Pouring Out My Soul
By Debie Thomas
Note: This essay is based on 1st Samuel 1:4–20. For a reflection on this week’s Gospel, see “Not One Stone” from the JwJ archives.
I cherish any Bible story that offers us a glimpse into a woman’s inner life. Because such glimpses are rare in Scripture, I’m especially grateful for this week’s lectionary reading from the 1st book of Samuel. I’m grateful to read about a woman’s longings, hopes, fears, and joys. I’m grateful to witness her search for God, her encounter with God, her comprehension of God.
Hannah is one of the few female characters in the Bible whose spiritual struggle gets center stage — however briefly. Her encounter with God is one of the few in Scripture that features a woman seeking out the divine on her own terms, on her own initiative. And her response to God’s intervention is one of the few prophetic utterances we hear from a woman in the Bible.
Before I walk through Hannah’s story and highlight some of the gifts it offers, I want to say this: I know that “miracle” stories of barren women who give birth appear rather frequently in the Bible, and I also know that such stories have been deployed by Christians in ways that are hurtful to people living with infertility and child loss. This should be obvious, but it bears repeating: Hannah’s story is not prescriptive. It offers us no spiritual formulas or “how-to’s” for the heartbreaking challenges of infertility and childlessness. Hannah’s is a pre-scientific story that reflects an ancient, patriarchal people’s understanding of barrenness, conception, childbirth, and motherhood. By which I mean, it is absolutely not the case that if we pray hard enough, believe firmly enough, and impress God enough, we’ll receive the child, the cure, the answer, the explanation, or the miracle we yearn for.
That said, I do believe that Hannah has much to teach us about the life of faith. In the rest of this essay, I’d like to highlight three of the spiritual treasures I see in her story:
The faith of the forsaken: The woman we meet in the opening verses of our Old Testament reading is a broken woman living in a seemingly forsaken world. At a macro level, her society is in moral and religious disorder. Israel is floundering for lack of strong, God-centered leadership. As the book of Judges puts it, Hannah lives in a time when there is no king in Israel, and everyone does what is right in their own eyes. (Judges 21:25).
At a micro level, things are no better. Both Hannah and her co-wife, Peninnah, live in a patriarchal system that affords them no worth, dignity, or security apart from their capacity to bear sons. In this context, Hannah’s barrenness is both a disgrace and a danger; if her husband dies, she’ll end up penniless and unprotected, with no heir to speak for her.
Both women also coexist in a marriage that’s miserably dysfunctional. Peninnah has plenty of children, but she doesn’t have the affection of Elkanah, her husband. Hannah, meanwhile, has Elkanah’s love, but it’s a love that earns her Peninnah’s jealous and relentless cruelty. Moreover, Elkanah’s “love” lacks understanding and empathy. When he sees Hannah languishing in her barrenness, his response is infuriatingly tone deaf: “Why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” We aren’t privy to Hannah’s response, but we can easily imagine it. After all, how do we respond when we’re in agony and a well-meaning friend tells us to “stop moping and count our blessings?”
In short, Hannah’s story begins in a desperate and forsaken world. A world of political chaos, marital brokenness, familial strife, systemic injustice, social precarity, and personal disgrace. A world where God seems either absent or hidden. A world where everything seems to conspire against the possibility of peace, hope, healing, and joy. A world — in short — that’s not too different from our own.
And yet the text tells us that Hannah perseveres in her life of faith. Year after pain-filled year, she “goes up to the house of the Lord” and participates in her family’s worship. Year after year, she endures Peninnah’s taunting. Year after year, she forgives Elkanah’s well-intentioned but unhelpful platitudes. Year after year, she weeps, rages, fears, and wonders. But year after year, she worships.
What is it that trains us for the long haul of faith in a seemingly forsaken world? What is it that enables us to endure when the world’s brokenness threatens to overwhelm us? What is it that primes us to recognize God’s faithful presence, even in the midst of madness and mystery?
The answer we see again and again in Scripture is worship. Worship is the faithful response of the forsaken. Worship is the foundation that enables the forsaken to stand.
