There is a critical difference between the Quran - the Muslim holy book - and the Bible. For Muslims, the Quran is the speech of God dictated without human editing. For Christians, the Bible is divine inspiration working through human agency. In other words, when looking at the Bible, we should take seriously who said what, when and why because it is the story of God’s unfolding relationship with the human race. As far as we can tell, most of the Bible was written by men. While trusting in the divine inspiration of scripture, many feel that their voice and the voices of countless male theologians through the centuries have predominated. It’s not that the voice and the role of women is lacking in scripture, it’s just that we sometimes have to do more digging to find it, like mining for oil rather than coal.
The opening chapters of the First Book of Samuel contain the intriguing story of Hannah. Hannah was married to Elkanah, but so also was Penninah. Penninah had been blessed with children but Hannah had not. Infertility can be a cruel reality for some people whose distress is less readily accessible to others than the physical symptoms of illness and who therefore may receive less prayerful sympathy. Hannah’s husband Elkanah would say to her: ‘Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’ Elkanah may have meant well, but those words were simply inadequate from someone blessed with children of his own through another wife. ‘Cheer up, you’ve got me’ was an insulting challenge to Hannah to pull herself together. This might have been easier but for Penninah, the other wife, who taunted and ridiculed Hannah for her infertility.
The sheer nastiness of Penninah takes the breath away, but it emerged from a culture where polygamy was tolerated without sufficient sympathy for the moral hurt and anguish it could cause. Penninah’s attitude looks heartless to us, but we are often only dimly aware of our own competitive streak and how our conversation can sometimes put other families down as a way of raising our own up out of the insecurity we feel.
Hannah’s response to this is to pray in deep distress to God. Hers is one of the most intimate and anguished laments in scripture. This is a woman with a personal relationship with God who is able to articulate all the hurt she feels and to engage with him as a friend. She does not believe he is lofty and indifferent to her pain and enters into a spot of bartering with him, reminiscent of Abraham himself. She makes a promise that if God gives her a child then she will give the child back to God in service to him. Some people are understandably suspicious of those who make deals with God. You know what I mean: ‘if you get my wife through this illness than I’ll believe in you again’ or ‘if you enable me to get this job I’ll give some of the salary away’. In the secret places of our hearts we try many negotiating positions with God, some of which even we reject as too instrumental. We should be reluctant to make deals with a Lord who calls us to unconditional love for him, but it’s interesting that Hannah felt she could – and that God answered her.
As she prayed in the temple, the priest Eli observed her lips moving and her disorientated state and jumped to the conclusion that she was drunk. Eli has been rightly criticised by many readers of 1 Samuel for being judgmental of Hannah but there were mitigating circumstances. She was at Shiloh for a festival where the expectation was that people would eat and drink with abandon. If someone was swaying and muttering in church at Christmas midnight we might assume they were drunk. But Eli should have known better than to confront Hannah with the hostility he did, accusing her of being an inebriated ladette. I’m not entirely sure the original Hebrew uses this term, but you know what I mean. Eli himself was guilty of hypocrisy here because scripture describes his sons as worthless and greedy. Yet it is an innocent and vulnerable woman whose actions are misinterpreted and who is forced to defend herself.
In time God answered her prayer and Hannah became pregnant, giving birth to Samuel. Samuel was to become one of the greatest figures of scripture, rescuing Israel and bearing witness to the goodness and mercy of God during a particularly godless era in its history. Hannah’s prayer of praise and victory in 1 Samuel 2 is one of the most remarkable passages of scripture and clearly the inspiration for Mary’s song of triumph in Luke 2 when she has been visited by an angel and told she will give birth to the promised Messiah. Mary’s song is the better known of the two but it’s rather like a remix of an original song that younger audiences are not aware of.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
This young mum gives us fresh and perceptive insight into the character and purposes of God. We should not underestimate either the wonder or the severity of what she discloses about God. Human society is preoccupied with status. Having obtained standing in life, human beings will do anything to preserve it for themselves and their descendents. Yet here God promises through the prophecy of Hannah that he will shake this world; that he will tip it upside down and let the pieces fall in a new pattern where the first will be last and the last first. He will decide its shape and those who wish to be a part of this new creation should know that humility before God is the test of citizenship.
We do not have to wait for the signs of this happening - even Hannah saw it with her own eyes. Her deal with God led to Samuel being dedicated in the service of the Lord in the very temple that her accuser Eli ran. In time God replaced the misguided Eli and his godless sons with the very child Hannah cried for as Eli accused her of drunkenness.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly. (Luke 2: 52)
And this most beautiful of biblical prophecies was delivered by a mum who, like most mothers of young child, would have been woefully short of sleep and sanity. Out of her fragmented state of mind, God announced to the world the new shape he would give it at the end of time.