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Posts Tagged ‘Women of the Bible’

“There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.  2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD.  4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters;  5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb.  6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.  7 So it went on year by 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.  8 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?”

9 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.  10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly.  11 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.”

12  As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth.  13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk.  14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”  15 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.  16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”  17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”  18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her.” – 1 Samuel 1:1-19

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Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.  2 “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.  3 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.  4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.  5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.  6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.  7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.  8 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. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.  9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.  10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” – 1 Samuel 2:1-10

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Today we have two readings from I Samuel: the first tells the story of Hannah, a woman who was feeling distraught and hopeless in her life circumstances; and the reading is Hannah’s song of joy and victory when God finally hears her prayer and she finds hope.

Hannah

I think these passages fit us well today, because there are a lot of things these days that can make us feel hopeless. The pandemic, for one, has us all on edge. Many of our communities are full of old structures and old institutions that need renewing if not replacing. Our society is full of violence and apathy. And our churches – all of them, of any kind – are struggling and have seen better days. We wonder how to reach out with God’s message to our communities, how to share the good news of Jesus, when people don’t seem to even want to hear it any more.

What does one do when it seems like hope is dead and the future looks bleak? Hannah was a woman in that same spot, who managed to find God and find hope. So I want to share her story this morning.

Hannah was a young woman of the people of Israel. She was married to a wealthy man who believed in God whose name was Elkanah. Hannah’s name means “favor of God” or “grace of God,” but she didn’t feel very favored by God. After many years of marriage, to a husband who loved her very much, they had no children. Back then, in a world where there were no retirement homes or supermarkets or home health aides, the only way to eat was to farm, and a person’s senior years depended on having children who would be able to take care of the farm and the parents as they aged. And things would be even worse for Hannah if Elkanah died before she did. To be a widow or an orphan in those times was pretty much the worst thing that could happen to a person – it was literally life-threatening.

So Elkanah did what many men in those days did in that situation: he took a second wife with whom to have children. We see this happen, with some variations, with Abraham and Sarah, and with Jacob and Rachel, and with other couples in the Bible. Having a second wife was not illegal back then, and it was not against the Law of Moses either. Generally speaking in those days men who had more than one wife were either wealthy (which Elkanah was) or desperate for children (which Elkanah also was). Not an ideal situation, but not unusual.

Elkanah’s second wife, Peninah, was prolific!  She had baby after baby after baby.

Every year, Elkanah, who was a devout man, took his family to Shiloh to worship. Worship back then included sacrificing animals: the fat would be burned on the altar as an offering to God, and then the meat would be shared between the family and the priests. So each member of the family would receive a slice of the roast (so to speak) – one for Peninnah, one for each child, and two portions were given to Hannah because Elkanah loved her.

Peninnah, the mother of all these children, saw that she couldn’t win Elkanah’s love, and it rankled. So she did everything she could to rub Hannah’s face in the fact she had no children.

Hannah n Other Family

There is nothing in this world more catty than women comparing their children: how many they’ve got, what gender they are, what they’ve accomplished, what they do for a living…  I have actually heard real live women say things to other women like: “oh how wonderful – another girl! Are you guys going to try for a boy next?” Or this: “Thirty-two and not married? Don’t worry, you still have lots of time.”

So I can just imagine Peninnah: “hey Hannah, I’m going to run into town to buy some clothes for the kids, wanna come?” Or at the sacrifice: “Don’t forget, Elkanah honey, I’m gonna need seven portions this year!”

The author of Samuel says that Peninnah “provoked Hannah severely”.  Translation: she really dug her claws in. Hannah’s lack of kids wasn’t for lack of trying, but nothing they tried worked. Year after year she was shamed and ridiculed and driven to tears by a woman the author of Samuel calls “her rival”.

The dictionary defines a ‘rival’ as “a person competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity.”  That’s exactly what Peninnah was doing. If she couldn’t win Elkanah’s love, she was going to see to it that she got his attention, and lots of it, through those kids.

Hannah meanwhile was feeling like all hope was gone and her future was grim. I’d like us to consider this question today: where in life do we feel like hope is gone? Do we have health problems? Financial problems? Family problems? As church members, do we fear for the future of our church? Do we fear for the future of our community? Whatever our minds are focused on these days, I’d like to suggest holding that thing in mind as we move into Hannah’s story.

