I Samuel 1:21-2:11 – The Song of Hannah
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 10, 2008
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church broadcast live from the chapel of Home Church in Old Salem. We are now in the season of Lent, which is a time of self-examination and fasting in preparation for Easter. On Wednesday, millions of Christians gathered in worship and had ashes placed on their foreheads as a sign of penitence. The ashes are typically made from the palm fronds used the previous year on Palm Sunday, and they represent our mortality and our sin. Wearing ashes, though, is far less important than genuine repentance and change of life. Too often, Lent becomes a meaningless ritual of giving up a favorite food rather than a being period of self-examination and purification. If giving up chocolate or coffee during Lent helps free you from the shackles of selfishness, then give them up. But if such a token sacrifice makes you act like the Creature from the Black Lagoon rather than like Christ, then try a different Lenten discipline. Instead, try giving up yelling at your children or talking about yourself all the time. During this Lenten season as we journey with Jesus to Calvary, perhaps we could all take a vow to offer ourselves in sacrificial love to those who need love the most.
Shiloh Last week we ended with the birth and naming of Samuel, and we had a very good discussion after we went off the air. We talked about the significance of the shrine of Shiloh where Elkanah and his family worshiped. Shiloh was in the land of Ephraim near a tributary of the Jordan River, a long way from their home in Ramah, which was in the territory of Benjamin. Much of the action in I Samuel takes place in Benjamin and Ephraim, two of the tribes associated with the matriarch Rachel. We saw last week that Hannah’s story is similar to Rachel’s in Genesis, and this would have had a special relevance for the tribes of Benjamin and Ephraim.
Shiloh was once an important city for the Israelites. Joshua made it his place of residence during the conquest of Palestine, and the Book of Joshua says that it was the site of an assembly of the tribes when the conquered land was divided. During the period of the Judges, there appears to have been an annual gathering of tribal leaders at Shiloh, and the city figures in a number of tales in the Book of Judges. The original town of Shiloh was uncovered by Danish archaeologists in the 1920s. They discovered evidence that Israelites had lived in Shiloh in the 12th century BCE, during the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age, which fits well with the chronology in I Samuel. There is evidence that the city was destroyed by the Philistines around 1050 BCE, but it recovered. It flourished for centuries but was completely destroyed about 600 BCE and was not rebuilt until Roman days. At the time of the writing of I Samuel, then, Shiloh was a ruin.
Unfortunately the archaeologists did not find the shrine at Shiloh, but it does appear that before the Israelites arrived there had been a Canaanite fertility cult at Shiloh. This could explain why the references to Shiloh in the Book of Judges focus on sex. For instance, the tribe of Benjamin seized wives from among the dancers at a yearly festival at Shiloh (Judges 21:19), and in another story hundreds of virgins were taken to Shiloh. The connection of Shiloh with fertility might explain why Elkanah and Hannah went there year after year, but the author of I Samuel makes it clear that it was not ancient fertility rites that made it possible for Hannah to conceive; it was the power of God.
The Ark Shiloh remained one of the major shrines of Israel until the Temple was built in Jerusalem. According to I Samuel, the ark of the covenant was housed at Shiloh. Basically the ark was shaped like a portable throne on which the LORD God could sit as ruler and judge the people. Last week I mentioned that God was worshiped in Shiloh as the LORD of Hosts, and there are references to the ark being used in battle by the Israelites during the days of Moses. Thus, there was a connection between Shiloh and warfare, which may date from the days of Joshua. Someone suggested after class last week that this may explain why so many churches were named Shiloh in the South after the Civil War.
More important for understanding I Samuel is the fact that the ark was a physical connection to covenant of Moses made at Sinai. The pieces of the original Ten Commandments were placed in the ark so that the covenant could travel with the Israelites in their wanderings. Thus the ark remained a physical reminder of the Exodus when God raised up a prophet to rescue the people from oppression and established a law. When the first audience heard the story of Hannah going up to Shiloh to pray for a child, they probably recognized the connection between her story and that of the Exodus. Right from the beginning, we should expect that her child, like Moses, will be chosen by God as one to deliver his people from oppression. Like Moses, he will be a prophet and judge of Israel. With that in mind, I’ll continue reading I Samuel 1, beginning at verse 21.
