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A Tale of Two Priests

A Homily from I Samuel 4:1-20

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Antioch Baptist Church

November 16, 1997 (33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Our Hebrew Bible reading today is a treasured story of our faith, and perhaps a familiar one to many of us. It is the story of a family, the story of two priests (one who is, but barely, and one who is to come), and it is the story of a woman. Interestingly, although this passage prepares us for the birth of Samuel, who will be the voice of God for Israel in a very troubled time, this story speaks very little about God, but tells us a lot about ourselves.

The context is a familiar one in the Hebrew Bible. We have a doting husband, Elkanah, who has two wives. One of whom, his favorite, Hannah, is without children. On the other hand, his second wife Peninnah has given birth to an abundance of children. Many of our great biblical figures, such as Isaac, Joseph, and Samson, were born into just such a situation.

Why do we see this pattern over and over again in the heritage of the heroes of Israel. Over and over again we see these large families, but still there is a sense of dissatisfaction, a sense of expectation. Surely God has an even greater blessing in store for the future. Each time we see this pattern, a father and mother are waiting. Abraham and Sarah wait for the child that will be born to them out of their love, a love that had endured and grown over a lifetime. The child of that love will be Isaac, one of the ancestors of God's chosen people. Jacob and Rachel also wait for their first born, and year after year Leah gives Jacob another child who can join them in their waiting. Jacob and Rachel had worked for their love, in fact, seeking Rachel’s hand had cost Jacob fourteen years of his life, but the child of that labor eventually came. His name was Joseph, and he would save the young nation of Israel from starvation.

Then there is a woman who has no name. We know only that her husband’s name is Manoah, and that they too had waited long for a child of their love. He comes, and his name is Samson, and he is the greatest champion in the history of Israel. Incidentally, I think that we can rest assured that this part of Genesis, at least, was not written by a woman. I somehow find it unlikely that a woman would write about childbirth and consider the man’s role to be the important part.

Why, over and over again, do we see this pattern? A loveless marriage that is filled with children, and a loving one that is without them? What do we see of God’s plan in this? Well the first thing that we see is that these stories are not about God giving and withholding children as punishments or rewards. I can only imagine how many couples have heard these stories over the years and believed that their own lack of children was a sign of God’s displeasure or punishment. But listen very carefully, that is not the theme of any of these stories.

Each of the Hebrew Bible accounts of a barren couple is set in a time of tremendous need for the nation of Israel. For Abraham and Sarah, that need is simply to found the nation of Israel, the nation of God’s covenant. For Jacob and Rachel, there is the coming famine which Joseph will subdue. For Manoah and his unnamed wife, there is the oppression of the Philistines. For Elkanah and Hannah, the subjects of today’s text, the crisis will be Israel’s need for a king.

Each time we read of an expectant couple and a child withheld, we are also reading about times of great need. The children who are born are not just children, they represent the awesome intervention and providence of God. When we read of God withholding those children, we see God reserving that power until the right time. In the births that eventually follow, we see the wisdom and faithfulness of God’s plan. these stories are not about babies, they are about hope. Sometimes, God offers that hope with a child, as with our own Saviour, and sometimes God offers that hope in ways that we cannot comprehend except through faith. What these passages remind us, however, is that God’s hope will come in God’s time, not ours.

And that will be the case with Hannah, although she does not know it at the beginning of our story. What she does know is that she is not fulfilling the full potential of what God has planned for her. In her case, that potential will come in the person of Samuel. Hannah knows that she has something unique to offer, and she cannot understand why God is not giving her the opportunity. Certainly, her rivals torments could not have made waiting for God any easier. How often are we like Elkanah’s other wife? How often do we confuse our apparent success with God’s blessing, and the apparent failure of others with God’s judgement? How often is the reverse true? How often do we think of ourselves as failures, and trace the cause of that failure back to the will of God?

Hannah’s story reminds us that to make these kinds of judgements is utter arrogance. We cannot know the will of God. As we learn later in First Samuel, Eli’s children will mean the downfall of his line. On the other hand, Samuel arrives at the one point in history when he can best serve the will of God. We simply cannot know the will of God, and we certainly cannot even begin to glimpse what is success and what is failure in God’s eyes. It is through the withholding of the gift of Samuel that God blesses Israel when the time is right, and not before.

Yet Hannah knows that the time is near, and that her opportunity to offer what she has to God will come soon. That is what a baby represented to her, a chance to offer something to God. As I have said before, in the times of these stories, women were of little value accept for their ability to produce children. They did not have the opportunity to have careers or identities outside of their families. A child, then, represents Hannah’s chance to contribute to the work of God.

