Hannah and Eli

When I was a kid, we had a book on tape (complete with finger puppets) about the story of Samuel (1 Samuel 1-3), starting with Hannah’s prayer and ending with his calling. We listened to it many, many, many times, and I can still hear the narrator’s soothing voice, the deep call of “Samuel! Samuel!” It’s always been one of my favorite stories, in part because it is a story, a narrative with dialogue and everything, and in it we hear very human reactions to the trials of life and to God’s call in the midst of them. And we hear people answering that call, making that choice and understanding it means both joy and sorrow, humility and greatness.

We start off with Hannah, whose husband loves her dearly and who suffers constant torment from his other, jealous wife for it. I mean, you do have to feel some pity for the woman who’s been through childbirth several times but will always be second fiddle; that being said, she chooses her reaction, and her reaction is not a good one. Meanwhile, poor Hannah’s husband tries to console his wife, but between Peninnah’s barbs and the very personal pain of infidelity, it’s just not enough. And so Hannah does what we all ought to do: takes her sadness to God. God wants us to bring our hardships to him; he’s the source of all blessings and goodness, the only one who can truly fill the hollow longing within us. And God can take it when sometimes those we love around us can’t. Hannah’s trials were obviously very hard on her husband, who loved her, but if Hannah had taken out the full brunt of her bitterness upon him the way Peninnah took out her bitterness on Hannah, that wouldn’t have solved anything; Hannah would still have been barren, and her husband still would have been helpless to help her.

So Hannah goes to God, and she goes all out. I’ve been that sobbing girl in the back of church myself (stories for another post), so, uh, I love that we see Hannah doing that. And Eli’s reaction–oh Eli, always sitting–makes me laugh: “Go home lady you’re drunk.” Which, you know, having been that sobbing girl in the back of church, I can understand why he might be a bit concerned about her behavior, and when she explains herself, he immediately calls for peace and blessings upon her. And, as St. Paul says, having brought her prayers and supplications to God, peace is what she receives–and a gift.

Now, this gift is what Hannah was praying for while she wept in the temple, and in the midst of that weeping she made a promise to God, promising a gift for a gift. And who hasn’t tried to bargain with God? Hannah’s bargain, though, is going to require a lot of sacrifice on her part. She asks for a son, and promises to give that son back to God. And–the thing is, she hasn’t had children before now, and for all she knows even if she does have this one baby that doesn’t mean she’s going to have more after him. I was reading the comments on an article about the priest shortage the other day, and one priest pointed out that in his generation the pool was bigger, that he was one of seven children; it’s a lot easier for parent to come to terms with one of their children going off to live a celibate, somewhat impoverished (in that while everything is provided for him he doesn’t necessarily have much of his own) life when they have three or five or six others who might give them grandchildren and support them in their old age. And here’s Hannah, making a promise that if God will give her the one thing she longs for, she will give it back to him with all that that entails: enjoying the blessing of motherhood for a little while, and then giving her little toddler over to be raised by semi-strangers, only seeing him once a year, hearing another call him “my son” and watching him grow up belonging to all the people instead of their family first–

and she does it. She has a choice, and she chooses to keep her promise to the Lord. And I suspect it was rather like marriage vows–a choice you make once and for all, and then also a choice you make every day, every step at a time. Sure, when she first found out she was pregnant, she was probably overjoyed and mindful of her promise but so grateful she was willing to do anything–but later on, seeing his first smile, watching him take his first steps and say his first words, the knowledge that she had promised to give this all up was probably a little harder to bear. And her husband, while supportive, expresses some hesitation: “Do what you think best…. Only may the Lord fulfill his word!” (The NABRE references several other passages wherein God blesses the houses of those who are faithful to his covenant.) He is hopeful that God will reward them for giving up their son, but it also reads to me a little…concerned. Like, please Lord, we are doing this thing, please notice that we are doing it, because it is a hard thing that we are doing for you. And yes, Hannah gave her vow, but that doesn’t make it less hard.

Which is what makes her prayer of exultation all the greater. Mary’s Magnificat comes before Jesus is born, before the sword of sorrow pierces her heart; Hannah’s is here coming as she’s giving her child back to God. Sure, there’s a touch of gloating–take that, wife who made fun of me!–but it also demonstrates the trust and hope in God’s promises that she and her husband are showing. This is the One to whom they are entrusting their child, the One who entrusted them with the child to start with; in the face of this glory and majesty, how can they not rejoice? How can they not hope that their son, being raised to be a servant of God, will not have all the blessings God promises? Doing his will, how can they not hope that they will know his just rewards?