Read I Samuel 1:21-end.
Dedication of Samuel After Samuel was born, Elkanah made his yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh to sacrifice to the LORD, but Hannah did not go. She remained behind with her infant son, promising that she would take him to the shrine after he was weaned. It is interesting that the text mentions that Elkanah was going to the shrine to pay his vow not Hannah’s vow. According to biblical law (Numbers 30), the husband had to confirm a vow for his wife. Wives were not bound by vows that their husbands did not agree to. That would be particularly true for a vow that involved a man’s son. It is helpful to recognize that Elkanah participated in the sacrifice of his wife and agreed to it. It is curious that Elkanah tells Hannah that he hopes that the LORD will make good his word. Other ancient texts read “your word,” which may make more sense. Elkanah is telling Hannah that she needs to do what she promised.
Hannah does not fulfill her vow immediately. She prudently waits until Samuel is off the breast and can live without her. She tells her husband that she will bring Samuel before the presence of the LORD when he is ready. This is a concept that is a little hard for modern people to understand, but ancient peoples believed that the gods lived in their temples and shrines. This was true of every ancient Near Eastern religion that we know of. In most religions, the god was represented in his or her shrine by a statue, often in a holy of holies. The Israelites were different since they did not have statues of the LORD, but they also believed that their God was present primarily in his temples and shrines. The shrine at Shiloh would have been particularly filled with the presence of the LORD since the ark was there. So, Hannah was speaking literally when she said she would bring Samuel into the presence of the LORD at Shiloh.
The time to present him was when he was officially weaned and could live apart from his mother. It remains customary in the Middle East to throw a major party when a child is officially weaned. The celebration marks the transition from infancy to childhood, and it is a recognition of the fact that the child has lived past the most vulnerable years. Until modern times, most humans died in infancy. Thus, this feast marks the point when a child becomes a human being in his or her own right rather than being an extension of the mother. The celebration for the birth of Samuel was a major feast for the family, and it included the sacrifice of a three-year old bull.
Sacrifice In many ways, it would have resembled Mardi Gras more than Lent since there was much eating of meat and drinking of wine, but Hannah gave up something more precious than anything we give up for Lent. She spoke formally to the priest, reminding him that she was the one who had prayed for a son years before, and that she was grateful to God. Then she let him know that she was fulfilling her vow by presenting her child to the LORD. Her words of dedication are important for people of faith today. She acknowledges that God had answered her prayer by giving her a child, but in response, she returns the child to God. As we discussed last week, Hannah recognized better than us that the gifts given by God are not meant for our selfish use. We are asked to give back what we are given, preferably in a way that benefits everyone. The most important part of the dedication is told very simply. “She left him there for the LORD.” If we did not know the rest of the story, we might think this was narrating a child sacrifice, and in a sense it was. Hannah was offering her first-born son to God, much as Abraham had done, but this sacrifice was life-giving.
Caution There is a problem, though, with taking this story of Hannah and Samuel too far, though. After we went off the air last week we discussed the fact that many mothers and fathers have dedicated their children to God as priests or ministers even though the children themselves may not feel called to the ordained ministry. We need to remember that if we truly dedicate our children to God, then we need to let God decide how to use them rather than forcing our children to live out our dreams for them. Hannah dedicated Samuel to God, but God in turn will call Samuel to be a prophet. We cannot force others to fulfill our vows or our vocation.
Incidentally, some pastors today use this story of Shiloh to justify the practice of dedicating infants in church instead of baptizing them. This is a recent innovation that has been very controversial in some denominations. It stems from the desire to have both believers’ baptism and a ritual of inclusion of infants in the community of faith. Whatever the merits of such a practice we have to recognize that it bears little resemblance to what Hannah and Elkanah did at Shiloh. Few pastors would want people dedicating their children by leaving them to the pastor to raise! What is missing from the story are the emotions involved as a mother leaves her child behind. The Bible does not tell us about the tears of the boy as his parents made the long journey across the hills. We can only speculate on how this affected him later in life.
