Stories from a life in progress.

A matter of perspective

A couple weeks ago I wrote about reading the entire Bible and my reasons for doing it. I included a picture to show my progress as of that date.

As of today, here’s my current progress.

Not very impressive.

Or at least, not very impressive compared to where I thought I’d be by this point. Which is the story of my summer so far.

I thought I’d be much farther along toward completing the Bible. I thought I’d be happily working away through my big translation project. I thought I’d be working steadily down my big stack of books.

Instead, I’ve completed ONE book (a little bitty book) and started a second. I’ve translated all of one verse. I’ve only crossed off two new books on my chart and knocked out the rest of Ezekiel.

Okay, fine, I finished Jude too.  JUDE IS SMALL BUT HE IS MIGHTY.

Okay, fine, I finished Jude too.  JUDE IS SMALL BUT HE IS MIGHTY.

This is the part where I really have to confront my expectations out loud.

I thought I’d be a lot farther along on some things, based on approximately zero pieces of evidence that such progress was possible. Sheer imagination, that's what I have to back that idea up. It was what I wanted to do, that’s all, and I translated that into expectation for what would actually happen.

This is often the part where I get really discouraged and hard on myself. But this time, I'm leaning on my experience that this is not a practical, fruitful, useful tactic.

It’s hard for me to remember accomplishments. My mind goes so much more easily toward the work I still want to do. So I have to make a hard point of remembering that I have actually been working on things since the beginning of June.

  • I have written and posted to this-here blog more regularly than in a long time.
  • Many of those posts took more time and work than I anticipated, but I think the time and work was worth it.
  • I’ve been pursuing other things I really wanted to do this summer, like get up nearly every morning and take a walk first thing.
  • I’ve been knocked around by some unexpected struggles with anxiety, which are such a terrible brain- and energy-suck.
  • I’ve had some unexpected time taken up by good stuff, like spending time with family

Oh, and by the way:

  • I HAVE FINISHED entire books of the Bible, which constitutes real, actual progress
  • I HAVE FINISHED an entire book from my stack of reading
  • I HAVE TRANLATED the first verse of my word study project, along with reviewing some necessary parts of Hebrew vocabulary and grammar.

Not very impressive? Shush, me. Shush and stoppit. Look at the right pile, the pile of things done and in progress, and be encouraged, and keep working.

Now, for the main event...

There’s a reason I’ve been writing this week about word studies. Because covenant is the topic I’m researching this summer, I’m using a word study as one of my tools.

In Hebrew, the word for “covenant” is b’rit. I need to do some more work in the theological dictionaries to look for nuances, but the basic definition of b’rit is “covenant, agreement.”

Running a search on b’rit in the Hebrew Bible reveals 264 references. If I want to do a proper job on my word study I will need to translate all of these verses (whew), but just looking at the list in English is enough to teach me some new things and uncover some questions:

A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshkol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. (Genesis 14:13 NIV)

Here’s an example where b’rit is translated using an entirely different word, and also an example of a covenant between several human people, not one between a person or people and God. Both of those things tell me something about covenants in the ancient world.

I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. (Genesis 17:7 NIV)

Why in this instance is the covenant specified as “everlasting?” Did most covenants have a time limit?

This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. (Genesis 17:10-11 NIV)

Was it normal for covenants to be marked with signs? Is this an ordinary type of sign, or a weird one?

So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelek, and the two men made a treaty. (Genesis 21:27 NIV)

Once again we have a covenant between two human people, using a different word to translate covenant. Also some new details about the process involved in creating this covenant between the two men -- a gift of livestock was involved.

They answered, "We saw clearly that the LORD was with you; so we said, 'There ought to be a sworn agreement between us'-- between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you that you will do us no harm, just as we did not harm you but always treated you well and sent you away peacefully. And now you are blessed by the LORD." (Genesis 26:28-29 NIV)

In this instance the covenant is compared to a “sworn agreement,” which gives yet further information about what a covenant was and how it was put in place.

Friends, I’ve only reached the end of Genesis! Clearly this word-study business is going to give me plenty of new questions to answer.

I’ll write about what I find as I go, but first I’ve got some translating to do. Hebrew grammar, here I come!

"Helper?" Needs help

In my last post I talked about the value of word studies and how you start one, by researching the definitions of a word. The next step is to see the word in action -- look at how it's really used in texts. Seeing a word in context makes its meaning and nuance more clear; this is why dictionaries include example sentences with their definitions.

