Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favour in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’
“If you can’t speak, you sing. If you can’t sing, you dance.” That’s how I’ve heard musicals described. You can tell how much the emotion in the story is ramping up because the characters who are speaking will start singing. And, if it’s really important, they’ll start dancing. Sometimes the Bible is like this. We can tell that an event is important and highly emotional because one of the people in the story sings a song about it. One of my favorite scriptures is the song Mary sings after agreeing to be Jesus’ mother: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name (Luke 1:46-49).” Beautiful, right? Mary, who sings with joy about being pregnant with a child she didn’t expect is a spiritual descendant of a person of one of the figures of today’s reading, Hannah, who will sing a song of joy for the child she desperately wanted.
Remember the words of Mary’s song? Here’s part of Hannah’s. It is from 1 Samuel 2:
‘My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. ‘There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.”
The themes are clearly similar, even more so when you read the whole two songs together. These are women of a deep faith, a faith that will forever alter their lives. They are confident that God will care for the ones considered lowly in their community. When they count themselves among the lowly, they know that they can call upon God for help.
Part of Hannah’s story is about the way women can be pitted against each other. As Dr. Valerie Bridgeman notes in her commentary about the text, this is a culture and an era where women who are able to marry, become pregnant, and have children, boys in particular, are highly prized. Any women who cannot do those things in that order will be considered lacking. Dr. Bridgeman notes that this is one of many stories where women are in relationships with the same man and one can have children and one has not yet. Rachel and Leah were sisters married to Jacob, when he really had only wanted to marry one of them. Sarai enslaved Hagar, also giving her husband permission to try to conceive with her when Sarai was unable to become pregnant. Embedded in each of these stories are two women trying to live up the expectations of their time and a man who clearly prefers one of them, often the one who has not been able to successfully have a child. Conflict was bound to arise.
As we read these kinds of stories, and this example in particular, in one of her commentaries on this text, Dr. Wil Gafney invites us to consider what would it feel like to fulfill all of society’s expectations of you, and still be less favored and obviously loved less? And, in her commentary on the text, Dr. Bridgeman reminds readers of the precarious life a woman who does not have children, sons in particular. Not only will she face a certain amount of scorn and derision both within and outside of her family, should her husband die, she would likely find herself with no one to care for her. While Hannah’s husband’s deep love for her was appreciated, it did not, alone, grant her security or a place among honorable women in her community. Even aside from the issue of wanting children and not being able to have them, a heartbreaking feeling that I imagine some listening to this sermon today are familiar with, today’s reading is about someone who is living in a tense household where she is often concerned about her long-term security. No wonder she weeps and calls out to God.
Dr. Alphonetta Wines points out that in her prayer to God, Hannah does not seek retribution against Peninnah. Instead, she prays to God to help her conceive and promises to set her child aside as one specially consecrated to God. She is at the temple in Shiloh, a center for worship in the time before David had the temple built in Jerusalem, when we see her praying. She and her husband have offered sacrifices. The priest there, Eli, initially mistakes her grief for intoxication. He assumed she was drunkenly, silently mumbling to herself the prayers that people usually prayed aloud. And, while some people certainly do turn to drink during times of lament, Hannah had not. And, she stands up for herself, clarifying that she is sober but deeply troubled. Rather than pouring drink into herself to cover the grief, she has been pouring out her soul to God.
Dr. Bridgeman encourages readers to pay attention here to the fact that Hannah is reaching out on her own behalf. While much of this story is shaped by things she cannot control- particularly her ability to procreate- she is not completely without agency. According to Dr. Bridgeman, this “is the story of a woman who petitions on her own behalf and does what it takes, physically and ritually, to try to have a child.” Who knows what prayers her husband might have lifted up on her behalf. He worked hard to demonstrate his love. I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t have prayed for her. But, this is really Hannah’s story, so Hannah’s prayers are the prayers we read. And, it is Hannah’s prayers that move the priest Eli to say, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to God.” And, Hannah, who had been so aggrieved that she had trouble eating and drinking, was comforted by this assurance. She went to her husband, nourished her body, and was sad no longer.
She and Elkanah offer prayers at Shiloh once more, and return home, where she would eventually conceive. She would name her son Samuel, which means, “I have asked him of the Lord.” She would care for the boy, until he was weaned. And, then, keeping her promise, bring him and additional sacrifices to the temple at Shiloh. She would tell Eli, “For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” And, then she sings her song of praise, the one I shared a bit of earlier.
I don’t know where you might hear yourself in this story. Maybe you are Elkanah, trying hard to communicate your love, but missing the mark. Maybe you are Peninnah, turning the bitterness of being less loved into harassment of one who, through no fault of her own, is less successful according to the measures of society. Maybe you’re Hannah, woe-filled and faithful, certain that God will not forget you. Wherever you hear yourself in this story, I pray that you can feel the presence of the God who breaks the bows of the mighty and girds the feeble in strength. May you live as though you know this God is tending to you and act as though God is already working through you.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Valerie Bridgeman: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-1-samuel-14-20-5
Alphonetta Wines: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-1-samuel-14-20-3
Wilda C. Gafney, "Proper 6," A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year W, A Multi-Gospel Single-Year Lectionary (New York: Church Publishing, 2021)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.