Read I Samuel 2:1-11
Hannah’s Song Chapter 2 of I Samuel opens with a long hymn, which is generally called the Song of Hannah. It was not uncommon in ancient Israel to sing a psalm in the Temple when a vow was fulfilled or petitions were raised. The Book of Psalms is a collection of hymns that worshipers could use, but in most cases it was probably the priests or the Temple singers who lifted their voices in praise or supplication. This is not that different from our practices today where we rely on a hymn like Blessed Assurance to express what we are thinking and feeling.
It appears that Hannah’s song was such a psalm. Many scholars today are convinced that this song in I Samuel was inserted into the story of Samuel’s birth much later than the writing of the original story. One indication that this did not originate with Hannah is that it says that God will give strength to the king even though Hannah had never heard of a king in Israel. That line is looking ahead to the story that follows. It also does not seem like something a woman in her situation would have made up on the spot. Though it mentions a barren woman who has had seven children, it does not deal directly with Hannah’s vow or her dedicating her child to the LORD. Instead, the song talks about the victory of the singer, or rather God’s victory on behalf of the singer. We don’t normally use the language of victory in discussing childbirth, but Hannah may have felt that way.
Theology Either this song was written by the editor to express what Hannah should have said, or he used a psalm that had already been written. This is a common practice in writing, and it should not shock us. In the Moravian Church, we often insert hymns in Scripture readings to illuminate the reading. It makes perfect sense that the author of I Samuel took an old psalm that refers to a barren woman having children and inserting it in the story at the moment when Hannah sang to the LORD. The psalm emphasizes that God is at work in history, and that he saves his people. In many ways, this song provides an interpretation for the entire history of the kingdoms that follows rather than simply a response to Samuel’s birth.
Throughout the Books of the Kingdoms there will be reversals of fortune as God enters into the complex affairs of government. The arrogant and proud suffer reversals of fortune in the books of Samuel, and a giant will fall before a shepherd. God will bring victory to David in his struggles against both the Philistines and Saul, but David will also be humbled by God when he sins. Hannah’s Song it is all about God’s ability to reverse situations. If you watched the Super Bowl last Sunday, you can imagine Eli Manning or Plaxico Burroughs singing a psalm that says that the mighty are brought down while the weak gain strength.
In Hannah’s song, the hungry are fed and those who were once full have to earn their bread. The barren have children, but those with many children are forlorn. Even a shepherd may become king, but a king may lose his throne. Someone sitting in ashes and despair may become a prince with many children. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the Book of Job was inspired by this vision of a reversal of fortune brought about by God. This is a song of victory, but it is a reminder that all outcomes are ultimately in God’s hand. God is the author of life and death. It is God who opens the womb and God who takes away breath. There may be the barest indication of a view of the resurrection in this psalm in verse 6 when it says that God can raise the dead from the grave. The basic meaning of the psalm, though, is that nothing in human experience is beyond the power of the God of Israel, and we should be thankful to God for all good things.
The final verses of the psalm keep this from being fatalistic. There is a sense of divine justice in the reversal of fortune. The faithful will be saved and the wicked will be cut off. That in a nutshell is the theology that informs the writing of the history of the monarchy. When Israel was faithful and called upon God, the nation was lifted up, but when the kings were false and cruel, the nation was handed over to enemies. It is the LORD God who judges. The last line of Hannah’s song looks to the future. Not only does the song say that God will give strength to the king, it says that he will exalt the power of God’s anointed.
Messiah The Hebrew word for anointed is Messiah, and it was used for the kings of Israel because they were anointed with oil at their coronation. During the Babylonian Exile, the word Messiah referred to the one God would anoint to save the people from oppression. It is not entirely clear if Hannah’s Song refers to the king or to the hoped-for deliverer. Like many of the royal psalms and prophecies, this verse gained new meaning as the people in exile looked for a messiah to save them. Hannah’s Song has a particular resonance for Christians since it was the model for the more famous Song of Mary in the Gospel of Luke. The Magnificat, as it is commonly called, repeats many of the themes of Hannah’s Song, especially the idea of a reversal of fortune. For Luke, the birth of Mary’s son, Jesus, was the ultimate fulfillment of the aspirations expressed in Hannah’s Song. The one who would bring justice to the earth and exalt the poor was born to a poor woman in a stable in Bethlehem.