Today I'm going to use a different word, another we studied in my Hebrew class. The word is ezer, and the text we started with is from Genesis 2:

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. (Genesis 2:18-20 NIV)

Pretty familiar passage to a lot of people. The Hebrew word ezer is translated here as "helper," in both verses 18 and 20.

This time the definition is not so difficult. Ezer does actually mean "help, support, assistance." But not so fast, either. Let's take the next step: see where and how the word is used elsewhere in scripture.

Using my handy Bible software, a search through the Hebrew Bible for the word ezer produces 26 results. In some of them the word is a proper name, which doesn't suit our purposes. But in most of the rest, something interesting appears. Here is a selection:

After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro received her and her two sons. One son was named Gershom, for Moses said, "I have become a foreigner in a foreign land"; and the other was named Eliezer, for he said, "My father's God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh." (Exodus 18:2-4 NIV)

And this he said about Judah: "Hear, LORD, the cry of Judah; bring him to his people. With his own hands he defends his cause. Oh, be his help against his foes!" (Deuteronomy 33:7 NIV)

"There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides across the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty.
The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. He will drive out your enemies before you, saying, 'Destroy them!'
So Israel will live in safety; Jacob will dwell secure in a land of grain and new wine, where the heavens drop dew.
Blessed are you, Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will tread on their heights."
(Deuteronomy 33:26-29 NIV)

No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.
We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.
(Psalm 33:16-20 NIV)

Once you spoke in a vision, to your faithful people you said: "I have bestowed strength on a warrior; I have raised up a young man from among the people.
I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him.
My hand will sustain him; surely my arm will strengthen him. (Psalm 89:19-21 NIV)

I lift up my eyes to the mountains -- where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip-- he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
(Psalm 121:1-4 NIV)

I cared for you in the wilderness, in the land of burning heat.
When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.
So I will be like a lion to them, like a leopard I will lurk by the path.
Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open; like a lion I will devour them-- a wild animal will tear them apart.
You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.
(Hosea 13:5-9 NIV)

In all of these passages, did you notice who the "helper" is, and what kind of situations are being spoken of?

Most of the time, God himself is the ezer, and when it isn't God himself it is someone he has specifically sent. And these are not small issues we're talking about. In many of the ezer passages, life and death are on the line. Your ezer is who you call in when the chips are really down; when you need your strongest backup.

In light of this, the English word "helper" starts to look really pathetic.

No, not this...

No, not this...

Seriously, we don't use "helper" in matters of life and death. We use words like "rescuer," "champion," "savior," "guardian," "hero."

Do you see the impact this has for our understanding of Genesis 2 now? Especially in the midst of a secular culture which generally thinks the Bible treats women in a really shoddy way?

Take a look at this. What if I slightly tweak the NIV text of Genesis 2 and use a different word to translate ezer?

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make an ally suitable for him."

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable ally was found.

How different does that feel, just with one small change? Or if ezer was translated as "champion" or "rescuer," what would that do for our understanding of God's intended role for women and the relationships between women and men?

No, not this either...

No, not this either...

I don't want to press this argument too far. NO human person can offer help on the level that God himself can offer it. Genesis 2:18-20 is by no means comparing women to God in that way. It is not saying "men are so pathetic and sad, they are hopeless without women around to take care of them."

But neither is your ezer the one you expect to just do your laundry and make you a sammich, and otherwise sit around and look pretty. Oh dear me, no. Your ezer does for you WHAT YOU CAN BY NO MEANS DO FOR YOURSELF, BY YOURSELF. You are truly weakened by the loss of an ezer and truly strengthened by gaining one. In English, the word "helper" does not sufficiently convey this. A "helper" might be nice to have, but is not vital.

So here's another example of the value of word studies -- helping us understand sections where an English translation is technically correct, yet still misleading. They help reveal nuance and alternative meanings that a translation may be unable to supply, simply because of the limitations of translation itself.

I do not think it means what you think it means

One of the tools I learned way back at the beginning of my 2nd-level Hebrew class is the word study.  This one is pretty much what it says on the tin:  pick a word and study it.  Look up definitions, research how the word is used and where it came from, study the texts where it appears to see it in action.

Why do word studies?  Because they can show you things you didn't even think you needed to know.  Because they can reveal meaning in a text you had no idea was there.  This is especially true when studying something in a second language, but it's a valuable tool even in one's first language.

