We are studying 1 Samuel 1:9-20, for Sunday, September 8, a portion of the story of Hannah and the seemingly miraculous birth of Samuel that opens the book of 1 Samuel. [Some questions about the text are here.] Here are my notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of 1 Samuel continues the story of Israel in the land of Israel, following the entry into the land in Joshua and the steady decline of faithfulness narrated in the book of Judges. We might think of it as part of the “Deuteronomistic History” that comprises Joshua – 2 Kings, and that presents the history of Israel as a theologically significant set of related events and experiences.
Alternatively, we might think of it as one of the books of the “former prophets” – the way it is identified in Jewish tradition. Christian readers might not think of these as “prophetic” texts, but if we think of Joshua, Samuel, Elijah and Elisha as the prophets associated with these narratives that relate a past as Marc Zvi Brettler would say, then this way of labeling the books may make more sense to us.
Either way, we think that one of the guiding concerns of the overall narrative is the development of the monarchy, and establishing David as the model monarch. Samuel will play a key role in that plot, and Samuel’s story starts with Hannah, his mother, and her desperate plea for a child.
Shiloh, where this part of the story takes place, was the cultic center at this time – well before worship was centralized in Jerusalem (in David’s time) or the Temple was built (in Solomon’s time). I used to think that the Tabernacle was set up at Shiloh, but our text refers to the temple (or palace) of YHWH, which was presumably a more permanent structure. (See the map here for the location of Shiloh.)
The time is “the time of the judges” – of whom Samuel is the last. Samuel anoints both Saul (king of Israel #1) and David (king of Israel #2).
Bible readers will recognize the theme of barrenness in the story from other Bible stories (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother – the “wife of Manoah”), so by now this is a plot device, and we know what’s going to happen in this story. (There is an article on barrenness in the Bible at Bible Odyssey.)
Hannah’s fortunes will turn, Samuel will be born, and “given to God” at a young age, and from there will be in a position to deliver bad news to the high priest Eli about God’s unfavorable decision about him and his family, and then to interact with Saul in a complex way, and finally to anoint David.
This story may hook some of our deep feelings about pregnancy, child-rearing, and relationships. Hannah’s vow, in particular – that if only she can have a child, specifically a male child, she will dedicate the child to God – will probably strike other modern readers the way it strikes this one: as profoundly counter-productive. What’s the point of having the child if you turn around and give him away? And if we have any feeling for children at all, we can hardly help feeling miserable for Samuel, who has to go live with Eli, someone we already know to be a lousy father, and his horrible sons. It’s heartbreaking. But all of that is in the future, relative to our story.
The fact that Hannah is a co-wife, seemingly the first wife based on the order in which Elkanah’s wives are listed. Knowing what we might know about when men acquire second wives in cultures where that’s allowed today – namely, when wife #1 doesn’t have children – reinforces this suspicion. This story would have direct personal significance for women in some contemporary cultural circumstances. We might do well to remember that.
CLOSER READING: Picking the story up at verse 9, we focus on the part of the story that features Hannah’s interaction with God and with Eli.
Hannah does most of the action; she has a dozen verbs to Eli’s five. Verse 9 emphasizes the contrast between Hannah and Eli: she arises, while he sits. His seat, literally “on the doorpost” of the temple, is a little curious, but seems to give him a good view of what goes on in the temple. [Which will later, if we remember, make us think that he has to know what his wicked sons are doing, eh? So why doesn’t he do anything about it, eh? Especially since he seems completely willing to make a judgment about Hannah AND to say something to her based on his faulty judgment. What an exemplary character Eli is.]
Also, note that “eating … drinking” in v9 are infinitives – they don’t exactly tell us that Hannah ate and drank. Which makes sense, because in v8 we thought the narrator told us specifically that she was too miserable to eat.
There are a lot of infinitives in this story. I’m not sure what to make of that. Except that Hannah, in particular, is depicted in emphatic terms. She weeps, yes, weeps when she prays in v10, she vows, yes, vows her vow in v11, implores YHWH to look, yes, look on her affliction in that prayer. And then she asks God to remember and not forget – emphasizing the positive and in a sense asking God to stop forgetting, which it seems God has been doing so far.
And then she makes this insane [to my way of thinking, but what do I know] vow that if God will give she will give … which makes her sound like a pagan to me, since my humanities teacher explained that “du et dos” – I give so you will give – was the principle of Greco-Roman worship. The Nazirite features of the vow, that his hair will not be cut, remind us of other dedicated characters; given the setting in time, we will probably think of Samson.
Hannah is emphatically miserable. The story uses lots of different words for misery – affliction – bitterness of soul – etc.
Eli’s conclusion that Hannah is drunk might strike us as a little … puzzling. Do drunk people look and act this way, in our experience? Rashi explains that Eli thinks she’s drunk because people weren’t accustomed to praying silently in those days. I think Rashi is being generous to Eli.
In fact, when Hannah says she has poured out her soul before the face of YHWH, it’s an implicit contrast with drunkenness – spirit being poured out, rather than poured in. Sensitiveness, in contrast with insensibility.
Eli is really hard of hearing – this is going to come up again a couple of chapters on – and his hardness of hearing seems to be a metaphor for spiritual insensitivity. But here, in vv13-17, Eli also seems to serve as a figure for God, so that his inability to hear Hannah’s voice mirrors God’s deafness to her desire for a son, and then when Eli hears her out, and hears her explanation, and her request that he “not take the maidservant before the face [of you] as a wicked daughter”, things turn from bad to good, Eli offers her a positive response, and in effect authorizes her request. I realize that “before the face” construction is an idiom, but it’s an idiom that will make us think of coming before God because that’s how it’s often used, so … it just seems to have a whiff of that idea around it here in v16.
And then, we might know that the happy ending is coming, because in v18, when Hannah says in response to Eli (priest of God) “Let your maidservant find favor in your eyes” she uses a different word for “maidservant” than the one she has been using up till now, and switches to the word used for Hagar and Bilhah and Zilpah back in Genesis, which, if we remember our Bible stories, lets us know that pregnancy is on its way.
Hannah is happy, and the plot unfolds … “and Elkanah knew Hannah, his wife, and YHWH remembered her.”
She names him Shmuel (v20), she says because she “asked him” from God, but honestly, the name Shmuel sounds more like “God heard.”
The title of the lesson in our curriculum is “God Answers Prayer.” Perhaps there is not better title. “God finally answers prayer after a long time of seeming not to, sometimes, if you’re the right person and if your request fits in with God’s agenda” is probably too long and naturalistic a title, though I think it would be more accurate, especially in the context of this story. It’s not that I don’t believe God answers prayer. I do. But we all know that God is not a drive-thru, taking our order and handing us the sack and drink in under 2 minutes. I like John Goldingay’s insistence that when we pray, we really do mean to change God’s mind (contrary to what people and especially we Calvinists often say, that it’s designed to change us). And sometimes God does change God’s mind, too. But not always. Which brings us back around to the difficult question of “why,” and how we try to get the answer to that question … from God, presumably.