#tbs1sam A Few Reflections on 1 Samuel 1

An interesting idea has been brought forward by Alastair Roberts– a Twitter Bible Study. Under the hashtag #tbs1sam participants can share thoughts on a given chapter. The discussion began with 1 Samuel 1, which is what caught my interest, as 1 Samuel has been a subject of much of my intellectual energy in the past. The character limit on twitter means short fast posts. I was happy to join the conversation, and am looking forward to chapter 2 which has already begun (Alastair and some other contributors are in the UK, so they have a head start). But I thought it would be good exercise for my exegetical mind to put my thoughts and observations into complete thoughts here on my blog. So, it seems we’ll be walking through 1 Samuel over the next little bit.

Here’s my thoughts on chapter 1:

The mention of a barren wife (Hannah) to this upright Israelite (Elkanah) immediately tips us off to what Robert Alter, Keith Bodner and others label a “type scene”. The Old Testament likely begins as oral records, eventual written down. Various story telling techniques (plays on words, repeated phrases, etc.) are employed as cues for the audience. Here we have the annunciation type scene featuring a barren wife. There are obvious illusions to previous events. The quarreling between Hannah and Peninah is reminiscent of both the Sarah-Hagar conflict and the Rachel-Leah conflict. Two wives, one fruitful the other the beloved but barren wife. Several barren wives feature in the Old Testament narratives. When we see these women mentioned, we expect something. A miraculous opening of a womb to bring forth a son. This son is always a key figure not just in Israel’s history, but in God’s salvation history. Consider the sons born to previously barren women: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph & Benjamin, Samson. Now Hannah (whose name means grace) prays for a son, and a prophetic voice (a key element in the type scene) announces the coming of a child. Here, in an ironic/comical twist the prophetic voice comes from the corrupt priest, Eli, who unknowingly prophesies the birth of his replacement as leader of Israel.

The New Testament authors, well acquainted with these type-scenes, employ them in revolutionary ways. Luke’s gospel begins with a barren wife, Elizabeth, and an angelic annunciation of a forthcoming son. The first time Jewish hearers would assume that John will be the key to the story- the new liberating figure like Samson or Samuel, coming to lead God’s people against the pagans. But Luke flips the script so to speak. Instead of the son born to the woman who should have been fruitful, God uses the womb which shouldn’t be bearing fruit (yet). The virgin, who has no business being pregnant, is the new source of salvation history. Salvation of mankind comes from healthy, but unused womb of Mary.

While Hannah weeps over her barrenness, her loving husband says, “Am I not better than ten sons?” This seemingly insensitive remark is actually a precursor- an allusion to what is to come. In the same way Hannah asks (Hebrew verb sha-al) for a son like the other wives, Israel will ask for a king like all the other nations. God sees this as a rejection of theocracy- a rejection of his leadership over Israel. Am I not better to you Israel than ten kings? The narrator is framing the journey of Israel toward kingship. In the Jewish canon, Ruth does not fall between Judges and 1 Samuel. So this point is heightened, as the Elkanah-Hannah story follows the final words of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

Hannah’s prayer is fascinating, as in the arrangement of the Hebrew canon, the first mention of the title יְהוָ֨ה צְבָאֹ֜ות (YHWH of Armies) by a character is this humble barren woman, pleading for a son. The title shows up frequently in the Old Testament (260 occurrences) mostly in the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah in particular) but nowhere in the Pentateuch (Exodus 7:4 does state that God has armies/hosts under his control, but the title YHWH of Armies is not used), Joshua or Judges (this kind of title seems fitting for Joshua and Judges given the content of those books) . However, in this context it seems misplaced. Hannah does not call on El Shaddai, or YHWH Jireh. She calls on the God of Armies. Why? The narrator is giving us clues regarding the son to be born. This will not be a mere child or miraculous birth, but a son embroiled in war and violence. Interestingly, as David approaches battle against Goliath, he calls on the same יְהוָ֨ה צְבָאֹ֜ות – a more fitting time to invoke this name. But our narrator is tying the events together. Eli, Samuel, Saul and David are all linked by this woman’s prayer (I wrote a paper on the usage of YHWH of Armies for a course I took on 1 Samuel a few years back, so I have lots more to say on this topic if any cares enough to inquire).

Eli the priest attempts to cast her out, assuming drunkenness (odd that a high priest wouldn’t be able recognize prayer- speaks to the spiritual condition of Israel at the time), and Hannah tells him, “do not consider your handmaiden a daughter of Belial”. Ironically, in the very next chapter, the narrator calls Eli’s sons, “sons of Belial”. Something is amiss in the priesthood.

There is a complex word play here in chapter 1 surrounding the verb sha-al (to ask). We read that Samuel’s name is because he was “asked” for. Although the name Samuel look like it may be linked to the verb, it is not a known form of sha-al, but Saul very much is. Israel asks for a king, and get Saul, and Samuel the judge and prophet is dejected, feeling like he should continue to lead Israel. He was not the one Israel was asking for. In turn we discover that Saul is not the man Israel should be asking for.

**These reflections, and those that follow are indebted to several key books. I don’t reference  them in specific ways, but I draw much of this from the following sources:

Yairah Amit. Reading Biblical Narratives: Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible. Yael Lotan (trans.) Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Robert Alter. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Robert Bergen. 1, 2 Samuel. (NAC) Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996.

Keith Bodner. National Insecurity: A Primer of the First Book of Samuel. Toronto: Clements Publishing, 2003.

Barbara Green. King Saul’s Asking. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1989.

This entry was posted in #tbs1sam, Old Testament, reflection, theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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