Here's an example we studied in Hebrew class.  We'll start with Exodus 20:4-6.  This is the NIV translation:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

This is the 2nd commandment, prohibiting idols.  The part I'm interested in right now is one that I bet sticks in the craw of quite a few modern folks, verse 5: "You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..."

Harsh, eh?  Your parents screwed up, so now God is going to punish you?  How is that fair?  Especially if you were already hurt yourself by your parents' screw-ups -- then this verse becomes an awful double-whammy of injustice.

Hang on a second, though.  Let's take a closer look at this word "punish."  Actually let's skip back to the original Hebrew text, where the word in question is a Hebrew verb paqad.

To study a word in Biblical Hebrew, you start at the same place as you would in English:  with a dictionary.  What's the basic definition?  What does the word mean?

In this case, if you look up paqad in a theological dictionary or two, you'll find Bible translators are in a bit of a pickle here.  It turns out that nobody is exactly sure how to pin this word down.  It seems to have an overly broad range of definitions and is used in very different ways in different contexts.  Here are some of the possible definitions, pulled from a selection of dictionaries:

  • make a careful inspection
  • look at or see to something
  • muster or pass in review (as in troops in an army)
  • instruct, command, urge, stipulate
  • call to account, avenge, afflict
  • entrust goods for deposit or delivery
  • take a census
  • take interest in a person
  • commission
  • condemn
  • carefully examine
  • take note of

What a mess.  With so many potential meanings of paqad, how do we interpret it?  Many scholars have worked on this question, and I can't give you a definitive answer.  But I hope it is at least clear that, with this word paqad involved, the Hebrew text of Exodus 20:5 is not as straightforward as the English word "punish" makes it seem.

My take?  The common thread through the definitions of paqad is that of carefully paying attention to something -- to a duty, an individual, or a group -- and taking appropriate action, either positive or negative.

If this is a correct understanding of the word paqad, it changes our understanding of Exodus 20:5 considerably.  We no longer have a picture of a vengeful God who simply punishes children because their parents screwed up.  Instead we have a God who carefully watches and responds appropriately to what he sees.  Where actions are negative, he brings discipline; where actions are positive he brings blessing.  In every case his actions are measured, considered, appropriate, and based on evidence -- because he sees what he is responding to.

Am I all cracked up on this?  Take a look at how the NET translation handles the same passage:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Inigo Montoya understands the value of the word study.  (Thanks to  for the image)

Inigo Montoya understands the value of the word study.  (Thanks to for the image)

It feels very different from the NIV and many other translations (you can compare for yourself by using online bible software like or  The phrase "dealing with" children is much more neutral than "punishing."  It leaves room for many more potential actions -- including merciful ones.  After all, if your parents' screw ups hurt you, God saw it.  He knows where you are damaged from the "transgressions" of your parents, as this verse calls them.  If he is truly just, he is not interested in giving you extra punishments on top of that damage, damage that was NOT YOUR FAULT.

This interpretation of Exodus 20:5 also matches what's said elsewhere in scripture.  For example, Ezekiel 18 presents God's answer to people who are complaining that God is punishing them for the sins of their fathers -- exactly what some translations of Exodus 20:5 seem to say he will do.  In Ezekiel, though, God says very flatly that he does not punish children for their fathers' sins, that everyone is judged for their own sin.  So what's the deal?  Is God contradicting himself?  No, not if Exodus 20:5 is more nuanced than the English translations make it seem.

So that's the power of the word study.  This is only step one, though -- looking at the base definition of the word.  The next step is to see how the word is actually used.  I'll look at that next time.

What I'm doing now (Part 3)

The research topic I'm working on now isn't very hard to figure out, if you just skim the titles of the books I pulled from the library.

I'm sensing a theme...

I'm sensing a theme...

One of my spring courses was on the Old Testament prophets, one of the most neglected portions of scripture.  I understand why -- they're gloomy, they're harsh, they seem very judgmental, they record a period of history when everything was going wrong for the Israelites.  Other than a few readable, fascinating stories like Jonah and Daniel, sections that are on-the-surface uplifting in nature, or a few passages which are taken by Christians as clearly pointing to Jesus, the Prophets tend to be overlooked, even avoided.

