Monthly Archives: August 2017

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 1 (Cont)

Read 1 Samuel 1

As the book of 1 Samuel opens, Israel is a loose collection of tribes sometimes bitterly divided as portrayed in the book of Judges, and oppressed by the Philistines. The book charts the development of Israel from this segmentary tribal society to a centralised, monarchical state. As with the Judges, a central question of this book concerns who will represent Israel in its military struggle, who will maintain the law, who will judge Israel? “First Samuel is about the development, under God’s providence, of a tribal brotherhood into a state. It is a work of political theology” (Murphy, 2-3). Thus the story of Hannah, and of Samuel’s birth must be understood not simply in terms of the psychological aspects of Hannah’s situation and action, but primarily in terms of the divine sovereignty that leads Israel. Hannah is not simply a powerless woman whose prayer is an expression of personal catharsis, which in this case results in blessing—although all this may be true (see Evans, 26-27). Rather, as Murphy also insists,

What Hannah wants and achieves is not psychological closure but open converse with the one God. The heart of the drama in this episode is interior, within the heart that Hannah opens to God the life-giver. … In this encounter, Hannah is given the social role for which she asks from God (8).

Hannah is caught up into what God is up to, and her desire for a son, into his purpose for Israel.

Shiloh at this time is not a capital city—for Israel is not yet a centralised entity—but it has become an important religious and political centre within Israel’s life. As such, Eli, introduced as sitting on a chair (a throne?) in the temple doorway, represents both political and clerical authority, “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies” (Murphy, 12). Over against this institutional and hierarchical power is the silent heart-cry of a powerless woman whose prayer has the character of “making a deal” with God.

Prayer remains a mystery, even to those well-practised in the art. It would be wrong to take this passage as a pattern for prayer in the expectation that one could manipulate God and so gain what one desires. Prayer cannot be reduced to “making a deal with God.” Hannah’s prayer is novel; she is not following a liturgical formula or pattern of prayer. It is presented as a vow that she makes to God, a vow that she takes with utmost seriousness. Her prayer is answered and she gets her heart’s desire—but only to give it up again in an act of self-sacrifice that perhaps is not only reminiscent of Abraham offering Isaac, but greater: at least Abraham got to take his son home. Hannah’s act of handing little Samuel over to Eli’s care at Shiloh almost beggars belief. Her prayer is indeed heartfelt, powerful and effective—but also costly in the deepest and most personal sense. Her act is witness that we are not owners of our children however much we desire and love them, and in fact, we might learn from Hannah that an essential aspect of our parenting is learning how to entrust the lives and destinies of our children into the care of the sovereign God from whom they have come.

Prayer, then, has the character of encounter with God in which we truly pour out our hearts to God, but also find ourselves engaged in and drawn into the mystery of his providential dealings not only with ourselves, but with the broader circumstances of our people and nation. In prayer we find that not only are we actors but acted upon; we must learn to speak of prayer using the passive voice. Here, in the genuine freedom in which we pray, we are grasped by a grace greater than ourselves, co-opted into activity broader than our own lives, and made participants in what God is doing in ways that call for costly self-giving that will mark our lives forever. Prayer, then, is not for the faint-hearted or those seeking to make a (selfish) deal with God. And even as I write these words, I find I am challenged concerning why it is prayer is so superficial and sporadic in my life: do I really want to encounter this God who demands my all? Do I really dare to pray if this is what prayer is and does?

I will give Murphy the final word:

In this episode, which introduces the overall theme of Regum [i.e. the four books of Samuel and Kings], the author goes to lengths to show the priority of the personal over the political, by contrasting Hannah’s interior cries for help and Eli’s narrow-sighted public gaze. The insistence of church fathers like Clement, Origen, and Chrysostom on inward faith is rooted as much in the Old Covenant as in the New. Literally and physically, as well as spiritually, this inward root was the womb of Samuel. … Hannah is a pioneer, leading the religious spirit of her times into new territory. In the new political culture that has begun to appear by the end of the book, not only prayer but the action of God occurs silently and in a hidden manner. … A novel conception of divine guidance appears, and one that fits a political theology. From henceforth, God’s action in history is largely, though not solely, presented as providential, working in cooperation with nature and human freedom, rather than in the overt supernatural, interruptions of nature that we call the miraculous. … The Spirit is staking his ground in the privacy of the hearts of men and women (15-16).

