Scripture reading: 1 Samuel 1:1 – 1 Samuel 2:10
Our scripture reading this morning tells the story of Elkanah and his family. In the opening verses the author repeats that Elkanah was from Ephraim, an Ephraimite. Repetition in the Old Testament is a way of emphasizing something that’s important.
On top of that, for the ancient Jewish people, the name Ephraim had significance. It meant Elkanah was descended from Joseph: the young man who was sold into slavery in Egypt and ended up saving the people of Israel from famine.
It also meant Elkanah was related to Joshua – the man who led Israel in marching around Jericho “and the walls came a-tumblin’ down”. Even though Ephraim was the smallest tribe in Israel, there were some great leaders who came from this tribe.
So the writer of Samuel is using the name Ephraim to hint that the story he’s about to tell us is going to be epic. It will be a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things against all odds. It’s Frodo in Lord of the Rings. It’s Katniss in The Hunger Games. It’s Samuel in the Old Testament. Samuel, the boy servant who, in spite of the corruption of his boss, grows up to be the spiritual leader of all Israel. Samuel will anoint Saul, David, and Solomon as kings over Israel, and he will serve as high priest through Israel’s glory years.
But in our reading for today that epic is still in the future. In today’s readings Samuel hasn’t been born yet but we meet his parents: Elkanah, a man of faith, who has two wives – who can’t stand each other, and one of whom is barren.
Hannah, the barren wife, is broken-hearted because she has no children. Many of us have probably been in the position of comforting someone in Hannah’s shoes, someone who wanted to have kids very badly but couldn’t. There is no pain quite like wanting to be a parent and being unable to have children.
Peninnah, the other wife, had lots of kids, and she rubbed it in Hannah’s face every chance she got. Scripture says, “her rival used to provoke her severely” (v. 6) The old King James translation says “vex” – she ‘vexed’ her. She kept at her until Hannah was a jumble of anger and grief and sorrow. We know people can be cruel sometimes, but there’s nothing quite like a cat-fight between two women. In fact in our day and age most of the career-women I know at some point have either lost a job or quit a job because of a co-worker like Peninnah. Peninnah is a bully, pure and simple, and she is succeeding in her efforts to crush the competition.
And whenever the family went to temple Peninnah stepped up her campaign. Back in those days a family went to temple only a few times a year, and it was like a holiday. When the family sacrificed an animal to God, part of it was burned as an offering, part was given to the priest, and the rest was returned to the family so they could have a feast. Our reading says:
“…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…” (I Sam 1:4-5)
So the whole family would take this long weekend at the temple and have a huge banquet… which should have been a time of celebration. But not for Hannah.
And then Elkanah comes to Hannah and says “Honey, why are you crying? Why are you sad? Why don’t you eat?”
Before we get on Elkanah’s case… these are rhetorical questions, meant to give Hannah an opportunity to speak. It may not have been the best approach, but Elkanah was trying to comfort his wife.
The real mistake Elkanah makes is not telling Peninnah to knock it off. And maybe he did. Maybe she just didn’t listen. We don’t know. But Hannah’s story speaks to our modern culture and the problems we have with bullying today. Hannah’s story assures us that the victim of bullying is not alone, and is not forgotten. God sees Hannah’s suffering, and God sees ours as well. And God will set things straight. Jesus said:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” – which can also be translated ‘justice’ – “for they will be satisfied” (Matt 5:6).
God’s answer is coming, and in Hannah’s case it’s closer than she thinks.
So after the banquet Hannah gets up from the table, and still feeling emotional, she goes into the sanctuary. The head priest, Eli, is there, and Hannah stands in front of the altar and begins to pray. As she prays, she weeps. And she prays silently, with her lips moving, but making no sound. And she promises God, if only God will remember her suffering and give her a son, she would give that child back to God.
Now Eli, watching all this, thinks Hannah is drunk and scolds her. But she says ‘I’m not drunk… I’m troubled and I’m pouring out my heart to God.” And Eli answers: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant your request.”
There is something healing about having someone say “Amen” to a heartfelt prayer. That’s one of the great things about sharing our concerns every Sunday… so that the whole congregation can say ‘Amen’ to our heartfelt prayers. It’s like having someone else come alongside and help carry a heavy load.
I think that’s what Hannah felt that day… because scripture says Hannah “went back… and ate and drank with her husband, and her [face] was sad no longer.”
And not long afterwards, when Elkanah and his family went home, God answered Hannah’s prayer and she became pregnant, and had a baby boy. And she named him ‘Samuel’, which means ‘God has heard’.
If there is no other message we take away from today, take this one: when our lives are like Hannah’s, when we’re at the end of our rope, or when we’re praying through our pain… God has heard. And God is already preparing an answer.
After Samuel is born, Hannah presents him at the temple and then she prays a beautiful prayer, which is found at the beginning of I Samuel 2. Her prayer sounds a lot like the prayer Jesus’ mother Mary prayed when she was pregnant with Jesus.
- Hannah’s prayer opens with the words: “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God.”
- Mary’s prayer opens with: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46-47)
- Hannah says: “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.”
- Mary says: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” (Luke 1:51)
- Hannah says: “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.”
- Mary says: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52)
- Hannah says: “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”
- Mary says: “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53)
- Hannah says: “There is no Holy One like the LORD… there is no Rock like our God.”
We are here in this church today to praise Hannah’s God – the God of Samuel, whose name means God hears. The God of Jesus, who name means God saves. We are here to praise the God who hears and who saves.
So let the brokenhearted come. Let the oppressed come. Let the poor and the lowly and the abused come… the injured and the grieving. God hears. God sees. And if we commit our ways to God and trust in God, God will set things right.
So let God’s people join Hannah and Mary in singing God’s praise. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/15/15