I Samuel 1, 1-2 “Mercy, within mercy, within mercy”
I Samuel 1.1-2
There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
This morning we take a roughly 200 year leap out of the book of Exodus, over Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges to land at the beginning of the book of 1st Samuel and the calling of the boy Samuel to a lifetime of service as a prophet in Israel.
I wasn’t too happy with this leap, by the way. There is a lot of good material we’re flying over—stories that deserve to be told. Perhaps we’ll get back there some other day.
But the story of Samuel, and the story of Israel moving from a collection of tribes to kingdom under Saul and then David, is interesting, too. That’s the way it is with the Bible, you know. There’s no danger of running out of good material.
Here’s the story leading up to Samuel’s call.
Israel’s conquest of Canaan, as recorded in the books of Joshua and Judges, began roughly around 1200 BC. The land they moved in to was not vacant. The Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites we met a couple of weeks ago had been there a long time already.
This conquest was not pretty. As the story is told, and there is certainly a lot of exaggeration in the telling, in conquering Canaan Israel commits what today would be called acts of genocide and crimes against humanity. They believed, mistakenly if you ask me, that God had both given them the land and commanded them to utterly destroy those people who made the mistake of already living there.
You can think back to our own history if you want a picture this. When European Christians came to North and South America, starting in 1492, they believed, mistakenly if you ask me, that God had given them a new promised land and had commanded them to clear out the pagan native peoples who were already here. Centuries of genocide followed. Millions of indigenous people were killed, enslaved or shunted onto reservations. Our history makes Israel’s conquest of Canaan look like a Sunday picnic.
It is frightful what people will do when they think God is on their side.
But in Israel’s case, as often happens, what goes around comes around. Israel is mostly successful at displacing their predecessors. But soon enough they are dealing with a stronger enemy moving in to displace them.
The Philistines, also known in the Bible as the Sea Peoples, probably originated near what is now Greece. They crossed the Mediterranean and landed first in Egypt, where Pharaoh made them feel entirely unwelcome.
They set sail again, landing on the southeast coast of the Mediterranean and took over 5 towns. There they established themselves as a small, regional power—just a few miles over the hill from where the Israelites had settled.
These Philistines expanded to the east and became, for many years, a major thorn in the flesh for the Israelite tribes. They were better organized with better weapons. For a while they ruled over Israel.
So it was a time of great uncertainty for the not yet nation of Israel. The grand experiment they had entered into—following their God into the promised land, living in covenant with God and each other, was under threat. With the Philistines next door, the promises given through Moses were at risk. They were not at all sure this was going to work.
It was into this time and these problems that Samuel was born. That's the back story to the birth of Samuel.
The Bible is like an onion, you know. It has layers. You peel back one layer and there’s always another underneath. You keep peeling and you keep finding new layers.
Peel back the story of Samuel’s birth and you get to the story of why that story was written in the first place.
Five hundred years after the time of Samuel, the nation of Israel was in much deeper trouble; their future less certain than at any time in their history.
These were the years of exile. Babylon’s army had plowed over Jerusalem like giant Caterpillar tractor and left their homeland and their hope in ruins. Their leaders were enslaved; hauled of to weep by the rivers of Babylon.
It was the empires’s expectation that these troublesome Jews would be absorbed into their great melting pot; that they would so mix in with every other conquered country that they would be forgotten forever.
And this plan might have worked, except for one thing: those pesky Jews had something no other conquered, or conquering, country had; a secret weapon, of sorts.
They had men and women who could hear God speaking. They had men and women—prophets, who listened to the word from God and turned that word into stories. Stories of hope and promise; stories of homeland and homecoming; stories of their ancestors who had faced trouble in the past as dire as their present trouble in Babylon.
Some of these prophets were in Babylon. Some were back home among the ruins of Jerusalem. But they all heard the same word from God; and they all wrote stories.
And these are the stories we find in the opening books of our Bible.
The early books of the Bible—from Genesis through 1st and 2nd Samuel and in to 1st Kings, were all written around the time Israel was captive in Babylon. They draw on stories that are much older, of course. But it was these prophets of the exile who re-wrote the stories specifically to give courage to the captive Jews in Babylon.
Don’t give in to the empire, they told their fellow captives. Don’t ever give up hope. See! God has been with us in the past. God is with us now. We are not lost.
And that’s the story about the story, of Samuel.
So here’s what’s curious about both stories.
With the Philistines threatening Israel on the one hand, and Babylon oppressing them on the other, the story of Samuel begins with the phrase “…but Hannah had no children.” Why did they do that? Didn’t they have bigger problems?
