Jacob Meets His Match–Part One

The Biblical patriarch, Jacob, is known for many things– He was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, and grandson of Abraham. He was the brother of Esau. He cheated and/or schemed his way into taking both the blessing and birthright that belonged to his older brother. For this, he was sent away to live with his Uncle Laban, and told to choose a wife from among his extended family.

Jacob’s life took a dramatic turn when he left his small (but slightly dysfunctional) family behind to begin this new chapter. Growing up, Jacob had been the quiet one, the one who stayed around the house. This was no longer an option. Jacob faced a long journey, and years of work to establish his own family and career. On the way to Paddan Aram and the house of Laban, Jacob had his first encounter with God– the vision of “Jacob’s Ladder” at the place he would call “Bethel.” There, God confirmed his promise to establish Jacob, increase his family, and bless all people through him. No longer was Jacob a second son with only his wits to help him succeed (or cause trouble)– God had promised to be with him and watch over him wherever he may go! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+28%3A10-22&version=NKJV

With that promise and the hope of finding a welcome, Jacob arrived at the well where his uncles flocks were watered. Jacob would take over the work of herding and watering the many flocks of Laban. He worked for the first month without wages–setting a dangerous pattern. After the first month, Laban “generously” offered to pay Jacob, and even let Jacob set the terms! Jacob demanded no monetary wages; he wanted only to marry his beautiful cousin, Rachel, with whom he was deeply in love.

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Seven years pass– Jacob has worked for almost nothing but the food he has eaten, and the promise of marriage with the daughter of Laban. And in a scene that seems strangely familiar, Jacob is presented with a feast, and his promised blessing– his wife. But Laban tricks him, substituting one daughter for another. Instead of Rachel, Jacob is bound to her sister, Leah.

When Jacob confronts his new father-in-law, he is given an excuse– tradition says the older daughter must be married first. Laban had seven years to explain this to Jacob, seven years to “break the bad news”, seven years to offer Jacob an alternative. Yet Laban chose to deceive his nephew and use his love for Rachel to get seven years of cheap labor. Worse, he chose to string Jacob (and Rachel) along for another seven years. The Bible gives us a clue as to one ulterior motive of Laban– Leah had “weak” or “delicate” eyes. It is possible that she had been rejected by other men or deemed ineligible for marriage. Without a prospective husband, Leah will be dependent on her father for life. But married to Jacob, Leah becomes one less responsibility for Laban. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+29%3A14-30&version=NIV

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Laban gambles his daughters’ fate on Jacob’s character. Jacob could have cast Leah aside easily and forced her to return to her father’s house a ruined woman. He could have treated her as a servant, rather than a wife– he could have beaten her or “given” her to someone else. And Jacob could have decided Rachel was not worth another seven years of labor, or that he could not trust Laban to keep his word. He could have walked away. He could have taken his anger and frustration out on Leah or on the flocks. He could have returned to his father and started another family quarrel.

But this Jacob is not the same as the one who left Canaan. He serves another seven years, marries Rachel, and then works yet another six years for flocks to call his own. All the time working for a man who is greedy, deceitful, capricious, unjust, selfish, and oppressive. He doesn’t complain, doesn’t rebel, and doesn’t cheat, lie, sabotage or steal from this horrible boss and indifferent father-in-law. Instead, he shows that he has been transformed from the young Jacob who caused so much trouble for his brother and father back home.

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May we choose to submit today to the God of Jacob, and remember that His promise to Jacob extends to all who trust Him– He will not leave us; He will see us and be with us wherever we go!

Jacob the Brother of Esau

The Biblical story of Jacob and Esau has long baffled readers and scholars alike. I don’t pretend to have the answers to some of the tough questions it poses, but I’d like to take a close look at some of them.

Esau and Jacob were twins–the only sons of their parents–born just minutes apart. Yet their personalities, their destinies, and their relationships with God and others could not have been more different.

We spent the last post covering some of Jacob’s character flaws– his early years involved scheming and “cheating” this twin of his. Jacob’s life and actions are the focus of the story, after all. He is the one God chose to establish the nation he promised to Jacob’s father and grandfather. But why Jacob and not Esau?

