I Samuel 1:4-20 – The 25th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, November 15, 2015
“Then she made this promise: ‘Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life . . .’” (I Samuel 1:11)
Tell me about Hannah’s place or time of birth. Tell me how or when she died. Tell me what happened to the woman also known as Samuel’s mother between her first and last breaths.
No response? Are you word-searching your digital Bible? Perhaps desperately Googling?
Indeed, my brief opening paragraph summarized the scant Biblical verses on Samuel’s mother. Punctuation-wise, the apostrophe between the “l” and the lower case “s” defined Hannah.
Not fair, you might protest. There are more apostrophes and details to her credit: Elkanah’s barren wife, Peninnah’s rival, believer, pray-er, promise-maker and a woman whose name means grace.
And yet, like so many within the vast Biblical landscape, Hannah arrived like a whim and vanished in a heartbeat. She’s like the college roommate who departed before the semester ended or the temp worker with the nice smile whose name you can’t recall by the next day. It’s especially like that for Biblical women. What do we know about Miriam? She’s mostly an apostrophe: Moses’ sister. What do we know about Bathsheba? Another, slightly more elaborate apostrophe: Uriah’s wife, David’s stupidity, Solomon’s mother. There are many women, and of course men, children and even angels and demons appearing and then disappearing on the pages of the “Good Book.”
And so with Hannah, we glimpse her and wave farewell. But, at least for me, the glimpse lingers.
The Biblical Hannah bargained with God. As a polite, professional pastor I’ve always cautioned parishioners about human-Holy bargaining.
Please, please God, give me a bike and I’ll be a good boy. Bad prayer!
Please, please God, help me find a parking place and I’ll treat everyone nice for the rest of the day. Bad prayer!
Many bargains are more serious. We barter health, happiness, and money. For ourselves. For others. For life itself.
Barren Hannah bargained. As Elkanah’s other wife, who may love her husband “more than ten sons,” nonetheless bargained for a child. Oh, it’s not a bargain? Pardon me. Let’s label it with an appropriately faithful word . . . she vowed that if she birthed a child—male and not female, thank you very much—she’d give him back to the Lord.
My mother did that.
She made a Hannah-like vow. There, I’ve said it. I tell folks never to bargain. But, in our family legends, my mother apparently did. My parents were married in the early months of World War II. As with so many, they lived with stress, experienced separation, and moved repeatedly as my father—in the Army Air Corps—went from assignment to assignment. They had it easier than some, harder than others. And they were childless. Apparently, at some point (secretly, faithfully, foolishly or all three), Mom vowed to God that if she could have just one child, she would give it back to the Lord. Years passed. Eventually, my parents had three children. Thrice blessed, they would’ve proclaimed on most days!
One became ordained: me, the middle child. Was I “given back to God?” Was I the fulfilled vow? How dare I think that way! Or, how dare I not? Mom mentioned her vow only a few times. My two sisters and I didn’t have childhoods burdened with unrealistic future expectations. My path to ordination was not superior or inferior to my siblings’ unique journeys. Indeed, I believe all three of us were “given back to God.” All children are. Parents raise children, not to keep them, but to eventually (hopefully, lovingly) point them along their own way.
* * *
We read the terse account in I Samuel and smile when a priest spied Hannah praying—silently, only her lips moving—and accused her of drunkenness. We may also smile—a bittersweet smile—when Elkanah wondered if he’s not worth ten sons. Aren’t we saddened with and for her? Hannah was childless, like Abram’s Sarai in Genesis, like Zechariah’s Elizabeth in Matthew, but oh how she longed to have her womb filled with a new life.
So Hannah prayed. Hannah vowed. Hannah hoped. Her story weaved into my life, for I’m grateful that Mom, at most once or twice, whispered to me that she vowed a child would be given back to God. I suspect most days I don’t live up to my mother’s long-ago vow. I suspect Samuel may have also shared those self-critical sentiments.
But I read and relish the briefest of Biblical stories. Hannah, barely an apostrophe, who disappeared after a smattering of verses, continues praying in and through my life.
And what about you?
What vow—made by you or for you—brought you to this point and will carry you into God’s next promise?
*Image from the book (Die Bibel in Bildern) by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872).