But Elkanah does not understand that. He says to her, “Aren’t I enough? I should be more important to you than ten sons.” Elkanah gives in to a natural temptation, to believe that the problem is about him. But it is not about him, it is about Hannah’s relationship with God. What can she offer?

After all, Elkanah has already worshiped at Shiloh. He has had the opportunity to sacrifice and to offer his best before God. Hannah has not had that same chance. And so, unlike the wife of Manoah who waited for God to come to her, Hannah takes her fears directly to God. She has no animal to offer in sacrifice. In truth, as a woman, she could not own property anyway. There was no thing that was hers that she could offer as a sign of obedience before God. Instead, she offers all that she has, her promise. If God will remember her, then she will dedicate the child that God provides to the service of God. Remember, this child is more than a baby. This child represents the hope of Israel, and Hannah’s hope to give back to her community and her God.

That hope is all that Hannah has, and she marches into the place of worship, into the very presence of God, and places it on the altar. In effect, she is saying, “This is all that I have to claim as my own, and even that I surrender to you, O God.” Can you imagine how hard those words must have been to speak? Utterly alone and afraid, perhaps even angry at God because she had waited so long and so faithfully, Hannah gives the one last thing she has, hope, to the God who seems to have forgotten her. I am reminded of one of the most painful scenes in Scripture, where Abraham must raise a knife in the air above his own long-awaited son to demonstrate the depth of his faith. Hannah’s offering is no less real. She has offered the one thing that she has, hope.

Before we are told, however, that God has heard her, we learn that Eli the priest and leader of Israel has. As we will learn later in first Samuel, there are few figures as sad as Eli. He has been entrusted by God and by the nation to be the speaker of the Word of God. But Eli is not a great leader, nor even a good one, and he is certainly not a good father. Although he does not seem to be an evil man, his apathy and weakness has allowed his sons to pervert the priesthood which God had given as the bridge between themselves and God’s own self. Eli is a pathetic figure, yet somehow he feels fit to judge the authenticity of Hannah’s commitment.

We can learn much from Eli. As I said, he does not seem to be a bad man, but he and his descendants were more concerned with what they would get out of the people’s sacrifices than they were with what would be put into them. As such, even though it was his responsibility to offer sacrifices and prayers for the whole people, he does not recognize authentic prayer and sacrifice when it is right in front of him.

I will not presume to speak for you, but I know that I have been like Eli. I have stood in church and thought, that person does not even understand what they are saying. They are not taking this seriously. They are not doing this in a worthy manner. That is exactly what Eli says of Hannah. But how could he know? How can any of us know? By what standard can we judge the depth of another’s commitment? Eli had everything and gave nothing, yet he presumes to judge Hannah who had so little and gave it all.

Hannah, however, is not to be dismissed so lightly. She has already faced God, I imagine that Eli did not seem very imposing by comparison. She explains that it is not wine that she has been pouring out; it has been her own heart. Eli does not know what to say, except to join his own prayer to hers. The Hebrew here is uncertain, but it would seem that Eli does not offer Hannah the assurance that her prayer will be answered, but rather his own hope that it will.

Now look with me for a moment at verse 18. “And no longer downcast she went away and had something to eat.” If you will remember, in verse 7 we are told that Hannah’s the indicator of Hannah’s frustration and pain was her inability to eat. Here we see, as she departs the place of worship, that she has been healed. Notice, however, that this healing takes place before her prayer is answered. The real answer to her prayer did not come with the birth of Samuel, but in her willingness to surrender even her hope to God.

And so, when Samuel is born, we are told that Hannah names him to commemorate, not God’s answer, but her asking?

What does this story have to offer us? After all, it is not a story about wanting and receiving children. Hannah’s prayer was answered before Samuel arrived. There will certainly be times of crisis in our own lives. Black places where, like Hannah, we have nothing except perhaps hope. Hannah did not cling to that hope, but instead offered it to God. Her hope, then, became not her ability to have a child, but God’s ability to use that child.

It is so tempting, when we are lost and alone, to look to try to hang on to what little we have. It only makes sense. Yet the kingdom of heaven is not about gathering together it is about giving away. As long as we keep our faith in ourselves, as long as we clutch our abilities close to our chests, then God will give us what we want to depend on– our selves and our human abilities. If we surrender them, however, to God, then we allow God to transform our gifts into the miraculous hope of heaven.