Weekly Seeds: Seeking Answers

Sunday, November 14, 2021
After Pentecost Year B

Focus Theme:
Seeking Answers

Focus Prayer:
God our rock, you hear the cries of your people and answer the prayers of the faithful. Grant us the boldness of Hannah that we may persist in prayer, confident in your steadfast love. Amen.

Focus Reading:
1 Samuel 1:4–20
4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
12 As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the LORD.”

All readings for this Sunday:
1 Samuel 1:4–20 and 1 Samuel 2:1–10
Daniel 12:1–3 and Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11–14 (15–18) 19–25
Mark 13:1–8

Focus Questions:
This week, I encourage you to consider the questions that you have for God and make a list (individually or as a small group) to ponder.

By Cheryl Lindsay

This passage begins with the dynamics of a family immersed in drama. Multiple wives, infertility, and the ensuing rivalry might be rejected by producers of reality TV as being too over the top to be credible. We enter the narrative that ultimately documents the ascent of Israel rise as a nation rather than a collection of disparate tribes not by hearing the birth accounts of her first kings. Rather, we meet the parents of the prophet and judge who will be charged with anointing them. This is more than one interesting family’s tale; it’s Israel’s history.

It shouldn’t be surprising to us to find this to be the case. After all, the life of a people living under the rule of a monarchy would naturally be impacted by those at the helm of its leadership. What we witnessed in Hannah’s story addresses the questions that arise out of Israel’s story. The original hearers of this text would have been in the midst of confronting a world that seemed very far from the promises of God. Those who put together the eyewitness accounts and oral tradition that provide the content of the books of Samuel recognized in Hannah’s journey a parallel to the people of Israel, who had the blessing, favor, and love of God, but still felt their circumstances fell short of the promises of God.

Do we ever experience that?

Do we evaluate our lives and realize that our condition is good, but it doesn’t match our expectations, hopes, and dreams? Elkanah’s question to Hannah reflects a husband who loves his wife but may not quite get her. He knows something’s wrong. “Why is your heart sad?” is a great question in and of itself. It’s open to her grief. He sees her and acknowledges her pain. The problem is that it’s followed by a question that implies she has no right to respond to her circumstances in a way that is authentic to her and that he should be the center of her happiness and well-being.

“Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Elkanah asks Hannah. He makes Hannah’s story all about him, when it’s about her and her relationships that include him but are not exclusive to her spouse. Whatever it is that is causing infertility for them has happened to her. (“Because the Lord had closed her womb.”) Pennianh taunted her. That double portion that Elkanah gave Hannah was a kind and compassionate gesture, but it doesn’t address her need. His love is good; it’s also not enough to satisfy her.

A note of care in engaging this text: This is not the only story of infertility in the Bible. We can hear echoes of Rachel and foreshadowing of Elizabeth. Often our sermons treat these stories on face value as stories about fertility and equate the worth of women with their ability or even willingness to produce biological offspring. This can be harmful to those in the community who struggle or have struggled with infertility or do not choose to parent. Alternatively, we can reinforce patriarchal perspectives by making this all about Elkanah and his affirmation of Hannah and consider her ungrateful or unreasonable in not being satisfied with that. I believe the editors who shaped this story found it to be an encouraging and instructive metaphor for its original audience beyond the issue of fertility and suggest that is a faithful way for us to engage it today.

Therefore, the context of the audience for whom this was intended is as important as the events detailed in the text:

[1 and 2 Samuel] also describe a crucial transition in the understanding of Israel as a political entity in the context of the conflicting power claims of the ancient Levant. They describe it, however, for the benefit of communities that are wrestling with the need to understand what Israel is in their own very different situation of defeat and the continued influence of powerful imperial forces. The model of communal identity put forward here has had persisting effects on the models of nationhood that shaped modern Europe and the ideology of colonial expansion, and in turn the complex issues around identity that underlie the struggle for independence from colonial rule (Hastings). The utopian dream of an independent and homogenous Israel united under one king and one God is presented and critiqued in the book in ways that can still inform and unsettle current political arguments. For modern readers, they raise difficult questions about how identity is to be understood and how differences between genders, generations, and ethnic groups are to be dealt with. (Hugh S. Piper)

Those who first heard this tale would have felt Hannah’s dejection as their own. They would view the prosperity of their neighboring nations as taunting to them as Peninnah’s provocation was to Hannah. Contemporary readers in faith communities around the world can identify with the sense of Hannah’s defeat that seems to be sanctioned, if not imposed, by God. Anyone who’s ever experienced disappointment at a lost hope or unfulfilled promise has probably been encouraged to “look on the bright side.”

