The opening of 1 Sam. 2 continues the story from the previous chapter. Hannah has given birth to her long-sought child, nursed him, weaned him, and given him over to the priests at Shiloh as promised. In this chapter, she sings a song of thanks/praise/hope/future prediction/other stuff that really isn’t connected to her situation very well. Mostly, it goes on about how “the bows of the mighty are broken, / but the feeble gird on strength” (1 Sam. 2:4) and other social reversals. Really, it’s the mighty vs meek stuff that a former “cultural Christian” like me associates with Jesus.

There are only really two parts (that I could identify) that make any kind of sense in relation to Hannah. One is the line about “the barren has borne seven, / but she who has many children is forlorn” (1 Sam. 2:5). The “borne seven” bit need not be literal. As Claude Mariottini writes, seven is just a significant number, so “seven sons” is really just a stand-in for “perfect number of children.” You will remember the same phrase used in Ruth 4:15, in praise of Ruth. So it’s not necessary for Hannah to have a literal seven sons for this passage to have been through applicable to her (she does come close, though, as she later has 3 more sons and 2 daughters). If we want to read into the text a bit, the second half of that stanza could be taken as a reference to Peninnah, if we want to imagine her embittered by Hannah’s fortune reversal for some reason.

Samuel learning from Eli, by John Singleton Copley, 1780

Samuel learning from Eli, by John Singleton Copley, 1780

The talk of a future monarch toward the end (1 Sam. 2:10) may also explain why the song was situated here, if we accept the interpretation that she is blessing Samuel, or perhaps foretelling his involvement in the future social change.

The stuff about how “not by might shall a man prevail” (1 Sam. 2:9) feels Deuteronomistic-y. In Deuteronomy itself, we had the curses and the blessings, which argued that Israel’s future fate rested not on its own political or military prowess, but rather on its adherence to God’s law. Through Joshua and Judges, we saw small armies defeat much larger armies by having God on their side. In Joshua 7, for example, the Israelite fails not because of any tactical failure, but because one man among them disobeyed a religious rule. Once that man (and his entire family) was punished, the Israelite army was able to defeat their enemy (albeit while also going into battle with a much larger number of soldiers, but we’re talking about the cause and effect that is explicitly stated, not the one that’s comically implied).

There’s also a bit in there about God killing people, bringing people to life, and raising the dead. While the obvious interpretation for me was that the point of this stanza was to illustrate how all-powerful God is (he can even bring people back from Sheol!), my study Bible disagrees:

Brings to life probably refers to birth rather than to resurrection from the dead; likewise the next line probably refers to deep trouble or desperate injuries and recover from them. Sheol, the place of the dead under the earth, like Hades among the Greeks (Is. 14:9-21); but the term is sometimes used of conditions near death (Pss. 86:13; 88:3-7).

Which seems poetically plausible, if not necessarily the Occam’s Razor explanation.

John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry has some interesting notes on the structure of the song (if you’re into that kind of thing, go read the whole post):

Enjambed 2:2 structures have generally gone unnoticed in the study of ancient Hebrew verse. I treat them as lines on a par with widely acknowledged non-enjambed 2:2 lines like Psalm 3:8a, 9. The result: 1 Sam 2:1-10 turns out to be an 18 line poem, a widely attested poem line length in ancient Hebrew literature. 1 Sam 2:9b and 10c turn out to be 2:2 lines which arrest the tempo of the material intake of the poem by virtue of their conciseness. They are crucial lines: “for not by strength / will man prevail,” and “YHWH judges / the ends of the earth.”

After Hannah’s song, we get a sample of the next story (which involves Eli and his sons), then a brief revisit with Hannah, then finally launch full on into Eli’s family troubles. But since following that structure messes with my heading use, I’ll just tell you right now that Hannah makes Samuel a new robe every year – bringing it to him when her family does their annual Shiloh visit – and has five more kids.

Family Drama

There appears to be evidence of some stitching together from different sources here. I mentioned above that the story of Eli’s family is separated by an update on Hannah’s doings. Prior to the interlude, Eli’s sons (unnamed) are bad priests because of something to do with how they take their portion from the sacrifice.

First, it seems that the issue is that they are dipping their forks into the cauldrons where the sacrificial meat is boiling, and keep for themselves whatever sticks. But then it seems that this is actually standard, accepted practice (or was at the time in Shiloh, anyway). Then, the issue seems to be that they are taking their portion from the raw sacrificial meat, before it has been burned. Which is either an issue because the raw meat hasn’t technically been through motions of being consecrated, or it’s an issue because they are then also taking their portion later on while the meat is boiling.

In other words, I came away unclear as to whether the issue is that they taking their portion at the wrong time, or that they are double-dipping.

A third possibility was brought up by Brant Clements, who accuses the sons of “filching the best parts of the sacrifices.”

Whatever their crime is here, it’s clearly compounded by the fact that Eli’s sons are threatening worshippers who refuse to give in to their demands.

After Hannah’s interjection, we get a very different passage. Eli’s sons are suddenly named (it’s Hophni and Phinehas, whom we met in 1 Sam. 1:3), and now their crime is that they “lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (1 Sam. 2:22).

Before we get to the obvious, I should point out that the reference to the “tent of meeting” here is also quite interesting. So far, the impression that’s been given is that there is a permanent structure – a temple – at Shiloh, and that we are no longer using the exodus tent that Joshua set up there in Josh. 18:1. My study Bible refers to the inclusion as “an error” (p.333).

But back to the temple women, Brant Clements sums up the questions to be asked about the reference to them:

Who are these women? Just what services do they perform? Is this temple prostitution (a common practice among Israel’s pagan neighbors)? Are the women rightfully there and wrongly used? Or is their presence another indication of just how bad things have gotten in Israel?

It looks to me like Eli was known as a reasonably decent priest, but it was a known historical fact that his line did not continue the priesthood. It seems that various stories sprang up independently of each other to explain this, including the two here in which his sons were just awful.

In the latter part of the chapter, an unnamed “man of God” (1 Sam. 2:27) comes to Eli and tells him that the priesthood that had been granted to his familial line is hereby revoked, and that his sons will both die on the same day. While the man is not named here, my study Bible claims that his name is Abiathar, citing 1 Sam. 22:18-23 and 1 Kg. 2:26-27. We’ll see when we get there!