Tag Archives: 1 Samuel

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 3 (Cont)

Despite a number of scholars suggesting that Zadok is the “faithful priest” (2:35) who will replace Eli, the author or editors of 1 Samuel have placed the call of Samuel immediately after this prophecy. This shows that in the present narrative at least, Samuel is seen as the successor of Eli and his sons, in terms of national leadership if not as high priest. Once more, as Evans suggests (p. 39), the story highlights “the power of God and his empowering of the powerless: The inexperienced youth, the decrepit priest and the barren woman are all presented as significant tools in the outworking of God’s purposes.”

In her exposition of this chapter, Francesca Aran Murphy meditates on the idea of calling or vocation: “a vocation is not a project I make for myself, but a call to me, from someone else, to which I hear and respond. Vocation results from calling” (27). Samuel begins to be the person God intends him to be only because he hears God’s call and responds obediently to it.

Murphy insists that the story of Samuel indicates the importance of the individual in the making of history. This runs counter to much social-scientific philosophy which would lodge the rationale for historic change in mass movements, social dynamics and environmental features. Murphy demurs: “it is characters, not conditions and contexts, that make history” (28). This, perhaps, is a “both-and” question. The sixteenth-century Reformations were no doubt assisted because of the social, political, religious, and economic factors in play at the time, but whether they would have occurred without the catalytic character of Martin Luther is indeed questionable. History, in this sense, is not inevitable, but “the one God guides history by calling out unique actors to stage a providential history” (28). While the study of such historical factors is not unimportant, biography is more so.

Most ancient New Eastern cultures created national records and lists of their kings with their purported achievements. Israel surpassed them in history writing and created, in Regum [i.e. the books of Samuel and Kings], the first real long-range historical work because it grasped more deeply than these collectivist cultures the principle that “men are free and responsible moral agents is the fundamental principle of historical thinking: no free will, no history—no history in our sense of history” (28, citing John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness, 252, original emphasis).

But Murphy goes further: God does not simply call individuals, he creates them by his call. God’s call separates the one called from the collectives to which they belong (in Samuel’s case, family and tribe) into a direct relationship with himself. The divine call constitutes the moral individual as they respond in obedience to that call, answering God and becoming a responsible participant in what God is doing. Such persons not only act in history, but in partnership with God they become co-creators of it (29).

God’s call separates a person his or her culture, and this break with the internal social dynamic of a culture gives them the spiritual wherewithal to found a genuine community, spreading from and embedded in the work or task that is named in the divine call. Such characters are made individuals in order to give their lives to their community (30).

The divine call is not to privilege and status but to service. Samuel is to serve the word which has been addressed to him, and this is neither easy nor comfortable. His call is not to lead “his best life now,” but to hear the word of God and declare it, in spite of his discomfort in doing so. He must announce judgement to Eli, and later to Saul. He would mourn over his task, yet he proved faithful in its execution.

God’s call is the foundation of personal identity and mission. Our identity is not self-grounded, not established in anything within ourselves, but is a gift received when the personal God calls us by name to bind him to himself. In this call is given a task or a mission issuing in a life of self-dispossession that a community might be founded and gathered, which in turn will hear the divine voice and call. Here the call of Samuel becomes our call, and his story ours. Will we hear as he heard, and respond as he did?

The boy-priest in his little ephod became a prophet declaring the message of God, and if not a king, still a national leader and king-maker, a precursor of kings, the last and greatest of the judges, though still an isolated and lonely figure. As such, “Samuel is a living analogy to the prophet, priest, and king that Christ will be in the fullest sense. Of none of Israel’s kings can it be said with historical plausibility that he was prophet, priest, and king. It can credibly be said of only Samuel” (Murphy, 18).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 3

In this chapter Samuel grows up. The most significant aspect of his growing years was his hearing the call and word of Yahweh. The story presents him as just a boy when Yahweh calls him—an encouragement to children and children’s ministers! At first Samuel does not recognise Yahweh’s voice, mistaking it for Eli. Indeed, like Eli’s sons, Samuel “does not know the Lord”—yet (v. 7; cf. 2:12). Eventually Eli discerns the truth and gives the best advice, telling Samuel to respond, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

But God’s speech is a word of judgement against Eli! (cf. Isaiah 6), and so not at all what one wants to hear. Like the prophecy given in the second chapter, the judgement is against Eli and his house, on account of the activities of Eli’s sons and his failure to restrain them. While it is possible to reflect on this passage with respect to parenting responsibilities, it is more likely that Eli is presented in terms of his role as high priest responsible for the work and worship of the tabernacle. Many years will pass before these words of prophecy come to pass by which time Samuel is an adult. There will, however, be no forgiveness for Eli, neither by sacrifice nor offering. This is a harsh, or at least a stern, word of unremitting judgement.

