1 Samuel 1:1-8

Do you stand in awe of the infinite wisdom of our God? “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[1] Do you recognize that He has ordained whatsoever comes to pass, and has done so according to the wise counsel of His own will? “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.'”[2] In the rule of the universe the Lord has never consulted others as how best to rule it; indeed, how rarely does He ever do things the way that we, in our limited creaturely knowledge and wisdom, would expect! Which of us, by our human wisdom, would have ever thought that God would make a nation for Himself from the progeny of a Mesopotamian idolater? But, that is precisely what He did. “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many.”[3] Which of us would have thought that God would save whole nations from famine by raising up a young man, wickedly sold into slavery by his brothers, and making him the second in command to the Pharaoh of Egypt? And yet, this is precisely what He did. Joseph said to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”[4] Four hundred years later, when the people were enslaved in Egypt, God took a renegade Hebrew[5] who was slow of speech,[6] and made him the mouthpiece of God to Pharaoh and the mediator of the Sinai covenant. Would you have looked upon the baby in the basket hidden in the reeds of the Nile[7] and thought that God would use him to be the deliverer of His people? Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”[8] The Scriptures, and even our own experience, teach us that God doesn’t see things the way we see them. This is a theme throughout the whole of the Scriptures, and it is a theme here in 1 Samuel. God’s sovereign rule over the universe operates according to His own infinite wisdom, and He rules all in such a way that none may boast before Him! Soli Deo Gloria! To God alone be the glory!

Before beginning in the books of Samuel, we must recognize that it begins, not in a time of stability for Israel, but really in a time of deep instability: politically, religiously, morally, and in almost every other way we can think. It is the time of the judges, a time when (as we’ve seen in Ruth) the covenant people of God would heinously sin against their Redeemer; then, they would be afflicted by some surrounding nation that they had not wiped out in the conquest; in their affliction, they would call upon God to deliver them; God would then send them a judge, and a period of relative stability and repentance would follow, only to devolve into heinous sin once again, and the cycle would begin anew. The writer of the book of Judges records a summation of the turbulent period in the final verse of the book: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”[9] Over and over again, the Bible teaches us that we are not to be wise in our own eyes, and yet, human beings constantly throw God’s revealed will behind their backs.[10] It’s not as though God hasn’t shown us what is good and right, but these things are not what sinful people delight in; a mind that is warped by sin approves of sin, and exchanges the truth for a lie.[11] Rather than drink from the Fountain of all wisdom, we hew broken cisterns for ourselves,[12] foolishly drinking muddy sludge whilst all the while declaring it to be pure water. The people of Israel during the time of the judges were, at least for the most part, a people who regularly abandoned God their King. Theirs was a time of crisis brought on by their own covenant unfaithfulness. But the writer of the book of Judges points out to us another problem that seemed to exacerbate the turbulence of the times: “there was no king in Israel.” Now, it’s imperative here that we understand that the problem was not simply the fact that the people didn’t have a king, per se; if we don’t grasp that reality, we will begin thinking, as has so long been the belief in our own country, that the solution to all of our problems is a political one. Instead, we will learn as we progress through 1 Samuel, the kind of king mattered; that is, there was a certain kind of king that God would use to bring order to His wayward people, a king who would act as God’s regent in the land, an unexpected king unlike any of the kings of the surrounding peoples. God would bring His solution to this crisis, and that through unexpected means.

Thus, we come to the first verses of the first book of Samuel. There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. The monarchy of Great Britain in these days may not hold the political power it once did, but there is something that is possessed by the Queen and her family that cannot be said to be possessed by the commoner on the street. Queen Elizabeth II can look back upon her regal family history and see within it the names of Kings and Queens who at one time were so powerful that their very word was law in the land. The Queen and her family are descended from King Henry V, who defeated the French at Agincourt, a victory subsequently dramatized in the words of Shakespeare, the greatest writer in the English language. They are descended from Richard the Lionheart, whose victories in the Crusades which are today seen through perhaps a more critical lens, were once the stuff of legend, making the very real king a companion of Ivanhoe and Robin of Locksley. We see in the Queen’s lineage the likes of the first Elizabeth, who was a force in her own right, and contemporary (and often opponent of) our dear John Knox; indeed, Queen Elizabeth II’s own father, King George VI, led his country alongside Churchill through World War II. All that to say, some genealogies are rather impressive. Elkanah’s, however, was certainly not. The prophet who wrote these books wants us to see this clearly. Elkanah himself is a rather unimportant person; he is a certain man. Though there is more to him than this, the author doesn’t even call him, like Boaz, a “worthy man”.[13] What is clear is that he is extraordinarily ordinary! Not only this, but he comes from a town that is harder to find than it is to pronounce – Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim. Another name for this town is “Ramah”; like any small town, it’s best identified by the more important city that it is near, most scholars believing it to be located just north of Jerusalem. Ramah will become an important city as the narrative progresses, but at this point, it’s the kind of town you would drive through to get somewhere else. But, Elkanah doesn’t just come from an ordinary small town, he, unlike the royals of Britain, doesn’t have an impressive pedigree. Jeroham who? Elihu who? Tohu who? Zuph who? If these questions have entered your mind while reading through this brief genealogy, that’s the point. We do know from 1 Chronicles that Elkanah was a Levite, and more specifically, a Kohathite;[14] and in that list, Elkanah’s name isn’t even all that unique, as there are other Elkanahs in the family line. We also learn that one of his ancestors had been an Ephrathite – that is, he had been a citizen of Bethlehem, a name that means a great deal to us now, but was likely at this time a town smaller than Ramah. When we think of the grand plan of history, Elkanah does not seem like the kind of person who would make even the slightest ripple, let alone waves. He is an ordinary person in a long line of ordinary people.

