Few narratives in the Hebrew Bible are more foreign to us than this week’s lection. We do not give away our children. In a society determined by socio-economic forces utterly beyond the control of individual citizens (e.g., globalization), we do our best to prepare ourselves for the inevitability of change. But what happens when we lose our footing?
Contemporary life changes too fast for habits and routines to have any chance to settle into a pattern. Western individuals must navigate their way through the fears and anxieties that are endemic to such an existence. Such is the pace of change, that effective life-strategies today may be obsolete tomorrow. We will do everything in our power to hold back the floods that threaten to wash away that which we hold dear — especially our children.
What was it like for parents in the Bible? Hannah, Samuel’s mother, was beset by another set of insecurities than those faced by contemporary Westerners. In the socio-economic situation of twelfth-century B.C.E., an Israelite woman’s worth was held in direct proportion to her fertility. Hannah was barren and thus her spirit was troubled to the point that she refused to eat, weeping instead on account of her “great anxiety and vexation” (1 Sam. 1:16 NRSV). In desperation, she made a vow before the LORD of hosts that if God would grant her a son, she would dedicate him to the LORD. The LORD heard Hannah’s prayer and blessed her with Samuel, whom she turned over to Eli the priest, according to her promise.
Hannah’s “song” of exultation (1 Sam. 2:1-10) — which prefigures Mary’s song following the annunciation (Lk. 1:46-55) — is surprisingly odd against its narrative backdrop. She has just relinquished control of the child that she so desperately desired. What is her “victory?" What joy does she really receive from her sacrifice? Such tragic irony grates against our modern way of thought. How could she bear such loss? Could we endure something so harrowing?
Recent events bring this tale of life and loss into sharp relief. Christmas Day marks the release of a theatrical sensation that has captured the hearts of audiences for decades. The latest iteration of Victor Hugo’s revolutionary tale, Les Misérables, presents a star-studded cast featuring the talents of Tom Hooper (director), Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean); Russell Crowe (Inspector Javert); Anne Hathaway (Fantine); and Amanda Seyfried (Cossette).
Individual destinies entwine in this tale, but central to the plot is the fate of Cossette, the illegitimate daughter of Fantine. Through abandonment by her roguish lover and in the midst of extreme poverty, Fantine is forced to relinquish care of her daughter to a pair of vile and unscrupulous innkeepers. Though afflicted by similar circumstances, Fantine’s reaction diverges markedly from Hannah’s when she sings:
There was a time when men were kind/ When their voices were soft/ And their words inviting/ There was a time when love was blind/ And the world was a song/ And the song was exciting/ There was a time/ Then it all went wrong.
This song makes much more sense to our modern ears than Hannah’s. Given her untimely separation from her son, how can Hannah sing with such joy? Fantine’s seems more apropos. Her song ends, “I had a dream my life would be/ So different from this hell I'm living/ So different now from what it seemed/ Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
Unfortunately, the plight of global injustice and economic disparity makes contemporary life a veritable hell for many. In a recent story published by the New York Times, reporters discovered that roughly 80 percent of the 30,000 children in Haitian orphanages have at least one living parent. The article explains that the decision by Haitian parents to turn their children over to orphanages is motivated by “dire poverty.”
Like Fantine these parents are forced by circumstances outside their control to handover their children to the care of others. Sadly, this is not only a Haitian problem. UNICEF reports that of the more than 132 million children classified as orphans, only 13 million have lost both parents. These numbers are staggering and they reveal the desperation that parents may have when they no longer can care for their sons and daughters.
Every year, on visitation day, Hannah would make the 15-mile trek from Ramah to Shiloh to pay tribute to the Lord, and to visit her son. When read in light of the plight of Haitian men and women, v. 19 is heart rending: “His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice” (NRSV). The story has a happy ending of sorts — Eli blesses Hannah for her “gift,” praying that the LORD would “repay” her for her sacrifice. In time the LORD blesses Hannah with five more children. Moreover, under Eli’s care and in the LORD’s presence, Samuel continued to grow in favor with the LORD and with the people (v. 26).
In today's world, this is not always the case. As the Times article reports, many modern orphans are forced to live in squalor; some are even forced into prostitution.
Hannah — like Fantine and millions of parents throughout the world — was born into a life marred by injustice. In a culture where the worth of a woman was measured by her fertility, God did something great out of Hannah’s desperation— raising up a prophet-leader who would be instrumental in the formation of the Hebrew nation. Scripture is replete with examples of God drawing leaders out of the most dire circumstances. Yet, we must not let Hannah’s blessing obscure our vision; Life is a hell for millions. We ought not expect to hear songs of exultation from the lips of the oppressed. Hannah’s song need not be taken as normative. In fact, it is precisely in the dissonance between Hannah’s hymn of praise and the contemporary cacophony of injustice that we hear the call to action, drawing us into solidarity with those who suffer.
God can do something great through us in light of contemporary injustices, where destitution produces new illegitimate orphans everyday. Perhaps God can use us to battle detrimental doctrines against birth control that perpetuate generational poverty (with Haiti as a case in point). God is calling us to take a stand against the hell that so many are living. Only then will we catch a glimpse of the joy behind Hannah’s song, where the “bows of the mighty are broken” and God “raises up the poor from the dust” (1 Sam. 2:4, 8 NRSV). Only then does her song make sense.
Jacob D. Myers is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University working at the intersection of homiletical theory, poststructural thought and emerging Christianity. This ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.