In many ways, this story echoes that of the very first brothers in the Bible. God chose Abel’s sacrifice over his brother’s. We are not given an obvious reason why Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable– or why Abel’s was. In this case, God does not give Rebecca a reason why her boys would fight throughout their lives or why the elder son would serve his younger brother. At one point, the Bible even says that God “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau! So we are left with a big question–Does God play favorites? Does He give His favor capriciously? If so, why bother to worship, serve, and obey Him if, in the end, He has already chosen who will be blessed?

We may never have a full explanation of God’s ways– we are told that they are not our ways; that they are higher and wiser than our ways–but there are several things I want to consider that may shed some light.

  • God is timeless. He lives beyond the boundaries of linear time, and he sees the end from the beginning. As we read through the story of Jacob, we see his progression, and the changes he makes as he matures and as he encounters the great God of his fathers as it unfolds in time. His beginning shows little promise, but God already sees Jacob as Israel, as the father of twelve tribes of people, as the ancestor of Moses, of King David, and of the coming Messiah. He sees all of this before Jacob is even born! It is part of His eternal plan that Jacob, the cheater, the underdog, the “lesser” brother should become all of these things.
  • God sees inside the human heart. Esau’s character is not fully shown in this Biblical story, but we get a few clues: 1) Esau despised his birthright– he was flippant about his inheritance, trading it for a bowl of stew. 2) Esau took foreign wives who caused his parents distress–this detail may almost escape the modern reader. We do not tend to live with our extended family, but it was (and in some cases still is) common to the society in which Isaac lived. Esau did not consider his parents when bringing foreign women into the family. They had different customs and different gods. And Esau didn’t learn from the first two wives..when Rebecca commented on the Hittite women, Esau married a daughter of Ishmael, a woman likely to resent her father’s rival (remember Ishmael was banished on account of his resentment of Isaac!) 3) Esau plotted his brother’s death. His anger and resentment over the lost blessing caused him to plot murder. Jacob was sent away, not only to find an acceptable wife, but to keep him safe from his brother’s vengeance. Even though the two brothers later met in peace (Genesis 33), the meeting was filled with tension and the brothers were never close. 4) There is not one indication in the Bible that Esau ever sought the God of his fathers—no mention of him praying, offering a sacrifice, or acknowledging God. In fact, the sons and descendants of Esau (Edom) would attack and fight with the nation of Israel for centuries to come, finally being conquered and forced to serve the descendants of Jacob. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-edomites
  • God does not “love” or “hate” in the same way that we do. God’s love is universal and eternal. God loves even those who reject, mock, and hate him. So when God says, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau I have hated”, He is not talking about his feelings for individuals (see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Malachi+1%3A1-5&version=NIV and https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+9%3A6-16&version=MEV). Rather, He is talking about how He shows mercy. Jacob and Esau were real people, and God blessed both of them, and built both of them into great nations. But God showed mercy and favor on Israel for keeping his commandments, while destroying the nation of Edom because of its continuing wickedness. (God eventually showed wrath on the nation of Israel as well, sending its people into exile because of their unfaithfulness!) Even in their destruction, both nations retained a remnant and their peoples exist to this day.
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  • God did not abandon Esau. When Jacob finally reconnects with his older brother, Esau is the head of a mighty army. Esau’s sons became the heads of tribes and kings of Edom. God allowed Esau to prosper and grow strong. But Esau never sought God; Edom never showed humility, wisdom, or reverence–only arrogance, might, and hatred. God shows mercy to those who don’t deserve it, and grace to those who desire it, but He will not allow injustice and arrogance to go unchecked forever.
  • God’s grace is a gift–Jacob didn’t deserve to be favored; but neither did Esau, or Isaac, or Abraham. Nor do any of us. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+3%3A9-18&version=ESV Not one of us has earned God’s blessing. God chooses to love us even in our sin, and chooses to give us the Grace to return and receive His blessing!
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Praise be to the God of Jacob!

Jacob the Cheater

Why do we pray to, sing praises to, and trust in the fortress of “the God of Jacob” (Psalm 46; Psalm 75, etc.)? Isn’t Jacob the one who cheated his brother and tricked his father to steal an inheritance? Wasn’t he a liar, and a thief?