Hannah had tried everything. Nothing worked. She felt like even God was against her. In fact the writer of Samuel says twice “the Lord had closed her womb”. I’m sure that’s how it felt to Hannah. And Jewish scholars point out that Hannah wasn’t wrong: the Lord had closed her womb.

God had put Hannah in exactly this situation at exactly this time because God wanted to do something BIG through her. God wanted to bring someone special into the world: a man who would lead his people from being scattered tribes to a united kingdom under the leadership of David.

Whatever difficulty or hard place we find ourselves in right now, consider the possibility (it’s not always the case, but it may be) we’re in these situations because God wants us to reach out to him with the passion and conviction and daring that Hannah did.

Listen to how Hannah talks to God! She says in her prayer: “Lord! If you would only look at me! If you would only see the pain in my heart! If you would only remember me! If you would give me a male child – I promise I will give him back to you as a Nazirite…”

I need to break into the story just for a moment to explain what Hannah is promising. A Nazirite was a special order of holy men back then (Samson was a Nazirite). Nazirites never touched alcohol and never cut their hair, as a sign of their lifelong commitment to God. They often had charismatic gifts; they were men in whom the Spirit of the Lord dwelled with power. And they were set aside as Nazirites by their parents at birth.

So basically what Hannah is saying is that if God will only give her a son, she will give him back to God – which will be extremely painful for Hannah as the boy grows up. But at this point Hannah is beyond caring about herself. She is not asking for a child to take care of her in old age. She is not asking for relief against her rival. She is not asking for a son she can raise. She is asking probably the hardest thing in the world: to give birth to a child so she can give him away. She would see him once a year when they sacrificed at the temple, and that would be all.

So this is her promise: “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.”

Hannah praying

This was exactly the prayer God had been waiting for. This prayer sets God’s plan in motion. All the trouble and all the pain had been leading up to this. God had a plan, and God wanted to include Hannah in that plan.

Whatever difficulties are going on in our lives right now, in life or in the church or in the community, what would happen if we did what Hannah did? If we gave up all personal interest and simply said, “Lord please hear me. Lord please remember me. This situation right here needs to change, and I want what you want. Please hear me.”

The minute Hannah prayed this prayer – she was immediately attacked! She was so passionate in her prayer, the high priest Eli thought she was drunk! But she stood up for herself (which is not always easy when one is talking to high-ranking clergy) and she said, “no sir, I’m not drunk. I’m just very upset and deeply troubled. I have been pouring out my heart and my vexation to God.”

And Eli gave her God’s answer: “Go in peace; and may God grant your petition.”

For the first time in years, Hannah felt like she’d been heard. Her spirits rose, her heart was glad, and she went back to her family a new woman, and ate and drank and enjoying her husband’s company. Nothing had changed – yet – but she knew the change was coming.

Our reading in Samuel ends here but the story goes on. God remembered Hannah, and she became pregnant, and gave birth to Samuel, one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament. As soon as Samuel was weaned Hannah brought him to Eli for service in the temple just as she had promised God. Later on, God remembered Hannah again – and ultimately she ended up having two more sons and three daughters. God gave her what she needed as well.

But before all this happened, Hannah sang the song we read in the second reading today: a song about victory in the Lord, in a God who sees and a God who knows, who builds up the weak but destroys the mighty, who feeds the hungry and lets those who are full go without, who raises up the lowly and raises up the poor, but cuts off the wicked – a God who will judge the earth, who will give power to his anointed (and the word ‘anointed’ here means Messiah.)

If you have a moment this week, put Hannah’s song next to the Song of Mary found in Luke chapter one. It’s amazing how similar they are. Hannah, through her suffering and through her prayers, caught a glimpse of the Messiah – and she became a prophetess whose actions changed the course of history and whose words described Jesus a thousand years before he was born.

Bold Prayers

As we face into our own difficulties, whatever they may be – be courageous and bold like Hannah. Be persistent in prayer. Ask God to remember his people. And keep ears open for answers.

May God hear our prayers and, as Hannah experienced, may God send us out in the confidence and peace of knowing we have been heard. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/14/21

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