Adam and Eve
Abraham and Sarah
Isaac and Rebekkah
Jacob and Rachel
Joseph and Potiphera
Moses and …
I have grown up knowing the stories that shape the identify of the Old Testament people of God as the stories of the Patriarchs. Yet, in the Bible the women play as important a role as the men. Having said that, we know little bits of the women’s stories, but the emphasis is on the men.
Joseph’s wife doesn’t figure large at all – though interesting that she is an Egyptian and she gives birth to Manasseh and Ephraim two of the tribes of Israel.
With the story of Moses we encounter something different.
Moses’s sister has a role to play. And a song to sing. It is a song of victory in battle as the Egyptians are defeated and the people find their freedom. And it is a powerful song at that. The sister of Moses she may be but she stands in her own right at a powerful moment in the story.
Joshua – I cannot remember his wife’s name.
In the Book of Judges one of the 6 whose story is told in full is Deborah. What’s fascinating is that her story is so important that two different versions of it are told. One is in prose – a narrative of the battle Deborah’s victory. The other is in poetry – and is one of the oldest strands of the Bible – a moving evocation of the horrors of the battlefield and associated with Deborah.
The stories of the women of the Bible are not told so much as the stories of the men. Is it that the men have controlled the telling of the Bible? That becomes particularly apparent when it comes to churches who use a lectionary in their Bible readings. In some ways the lectionary takes you to parts of the Bible you would not otherwise read as we have found out when we have used the lectionary in our Sunday evening services.
But at the same time the lectionaries that the churches have used down through the centuries have often eliminated the stories about the women.
It is as we arrive at the first book of Samuel, that we encounter one of the great women of the Bible.
As with Deborah, it is the woman whose name we know and remember … and not the man.
Were I to ask you who Hannah’s husband was you might rack your brains and come up with the name Elkanah. If I were to ask you for Elkanah’s story it would be more difficult to bring to mind.
I want to notice three things in Hannah’s story.
First it begins in tension and sadness.
Elkanah has two wives; the name of one was Hannah and the name of the other Peninnah.
Let’s just stop there a moment.
One of the fascinating things in the Bible narrative is the way marriage customs are recorded and change.
It is a curious thing that nowhere in the Bible is there a commandment defines marriage as the relationship between one man and one woman for life.
That teaching is certainly there, and there very powerfully. But it is not in a commandment as such.
It is one of the things that to me makes these accounts ring true as narratives that come from the ancient world.
As you read through the stories of the women and men I have named at the beginning of our thoughts this evening, time and again you come across variations on a theme with regard to marriage. Maybe in the face of childlessness a woman gives birth effectively as a surrogate mother. Relationships are made with slave women, with more than one wife.
But one thing emerges in the telling of those stories and that is that such partnerships are fraught with tension and difficulty.
That is the case here with Elkanah and Hannah and Penninah.
Read on in the story and the problem is not simply one around the childlessness of Hannah. It is also about the friction between the two.
It is a significant and soul-destroying friction.
The story of such relationships escalates through 1 and II Samuel and reaches its climax in the goings on of King Solomon in the opening chapters of I Kings.
What happens in the narrative of the Bile is that people in succeeding generations seem to try different arrangements in marriage … and over years, indeed over centuries, through the telling of these narratives, a pattern emerges that experience shows is the way that most fulfils God’s ways for h is people – and that is the marriage that then is honoured, not to be broken in adultery, but to be upheld between one man and one woman.
Even then, there is allowance for the possibility of breakdown of a relationship and the possibility of divorce.
It is almost as if the Biblical narrative recognises that relationships and making them work is one of the most difficult of things.
I sometimes think that each generation continues to struggle with relationship. As recently as when I was growing up and even off to college, our society separated the children of single mothers and put them into homes, and even dispatched them to the other side of the world.
A generation on, we support children with their single parents, and the extended family has been re-discovered and maybe another generation are working out how to make these relationships work properly.
For Hannah the combination of the destructive dynamic of the relationships in her family and her own childlessness drive her to the point of near self-destruction … but not quite.
She turns to something that is so important.
She makes for the shrine at Shiloh where she wants to unburden herself to God in prayer. The priest, Eli, is sitting by the door.
So it is that Hannah is seen in prayer..
She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.
She vows to dedicate any child born to her to God’s service.
But the praying then goes on . And it is fascinating to catch a glimpse of what prayer in this circumstance is.
As she continued pryaing before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard.
It is the silent shriek of prayer.
And it is something that the man, Eli cannot understand.
He assumes she’s drunk.
But she implores him to accept that she is praying.
She reiterates her promise.
She returns to her husband.
And they give birth to a son, Samuel.
Once the child is weaned she takes him and presents him to the Lord at the shrine in Shiloh.
I have lent him to the Lord, as long as he lives he is given to the Lord.
And then Hannah prays again.
And this time Hannah’s prayer is recorded.
And it is one of the wonderful prayers in all the Bible.
It is not just the words of a prayer following the birth of Samuel. It is also something of a statement that looks to what is to come.
The way this poem / prayer / song stands at the start of a narrative that is going to introduce us to Samuel who in turn will anoint the first kings of Israel and bring in the kingdom it stands almost as a manifesto. This is what the nature of God’s rule is to be.
Isn’t it fascinating the manifesto should be placed in the words of a woman.
This lays out what is in store.
It is a hymn of triumph – of the people over their enemies.
‘My heart exults in the LORD;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.
But it is more than a war song.
It is a hymn of praise to a Great God
‘There is no Holy One like the LORD,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Notice that something emerges in this hymn that sets the scene for the kind of justice that God stands by.
It is a reversal of the world’s standards.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honour.
There is a wonderful confidence that God will provide
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
and on them he has set the world.
Aren’t we familiar with the faith in these words.
Isn’t there another song that sets the scene for another king?
So much of Hannah’s song is echoed in Mary’s song, the Magnificat.
There is the same reversal, the same expectation of the rule of the one who will prevail.
There is a very real sense that in the coming of Christ the whole pattern that is set out for God’s rule is brought to its fulfilment … and one comes in to reign in the new kingdom of God.
Now in Christ – we see the fullness of the justice of God in the reign of God – but it is one that he ushers in.
And it is recognised first of all by the woman Mary, just as the justice of the kingdoms of Israel is recognised on the lips of a woman, Hannah.
In Christ there is a love from God that doesn’t overcome evil with evil, but overcomes evil with good – and that love that is the very nature of God is what we need to take with us … into our praying in times of distress, and into the relationship we seek to build and the attitude we have to those who struggle with those relationships.