Last time, https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/78948359/posts/2322587905, I wrote about Jacob as the “other son”, the one in the shadows. But Jacob wasn’t content to stay in the shadows. He waited and schemed, and used his brother’s and father’s character traits against them and to his own advantage. Jacob was crafty, and sly, and devious. These are not characteristics designed to build trust or inspire admiration. They are, however, characteristics many of us secretly admire. Jacob tricked his way to the top! He didn’t exactly “steal” his brother’s inheritance– he tricked his brother into giving it away! No bloodshed or fighting…Jacob simply used his brother’s weakness and vanity to get what he wanted. Some might say that Esau didn’t deserve to keep an inheritance he was willing to barter away for a measly bowl of stew. (https://biblia.com/bible/nlt/Ge25.27-34) Even the Bible says that Esau despised his birthright!

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Later, Jacob steals his brother’s blessing, too. This time, he lies and deceives his dying father in the process. This Bible story is curious, and much has been written about whether Jacob and his mother set out to deceive Isaac, and why. Was Rachel trying to cheat her own son, Esau, out of his blessing, and lie to her husband in the process? Why would Jacob want to steal a blessing from his brother when he already had “taken” the birthright?

The Bible doesn’t always give us easy answers and complete explanations. What it does, however, is give us glimpses into the lives of real people and their very real encounters with God. Jacob’s family was a divided family. Isaac was prepared to give everything to Esau when he died. There is no evidence that he was prepared to give Jacob any kind of blessing– it had all been reserved for Esau. Whether this was in retaliation for Jacob’s earlier “trick”, we are not told. Whether Jacob and Rebecca intended for Jacob to appease his father with meat and get “a blessing” , and things got out of hand, or whether they intended that Esau should be cut out of both blessing and birthright, we don’t know. What we see is that Isaac meant to bless only Esau. When the “real” Esau showed up too late, there was nothing left for Isaac to give as a blessing. There was no plan for a secondary blessing– for either son. (Ironically, because Jacob was sent away, Isaac had a “going away” blessing for him that was also denied to Esau.. (see Genesis 28:1!)

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Jacob’s days of cheating and using deception were to leave a lasting impact on his life. He was sent far away from his family, fearing his brother’s anger. He missed years of being with his mother and father; of having their advice, or letting them spend time with their grandchildren. Jacob ended up finding, in his Uncle Laban, a bigger cheat and liar than he had ever dreamed of being; a man whose craftiness cheated Jacob out of years of labor and saddled him with family problems for the rest of his life. Jacob’s heart was broken by the deception his own sons would perpetrate on him when they sold their brother, Joseph, into slavery. Cleverness, deceit, and crafty schemes may offer a temporary ticket to victory, power, and “the good life.” But such schemes have consequences that cause lasting pain and punishment.

But that’s not the end of the story. We see Jacob rise above his own earlier mistakes. Jacob never loses his cleverness or his desire to succeed, but he learns how to “cheat the cheater”– he becomes so successful and hard working that Laban can’t fault Jacob for having larger flocks and becoming rich. Jacob could rightfully show that he had not stolen any of his uncle’s flocks, and he made Laban rich, too. Jacob’s cleverness was not the problem– it was how he had used it; with lies and deception against his father and brother. Later in life, he uses the same cleverness to appease his brother, provide for his family, and establish his own growing dynasty.

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And, at the end of his life, Jacob had blessings for each of his sons. Even though he had “favorites”, he made sure each son knew that he was loved and blessed by both his earthly and heavenly father. God also confirmed this by giving each “son” an inheritance among the burgeoning nation of Israel when they returned to the land of promise after their time in Egypt.

What caused this change? Some might say that Jacob “learned his lesson” (and he did!) at the hands of his uncle and with the passage of time. Some might say he matured with the responsibilities of fatherhood and his career. But the Bible gives us one other important factor– Jacob encountered God. Jacob even wrestled with God. But God cannot be cheated. God cannot be outwitted or tricked. God cannot be grabbed by the heel and tripped up by any scheme of man. Yet God blesses even the cheater. God loves even the liar. God chooses even the thief. God’s love and grace are greater by far than any birthright or blessing we can “grab” for ourselves. God doesn’t bless us because we are clever, and certainly not because we lie or cheat. But he gives us intelligence, cleverness, and, if we ask for it, the wisdom to know how to use our gifts in ways that please him and help others.

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We can take refuge in the “God of Jacob”, because even in our sin, God wants to rescue us from ourselves and give us a better way.

