Monday of Week 1 of Ordinary time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 1:1-8

We begin our new year of First Readings with the First Book of Samuel.

The book opens by introducing us to Elkanah, who is obviously a good and religious man, who comes from Rama-thaim. The place was also known as Ramah. It may be the same as the Ramah of Benjamin (see Jos 18:25), which was located in the hill country about 8 km (5 miles) north of Jerusalem, near the border between the territories of Ephraim and Benjamin.

Elkanah is called an Ephraimite, but he was more likely a Levite whose family belonged to the Kohathite clans to whom had been allotted towns in Ephraim. Ephraim lay north of Judah and just north-west of the Dead Sea. Jerusalem was in the territory of Benjamim (see any decent Old Testament map).

According to the custom of the time, he had two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. We first see polygamy enter the Old Testament with Lamech (Gen 4:19). Although the union of Adam and Eve (Gen 2:23-44) seems to endorse monogamy as God’s intention, we know that many of the patriarchs were polygamous and otherwise unfaithful, if not actually promiscuous. We remember how Sarai (Sarah), the barren wife of Abram, tells her husband to sleep with a slave in order to have a son. Later, of course, Sarah does have a son – Isaac, who will become the patriarch of God’s people. In Genesis (25:6) there is mention of the concubines of Abraham.

Penninah had borne several children to her husband, but Hannah was barren, perhaps the most painful experience any married women of those times could have. It was a culture where a woman’s success was measured by her being able to give children, especially sons, to her husband and his family, thus ensuring the continuance of the family line. Sometimes, of course, it is the husband who is sterile, but that is clearly not the situation here.

Every year Elkanah made a yearly pilgrimage with his family to the shrine at Shiloh and offered sacrifice there. The archeological site of Tel-Shiloh is about 19 km (12 miles) south of Nablus, between Bethel and Shechem. It was the home of the Ark in the time of Joshua but its sanctuary there was destroyed probably by the Philistines after the defeat mentioned in chapter 4 of 1 Samuel.

Three times a year, every Israelite male was required to appear before the Lord at the central sanctuary. The term used here is “Lord of hosts” (or in some translations “Yahweh of armies”). This alluded not just to the people of Israel but included the stars and other heavenly powers, angels and all cosmic forces – all seen as being under God’s command. This ancient title was associated with the ark (see 1 Sam 4:3), the sacred emblem protecting Israel whenever Yahweh waged war with his people on their enemies.

With the establishment of kingship in Israel the term ‘Lord of hosts’ became particularly appropriate as a reference to God as the ‘God of armies’ – both of the heavenly army and of the army of Israel. Although this is the first recorded use of the title in the Old Testament, it is used freely in the major prophets (with the exception of Ezekiel) and in the Psalms.

The festival referred to here was probably the feast of the Shelters (Tabernacles), which not only commemorated God’s care for his people during the desert journey to Canaan, but more especially celebrated, with joy and feasting, God’s blessing on the year’s crops. On such festive occasions Hannah’s deep sorrow because of her own barrenness was the more poignant.

On that day when he would offer sacrifice, Elkanah would give portions to Penninah and the children she had borne, but a double portion to Hannah*:

…because he loved her [more], though the Lord had closed her womb.

Children were seen primarily as a gift from God. The ‘sacrifice’ here refers to one which was combined with a festive meal, signifying fellowship and communion with the Lord and gratitude for his mercies.

Penninah would mock and jeer at Hannah’s barrenness and this situation went on year after year. Stricken with shame and distress, Hannah refused to eat. Elkanah, who was clearly a good and compassionate man, tried to console her by reminding her that she had a loving husband, and was he:

…not worth more to her than ten sons?

As we shall see, God is not going to abandon two such very good people. And so the stage is set for something very special to happen.

It is easy for us sometimes to regret that God has not given us some gift which we would dearly love to have. Perhaps, too, we have become the object of people’s mockery or criticism and asked “Why did God do that to me?” Yet God is working in our lives and we need to ask him to help us see where, even in our deficiencies, his love and grace are at work in us. We may be in for some surprises.

Let us then learn to light one candle rather than curse the darkness.

*There is a discrepancy across various translations of the text: the Jerusalem Bible says that Elkanah gave several portions to his wife, Peninnah, and her children but only one to Hannah, because God had made her barren. However, the New Revised Standard Version updated edition (NRSVue) and the New American Bible both say that Elkanah gave a double portion to Hannah, even though she was barren, because he loved her more. Both texts, however, agree that Elkanah loved Hannah more than Penninah.

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