Elkanah had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Hannah had been childless, whereas the Peninnah had many children. The occasion of the annual trip for a sacrifice and a feast at the house of the Lord was horrendous for Hannah because her rival wife used to taunt her about her childlessness.
One year she took refuge in the house of the Lord, where she made a promise to God that if he would give her a son, she would give him back to God to serve him for the rest of his life. Our reading tells of the answer to her prayer, and the fulfilment of her promise.
Hannah saw the birth of Samuel as a salvation – Samuel’s arrival took away her disgrace in the eyes of her community. We in our culture cannot begin to understand how a mother could promise to give away her child; but it does not seem to have raised any eyebrows in her culture. Nevertheless it must have been a terrible sacrifice for her; she was only going to be able to see him once a year when the family went up to the sacrifice, and the only thing she could contribute towards his upbringing was a yearly gift of clothing (1 Samuel 2:19). Not the best example of mothering!
When Hannah made that sacrifice she could only see her own situation: once she was full of shame, now she had received God’s salvation. She did not know at the time that God had more blessings for her – three sons and two daughters! Nor did she know that Samuel was destined to bring salvation to many more people. He became a prophet and a leader of the tribes of Israel. He restored their worship of God, through his prayers they began to resist the Philistines a bit more effectively, and he introduced the first Israelite monarchy when he anointed Saul as King, followed by David. Thus Samuel had a key role to play in the history of God’s people.
This story raises a number of issues for us. One is the issue of childlessness. In many cultures it is still a disgrace for a woman not to have children, and it can be a valid reason for divorce. Partly that can stem from a low esteem of women in general; in many parts of Africa daughters are regarded as the property of their father until they get married; on marriage the husband pays a dowry, and the woman is then regarded as his property. In a situation where there is no old age pension parents rely on children to look after them when they can no longer work.
The Christian gospel changes that view, teaching that men and women are equally important in the sight of God, and that childlessness is not shameful – Jesus had no children, neither (as far as we know) did apostles like Paul. The community of Christians is God’s family, and all look after each other. Throughout church history men and women have chosen to remain single, and are honoured for doing so. Nevertheless childlessness is still a very painful situation for those who long to be parents, and they can sympathise with Hannah. How they wish God would grant their prayers, too. Mothering Sunday can rub salt into the wounds, despite the best intentions. We all need grace to celebrate with those who celebrate and weep with those who weep.
Another issue is that of sacrifice. Is it ever right to bargain with God by promising to make a sacrifice in return for a longed-for favour? The ‘correct’ answer is probably ‘No’, especially when that sacrifice involves others without their agreement. God is not to be bribed. True, the Bible has several instances of such bargains being made, with good results such as in Hannah’s case; nevertheless, the general principle holds true. Sacrificial offerings in the Bible were made as a gesture of love and worship to God, or to atone in some measure for sins, or to say ‘Thank you’, or simply as a celebration with family and friends. We no longer make sacrifices for sins – Jesus has done that for us. But we can still honour God and each other by sacrificial giving.
1) What does Mothering Sunday mean to you?
2) What issues do these readings raise in your mind?