The people of Israel have been told all along that they are a chosen people, set apart by God for a special purpose. However, in this chapter, we find them wanting not to be separate, but to blend in. They want a king, so that they’ll be like the other nations around them. Samuel tells them that this is contrary to God’s will, because God is their only king, but they won’t listen. So God tells Samuel to go ahead and give them what they want, provided that they understand just what it is that they’re getting. Samuel rattles off a series of things that the king is going to expect of them, and the people happily agree.
The thing that really struck me about this is that the things the king was going to expect, e.g., service of their sons and daughters, the best of the harvest, etc, is not different than what God was asking in any substantive way. So they’re trading in their allegiance to the God who saved them from their enemies, and getting in return a mortal man, and then asking him to take the place of God.
That sounds like a very bad deal, and Samuel would agree with that. The thing is, I can understand it. Of course, God can do things for them that no mortal could accomplish, but I think a key to understanding this comes earlier in the chapter, during the call of Samuel. 1 Samuel 3:1b reads
The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
Visions were not widespread. The people didn’t SEE God. They could SEE Saul, the chosen king. He could inspire the people. Of course, I’m not suggesting that the people made the RIGHT decision. Only that I can understand WHY they did what they did. I think that we, today, would probably do the same. That visible symbol (one might even say idol) gives is something to focus on. Something to rally around.
For years I suffered with infertility. The pain is just as real for women today as it was for women like Hannah. I remember the prayers, the tears, the cramps, the depression, the futility, the bargaining. For me, the culmination of all that grief was one particular night of yelling at God. It was, actually, during my pregnancy, while lying in the hospital in an inverted position with my feet raised high and my head lowered; my doctor had told me not to expect to carry my baby through the night. If I had lost that pregnancy after 10 years of trying … infertility drugs, surgery, hormones, basal temperature charts, daily blood tests, ultrasounds, injections, and a previous miscarriage … I couldn’t bear it. I lost all hope. I was done. I cried, I wept to God … even more to the point, I offered an ultimatum to my God. If God ever wanted me to be a mother, this child would have to survive, because I was not going to go through the pain of trying again. In a situation in which I was totally out of control, I had to take control of something … I made a deal with God … we came to an agreement … and, after another 13 weeks of bed rest and two more hospital stays with medical intervention, our daughter was born.
I guess that’s why the story of Hannah is so real, so raw, so true for me. Hannah, too, cries and weeps to God; she takes control of the one thing she can when the pain and futility of barrenness overwhelms her … She makes a deal, a promise, with God. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross names “bargaining” as one of the five stages io grief … we all do it … we make promises to God when we face great loss, in the hope that God will be lured by our offer.
But, God doesn’t bless us because of the deals we make … In this case, Hannah’s pain was so real, and her prayer so deep, she appeared drunk … out of her mind … to Eli. I think it’s out of compassion for her, out of respect for her honest relationship with God, that Eli offers her the blessing of God, and Hannah conceives. When Hannah gives up her child, Samuel, to the work of God, she shows that her faith in the providence of God is greater than her own needs or her own fears …
When have you made bargains with God? How did God respond? What have you learned about God from that experience?