In Hannah, we find an example of how to deal with spirit-crushing disappointment. Courtney J. P. Friesen suggests that the proper translation of verse 15 (“I am a woman deeply troubled” in the NRSV) should be “I am a woman hard of spirit”:

Hannah’s self-characterization as “a woman hard of spirit” need not mean that she was obstinate or disobedient; rather, it could well describe a misfortune which she perceived to derive ultimately from the agency of God. Indeed, the narrator twice specifies that “Yahweh closed her womb” (nom “UO mm, r Sam 1:5, 6), and thus the attribution of her present anguish to a divine influence in 1:15 follows naturally. (Courtney J. P. Friesen)

The letdown of years of hope denied, like dreams deferred, does something to the spirit. Hannah knows what has happened to her yet refuses to accept defeat. She appeals to God. She prays and even seems to negotiate. Desperate circumstances lead to desperate prayers, and we witness her attempts to exact a change.

Her encounter with God gets interrupted by Eli who understands her no more than Elkanah. It’s interesting the priest seems unfamiliar with someone in a posture of fervent prayer. Why would she leave her place feasting at a table to go to the temple other than to pray?

Both Elkanah and Eli ask questions of Hannah, but their questions are not intended to gain understanding. Rather, their questions shield their wrong-minded assumptions about her and her condition. Do we ever question God in a similar way that challenges more than inquires? There are times when it’s helpful to already know the answer to a question you pose. If you’re an attorney cross-examining a witness, you hopefully would have done your due diligence. You don’t want to be surprised or unprepared because it might damage your case. But, that scenario assumes an adversarial relationship. That’s how Elkanah and Eli frame their questions even if they don’t actually desire any harm to come to Hannah.

She responds in different ways to the two men with whom she enjoys different relationships. While she is closest to Elkanah, she offers no counter to his assertion. She doesn’t reject his offer of himself as a fitting substitute for the child she longs for outright. She goes to petition her source, the cause of her state of being and distress. She doesn’t rebuke Elkanah or refute his claim, but she also doesn’t accept it as the final answer. She seeks answers from the only one she believes can provide it.

With Eli, whom she may have encountered for the first time, she defends herself from his aspersions. She convinces him of her integrity, changes his attitude toward her actions, and gains his endorsement. In doing so, she receives the hope that she came to the temple to find:

Eli gives Hannah his blessing and she receives this as God’s blessing, apparently taking it for granted that her prayer has been heard. There is no evidence in the OT that the prayers of religious professionals are to be seen as more effective than those of any sincere believer. Nevertheless, it is possible that Hannah believed that Eli had exceptional powers. It is also possible that the peace she felt was a result of having expressed herself to God. She was comforted as much by her conviction that she was understood and accepted by God as she was by any conviction that a child had been promised. (Mary J. Evans)

The second possibility could be true even if Hannah believed that she received assurance that her prayer would be answered affirmatively. Hannah reminds us that seeking answers is best done by seeking God. Elkanah, while sympathetic, and Eli, while open to reevaluation, can only do so much. Eli’s best moment happens when he serves as a conduit for God’s assurance.

Finally and most importantly, there’s the nature of Hannah’s prayer. She may have been comforted by being understood, but she asked for a gift. Hannah appears to be bargaining, but maybe she was actually praying for purpose:

Hannah’s longing for a son may have been inherently selfish, but it was not exclusively so. Rather, Hannah is communicating her personal longing for a son and her genuine desire to dedicate to the Lord all that he gives her, including her son (she assumes that a son is necessary for her to do this). The prayer expresses no doubt that God will understand her position and will listen as she pours out her heart. (Mary J. Evans)

Wilda C. Gafney informs us that, “In the ancient Israelite sacrificial system most offerings (except whole burnt offerings) were split between God and the giver.” Hannah’s prayer may seem transactional, but the reality is that it was covenantal. And she went to the temple by herself to declare herself before her Creator and to offer herself as a co-creator and vessel of God’s purpose and blessing upon God’s people.

God remembers her, just as God remembers us. Hannah keeps her part of the covenant and she, not Elkanah as would be customary, names the gift that the Holy One has shared with her, Samuel, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

That’s the blessing. That’s the gift. That’s the answer. That’s enough.

For further reflection:
“Pleasured equally
In seeking as in finding,
Each detail minding,
Old Walt went seeking
And finding.”

― Langston Hughes
“Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. Mortal or immortal, few really ask. On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds — justifications, confirmations, forms of consolation without which they can’t go on. To really ask is to open the door to the whirlwind. The answer may annihilate the question and the questioner.” ― Anne Rice
“Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable.” ― Albert Camus

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.