Saturday, 10 November 2012

Making connections between priest and king

Hannah giving her son Samuel to the priest Eli, Jan Victors (Staatliche Museen, Berlin, 1645)

Patrick Comerford

In our tutorial group, we have decided to look at the Old Testament lectionary readings for the Sundays after our residential weekends. Tomorrow week [Sunday, 18 November 2012], is the Second Sunday before Advent (Proper 28).

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: I Samuel 1: 4-20; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10: 11-14 (15-18), 19-25; Mark 13: 1-8.

I Samuel 1: 4-20

4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8Her husband Elkanah said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’

12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth.13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ 15 But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ 17 Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ 18 And she said, ‘Let your servant find favour in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

19 They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’


The four books I and II Samuel and I and II Kings come together as a single collection, presenting us with an account of Israel’s monarchy and telling us the story of Israel’s kings.

The story of Samuel (I Samuel 1-2) marks the period of transition before the monarchy. It is followed immediately by the story of Saul, Israel’s first king (I Samuel 13-31) leads us into the story of David.

Despite God’s reluctant agreement to kingship, David, whose reign beings in II Samuel 5, represents the highest expression of a kingdom under the rule of God. The covenantal bond between God and his people is first sealed through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Then it is refined through Moses. Now it is about to be worked out in a nation with roots that draw nourishment from its religious ideals, beliefs and customs.

Introducing the text:

There are several stories in the Bible of once-barren women who have unusual births and children late in life who are seen as a special favour from God, including:

● Sarah (Genesis 17:16-19);
● Rebekah (Genesis 25: 21-26);
● Rachel (Genesis 29: 31; 30: 22-24);
● The mother of Samson (Judges 13: 2-5);
● Elizabeth (Luke 1: 5-17).

An unusual birth was thought to be symbolic of the importance of the person in later life. This reading is a good reminder of this in these weeks as we are beginning to prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ and the birth of Christ.

Reading the text:

This collection of books on the monarchy opens in the time before the monarchy, when the Temple in Jerusalem Temple has not yet been built. We might read here that Elkanah is a member of the tribe of Ephraim, rather than a godly descendant of Levi who lives in the hill country of Ephraim. Because of his place of residence, he is known as an Ephraimite, but he is really of the tribe of Levi (see I Chronicles 6: 33-38).

Elkanah is on a visit to the Temple at Shiloh for one of the three great Jewish festivals. Elkanah takes with him his two wives, Hannah and Peninnah and the children of his younger wife, Peninnah (I Samuel 1: 1-4).

Polygamy was not common, but we know it was permitted. For example, we read:

“If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn” (Deuteronomy 21: 15-17, NRSV).

Shiloh was 20-25 miles north of Jerusalem, and this is where the Ark was kept (see I Samuel 3: 3). There also were temples in Shiloh, Bethel and Mizpah, and Shiloh is also mentioned as a centre of worship in Joshua 18: 1; Judges 21: 19; Jeremiah 7: 12; Psalm 78: 60.

At Shiloh, Elkanah takes part in a sacrificial meal. We are told that God has made Hannah childless (verse 5). In spite of this, Elkanah “loved her” and he gives Hannah “a double portion” of food and drink.

This is a very special time for rejoicing, when sadness is prohibited (see Deuteronomy 12: 17-18). But Hannah is sad. For many years, her “rival” (verse 6), Peninnah (verse 4), taunts Hannah about her barrenness. In spite of her husband’s love and considerate attitude towards her, Hannah has been so provoked and irritated reached the point where she can take it no longer.

This time round, after the meal, Hannah goes to the entrance of the temple in Shiloh, and there she meets Eli, the priest (verses 9-10).

Hannah prays to God and makes a vow: if God will grant her a son, she will make him a “nazirite” (verse 11). A nazirite was dedicated or consecrated to God, refrained from drink, and was not allowed to have his head shaved.

A first-born son was always dedicated to God, but was not expected to go as far as becoming a nazirite. However, Hannah offers more: he will be a nazirite throughout his life.

It is presumed that that time prayer was usually said out loud. Knowing that everyone has been drinking, Eli thinks Hannah’s silence in prayer is because she is drunk (verse 13-14). When she answers him very coherently (verse 15-16), Eli realises the error of his judgment, and intercedes with God on Hannah’s behalf (verse 17).

Hannah trusts in God to grant her wish (verse 18). After returning home (verse 19), Samuel is born to Hannah and Elkanah, and Hannah now knows that her desperate prayer has been answered (verse 20).

Later in this chapter, after this reading, Hannah fulfils her promise. When Samuel is weaned, she takes him to Eli in the Temple and gives him to the Lord (verse 24). Samuel is God’s gift to an oppressed woman. His life is God’s gift. Then, in return, his mother gives his life to God (verses 27-28).

Some notes on the text:

Verse 11:

“Lord of hosts”: Hosts may mean armies; if so, the phrase speaks of God’s might.

“male”: It was especially important in Middle East culture that the child be male.

For the Nazirites, see Numbers 6: 1-21, Judges 13: 1-7.

Both men and women could be Nazirites. A person entered this holy state on their own vow or the vow of a parent. There were three conditions for entering this holy state:

● He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, although, after a term of membership, the prohibition on wine and strong drink was relaxed.
● No razor shall touch his head.
● He shall not go near a dead body, even his own mother or father.

Joseph is called a nazir (Genesis 49: 26; Deuteronomy 33: 16) and, according to the Septuagint, Samson too was a nazirite.