Jacob, (the other) Son of Isaac

Jacob is a multi-faceted Biblical character; he is full of flaws and makes bad life choices, yet God blesses him and chooses him over his brother to be one of the patriarchs of his chosen people. In fact, the nation of Israel takes its name from the new name God chooses to give to Jacob. So it is helpful to study Jacob’s life. We can learn a lot from his interactions with God and others.

Today, I want to look at Jacob’s (sometimes) dysfunctional home life. We think of the patriarchs as having blessed lives and few, if any, flaws. But God’s blessings are not earned. They are a free gift, freely given to imperfect people. Jacob’s father, Isaac, was the son of God’s promise to Abraham. But Isaac’s home life was not blissful. Isaac was taunted and resented by his older brother, Ishmael, leading to Ishmael being exiled. And he had several younger brothers who were sent away as they grew older (see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+21%3A8-20&version=NIV and https://biblia.com/bible/Genesis25.1-6) He was devastated by the death of his mother, Sarah. And, while he was much-loved, and the son of promise, he was also indulged, isolated, and coddled. He was the “winner” among all his brothers.

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As for Jacob’s mother, Rebecca– her family history was dominated by a cunning and dishonest older brother (more about him in a future post!) She was given a choice to leave her family and become Isaac’s wife (almost unheard of freedom for a woman at that time, and certainly not her brother’s idea!) She was a good wife to Isaac and was a great comfort to him in his grief after the death of his mother, Sarah. But when she became pregnant, she soon realized that something was happening inside her womb– something beyond her ability to understand; something that would test her (and Isaac) to their limit.

God had promised to make Abraham a great nation. And he promised that Abraham would have a son through Sarah. Ishmael was the result of Abraham and Sarah trying to do things for God “their way,” when they got impatient and fearful. Isaac’s birth was confirmation that God’s blessings would come “His” way, and not through human efforts. Isaac knew all of this, but there was more he would need to learn about how God operates.

In Isaac’s family, God underscored the truth of His character– God blesses those whom he loves. God’s blessings are not earned; they do not come in predictable patterns or for reasons based solely on human logic. God’s favor rests not on the “deserving” but on those he chooses to bless. So Isaac and Rebecca have twin boys. According to human tradition, the eldest son inherits all the property and blessings and becomes the patriarch of the next generation. The younger son serves the elder or else leaves to start his own family. Over the centuries, this patterns has caused wars, as brother fights brother for control over land, rights, crowns, and more.

We have no record of Isaac consulting God over this situation, but Rebecca does– and she gets a surprising answer! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+25%3A+19-28&version=NIV
Even in the womb, the boys are fighting, but God tells Rebecca that the oldest will serve the younger! Both boys will become strong nations, but they will be separated, and they will continue to struggle throughout their histories. It is the younger, seemingly weaker underdog who will be God’s choice to continue the line of promise begun with Abraham.

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Even in their names, Jacob “loses” to Esau. Esau is named for his bright red hair, a mark of distinction, and a reason to stand out and be a leader. Jacob is named after his action of grabbing his brother by the heel as they come out of the womb. It is a disparaging name, a constant reminder that he is second, and lesser, and always lagging behind his brother.

Today, as I look at Jacob and Esau, I am reminded that I pray to the God of Jacob. He is the God of the underdog; the God who sees and hears the outcast and the downtrodden; God of the disparaged one; the one who feels left out or left behind, even in his own family– even by his own father. It’s not that Isaac hated Jacob or abused him or denied him. But his affection for his sons was shaped by human traditions and his own preferences. God’s love is pure and unchanging! I am comforted in knowing that when God sees me, He always looks with the eyes of perfect love!

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Praying to the God of Jacob

Throughout the Bible there are stories of people –sometimes rather ordinary and even deeply flawed people–who end up in extraordinary and miraculous situations. I spent some time exploring Hannah, and her journey through barrenness and into motherhood. I’d like to go back several generations to look at the intriguing character of Jacob.

(For the story of the early life of Jacob, see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+25%3A19-34%2CGenesis+27%3A1-28%3A9&version=NIV )

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Jacob often appears as an adjunct character– son of Isaac, and grandson of the patriarch Abraham, he seems to be something of a mis-step in God’s promise to build a nation and bless the world. Jacob seems to bumble through life– the second son, living in the shadow of a heroic older brother; a cheap con-artist, whose deception rips his family in two; a sly cheat who finally meets his match in a dishonest and conniving father-in-law; a beleaguered husband and father, juggling two feuding sisters, their two servants, a dozen warring sons, a tragic daughter… It would be easy to confuse this Bible story with a modern TV sitcom or reality show about dysfunctional family life.

