Lives of Quiet Desperation
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden (pp. 5-6). . Kindle Edition.
There is hardly a more American passage than this from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. This is such a famous passage many hear it and identify with it immediately.
When you find a quotation that people will hear it and nod their heads with it it’s often helpful to expand it a bit and see what came next in the passage.
When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden (p. 6). . Kindle Edition.
We could jump forward 150 years and hear nearly the same words out of Steve Job’s mouth at his famous commencement address at Stanford University.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
There are so many ironies in Job’s and Thoreau’s admonitions. They council us to examine everything, take nothing for granted, forget the advice of older generations and be the judges of our own truth. Do they except themselves from this? By this date Jobs and Thoreau would long be considered old and dead.
Job’s too in this speech talks a bit about his fight with cancer in rather happy terms because in 2005 when he gave this speech he thought it was under control. It was in fact not under control and because he didn’t listen to his doctors when they discovered this rare treatable form or pancreatic cancer his listening to his own inner voice would cost him his life.
Yet with all of this these statements are part of our cultural canon. In movies, novels, books, stories, commencement addresses this anti-dogma dogma is proclaimed and celebrated. It is deep within us that we must liberate ourselves from the dogmas and practices of tradition so that our inner passion, out true selves can emerge to express and become what we truly are. To say this in many context today, especially among the young would be to preach to the choir. This is their creed, their ethos, their religion.
The Desperation of Hannah
When last we were following the story of God’s working with Israel we looked at the calamities of the time of the Judges. It was a time when Israel was perpetually falling victim to her more militarily powerful and well organized neighbors and to her own internal weaknesses. The situation was desperate and painful.
We had a brief interlude to look at the glorious hope from the book and through the character of Ruth, but now we are back into the sea of pain and chaos.
1 Samuel 1:1–2 (NIV)
1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
How does this story look through your eyes? The names are strange but to an ancient Hebrew we would note the genealogy to see that this is a man of status and impressive lineage.
How does polygamy look to you? You might say it depends on whether you are a man or a woman. It might look differently to you from different cultural contexts.
In any case what the author wants you to notice is that Hannah is without children. This was a crippling social reality for her in the ancient world and a authorial tip-off for us that something is about to happen.
In the ancient world “barrenness” meant a lot of things. A woman in that context derived much of her value from producing sons. Think what you will of the practice but the suffering was very real to Hannah as we will see in a bit.
Barrenness in the thought world of the Bible was also an image of being without a future. You lived through your descendants. Your descendants won history and ruled the future. To not have children and descendants was an existential disaster.
1 Samuel 1:3–8 (NIV)
3 Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
Here you can see Hannah’s pain. Year after year her torment grew. He was provoked by Peninnah her rival. We might imagine that Peninnah resented Hannah because Elkanah loved Hannah and felt the pain of her barrenness and so tormented worse. We can easily imagine this polygamous relationship to be unhappy and dysfunctional. It reminds us, and the authors intend it to remind us, of the unhappy marriage of Jacob to Leah and Rachel. Leah was unloved so God gave her children but Rachel was bitter because she too was barren.
We might imagine that Hannah shouldn’t feel this way. Why is Hannah such a victim to her cultural prejudice? Shouldn’t she be enough in herself to not care what Peninnah thinks? Elkanah seems to feel that his love and favor for her should be enough, more than ten sons. Hannah says no. Is she a prisoner of her own cultural values? Must she be liberated from them?
What cultural values do we mindlessly embrace? How might cultural outsiders look in on us and judge us?
Looking for a Spiritual Solution
1 Samuel 1:9–18 (NIV)
9 Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s house. 10 In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 11 And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”
12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.” 15 “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” 17 Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” 18 She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.
You might remember that earlier the text said that the Lord had closed her womb. Didn’t God want her flourishing? Wasn’t God there to make her dreams come true?
Just as we look into Hannah’s cultural context with our own judgments, someone outside of ours might look at our own. In his work with American teens and young adults Christian Smith, a sociologist from Notre Dame found that most American youth and young adults had common religious assumptions across sectarian lines. Mormon, Baptist, Presbyterian, Muslim, and those not raised in religious homes had ideas about what God was for and the role he played in their lives. Smith went on to call these assumptions Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. They found that these young people pretty much assumed that it was God’s job to give them “a good life” or the kind of life that they wanted and so when something went wrong it was God’s fault or his negligence. What failed to dawn on them was that perhaps God had agendas for them and his own designs for their lives. Why should the creator of the universe and the author of history cede his place to the characters in the story? It would be like Luke Skywalker rebelling against George Lucas by saying “I just want to be a moister farmer on Tatooine.”
What might we want to say to Hannah with the combination of her God-closed-womb and her culturally formed expectation that her identity rested on bearing sons?
He is hurt and angry towards Peninnah and maybe even Elkanah at his inability to hear her and understand her but she doesn’t seem bitter towards God. In fact she moves towards God with a prayer request and a vow. Her vow is rather dramatic to our ears. Not only does she seem to be giving back to God exactly the things she wants but she is even making decisions for her not yet existential son to serve this God all of his life.
