Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

The first chapter of 1 Samuel presents itself as a watershed moment in the history of Israel.

November 15, 2009

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Commentary on 1 Samuel 1:4-20

The first chapter of 1 Samuel presents itself as a watershed moment in the history of Israel.

It draws upon memories from Judges that define Israel in a state of crisis. The rising strength of the Philistines has created a significant external threat. Even deeper threats come from a series of internal collapses. The diffuse and erratic nature of the judges’ political leadership has created a situation in which all the people do what is “right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). In a related crisis, at least some of the priests have become corrupt. Hophni and Phinehas, sons of Eli who serve as priests of the LORD, are “scoundrels” who prey upon the people and treat “the offerings of the LORD with contempt” (I Samuel 2:12, 17). Political, moral, and religious leadership is in disarray. Israel might not survive this generation.

In the middle of this grim picture 1 Samuel finds a source of renewal. The household of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Penninah does not look promising at first. It looks instead like a figure for all Israel: Elkanah comes from a distinguished line, and he is pious according to the order of the day, but the household is marked by internal conflict. Penninah has children, but Hannah, whom Elkanah loves, has none. The LORD has “closed her womb.” For this Penninah “provoke[s] her severely,” year after year (5, 6). Like Israel, the household is torn by rivalry. And like Israel, its future — at least through Hannah — is in doubt.

In this crisis, Hannah models a faithful response. She weeps. She rejects her share of sacrifices that have been handled by the sons of Eli. And she silently refuses her husband’s attempts to console her. Hannah will not accept the half-comforts of the present order. She goes instead to present herself “before the LORD” (7-9).

Hannah weeps, prays, and makes a vow (11). She prays for God to see her. And she prays for God to remember her — as Israel might pray for God to remember the covenant. She prays within the frames of the old order of the judges, promising, like Samson’s mother, that she will dedicate the boy as a nazirite. But her prayer also reaches beyond the present order. Hannah asks God to do a new thing.

Hannah’s prayer is heard by Eli, the aging priest who embodies whatever is left of the virtues of the old order. He rebukes her, thinking she is drunk — if Eli is not corrupt, like his sons, he still cannot quite recognize the new thing that is already emerging in Hannah’s prayer. But Hannah answers him sharply, “No, my lord…” (v. 15). No! And Eli hears her. He can still recognize Hannah’s faith. He blesses her and adds his endorsement to her prayer (v. 17). Hannah departs as if her prayer were already answered. She eats and drinks and shares the company of her husband. And, “in due time” — in God’s time — she conceives and bears a son. She names him Samuel (18-20).

Samuel is the fruit of Hannah’s faithful refusal to be comforted by anything less than a gift from God. He serves as a bridge between the old and the new. He is a culmination of the old order: from a distinguished family, blessed by Eli, all but conceived at the cultic center of Shiloh, and dedicated as a nazirite. But the author of the books of Samuel also wants to stress that Samuel represents a new thing that God is doing. Samuel’s birth is clearly a work of God, a fresh kindling of the spark of Hannah’s faithfulness. God has remembered the covenant, just as Hannah prayed, but not simply reestablished the old religious and political orders. Samuel will go on to play the decisive role in legitimating the new order that will culminate in David’s kingship, the defeat of the Philistines, and the concentration of religious, political, and economic authority in Jerusalem.

That Samuel bridges the two eras is crucial. Samuel is the earthly mediator of whatever legitimacy the monarchy has. He provides both continuity with the past and connection to the will of God. He has the authority to anoint Saul king of Israel (10:1). Saul does not inherit the kingship. He does not establish himself by conquest or virtue. He is not directly ordained by God. God gives Samuel the power to make him king.

Samuel’s role hints at the ways God moves in, in spite of these power politics, without ever identifying completely with any party. For what Samuel confers, he can take away — and give to David in Saul’s place. Even more significantly, Samuel can warn the people of Israel against all kings (8:10-18). His warning hangs over even David’s reign, like a kind of permanent placeholder that prevents any king from claims to be self-made, or self-legitimating, or directly appointed by God. Samuel opens the gap the prophets will fill, and that prophetic witnesses in every age must enter to call political orders to accountability before God.1

While Samuel will come to play that role, 1 Samuel 1-2 is not his story. It is first of all the story of Hannah. She is the one who drives the action. It is her voice we hear more than any other. She is the subject of the key verbs. Hannah refuses comfort, waits, prays, insists on her prayers in the face of priestly rebuke, and ultimately conceives, bears, and even names her son. The Revised Common Lectionary chops the narrative at verse 20, as if Hannah’s work were done in the work of giving birth. But 1 Samuel goes on, describing Hannah’s active role in making a sacrifice (1:24-28), and then recalling her great song of praise (2:1-10).

As Brevard Childs noted, Hannah’s song becomes the “interpretive key” to the whole, bloody narrative. It reminds us to hear it as a story in which God is active, in and in spite of the horrors to come.2  The best sermons on this passage will remember not only Hannah’s child, but also her song. Hannah’s song might find new voice in musical or spoken settings on the days this text is read.

Hannah has always been more than the “type” of the righteous, barren woman who ultimately conceives a child. She is never less than a mother, but always more.3  She is a model for what it means to live faithfully in days that seem Godforsaken. She is a model for Israel and, Christian preachers might dare to say, for the church in our time.4

1See Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Interpretaion, ed. James Luther Mays, et al. (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 1-15.
2Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 273.
3Throughout this section I am indebted to Carol Meyers, “Hannah and Her Sacrifice: Reclaiming Female Agency,” in A Feminist Companion to Samuel and Kings, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 93-104.
4Thanks to Donna Giver Johnston for research assistance and valuable conversations in preparation for this essay.