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Yet…
Jacob, like his grandfather, Abraham, saw God face to face, even wrestling with him on one occasion. God gave Jacob the vision of a stairway leading to Heaven; God gave Jacob his blessing, independent of the one from Isaac; he chose Jacob over Esau to carry on the line of patriarchs; God gave Jacob a new name– Israel– which became fixed as the name of God’s people. Generations later, King David prayed to and worshiped “the God of Jacob” as a refuge. Jesus even referred to His Father as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

What makes Jacob stand out? Why does nearly half of the book of Genesis cover the years of Jacob’s life? I want to spend some time in the coming days to look a bit closer at this flawed man, how God revealed aspects of His own character in his dealings with Jacob, and how knowing Jacob better can help us as we pray to “his” God (and ours).

Hannah and Her God

The story of Hannah is filled with a network of complex relationships– Hannah and her husband, her rival, her spiritual leaders, her son’s foster-parent, and the son she desired and yet gave away. But Hannah’s most complex and important relationship was with her God.

What can we learn by looking at this relationship?

  • Even when we don’t understand it, God has a plan, and it is always bigger than “us.” God closed Hannah’s womb– that was part of His plan. But it was not the end of the plan, or the point of the plan, or a hitch in the plan. Hannah’s barrenness was not a punishment for anything that she had done, but Hannah’s response to it (and the response of all the others) provides us with an example of faith, persistence, and obedience. Hannah didn’t know the end of her own story– she didn’t know that her son would play such an important role in the history of his nation or in the history of God’s ultimate plan of salvation for the human race. Hannah didn’t know her story would be contained in the pages of scriptures to encourage people centuries into the future. How would our response to current circumstances change if we considered that God may be using us them to bless, challenge, or encourage others through our stumbling steps of responding in faith? The results of our faith (or lack of faith) will have an impact far beyond just our immediate lives.
  • God is sovereign. Nothing happened to Hannah outside of God’s sight; nothing was beyond his control; nothing about this story took God by surprise. Hannah, even in her despair and frustration, could trust her all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful God.
  • God is more interested in our wholeness than our “happiness.” Our culture (and our selfish nature) tends to focus on our comfort, our accomplishments, and our happiness. When we are not happy, when we are frustrated in our goals, when we are restless or oppressed, we tend to think that God has turned His back on us. But it is often during times of grief, pain, loss, and darkness that we are stretched and reshaped to be stronger and wiser, growing closer to God and others. God doesn’t want us to wallow in despair and self-pity; but He will lead us through the very “valley of the shadow of death.” But, as Hannah experienced, God sees our sorrow, hears our cry, and answers our call.
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  • God is trustworthy and faithful. God knew Hannah’s heart. He knew her longing for a child. In Hannah’s case, He had caused her to be barren for a season, and then He gave her the desire of her heart and much more. But even if He had not given her a child of the womb, God gave her a loving husband, a compassionate (if imperfect) spiritual leader, a rival who could not triumph over her, and most of all, His presence and love.

Hannah’s Prayer

Then Hannah prayed and said:

“My heart rejoices in the Lord;

    in the Lord my horn[a] is lifted high.

My mouth boasts over my enemies,

    for I delight in your deliverance.

“There is no one holy like the Lord;

    there is no one besides you;

    there is no Rock like our God.

“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.

“The bows of the warriors are broken,

    but those who stumbled are armed with strength.

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.

“The Lord brings death and makes alive;

    he brings down to the grave and raises up.

The Lord sends poverty and wealth;

    he humbles and he exalts.

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.

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.”

1 Samuel 2:1-10 (NIV) taken from BibleGateway.com
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Hannah and Her Son

1 Samuel 1:11 New International Version (NIV)
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.”

http://www.biblegateway.com

Today, we get to the essence of Hannah’s prayer. And it is not a prayer that most of us would pray. Hannah asks for a son to take away her misery and show her God’s favor. But in the same breath, she promises to give her son back to the Lord forever. How many of us would ask for something so rare and precious just to turn around and give it away?