I find the portrayal of Eli in these chapters to be somewhat ambiguous. He confronts his sons but does not restrain them, nor remove them from their position. It seems likely that he too was benefiting from their misappropriation. Nevertheless, it seems he does much better with Samuel than he has with his own sons. His blessing of Hannah is twice fruitful, and here, he is alive to the possibility that God may be or is at work. He bows before the word of judgement and acknowledges Yahweh’s sovereign right to judge. Yet even this acknowledgement will not save him from this judgement. It seems that his acknowledgement is not equivalent to repentance. “Eli stands as a warning against drifting through life with a well-meaning attitude but without taking up the responsibilities that are really ours” (Evans, 40).

1 Samuel 3:1, 19, 21 
And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. … And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

Under the ministry of Eli and his sons, the word of the Lord has been rare. Whether the spiritual condition of Eli’s house and of the people was due to the lack of divine revelation, or whether the lack of divine revelation was due to the failure of the people may be speculated. What is plain in this passage, however, is that the Lord takes the initiative, addressing Samuel by name, calling him in the night, speaking his word and then confirming it publicly, establishing Samuel as the Lord’s prophet.

Samuel hears but does not recognise Yahweh’s voice: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (v.7). Learning to hear and recognise God’s voice takes a certain sensitivity, quietness, openness, and readiness. It is unsurprising that Samuel hears in the period before dawn when he and all around him is quiet. It is difficult to hear “the still small voice” in the cacophony of daily busyness. It seems the voice was “audible” for Samuel but was not actually audible, for Eli was not awakened and did not hear. Initially Samuel mistook the divine voice for a natural occurrence, and needed the instruction and encouragement of Eli to recognise the subtlety of Yahweh’s speech. With Eli’s instruction Samuel returned to his bed and waited, and when addressed, was ready and responded as he had been instructed, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

The gracious divine initiative here is unmistakable: God comes to Samuel, addressing and calling him. The response of readiness, openness and humility is required if one is to hear the voice of the Lord. The posture is one of a servant, serving the Lord, serving the word. Samuel obeys. Samuel declares what he has heard, though he is afraid to do so. His response is full. He hears, he obeys, he declares. “And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh.”

It appears in this context that God’s primary way of revelation and communication with his people is via the prophets—despite the word addressed to Joshua after the death of Moses (see Joshua 1).  Later in Israel’s history, Amos warns that in a time of judgement God will send a famine upon the land:

Amos 8:11-12
Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea and from north to east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord but they shall not find it.

God has raised up a willing, responsive and faithful hearer of the word of God, who also becomes a speaker of the divine word that others might hear with the result that “the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (v. 21). “Recovery for Israel began with a new hearing and a new speaking out of the word of God” (Evans, 41).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Read 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Elkanah and his family have returned home, and the focus now shifts to Shiloh, where Samuel remains, serving the Lord. But all is not well at Shiloh, as the first verse of this passage notes: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.’ The passage has four scenes: first a description of Eli’s sons’ disregard for the peoples’ offerings; second, a brief cameo of Hannah and Samuel’s interaction in succeeding years as Samuel grows; third, Eli remonstrating with his sons over their behaviour and warning them of the dire consequences that will follow; and fourth, a prophecy against Eli and his house by an unknown ‘man of God.’

Perhaps the key verse in the chapter is 30b: ‘for those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ Associated with this is the prophetic declaration in verse 35 that God will raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do ‘according to what is in my heart and in my mind.’ This verse, as well as the contrast in this passage between Hophni and Phinehas on the one hand and Samuel on the other, provide some indication of what it is to honour the Lord. Further definition of this will be provided later in the book, in chapter 12. The verse provides another hermeneutical lens by which to understand the unfolding narrative.

The first scene (vv. 12-17) portrays Hophni and Phinehas’s complete disregard—indeed contempt (v. 17)—for the worship of God’s people, taking the best of their sacrifices—by force if necessary—for their own benefit. Later we hear that they are having sex with the women who serve at the tent of meeting—hopefully not by force—and that this is generally known. In the fourth scene Eli is implicated in their behaviour for he has not restrained his sons, but rather has made himself fat on the offerings of God’s people. He ‘honours’ his sons above God (v. 29). Though God holds Eli responsible for the exercise of his office, he does not diminish the responsibility of Hophni and Phinehas. They have dishonoured God and his worship, their own office and the people. They have abused their position and power, serving themselves rather than God, and mistreating the people of God. God’s judgement will be harsh—both will die on the one day. The priesthood will removed from Eli and given to the as-yet-unnamed faithful priest.

