by the Rev. Amber Neuroth
August 12, 2007
1 Samuel 1:1-20
Let’s make a deal! All I have to do is have lunch in downtown DC on a weekday and I sense that deal-making and negotiating are alive and well in this city. I can feel the wine-and-dine atmosphere of we’ll give this if you give that. If you’ll scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Many of you are living here in this area because your jobs brought you here, and your jobs brought you here because of your excellent and intelligent negotiating skills. So, what’s required in a negotiation? We all know. Two parties have different priorities and they try to compromise. You give a little, I give a little. Eventually we come to an agreement, and if we’re lucky we get it signed on the dotted line, we get a contract. A contract then becomes a binding agreement that holds the parties to the terms they negotiated. It would be easy to look at Hannah’s prayer from today’s scripture reading as a negotiation of a contract. Hannah said, hey God, I need something, you need something. If you give me a son, I’ll give him back to you as a Nazarite. So if we follow Hannah’s example, all we need to do is use our excellent skills to negotiate well with God and all of our desires and prayers will be answered, right? Sounds good to me! We’ve got the skills for that! WRONG! If we interpret this story that way, we’ve read it too quickly and we’ve missed the point.
So how do we find the point when it looks like Hannah made a deal with God. Let’s look at the bigger picture. As with many Bible stories, one way to find the meaning is to look at the broader context. The Hebrew scriptures have lots of meaning in word usage and context (only 15,000 or so ancient Hebrew words, 400,000 English). We use language to create our meaning, they used story. And Hannah’s story is a big one. This story is the beginning of a new epic for Israel. At this time in their history, they were struggling. They had been delivered from Egypt, led through the desert, and been given the promised land! And yet, they were not content. They had tribal fighting and threats from their stronger neighboring nations. A king is what they wanted, what they thought they needed. That would solve it. God give us a king! But God had rebuffed them- God wanted to be their monarch. God wanted their devotion and their rule. But still, they persisted, and so God eventually relented. Hannah’s story is the start of their journey to a king.
Hannah is a woman that God made barren (or so they believed at the time) Israel was a nation that God made without a son, without a king. So Hannah prays to God for her son as Israel prayed for its king. Hannah is Israel and Israel is Hannah. And God heard their pleas, God had mercy and gave grace. God changed the divine mind. Miraculous! And God grants Hannah her son that will be the great prophet who will crown Israel’s first king.
So, Hannah has a big role in this divine-human drama. Eugene Peterson, a biblical scholar says, “she is as significant, both historically and spiritually, as the three men who follow her in the Samuel narrative.” Her bargain with God is far from a contract. It is a covenant. Really, it’s a covenant within a covenant. Her story within Israel’s story. So what makes a covenant different than a contract? It seems like we could just call our wheeling and dealing “covenant making” to smooth it over. Nope. The difference is love, relationship, and grace. This covenant is founded in a deep and long-term relationship with God. Hannah comes to worship with her family regularly. This isn’t some one-time selfish negotiation. This is the context of an ongoing relationship. She says, “O Lord of hosts, if you look on the misery of your servant, have mercy and remember me, and you will not forget your servant….” She is vulnerably pleading in faith, faith in a God who is listening, faith in God who might change things just out of love for her.
Now, I admit, I have always had a lot of mixed emotions about Hannah’s story. On the one hand you have a woman of clearly strong faith lifted up in the Bible. There are precious few of those, so we want to celebrate that. But, on the other hand, you have this poor woman not feeling worthy just as she is, thinking she has to have a male child to justify her existence and give her worth. Then, she goes to plead her case with God and the male priest assumes she’s drunk! How insulting! She can’t even pray without people assuming the worst of her. And I think before we look further at context, it’s good to acknowledge these feelings. It’s good to say, we don’t believe that. We believe in the worthiness of each person. Each person deserves to be loved by God.
And then as we look at the story, we start to see that is the very message of love that is trying to shine through the extreme patriarchal context in which it arose. First, Hannah’s husband models for us loving her just as she is. That’s unheard of for a husband of that time. He valued her. So already, the author is trying to show Hannah’s value to the context of a patriarchal reading audience. That part in and of itself is almost revolutionary, but then it continues. Hannah knows this value deep down and she shows it by going to pray to God on behalf of herself. She didn’t take her husband or go through a priest. She claimed her prayers and her relationship with God. She faithfully knew that these were hers! And let me tell you, that at that time, these rights did not belong to women. In fact, they didn’t belong to anybody! Nobody went to the temple to just pray to God, especially a woman, without sacrifices, incense, without a priest! Commentators say that she is the first woman and possibly the first ordinary person in Israel’s recorded history to go and initiate a one-on-one relationship directly with God. She was a pioneer! It was so unheard of that the author needing to acknowledge how out of the ordinary it was, so the priest comes over and can make no other assumption than she is drunk. But what does Hannah do? She stands firm and she claims her faith, she claims her rights, she owns her prayers! And she converts the priest to her cause! Even he sees her faith and acknowledges her, he is forced to add his blessing to her prayers. Hannah’s story of vulnerability with God and strength of faith laid the groundwork for transition in Israel eventually away from rituals and sacrifices to “prayers from the heart” as they were called.
And for this prayer, she is the mother of an epic drama that would lead her son Samuel to being a true prophet for Israel, who crowned king Saul and eventually king David, and in David’s line would be Jesus Christ. Hannah risked a great deal to make her request, and so it’s important for us not to take her for granted or misunderstand her story. She shows us the importance of relationship with God, of going to God in faith. However God chooses to respond is not our concern because we are not negotiating a contract, we are acting in covenant. We have faith that God will show goodness and mercy. Our side is to know that we are so loved and valued by God that we deserve to share who we are. And if we do that, we will be changed and the world might even be changed as it was for Hannah. The faith of this woman became the faith of a nation.
She had to risk a lot for that faith and that relationship, she had to go against the religious norms and comfort zones of her day. So, this week in honor of Hannah, I ask you to think about what this story means for you. If you were to challenge your own religious status quo to reach outside of yourself and to be vulnerable, what would that look like? What would it take? Unlike Hannah, no religious norm is prohibiting you from praying directly to God, but what else stands in the way? Are there messages you are holding on to? Do you feel worthy to pray? Someone once told me that she felt paralyzed to pray because of a childhood experience in church. She was in Sunday school and was told to pray. The opposite of Hannah really, forced to pray. And so this little child said “thank you God for the sky.” A beautiful prayer, rather than celebrate, everyone laughed. They laughed at her and made her feel ashamed. That shame has often stood between her and God as religious rituals stood between Hannah and God. What stands in the way for you? Hannah used her faith to move past the roadblocks. What do we do with ours? When we think about our faith, what’s the point? What does it mean to you? How does your faith look to you at the moment? Faith and relationship are different for everyone. Some people speak to God as if they are having a conversation, some people journal and reflect, some people meditate in silence connecting their spirit to the divine one, some people go for nature walks to commune with God. If your answer is “I don’t know” or “nothing really,” than Hannah and I have a challenge for you. This week, think about it. What does Hannah’s story mean to you? Faith, what’s the point? I can tell you that it’s not to win a contract or negotiate a deal. It’s an opportunity to engage. What is God saying to you through the faith of this woman- Mother of faith, mother of a nation, example for us all.