Mothers and Nurturers
Readings: 1Samuel 1
In both our readings today, what we really had was God’s hand on two mothers, regarding the future of their babies. One, who was the mother of our Saviour Jesus Christ and the other, where a woman was in the depths of despair, because she couldn’t have a child.
Although non-scriptural, “Mothers’ Day” is celebrated all over the world, though not everywhere on the same day. It’s impossible these days to be unaware of some of the terrible mothers there are, even in our own country; those who ill-treat the precious gift, given to them by God. But those aren’t the ones we applaud today. These are the ones who’ll go to any lengths to ensure that their charge or charges are nurtured, well fed, looked after and kept safe. So, well done Mums everywhere.
With regard to our readings, no ladies will be able to identify with the experience of being told that they’re to be mother to the Son of God, or have a prophesy made about their own heart being broken by a sharp sword of sorrow (Luke 2:35). But plenty will be able recognise the plight of the childless Hannah. So, whilst we spend a fortune on cards, flowers and chocolates celebrating the joys of motherhood etc., it’s surely worth a passing thought and a prayer for those who, through no fault of their own, don’t have a child to bring them gifts, or even send their love, for many and varied reasons. There are also those who’ve perhaps recently lost their mother. Mothers’ Day isn’t a happy day for everyone. It wouldn’t have been for Hannah.
Elkanah and his family lived in Ramathaim, called Ramah in other translations. When Samuel became the spiritual leader of Israel, he went on a yearly circuit of the country but always returned to Ramah, where he had his home (1 Samuel 7:16-17).
When I wrote this, I started off this next paragraph saying “Poor Hannah”. After some thought, I changed it to “Poor Peninnah”. She was the one producing children for her husband to establish his manhood. And yet he only had eyes for Hannah. No wonder she poured out her frustration on the person causing her misery. I could easily now put “Poor Elkanah but, as it is Mother’s day, I won’t.
Now we can say “Poor Hannah”, loved to distraction by her husband, to the exclusion of his other wife. So Peninnah taunted her unceasingly over her barrenness The Bible only tells us what happened at the annual visit to worship the LORD at Shiloh but I think we can be pretty sure it went on for most of the time. But our Bible tells us that, though “her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat” (1 Samuel 1:7b NIV), Hannah didn’t react by responding in kind. She kept quiet and suffered in silence. A New Testament comparison would be Jesus telling us that we should turn the other cheek.
This happened year after year, each time they went to sacrifice at Shiloh. One year after another bout of such treatment, Hannah had had enough. She stood up and prayed to the LORD. Eli, the prophet, who was leading Israel in those days, saw her standing there, just moving her lips, with no sound to hear. She was praying from her heart and promised that if God would give her a son, she’d bring him back to serve the LORD all of his life (1 Samuel 1:11). This was at the tabernacle at Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:9), which was the major Israelite worship centre before the Temple was built in Jerusalem. It is thought to have been a stone house covered with the Tabernacle’s curtains and hides, as opposed to a solid roof (Jewish Bible Quarterly - http://jbqnew.jewishbible.org/jbq-past-issues/2016/441-january-march-2016/reconstructing-destruction-tabernacle-shiloh ).
Watching her, Eli thought she was drunk. As if her humiliation wasn’t enough! She assured him that wasn’t so and that she was praying out of great anguish and grief. So Eli blessed her and sent her on her way, asking God to grant her wish. What a difference that made to her. We read that, “Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast” (1 Samuel 1:18b NIV). That’s what happens when despair is turned to hope.
She did become pregnant and gave birth to a son. She kept him with her until he was weaned and then fulfilled her promise to God by taking the boy to serve in the house of the LORD at Shiloh. She left him there and travelled the 14 or so miles back to Ramah, which would probably take about 6 hours. How that must have torn at her heartstrings, with her leaden feet dragging every inch of the way, just aching to turn back. Just imagine how you’d feel. After all the years of having no child to hug and cuddle, because of her promise, she’d had to leave him behind. Could we have done that? I’m including the chaps in this because Samuel was also Elkanah’s son.
