A Reflective Talk

1 Samuel 1- Reflection – Power and Vulnerability

There is a somewhat subversive thread that runs through this story. It is a thread that can be found throughout the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and indeed, if we look for it, throughout the whole of the Bible. In this opening chapter of 1 Samuel there are subtle critiques of the patriarchal order of the day in a story-telling that allows the reader to explore the interplay between power and vulnerability. The story questions the assumption that power always prevails.

It begins with a clear statement that tells us that the social power of the day lay with men – ‘There was a certain man……’ In getting first mention it seems that the story is going to be all about this man, Elkanah, and that’s what the readers of the day would expect. His wives would have been considered unimportant but of course they weren’t. The story isn’t about Elkanah at all. We will soon find out that Hannah is the central character. She is the most vulnerable and least powerful of all the characters involved yet her very weakness paves the way for God to deliver the possibility of new life, not just to Hannah but to all Israel.

In Elkanah we see a man shaped by his culture. Whilst he loves Hannah he does not really know how to show that love. He is unable to relate to her and the pain she feels. His question to her, ‘Do I not mean more to you than 10 sons (note sons and not daughters) shows a complete lack of understanding of Hannah’s sense of identity and significance. In our day too we need to understand how deeply the inability to bring children into the world and raise them, impacts women and to be aware that although they may be as strong in faith and pray just as fervently, not all will have their prayers answered as Hannah did. Peninah will

also have suffered in matters of self-worth. Both women’s status was tied up in their relationship to Elkanah but we are told that Elkanah loved Hannah, giving us the clear implication that he did not love Peninah. He showed this at the annual sacrifice by giving Hannah a double portion of meat which probably did very little to reassure either of the women. It wasn’t meat or any other gift that Hannah needed and Peninah probably got the impression that she meant little more to Elkanah than his route to having sons. It is easy to understand how the rivalry of the women took hold, with Peninah (jealous of Elkanah’s greater love for Hannah) imposing her status and power as a woman with children to goad and persecute her rival.

It is against this background that we encounter Hannah at the temple, deeply distressed and praying to God and this is where we first come across Eli the priest.

The contrast between Hannah and Eli is stark. Here is a woman who has nothing, utterly dependent of God. Eli on the other hand is a man of position and privilege but utterly dependent on a corrupt religious system. Hannah stands ready before God, Eli sits on his seat in the doorway. Hannah is a woman, who in prayer opens herself and her heart to God. Eli in his prayer for Hannah relies on a bland, religious formula without giving any regard to what he might be praying for. Indeed Eli cannot perceive genuine, heartfelt prayer when it is staring him in the face. How easy it is to jump to conclusions and be critical of things we don’t understand and so it is that Eli completely misses the significance of the moment. It is worth reflecting on the contrast between him and Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) who is actively waiting to see the consolation of Israel and finds it in the infant Jesus.

Back though to Hannah. In this portrait of her, we see the longing of motherhood and in her desperate longing for a child we identify with a nation longing for new life. Hannah’s barrenness mirrors Israel’s barrenness. We are later told that ‘In those days the word of the Lord was rare, there were not many visions.’ The society is essentially godless. It needs the desperate faith of a vulnerable woman to kick it into life again.

In Hannah’s pain and not in her power we encounter the potential for God to act. God it seems works through vulnerability and not strength. When we are strong we have no need of God. When our own ways are serving us well we have no need to ask him if there might indeed be a better way. Only when we have run out of options to pursue our ends through power do we find his ways attractive.

From the pain of a childless woman comes the ability to cry out to God, to hear his reply and respond self-sacrificially. Hannah raises the child until he is weaned (probably about three years) but then has to honour her commitment to God, trusting that the God who gave her son life will continue to keep him safe. She could not rely on Eli. His track record with sons wasn’t that great (1 Samuel 2:12-36). It goes against the intuition of a mother to let her child go but in order for the child to prosper that has, at some point to be done. For Hannah it comes earlier than for most mothers. God has made a call on the life of her son and she has to have the faith in the God of new beginnings to release him into that calling. That is not to say there is neglect. Hannah continues to visit Samuel and personally makes his clothes. It is probably good to remember at this point that there are mothers today who also, for the benefit of their children, must leave them in the care of another. WE have to

appreciate that this is often an act of courage and love rather than one of neglect.

The story of Hannah is pivotal in Israel’s history. It is a moment in which the voice of God might be heard once more. It is a movement away from the turbulent history of the judges. It is a moment of potential for Israel but one that is tragically never quite attained for the people will once more turn back to the lure of power. The story progresses through the equally turbulent history of the king and finds its ending in tribal animosity, a divided nation and ultimately exile.

But this story doesn’t end there. There is a longer term outcome that cannot be overlooked. The way for the Messiah is made possible. Hannah’s pain, prayer and faith pave the way for another woman to respond to God’s call in motherhood. Mary gives birth to Jesus and the ultimate redemption of humanity is made possible, not through power but through vulnerability and self-sacrifice.

The Biblical picture of motherhood is a broad one. The creation itself could well be seen as an image of motherhood. Motherhood is about both the creation and nurture of new life and without overlooking the significance of the Bible’s male characters, many of the works of redemption were initiated by women; the mother of Moses, Rahab, Esther, Ruth (whose story in the Bible immediately precedes the story of Hannah) and of course Mary the mother of Jesus. And there are many unnamed women who also have significant roles. As you read through the pages of the Bible it is wise to look out for them. We play down the role of motherhood in our society at our peril and must never forget the potential of vulnerability over that of power.

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