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As I write this, my country, my friends, and even my family are deeply divided over the issue of abortion. Much is being made about a woman’s “right” to decide whether and when she will have a child. “My body, My choice,” is a common cry among the pro-choice crowd, while the other side points fingers and yells, “baby killer” at those women who choose to end their pregnancy. But yelling and chanting don’t change hearts or facts. A woman cannot actually “choose” to become pregnant at will. In Hannah’s case, she was in anguish over her inability to “choose” to become pregnant. In the case of a modern woman, she may be in anguish over not being able to avoid an unwanted pregnancy or avoid unwanted complications resulting from her pregnancy. She may, like Hannah, be in anguish over her inability to conceive or to carry to full term. But in any case, the idea that pregnancy and birth are simply a matter of “choice” is based on a false reality. There is an illusion of “reproductive autonomy” because of modern medicine. We have birth control that makes claims of being “safe and effective”; we have methods to increase fertility, regulate menstruation, reduce the chances of conception, and even stop the fertilization process within a day or two. But no woman can simply “choose” to become pregnant (or stop being pregnant) at will. Women cannot choose the gender of their children; they cannot guarantee the date of birth; they cannot produce a future world leader or athletic prodigy just by force of will. They cannot guarantee their child perfect health, long life, wealth, or happiness. And reproduction among human beings is never “autonomous”!

Hannah’s story seems the antithesis of abortion– here we have a woman begging for a child; she is in anguish over her inability to conceive. And God hears her cry and blesses her with a son.

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But today, I want to look at Hannah in a slightly different light. I think Hannah would have a great deal of compassion for those women who suffer anguish because of their womb– women whose wombs are achingly empty; women whose wombs seem to betray them as pregnancy after pregnancy ends in a miscarriage; women who long for their womb to be home to a little girl, even as they have a house full of much-loved little boys (or vice versa); women whose wombs hold anger and bitterness because they have been the unwilling vessel of abuse, incest, and rape.

Infertility and “unwanted” pregnancy are not mutually exclusive. They are distant cousins–manifestations of a fallen world where none of us control even the circumstances of our own bodies. And it is in this context that Hannah makes an extraordinary vow.

Hannah gives birth to a son– the fulfillment of all her longings. Or is he? Hannah gets to carry him in her womb; she gets to wean him. But then she vows that she will give him up– relinquish all rights to be there when he scrapes his knee or loses his first tooth, when his voice begins to deepen and his hugs require her to stand on tiptoe. What kind of mother is Hannah? She will never have all those stories of the little “mom” moments; no memories of tucking him in after a long day, or watching him climb a tree, or run after his dad. She will never hold his hand on dark stormy nights, or ruffle his hair after it gets a new cut (in fact, she vows he will never GET a haircut).

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There are moms–unsung, living in the shadows– who have made the incredible sacrifice of “giving up” their children. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by force. Some have given them up for adoption at birth. Some have lost parental rights due to divorce, incarceration, or other life circumstances. Some have had their children stolen or taken from them in tragic circumstances. Hannah was given other children after she gave up Samuel, but she never “got over” the loss of her son. No one ever does.

Which brings me back to the debate about abortion. We do not have “reproductive autonomy.” Our wombs are not just another part of our bodies. They are designed to nurture and prepare for new life. To the extent that they fulfill that design, they bring joy and pain, hope and hurt. In denying that reality and embracing the false promise of “my body, my choice”, we don’t erase the lives lost to abortion– we just bury them. And for the women who are making that choice, we must offer compassion. The pain and anguish they suffer before and after an abortion are every bit as real as that suffered by Hannah in her quest to have a son, only to give him up.

Hannah and Eli

The story in the Bible about Hannah is about prayer; it is also about depression, anguish, misunderstanding, marriage, rivalry, infertility, trust, and obedience.

Yesterday, I talked a bit about the priest, Eli, and his wicked sons. It is that same Eli who becomes a surrogate parent for Hannah’s precious, promised son, Samuel.

Think about that. In all my years reading through this story, it never occurred to me that Hannah had already known about Eli’s sons and their wickedness. Hannah knew that Eli was not the best role model for her small son. She knew that she was sending her child into an environment that included corruption, injustice, and perversion. This child she had promised to “give back” to God would grow up in a family more dysfunctional and dangerous than if he had stayed with Hannah, Elkanah, and even Peninnah and his half-siblings.

