Saturday, July 5, 2014

The intricacies of divine providence

I was reading recently through the opening chapters of 1 Samuel and I was impressed by the working of divine providence as the book depicts it.

The story opens up by the introduction of four characters: an Ephramite named Elkanah; his two wives, Peninnah and Hannah, the former of which had children and who teased the latter for not having any; and Eli, a priest of YHWH at Shiloh. Elkanah regularly would go up to Shiloh to worship God and bring his family with him. He loved Hannah more than he did Peninnah, but she did not have any children whereas her rival did. For this reason Peninnah used to provoke her severely, to irritate her because the LORD had closed her womb (1 Sam 1.6).

This is fascinating: the author at least, but also the personages of the tale, ascribe causality for Hannah's infertility to God. In this respect they are a bit different from many contemporary readers, who try to remove God as far as possible from the 'evils' of the world, natural and otherwise. Why would God have caused her infertility? If he is good, how can he do this?

It seems to me that 1 Sam suggests God's providence sees further than we often can see ourselves. Hannah saw her situation to be a miserable one: she had no children of her own; her husband's other wife relentlessly teased her for this; she had to bear the shame of childlessness in the ancient world. In fact her situation troubled her so deeply that Hannah wept and would not eat (v. 7). In her desperation she went to the temple of YHWH and prayed. The pain in her heart was so heavy that she couldn't even pray out loud; she just whispered her prayers, and Eli thought she was drunk because her lips moved but no words could be heard (v. 13).

In her silence, she prayed like this: O LORD of hosts, if you only will look upon the misery of your servant, and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head (v. 11). The LORD listens to this prayer desperate prayer of the heart and she conceives Samuel (vv. 19-20).

It seems to me the motivation for the closing of her womb was clear: the LORD had need of Samuel. Knowing perhaps that Hannah in her desperation to have a child would offer it in dedication to God, he denied her any children until the prayer was made and her will in this respect was established. This is precisely what happens: as soon as the child was weaned, She left him at Shiloh for the LORD (v. 28). This tells me that God knows how to work alongside human freedom of the will in order to accomplish his will.

But he is also good, beyond being provident, and he provides further children for Hannah as well: the LORD took note of Hannah; she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters (2.21). She gave her first son to the LORD to be raised by him, but she was given the joy and blessing of being able to raise five other children herself.

It seems to me that 1 Sam offers us a way of understanding divine providence. For these persons, God is intricately connected with everything that happens, even infertility in Hannah. Even the smallest most insignificant thing, moreover, can turn out later to be momentous and crucial: in a time when the word of the LORD was rare and visions were not widespread (3.1), God raises up a prophet in Samuel to lead the people of Israel and to guide them. There was a purpose for the misfortune of Hannah's infertility: it was that Samuel be born, that the LORD's people receive a prophet to lead them, one dedicated to him from birth.