This week we are looking at a Biblical story that sets up a new era for the people of Israel. After the chaos and bloodshed of the book of Judges, 1 Samuel finally sees some stability and structure coming to Israelite society. The video above details the events of 1 Samuel chapter 1. Go ahead and watch the video, or read through the passage we have linked.
The story, of course, centers on Hannah, who at first is unable to bear children but is finally given the ability to do so after praying tearfully in the temple and receiving a special blessing from the high priest, Eli. The son she has, Samuel, ends up returning to the temple to work there for the Lord among the priestly class.
One of the most interesting things that pops up in this story in terms of practical spirituality is the way that Hannah prays. This is one of the clearest examples we have so far in the Bible of someone praying about something specific but not speaking any words out loud. The passage says:
10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. 11 And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”
12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard.
We can infer from this passage that praying silently, "in your heart" or in your mind is a perfectly legitimate form of prayer that can be easily practiced all the time. It's also an example of a striking and powerful contrast: human beings may not be able to "hear" your prayer or understand your spiritual practice, but God certainly does.
The next most interesting part, however, comes with the song that Hannah sings in reflection on all that has happened. This song sets up major themes for the rest of the book and the story of her son:
1 “My heart exults in the Lord;
my horn is exalted in the Lord.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in your salvation.
2 “There is none holy like the Lord:
for there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God.
3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble bind on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
6 The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's,
and on them he has set the world.
9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,
for not by might shall a man prevail.
10 The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces;
against them he will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king
and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (ESV)
This whole passage has many interesting elements. There seem to be some clear echoes of Hannah's own experience - singling out Peninnah and her cruel taunting - but there are also some clear extrapolations that never historically happened in the story. For example, Hannah sings about a barren woman giving birth to seven children, and God raising people out of Sheol (the "underworld"/realm of all the dead), and the "breaking into pieces" of God's enemies. None of these things have taken place within the story so far, but they seem to be pointing to bigger themes that are going to play out in the rest of the story.
Most importantly, Hannah seems to be already embodying the prophetic ministry that her son will take on, because in verse 10 she hints that she expects the arrival of a king whom the Lord will exalt.
Within the story of 1 & 2 Samuel, that king is almost Saul but is ultimately David. God gives Israel leadership and structure to bring them out of the chaos of Judges and into a time of prosperity and strength. Within the broader scope of the Bible, also know that the kingly dynasty of David will ultimately lead to Jesus himself, a different kind of King who will do many of the things described in Hannah's song - helping the needy, raising up life from Sheol, and judging all the earth.
- Notice the interaction between Hannah and Eli in 1 Samuel 1:12-18. What does Eli's reaction to Hannah's prayer say about him as a person? Why might he issue such a hard judgment based on such an incorrect view of the situation?
- Read 1 Samuel 2:12-36. What is the condition of Eli's family? Do you think that some of these experiences might have contributed to Eli's suspicious attitude towards others, or perhaps the other way around - that Eli's distrustful attitude might have fueled the rebellious, chaotic attitudes of his sons? Why or why not?
- Within these first two chapters, we learn that Eli assumes that it's possible that a woman might be very drunk in the temple, and that his sons are inappropriately messing with the sacred sacrifices of the temple and sleeping with women who work in the temple. What does this tell us about the state of religion and spirituality within Israel at the time? How would this level of corruption have affected the faith of the people?
- What lessons can we learn about influence, trust, and community responsibility from the story of Eli?
- Having experienced a retelling of the story of Hannah's prayer and the birth of Samuel, compare this story to the one told in Luke 1. What similarities do you see, especially between the birth narratives of the prophet Samuel and of John the Baptist?
- If Samuel's prophetic work was to prepare Israel for the arrival of their true king, David, what does that possibly mean for the role of John the Baptist as a prophet with a similar birth narrative?