God’s Agent Who Cannot See
The story isn’t a transaction just between Hannah and God, Eli is there. We will learn later that Eli has trouble seeing, both literally and spiritually. We will learn later that his sons are corrupt. This fits in with the context as we saw at the end of the book of Judges.
Hannah is not bitter but in her great anguish, however well founded or unfounded you judge her anguish to be, reaches out to God, even if the ministers of God at the time are blind, corrupt and unworthy.
Eli in his blindness first imagines here to be drunk. He dismisses her.
Now again you might have judged Hannah harshly for being in a polygamous marriage and for wanting a son to fulfill her but she is capable of responding, forcefully yet respectfully to Eli. She is not drunk. She is in fact Eli’s superior when it comes to devotion to God.
Buoyed it seems by Hannah’s sincerity and piety Eli rises to the occasion, takes Hannah’s correction and blesses her.
God Remembers Hannah
Remember can mean “to come to mind” but it can also have a richer, fuller meaning, to make whole.
1 Samuel 1:19–28 (NIV)
19 Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.” 21 When her husband Elkanah went up with all his family to offer the annual sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vow, 22 Hannah did not go. She said to her husband, “After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the Lord, and he will live there always.” 23 “Do what seems best to you,” her husband Elkanah told her. “Stay here until you have weaned him; only may the Lord make good his word.” So the woman stayed at home and nursed her son until she had weaned him. 24 After he was weaned, she took the boy with her, young as he was, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour and a skin of wine, and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. 25 When the bull had been sacrificed, they brought the boy to Eli, 26 and she said to him, “Pardon me, my lord. As surely as you live, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. 27 I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. 28 So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” And he worshiped the Lord there.
Hannah is good to her word and this gift that she wanted more than anything she now gives back to God. What is to come will change the course of Israel. Just as we saw in Ruth where God through one Moabite widow saves a family, the sacrifice of one barren woman will set into motion God’s rescue of Israel.
The Song of Hannah
What come next is her song of victory.
Now if you’ve been frustrated at how oppressed Hannah has been by her marital situation and her gynecological circumstance you will like this song. This is a full throated boast and celebration of what God did for her against her rival.
Readers who are aware of how the book of Samuel (1 and 2 Samuel are actually one book divided probably for the sake of the length of ancient scrolls) will connect the theme of this song not just to her individual story but to the whole book. Barren Hannah is Israel falling victim to her more powerful and fruitful rivals. The Lord hears her cries for help and rescues her from her enemies. The Lord is not, however, just partial to Hannah or Israel, he is partial to the weak and the lowly and to all those who call on his name. The advantages that the powerful and the wealthy have and use at the expense of the weak are no match to God’s righteous intervention.
1 Samuel 2:1–11 (NIV)
1 Then Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance. 2 “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3 “Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the Lord is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed. 4 “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength. 5 Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away. 6 “The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. 7 The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. 8 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. “For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s; on them he has set the world. 9 He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness. “It is not by strength that one prevails; 10 those who oppose the Lord will be broken. The Most High will thunder from heaven; the Lord will judge the ends of the earth. “He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” 11 Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, but the boy ministered before the Lord under Eli the priest.
Hannah Meets Thoreau and Jobs
Jobs and Thoreau implicitly imagined themselves the authors of their own lives. They are consumers who are constructing their lives. This is a heady vision of what can be.
Hannah too lives in a constructed world. She has far fewer options than Jobs who went to Reed college and Thoreau who went to Harvard. If not for this story she would have been one of the millions of forgotten lives.
Hannah’s story really isn’t a “how to” on getting the life that you want. Her story, including her pain, including her need not matter how you might qualify it becomes a part of a far larger redemptive story that would lead to the rescue of Israel from her enemies and eventually to Jesus.
You might notice that what drove her to where she could be used was her pain. Again, however you judge her pain to be it was that which brought her to the house of God, however, corrupt, however poorly administered, however broken down the whole thing had become.
Even blind Eli who couldn’t really see the truth could bank of the promise of God to do something with her pain. Her barrenness was an image or the barrenness of all of us to construct our own futures, to create our own worlds, to take the broken piece of our lives and create what we imagine will satisfy us.
Hannah casts it all onto the Lord and then leaves it with him. In her case, but not in all, her prayers were answered in the way she wished. We know that not all prayers are, Jesus demonstrated that in Gethsemane.
Jobs and Thoreau were makers, of literature and technology. Isn’t it our mission to be sub-creators and to work to complete this creation? Yes.
Hannah takes the fruit of the redemption that came from her prayer and gave it back to God. With it, the boy Samuel, God then uses him to pursue the long story of redemption that continues today uninterrupted. These are events from 3,000 years ago and that story still moves by the grateful faithfulness of God’s people responding to his works of deliverance.
And For You
- What is your pain? Where does it come from?
- Will you bring that pain to God? Will you lay it at his feet?
- What might he do with your pain and with you?