For Hannah, this was far, far worse than our taking a child to their first day at nursery or school and leaving them with strangers. We could pick them up after their time there, take them home and hear all about what they’d done during the day. There was going to be no such joy for Hannah. But, although she’d left him behind, she never forgot about him. Each year, when she went up with her husband to offer their annual sacrifice, she made Samuel a little robe and took it with her (1 Samuel 2:18). And each time they went, Eli would pray for Elkanah and Hannah, that they would have more children. As well as his prayer for her first child, God honoured these other prayers also and she eventually had three more sons and two daughters.
Hannah wasn’t the first childless woman of the Old Testament that God promised would become a mother. Sarah was the first, followed by Rachel. However, unlike the other two, Hannah accepted God’s promise with unwavering faith.
Abraham’s wife, Sarah, laughed at the angel’s proclamation that God would give her a child in her old age (Genesis 18:12 NIV). Because of her disbelief, she told Abraham to sleep with her maidservant, Hagar. He looked at his 99 year old wife and then at her nubile young slave and said, “Well, if I must.” Those words of his aren’t in our Bible, I’m just using a bit of poetic licence. Hagar bore Abraham a son, Ishmael, but he wasn’t the one that God intended to take Abraham’s line down as far as David and eventually to Jesus. That line came through Isaac, the son God had promised Sarah she would bear.
Rachel, the second wife of Jacob, gave the responsibility for her barrenness to her husband and, taking a page from Sarah’s book, had him sleep with her maidservant in order to raise a family (Genesis 30:1-4), before she eventually gave birth to Joseph (Genesis 30:23). Only Hannah trusted God without doubt or concern.
Now we can say, “Poor little Samuel.” Taken from his mother’s loving arms and left with a grouchy old guy in complete control of him. Eli wasn’t actually doing a very good job of leading his people and who’d even lost control of his own two sons. He’d left most of the work of running God’s House to his sons, Hophni and Phinehas) and they were scoundrels, who had no regard for the LORD (1 Samuel 2:12 NIV).
A man of God came to Eli and told him that he was honouring his sons more than God (1 Samuel 2:29b). He prophesied against the house of Eli saying that no one in his family line would ever reach old age and that all his descendants would die in the prime of life. He told Eli that Hophni and Phinehas) would both die on the same day (1 Samuel 2:30-33). And that happened! Eli’s sons were killed when the Israelites were beaten in battle and the Ark of the Covenant was captured and carried off by the Philistines. When Eli heard that news, he fell backwards, broke his neck and he also died (1 Samuel 4:18b).
So this was the environment in which the toddler Samuel grew up. What chance did he have? Living and sleeping in that stone building, which was probably cool in the heat of the day but very cold at night, with just his little robe to remind him of the mother who loved him. With the worries about the prophesy concerning himself and his sons, I can’t see Eli showing much love toward him. Well, fortunately for him, the LORD took a personal interest in his upbringing and spoke to him whilst he was quite young. And what a message! He had to go and tell Eli that the prophecy regarding him and his two sons was about to be fulfilled. I could be wrong but I can’t think of another instance, written in our Bible, of God speaking to someone quite so young. That was what was needed but it must have been pretty scary in itself.
Had Samuel not been so closely nurtured, he would surely have grown up copying the way of life which surrounded him, as many people do. But, thanks to God’s closeness to him, by the time he was a young man, “all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognised that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the LORD” (1 Samuel 3:20 NIV). And he remained faithful to his God all the days of his life. So this story of a childless woman had a happy ending. I mentioned earlier, that this isn’t always the case.
The production of a child is a wonderful thing. We’ve added something to the world that wasn’t there before. There’s a little person needing support and nurturing. If that’s done correctly, with love and guidance from God, there’s an excellent chance that he or she will grow into a responsible adult with your values and others as they grow into adulthood. Although, sadly, we know this isn’t always the case.
And that’s only the first birth. It’s very important but nowhere near as important as our second birth, our birth in the Spirit. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5 NIV). In hospital, or elsewhere, once a child has been delivered and moved out of the delivery room, it is often a case of “Next please!” especially these days with the shortage of midwives. Once the baby has left the hospital, it is no longer the responsibility of the person who delivered it. Not so for us! If we have been involved in the birth of a new Christian, then we do have future responsibilities.