Elkanah had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. The most interesting thing about ordinary Elkanah up to this point is the fact that he was a polygamist. Of course, anyone who has read the New Testament will likely point out that polygamy, having more than one spouse, is wrong! And that’s absolutely right. Elkanah would not have been able to become an Elder or a Deacon at Ramah First Presbyterian Church. Paul writes that Overseers must be “the husband of one wife”;[15] likewise, Deacons must be “the husband of one wife.”[16] Jesus, teaching on divorce in Matthew 19 says to the Pharisees, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?”[17] In pointing the Pharisees back to the creation narrative of Genesis 2, Jesus is pointing out that the creation mandate is the norm; in this particular instance, Jesus is talking about divorce, but it’s clear that the implications are more extensive. How do we know this? The Pharisees said to Him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” to which Jesus replied, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”[18] As the universe was created in perfection, necessarily the monogamous relationship between Adam and Eve in their state of innocence acts as the template for God’s good purpose in marriage. The law of Moses allowed for divorce – it also allowed for polygamy[19] – but that was not according to God’s good creative purpose, but according to the hardness of the sinful hearts of the people. Was it wrong, then, for Elkanah to have more than one wife? Was it wrong to divorce apart from biblical reasons? Yes, and yes, and for the same reason – “from the beginning it was not so.” But, in the time of Elkanah, was polygamy allowed – yes, though it wasn’t according to God’s creative purpose for marriage. It was permissible in the eyes of Elkanah and in the law of Moses, but it was not best. In the context, however, the fact that Elkanah had more than one wife would not have been completely out of the societal norm. The likely reason for Elkanah’s polygamy is given in the very next sentence: And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. It’s likely that Hannah was Elkanah’s first wife; but, as she was barren and could not carry on Elkanah’s family name and inheritance, Elkanah married Peninnah. One would be remiss to not notice the parallel between this and another story in the Bible about an ordinary man and his barren wife. “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.”[20] The solution that was posited by Sarai, and was accepted by Abram, was that he should marry Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian servant, and have children with her. In other words, Elkanah’s polygamy was not without (very famous) precedent. But, as we will see, Elkanah should have read the fine print; Abram’s polygamy, his focus on the present crisis instead of the creative purpose of God, led to deep family strife for generations.[21] The same would be true of Abram’s grandson Jacob.[22]

If there was anything that was extraordinary about Elkanah and his family, it was that, even during the time of the judges, Elkanah was faithful in worshiping the Lord, and in leading his family in worshiping Him. Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD. “What’s so extraordinary about this?” you may ask. We see a hint of its abnormality at the end of v. 3. Not only was there no king in Israel, the situation of church leadership was also in disrepair, and, as we are meant to see by this aside, and as we will see in more detail in later chapters, the church leadership was in disrepute. The elderly high priest, Eli, left much of the running of the tabernacle to his two wicked sons, Hophni and Phinehas, worthless men who had no fear of the LORD. Looking ahead, we see that Eli did not restrain the wickedness of his sons; this seems to be in contrast to Elkanah, who did not go up alone, but as is seen in the context, took not only his wives, but all of his children as well. In our time, it’s often easier to look out upon the landscape of the visible church and feel something akin to despair, if not despair itself. Even those who are supposed to be our leaders are often only in the ministry to make names for themselves, or to otherwise fleece the sheep; they care very little about glorifying the name of the LORD and laying down their lives for the good of His people. Thanks be to God, though, that in both the leadership of our churches, and in the congregations themselves, God maintains a remnant of true worshipers, and usually they are the nameless, normal folk like Elkanah and his family, not the big names like Eli and Hophni and Phinehas. Take heart, then, from the example of Elkanah and his family who still sought the LORD, even during the turbulent time of the judges, and seek to be like them in your own walk with God. The worshiping local church in the midst of a broken world is the greatest witness to that broken world of the steadfast love of God.

