Three Readings of Hannah

Proper 33                   November 18, 2018

1 Samuel 1:4-20                 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (in place of Psalm)

Perhaps I am simply a coward, avoiding apocalyptic unpleasantness of the gospel reading – but it was the Old Testament reading that spoke most urgently to me this week. It is simply one of those glorious OT narratives, of which there are so many: at first glance a simple tale, possibly a bit naive; but on closer examination a story packed with subtlety and art.

Over the years, I have been privileged to have had a number of teachers, who have shown me different ways of reading the Bible as stories. I want to talk about three of these ways this morning.

First of all, in my first years at university, I was lucky enough to have heard the great Canadian scholar Northrop Frye in his final years. He was teaching more and more about the Bible, and from him I learned how to read the Bible typologically.

What does that mean in English? It means reading the Bible with attention to the larger patterns of imagery and metaphor and plot motifs that recur again and again in Scripture (that is, Biblical typology). The bible will use an image, a basic primal metaphor like light, or bread, or the sea, or the desert, or water – and it will repeat it over and over again, so it forms a pattern of meaning that runs through the entire Bible. Or it will take a basic story line, an element of story that is repeated in different generations, (for example, the younger son who is favoured over his brothers) and use these repetitive patterns give us clues to what is most important in the story.

Reading the story of the birth of Samuel with this lens, we first of all notice that this story sounds familiar. The tale of the birth of a child after a long period of infertility, a miraculous gift of a son who would go on to be an important leader, is one we hear again and again in Scripture. Archetypally it is the story of the birth of Isaac to Sarah in her extreme old age, that child who symbolized in his vulnerable, improbable existence the totality of God’s promises to Abraham, to make him the father of many nations. The whole biblical story is bound up in that one miraculous birth. We hear echos in the birth of Joseph, another great patriarch who would ensure the survival of God’s people. Here again it is Rachel, the favoured wife, Jacob’s great love, who remained childless for so long, while her sister and the slave girls gave birth to one strapping lad after another. The same story is told of the birth of Samson, the unhoped for child of long childless parents, dedicated, like Samuel, from birth for the service of God. And again we hear it in the NT, with the birth of John the Baptist; a figure who echoes both the wildness of Samson, and Samuel’s role of prophet and king-maker.

We could do a similar exercise with the song of Hannah, which we read in place of a psalm. It is part of a long line of songs of triumph sung by strong women in Scripture, songs that do not hesitate to exult fiercely in the downfall of powerful enemies. It echoes Miriam on the shores of the Red Sea, Deborah as the Israelites divided the spoil over the body of Sisera; and of course it is picked up again in the song of Mary, who responds to her own miraculous pregnancy by rejoicing over the downfall of the arrogant and the raising up of the humble poor.

What a typological reading shows us is the constant themes of God’s presence, throughout the biblical history and beyond, into our own lives. Woven into the very fabric of our stories is the promise that reality bends in unexpected ways: when we had long given up hope, the child is born; when the victory song is sung, it may be the disregarded woman who sings it. The race does not always go to the swift, nor the fight to the strong.

As a second lens on this story, I point to another teacher who has opened up the OT to me, though I only encountered him through his books. Another literary critic named, Robert Alter. His book the Art of Biblical Narrative brings his skill in careful reading of narrative texts to bear on the narrative habits of the Old Testament. Alter’s readings are such a revelation, because he painstakingly demonstrates how very sophisticated these narratives are. If we think for a moment that an OT story is clumsily or naively told, it is probably because we have not looked closely enough to appreciate its subtlety of psychological insight, its finely tuned sense of irony, and the unbelievably artful way in which sparseness of detail and careful reticence can open up depths of human motivation.

Through this lens, our reading is not just an example of a common biblical pattern, but a story where the characters come to life for us in quite distinct and unique ways. We don’t get a lot of information, but the details that are told are so telling. We hear of a family split by the rivalry of two wives. Hannah is clearly the favourite, whom Elkanah loved, but childless; Penninah, with the many children, was torn by a jealousy that she must constantly provoke Hannah. The situation is summed up in the annual family outings to the shrine, a ritual road trip to misery for Hannah. Elkanah speaks only once, but what he reveals is his obtuseness: am I not more to you than ten sons? – as though that will address her pain. Perhaps a gentleman might have said it the other way around: are you not more to me than ten sons? – but that clearly is not the case, otherwise he would not have taken Peninnah as his wife to give him children.