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The Bible does not give us all the details of either family, (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A11-26&version=ESV ) but there is evidence that Elkanah was a good provider, an honest and worthy man, and a good father. Eli, on the other hand, was told of his sons’ wickedness, and, other than giving one mild rebuke, he turns a blind eye to their practices and grows fat and lazy in his service. There is no mention of a mother or motherly influence at all in Samuel’s new “foster” family. Why would Hannah surrender her maternal rights (and why would Elkanah agree to forfeit his paternal rights) to send Samuel into this hornet’s nest?

Perhaps the answer can be found just before the account of Eli’s wicked sons. At the end of Hannah’s Song (which we will examine in more detail later), we have a profound statement of faith:

1 Samuel 2:9-10 English Standard Version (ESV)
“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
    but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness,
    for not by might shall a man prevail.
10 The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces;
    against them he will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
    he will give strength to his king
    and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

http://www.biblegateway.com

Hannah was not giving Samuel to Eli to raise; she was giving Samuel to God to raise and guide and protect.

I am writing this today, not to encourage parents to absolve themselves of responsibility for training and caring for their own family, but to encourage those parents who may not be in a position to guide and protect their children. Some of us have children, grandchildren, siblings, or other young and vulnerable family members living away from our care or influence. Some are living in dysfunctional and even dangerous environments. God KNOWS. He SEES. He HEARS. We do not know, nor do we understand, why God allows innocent people to suffer. We do not know what fears or concerns Hannah and Elkanah may have had about Samuel’s upbringing. We do not know what Samuel endured under Eli’s care, or what he saw or heard in the presence of Eli’s sons. As a child, he may have been spared some of the worst of their behavior.

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We do know two things, however. Hannah and Elkanah may or may not have had reason to trust Eli. He did allow them to visit each year, and he seems to have been fond of young Samuel; certainly the Bible stories I used to read in Sunday School made Eli seem like a kindly uncle. But the reality was that Samuel’s life was not in Eli’s hands–it was in God’s! Hannah and Elkanah trusted God to guide their son, even as they relished every moment they were able to spend with him. They certainly prayed for his safety and growth in wisdom as he served in the Tabernacle of the Almighty.

Secondly, we know that God can bring good out of even bad circumstances. Eli was weak and indulgent with his sons; he was warned and did nothing. He sat down on the job and faced judgment without repentance. When Samuel was grown, this pattern could have been repeated. Samuel’s own sons began taking bribes and perverting justice. Samuel was still serving faithfully, even as an old man, but his sons were not following his good example. However, when the people came to Samuel with reports of his sons’ activities and asked him to step aside and appoint a king, Samuel sought the Lord. God reassured him, and Samuel was faithful to appoint and advise Israel’s first king, Saul. God was faithful to guide Samuel’s footsteps, and to bring justice against the wicked sons of Eli.

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Eli’s flawed examples of fatherhood and leadership still served as models for Samuel. Even as a child, he showed wisdom, respect, and love for his “foster father” and mentor. Hannah and Elkanah never wavered in their trust that God could and would guide their son and provide for him. Their faith wasn’t based on the knowledge that Samuel would one day become the chief priest and anoint both Saul and his successor, David. They only knew that God could be trusted.

That is not a promise that every child in a bad environment will be “safe” and rise above their circumstances to become famous or powerful. But it is reason to keep hope and faith when we feel powerless. None of Hannah and Elkanah’s (or Peninnah’s) other children are mentioned in the Biblical narrative. They may have been honest, upright citizens, successful in business or esteemed in their hometown of Ramah. Samuel’s story is not a parable–there is no “moral” about “giving a child back” to God and being able to expect success and fame and blessing. There is, however, a lesson here about recognizing that every child is a gift– not a reward, not a burden–our children belong to God. We should do our best to guide them, nurture them, protect them, and above all, to love them. But their destiny– including tragic circumstances and glorious opportunities–is not ours to control.

Next time, we explore another important relationship– that of Hannah and her Son.