This is a big problem, and Jesus himself points it out to us.  In the parable of Lazarus, he says if people don't listen to Moses and the prophets and repent, they won't repent even if someone comes back from the dead to warn them (Luke 16:19-31).  After the resurrection, Jesus meets two of his own disciples walking to the village of Emmaus, disciples who confess they thought maybe Jesus was the Messiah, but then he got killed so apparently he wasn't.  Jesus doesn't say "hey guys, it's me," he challenges them with scripture.  "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself."  (Luke 24:27)

The Gospels mention the prophets over and over, pointing out that Jesus fulfilled what was spoken about by the prophets, holding up the prophets as vital for understanding Jesus as the Messiah, comparing the unbelieving men and women of his time to those who disbelieved and killed the prophets of earlier generations.

Does this sound like a section of the Bible we should overlook because it's hard?  If it was so important to the first disciples, if we modern disciples want to follow Jesus even a fraction as closely as they did, shouldn't we pay attention to what they say is important?

That doesn't make the prophetic books any easier to read.  But understanding some ideas makes them easier, as I learned in my spring class, and that leads me back to my stack of library books.  The Prophetic books make a lot more sense when you go into them with the idea of covenants firmly in mind

You see, the prophets weren't just saying "God is mad at you, Israelites."  They were saying "You made an agreement with God, and you're not keeping up your end of it."  They were calling the people to remember the contract under which God agreed to be their God, a contract which laid out specific standards of conduct for them to follow.

Think about it.  Imagine making a contract with someone regarding something important:  completing repairs to your house, selling you a vehicle you really need for transportation, providing services your children need.  Or imagine the contract in the other direction -- promising to provide services to someone for payment, or in trade for work you need.

Now imagine you hold up your end of the agreement, and the other party fails to hold up theirs.

Do you just let it go?  Should you just let it go?  When the well-being of yourself, your family, maybe even the other party themselves, is on the line?

In such a case, it's entirely correct and just to call the other person out on their lapse.  There are better and worse ways to go about it, but the BASIC FACT OF ASKING THEM TO LIVE UP TO THEIR AGREEMENT is actually a good thing to do.

That's exactly what most of God's prophets did: called on God's people to live up to their agreement with him.

Understanding the idea of covenant, of the agreements God made with his people, is vital to understanding the entire Old Testament.  It helps to explain a lot of God's actions toward his people, both positive-seeming and negative-seeming actions.  It is one of the lines that connects the Old Testament with the New.

Sounds like a worthy topic of study to me.

I'm planning to spend a good portion of the summer learning about covenant, what it is, what it meant to the Israelites, what it means in scripture.  What it means to me and my fellow Christians.  As I go, I'll write about what I learn here.

If you'd like to know more about covenants, please come back and read along -- if you want to receive every post by email, click here to subscribe.  If you have any specific questions, leave a comment and I'll see what I can dig up for you.

I think there's a lot of good, valuable stuff to learn here.  I'm looking forward to it!

What I'm doing now (Part 2)

Early last week I had a conversation with my best friend and a sister-in-law (also a good friend) about school work, research, and writing papers.  "Boy, am I glad I don't have to do that anymore" was the consensus from both women.

On the other hand, as soon as I could after the end of the semester, I went back to school and dove into the library, pulling book after book off the shelves.  I'm pretty sure the place was deserted except for myself and the woman manning the front desk.  "Wow," she said when she saw the size of the stack I wanted to check out.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen.  I'm free as a bird for the summer, no classes at all, and I plan to spend the time researching and writing.

I know I'm an oddball, but that doesn't mean I won't have fun.

It's true:  I really enjoy the process of research.  I love learning things.  The feeling I get from making sense of something, in that moment when I UNDERSTAND, is one of my favorite things.

It's even more enjoyable when I can turn right around and tell someone else about what I've learned and see them get it too.  That's a double helping of fun for me.  So having free time to read and learn and write?  Sign me up, baby.

I'm not going to write formal research papers, though.  I'm going to write here on my blog, and not dry academic stuff, but work that's (I hope) easy to read and meaningful, like (I hope) everything I put up here.

This is my purpose for going to school in the first place, and it's become more clear to me as I do my class work, find topics to research for my professors, and think about what I'm learning.  I like digging deeply into hard topics, and I've got the skills to do it well.  For sure and certain, the Bible I'm studying has hard topics and plenty that's difficult to understand.  So I want to put my research skills and love of learning to good use, by untangling some of those hard topics as well as I can and then writing about them in such a way that other people can understand them better too.