When something odd like that pops up in a Bible story, it’s usually worth looking at.
How often over last few years have we come upon Bible stories that begin with a mother who had no children? Abraham’s wife Sarah, Isaac’s wife Rebekah, Jacob’s wife Rachel, and now Hannah.
In ancient Hebrew culture, as you know, a woman’s status was determined in large part by the children she bore her husband. Her failure to produce children (and it was always her failure) was devastating. The early Hebrews didn’t believe that life went on after death, you see. Children were literally the only future they had. No children, no future.
In all of these stories the barren wife—the woman with no future, becomes a metaphor for the barren nation—for Israel with no future. Whether threatened by Philistine attack or annihilation in Babylon, the Israelites are as helpless before their fate as Hannah is before her barren womb. Neither she nor they can create life. Neither she nor they control the future—to bring a child to birth or to end a captivity.
Hannah understands her helplessness.
She knows where her help lies.
She goes to the temple in Shiloh and, like each of the childless mothers before her, she prays. She goes to God in grief for the future that is not, and cannot be, without God’s gracious intervention. “O Lord of hosts”, she pleads, “if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me…and give to your servant a male child…”
There is no future without new life. There is no new life unless God gives it. This Hannah knows. This Israel, captive in Babylon, needs to know.
In her misery, yet trusting God, Hannah prays.
And God hears.
God does what God had done for every childless mother before her. A son is born; the promise is kept; the future is given.
The point of this story, of course, is that the future is always in the hands of the God who can be trusted. Hannah, who becomes the mother of Samuel, is a model of that trust for anyone who lives in uncertain times—including you and me.
Her story, and God’s response, is for us a model of Divine grace and Divine gift.
In those dark and dangerous times, the story of Samuel—which is the story of Israel and the story of our lives too, begins not with high political intrigue or military adventures. It begins with a barren woman trusting God. And “we are placed on notice”, Walter Brueggemann says, “that in the coming stories of prophets and kings, battles and politics, the real story is of God’s grace. Israel’s future will be the gift of God…Hannah’s name itself means ‘grace’ in Hebrew” .
Don’t worry, the story told the Jews in their Babylonian troubles and tells us today in our modern American troubles. Live your lives. Do all the good you can. The future is in God’s care.
No doubt we’ll be surprised at what comes, even disappointed at times. We won’t always get what we want. We may not even get what we need.
But trust God, as Hannah did; give our future to God as Hannah did, and like Hannah we will give birth to something new.
God’s story about us and about this world, you see, is always—always a story of grace. God is always, as Thomas merton wrote, “mercy, within mercy, within mercy ”
So even in hard times, as we say in the creed:
in life beyond death
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.
 A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, Birch, Brueggemann,
Fretheim and Petersen pg 224
 The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton
Sermon - Brad Brookins
The full text for this week is below. If you haven’t already read it, do that before you answer the questions. It would also be a good idea to read at least chapter 1 and chapter 2: 11-36.
1. vs 1 What do you think it means to say “the word of the LORD was rare in those days…”? Was God not speaking? These people probably had no written scripture and almost no one could read anyway. How would God’s word have come to them if God was speaking? How does God’s word come to us today?
(The “rabbit” answer is “in the Bible”. See if you can do better).
2. The LORD comes to Samuel 4 times. What difference do you see between the first 3 times and the 4th? Why do you think this happens?
3. God breaks a long silence and speaks, and the first word is judgment against Eli—and not a simple reprimand, but a judgment that will “make your ears tingle.” Is there any good news in this message? Why do you think God lays this burden on the boy Samuel? (Ch 2:11-36 and 3:19 will help answer this
4. vs. 14 “The iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated (“expiate”: to atone for guilt of sin) by sacrifice or offering forever.” What do you think of this sentence? Too easy, about right, too harsh? Exodus 34.7 says God will “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the
third and the fourth generation.” Here God visits the sins of the children on the father. Is this fair? Why or why not? What responsibility do parents have for the behavior of their adult children?
5. What do you think of Eli’s response in verse 18 to Samuel’s message?
6. Consider this closing phrase to verse 21: “for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD”. Discuss the mechanics of revelation—how did it work? What was being revealed? How was it revealed? How would these people have known it was God doing the revealing?
7. How does revelation work today? How do we know when God is revealing something to us? (This question, by the way, may be really important for understanding how to read the Bible)
I Samuel 3.1-21 1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.
4Then the LORD called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. 6The LORD called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not
call, my son; lie down again.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.
8The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ 11Then the LORD said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to
the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’ 15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of
the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ 17Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ 18So Samuel told him everything and
hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.’
19As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD. 21The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.