Hannah and the Priests

The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel is filled with priests. Her husband, Elkanah, is of the priestly class, and regularly goes to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Chapter one quickly mentions Hophni and Phinehas who were the resident priests there. And of course, there is Eli, their father, the High Priest at that time. Hannah has access to counselors, spiritual guidance, and men whose ancestral calling is to bring people closer to God. Yet none of them can bring Hannah out of her anguish and offer comfort.

Hophni and Phinehas are noticeably absent in this story. The mention of their names calls attention to this absence. They were supposed to be the acting priests, but they don’t interact in any way with the grieving Hannah, or her husband, Elkanah. Further reading reveals that they were very wicked and due to be judged for abusing their priestly role. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A12-36&version=NIV

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Eli himself is an indifferent priest. The first mention of him is as the father of the wicked Hophni and Phinehas. Next, we find him sitting in a chair at the doorstep of the tabernacle. He is not serving; he is not overseeing; he is not doing anything. When he first observes Hannah, he jumps to a wrong and judgmental conclusion– that she is drunk and raving. He doesn’t go over to see if he’s right in his assumption. In fact, there is no mention in the passage that he ever rises from his chair.
We might gloss over this passage, without grasping the importance of this detail. Nowhere in the long lists of a priest’s duties was there an option of sitting at the door and just watching people go in and out. The priests all had duties– some were in charge of the sacrifice (as Elkanah sometimes was). Others were in charge of the lamps, the incense, the care of the utensils and tools, offering prayers, singing, playing instruments, reading from the books of the law, and keeping the tabernacle clean and in good repair. None of them required sitting. Eli isn’t busy doing the work of the Lord; he is literally sitting down on the job.
In short, Eli is not a spiritual giant– he offers a standard blessing after Hannah pleads her case for not being a drunken disturber of the peace, but he doesn’t offer much in the way of true comfort or counseling. His first words to her are to “Go in peace.” The blessing seems to be almost an afterthought. Still, Hannah goes away encouraged, and comes back the next day to worship before returning home.

What can we learn from this encounter and these details in Hannah’s story?

One possible reaction is to become critical and dismissive of the clergy. I think this is the wrong reaction, but I want to address it in this context, because it can keep us from finding help and blessing if we let it. I know countless people who have walked away from the church because of one disappointing encounter with a minister, pastor’s wife, deacon, or fellow parishioner. Eli was not a stellar example of Israel’s priesthood; he was a flawed human. He had rebellious sons, and was likely depressed or anguished over his own troubles. Yet, he was still faithful to turn Hannah’s attention to the One who is always able to bring comfort and strength. Hannah could have chosen to focus on his rude and judgmental assumption about her, but she chose to focus on the hope he was able to offer.
I have gotten dismissive, even bad, advice from people in the church. I have been hurt, judged, and ignored by those who are supposed to be serving God. But just as God provides grace to cover our own failures and mis-steps, He asks us to extend forgiveness and grace to those–even those who serve Him.*

Having said that, I think there is a warning here for those who serve the Lord. Eli ends his days in tragic fashion, his family legacy in ruins, because of some of the details we glimpse even in this short passage about Hannah. Eventually, her son, Samuel, will be tasked with the job of delivering the fullness of God’s judgment against Eli and his sons. Eli’s priesthood was not a cushy position of sitting at the door of God’s tabernacle enjoying an afternoon breeze. He was in charge of setting the tone of reverence and worship for the nation. His sons were corrupt; everyone knew it, including Eli, but nothing was done about it. He sat there, and let evil happen around him.
Church workers, pastors, and priests who do evil and abuse their positions may get away with it for awhile, but God will not hold them guiltless. Nor will he hold those guiltless who cover up or deny the guilt of those around them. No matter how high the position, no matter how much “good” they have done, unless they repent of their actions, they will face God’s wrath over their evil acts.

Finally, we need to see Hannah’s response. Regardless of how evil the sons of Eli were, or how spineless Eli was as a parent and a High Priest, Hannah found faith– not in the priests– but in the God they served. She had seen the dedication of her husband, Elkanah. He served God with reverence, and he served his family with love and honor. She saw that Eli, even sitting down on the job, was still aware that hope and healing come from the Almighty.

Hannah’s response to Eli, and the God he served so imperfectly, deserves another look– one we will take in the next post.

I pray that today, we will be grateful to God for the faithful servants he sends into our lives, and for his grace when we or others “sit down” on the job of serving others and showing Him the reverence He deserves.

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