What I'm doing now (Part 1)

I feel like I need to take stock of where I am, now that the busy spring is over and I can settle into a (hopefully!) calmer summer.  One thing I'm working on right now is reading the entire Bible, every single book.

A new "game."  Plus bonus Boba Fett head courtesy of my niece.

A new "game."  Plus bonus Boba Fett head courtesy of my niece.

I'm not following a particular plan beyond "read the Bible" and "read more of it later."  I'm keeping the historical portions in order, but beyond that I'm picking and choosing as I want to.  There are a lot of plans you can follow for reading the Bible through (here's a good sampling), but I'm using my old friend the game board, a tool I know works really well for me when I've got a goal broken down into discrete steps.

"Let's start at the very beginning ... a very good place to start..."

"Let's start at the very beginning ... a very good place to start..."

Why do this now?  Multiple reasons, but the biggest one is that I'm a biblical studies student, for crying out loud, and it embarrasses me to think about how long it's been since I visited some portions of scripture.  I'm just plain more familiar with some parts than others, even though I've read everything at one point or another.  The class on Prophets I took this past spring reminded me how unfamiliar I am with parts of the Bible, because we read great swathes of the prophetic books and I really didn't know what was in there.

I have a good memory for stories and a good memory for things I read and find interesting, and I can tell you a great deal about the long, connected story of the Bible.  I can tell you some stuff about theology, I can tell you about the gospel, I can talk about people and characters and places and events.  But I don't have a deep enough grounding in the words of the book itself.  It's not good enough to read about the world of the Bible and the teaching of the Bible.  I want to know the Bible.

Nothing else helps me change like the book itself.  Nothing else helps me find Jesus like scripture itself, all of scripture, front to back.

Actually I started in here somewhere.  Nobody tell Julie Andrews.

Actually I started in here somewhere.  Nobody tell Julie Andrews.

The entire collection forms a long story of grace, and it's not always easy to see -- I know it isn't, I know people say they don't understand the Bible, or reject the Old Testament in favor of the New, or claim it's all a bunch of contradictory nonsense.

I get it.  I do.  There are things I don't understand myself yet.  But I see the story, the long story of grace, and I know how life-changing it is.  I want to help other people see it too.  That's the point behind going to school.  That's the point behind wanting to write about what I learn.

So I'm revisiting the book, the whole thing.  When I'm done I'll start over again with a new chart, and read it again.  I'll follow a different plan.  Or I'll use a different translation (I've got dozens; thanks BibleWorks).  Or I'll follow a specific theme.  I'll do something -- but I'll read.  I'll read this book until I know it inside out, until I know the long story of grace from front to back, so I can speak it and sing it and write about it, so I can help other people see it too.

Ends and beginnings

The spring semester turned out to be more of a challenge than I anticipated.  I learned a lot about the Biblical prophets, a lot about Biblical archaeology (Syro-Palestinian archaeology, if you like), a lot about myself.

I handed in my final papers a couple of weeks ago.  Spent some vacation time with my family and best friend.  Read some books just for fun, watched a movie or two.

Now it's time to get back to work.

A little summer reading.

A little summer reading.

Not for classes now, but for me.  Another thing I learned is some better research techniques.  Yet another thing is a more refined understanding of what I want to study and write about, and why.

I've been looking forward to summer -- time to finally suit myself, to read and study and research and write on whatever I choose.  Today's Memorial Day, the "unofficial" start of summer.  Official, unofficial, whatever.  It's my summer, and I'm digging in.

Why we need stories (Part 3)

To jump back to the beginning of this series, click here.

In the last post I sketched out the story of Hannah and her family, told in 1 Samuel 1.  You can click back and refresh your memory if you want to, before we consider this question:  how does Hannah's story illuminate Psalm 34:18, "The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit" (NIV)?

Think about it: does the Hannah at the beginning of the story sound like a woman who could give up a child?  A baby boy who finally shows the world that she is not a failure, that she is not unblessed?

Isn't it more likely, given the setup of this story, that if Hannah bears a son she will stuff that boy in Peninnah's face, every day?  It's not hard at all to imagine her doing just that.  Or to imagine Peninnah responding by increased scorn and competition, shoving her multiple children back in Hannah's face, so the misery of this whole family will just continue on and on, twisting the poor kids who get used as pawns in the sad, stupid games of their parents.

(Sound unlikely to you?  Read Genesis 29-37 and then we'll talk.)

