Like last week, this was another week where I struggled reading the lectionary passages (1 Samuel 1:4-20, 2:1-10, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8) and tried to lean into the difficulty instead of shying away from it.
Maybe in the last year or two I’ve gotten better at burying the infertility issues instead of facing them head on. I don’t want bitter. I don’t want anger. I don’t want grief. So the infertility thoughts get packed away in the back of the brain closet while I choose other thoughts. Only those infertility thoughts are not compliant. They pop out from the overfull closet at moments where I really don’t want them.
Are you pulling these back out, God? Or is it me? Either way, can we be done with this yet?
And so, as I looked ahead at the lectionary assignments last week, I battled a case of hysterical laughter when 1 Samuel 1 appeared in the list. I could not help myself. Here we go with more passages about biological children. Of course the story of Hannah’s infertility and the miraculous birth of Samuel would show up this week.
Once upon a time in the infertility journey, this passage comforted me. I marinated in it for hope. I bargained with God, like Hannah. From stories I’ve heard in my family, my mom did a similar thing before the birth of my older sister. But, for me, in return, crickets. Nada. Nothing.
The past few years I’ve kept my distance from 1 Samuel 1. When I’ve had to look at it for seminary assignments or other teaching gigs, I’ve felt something akin to dread. I don’t know what to do with it anymore.
Dread settled in this week. And friends, here’s the deal: reading the Bible is hard sometimes. Don’t get me wrong. It is worth it. God speaks. The words bring life. But, this is hard. At least, trying to be the best reader I can be is.
I come to the Bible with my questions and issues, but my issues may not be what a passage is talking about — even as the kinds of issues overlap.
Let’s take my infertility issues as we look at 1 Samuel 1. Back when I found this passage comforting, I looked at Hannah as a sort of road map for my situation. Hannah wrestled with infertility, and she prayed a certain way (i.e. bargaining). God responded to her positively. So, if I did x, y and z, then God should respond similarly to me. Basically, I looked for magic to manipulate God. And I wasn’t really paying attention to what God was doing in 1 Samuel, so much as what I wanted to see happening in my own life. God didn’t take me up on my bargains, like I noted in this blog post from a few years ago.
And now, I’m not sure what to do with Hannah’s bargain or vow: is it something to emulate or not? Or is it a reflection of what humans do when they’ve hit a point of utter desperation and despair? She receives peace after the prayer (1:18), and her prayer is answered positively (1:19). Additionally, the narrative is careful to note Hannah positively (1:24-28, 2:20-21). So, what am I supposed to do with that? I’ve got some cognitive dissonance going on here.
Also, because I don’t have reasons medically for infertility other than a run of bad luck, I can get stuck at 1 Samuel 1:5-6. In case we missed the first reference that Hannah doesn’t have children because God closed her womb (1:5), the writer repeats the reason again in verse 6. It’s like a neon flashing sign: “Hey folks, in case you were wondering, Hannah doesn’t have kids because God made her infertile.”
We don’t get a reason why God acted in this way, just that God caused Hannah’s state. Maybe the consolation prize is that Hannah’s situation is not her fault? But, how do you deal with infertility being caused by God? So, God, did you cause my infertility?
See how I just jumped there? I totally skipped from Hannah’s story into mine without looking closely at what Hannah’s story is about, anyway.
I think the writer is emphasizing God at work in the story by the repeated emphasis on God having closed Hannah’s womb. God is doing something in Hannah’s story, and the narrative doesn’t indicate Hannah did anything wrong. So, her infertility was not about God judging her. Also, to be clear the statement about God closing Hannah’s womb is used as the reason for her husband’s and her rival’s behavior. There’s some fuzziness over whether the situation can be attributed to God or whether that’s human interpretation of Hannah’s situation. And I missed that important detail when I was too caught up in implications for my situation.
Now that I’ve illustrated where I’ve run afoul in this passage, what do I do with it? Why is it here?
The passage is both about Hannah and her infertility, but is also bigger than just Hannah’s infertility. God is about to do huge things in Israel’s history through Samuel; Samuel is the last judge and he anoints the first kings of Israel, Saul and David.
We see dramatic birth stories in the Bible at big moments: for Abraham and Sarah with the birth of Isaac, the recipients of God’s promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations (see Genesis); of Moses, floating in a basket and adopted into Pharoah’s household (see Exodus); for Mary and Elizabeth with the births of Jesus and John the Baptist, respectively (see Luke 1-2). Hannah’s story here sets the stage for the uniqueness of Samuel: how he was set apart for God and grew up in the temple.
Even as Hannah leaves the young child Samuel behind at the temple in fulfillment of her vow, she is filled with wonder at the character of God. Hannah marvels at God’s justice, that she has been vindicated by the God who weighs human action and judges justly (2:1-10).
I feel a certain sense of wonder at God, who heard a woman’s misery and vindicated her in a way that’s bigger than she could have imagined. Not only does Hannah have the child Samuel, but her child goes on to do really awesome things in Israel’s history.
And today, for the first time in a long time, Hannah’s story doesn’t have to become my story in order for me to find wonder and hope in God. That’s a step in a helpful direction for me.