In 1 Samuel, we find Hannah in the temple desperately crying out to God about her barrenness after years of ridicule from her husband’s fertile wife, Penninah. As the story unfolds, God responds to her cries. He opens her womb and liberates her from the social consequences of her infertilityher disconnection from the life of her peoplewhile providing a great prophet to Israel. In 1 Samual 2, we hear Hannah’s prayer as she leaves her little son, Samuel, at the temple with the priest Eli. “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord there is no Rock like our God.”
As a mother of four young children, I find Hannah’s joyful acknowledgment of Yahweh’s liberating work in her life echoing in my ears as I reflect on the texts for this week’s Sabbath School lesson. This lesson asks us to consider, in the context of God’s election of Israel, the education of the young people in Israel, and the gift of prophecy for Israel as well as for the church. These themes, along with Hannah’s story, lead me to ask: What does teaching and instruction have to do with the liberating work of God? Why do so many of us, children and adults alike, fail to learn from the formal teaching we receive at home, in church, and at school, to depend fully on the Lord, our Rock, for our liberation? Why do we often have to go through an excruciating spiritual barrenness, before we can truly understand the truth that Hannah came to know at the end of her ordealthat “there is no Rock like our God”? (Compare Isa. 44:8). And finally, what does such a revelation have to do with the gift of prophecy in the church?
Like the Israelites fighting the Amalekites under the leadership of Moses, we cannot overcome the forces bent on our destruction without looking to the “staff of God” lifted high in our midst. Our teachers and preachers lift high the staff of God in our day by repeating the stories of God’s salvation from times past and in the present (Exod. 17:14). But even those who faithfully attend Sabbath School and learn their lessons well can fall into the trap of idolatry. Though we don’t worship idols of wood and stone, as the ancient Israelites were tempted to do, Christian communities inadvertently create “idolatrous” social structures that form members who live in them. Too often these social structures participate in values and practices of surrounding cultures rather than being transformed by the liberating intentions of our Loving Redeemer.
For example, even though Christian mothers are heirs of the riches of the Old and New Covenants (see Exod. 34:27), we often resist the call to Christ’s disciples to use our God-given gifts to participate in God’s liberating work in the world. Instead, we idolatrously opt to follow conventional norms encouraging us to make our children or our performance as mothers the center of our attention. Our primary focus becomes giving our children every opportunity for “success” as defined by worldly wisdom. Or, our good intentions lead us to take too much responsibility for our children’s salvation, believing we can ensure this by teaching them all the precepts of the faith (including the teachings on healthsee Lev. 11:18), forgetting that their salvation ultimately depends on God’s Spirit at work throughout the church and the world.
The church, however, often colludes in this idolatry. We fail to live out our prophetic witness by the way we “do church” and care for our children. As with the rest of the culture, Western Christians live primarily in isolated nuclear families that attend primarily to their own economic and social needs, rather than moving beyond themselves to build interdependent networks of support and love among members. Such redeemed social structures might liberate all members of the faith community to participate in God’s redeeming work and testify to God’s goodness, not only mothers caring for children or elderly dependents. Yet like ancient Israel, we forget to trust God for our material and emotional well-being. Our resulting fear leads us to neglect the needs of those in the Body of Christ who are struggling financially, with their relationships, with addictions, or with the practical problems entailed in childrearing or caring for dependent elders. By failing to acknowledge the value of this unpaid work, and to do our part in nurturing the young and elderly, so that caregivers can use their other gifts in the church and community, our churches deny the prophetic witness to which the Gospel calls us.
What does the prophet Isaiah have to teach the church about the liberating gift of prophecy for the church? Like Hannah, the people of Israel had to go through a period of barrenness before they could knowingly say “there is no Rock” like our God (See Isa. 44:8.) Israel was divided by invading armies, exiled from its homeland, and left destitute as they forgot that Yahweh, the God who gave them birth and nurtured them spiritually and physically (see Isa. 42:14; 44:12; 45:911; and Isa. 49:1416). Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness and ingratitude, God called her out of her barrenness. God reminded the people of Israel of their eternal purpose, even as they realized their “toil had been futile” and they had exhausted themselves “to no purpose” (Isa. 49:4.) God reminded them that Yahweh alone was their Redeemerthat in the face of their barrenness, their compassionate mothering God could bring children into their household from among the Gentiles. Isaiah tells them that no less than kings would bring their foster children on their shoulders and princesses would mother the foster children who would repopulate their lands (Isa. 49:2223).
The experience of Israel teaches the church that the gift of prophecy is, and will always be, about the call to turn from our idolatrous ways, to repent, and to receive the gracious salvation of our Redeeming God. As we give up our aspirations to self-sufficiency, either as individuals, families, or as religious or ethnic groups, and embrace our barrenness as God’s gift, opening us to the filling of God’s unsurpassable love, we may become the “light to the nations” we are meant to be. This filling alone allows us to reach out beyond ourselves to form loving and caring communities of faith. In this way, our Redeemer might liberate us to become the caring Body of Christ empowered to reach out to the weakest of its parts, making a way for each one to use his or her gifts for the glory of God.
Anne Collier-Freed, Ph.D., is a chaplain at Bristol Hospice, Salt Lake City, Utah.