The Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd (Tuesday of Christmas week this year) is the Canticle from 1 Samuel, and although you will never have sung it before as a Sunday psalm, the words are oddly familiar. It is solidly reminiscent of the Magnificat, Our Lady’s chant of joy when she goes to see Elizabeth, which we also don’t use as often as we might, but it is much earlier in date. It is another chant of joy by a mother, but this one is voiced by Hannah, one of the great Mothers of Israel.
I have to put in a disclaimer here, because of the culture in which the Bible was written and its great age. It is most likely that the words of both Hannah and Mary herself have been mediated through a male writer, and we have no way of knowing what is authentically women’s words and what is artistic recreation, but as I have said before, there is so little even ostensibly by women in the Bible, that we have to grasp at what we can get.
So I am taking both Hannah’s words and Mary’s in good faith as women’s words. Traditionally, her mother taught Mary to read, but we don’t actually know whether she was literate, and it’s very unlikely that Hannah was. So someone else must have written the words down; but they are given to us as women’s words, in the same way that Shakespeare’s heroines speak women’s words.
Familiar words, unfamiliar speaker
As I say, the most striking thing about Hannah’s words is how familiar they are, even to Christians who barely know Hannah’s name and story. Part of the narrative is prescribed reading just once in the three-year cycle of Sunday readings (Holy Family Year C). It finishes before Hannah’s prayer/song, but tells only a small part of the story even so. I know I’ve talked of Hannah before, but only briefly, as one of a group (Women’s voices in the Bible). Here I’d like to pursue her further, as she has a great story, which is worth studying.
Who is Hannah?
Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah. She has no child. Her barrenness is her defining characteristic at this stage in the story. Her co-wife is Penninah, who has several children, but even so Elkanah prefers Hannah. He goes up to Shiloh once a year, to make a sacrifice to God. Elkanah hands out parts of the sacrifice to all his family, so Penninah and her children all get some of it, but Hannah gets only one portion, because she has no children.
Penninah taunts Hannah, and this happens year after year. Hannah is reduced to tears and understandably does not want to take part in the meal; Elkanah indicates one possible aspect of the problem when he says to her with quite stunning insensitivity, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’
Childlessness in the early Old Testament
With all its limitations in approach (it’s always solely the wife’s fault or problem), the Bible in its early stories is surprisingly aware of the anguish that can be caused by involuntary childlessness. From Eve’s desire for another son after the death of Abel, to the unsavoury jealous byplay between Hagar and Sarah, one fertile, one barren, and the similar arguments between Leah and Rachel, which can only have been exacerbated by their being sisters, children are seen as not only God’s gift, a sign of favour which can be given or withheld, but the greatest gift, justifying almost anything.
Lot’s daughters make him drunk so that they can have children by him, because there is no other man available. Tamar wants a child so much that she disguises herself as a prostitute and leads her father-in-law astray (she has twins). These women will do anything to get a child. There is a poignant moment in Genesis 35, where Rachel is delivering Benjamin : ‘In her difficult delivery the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; you have another son here”.
Rachel dies, and is mourned with great grief by Jacob, but there is no suggestion that the child was not worth all her suffering in her own eyes; her only fear is not having a son. Obviously, there is the practical viewpoint that a child will look after you when you are old and weak, but there is more to it, as a child-bearing woman in those days often didn’t make it to being old and weak.
Hannah prays for a child
So Hannah, like Sarah and Rachel, knows that only God has the power to give her the son she craves. After everyone has had dinner, she slips away from the hall, and goes to the temple. Eli the priest is sitting there by the door. Hannah weeps and prays, and then makes God a promise : if he will give her a son, she will give him back to God for the whole of his life, and his hair will never be cut (a symbol of this dedication). Then there is a fascinating little exchange between Eli and Hannah. She is praying under her breath; her lips can be seen to move but her voice cannot be heard. Eli ‘therefore supposed that she was drunk’, and upbraids her harshly. Hannah replies in a most dignified and impressive way. ‘And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD’ (King James 2000 Bible. Some of the other translations are more modern and colloquial, but the dignity is constant). She explains that she has been speaking from her grief and resentment. Eli does not apologise (look at the situation and who is speaking to whom here), but to his credit, he does answer respectfully and kindly : ‘Go in peace, and may God grant what you ask’. Interestingly, she doesn’t tell him what she is asking for, and he now behaves with tact. She goes back to the hall, her sadness relieved.
Samuel is born
The family returns home, Hannah conceives and bears a son, Samuel. The following year, she decides not to go on the annual pilgrimage because Samuel isn’t weaned yet, but she explains to her husband that when he is, she will bring him to Shiloh and present him to God in the temple, and leave him there. Elkanah says, ‘Do as you think fit’. We are told nothing about Hannah’s feelings, and it’s difficult to imagine them. She has longed for this child, but he will not be hers to keep even as briefly as usual. A ‘weaned child’, even in those days, is still quite little, easily able to fit on a lap (cf. Psalm 130/131:2). At this age, she gives Samuel up.
