6/3/18: Where it Begins, 1 Samuel 2:1-10
Where it Begins
First in the series: Holy, Broken Hallelujah
First Lesson: Luke 1:46-56
Second Lesson: 1 Samuel 2:1-10
Rev. Scott Dickison
This Sunday we’re beginning a new sermon series through these weeks in June and July in which we’ll take an extended look at the life of King David, a central figure in the Bible whose shadow extends well past the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and into the New Testament and the life and ministry of Jesus.
In fact, apart from Jesus and perhaps Moses, no other character in the Bible is developed as much as David, with the story of practically his entire adult life being told, often with intimate details of his spiritual and psychological turmoil. He’s a complicated figure, and his story is one of family dysfunction, palace intrigue, betrayal of the most heinous kind, intense violence and war—but also poetry, song, and dance, with God’s hope for a people working to make a way through all of it. It’s an epic tale that would shape the trajectory of the story of the bible, and continues to echo throughout world politics even today.
But the way scripture tells it, this story begins a generation earlier. Seen through a wider lens, Israel is struggling, under constant threat by their rivals the Philistines. Internally, they’re a community in chaos. Corrupt leadership, moral decay—they’re a people on the decline and close to slipping away altogether.But as is often the case in scripture, this story isn’t told from the wider lens, it zooms in much closer and focuses on a woman named Hannah.
We learn in the verses before our passage today that Hannah is married to a man named Elkanah, who has one other wife, Peninnah. Peninnah had children, we’re told in the blunt, direct speech we so often find in the bible, but Hannah had no children.
In biblical parlance, she was barren—a word that’s of course no longer acceptable today, but important for us to hear because it so evocatively communicates the depth of the biblical imagination around these things. As a barren landscape is one without any signs of life, in the ancient world the absence of children was understood to be a kind of death. It’s difficult for us to understand today in our highly individualistic culture, but for ancient people, identity, or who you understood yourself to be, extended beyond oneself and into one’s family or tribe or people—that’s why God would tell Moses, I’m the God of your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And so since there was no clear sense of the afterlife in those days, children were how one lived on after death—a kind of precursor to eternal life. Without children, you and your family were as good as dead.
And if you were a woman the stakes were even higher. Children were what gave you life in the present, both literally and symbolically. In the bible’s highly patriarchal world women had few rights of their own, few means by which to support themselves, and so children, and sons in particular, were a safety net. This is why widows and orphans is biblical shorthand for the most vulnerable people in society. And sadly, these same trends persist today: even here in the United States women are 35% more likely to live in poverty than men. And the trends are much worse for women of color—nearly 1 in 4 live in poverty. In 2015 1 in 5 children lived in poverty, and 1 in 3 single-mother families.
But in the ancient world, all of these things amounted to a situation, as others have noted, where giving birth was understood to be a woman’s “one great avenue of fulfillment in life.”And of course, even today as so many of you know in intimate ways, Audrey and I included, many of these same pressures around childbearing and sense of fulfillment, and the sense of loss when it does not come, these still remain.
A loss of hope
Numbing disappointment, irrational regret
Deep, deep longing
We’re told that Hannah feels all of these things in full measure. How she waited and waited. How she would go up to the altar at the appointed time every year to pray to God, to bargain with God, saying that if God would give her a son she would give this child back, she would present him at the temple to be among the priests. We’re told how she wept without ceasing. How she wouldn’t eat. Even how it drove a rift between her and her husband—how, loving as he was, he couldn’t get close enough to her pain. We’re told all of these things, the depth of her suffering, her loss, her despair, how her prayers for a child kept going unanswered…until suddenly they weren’t.
Suddenly, mysteriously, miraculously, Hannah is found to be with child, and so the very central biblical theme of despairing childlessness gives way to another very central biblical theme of unexpected, welcomed, gracious birth. Put another way, where there was thought only to be death there is now revealed to be new life—even here, so many generations before Christ, we have the whisper of resurrection. And, more than a whisper, for Hannah, this resurrection comes with a shout—or more specifically, a song. When the time comes for her to return her son, Samuel, who’s now a young child, she presents him to the old prophet Eli who had foretold this child’s birth, and she sings this song of praise to God which was our passage for today: My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exulted in my God!
Have you ever sung such a song?
Have you ever heard someone sing it?
And we must be careful not to rush past this woman Hannah and her story and her pain that opened up into her song of unbridled joy. But you probably noticed that this song put to Hannah’s lips points to something beyond her own life and sense of redemption. It points to the life of her people. The way the story is given to us, the birth of this child is cause for celebration not only for Hannah and her family, but for her people. As Brueggemann puts it, “the assertion is that the life and future of Israel, like the womb of Hannah, have been reopened.
