Commentators and interpreters honor Hannah as an example of patient faith and faithful kindness. Hannah endured derisive taunts from her sister-wife, who clearly saw her place elevated above Hannah’s! She faced misguided (albeit well-meaning) counsel from a husband who apparently just missed the point wherein ancient economies, social class, and cultural acceptance were based, for a woman, on having children. In short, her husband’s warm feelings of affection, a childless woman like Hannah was shamed and worthless in the larger community.
But Hannah is resourceful and discerning. At the time when her husband brought the family to make the sacrifice to the LORD at far off Shiloh, Hannah “presented herself before the LORD,” praying fervently to God in lamentation, promise, and hope. When she is confronted by Eli, Hannah even has the gall to talk back to the priest, who had wrongly misnamed her distress as drunkenness. I find it extraordinary indeed that Hannah does not react with rebuke and maybe even retribution at the ongoing onslaught of shame and jealousy. Instead, Hannah claims her dignity as she names the pain in her life, and she exhibits embodied agency in the face of accusation and injustice.
I won’t pile on to those interpretations that make Hannah nothing more than a piece on the chessboard of history. It is true that Hannah’s actions and her promise play an important part in Israel’s transition from one political structure to another, from the loose confederation during the age of judges to the unified monarchy. This was a time when Israel was politically vulnerable, with a dearth of wise leadership and both “church” and “state” (if the two can be separated) in turmoil. And Hannah is the turning point (much like Mary will be the turning point as the mother of Jesus)!
However, before becoming the history-maker, we find Hannah in her suffering. We find Hannah in deep grief and lamenting before God! We find Hannah in her experience of injustice and wrongful accusation, in having to overcome social assumptions for her voice to be heard, in having to meet expectations for her life to be given value. Hannah might very well be honored today as paragon of patience and faith, but in her own day Hannah was decidedly not honored. Hannah’s experience (like the experience of so many women across time and culture) was the experience of injustice, social oppression, and patriarchy.
And yet, as the saying goes, “she persisted.” Hannah persisted!
Hannah was an extraordinary woman! Period. End of thought. Even aside from her role in history, Hannah was extraordinary! A woman of kindness, faith, patience, and strength, Hannah’s experience looks far too similar to so many who are oppressed – literally, pressed down – by those privileged with status, power, and social-agency…those oppressed by cultural and social sins of exclusion and hatred wrapped in names like racism and misogyny, prejudice and xenophobia. Indeed, Hannah was held low because of her gender and held even lower because of what she could not do (ie. bear children)!
And so, yes, Hannah could have been tempted to an understandable rage! I think that there is the temptation to destructive rage, to react to change and challenge with hurtful speech or bruising action. Such rage seems rampant! With some I can empathize. With some I can understand. And with some I respond with a rage of my own. (I see the irony, and I confess!!) Hannah could have chosen this path. Instead, Hannah chose a different path.
Indeed, rather than rage, Hannah persisted in faith.
Hannah persisted in faith, not blindly or without grief, but with a sense of God’s faithfulness. She sought the God who had led the Israelites out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into a new land. She trusted that God would be her also in her barren wilderness to lead her into a new place.
This story of Hannah (from the first book of Samuel) is paired in today’s lectionary with the gospel passage from Mark 13. Mark 13 is often referred to as the “Little Apocalypse.” Apocalypse means “revelation,” and is a literary form that purports to reveal the mysteries of the future, particularly related to the end times. In this Markan apocalypse, Jesus acts as the revealer. The revelation takes place on the Mount of Olives opposite the Jerusalem Temple, a place already associated with “the day of the Lord” or the end times (see Zech. 14:4). In the scene Jesus is answering a question posed by his disciples about when the stones of the Temple will be “thrown down.” The conversation quickly turns from Jesus’ prediction about the Temple’s destruction to the course of future events and the great cosmic transformation that will accompany the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.
“Beware that no one leads you astray… When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation 4 will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”Mark 13:5-8
Often called the literature of the dispossessed, apocalyptic literature often arises among oppressed or alienated people who have little chance of fighting back against the powerful. Mark’s little apocalypse is no different, being addressed to a Chrisitan population who had suffered and were expecting to suffer more for the movement they had joined. The short-term answer to the question of why they were suffering was that it was because of their fidelity to Jesus Christ and the message of God’s kingdom. The long term answer was that their suffering was folded into the divine plan – the climax of which is to be the revelation of the glorious Son of Man and the vindication of God’s elect.
I don’t want to get bogged down in the meaning and purpose of apocalyptic literature. (I’ll have a bible study soon!) It is enough for now, I think, to say that the basic problem is that the kingdom of God is a divine, future, and transcendent reality. It is God’s kingdom to bring, and all that we can do is pray for its coming (“thy kingdom come”) and look for it in hope. Though it has been inaugurated in Jesus’ life and ministry, its fullness remains future. And it is transcendent in that as a divine and future reality it goes beyond the limits of human understanding and language, thus the need for highly imaginative and symbolic images.
At the end of the description that Mark employs, he has Jesus proclaim that these will just be the beginnings of the birth pangs. Wars. Earthquakes. Famines. Haven’t there been wars and wars and wars, as well as countless earthquakes and famines in all those years since Mark wrote his “Little Apocalypse?” The birth pangs seem to be lasting a very long time!
And then I went back to the Hannah story. How long did Hannah wait? All the narrative tells us was that “in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son.” “In due time…” Hannah had no guarantee and no promise. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, Hannah was not given a timeline for how long she would have to wander through the wilderness before being brought to the promised land. We don’t know the duration of suffering or struggle or grief. We don’t know how long our nation will experience the social pressures and turmoil that we are in. We don’t know how long the COVID pandemic will last.
What we do know is that God is yet at work! Number ten in The Hymnal 1982 is called “New every morning is your love.” The United Methodist morning prayer liturgy has a collect that employs the same language:
“New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.”http://what-about-jesus.blogspot.com/2006/11/morning-prayer.html
The prayer continues by imploring God to “stir up in us a desire” to serve God, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to Jesus Christ, our Lord. This is Hannah’s persistence, borne out of faith, through hope, in the love that fuels us to keep pressing on.
In 2016, Valerie Kaur, a Sikh activist and lawyer, spoke at an interfaith “Watchnight” service that was organized to respond to a series of hate crimes. In part, she said,
“What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the 5 darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ears ‘You are brave?’ What if this is our nation’s greatest transition? What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push. Because if we don’t push we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor in love…”https://valariekaur.com/2017/01/watch-night-speech-breathe-push/
Hannah is a progenitor of this kind of faith and vision. She stands in that stream of faith that boldly proclaims God as the midwife at our side and, come what may, she’s not going anywhere! God is the midwife coaxing and soothing, challenging us to push through the pain in order to receive new life. God is the midwife holding us, the world, and all creation in her strong arms, and urging us to choose life and put aside violence, to do justice and put aside greed, to choose faith, hope, and love. God is the midwife that challenges to be in the world in ways that will allow new life to be born.
This does not mean that we will not suffer or fear or doubt or be anxious. Instead, knowing that God is yet at work allows us to bring that suffering and fear and the anxiety into the larger vision of God’s kingdom-future. Knowing that God is yet at work enables us to bring shape to our hope and reminds us who we are: Children of God entrusted with giving birth to God’s love in our lives, our communities, and our world. May God grant us grace to do it.