Monday, January 21, 2008

Two Women of Grace?

One of the important lessons of the Old Testament, and one which points toward future doctrinal matters in the New Testament, is the matter of grace and gratitude and its role in Christian salvation economy. Where grace is seen as man’s due, disaster follows. Where grace is seen for what it is (God’s unmerited gift to us), grace abounds and increases. While the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1–10) stresses the traditional political notion of salvation of the Deuteronomic period, the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46–55) seems to portray a more abstract, spiritual notion of salvation—one less concerned with political salvation than personal and spiritual. More importantly, while the language in the two pericopes is strikingly similar, the structural roles each play in the narratives in which they occur suggest a higher degree of craft than the typical reader would assert as mere coincidence.

Hannah (חנה) stems from the Hebrew chên (חנ) which means “grace” or even “favoured one.”[1] In the Septuagint, her name is rendered as Aννα.[2] She is the wife of Elkanah (אלקנה), whose name means “God has obtained.”[3] Hannah’s story prefigures the story of the people of Israel. Robert Polzin notes that the language in 1 Samuel reveals a political ideology and that “Hannah’s request for a son is intended to introduce, foreshadow, and ideologically comment upon the story of Israel’s request for a king.”[4] Having endured the provocations of her rival and Elkanah’s other wife, Penninah, Hannah refuses to eat, and she goes to the temple to pray (1 Samuel 9). She entreats the Lord for a child and promises to give him back to the Lord “all the days of his life” (1 Samuel 11). At the temple, she encounters Eli the priest, who thinks she is intoxicated (1 Samuel 12). However, Hannah acquits herself, and he gives her a blessing and an affirmation that her request will be granted: “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made to him” (1 Samuel 17). Hannah’s conception of Samuel, like Sarah’s and Rachel’s before her, follows years of barrenness. She gives birth, and after her son Samuel (שםואל or Shemuel, which means “heard of God”) [5] is weaned, Hannah takes him to the temple and leaves him in the care of Eli, saying “Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord” (1 Samuel 28).

Hannah’s words of dedication are followed by her song in 1 Samuel 2:1. The imagery is largely royal, militaristic, and triumphal. As Polzin notes, we should expect that this poem is more than what it appears to be: “This little hymn at the beginning of our story is far from an ‘all-purpose poem’ appropriate wherever a pragmatic redactor would need to have a character turn a tune for poetic relief within a monotonous sea of prose.”[6]

The poem begins innocently enough. The first three verses note both praise of God’s glory and a sense of having been vindicated in the eyes of one’s enemies: “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in thy salvation.” The song continues in verses 4 through 10, alternating between images of reversal: the high are brought low, and the low are exalted. Interestingly, in verse 10, Hannah makes reference to “his king” and “his anointed.” The perspective of this last verse is as if the kingship of Israel has already been established. In a sense, it has, as Polzin points out: “The royal climax of Hannah’s song appears out of the blue, completely irrelevant to Hannah and her situation until we understand the story of Samuel’s birth as a finely orchestrated overture on the birth of kingship in Israel.”[7] The roles of Samuel and Saul here are intertwined from the beginning, but even more so than the relationship of priest and prophet to king would suggest.

In 1 Samuel 1:20, Hannah provides a folk etymology for Samuel’s name: “I have asked him of the Lord.” In 1 Samuel 27, Hannah again makes reference to having asked for a son. As Polzin points out, the connection in these two verses has caused considerable discussion among scholars:

In both these pericopes (1:20, 28[sic]), commentators have grappled with the wordplay whereby Hannah speaks of Samuel, or refers to his name, using a puzzling etymology that appears more appropriately to explain the name of Saul. Is there an accidental or haphazard mixture here of two traditions, a hybrid, a tebel, which confusingly “explains” Samuel’s name by offering an etymology for Saul’s?[8]

Clearly, the roles of Samuel and Saul are bound up in each other. While Samuel acts as priest and prophet, it is through his anointing (by God’s command) that Saul becomes king, and through Samuel’s guidance is Saul’s authority legitimate. Due to Saul’s abuse of authority, proper exercise of kingship eventually falls to the next king anointed by Samuel, David. It is through the Davidic line that God “preserves” the kingship of Israel.