Verse 13:

“drunk”: Drinking was part of the ritual (see I Samuel 1: 18; Isaiah 22: 13; Amos 2: 8).

Verse 20:

“I have asked him of the Lord”: Actually, Samuel means “name of God” or, more fully, “he over whom the name of God is pronounced,” or possibly “the name of God is El,” while Saul mean “the one who was asked for.”

“asked”: In Hebrew, the word for asked also means “borrowed,” so perhaps the word should be connected with the word “lent” in Hannah’s prayer later (see verse 28). Hannah has begged or borrowed her son from God, so she lends him back to God, by whose grace he has been granted.

The other readings:

Christ the King of Kings and Great High priest ... an icon from Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

If you are going to preach on the Old Testament reading, then it is important to make connections with the other lectionary readings at the same service.

Psalm 16:

Psalm 16 is about placing our trust in God, who will not abandon us. However, this appears to be an exceptional or unusual variation for the Church of Ireland in the lectionary (see The Book of Common Prayer, p 61; the Church of Ireland Directory 2012, and the Church of Ireland website).

Otherwise, the RCL provides for Psalm 16 only when the alternative Old Testament reading is used (Daniel 12: 1-3). Instead of the Psalm, if I Samuel 1: 4-20 is used as the Old Testament reading, then I Samuel 2: 1-10 should be used as a canticle.

Hebrews 10: 11-14 (15-18), 19-25:

The author has told us how much greater is Christ’s sacrifice of himself than the annual sacrifices of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. Now he says that what any priest offered daily in sacrificial ritual for the forgiveness of sins was worthless, unlike Christ’s “single sacrifice” (verse 12).

After Christ dies and is raised, he becomed king. In Eastern Mediterranean culture, kings sat down, but priests stood up.

Since that time, he has been awaiting the final defeat of his “enemies” (verse 13), although the author does not say who those enemies are. For by offering himself on the cross he has “perfected” (verse 14) or completed the removal of sin from those whom God has “sanctified”, made holy, or set apart for his service.

Elsewhere, salvation will be completed when Christ comes again.

The Old Testament writings, divinely inspired through the “Holy Spirit” (verse 15), foretell this. Jeremiah wrote that there will be a new covenant, one in which God’s ways will be written in peoples’ very being (verse 16), and where God will, in effect, clean off the sin slate (verse 17).

We have a new covenant (verse 18), a new deal with God. From verse 19 on, we are told of the consequences of the new covenant. Since Christ’s sacrifice allows us to enter boldly into God’s presence (“sanctuary”, verse 19), now that there is no longer a barrier (“curtain”, verse 20) between the faithful and God, and since Christ is “a great [high] priest” (verse 21) who has sacrificed for the Church (“house of God”), we have three privileges or duties:

● to approach God in faith with clear consciences (verse 22);
● to “hold fast” (verse 23) to our statement of faith (made at baptism), reciprocating God’s fidelity to us;
● to stimulate the expression of “love and good deeds” (verse 24) in others.

These duties must be performed in the context of the liturgical community, especially since “the Day” (verse 25, Christ’s second coming), is approaching.

Mark 13: 1-8:

We are nearing the end of Christ’s instructions to his disciples. Christ has indicated to them that the poor widow who gave all that she has is a good example of discipleship.

In verses 1-2, Christ predicts the destruction of the Temple, as the prophets Micah and Jeremiah had done earlier. His words were later used against him.

Did he mean it literally or figuratively? We do not know. (Both the Temple and the religious system were destroyed in 70 AD.)

Then Christ and his first four disciples, Peter, James, John and Andrew (verse 3) visit the Mount of Olives – a place mentioned in the Old Testament (see Zechariah 14: 4) in connection with events at the end of the era. They ask him when will the Temple be destroyed (verse 4).

How will we know that the end of the era is near? Christ gives them three indicators:

● Many will come in Chris’s name claiming “I am he!” (verse 6) – the Christological ἐγώ εἰμι (ego eimi we associate with the “I AM” sayings in Saint John’s Gospel.
● major international political conflicts will erupt (verse 8).
● natural disasters and famines will erupt (verse 8).

And there shall be other signs too (see verse 14-25 later).

The figure of a woman in labour (“birth pangs,” verse 8) also appears in Jeremiah, Hosea and Micah.

Some questions:

The plight of a woman unable to conceive the much-wanted heir is one of the themes running through the current episodes of Downton Abbey on television. How do you deal with a topic such as this from the pulpit, knowing this is a private and silent source of grief for many women, and for many men too, in your parish?

Are there times when it is appropriate to be sad in our public worship and during the Liturgy of the Church?

As we approach Advent, can you make the following connections:

● between the promise to Hannah and the promise to Mary, or to Elizabeth?
● the misuse of the name Samuel and the name Emmanuel?
● between the lifestyle of Samuel and the lifestyle of John the Baptist?
● between the Temple at Siloh, the Temple in the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, and the destruction of the Temple discussed in the Gospel reading?
● between the priest Eli sitting on his seat rather than standing and the sitting king and standing priest (Hebrews 10: 11-12)?
● between Hannah’s suffering and her psalm and the way in which God reveals himself?
● between Hannah’s weakness and the way God’s power is demonstrated so often at the point of our weaknesses?
● between the Kings of Israel, whose story begins here, and Christ the Great High King in the New Testament reading?
● between these themes and the themes of the following Sunday, which celebrates the Kingship of Christ?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with part-time MTh students during a residential weekend on 10 November 2012.

No comments: