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To go along with my summer sermon series on minor characters from the Bible, I have decided to use this space each Thursday to explore the stories of other characters I will not be covering on Sundays. This is the first reflection in the series.

Read 1 Samuel 1:1 – 2:10

In 1 Samuel 1 and 2 we encounter Hannah, who is destined to become the mother of Israel’s last and greatest judge, Samuel. At the time we meet her, however, she is the childless wife of a guy named Elkanah, whose other wife, Peninnah, is particularly fertile and won’t let Hannah forget it. It may be that Peninnah is envious of Hannah (despite her “curse” of childlessness) because Elkanah clearly favors Hannah. We see this in his practice of giving Hannah a “double portion” of the meat from his sacrifices. The writer tells us he did this “because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb” (1:5).

In this we see one of the problems that the story of Hannah brings to our attention: patriarchy. The primary source of Hannah’s despondency throughout the story is her inability to bear a child—specifically “a male child” (1:11). To have a son would give her honor and take away the cloud of shame she has been living under her entire married life. But because she is caught up in the sticky tendrils of the system of patriarchy, she cannot imagine having a sense of worth without bearing her husband at least a girl child. That’s why Peninnah’s constant ridicule gets under her skin so easily and reduces her to tears: the other woman has honor because she has delivered a number of children, including at least one boy.

To his credit, Elkanah tries to soothe Hannah, but he cannot escape the long shadow of patriarchy either. He says 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?” (1:8). He is able to forgive her for the “sin” of childlessness, but he is still only able to conceive of her happiness as a function of his own. He very magnanimously offers his love and protection despite the blow to his honor that she represents, but it’s still his honor that he’s concerned about. He’s able to shrug off the shame Hannah brings because he loves her, but it’s still shame.

The story goes that Hannah travels to Shiloh with her husband to offer sacrifices at the tabernacle (or so he can offer sacrifices, anyway—patriarchy again), and while she is there she has an encounter with the high priest Eli. She is praying earnestly to God, asking for that all-important male child, and Eli, when he sees her lips moving, assumes she is drunk. She defends herself, saying, “I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman” (1:15–16). Hannah has so internalized the code of patriarchy that she assumes, along with the Men in Charge, that drinking wine and making a “drunken spectacle” of herself, as Eli characterizes it, automatically makes her a worthless woman. The code of honor and shame is rearing its ugly head again: what a woman does is important insofar as it affects male honor. That’s why female activity must be so strictly circumscribed. This was true in Hannah’s day, and we still see it in force in places such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. To be a “worthless woman” would make one’s husband look bad, and we can’t have that.

When Eli finds out what’s really going on, he sends Hanna on her way in peace, and, wouldn’t you know it, Hannah conceives a child. Having promised to dedicate the child to God’s service, she comes back to Shiloh a couple of years later, this time with the boy Samuel in tow, and leaves him in the company of Eli. She then sings a song (2:1–10) that serves as a forerunner for Mary’s remarkable Magnificat a thousand or so years down the line.

What can we learn from the story of Hannah? For one thing, we learn that God listens to our prayers, even when what we pray for is not optimal. God was gracious to Hannah when all she wanted was to live up to the standards of a fundamentally unfair system, but I strongly suspect that God continued to work with Hannah to expand her notion of what it means to be fully human. God wants to do the same thing for us. Hannah’s story can teach us not to settle for “the best we can do” under an unjust system. God wants our best, even when we cannot identify that best ourselves. Reflecting on Hannah’s experience can open us up to new dimensions of freedom and new ways to serve and honor God.

Patriarchy is no one’s friend. Even though it seems to benefit men over women, even we men are bound by the rules and strictures of patriarchy. As disciples of Jesus, let us aim higher. Let us aim for equality between the sexes. Let us aim for honoring women for who they essentially are, not just for their instrumental value as mothers or sexual objects. Let us aim for the full flowering of our humanity—an outcome that depends on the full flowering of everybody else’s humanity as well. Let us aim, as always, for love.

Grace and peace,