Scholars will tell you this song was probably a hymn of ancient Israel from much later than when this story is set that was inserted to give voice not only to Hannah, but to a core conviction of the bible which is that God—to paraphrase others—is powerful enough to do the impossible, and compassionate enough to actually do it on behalf of those who are suffering.This is a central claim of scripture we see time and time again, not the least in the life and ministry of Jesus—the crucified one revealed to be the resurrected one. Jesus, the one of Sermon on the Mount fame, of “first shall be last and the last first” fame.
And even before this, you may hear ringing in your ears another song from before Jesus was born, by another young woman celebrating an unexpected birth of different sort. It was our first lesson this morning, the song of Mary often known as the Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord,Mary sings,and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’ he has filled the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.
Of course, Mary sings this song while visiting her cousin, Elizabeth, who herself is found to be with child after longing for a son well past childbearing age. In fact, there’s probably a lot about this story of Hannah and Samuel that has the birth of Jesus ringing in your ears: the unexpected birth that points to something more, redemption on a grander scale—of a people, of a world. A God for whom all things are possible, who’s always sparking life where there shouldn’t be, revealing possibility where there couldn’t be, giving hope where there wouldn’t be. The gospel story begins long before the birth of Jesus. God had been delivering little bundles of good news for generations.
But there may yet be something more that’s ringing in your ears about this story of Hannah and her longing and the child who would eventually come, and Elizabeth and her longing and the child who would eventually come, and Mary and her unexpected child and the sheer grace with which she received him—which is how many stories in Scripture and beyond begin with a woman bearing the weight of a people.
The way scripture tells it, the plight of all of Israel is distilled into this one woman, Hannah—all the pain, all the longing, all the anxious waiting for God to reveal something more—it all falls to Hannah and her struggle. And in some ways, this story sticks out in scripture because it focuses so squarely on Hannah. Usually the woman and her pain, or at least the weight she carries, is just off of center. Just to the side of Abraham we see Sarah and her longing which gives way to the birth of a people. Even farther to the side is Hagar and all she endures which results in the same. Just off of Jacob is Rachel and Leah. Even within this story which we’ve been calling the “David Story” it will be the women surrounding him who bear so much of the of the pain and suffering—suffering largely committed by men.
And of course it won’t be much different by the time we get to the New Testament—not simply Mary and Elizabeth, but how many other women gather around Jesus? Never quite at the center, not typically counted among the 12, but when the tomb was found empty, who were the first ones there to find it? And in every generation since then, in the church and of course in culture at large, there has been more of the same. It’s a truth that’s been blessedly thrown into the light in these recent months in the #MeToo movement, which has touched nearly every industry and institution in our county and doesn’t show signs of stopping—and thank God. And of course the church cannot claim in high ground here. We’ve seen it most recently at the very top of the Southern Baptist Convention, with Paige Patterson and Southwestern Seminary, but we know it extends throughout the church. And not just in the form of abuse, but so many other ways that woman bear the pain and carry the weight.
My dear friend, Courtney Allen, who’s the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, preached one of the most beautiful and profound sermons I’ve heard in along time at the annual gathering of Virginia Baptist Women in Ministry earlier this month, in which she reflected on this other kind of women’s work, and the ways in which it’s born out even in our churches today. She writes,
Those women following Jesus, they stayed near the cross and all of its anguish, and they returned to the tomb with spices. Wearing collars or not, recognized formally as ministers or not, throughout the centuries faithful women have been showing up in the darkest and most hope-deprived corners of our world. From the beginning women have been present near the tombs and wombs of our world…
As the number of Baptist women serving as pastors and co-pastors has increased over the years, (Thanks be to God!), we know that women are often called to serve churches that are near death…[There’s] research that shows female executives are more likely to be hired and put in charge of Fortune 500 companies when those companies are in crisis. The same seems to be true of the church. Many of the churches [that call women] to serve as pastor are in decline or have significant dysfunction. And their desperation leads them to consider something new to them: calling a woman to lead from the first chair.
But all these years of showing up, being present, sitting with, and walking alongside the tombs and wombs of our world have given us greater capacity in the near death places…Faithful women have long been co-laboring with God to bring life into the world and to support, love, give care to those going out of this world.
If that isn’t gospel truth of the crucified, resurrected one.
This is where our story begins.
The David Story, which we’ll tell together over these several weeks, yes, but so many other stories of the church and the world. So many stories begin with the women bearing the pain—that much we must confess. But also the women bearing the promise, bearing the hope of God, the life of the world—that much we must affirm. So that with our eyes clear and our arms open, we might finally let those stories end and begin a new story. A different story. The story God has longed to tell all along.
Walter Brueggemann, 1 and 2 Samuel, Interpretation series, 10
Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, notes 4.