Lectionary Reading: 1 Samuel 1:4-20 (NRSV)
This is a fascinating look at how women were viewed in antiquity within the Middle East. In it, we see the backstory of the prophet Samuel’s mother, Hannah. Most scholars place Samuel in the 11th century before the birth of Jesus. The book was likely edited sometime after the Exile but this still gives us a glimpse into gender relationships.
We see the story from Hannah’s perspective which is revolutionary in itself. A woman with no children? This is problematic as a woman’s worth was correlated to how many children she bore. We see this in verse five as it describes her husband’s love for her in spite of the fact that she was childless. He doesn’t seem as concerned about this because he already had another wife, Peninnah with whom he had multiple sons and daughters.
It must have been difficult if you measured worth by children and you had none. Rather than a supportive relationship between the two wives, they had a rivalry, likely because Hannah was perceived as the favorite even though Peninnah was the one who bore Elkanah his children.
We also see the strong belief that God was the one who allowed women to conceive. They understood how babies came to be, but this was thought to be a blessing from God. Deuteronomy 7:14 declares to God’s covenant people, “You shall be the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock.” Of course, this is conditional upon verse 12’s understanding that the people will “heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them.”
The difficulty of this theology taken on the surface is that it places the guilt of childlessness upon the couple. Either the husband or the wife was faithless to God in some way, resulting in sterility. For a culture that prized large families, this could be doubly disheartening. Not only might you have a physical reason for not conceiving, you would find yourself distanced from God. Of course, we can always come up with ways that we could have been more faithful or sins that we might have committed.
Hannah is not the first woman in the Bible to be highlighted in this condition. She joins some of the great matriarchs of the Bible in Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel. Each of these was childless and then blessed by God with a son.
Hannah bargains with God by dedicating her future son to the service of God. Since he would not be the first-born male for Elkanah, her husband would not likely stand in the way of this idea.
Sometimes our desires are congruent with God’s will. Sometimes they are not. We may often have the notion that if we want something badly enough, then we can bargain with God to get it. This comes most often with the healing of a loved one (or ourselves). What if we worship more regularly? What if we increase our prayer life? What if we read the Bible more faithfully? Have we given enough money or time?
How do we appropriately understand God’s blessings for our lives as grace and not something earned or bargained for? It’s a good question worth pondering together. I’ll be dealing with this more on Sunday morning!
Check out more of Sam’s blog articles at precedinggrace.blogspot.com. Photo by “haven’t the slightest” via Flickr.com. Used under the Creative Commons license.