In the midst of all this Samuel ministers to the Lord as a little priest in a linen ephod made for him annually by his mother. Like Jesus (cf. Luke 2:52), Samuel grew physically and spiritually, gaining favour both with the Lord and with others. The simple devotion of Hannah and Samuel contrasts sharply with the lives of Hophni and Phinehas, the “anti-priests” who have inverted their true roles (Murphy, 24).

These episodes show the corrupt state into which the national and religious leadership has fallen. Israel remains a tribal society, though the shrine at Shiloh has become a centre of religious and political focus, with Eli “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies, a ‘superjudge’” (Murphy, 12). The narrative, therefore, provides the theological justification for the judgement that will fall upon Eli and his house, as well as continuing the introduction of this special child who will become the final judge in Israel prior to the emergence of the monarchy. Despite Samuel’s presentation as a “little priest,” it is unlikely that he is the faithful priest who will replace Eli and his family. Some commentators suggest that the faithful priest is actually Zadok who served as priest in David’s reign, though Christians might also view this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priesthood, for he is the truly faithful priest who has done according to all that is in God’s heart and mind (Evans, 37; cf. 1 Kings 2:35).

The severity of divine judgement promised to Eli and his house reflects the standard of holiness required of God’s ministers, and the distance that this holiness makes between itself and sin (Murphy, 25). Abuse of power, position and privilege is always despicable, even more so when it also involves sexual abuse. When those who claim to represent God engage in these kinds of abuse it is especially reprehensible. In this passage we learn that Yahweh refuses to cohabit with such sin and will hold his ministers to account. Leadership implications for ministers today are plain: God calls us to faithfulness in ministry, to honour God above all else, and to find our ministry within the compass of that who is the “true minister of the sanctuary,” the true faithful witness and high priest: Jesus Christ. Religion without faith and piety is not just hypocritical; it is dangerous.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:1-11

Read 1 Samuel 2:1-11

Hannah’s song provides the theological introduction and orientation to the books of Samuel as a whole, just as David’s song provides a similar perspective as the work ends (2 Samuel 22). These bookends suggest the work of the final editors of this collection. Scholars suggest that the provenance of the psalm is from a later period, especially given the references to the king and the Lord’s anointed in verse ten which do not quite fit the pre-monarchical period. Perhaps it was included here because of the contrast of the barren and fruitful women in verse five which links the psalm to the story so far. It is not impossible, however, that the psalm originated with Hannah. Miriam in Exodus 15 and Deborah in Judges 5 are also portrayed as women psalmists who celebrate and reflect theologically on God’s works in song.

Whatever its origin, “the fact remains,” says Evans, “that the privilege of providing the main theological introduction to the whole account of the history of the Israelite monarchy is given to Hannah. That fact is probably not irrelevant” (30). Hannah did not abdicate her responsibility for theological reflection, and did not leave it up to the experts (i.e. Eli)—which perhaps was just as well. The story which follows includes many tales of the human quest for power, often with immense brutality, intrigues, and murder. The psalm insists that God is the only true sovereign, one who elects and disposes, who chooses and rejects, who upends and overturns human standards and expectations, and who will ultimately subject all human activity to judgement. Hannah’s song, coming from one who although somewhat wealthy, was poor and powerless in other ways, resonates with hope that God’s judgement will prevail, and that human arrogance and abuse of power will be brought to an end.

The psalm begins with her own exaltation and rejoicing, but quickly shifts to a meditation on the character and works of the God who has heard and answered her prayer. God alone is holy; there is none beside him (v.2). This is a full-throated rejection of religious syncretism in an environment where Israel continued to worship not only Yahweh but put their trust in the fertility gods as well. Yet only Yahweh is a rock providing security and salvation. He is the creator who set the world on its pillars (v.8; note the ancient cosmology), and he continues to rule his world with sovereign authority.

The major part of the psalm is a warning to the powerful and arrogant (v.3a): God will defend his “faithful ones” and “cut off” the wicked (v.9), he will “judge the ends of the world” (v.10). Human power will not prevail against the sovereign authority of Yahweh. The salvation that Yahweh brings is portrayed in images of historical rather than eschatological reversal. Thus, the weapons of the mighty are broken while the feeble are strengthened; the sated go hungry as the hungry are filled; the barren give birth while the mother of many is left forlorn. The agent of these reversals is the Lord. Historical developments are not accidental but subject to his providential control.