Hannah a real woman, not just a representer
In a way, it’s not Hannah’s feelings which are important here, because we aren’t thinking about her as an individual but as a representative of the heroic qualities she demonstrates. It’s just like in fairy stories, where again, the longing for a child is frequently an engine of the plot (Snow White, Tom Thumb, The Gingerbread Boy, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and so on). None of these stories dwells on the yearning of the would-be parent(s). The situation is stated and we move on into the story. Hannah’s story takes us very quickly into the next stage. She longs for this child so much as to beg God for him, and at the same time she promises to give him up. Hannah is ready to give her son to God if she can only have a son to take away the reproach of her childlessness. This does not make her a self-obsessed monster lacking maternal feeling, it is to show first how good God is to her when asked, and second how generous he is (after giving up Samuel, Hannah goes on to have five more children, three of them sons). But what I find fascinating is the way the story is told and the tension between the events as they unroll and the human nature of the woman. Some of it we can glean from Hannah’s words, some from her actions and the way they are recounted.
Le style, c’est la femme
Unusually, we are given all Hannah’s words in direct speech. (I regret that we don’t have any answer to Elkanah’s first question, but it’s probably just as well.) We hear first what she says to God, where she is simple, passionate and direct as she makes her vow. She is full of grief and resentment, and she says so. This is a real relationship with God, person to person, which can cope with the stresses of reproach and challenge. Then Eli questions her and she answers him, again with simplicity and directness. Later she tells Elkanah what her plans are in relation to Samuel, and he agrees without any cavil. After Samuel is weaned, she takes him up to the temple, with various gifts. There is no evidence that Elkanah takes any part in this trip; Hannah is an impressively independent woman in context. She goes to Eli and reminds him, again with great simplicity and directness, of their previous meeting. Then she says the crucial sentence twice. ‘Now I make him over to the Lord for the whole of his life. He is made over to the Lord.’ (1 Sam 1:28)’. Then there is one more performative sentence (There she left him, for the Lord; alternative translation in several other versions, There he worshipped the Lord) and then there is her Magnificat.
I find the simplicity and understatement of all this extremely moving. We have learned that Hannah is a woman of dignity and self-respect, and she is doing this because she has promised, not because anyone has made her. She is a strong woman with agency. We know that she loves her son. In another very touching detail later, we discover that each year when the family comes back for the annual sacrifice, she brings Samuel a new little tunic, having worked out how much bigger it needs to be this year. There is so much in that tiny detail, and you can imagine the love that would have been woven into the cloth and sewn into the seams.
Two women, two Magnificats
Hannah’s prayer starts, like Mary’s, with a declaration of God’s might. She quotes the psalms (God is a rock, there is none like him), and moves swiftly to a celebration of his power to turn everything upside down. Here the sequence is as in Mary’s Magnificat: we move from a statement of God’s power to his crushing of the powerful and raising the weak, the sated going hungry and the starving having their fill, the raising of the poor and humbling of the rich. Mary’s words are more individual and powerful. She is talking about what God has done for her, now, in this time; Hannah’s words are more general (and more repetitive), as she describes what God does and has done repeatedly through history. She also has one specific couplet which only makes sense if you know the context :’ the barren woman bears sevenfold,/ but the mother of many is desolate’. It comes in as another example of God’s reversal of the current order, but it is chilling. Hannah’s Magnificat is an Old Testament version, compared to the pure redemptive NT joy of Mary’s. Jesus refers to the barren only once, and on the way to the Crucifixion, where he speaks to the women of Jerusalem, and it’s a passage to show how dreadful things will be : ‘The days are coming when they will say,’Blessed are the barren” (Luke 23:29). This is a topsyturvey again, but a fearsome one.
Hannah’s Magnificat : form
We do not use all Hannah’s words in the Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd, because it is even longer than Mary’s Magnificat (and we omit parts of that, when we use it as a psalm), but we use all the parts which chime with Mary’s later version. We have the first four lines on God’s greatness, then the six-line stanza about turning things upside down, and the later lines which continue the same theme. It comes out as a psalm of four stanzas, a six-liner followed by a four-liner, twice. The Response is tweaked to emphasize the similarity between the two Magnificats : Hannah’s Response as prescribed is ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord, my Saviour’, given as v 1 of the psalm but in fact that is simply ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord’, and the reference to a Saviour is absent. Mary’s first lines, on the other hand, are ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour ‘(Luke 1:46f), so we are definitely pushing the parallels here.
Giving it a tune
Setting it to music was difficult, but I think mainly because I would have liked to be able to do it so much better. Setting women’s words is a rare privilege for me, but there are various essential limitations when you are writing a tune for a Responsorial psalm, especially for a weekday. It can’t be too difficult to grasp or to sing. Technically, this one has unequal verses, which means the tune needs to have room to expand and contract. It seemed to fall naturally into a Handelian sort of shape, but the problem with that is that Handel is so much better at setting joyful women’s voices than anyone else (except Bach), so it’s embarrassing. There is some laughing in the tune (verse 1), and at one point the tune itself has to turn topsyturvey because the words need it to go up when the rest of the verses take it down (end of stanza 3). And I had to change the Response, because I first thought it started on an unaccented syllable (‘My’), but that didn’t work with the shape of the verse ending, so I had to allow the ‘my’ a certain stress. It felt right after that; Hannah is a strong woman, and her words have a characteristic directness. So I wasn’t satisfied with it when it was done, but at least it now has a tune and can be sung. And I had a chance to find out more about Hannah, and write about her, an early Christmas present I had not expected. Because she was worth it, definitely. Happy Christmas.
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