Name Above All Names

We live in a wonderfully diverse world, filled with unique individuals. One thing that defines us to our families, neighbors, and friends, is our name. Names can be tricky–some are difficult to pronounce, or spell. Some names are shortened or changed to form “nicknames.” Others are changed by circumstances, like adoption or marriage. Some names are common to several people, or shared as “namesakes” of others, or shared between generations, calling for additions, like “Jr.,” or “the elder” or “the fourth.” Some people reject the name they were given at birth, preferring to use an alias, or going through a legal process to change it. Some names have become symbolic, or stereotyped, famous, or infamous, or iconic.

Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gesturing during sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Even though many of us may share a common first name, or surname, (or even both), our name still represents who we are–it becomes a symbolic representation of all that makes us unique– our personality, our history, and our character. And it’s not just people who carry names. We name rivers and mountains, cities, houses, farms, cars, products, pets, works of art…the list goes on. It is deep in the human soul to name things. This is a God-given desire. All the way back in the second chapter of Genesis, God brought all the beasts of the air and land to Adam, to see what name he would give them. Adam and Eve chose the names for their sons– names with very personal meanings. Names are important and carry power; they should never be taken lightly.

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God recognizes each one of us by name. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah both refer to God calling them before they were even born! Before the great judge Samuel even knew how to recognize God’s voice, God called him by name. God often changes names– Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Saul of Tarsus to Paul, the disciple Simon to Peter (or Cephas). One reason God changes names is to show His power to transform people and give them, not just a new name, but a renewed nature and spirit.

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And when we talk to God, whose very name is sacred, He allows us to call on Him through the Name He gave to Himself/His Son– Jesus. There are many boys and men who carry this name, but when we pray in the name of Jesus, we are referring to the one and only Begotten Son of God the Father; the Jesus of the Trinity; Jesus the Virgin-born Messiah. HIS name is above all other names. There is power in every ordinary name, but THIS name carries eternal, sovereign, immeasurable power. It encompasses His holiness, His compassion, His wisdom, His goodness, His faithfulness, and His Love. There is no other name by which we are saved; no other name by which we can be made new. It is not a name to be taken lightly or in vain. It is a name to be honored, cherished, and exalted. JESUS. The name above all names!

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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.

Who was Hannah?

The Bible is an amazing book. It is a single narrative, but it is made up of several stories; even several different types of literature. There are stories that seem straightforward; others are clearly meant as parables or metaphors; still others are prophetic visions. Hannah’s story fits the first category. Hannah is to be understood as a real person living in a real time and place in history. She is also representative of a particular situation–she is childless in a society where a woman’s value is measured in her ability to bear children. She is loved by her husband, but taunted and harassed by her husband’s other wife. She is consumed by grief and frustration. In our own time, she would likely be diagnosed as clinically depressed.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a tendency to see Hannah through the rosy lenses of her eventual triumph. I know the end of the story. I indulge her grief, because she “prays her way through it”, and gets the happy ending I think we all long for.

But Hannah’s story isn’t just about the outcome, and it isn’t a parable meant to show that earnest prayer will always result in getting what we desire. Hannah’s happy ending is not a guarantee or a promise for anyone else who suffers from grief or infertility (or both).

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So, I’d like to take a closer look at Hannah– not as one of the “heroines” of the Bible, but as a woman in distress. And I’d like to focus on the others in her story. God doesn’t waste details, even if we don’t always understand why they are included. I think there are several hidden lessons in this story, and they reside in details we often skim or throw aside in the pursuit of the very real truth that God answers prayer.

So, to prepare for this journey, here is the text of Hannah’s tale:


1 Samuel 1 New International Version (NIV)
The Birth of Samuel
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. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
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. 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. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 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. 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?”
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.
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.”

Taken from biblegateway.com

Lord, help us to read this story with new eyes. Help us to see how you work even in difficult circumstances and with imperfect people to bring hope and wisdom and salvation to a fallen world.

Next time: Hannah and Her Husband

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