But, it’s at Shiloh, while Elkanah and his family are there worshiping and sacrificing to the LORD of hosts that the folly of Elkanah’s polygamy manifests itself in the discord between Hannah and Peninnah. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. Again we see an echo of the Patriarchs in this difficult family situation. Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah.”[23] But, Leah was the one whose womb was opened by the LORD, while Rachel’s remained closed.[24] Elkanah loved Hannah more than Peninnah, it would seem. And his love for her was made obvious every time they would go to Shiloh, and Peninnah and her children would each get a single portion, while Hannah was given a double. Was this right on Elkanah’s part? It certainly seems that he was trying to alleviate what would necessarily have been a reproach to a woman of Israel, and that for theological reasons. We see the sovereign hand of God in this; it was the LORD who had closed Hannah’s womb. One of the blessings for covenant obedience listed in Deuteronomy was that “There shall not be male or female barren among you or among your livestock.”[25] We must recognize, just as Elkanah, Hannah, and sour Peninnah recognized, that children are a gift from the Lord, and He gives them according to His own sovereign purposes. But, still, it didn’t seem right. Elkanah was a godly man who sought to be obedient to the Mosaic covenant; Hannah, as we shall see, was also a woman who sought the LORD. Why was it that Hannah’s womb was closed, while Peninnah had child after child? Was Hannah defective in some way? Was God punishing her? No, she wasn’t defective. And no, God wasn’t punishing her. Rather, He had a plan for her. She was to be the next in an ancient line of women – including Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and the wife of Manoah – whose barren wombs would be used by God to bring an answer to a great crisis facing His people, and to continue His plan of redemption. Nobody expects God to work through an ordinary family, or a barren womb, or a virgin in Nazareth; God does not work according to our expectations, but according to His infinite wisdom!

Peninnah no doubt saw the affection that was shown Hannah by her husband, and, like Leah, it was no doubt very difficult for her. Even though she was surrounded by little blessings from the LORD, she couldn’t see past the slight of being “second wife” in her husband’s eyes. And so, instead of comforting Hannah, she became her rival. And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. This ordinary family has all of the brokenness of every other ordinary family – rivalry, jealousy, misplaced wrath, and, for Hannah, relational misery. To make matters worse, all of this provocation happened when the family would go to the house of the LORD at Shiloh to worship God. For Hannah, it was too much! Not only did she have to live with the fact that the LORD had not given her any children, she also had to be reminded of it constantly by her rival wife, and all while the sounds of Peninnah’s little ones filled the air. Elkanah, unlike Peninnah, truly did love his wife, and he sought to comfort her in her distress. And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Some might look at this last question as insensitive, and I wonder if that is not because of something that’s lost in translation. Essentially, Elkanah is trying to remind Hannah that, whether or not she can bear children, he loves her deeply; he wants to be a comfort to her in her distress. Contrast this with the anger that was shown by Jacob in the midst of Rachel’s lamentation.[26] It’s a difficult situation, and a sensitive one, but Elkanah is just trying to be compassionate, perhaps awkwardly, but still he’s trying.

And this is where we leave this ordinary, no-name family from a small town north of Jerusalem. Peninnah is bitterly provoking Hannah. Hannah is weeping and won’t eat. Elkanah is doing his best to comfort his wife, and to hold his family together. What is remarkable about this scene is how utterly unremarkable it is. Nobody would expect God to work through a dysfunctional family from the middle of nowhere to bring about His purposes… but His ways are beyond our ways, and His thoughts beyond our thoughts, and He has more in store for this obscure family, and the barren womb at the heart of it, than even the wisest under the sun could have possibly imagined!

[1] Isaiah 55:8-9

[2] Isaiah 46:9-10

[3] Joshua 24:2-3

[4] Genesis 50:20

[5] Exodus 2:15

[6] Exodus 4:10

[7] Exodus 2:3

[8] 1 Corinthians 1:26-29

[9] Judges 21:25

[10] Psalm 50:17

[11] Romans 1:18-32

[12] Jeremiah 2:13

[13] Ruth 2:1

[14] 1 Chronicles 6:22-28; 33-38

[15] 1 Timothy 3:2

[16] 1 Timothy 3:12

[17] Matthew 19:4-5

[18] Matthew 19:7-8

[19] For example, the laws concerning levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25

[20] Genesis 16:1

[21] Genesis 16:4

[22] Genesis 29:31-30:24

[23] Genesis 29:30

[24] Genesis 29:31

[25] Deuteronomy 7:14

[26] Genesis 30:1-2

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