Hannah’s decision (A d’var haftarah on Samuel 1)

Andy Oram
9 September 2002

Whenever we read the Bible—from the earliest stories such as Cain and Abel to the latest stories such as Daniel in the land of his enemies—we can view them on two levels. The first angle is personal: Cain’s jealousy, Daniel’s candor. The second angle is the big picture: What does this story say about God’s plans for the world, and how we can fit in?

The story of Hannah is particularly worth considering on both of these levels because it combines them, showing the growth of an individual from one view to the other. Hannah starts out totally consumed by her personal feelings of deprivation. But something happens at Shiloh. She harnesses her pain and finds in it a way to meet the needs of her people and her God. What happened at Shiloh? The chronicler, unfortunately, does not tell us enough of Hannah’s thoughts to know for sure. But by looking at what’s going on at Shiloh and at Hannah’s decision, we can make some guesses.

Let’s start with her husband, Elkanah. He’s a well-meaning fellow. In fact, legend has it that he was the most righteous man in his generation. But as he takes her year after year to Shiloh, and then tells her not to be sad, you can tell he doesn’t really expect to succeed in having a child. He’s just going through the motions. I believe Elkanah was representative of the Israelites of his day, who did not feel much closeness to God.

And small wonder, when you see what they encounter at the sanctuary! Here the sons of the aging Eli have taken advantage of their control to indulge their basest physical drives in the most profane manner. They steal the meat that’s meant for sacrifices, they bully the faithful, they force women to have sex with them, and they create an atmosphere where other Kohanim feel they can do the same. In short, Shiloh is a textbook case where people are handed a position of stewardship and shamelessly ignore their responsibilities in order to seek purely personal gain.

Eli plays an ambiguous role here. He possesses considerable moral authority, but like many principled people in corrupt situations, he’s paralyzed. You can see how he fumbles Hannah’s request in the passage we read today, and it only gets worse over time.

Where was Eli, I’d like to know, when the other priests decide to send the Holy Ark containing the tablets of Moses into battle, where it is captured by the enemy? I haven’t even mentioned yet the military predicament the Israelites are in. The Philistines have iron weapons the Israelites don’t have, and chariots the Israelites don’t have, and they’ve just won a major battle. The priests become desperate. So they send the Ark onto the battlefield, hoping it will magically save them. They failed to distinguish between the holiness that underlies everything in the universe and a particular artifact made by people to symbolize that holiness. That’s idolatry.

So let’s put it together: a priesthood that doesn’t understand the basics of the Jewish religion, Eli’s sons running amok, Eli himself with his hands off the steering wheel, and an Israelite population that’s despondent and beset by enemies. Into this mess walks Hannah.

And Hannah has a great achievement: She believes! She holds on to an essential, uncompromising faith.

Not a naive faith. In fact, Hannah suffers from “bitterness of spirit”—we read that in the text. She must know about the mischief and the mismanagement at Shiloh. But Hannah does not let the sins of men shake her belief.

And what does Hannah believe? In the power of God, of course, but what does that mean to us? When this bitter, scorned woman prays for the child she deserves, she demonstrates a belief in the possibility of justice—perhaps even the inevitability of justice. Perhaps she knows, prophetically, that the child she is going to conceive will restore justice to the Israelite people. Or perhaps she has a more modest insight that’s even more profound. She discovers that the emptiness she feels, the abandonment she feels, are the same emptiness and abandonment the Israelites feel—that God feels.

So Hannah does something incredible today. Every mother has the right to raise her child to maturity, but she forsakes this right. Knowing the importance of her mission, Hannah says she will bring her child to Shiloh. And this is the crucial moment that lets her conceive, whether you believe that Hannah somehow transformed herself because she knew she had a job to do, or whether you believe that God responded directly—because finally there is someone here who is willing to do God’s will.

I hope that, at the beginning of this new year, we can take heart in the steadfastness, the bravery, and the foresight of Hannah. And perhaps take heart also in the notion that sometimes, somehow, maybe, we can find and fulfill God’s will.

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