Polzin notes the similarities between Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2 and David’s poem of praise in 2 Samuel 22.[9] In this victory song of David, many of the same images and reversals are present: salvation from one’s enemies and the image of the horn (1 Sam. 2:1; 2 Sam. 22:4); God as a rock (1 Sam 2:2; 2 Sam. 22:32); adversaries brought down to Sheol; the weak being girded with strength (1 Sam. 2:4; 2 Sam. 22:40). The similarities are many, and the author contends that “Hannah’s poem…is a prophetic song looking forward to that same victory.”[10] Still more, the two poems together wrap as with bookends the story of the rise of kingship in Israel: “Hannah’s initial song and David’s final hymn of praise form a poetic inclusio for the history contained within the book of Samuel.”[11] While David’s kingship ultimately ends badly, the movement is notable, and the relationship between the two poems is clearly more than coincidental.

What, then, can one conclude from the similarities between the Song of Hannah and the Song of Mary? Does the Gospel of Luke contain a similar inclusio marking the rise of a king of the Davidic line? Is there merely a superficial similarity in the composition of the poem, or do other elements in the context of the annunciation story also point to a connection? To start, one sees that both songs begin with praise to God the Father Almighty. For Hannah, praise is tied up with vindication in the eyes of her rival: “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in thy salvation” (1 Samuel 2:1). For Mary, her exclamation of praise has nothing to do with how others see her but with recognition of her lowly nature: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” (Luke 1:46–47). One must note that both here and in the annunciation pericope of Luke 1:38 that Mary refers to herself as a “handmaid” or “handmaiden,” or in Greek, δονλής, maidservant, the same term used repeatedly by Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:16–18. Another consideration is the name Hannah itself, which means “grace” or “favored one,” words used by the angel Gabriel in his annunciation greeting to Mary in Luke 1:28. Hannah conceives through normal means by the merciful intervention of God (1 Samuel 1:19–20). Mary conceives through miraculous means by the intervention of God through the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). Add to these details the sacred tradition that the mother of Mary’s name is the same as the mother of Samuel, in Greek, Aννα or Anna, suggesting that Mary is truly the child of grace or favor.[12] With so many similarities in detail, the “coincidences” begin to seem hardly coincidental.

Mary’s song continues with a series of reversals, just as in Hannah’s song. The similarities in theme abound:

He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts (Luke 1:51).

The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength (1 Sam. 2:4).

[H]e has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away (Luke 1:53).

Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger (1 Sam. 2:5).

[H]e has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree (Luke 1:53).

He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor (1 Sam. 2:8).

However, it is in the final verses that the critical difference makes itself known. While Hannah claims a primarily worldly victory of the Lord over His adversaries and strength to the Lord’s anointed king (1 Samuel 2:10), Mary invokes the promise to Abraham to remember his children, God’s servant Israel (Luke 1:54–55). It is this tone of mercy in Mary’s song that differentiates the two poems. It is also this tone that points the reader to the other structural parallel of this book, a parallel that, using Polzin’s model in the books of Samuel, one can predict in the Gospel of Luke.

In Luke 6, Jesus comes fully into His ministry. He reveals to the Pharisees his power over the Sabbath and over the laws of nature (Luke 6:10). He names twelve apostles from his larger group of disciples (Luke 6:12–16). He performs the signs that indicate the establishment of the Kingdom of God: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22). He then delivers the quintessential Christian teaching:

“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:20–26)

Clearly, this teaching represents a pivotal moment in Christ’s ministry. Luke contains four of the eight blessings of the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:3–11, but what is interesting is that the account in Luke also contains four woes (or curses) that are not part of Matthew’s text. Whether these woes are new Lucan material or from the ever elusive Q source, they mark a significant departure from the text of Matthew’s Beatitudes. The woes also neatly correspond to the first four blessings, resulting in four reversals much like those presented in the songs of Hannah and Mary:

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20).

But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation (Luke 6:24).

Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied (Luke 6:21).

Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger (Luke 6:25).

Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh (Luke 6:21).

Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep (Luke 6:25).

Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets (Luke 6:22).

Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets (Luke 6:26).