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (3)

Luther’s Reformation never settled during his lifetime; his vision was never realised. In the 1530s the movement faced questions and opposition on three sides, from the Anabaptists, the Catholics, and the Zwinglians. Of these, a rapprochement was possible only with the third, and this was the work of the princes in the formation of the Smalcald League, which sought to unify Protestants and Protestant territories. Indeed, as he aged, Luther remained or even grew more polemical, especially toward the papacy, but also toward Anabaptists and Jews. His hope that the true church would emerge and thrive at the preaching of the gospel was not to be. Even Wittenberg was “home to no more true Christians than any other place” (282).

For himself, however, Luther did not doubt. On the evening of his death he was asked by one of his associates whether he was ready to die trusting in Christ and standing by what he had taught. “A distinct ‘yes’ emerged from his mouth before Luther turned on his right side and went to sleep.” He died later that night without priest, confession of sins, or anointing with oil (284).

No doubt Luther never imagined some of the results which would spring from his activity. He gave the Germans a Bible in their own language, and many read it in their own way, some “enslaving themselves verse by verse to a paper pope” (228). His emphasis on Christian freedom was taken by some in antinomian directions, while others insisted on obedience to the law.

Separating religion from moralism was Luther’s revolutionary innovation and simultaneously the reason why he was often misunderstood and rejected. It defied the age-old purpose of religion: to gain access to the divine and then to please the gods in order to obtain their blessing and reward. … Christianity had mostly fit that template and Luther’s attempt to alter it was bound to meet enormous resistance, even though he was able to sum up his view in one sentence: “True religion demands the heart and the soul, not deeds and other externals, although these follow if you have the right heart. For where the heart is, everything else is also there” (233-234).

True religion is not and cannot be grounded in law and works: in accord with his vision of the gospel, it is faith that frees. True religion is not morality. Faith, and the life that issues from it, is all the work of the Holy Spirit. This did not mean, however, that Luther had no place for the law. Against his long-time associate and friend John Agricola who argued that the law should not be preached or taught lest people think that faith is insufficient for salvation, Luther said, “I myself, as old and as learned as I am, recite the commandments daily word for word like a child” (257). Hendrix notes that being Luther’s friend could be a precarious relation. His rejections of Karlstadt and Agricola suggested that Luther tied collegial friendships to like-mindedness and deference.

Since 1521, Luther believed he was subject only to the Lord himself, who had shown him the genuine gospel and entrusted him with its propagation. Feeling the weight of that divine sanction, Luther would do almost anything to ensure that the reformation prospered, and that included adapting the evangelical message to a shifting audience. Agricola could not accept the adaptation, and Luther’s heartless behavior drove Agricola away. … For Luther, the “adversary” was any person or group who would not cooperate with his mission to restore a purified Christianity to Germany (258, 264).

The issue that dominated Luther’s thought in the final years of his life concerned the identity of the true church. In Luther’s view, the rise of Protestantism was not a split from the Roman Catholic Church, but the preservation of the true church which had always existed. It was the Roman hierarchy which had betrayed true Christianity and as such had become a false church (268). The true church is never the institution but the gathering of believers to hear, believe and keep the “pure” Word of God.

True Christendom, like true religion, consisted only of people who conveyed to one another the word of God, believed it, and kept it with all the freedom, charity, crosses, and shortfalls that it brought. Religious institutions served only as facilitators of that true religion (262).

In reality, however, Hendrix argues that it was practical issues—the lived spirituality—of the different groups that hindered reconciliation, rather than the politics or theology of the day. Even when some rapprochement appeared possible, neither Catholics nor Protestants were “willing to budge on the same practical issues that had divided them since the ninety-five theses of 1517: indulgences, celibacy of priests, enumerating sins at private confession, private masses, and so forth” (262). “Doctrines were discussable because they were concepts that mattered mainly to theologians; but religious practices were not negotiable because they gave access to the presence and power of the divine, and that access was the reason religion existed” (221). Where the divine is concerned, where everything is at stake, compromise becomes impossible:

History is always a reconstruction of the past that reflects the bias and the unavoidable short-sightedness of those who write it. And when religion is the subject, there is no way to verify what was true or false. One person’s true religion was the other person’s heresy or fanaticism. Religious colloquies did not succeed in reconciling Catholics and Lutherans—not to mention other Protestants, Muslims, and Jews—because hidden beneath the differences about what was true and what was false were the stakes identified by Luther: mercy and life, or wrath and death. Tradition, customs, injustices, and ethnic loyalties also played their parts, as they still do in the choice and exercise of religion. In sixteenth-century Europe, however, religious conflicts were so bitter and conciliation so rare because, for most people involved, including Martin Luther, everything was at stake (269).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 1

Read 1 Samuel 1
The story of 1 Samuel opens with the story of Samuel’s birth and family, and especially of Hannah who is introduced as one of two wives of Elkanah, a devout and rather wealthy man from Ephraim. That Elkanah has two wives is unexceptional in the text and suggests that the practice of polygamy was not uncommon in ancient Israel, though it was probably only practiced by those sufficiently wealthy to support two wives.