Hannah's vow shows that something deep inside her changed, profoundly and completely.  If she is given the gift of a son, she will not cling to him, will not use him in family power struggles.  She will give him up to the LORD and go on in her daily life, in front of her family and home village, effectively childless.  Even if the stigma of barrenness is removed from her, she will not get to enjoy her child like other mothers and fathers do.  Her family won't benefit socially and economically from his presence.

This can only be possible because the LORD was close to Hannah at the Tabernacle in Shiloh, just as Psalm 34:18 promises.  The LORD came to her when she was brokenhearted and saved her crushed spirit; he enabled her to give up her hope for a child to rescue her, because he would rescue her.

Hannah experienced something that enabled her to remove her hopes from a child and to place them on the LORD, and we can tell because of what she does next -- she returns to her family and eats.  She is no longer upset.  She is at peace, and it is because God met her when she needed him to, healed her broken heart, rescued her spirit.

Hannah's story continues, and she does receive a son ... but I don't want to race on to that part.  It's too easy to look at the later events and say "oh, that's where Hannah was rescued, the part where she got stuff."  In truth, Hannah is rescued right here, where she prays and God meets her, with the kind of love and grace that enables her to change.

God is close to the brokenhearted and rescues those who are crushed in spirit.  Hannah's story shows me how.  It helps me understand that God can do the same for me.

Why we need stories (Part 2)

To skip back and start at part one, click here.

In the last post I started talking about the importance of stories, and why I'm so glad the Bible includes tons of them.  Here's a story that illuminates Psalm 34:18 for me.  It lives in 1 Samuel 1, and it's about a family of Israel who lived near the end of the time of the judges.  A man named Elkanah had two wives, Peninnah and Hannah, and Peninnah had children, but Hannah did not.

I think we have hardly any idea how hard this state of affairs was for a woman of ancient Israel or any of the surrounding cultures.  Those societies saw childbearing (incorrectly, but nonetheless) as the primary function and place of a woman.  A childless wife was a failure, in the most basic possible way.  She was unblessed, seen as disregarded or under the wrath of God, and so human people scorned her too.

1 Samuel 1 shows us the effect of barrenness on Hannah.  Every year the family would travel to Shiloh, the place where God's Tabernacle was located, to worship and sacrifice.  This meant the family would enjoy a feast together -- part of the sacrifice was burned on the altar, but most of it was taken back by the family and eaten as an act of worship and thankfulness for God's gifts.  As head of the family, Elkanah presided over this feast, and so it was his job to give portions of the meat to everyone.  But the story says that he always gave Hannah a double portion, because he wanted her to know that he loved her, despite her lack of children.

I kind of want to give Elkanah points for this.  He was at least trying to make things better for his beloved, struggling wife.  But he went about it in a bad way.  I bet you can imagine, without thinking about it too hard, how his constant favoritism of Hannah made his other wife, Peninnah, feel.

The Bible is very clear that polygamy is always a bad scene.  It never goes well, and Elkanah's three-spouse family is no exception.  Though Elkanah tries to comfort Hannah, Peninnah needles her so badly Hannah weeps and gets so upset she can't eat -- she can't even enjoy the double portion her husband gives her, the double portion that fans the flames of his second wife's jealousy, causing her to abuse Hannah even more, making her more upset.  It is a truly awful cycle to imagine, one that could only negatively affect everyone involved -- including, quite probably, Peninnah's children.  They are not mentioned, but this is clearly not the picture of a happy, nurturing family home.

Talk about a picture of brokenheartedness.

One year, for a reason the scripture doesn't explain, Hannah does something different.  1 Samuel 1:9 says Hannah got up; this is not just saying that she stood up from the meal, it indicates that she rose up into action, that she chose to do something.  Hannah went out from her family, up to the front of the sanctuary and prayed, so deeply and passionately that she wept and wept.  And this is the part of the story that shows us what Psalm 34:18 means, that the LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

We don't get to see the full content of Hannah's prayer.  The Bible doesn't tell us all her words.  But it does tell us this: Hannah makes a vow to God, saying that if he gives her a son, she will give that son back to God.  She will dedicate him to the service of the LORD for his whole life, which means that she will give him up to God's service at the Tabernacle, rather than keep him with her.

Why does Hannah do this, and what does it mean?  How does all of this illuminate Psalm 34:18?  Come on back next time, and we'll talk about it.