[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 and the song of Hannah in 1 Sam 2 comprise one of the most powerfully evocative portions of scripture. Following the pattern of “cry/save” begun with the Exodus but repeatedly evidenced in the book of Judges, the Hannah texts bring that national dialectic between the people’s cries for deliverance and Yahweh’s salvation down to the personal level in the most poignant way yet seen in Hebrew Bible.
God’s care for individuals has been seen since the very beginning of the narrative: God provides a partner for Adam, a new land for Abram, and protection for Hagar. That God cares about barren women has been seen previously in the cases of Sarai, Rachel and the wife of Manoah, Samson’s mother. The presentation of Hannah’s ordeal and ultimate triumph is special in that, of the barren women, she alone is granted the place to sing her mothering song in the text, a privilege the Gospel of Luke will later grant to Mary.
The social setting of the leitmotif of “barrenness” is well-known. Fecundity is always of inestimable financial value to families in subsistence economies in consequence of the potential increase in production and hence, wealth. A woman capable of reproduction is thus accorded an increased level of social status in proportion to her fertility, which may seem of negligible significance in contemporary life, but which was highly prized in traditional economies, where status is untethered from money, since hardly anyone has any. The accrual of honor (increased social status) or shame (decreased social status) is the fundamental means among these people for establishing the pecking order in a community, which is its way of keeping track of who is doing better or worse at embodying its common values. Barrenness in such contexts is a source of tremendous shame for both the family, as well the woman, who gets a double-shot of it, first from the community, but then also from her family, who experience her as a “lost opportunity,” like a first round draft pick who can’t perform at the required level, who seemed to be such a good idea at the time but who, despite all the best hopes, doesn’t pan out. Even worse, everyone knows that at some point, the barren woman will become a “worthless eater,” incapable of providing or caring for herself, and having no children of her own, will one day become a drag on someone else’s children’s prosperity.
But Hannah is not asking God for a child in order to increase her wealth. Nor is she asking for a child to protect her well-being in old age. Instead, she promises the child back to God. She asks for a child for relief from her shame, an important point that no pastor should overlook, because for many who live with shame, it is as debilitating as physical starvation. In political terms, what this suggests is that people need dignity and need to experience a baseline sense of honor as part of their well-being, just as much as they need 2200 calories a day. Any policy solution that does not provide for both of these should therefore be considered inadequate.
In the present text, Hannah’s situation has two additional complicating factors. First, she happens to be in a polygamous marriage with a man, Elkanah, whose other wife, Peninah, is as fertile as Hannah is barren, a fact which the latter woman and her burgeoning brood never tire of taunting Hannah with. The second, and more profoundly-troubling theological complication, is the narrator’s disclosure that the reason Hannah is barren, and thus suffering so grievously at the hands of her tormentors, is that God has closed her womb. Reading this disturbs contemporary readers, just as God hardening the heart of Pharaoh does in Exodus. There is no adequate justification or rationale that the pastor can provide which will soothe the modern conscience on matters such as this, since what her parishioners want to hear about is a God who acts in a transparently straight-forward manner to do good things to people. It rankles us that God, as he does to Job, would be so cruel to someone so obviously virtuous as Hannah. But it reminds us that, however close and concerned God appears in the text, ultimately he remains largely hidden and inscrutable, particularly in his motivations, which the text rarely, if ever, discloses. That in itself is part of the text’s political theology, for the limit placed on the reader’s capacity to know and hence, to control God, curbs what has always been the great temptation for people of faith everywhere.
The result of this “zooming in” onto the life of a barren woman has had political relevance from antiquity to the present, but how the text spoke politically to the audience of antiquity is somewhat different from how modern readers hear the story today. This is because of the vast difference between the socio-economic conditions of the lives of people in the Ancient Near East and those in Western industrial democracies. The basic story is about a marginal woman to whom God shows compassion and to which he provides ultimate deliverance. Everybody gets this. The difference is that, in the modern West, where we have so much, it is hard for many people, especially middle and upper class whites like me, to plot ourselves into the story as marginal figures, even when we know intellectually what being marginal means. So because many of us have difficulty identifying personally with marginality, what we do instead is to follow the normal pattern of thinking of our culture, which is to see the text as one of God simply giving me what I want. I deserve it, after all.
And it is this that the pastor has to attempt to head off. For while God is indeed presented both here and elsewhere as a personal God who takes seriously the cries of his people, what should be read as a text which presents God as the champion of and in solidarity with the oppressed, can all too quickly be read as presenting God as the Santa Claus at the mall promising you everything you want. And that’s not what this text is about.