The prayer of persistent lament: What I love and respect most about Hannah is her absolute honesty before God. As her story moves towards its climax, the text tells us that she goes to the temple “deeply distressed,” and prays with such unseemly vexation and bitterness that Eli, the priest, mistakes her spiritual fervor for drunkenness. When he chastises her, she neither backs down nor whitewashes her story, but tells Eli just how wretched she is: “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. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”
In a world that grants her very little agency, liberty, or value, Hannah takes her spiritual life into her own hands. She refuses to be comforted by anything less than an encounter with the divine, and like her male counterpart, Job, she insists on being heard by the God she doesn’t understand but still reveres. In a religious culture that sees her barrenness as a curse and a punishment for sin, Hannah walks boldly into the temple on her own terms, essentially declaring that her plight is neither her fault nor God’s curse, but rather, an occasion for profound sorrow and long lament — an occasion that breaks God’s heart. No half-baked comfort, no religious cliché, no priestly rebuke can deter her; she weeps and grieves and pleads until she is spent.
It’s worth remembering that when Hannah enters the temple, she has no idea what her future holds. She has no guarantee that her circumstances will change. In fact, even when she leaves the temple, she has no guarantee. All she knows is that she’s voiced her lament in the presence of a God who loves her. Secure in that knowledge, she goes back to her quarters, eats and drinks with her husband, and “her countenance is sad no longer.”
If there is a “formula” implicit in Hannah’s story, it’s a formula for the holy work of lament. For the honest, vulnerable-making work of grieving in the presence of God. It’s so unfortunate that we (especially in western Christianity) shy away from this gift. Is it because we’re afraid of our own brokenness? Worried about offending God? Convinced that Christianity should keep us permanently happy? If this is the case, what should we do with the fact that Jesus himself weeps in the Gospels? Weeps over his beloved city? Weeps over his dead friend’s grave? Weeps over the will of God which leads him to a lonely cross?
Our cultural squeamishness notwithstanding, the prayer of lament is the prayer of the faithful. It’s a prayer of resounding truthfulness, a prayer that stands in the jagged place between what is and what ought to be, and grieves for all that is broken, all that is lost, all that might have been but is not. In Hannah’s story — and in ours — unflinching lament is the gateway to healing.
The song of the saved: In lieu of a Psalm this week, the lectionary gives us Hannah’s prophetic song of reversal, vindication, and rescue. When God grants her a son, she readily joins the Biblical tradition of women like Miriam and Mary who open their mouths and sing aloud their salvation.
What particularly strikes me about Hannah’s song is the way it frames the birth of Samuel in the broadest possible context, such that Hannah’s personal joy becomes the joy of a wholly repaired and redeemed world.
For Hannah, the gifts of God are transformative at a global level, because they usher in a new reality for everyone: “The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 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.”
In the world Hannah sings into being, the arrogant are silenced, the feeble are strengthened, the mighty are humbled, and the barren are fertile. Her son’s birth is a sign that God is on the move, healing and remaking all things. It’s not simply that God heals her barrenness; she sings of a God whose abundance enlivens everyone. It’s not enough that God intervenes in her private experience of injustice; she sings of justice and equity for all.
What would it be like to frame the gifts we receive from God in this powerfully cosmic way? To insist that God’s abundance isn’t just for us personally? To persevere in doing justly and loving mercy until everyone tastes the goodness of their Creator?
It’s so easy in our individualistic cultures to shrink God down to the size of our private concerns, needs, desires, and wishes, such that we’re spiritually content as long as our personal prayers are answered to our liking. Hannah’s song frames salvation in a very different way. The goodness of God in her own life is not an end in itself; it’s a prophetic sign for the wider world. Hannah’s song is a prayer for universal shalom, a prayer for God’s just and love-soaked reign to heal and restore all of creation.
When you sing of God’s salvation, how high and wide and deep is the scope of your song? When you seek healing or justice or mercy or solace, do you seek only for yourself? Only for those nearest and dearest to you? Or are your prayers as roomy as Hannah’s? Your vision for God’s reign as generous as hers? As Christians, we are not called to idolize personal salvation. We are called to sing, dream, pray, and enact salvation for all.
As I said at the outset, Hannah has much to teach us about the life of faith. As we come to the end of this liturgical year, may we, like our courageous sister of old, walk into the future with the faith, the honesty, and the vision of Hannah. May we know as intimately as she does the God of the forsaken, the God of the sorrowful, the God of our salvation.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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