Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Mansplaining in the Bible?
A Child Shall Lead Them, a three week sermon series on children imagined as leaders
Week 2 of 3, preached November 7, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
We are almost to Advent, the season that begins the new Christian year and anticipates the birth of a child in Bethlehem, Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace.
For these weeks just before Advent, we are looking at stories around other births that changed everything. God often chooses an unexpected child, a child born to an unexpected couple or in an unexpected way, as God’s way of leading people toward something new and unexpected.
Our first story last week was from Ruth. We heard how Boaz and Ruth battled cultural patriarchy, racism, and xenophobia to bring a child into the world, Obed, who was an ancestor of David and of Jesus.
Today, let’s pray and listen to the word of the Lord from…
Scripture 1 Samuel 1:1-20
1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite[a] from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. 4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions (on behalf of) his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but (on behalf of) Hannah he gave a double portion,[b] because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.
6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, Penninah used to provoke Hannah. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.
8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord.[c]
Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite[d] until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants,[e] and no razor shall touch his head.”
12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”
15 And Hannah answered, “No, my lord, 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. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”
17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; (may) the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to God.”
18 And she said, “Let your servant (also) find favor in YOUR sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters,[f] ate and drank with her husband,[g] and her countenance was sad no longer.[h]
19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
Much like we did last week, today’s scripture needs some clarification right up front. In biblical times, they did not have our modern scientific or medical knowledge around human fertility. So I need to say, God does not close or open wombs of some people based on who they are, their thoughts or actions or beliefs. Hannah and Elkanah had some fertility issues. Those are very normal in God’s creation and do not carry any special judgment from God on the man or the woman. They just ARE sometimes.
The Bible tends to talk about fertility issues as God opening or closing wombs of the women, but that’s because the bible was in that time when things were more often God’s judgment or women’s fault, and seldom about the men. We know better now, and shouldn’t let these pre-scientific words from thousands of years ago unravel what we have since learned about science or medicine, or what we have learned about God in Jesus the Christ.
With that said, let’s still try to look at this story as it is written and wonder together about this child born in this unexpected way to unexpected parents, a child who will lead God’s people.
The child born at the end of this story is Samuel. Do you know Samuel? Samuel was a great prophet of the tribes of Israel. By prophet, we don’t mean someone who can predict the future. We just mean someone who is in tune with God’s ways of doing community, and someone open and wise enough to imagine the consequences if we rebel against God’s ways of doing community, and someone courageous enough to warn the people and dare them to change and to hold them accountable to God’s ways.
Samuel was trained by Eli. When Eli died, God lifted Samuel up to be the lead priest and prophet to the people. Samuel was their priest when they decided they wanted a King. Samuel warned them, “a king … will reign over you: he will take your sons for his army, and your land to feed his army and his fat belly, and he will take your daughters for his luxury and pleasure, and he will tax you, and you will have to obey him, and you will hate it.” He warned them, but they wanted a king anyway.
Samuel chose Saul to be the first King of the tribes of Israel. Saul was a good king at first, was generous, protective, and fair. Saul did win some great battles for Israel. But Saul also became greedy and wanted more for himself and became suspicious of losing his power. As Saul left the ways of God, Samuel anointed David, son of Jesse, grandson of Obed as the future King, but that just led to a battle for power between Saul and David, back and forth, with Samuel advising, warning, and watching all the while.
Samuel dies, then Saul and his sons die, and David becomes king. Samuel was the child that led the various scattered tribes of Israel to become a united kingdom, a nation, and led them to Saul then to David, the kings that built what the people thought they wanted.
I wonder where Samuel got his gumption?
Not from Dad. Elkanah, okay, sure, he loved both his wives, and he felt sorry for one of them. But wow, that line he said to Hannah, “Aren’t I as your husband better than 10 sons to you?” He really didn’t get it. He was probably much older than her. She was his property. A day would come when he would die. Then what? Who would take care of her in the patriarchal society where women had so little power or freedom or control beyond the life of their male family members. Elkanah loved her for what she gave back to him, but didn’t love her enough to imagine what she needed BEYOND him. Elkanah sounds selfish to me, and Samuel wasn’t selfish. Samuel sacrificed and served for the sake of others, didn’t see things as better or worse for himself but did what was good for the whole.