Yahweh kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
Yahweh makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

The idea that Yahweh kills and makes alive is frightening, predicating a sovereignty to Yahweh we wish to deny. Yet it is precisely this activity that is highlighted in the following narrative which speaks of Yahweh’s intent to kill Eli’s sons in divine judgement for their wickedness (vv. 25, 34). The question of divine violence is one we shall encounter again in this study of Samuel. Here, the psalmist operates with a sense of comprehensive divine sovereignty.

Nor is the exercise of this sovereignty arbitrary. It is the high and mighty, the rich and powerful who are brought low and made poor, while it is the poor and humble, feeble and barren who are exalted and made rich. These acts of divine reversal reveal the way of Yahweh, and his divine care for those on the underside of human power and greed. As such, the song provides the framework by which the rest of the ensuing narrative (and its characters) must be understood.

Approaching 1 Samuel (1): The “Author”

Francesca Aran Murphy

When I began reading through the books of Samuel a month or so ago, I knew I had no commentaries on these biblical books on my shelves. I set out immediately to rectify this long-standing and obvious lacuna, and, although the bookshop did not have much to offer, I did find two to help my initial engagement with these texts. Both written by women—an added bonus, considering the somewhat marginal-though-critical role women play in these books—neither would be recognised as “real” commentaries by some scholars.

Mary J. Evans, former academic dean at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, and vice-principal of London School of Theology, wrote The Message of Samuel in the Bible Speaks Today series (2004). This work is self-consciously not a commentary in the traditional sense of the word, but an “exposition” that seeks accurately to expound the biblical text with a view to contemporary insight and application (9). Evans writes, however, “with the conviction that the books of Samuel are a vital part of God’s Word” (10), and so takes them “seriously as the word of God” (15). Like a commentary, her exposition pays close attention to details of the text, the narrative structure and flow, the historical context, etc. This is a useful and accessible introduction that would benefit any Christian reader of the books of Samuel.

I have really been taken, however, by Francesca Aran Murphy’s 1 Samuel in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series (2011). Murphy, professor of systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame, has written—if the first chapter covering 1 Samuel 1–3 is any indication—a remarkable exposition of this biblical book. The Brazos series “enlists leading theologians to read and interpret scripture creedally for the twenty-first century, just as the church fathers, the Reformers, and other orthodox Christians did for their times and places” (blurb, emphasis added). Thus the work differs from more typical commentaries which analyse historical, linguistic, semantic, and thematic matters associated with the text, or explore and utilise particular hermeneutical lenses in their reading.

Of course Murphy employs the fruits of research into such matters, and has her own hermeneutical lenses. In her introduction we gain a sense of her approach to 1 Samuel when she reflects on what constitutes an author—particularly the author of 1 Samuel, and so also on the nature and function of this biblical text. She appears to reject the idea of the book as the product of editors working with collections of ancient documents. But she also rejects the “heroic sole author” of romanticism. Both these images, she suggests, derive from seventeenth-century British and European culture. Rather, her view includes the figure of a prophet whose immediacy to the divine grounds their religious authority. However the shift from oral to written tradition (or, revelation), is not merely the work of the prophet alone. The prophet provides the moral vision of the work, but this work is also carried out communally. Murphy analogises: perhaps there are similarities to modern script-writing for television drama series; “the best television series have as their executive director a mastermind…[who] gives the series an overall moral vision” which is then worked out collectively by a group who crafts the vision (xviii-xix).

Murphy utilises this image again, in the structure of her commentary which is divided into seven “series” (we might say, “seasons”). Each series (“season”) is composed of a number of episodes. Thus “season one” is “Grace and Nature”; season two is “The Carnival of the Ark”, and so on until season seven, “The Death of the Brother.” Season one has six episodes: Two Wives (1 Sam. 1:1-10); The Political and the Personal (1 Sam. 1:11-20); Samuel Handed Over (1 Sam. 1:21-28); Hannah’s Song (1 Sam. 2:1-11); Worthless Men (1 Sam. 2:12-36); The Call of Samuel (1 Sam. 3). This structure certainly resonates with me: I can “see” each episode as though on television.

For Murphy, then, “we will term the anonymous script writer of 1 Samuel its “author” because the term retains the shadow of the prophet and his mantle. This is important for Murphy because it provides insight into the function of the text—for both ancient and contemporary readers—and so also provides an orientation to the text itself.