And Eli the priest: what a portrait of an out-of-touch, pastorally insensitive priest, jumping to conclusions and blaming Hannah with his moralizing platitudes – while all the time, as we later learn, his sons are running the worship of God into disrepute through their exploitative behaviour, under his very nose.

Against this background, Hannah’s heartbroken grief but also steady determination. She swallows the insult from Eli, but puts forth her prayer with boldness. And when her prayer is answered, and she is given a son, she takes charge completely: Elkanah has nothing more to say about Samuel.

The glory of the approach Robert Alter models for us is not just in the literary appreciation of the texts themselves, but especially in the theological conclusions he draws from them. Looking at some of the earlier strands of Biblical narrative – the earliest level of the story of the patriarchs, for example, or the tales about the last years of David’s reign – he notes how miraculous it is for us to be reading this kind of realistic, psychologically astute account of the lives of ordinary men and women in such an ancient document. Compare how other ancient cultures tell their foundational myths; the grand mythic tales of gods and heros in cosmic conflicts – something very different was happening in Israel: the insight that the way to talk about the presence of God is by telling stories of the struggles and pains and joys of ordinary families. So it is with this account of the birth of one of the founders of the nation: it’s not a legendary fairy tale like Romulus and Remus, but a so real tale of people who could be our neighbours. This is a theological revolution, the insight that God is to be found in our ordinary human struggles. These tales of jealous and hope and disappointment are a foundational revelatory event, at least as important as what happened on Sinai. They would colour the understanding of God in judaism, and, ultimately, in Christianity.

Briefly, a third lens to read the story: the lens of feminist literary theory. This story is, like most of the biblical narrative, a story about patriarchy, because patriarchy infused the social framework of ancient times. We see it spelled out in every aspect of the psychological details we have just referred to. It is the story of a woman whose worth is defined in terms of the men around her: ultimately, in terms of her ability to give her husband sons. The only reason she is remembered is because of who her son would become. And yet, for all that, it is also the story of a strong woman, who dominates these two chapters of Scripture, no matter what her outward limitations.

– I recall a sense, from when I learned some feminist Biblical interpretation (in Germany in the 80s) that it was a matter almost of correcting the shortfalls of Scripture. Because women are so marginal in the dominant narrative, we have to work hard to give them a place alongside the men we learned about in Sunday School. I suspect this attitude may have been shared both by the critics of feminist approaches, and by many who practised them. Perhaps you have heard or even shared this attitude.

But the surprising thing is that the role of women in Scripture has proved to be so much more resilient. We are doubtless disappointed that Scripture does not more clearly denounce and overcome patriarchy. That doesn’t seem to be the way it operates – although a good argument can be made that something like that is happening in the ministry of Jesus. For the most part, however, patriarchy is a given, and the role of women is quite intentionally marginal. That being said, we are shown so many strong women like Hannah: and their role in Scripture is all the more powerful precisely because it comes from the margins. The dominant narrative is about men, and the succession of power – as in this case, where Samuel is about the establishment of the kingship. And yet, at this moment, when we get to see Hannah in the midst of all the patriarchal structures both of her society and of the narrative in which she is trapped, for these two chapters, she completely dominates the story. In a way that is totally unnecessary to the tale of Samuel, she comes to life for us, and the vividness of her struggle and particularly of her faith, her relationship to God, serves to subvert the story we thought we were reading. And the same can be said of Sarah and Hagar, of Rachel and Leah, of Miriam and Deborah, of Ruth, of Esther and Judith.

We don’t need to work to put these women forward, as though Scripture has neglected them; we simply need to pay attention to what Scripture says of them. Yes, they are marginal – but by their very force of character and faith they are already subverting the very forces that would silence them.

Three lens to approach a story. Three reminders that the stories of our tradition are not just stories, not just diversions or ways of cloaking theological truth: they are themselves theology, theology at its most fundamental level, as we encounter it both in ancient texts and in our pastoral practice. They are rooted in that fundamental theological truth: that the incarnate God is to be sought and found in the lives of men and women, in our very fraught and messy and faulted humanity.