by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The Narrative Lectionary reading for Sunday, October 14, 2012:
1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10
Optional reading: Luke 1:47-55
I confess that I'm deeply uncomfortable with the first 2 chunks of text for this Sunday's reading. What disturbs me? There are so many elements that rattle me.
First there's the element of barrenness. Hannah's worth is wrapped up in whether or not she can give birth, and she can't. I understand that I'm reading a story from long, long ago, from a deeply patriarchal culture where women didn't have much agency in terms of determining their own destiny; in fact, I also know that very few people outside of a handful of very rich men had any sort of self-determination. The desperation of the poor and soon-to-be-poor also explains the emphasis on children. Children could bring wealth in any number of ways. A woman who couldn't give the family any children would be even more marginalized than most people. The times were very different, and I try so hard not to judge.
But let me just add here how happy I am to be a woman in a first world country in the 21st century. We still live in imperfect times, and a woman's fate can still be more affected by biology than I would like, but I would not trade places with Hannah for even one hour, no matter how much money you offered me.
I also understand that the author of this text was not at all interested in exploring gender issues. The author of this text explored the theme that with God, anything is possible (to use the phrase we used frequently in Vacation Bible School this past summer).
The second part of the story that leaves me uncomfortable is Hannah's promise to give away her child. I remember as a child reading this text and feeling horrified. Didn't Hannah love her child? Of course she did. She gave him up to the best destiny that was available at the time.
I remember feeling bad for the baby. What if the baby wanted to be something else when he grew up? Again, as a child, I didn't understand that babies during the time of Hannah didn't have the same sense of possibility that I did. Now I do.
Reading the text again as a woman at mid-life, I'm struck by Hannah's song of praise. I'm reminded of Mary's song of praise when she found out that she would be pregnant with God's help, that everything is possible with God. Of course, I'm supposed to be reminded of Hannah's song when I read Mary's song. We find similar echoes throughout a wide variety of Bible texts.
What echoes? The theme that God cares about the poor and the destitute. The idea that the poor have blessings coming to them and that the rich will be brought low. The good news that barrenness is temporary. The ultimate message that anything is possible with God.
In this post, Roger Nam reminds us of how important Samuel will be in the narrative of King David and the greatness of the people of Israel. He also reminds us of how different this narrative is: "This is not the sort of beginning that fits the ancient Near East. Royal origins of Mesopotamia and Egypt typically begin with kings descending from the heavenly deities, placed on the thrones of earth to steward the will of the gods. But for ancient Israel, the beginnings of monarchy emerge with the earnest, desperate prayer of a powerless second wife. But of course, this will not be the last time when greatness begins with a birth narrative of humility."
Most of us are lucky enough that we will never face a desperation like Hannah's. Still, we've likely often felt powerless in the clutch of forces we don't understand or control. These stories remind us that God's hand is the one which ultimately holds us, no matter what.