The author of 1 Samuel was not only an independent historian, but also a writer who put his historical gifts at the service of the church. Independent but not autonomous, he wrote as one responsible for a religious community. His task was more like that of a bishop writing a pastoral letter or like that of a prophet, than that of a scholarly historian. For an individual scholar, history is a piece of the past about which he writes, perhaps imposing a philosophy of history upon it. For a people, on the other hand, “history is the remembered past,” the past as it belongs to us. One over-dramatizes the contrast if one says that the author of 1 Regum was a liturgist not a historian: and yet, there is something in it, since our “prophet” was sowing the seeds of a communal memory (xx, citing Lukacs, Historical Conciousness: or, The Remembered Past new edition (1985), 152).

Over the years I have read commentaries that approach the biblical text simply as “history” – or ideology or legend, etc., and some which certainly impose their own philosophy onto the text. Some will argue, and correctly to an extent, that it is impossible to do otherwise; we cannot help but bring ourselves and our own experiences and philosophical perspectives to the text. And it is often the case that these readings illumine and inform us in fresh ways.

But Murphy’s approach tends to viewing 1 Samuel not merely as “history” but as scripture, and so as a word that continues to speak. Its function is not simply an etiological account of the Israelite monarchy, but has religious, liturgical and prophetic functions, and to be read most fruitfully, must be read in account with its nature as such, its prophetic dimension continuing to inform the contemporary reader open to listening to it as such.

I will give some indications of how this plays out in Murphy’s exposition in a follow-up post.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 1:21-28

Read 1 Samuel 1:21-28

After the birth of Samuel Hannah did not return with the rest of the family for the annual sacrifice at Shiloh until after her son was weaned. In ancient times many children were nursed for over three years, and a child may have been over five years old before fully weaned (Evans, 29). Although Samuel would still have been a young child when he arrived at Shiloh, it is unlikely he was just an infant.

In bringing Samuel to the Lord at Shiloh, and placing him in Eli’s care Hannah was fulfilling the vow she had made to the Lord. Evans notes that it was Hannah who made the vow, and Hannah who took responsibility for its fulfilment (29). Along with the sacrifice of the bull, Hannah was making an even greater sacrifice, a sacrifice of the heart, giving her all, her best, to the Lord. She was returning that which she had received, to the Lord who had given it. Her gift to the Lord was the gift she had received from him. This pattern of reception and response suggests a manner of spiritual life (“Freely you have received, freely give…”). All that we are and have comes to us from the gracious hand of God; to offer ourselves in worship, gratitude and service back to God acknowledges and fulfils this gift of grace. The proper response to charis (grace) is eucharistia (gratitude).

Hannah’s prayer—actually a psalm or song of praise—is given not at Samuel’s birth, but at the time of her handing him over. This suggests perhaps that she was not so much “making a deal” with God, but in her heart of hearts had hoped for a son that she might devote him to Yahweh.

Hannah’s thanksgiving to God does not happen when she becomes pregnant or when Samuel is born, as if what she wanted was a child to rival Peninnah’s brood. … what Hannah wants from God is a deliverer for Israel (Murphy, 19).

In her sorrow she had cried out to God, and now in her joy she praises him. Either way, her heart is turned toward God. Little Samuel has caught the spirit of his mother, for he also “worshipped the Lord there” (1:28; though perhaps this is a reference to Elkanah?), and when his family left him and returned home, “the boy ministered to the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest” (2:11).

Francesca Murphy regards Hannah as an oddity in Israel, atypical in terms of Israel religion and culture:

Out of the human tendency to avoid unpleasantness, we tend to reconfigure the story in a moralistic way and imagine Hannah as though she were typical of Israelite culture, whereas in fact she is presented as atypical, an isolated oddity. We make the light that shines on Hannah alone shine on everyone around her, imposing our moralism on the story because its own realism is too grim for us to endure. … Hannah was a maverick in a culture that mixed soliciting the gods of sexual reproduction with pilgrimages to the shrine of Yahweh. What was outward and public in Israelite religious (sic) was not true to Israel’s God; only what was inward and secret, in Hannah, was genuinely committed to the God of Israel (Murphy, 21).

Hannah is presented in the narrative as a forerunner, leading to real Israel, and a genuine knowledge of and faith in God. Later in Israel’s history another faithful woman will sing another prophetic song based very much on Hannah’s song in 2:1-10: Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Christian tradition has long linked these two mother/son stories in iconography and liturgy, for in the former we see the latter prefigured, and in both, the one story of God’s redemption of his people through the birth of a child.

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).

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.