And sure enough, they are given babies to keep. And Hannah still gets to see Samuel, and make him his little garment, and the son that she gave to God has two books of the Bible named after him and anointed two kings. His life was not without its hardships, but he also knew God in a way very few people can claim to do–its own blessing and hardship, as any prophet would tell you (and often does, when you read their books). And isn’t that what we’re supposed to want? To make a return for the goodness of God? To safeguard the children in our care so that we may raise them to give themselves to God, to know and love and serve him? Even Hannah’s other children eventually grew up; eventually, she had to go through the same letting-go with them, if on a much slower and smaller scale.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about, with this whole impending motherhood on my doorstep, and I know I’m going to be coming back to Hannah and her honesty and her courage and her trust and her joy.

Anyway, the story then leaves Hannah and her five other children and turns its attention to Samuel, and we arrive at this past Sunday’s first reading. I talked a little bit about hearing God’s call in my last post, so just a few more thoughts on this story in particular:

One of the things I love about Samuel’s story is his initial confusion and Eli’s–oh Eli, always sitting–response. The thing about Eli is that by this point he knows his two sons are miserable failures; he’s tried to rebuke them, and the story says alternately that they didn’t listen because God hardened their hearts or because Eli just sucks at rebuking. It seems to me that Eli’s problem is that he never gets up to do anything; while a faithful servant of the Lord himself, a kind mentor, and a generally benevolent figure, he’s also a bit benign, always sitting at the door to the temple. He doesn’t even follow the Ark when it’s removed to fight the Philistines; okay, he’s ninety-eight years old, but it’s also his responsibility. I mean, he dies from falling over in his chair. He’s not a bad priest–and clearly, when he calls on God to hear Hannah’s prayer and bless her family, God listens to him too–but he also lacks the gumption to guide his flock in the way they need. (I do find it interesting that when Samuel tries to retire and his sons also suck at being priests, God doesn’t get angry with him–but then, Samuel’s been out walking the walk, and he and God are tight. Besides, the badness isn’t just in his sons; it’s in the entire people of Israel at that point. Samuel does what he can.)

So Eli, being familiar if not intimate with God, figures out just who is calling Samuel’s name and tells Samuel what he ought to say in response. And Samuel finally answers God’s call, and then the first message God has for him is that He is on his way to open up a can of whup-ass on Eli’s sons. For obvious reasons, Samuel is afraid to tell Eli this, but Eli, being a good mentor if something of a failure of a father, encourages him to. And upon hearing the news Eli says well, that’s God for you–like I said, he’s already aware that this is coming down the pipe, as it were. And it gives Samuel a glimpse into the life he himself is going to lead, though God is going to spend a lot more time detailing what does and does not please Him to Samuel than he ever did to Eli. But it is thanks to Eli–flawed, failed Eli, who blesses Hannah for giving the Lord and himself a child who might be a clean slate in the face of his sons’ abysmal behavior–that Samuel gets his start, not only in listening to God, but also in proclaiming his word.

And then we get to the final line–“Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to go unfulfilled.” Which is another one of those double-edged swords. I like to joke about Samuel eating a terrible breakfast and then saying “oh wait no man this porridge is delicious” and it thus becoming so, but as with all the prophets the closeness to God comes with a hyperawareness of speech and action, the knowledge that God is using him to speak to and judge the people and that the people’s knowledge and trust of God will come in large part because of what he says and does. The prophets are witnesses and authorities, and we who know God through Christ and the Spirit are called to think on their example and realize that just because God doesn’t quite speak to us as he spoke to Moses or Elijah doesn’t mean that he hasn’t given us everything we need to go forth and be his servants and witnesses. We have access to Scripture and the Spirit in ways the Israelites saw only rarely; we have Christ, priest, prophet, and king, as our ultimate inspiration. I know I certainly don’t always act like the Lord is with me and won’t permit any word of mine to go unfulfilled, but probably I should.

Like I said, this is one of my favorite biblical narratives, one I’ve been familiar with since I was a kid–and it is a story for all ages, isn’t it? You have the youth Samuel, learning to hear God’s call; you have the married woman Hannah, turning to God in her darkest hour; you have the old man, Eli, full of regrets but also still trusting in the Lord, and given the hope of the child prophet in his care. May we all learn to hope and trust as they did, and to know the joy that comes from doing the Lord’s will.

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