Sunday, November 16, 2003

Speak Up

Speak Up!
1 Samuel 1.1-2.10
November 16 2003

God seems to have a history of closing wombs and forgetting about women, then miraculously remembering them. First we had Sarah, then Rebekah, and Rachel, and now Hannah. Except this time it seems God had some help in remembering—maybe God got a remembrel—you know, in Harry Potter they’re those glass orbs that get red smoke in them when you’ve forgotten something…and God finally remembered what it was God was forgetting—Hannah!
Who sent this remembrel? Hannah, of course….but why? Why was it so important that Hannah not be forgotten? Well, for starters, her husband’s other wife, Peninnah, was mean. Can’t you just hear her calling Hannah names and mocking her—“o barren one” , “dry well” , “worthless wife…” , “hey, Hannah, your oven is off” …. She was irritating, she was mean, and she caused some serious depression. It doesn’t take long for this kind of verbal abuse to become a part of you—something you believe, something that you won’t talk back to or stand up against because you secretly wonder if it’s right and you don’t deserve to be called a person. That’s what Peninnah was doing—in this story she represents the whole ancient society, telling Hannah that she is worthless, that she is not a whole person (or even a person at all) because she isn’t like everyone else, her experience is different, she’s not useful to her husband…for she has borne no children. In this story, Hannah never talked back to Peninnah—perhaps she didn’t have the strength or the will, perhaps she didn’t have the heart, perhaps she didn’t have the self-esteem. In any case, Peninnah continued her abuse year after year.
Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, doesn’t seem to be much better. Sure, he loves her in spite of her barrenness, he even gives her a double portion at the time of the yearly sacrifice—but he isn’t terribly sensitive. If he has to ask why Hannah is sad, why she cries, and why she won’t eat, then he’s not paying a lot of attention to his family dynamics. Then he asks the problematic question: “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Translation for modern readers: “Can’t I be enough for you?” Hannah can’t answer this question.
Maybe people read this as a loving question—Elkanah loved Hannah even though she didn’t have any children. Others, however, might point out that perhaps it is one of those moments—you know the ones, when you think you’re saying the right thing but you really, aren’t—insinuating that he alone could change the eyes of society and give her personhood, as if he alone could simply remove all the expectations and judgments of the community from her. A barren woman in those days was of no worth, and everyone knew it. Besides, it would be easy for him to say, since he already has children to be his heirs. It’s not like he needs Hannah’s children to carry on his family line, and her children wouldn’t be among his firstborn anyway, because Peninnah’s several children have snatched up the biggest portions of any inheritance.
But Hannah doesn’t answer her husband’s question. She remains completely silent. She is depressed, she has lost her appetite and her voice. So she does the only thing she can—she goes into the house of the LORD and prays. She makes a deal: “God, if you’ll remember me and give me a son, I’ll give him right back to you.” She doesn’t seem to want the child for herself or her husband—she doesn’t want him to have around the house or the farm, to be a comfort or help, or to carry on the family line. The most important thing for Hannah is not to have the child with her, it’s to have the child. So she bargains, and she is fervent in her prayer. Only the most desperate woman in the most desperate situation could make this prayer, with this promise to God that she’d give up the child she so longed for. That kind of desperation led her to a make a desperate deal.
However, as she made this prayer, Hannah wasn’t speaking out loud. She was just property, she wasn’t worth much, and she had probably so internalized Peninnah’s abuse that she didn’t have a voice to speak with anymore—she had been silenced by her community, as so many people still are. Unfortunately Eli, the priest, thought she was drunk because she was moving her lips without making a sound. He confronted her about making a spectacle of herself there, in the Temple of the LORD. He essentially confirmed her worthlessness and demanded that she leave behind her sinfulness. But Hannah has finally had the last straw: she finds her voice and defends herself to this priest, to this man of God who is supposed to see everyone as God’s child and servant, this one person who shouldn’t think the worst of her but apparently does anyway. “Do not consider me a worthless woman!!!” she says. She has at long last stood up for herself and contradicted what everyone has been thinking. She has been continuously silenced by a community that considers her worthless, by Peninnah who abuses and insults her, and now the priest is impugning her integrity too! Hannah does NOT stand for this. “Do not consider me a worthless woman. I have been praying this whole time, in great anxiety and distress.” Hannah is silent no more.
Eli was probably shocked that this woman, this worthless woman, had talked back to him. How dare she? He was also, hopefully, upset with himself for not being able to tell the difference between prayer and drunken stupor. But he doesn’t show any of this…instead he takes his words back. He then assures her that God will hear her prayer and grant her request, and Hannah goes away, she eats again, she drinks again, and, most importantly, her “countenance was sad no longer.”