But all is not happy in Elkanah’s household—a regular note in biblical portrayals of polygamist households (cf. Abraham and Sarah, Rachel and Leah), and echoed to some extent in the recent HBO series Big Love. While polygamy may not have been uncommon, it seems the biblical portrayals of the practice present it in a manner that indicates it is less than what God intended. Hannah is first mentioned of the wives which suggests she may have been the first of Elkanah’s wives. But Hannah is also childless. Peninnah, the second wife, has multiple children, both sons and daughters, and provokes and torments Hannah on this basis. Neither woman is enviable; both have reason to be unhappy: Hannah on account of her childlessness, and Peninnah on account of Elkanah’s apparent preference for Hannah. Hannah’s heartache in the story is palpable, Elkanah’s love notwithstanding. Indeed, female commentators on the book note Elkanah’s patronising attitude toward Hannah, and his seeming blindness to her distress.

1 Samuel 1:8
And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

Elkanah is viewing Hannah’s distress through only his own eyes, aware only of his own situation and desires. Sons were evidently more important to him than he is willing to admit, for if Hannah were in fact his first wife, the lack of sons led him to marry Peninnah. The daily presence of her rival was testimony to Hannah that in fact, she was not loved simply in and as herself, but also—or worse, simply—on account of her function as child bearer. In tribal and clan-based societies, a woman’s fertility is her primary gift, for children, and especially sons, are the future of the family and of the society generally. For Hannah, her childlessness is not simply a tragic personal disappointment, but a marital and social failure.

Verse five provides the reason for Hannah’s failure to conceive: “the Lord had closed her womb.” It is likely that this is more than a pious accounting for the situation, a referring of all outcomes to the hand of God. Rather, in an agrarian environment where even the people of God participated in the worship of fertility deities, the text immediately regards Yahweh as lord over all matters of fertility. It is Yahweh who has closed her womb; it is only Yahweh who can open it (Francesca Aran Murphy, 1 Samuel BTCB, 8). Thus in her desperation and grief, Hannah pours out her heart to God, and makes a deal with him: if God will grant her a son, she will devote him to the Lord for the whole of his life.

The chapter also introduces Eli and his two sons as priests at Shiloh which had become the centre of Israel’s worship. Although in this chapter we learn nothing of Hophni and Phineas, Eli reproves Hannah and is critical of her. It is easier to criticise an unknown woman than to reprove his own sons—as we shall learn in chapter two. He, too, is insensitive of her heartache and the depth of her anguish. Hannah, it seems, is utterly alone in her grief, with only Yahweh as her hope and comfort.

Hannah’s prayer was desperate, focussed and prolonged. She came to God in her misery, praying at the place of prayer, and despite initial misunderstanding during which she defended herself against accusation, received a blessing from the high priest. Old-time Pentecostals used to speak of “praying through.” Hannah “prayed through” to peace and to blessing. Her prayer was a cry for recognition, offered in the context of worship and sacrifice—“and the Lord remembered her” (v. 19). Just as God “remembered” Noah stranded in his ark (Gen 8:1), and his people when they cried out to him in the bondage of slavery (Ex. 2:24), so now he has remembered Hannah and opened her womb to conceive a son—one who would become leader and judge of God’s people.

A Vision for Dogmatics

In their preface to the series New Studies in Dogmatics Michael Allen and Scott Swain present a brief of their vision for Christian Dogmatics:

Dogmatic theology…is a conceptual representation of scriptural teaching about God and all things in relation to God. The source of dogmatics is Holy Scripture; its scope is the summing up of all things in Jesus Christ; its setting is the communion of saints; and its end is the conversion, consolation, and instruction of creaturely wayfarers in the knowledge and love of the triune God until that knowledge and love is consummated in the beatific vision (“Series Preface” in Holmes, C.R.J., The Holy Spirit, 15).