Scripture can be read here...
We have a Bible Study most Monday nights, 5:00 every Monday except the second Monday of the month, when we have a different Bible Study, affectionately known around here as LOPW, “Loosely Organized” Presbyterian Women. It’s a study which people feel free to drop in and out of, depending upon the busyness and chaos of life, but we dependably have anywhere between six and twelve folks, sometimes more. Over the past four and a half years, this Most Mondays Bible Study has read through, word by word, at least eight books of the bible, by my count, plus several “thematic” studies, such as last spring’s investigation of New Testament resurrection stories. This summer we had some heavy going, for a while, with the book of Judges. It’s a bloody tome, but one that, this year, yielded a really wonderful insight. It is this: how women are presented in scripture is often a bellwether for how the people of God are doing. In fact, women often function as the canaries in the coal mine of the story of God’s people: when things are going well for women, it means that God’s people are living faithfully into the covenant between God and humanity. When things are not going well… it is a sign of just the opposite. Unfaithfulness abounds.
Following the episode of the golden calf, we have fully three more books of the bible—Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—detailing both the wilderness sojourn of God’s people, Israel, and their final arrival at Canaan, the Land of Promise. Moses never enters the Land of Promise—in fact, no one from that original generation who left Egypt does, and that seems to be by God’s design. In the course of the forty years of the wilderness wanderings, God’s people have been tried and tested, and cleansed and purged of the kind of recalcitrance and general whining we see among the people immediately after their escape. They are ready to enter Canaan a new and rejuvenated people.
The book of Joshua tells the story of the conquest of Canaan. It is a military history, largely, and it contains accounts of battles and clever deceptions, and, always, the power of God being the source of any victory. At the end of Joshua, one has the impression that the land has been won, that’s that, and all will be well.
Then we have the book of Judges, which, many scholars believe, tells the very same story as Joshua… only in much grimmer and more disturbing detail, and with much more ambiguous outcomes. By the time Judges begins, Israel is a loose confederation of twelve tribes, mostly named after the sons of Jacob. They have leaders called judges whose work involves arbitrating and deciding disputes, as contemporary judges do, but also military leadership and prophetic insight. Judges are all anointed by God as leaders.
Here’s where the ‘canary in the coal mine’ theory comes in. At the beginning of Judges, we meet a woman who is a judge: Deborah. However, as the story of each judge is told, the unfaithfulness of the people, and their willingness to follow after other gods is revealed. Time and again they find themselves in hot water, attacked by Canaanite tribes, and in danger of losing the land. Then another judge is anointed, and for a time, they do better, but each episode results in a downward spiral of disobedience and unfaithfulness worse than the last. By the end of the book of Judges, we read stories of a judge, Jephthah, because of his own faithlessness, ends up offering his own daughter as a human sacrifice. And the last prolonged story in Judges takes us into the genre of the horror film, and women are the victims. The status of the people’s faithfulness to God is reflected by how well or abominably women are treated.
But there is hope for God’s people, because after Judges comes the book of Ruth, whose heroine is a Moabite woman who, despite coming from another ethnic and religious background, serves the God of Israel and is faithful to her Israelite mother-in-law. At the end of her story we learn that she will be great grandmother to King David.
At last, we turn to Hannah. This story, at the very beginning of 1 Samuel, is probably intended to alert us to what an extraordinary person Samuel will be: that is almost always the purpose of stories of women who are said to be unable to bear children in scripture. This story will give us a clue that Samuel’s work will be crucial: the work of creating a godly monarchy from that loose and unruly confederation of tribes. All that is true. But the piece of this passage that calls to me today isn’t about the astounding accomplishments of the great prophet, who, after all, barely makes an appearance. Instead, I believe that it is in the domestic details of this woman’s life, and how she plays her part in the story of God’s people, that most of us will be able to encounter this sacred story and see in it some reflection of our own. The story of Hannah steers us into dark and pain-filled waters. It invites us to wonder together, how do we cope when the world we inhabit seeks to define us, at times, against our will? How do we live with our experiences of disappointment and emptiness? Where do we perceive God’s action in all this?