I’m guessing Samuel got his gumption from mom, Hannah. There’s a point in a hard situation where something has to change. Hard situations force us to make choices… surrender or resist, accept or change, hold on or move on. I bet each of us has faced one of those life changing moments. This was Hannah’s. She is sick and tired of being pitied. She is sick and tired of being picked on. She is sick and tired of Elkanah’s mansplaining about how she should feel. She is going to give it one more big push. Then, whatever happens, so be it. She will be heard. She will say what she needs to say and no one, not her husband, not a priest is going to put words in her mouth or tell her how she feels or how she should feel. She is going to tell God, and anybody else she has to, what she thinks and how she feels. That’s the calling of a prophet, to speak the truth no matter what others might think about you, or do or say back to you.
Hannah comes to church because sometimes, God is the only person that will actually listen to her without judgment. And yes, we can talk to God anywhere, but there is something special about churches, buildings set aside for prayer, song, and worship. I hope this church can be a safe place for every feeling. I worry sometimes we expect church to be respectful or reverent, calm or quiet, proper or serene. Presbyterians can expect church to be done decently and in order. Those kind of churches would probably look at Hannah and do exactly what Eli does. “What is her problem? There is something really wrong with her. Is she drunk? She needs to go take care of her business before she comes back here.”
I think Hannah understands these misguided expectations of church. She comes, but prays at the edge, quietly. She isn’t there to make a scene. She’s already too much the center of negative attention and judgment from the rest of the world. Here, she hopes she can be heard without being judged. And she has no intention of holding back this time.
This time, she is mad. I imagine she is down on her knees, and her fists are clinched, and her whole body is shaking with all the feels. I imagine she is sad, tears are rolling down her face, and her head is shaking like someone in mourning who is in denial. She is desperate. This world is very, very hard on women like her, and she is desperate to have the stigma lifted and some sense of security and acceptance returned. And she is exhausted. She has been absorbing all this from strangers and her own family for so long and she has had it… up to HERE! Its time for her to pour it all out, empty herself of all this anger and disappointment, ridicule and grief, and move on. And she is at the edge of church, hoping church might be the safe place for her to do so.
Its not the founding member or usher, not an elder or deacon, not the one with polished shoes or the one with lots of opinions about the right way to do church that does it. It’s the pastor, Eli. He sees her and makes all the stereotypical assumptions. “She’s out too late, alone. Uh oh. This isn’t the place for her. She’s shouldn’t be here. She’s probably drunk.” I doubt we can ever fully escape all the stupid stereotypes our country and culture have put into us that we may not yet admit or recognize. But surely, we can be careful enough, compassionate enough to hold them inside, not say them, and to go be curious, show compassion, ask some questions, and find out the story of people who come, rather than project upon them any assumptions.
Alas, Eli assumes, and you know what they say about assume. “Good grief, woman. You are making a scene. You need to get away from church and go sober up.”
Earlier today, another man said something ridiculously offensive, and Hannah bit her tongue and walked until she fell to her knees at the doors of a church. This time, this man, a pastor no less, is saying something stupid, and ridiculously offensive. She isn’t holding her tongue this time.
“No sir. I haven’t been drinking too much wine, but I am sick and tired of drinking everyone’s hate and judgment. I’m pouring it all out to God, and I’m begging God to do something, anything about it.”
A good pastor is not someone who doesn’t make mistakes. A good pastor is someone who pauses, and apologizes, and adjusts after a mistake. Eli paused and adjusted. “May you have found favor in God’s sight, and may God grant you whatever you have been praying for.”
Hannah noticed his change and appreciated it. But Hannah also noticed he didn’t apologize. “I also hope I find favor in YOUR sight.”
I’m not sure how to think about it. Maybe it was Eli’s blessing. Maybe it was Hannah’s prayer. Maybe it was God’s power. Hannah goes home different that night. Her face is different. She eats and enjoys food again. She embraces her relationships differently. Peninah’s insults lose their sting. She sees herself differently, and doesn’t let anyone else’s opinions or judgment of her matter more to her than they should. She has found her voice and used it, and felt heard, and it felt good.
The child born into that new, good feeling was Samuel. See why I say Samuel’s gumption came from mom?
May all glory and honor, now and forever, be to God and God alone. Amen.
There may be someone here today or watching online who is feeling some of what Hannah felt. Are you feeling sick and tired? Are you approaching a decision point? Are you feeling judged or shamed by others? Are you being shushed, and told how you should feel? Do you find yourself biting your tongue so much you are resenting it, maybe to keep the peace, or maybe for self-preservation?
I want to promise you, Caitlan and I and this church family will do our very best to be a safe place for you, for all of you. Caitlan and I promise to do our best to listen, not judge, and to pray with you, to carry your burdens before God with you, and the Elders and Deacons of this church will as well.
Come with clinched fists and tears. Come with anything and everything. You, every bit of you is welcome here. And may God grant your prayers for wholeness and peace.
And now, blessing laughter and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the world turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.