Hannah has now talked to God silently, and to Eli out loud, and now she has all kinds of self-esteem growing in her. God remembers her at long last, and she has a baby. While the boy is still unweaned, it’s time for the yearly trip to Shiloh. The whole family is going, but Hannah speaks to her husband for the first time in this whole story and says, “no, I’m not going. I’ll come later, and guess what? I have to leave the boy there.” Not only has Hannah found her voice, but she’s found her willpower and her spunk, too!
Now, at this point, you would expect that Elkanah would say, “umm, excuse me, but technically, according to socio-political family system rules of our age, that child is mine and I get to make the decisions. I already let you choose his silly name….what do you mean you’re going to leave a boy, someone who could be really useful on the farm, at the temple? I don’t think so, and if you do I’ll get rid of you AND bring the boy home.” But he doesn’t. Instead he says, “do what seems good to you. May the LORD establish his word.” Umm…this isn’t exactly normal. Men of this time period are supposed to be in charge. Men of this time period are the heads of households and the women are property, not the decision makers. Men are strong and women follow. But apparently not in this case, for Elkanah, the one who only a year ago asked “am I not more to you than ten sons,” finally understands Hannah, and what she needs. So, Elkanah and the whole family pile into the minivan and leave, and Hannah and Samuel stay behind.
Once the two of them do go up to Shiloh, Hannah sees Eli and rushes over to him to tell him the news… “I was the one here a year ago, and this was what I prayed for (she says, pointing at the child in her arms), and look, I got it! So now I’m giving him to the LORD, which means you get to take care of him here. Have fun, and be nice to him, and may he be God’s servant forever. Bye!” Is this really the woman whose lips were moving but whose voice was silent just one year ago? What happened? Her newfound voice is startling and amazing. Well, she did have the baby she asked for. And not only that, but this baby is not just like any other baby. This child is Samuel, who will become one of Israel’s greatest prophets, the prophet who speaks directly with God and anoints kings. God has not only given Hannah a child, but has placed her in the line of Israel’s matriarchs. She is essential to Israel’s life and continued story. She is God’s chosen one, who brings a bearer of God’s message into the world.
And so she goes into the temple and prays. Last time Hannah was fervent but silent. Now she still prays fervently, but she prays to God out loud, she praises in a loud voice, and she goes on for quite some time. The song she sings as her prayer is remarkably similar to a psalm that is used at the time of the Passover festival, and extols God for God’s amazing power and justice. God has lifted up the lowly and brought down the mighty….God has lifted up Hannah from her despair and depression, and has thwarted the insults and abuse of Peninnah, society, and the priest. God has opened Hannah’s eyes to her full humanity—and now (in the eyes of the world) Hannah is as worthy as any other woman. There is no ground for the community’s view of her any longer, and that has turned the world on its head….God is the only Rock, and God is the one who gives, and God is the one who judges, for the whole earth, and indeed the pillars on which the earth rests, are Gods. Peninnah doesn’t have anyone to make fun of anymore…indeed Hannah nearly addresses her directly: “talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth….” Because no longer is Peninnah able to consider herself better than Hannah. No longer is Hannah the utter bottom of the food chain in the family, a non-person. The society has no more mean names to call Hannah. Eli can’t say she’s a worthless drunken woman anymore. God has made her aware of her wholeness. She is not only a mother, but the mother of a prophet, and thus a crucial character in Israel’s story. No wonder, thousands of years later, Mary used the same words to praise the God who made her a central figure in the same story. And now not only is Hannah lifted up, but Hannah’s voice is lifted up. In the beginning of the story, she was silent, but now she raises her voice for the heavens and the earth to hear—she speaks up at long last. And she uses her voice to say “this child isn’t what’s important—and I’m going to give the boy back to God, who is The Holy One who breaks molds, does new things, and reverses injustice in the world.”
It seems that Hannah’s is an early story of women’s rights, of women’s voices and authority in the home and out of it too. This is a story voiceless women, and indeed all people, can plug in to, a part of the story of God’s community that we can all find our voices in.
Some of you may be wondering “how can I find my voice in a story about a woman who can’t have children?” Our society today doesn’t place such a strong emphasis on children as anyone’s only path to worthiness, thankfully. Hannah’s story is not just about the child, though. It’s also about judgment and worth. Yes, the ancient community judged women by their child-bearing ability. Later, the medieval community judged people on their piety. And now our modern community often judges us on our education, our car, the church we belong to, the clothes we wear. We, like Hannah, may not be able to find our own voices to speak up against these judgments. But, also like Hannah, God shows us our full humanity, and opens our eyes to our worth as God’s children. Our worthiness lies, not in the expectations of society, but in our identity as God’s beloved, God’s chosen people. And so, like Hannah, we must raise our voices for earth and heaven to hear, speaking up for ourselves and others, and exulting in the Holy One, beside whom there is no other.

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