When we meet Hannah, her symptom is her identity. She “has no children,” in contrast with her husband’s other wife Peninnah, who has children in abundance. It’s hard to overstate the catastrophe, the sheer scandal that infertility is understood to be in biblical literature. Fertility is always seen as a product of divine favor, and infertility, predictably, of divine judgment. Hannah is suffering as a result of her status: her rival taunts her, she weeps. Hannah has the love of her husband, but she is too miserable to eat the double portion of food he gives her. But the story has a happy ending. After petitioning God in the temple, and having an intriguing conversation with the priest Eli, Hannah conceives and gives birth to her son Samuel. Symptom removed.
This seems to be a fairly straightforward tale: emptiness/ prayer/ fullness. Problem/ prayer/ solution. But let’s not skip too merrily to the ending. Thanksgiving for this longed-for son will come soon enough. There has to be a caveat here: We get into serious trouble when we ask specific passages of scripture to function as blanket statements to be applied to every situation. To look to this story as an exhaustive treatment of issues around fertility risks robbing the story of its power for people whose outcomes are different from Hannah’s, opposite, even. To say, simply, “Pray and God will give you what you ask for,” risks making this text irrelevant to the many, many people who have had other experiences.
So, remembering that this story of a woman is probably intended to serve the story of her exceptional son, and remembering, too, that the beauty of scripture is that these stories so often take us into unexpected realms… Let’s talk about, not outcomes, but processes. Let’s talk about prayer.
For me the turning point of Hannah’s story begins the moment Hannah gets up from the dinner table and heads to the temple to pray. I believe this for two reasons. For one thing, Hannah is being real. She is bitter. She is bargaining. She appears to require sobering up, her emotional state is so out of control. She is baring all before God and man, and her appearance in the temple is a clear demonstration that she is through with trying to go it alone. She reaches out, she reaches up, and she is heard.
Presbyterian writer (and quite possibly the funniest woman in the world) Anne Lamott says this about prayer:
[Prayer is] about being in a gentle but structured relationship with a higher power and one’s own self and the truth, and getting the work done. You close your eyes, breathe, and say, “hi.” The reason ‘help’ is such a great prayer is that God is the gift of desperation. When you’re in despair, you’re teachable.[i]
Hannah is in despair. She has nothing to lose. And so she prays.
The other reason I believe this is a turning point for Hannah is that her action puts her in contact with the priest Eli. Eli is someone whose life has been spent right where he is at this moment—waiting on the Lord, quite literally, in the doorway. Doorways are tremendously potent symbols in the bible. A doorway is what is known as “liminal space,” a place of being between, neither in one place nor the other. Eli is at his post in this in-between space, which is precisely the place where one waits for God. In this waiting place we experience openness—openness to God, openness to others, openness to a new plan, a new state of being. Hannah too is in liminal space. She is neither here nor there, neither maiden nor mother nor crone. Hannah’s Twilight Zone intersects with Eli’s. A new view is offered. A new possibility is made clear.
For me the grace in this story comes at the point of contact—contact with God and contact with another human being. Is the story of Hannah simply a story of divine intervention? On one level, sure—it is one of many biblical stories in which the hand of God is nakedly at work in the birth of an exceptional person. But I don’t think it’s in the realm of the miraculous that we connect with Hannah’s story. Instead, I think we connect through our own experiences: experiences of pain or disappointment or frustrated hope; experiences of reaching out to God in prayer and to those around us in sharing our burdens; experiences of God showing us a way where formerly there was no way; experiences of God staying present with us, in all our bitter ranting, when, in the final analysis, there is no way. Are these miracles? I am not sure. Is reaching out a miracle? Is openness a miracle? Is standing in a doorway, expecting God to show up, a miracle? Is giving thanks—for the hoped-for, expected, the dreaded and everything in between—a miracle?
We stand in the doorway, waiting for God, and God always shows up. God shows up offering more than the desired answer. God offers faithful, abiding presence, in the midst of our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and disappointments, even in our liminal spaces, when we are not quite lost, and not quite found. If Hannah is a bellwether for the people of God, if she tells us how things are going, the outlook is good, but not because Hannah gets what she longs for. The outlook is good because of God is with her, and with us, in struggle, and in joy, and in everything between. Thanks be to God. Amen.