When we help to lead a person to Christ, we know it’s the Holy Spirit who makes the change but we have been a sort of midwife, or should that be mid-person? Young as it is, this baby Christian is our new brother or sister (I’m not going into the other things it could be called these days). This child is now joined together with some 1.7 billion others in our family. As Christians, we know the problems, pitfalls and temptations there can be for someone full of faith but with little knowledge or spiritual experience. We should spend time with them and let them know that we will always be there for them, no matter what befalls them in their new life and we must be prepared to follow up on that promise.
Jesus said of the people of Jerusalem, “…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing (Matthew 23:37 NIV). That can of course happen with the new Christian chicks we have under our wings.
Like all children, they can rebel. That’s where our own parenting skills come in, like discussing things instead of arguing or dismissing. Don’t let them feel that their point is invalid but talk it through and, hopefully, come to a mutual understanding.
Easy isn’t it. Of course it isn’t. That is why we have the book of Job in our Bible coining the phrase “The Patience of Job”. When we read about the kind of people he was discussing things with, we might be glad to debate points that crop up from time to time with someone who is testing the limits.
In Samuel’s day, families always lived together and the old looked after the young until eventually, the young grew up to look after the old. In many places, that’s the same as now. As a person grows older, the balance of care changes. The parent and child can become close as in a friendship. But there will come a time when the care will gradually move from the parent to the offspring until the transformation is complete. Unlike in the Old Testament days, this is not as prevalent here as it once was. The main reason for this is that, in many cases, families no longer stay in the same area as they did in days gone by, so close, hands-on care is often difficult, if not impossible. That is why there is an increasing pressure to place elderly mothers, fathers and perhaps spouses into Care Homes of one kind or another. In a recent survey, more than half said it was among the top three stressful decisions any one had to make.
As this is Mothers’ Day, I have devoted much of this talk about people’s problems, to those faced by mothers and children. But what this passage in the Book of Samuel is really about is trust in God. In Samuel’s day, Israel was a Theocracy. Definition: A system of government, in which priests rule in the name of God or a god. With a God as wonderful and loving as Israel’s, you wouldn’t think that would be too distasteful. But, way back to the times we read about in our bibles, Old and New Testaments, the difficulty was not living by God’s laws but by those laws as interpreted by the priests. Some of whom were good men, such as Nicodemus but most seemed to be more intent on preserving their own stature and privileges of the job. That is why Jesus called them “hypocrites” so many times (seven times in Matthew’s Gospel alone). One day, we’ll all live under the theocracy of our God.
Meanwhile, for some of us, life is wonderful, for others OK. Then there’s the most common answer given when asked how we are, “Not so bad!” But for many, life is really awful, so much so as to be unimaginable by us. In a quote from his book, Marc Fromager says, “After a bloody 20th century for Christians, the 21st remains onerous for those who face minority status in many places. In fact, an estimated 200 million Christians worldwide – that is one out of every ten – suffer some form of persecution for their faith. For many, there is a price to pay for being a follower of Christ.” How on earth do these people hang onto their faith? Though not in the same league as childless Hannah, like her, what keeps them going is their trust in God and the hope that brings.
Throughout the Bible, we see examples of things eventually working out well for those who trusted in the LORD. Paul wrote this to the Romans. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13 NIV).
There have been winners and losers in this talk:
Losers: Peninnah; Eli; Hophni; Phinihas; The people of Jerusalem who wouldn’t let themselves be gathered under the wings of Jesus
Winners: Abraham;? Jacob (12 sons); Hannah; Elkanah; Samuel (though not at first); Job (eventually); All those who help in the development of a new Christian.
So, if we want our hopes fulfilled and they are in God’s will, then we must trust Him to deliver and He will. Amen.
Being honest, how would we have responded to the harassment poor Hannah had to put up with?
Put yourself in Peninnah’s shoes, knowing her husband only loved Hannah. How would you have reacted to that?
Have you ever made a trade-off with God, promising Him something in return for what you want Him to do for you? Have you always kept the promise?
Have you ever taken even a minor role in leading someone to Christ via the Holy Spirit? Did you feel and take some responsibility afterwards?
Have you ever been involved in helping someone to go and live in a Care Home? Or have you felt any pressure to go to one yourself?
How do you think you would fare if you were in a position of there being a price to pay for hanging on to your faith?