What is the purpose of the blessings and woes, the four dramatic reversals in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes? It is the announcement of a new order, of a salvation far different than that prophesied or expected by the Jews of the first century. Structurally, the blessings and the curses seem to have more in common with the era of Moses and Joshua, but when compared with the songs of Hannah and Mary, something else is happening here. Where Hannah’s song announces the rise of David in 2 Samuel 22, Mary’s song announces the rise of her son, our Lord in Luke 6. In a sense, the author of Luke seems to borrow the authority of the Deuteronomist to bolster his own authority, much in the same way that the Deuteronomist, as Polzin argues, subverts the authority of Moses to establish his own authority over the Law and its interpretation.[13]

Given how important it must have been to the author of Luke to demonstrate that Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy, these similarities should not surprise the reader of scripture. However, more intriguing are the numerous ways in which the Luke account thwarts, overturns, or supersedes the Hannah/Samuel connection. An early hint that something new is afoot comes with the differences in the circumstances of each woman. Hannah is married and barren—not an enviable position for a first-century Hebrew woman. She makes her dissatisfaction known to Elkanah, who takes her unhappiness as a personal rejection: “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8). As one of two wives of Elkanah, one would not be out of line to think that Hannah already has all she needs and possibly more.[14] Hannah goes to the temple and entreats the Lord for a son. She encounters the priest, who affirms that she will be heard. She conceives through God’s intervention, and after she weans Samuel, she turns the child over to the temple. Only then does Hannah give praise for the intervention of God in her life in the form of her song in 1 Samuel 2.

Contrast this sequence of events with those in Luke’s account. Mary is not married and makes no explicit requests of God. She is contacted by God through Gabriel and is informed that she will give birth to a child through God’s intervention. She humbly submits to God’s will. Prior to the nativity, Mary praises God for having shown her favor in the song of Luke 1:46–55. She gives birth while on exile with her betrothed in the lowliest of circumstances. At the time of purification (Luke 2:25–35), she meets Simeon in the temple. The author of Luke does not indicate that Simeon is a priest, but his blessing of the Holy Family suggests a priestly function, and he certainly demonstrates more prophetic clarity of sight than Eli in Hannah’s account, who cannot tell the difference between a supplicant and a drunkard. Simeon indicates in very clear terms that Christ will be the cause of reversal: “[T]his child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34). The author adds yet one last element to confirm his intentional connection between the two stories: he “resurrects” Anna (the Greek form for “Hannah”) to have her announce Christ at the temple (Luke 2:38). In essence, the account of the annunciation, conception, birth, and dedication of Christ are the exact reversal of the account in 1 Samuel 1 and 2. If nothing else, the author of Luke was adept with the two-by-four of literary allusion.

The reversal of the accounts plays an important role in defining the newness of this encounter with Christ. As each precursor of the Messiah proves to be partial, mitigated, faulty, the taint of Adam’s sin on all mankind becomes more evident. It is no wonder why Hannah and Mary are juxtaposed to each other. Hannah is one who is not satisfied with what God has obtained for her (אלקנה or Elkanah), any more than the first Eve was satisfied with what God provided to Adam. Mary, the new Eve, undoes this ingratitude in her acceptance and trust of God’s will for her, even though it is a sword that will pierce her own soul (Luke 2:35). Her son rises from obscurity through a path of humiliation, taking on the sin of man rather than incurring the sins of other kings (Saul, David, Solomon, and all those who followed), dies a horrible death, and defeats the lowest of all defeats to be exalted above all. While the Davidic line, through mankind, leads to ever new lows, it is redeemed and raised up by Christ to ever new heights.

Works Cited

The Apostolic Bible. Newport: Apostolic Press, 2006.

“Hannah.” 26 October 2007. Wikipedia. 11 November 2007 <

Kirby, Peter. “Infancy Gospel of James.” 2007. Early Christian Writings. 17 November 2007 <>.

Polzin, Robert. Moses and the Deuteronomist. New York: Seabury Press, 1980.

—. Samuel and the Deuteronomist. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Strong, James. “A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible.” Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1986. 53.

—. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1986.

“The New Testament.” The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. Catholic Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1966.


[1] James Strong, “A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible.” In Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, by James Strong, (Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1986) 53. Also “Hannah,” Wikipedia, October 26, 2007,, November 11, 2007.

[2] The Apostolic Bible. Newport: Apostolic Press, 2006.

[3] Strong, 16.

[4] Robert Polzin, Samuel and the Deuteronomist (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989) 25.

[5] Strong, 156.

[6] Polzin, 36.

[7] Ibid, 31.

[8] Polzin, 25.

[9] Ibid, 32–34.

[10] Ibid, 33.

[11] Ibid, 31.

[12] Peter Kirby, “Infancy Gospel of James,” Early Christian Writings, 2007, <>, 17 November 2007. Also noted in the original Greek text of the Protoevangelium of James and the various translation accessible from the above site.

[13] Polzin, Moses and the Deuteronomist (New York: Seabury Press, 1980) 56.

[14] Elkanah’s sense of rejection seems to prefigure the Lord’s rejection by Israel in 1 Samuel 8.

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