Holidays bring out both the best and the worst in people! Holidays fill our hearts with both joy and dread.
Holidays reveal at least two things:
- the brokenness of life outside of Eden’s garden
- our strategy for navigating life outside of Eden’s garden
Let’s consider a story from 1 Samuel 1:1-18 about a holiday, two broken women (co-wives of one man) and two broken men (a husband and a priest) —the stories of Hannah, Peninnah, Elkanah, and Eli.
No story in the Bible is independent—every story has a meta-narrative or “big story” context and an immediate context. Therefore, we should consider the contexts that situate this particular story:
- Big story context — Since Adam’s fall in sin, all people are broken spiritually (separated from God and need redemption), physically (will die), relationally (Cain kills Abel, murder, lying, sinful exercise of dominance), and sexually (Moses doesn’t hold back when he records the barrenness of Sarah, the deception of Abraham, Sodom/Gommorah story, and the perversion of Lot’s daughters). Adam’s sin, the sins of those before us, the sins of those around us, and our own sins produce deep brokenness for everyone. We do what we do because we are broken.
- Immediate context — Hannah lived during an especially sinful and broken period in Israel’s history, the time Israel transitions from the Judges Era when the people are described as “doing what is right in their own eyes”(Judges 21:25) to the Kingdom Era.
Hannah’s story begins on a holiday (1 Samuel 1:3) and reveals layers of deep brokenness: personal brokenness, family brokenness, spiritual brokenness. It also reveals God’s work in the midst of brokenness—a work of redemption.
Let’s now consider the Four Characters in the story:
First, we have Elkanah. He’s the husband of both Hannah and Peninnah. He is bringing his family to Shiloh to worship the Lord for one of the three required feasts dictated by Moses (Exodus 34:23-24; Deuteronomy 12:5-7; 16:16). On this holiday (probably Passover), He comes to the Lord with sacrifices for worship. He gives both of his wives portions from the sacrifices, but gives double to Hannah because he especially loves her even though she is barren. Though Elkanah is a polygamist, he still seeks to honor the LORD. He is morally broken, but he acknowledges his spiritual need.
When Elkanah sees Hannah weeping over her barrenness and Peninnah’s cruel words, he seeks to comfort her. He sets himself up as enough for Hannah by saying, “Why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” Elkanah cannot meet the deepest longing of Hannah’s heart. Though he is a good and hard-working man, he is self-sufficient and religious. He needs to repent of self-sufficiency and idolatry (religion without relationship, setting himself up as god). As religious and generous as he was, he couldn’t give Hannah the one thing that she wanted because he isn’t omnipotent. Elkanah is in the right place, doing the right thing, but his love for Hannah isn’t enough. He isn’t God.
Our second character is Hannah, one of Elkanah’s two wives. She herself is barren and she comes from a long line of barren women (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel). Her co-wife is cruel towards her and her husband cannot fulfill her hearts longings. Her situation leads her to weep and call out to God. Eli the priest, a man who ought to have offered her spiritual counsel and care, absolutely misreads the situation and accuses her of drunkenness. Hannah was in the right place, doing the right thing, but was totally misunderstood. Hannah could have been cynical and hard, but she pours her complaint out to the LORD and is transformed by a promise, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have asked of Him. So the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad” (1:18). Hannah understood that only the God of Israel understood her situation. By faith she looked to Him to fulfill His promises. Hannah teaches us that God is not bound by the spiritual brokenness of others. To have a promise from God is to possess His activity on your behalf. In all your pain, look to Christ to see God’s promised care for you.
Our third character is Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife. She’s a fertile woman and a mean girl! Her child-bearing, however, doesn’t win Elkanah’s love—he loves Hannah. Peninnah is physically healthy, but emotionally and spiritually broken. Therefore, she lashes out at others to make them miserable—especially during the holiday. Peninnah is in the right place with a wrong attitude, causing hurt to others.
She, like many women, seeks validation through possessing more than others (in her case sons, but for us that could be anything). This story reminds us of the story of Rachel (loved, but barren) and Leah (unloved, but fertile). Peninnah used her children to fill the void of unrequited love—Elkanah never expressed love for her like he did Hannah. Peninnah teaches us that people who feel unloved act unloving toward others.
Peninnah, however, cannot prevent Hannah from crying out to the LORD. Though she is lonely, hurt, and mean, she must repent of worshiping with hypocrisy—of being a “mean girl” (religion without transformation).
Finally, we meet Eli, the priest of God. He is spiritually dry, undiscerning and condemning of Hannah, while his own sons live in open sin and rebellion. They abuse worshippers and sleep with the women who come to Shiloh (2:22, 29). This reveals a broken priesthood, broken spiritual leaders in Israel. Eli is in the right place, with a wrong perspective (spiritually dull and permissive with his own sons) and doing damage to a hurting woman. Eli lived like an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand. Nevertheless, God worked in the midst of Hannah’s imperfect circumstance. Eli teaches us that spiritual leaders may fail, but the LORD never fails His people. Eli, though spiritually dull, cannot prevent God from speaking to Hannah. He must repent of cynicism and harsh judgment.
Our own holiday experiences probably mirror the brokenness of these characters. What are we to do when we reflect on the brokenness around us and in us? We must look to Christ as our hope. Christ’s death was on Passover, Israel’s first annually celebrated holiday. There he bore the physical pain, rejection, isolation, shame, and grief of every man to redeem man and to give him hope. This Christmas, love the broken with whom you celebrate Christmas. Look for God’s work of redemption in your midst. Be a Hannah who cries out to God in need and finds her all in HIm.
Truths about holidays:
- God is not bound by our brokenness, by what binds us culturally, relationally, spiritually, or physically.
- Spiritually broken people sabotage the spirit of holidays.
- Possessions and accomplishments fail to meet the deepest longing of the heart.
- Only by encountering the God of the holidays will one experience lasting hope and true joy.
- We see life in snapshots while God works panoramically — from one generation to the next. He is always working in and around us. We need the keys of faith to recognize His work.
- Sometimes even those who seem spiritual misunderstands our pain. Despite Eli’s blindness to Hannah’s suffering, God still chose to use him in her life. It is almost scandalous to think that Samuel was given to Eli to raise!
- The answer to your prayers have greater ramifications than we imagine — Hannah’s lack and longing was an invitation to experience God — to enter into the story of God’s redemption of Humanity. Hannah longs for a son; God desires a king to lead His people. Samuel is the prophet who anoints David.