear like drunken speech to the wicked: the Lord speaks to his people in a stammering foreign tongue, which will fall like the slurred babblings of a drunkard upon their insensitive ears (28:11). Luke may allude to Eli’s mistaking of Hannah’s prayer at the tabernacle for drunken speech when he describes the misrecognition of the tongues-speaking of the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2:13).

The Lord ‘remembers’ Hannah (v.19) and grants her request, opening her womb and giving her a son whom she names Samuel. The manner in which the story of 1 Samuel begins with a woman struggling to give birth recalls the story of the Exodus and also provides a model for Luke in the writing of his gospel. Rather than focusing upon the corridors of power, the first moves of God’s great national and cosmic purposes in history appear in the unwitnessed intimacy of domestic and personal struggles and in the persevering faith of obscure people without political power or public influence.

And especial attention is given to women in these contexts. The struggle of childbearing and rearing is not consigned to a largely sentimental ‘private’ realm, but is rendered integral to the great drama of salvation history. The stories of the matriarchs of Israel and of women such as Ruth and Hannah are not romanticized—they are stories with much suffering and oppression—but they are stories of persevering and overcoming faith in dark places, and of quiet and unsung victories whose fruit will one day erupt into public consciousness.

They are also stories of unrecognized turning points in the tide of history, not least because God is a God who remembers and who attends to the people that others may ignore. God answers the prayers provoked by the personal struggles of faithful women such as Hannah in a manner that effects more public and radical social turnarounds through them. The many biblical accounts of women struggling to give birth and being answered by God casts childbearing as a profoundly active calling requiring stubborn and persevering faith. The frequency and prominence of such accounts—and their priority in books such as Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, 1 Samuel, and Luke—also makes clear that, despite the hiddenness of their labour, God regards and honours these women as prominent actors on the stage of his history and never disconnects the dramatic socio-political harvest of his purpose from their unseen work in sowing and nurturing its seeds.

This relationship is powerfully seen in Hannah’s prayer of rejoicing—which provides the pattern for Mary’s Magnificat in Luke (Luke 1:46-55)—with its startling association of the reversal of the spiritual and political fortunes of the nation with God’s answer to the prayers of an unknown woman for a child. Hannah recognizes that the birth of Samuel heralded more than her own vindication against Penninah: it was a sign that the Lord was about to turn Israel upside-down, throwing down the oppressive rich and mighty and raising up the weak and the poor. She praises the Lord that he is about to tear down the corrupt house of Israel and re-establish it again upon righteous foundations.

While the connection between the quiet and private victories of obscure individuals and the grand turnarounds in history are generally only seen in retrospect—on the rare occasions when they are seen—faithful Hannah is able to recognize in God’s answer to her distress the faintest foreshock of forthcoming seismic events in Israel’s history. In God’s gift of life to her dead womb, Hannah recognizes the working of a resurrection power—‘the Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up’—that cannot but lead to radical social upheaval in the future.

As political theologians we may be peculiarly vulnerable to the error of neglecting—or even denying—the significance of the obscure and personal struggles and victories of the faithful that do not assert themselves onto the grand public stage of society. When our eyes scan for the signs of social and political reversal, we wouldn’t attend to the agonized prayers of a barren woman. Like Eli, the high priest who lacked spiritual perception, we may fail to recognize the importance of people and actions we have grown accustomed to ignoring. We can give people the false message that the capacity to make great social and political difference is the preserve of rich and prominent public figures, denying the value, necessity, and potential of quiet and private callings, pressing people into worldly moulds of influence. As we serve a God who attends to the weak and vulnerable and remembers the forgotten and ignored, the greatest social earthquakes can find their unseen epicentres in the most unexpected of places.

 

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