Posted by: jevcat | June 16, 2011

Hannah’s Hopes

Well, it’s not often that I give an internal shudder when a particular book of the Bible rolls around in the daily lectionary, but Samuel, which we started this week, is one (Revelation is another).

The parts I really hate don’t come up until later.  We start with the story of Hannah, mother of Samuel, a story that gives evidence that the gender gap in understanding – that old “Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus” thing − started way before “Western Civilization” (if we dare to call it that).  (In fact, it probably dates to the first human beings, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it goes back to the primordial ooze.)

Hannah, Samuel, and Eli. From St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, State College, PA: http://www.standrewsc.org/stained-glass-windows

In a society where multiple wives were allowed and women were generally valued primarily for their ability to produce sons, Hannah not only had given her husband Elkanah no sons, she had no children at all.  Even worse, her co-wife, Peninah, had no such difficulties – and no compunctions about seeing that Hannah never forgot it.

Of course, we all know that bad family situations become almost unendurable at holidays, and so it was with Elkanah’s family’s annual trek to Shiloh for sacrifice:   Peninah’s constant needling (mostly done well out of Elkanah’s earshot, no doubt), and the public humiliation of watching Peninah and her ever-expanding brood get all their shares of the sacrifice (probably accompanied by meaningful sidelong glances aimed at Hannah and perhaps some smug, faux-sympathetic hand-patting by Peninah for Elkanah’s benefit), while Hannah is only entitled to her own small portion.

And what’s the response of Hannah’s clueless husband when Hannah is visibly upset, unable to eat, and weeping?  He tries to jolly her out of it:  “What are you crying for?  We only do this once a year, and you’re spoiling things for everyone.  Cheer up!  Dig in!” – and here’s the kicker:  “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”  Ummm … no, not really.

Of course, he would never understand that, and to say it would jeopardize her already precarious standing even more.  For a woman alone, survival itself was iffy.  Better to save her tears for when she was alone – if she could ever manage to be alone.  Better to try to eat, pretend that, yes, a shared husband with good intentions was enough.

But she does find some time alone – or at least she thinks she’s alone – before God, and it all comes tumbling out:  the loneliness, the pain, the years of humiliation with no one to truly understand, the longing for a son so overwhelming she bargains with God:  “Give me a son, and I will give him back to you!” – and all of it done in silence, only her lips moving, pain beyond sound and almost beyond words.

So what does she get?  Well, most immediately she gets yet more humiliation:  She wasn’t as alone as she thought.  Eli, the old priest, has seen her and thinks she’s drunk.  He reads her the riot act, dressing her down as only a clergyman can do to someone without power.  There follow embarrassed, tearful, stammered explanations – probably half-incoherent and terrified, rather than the neat and assured lines the Bible assigns her.

Does Eli believe her?  We don’t know, but he acts as though he does, and gives her his blessing.  Sure enough, she does have a son, and names him Samuel.  And that promise to God?  She temporizes:  when he’s a bit older, when he’s weaned.  But eventually, she does bring the very young Samuel to Shiloh, “loaning” him to God for as long as he lives.  She does get more children, but I wonder if the ache of giving Samuel up ever abated?  In the end, was it worth it?

We ought to be careful when we indulge that human tendency to bargain with God.  As Teresa of Avila is reported to have said, “Be careful what you pray for; you might get it.”  Me?  I don’t think I could do it, give up the child I’d suffered so for.  Maybe that’s why I try not to bargain with God – though I admit lately it would be tempting, if only I could think of something adequate to offer in return.  Meanwhile, I just keep muddling – and praying – along.

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Responses

  1. You can bargain with Satan as much literature on the matter indicates but we cannot bargain with God. Don’t need to. His stuff is free. On the other hand, Satan’s stuff has a steep price indeed.

    • The Bible is full of folks bargaining with God — in Abraham’s and Hannah’s cases at least, successfully. I don’t think I’m going to try it though, and I KNOW I’m not going to try bargaining with the other guy — although that, too, has a long history, as you’ve pointed out.

  2. “Of course, we all know that bad family situations become almost unendurable at holidays, and so it was with Elkanah’s family’s annual trek to Shiloh for sacrifice”

    **loud guffaw** **snort**
    bargaining with God is, as you say, a pretty poor idea…
    hard not to give it a go, at times, though…
    blessings
    jane

    • Well, I mean, really, can’t you see it? We’ve all been there. Humanity may have grown (at least some) over the centuries, but basic human nature hasn’t changed. (and thanks, your “virtual” laughter made me laugh)


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