New Life from the Barren Womb: Words that Burst Forth

The setting of 1 Samuel 1-3 is one of spiritual blindness, deafness, and barrenness.  Both spiritual leaders and the community are impotent.  Eli, as one set apart to lead the community to God, fails in his duties as servant to the community of faith.  He sees but does not perceive what is happening.  He hears but does not understand what God is doing.  Even when he does see or hear, he abdicates his responsibility to guide and correct.

The story is eerily similar to the “post-Christian” context in which we preach, teach, and minister.  We recognize the barrenness of our culture and congregations.  Syncretism nurtures apathy.  The erosion of trust in authority and a surge in relativism create a difficult environment in which to preach.  We may wonder if God has gone silent or if anything can be said to make a difference.  Can proclamation be filled with pregnant potential for new life?  Is the pastoral task of proclamation a tomb of dead ends or a womb of new possibilities?

In this paper I will explore how the story of Eli and Samuel provides a framework for the task of proclamation which brings new life from barrenness.  I will primarily focus on what it means to “see and hear” as the gestational requisite for new birth proclamation.  “Seeing and hearing” are the capacity to imagine new possibilities which enable faithful preaching empowered to birth new life.

The Book of Judges concludes: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”[1]  The spiritual and political leadership in Israel is on a downward trajectory.  Judges rise and fall, leading the people in temporary reform, only to fall deeper into the mire of covenant infidelity.  The community is increasingly divided and privatized, each looking to their own interests.  The community called to be a “royal priesthood and a holy nation”[2] has largely neglected this calling.

The story moves from the wide-angle view of the culture at the end of Judges to the deeply personal story of Hannah.  Hannah is the object of ridicule and scorn.  Although she is beloved by her husband, Elkanah, Hannah is unable to bear children – a deeply troubling plight.  Barrenness forecloses any future.  Elkanah’s other wife harasses Hannah continuously.[3]  Hannah is utterly speechless, dejected, and powerless.  On the occasions her family travels to Shiloh for the yearly offerings, Hannah finds herself groaning in grief-stricken, desperate prayer.[4]

This vivid picture of barrenness in Hannah is a disjunctive metaphor depicting the larger social reality of God’s covenant people.  First Samuel 3:1b declares, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  This is a damning statement of the most serious magnitude for a community that must be reminded that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”[5]  First Samuel 1-3 wrestles with two issues deeply intertwined: God’s silence and the community’s barrenness.

It is instructive that the story of barrenness begins by focusing our attention on the voiceless and powerless one: Hannah.  A childless woman in this society is particularly vulnerable.  Hannah’s deepest sobs of prayer are wordless mutterings.  We only know about Hannah’s predicament from the narrator, not from her own mouth.  The cries of the oppressed for justice are often cast in silent, wordless groans.

On one occasion of prayer, Eli, the priest, stands watching Hannah pray, but he mistakes it for drunken ramblings.[6]  Eli misunderstands what he sees and hears, leading him to false conclusions about Hannah.  He accuses her of drunkenness, although Hannah corrects his false assumption.  Perhaps embarrassed by his mistake, he quickly blesses her with a pious, formulaic blessing.[7]  Eli appears unable to differentiate between earnest praying and drunken speech.

Failure to correctly interpret circumstances diminishes our capacity to speak an appropriate word for each situation.  Humility lays a foundation for discerning an appropriate word.  We are adept at self-deception, thinking we are not complicit in the world’s brokenness.  A lack of humility will lead us to look down on those we are called to serve.  We, like Eli, may sit at a distance misjudging situations we think we see clearly.  Without engaging our community, understanding their pain and fear, we may very well speak irrelevant clichés.

Eli’s leadership is symbolic of the political and spiritual ideology – faith and politics – engrained in the community.  In 1 Samuel 1-4, three times it mentions Eli is perched on “the seat (hakkissē’).”[8]  First, he is seated by the sanctuary doorposts while Hannah is praying.  Eli is also on “the seat” when given news of his sons’ death and the capture of the Ark.  It is from this precarious perch that Eli plummets to his death.[9]

This “seat” is not a common chair; it indicates authority.  Most typically this “seat” signifies a human or divine royal throne.[10]  Although there are other instances where kissē’ is not meant as a royal throne, it typically implies a seat of power.[11]  This “seat” makes an appearance in 1 Samuel when David is crowned king and enthroned.  Eli is not simply acting as priest.  He’s building a religiously sanctioned dynasty with his sons, Hophni and Phineas.  One might say Eli has traded in pastoral service to build a cultus of personality.

Hophni and Phineas utilize their power in pharaonic ways.  As priests serving under Eli, they use their authority in rapacious acts against their neighbors.  They take advantage of the young women at the Tent of Meeting.[12]  They stick their forks in other people’s meat pots and steal the offerings to God.[13]  Power intended to serve the community is utilized in self-serving aggrandizement at the community’s expense.  Any protest is silenced under threat of violence.[14]  Hophni and Phineas are “forking” everyone and yet Eli only feebly attempts to assuage the abuse.[15]  Notably, Eli’s sermonic words fall flat.  His words are sterile.

Eli’s preaching to his two sons fails to move them.  Perhaps the best sermon would have failed.  However, Eli’s sermon sounds like a Surgeon General’s warning.  Despite understanding the damage smoking causes, the desire for cigarettes overrides the warning.  Eli tells his sons quite explicitly what they “ought not” do.  Although Eli protests his sons’ activities, he fails to recall Israel’s tradition or to point to a better future.  Hophni and Phineas possess more knowledge concerning what they should not do, but their desires find no re-direction.

Moralistic sermons may name God and outline expected behavior while failing to empower transformation.  Whereas Hannah’s song names God’s saving activity as a lens in which to see a future hope, Eli fails to remember God’s work in the past and thus is unable to imagine any new future.  Eli’s inability to imagine a new world is imaged in his sons.  God is effectively quiet in Eli’s sermon, despite being named.

It seems God’s silence is in response to or the result of the hegemonic powers of Eli’s house.  Either way, God is coopted as the guarantor of status quo power and privilege.  Yahweh, a God of surprising freedom and ferocity on Mt. Sinai, is reduced to the inactive god of Shiloh – neither moving, speaking, nor acting.  Eli’s house interprets the silence as divine legitimation of their socio-political order.  Rigid certitude of God’s favor, however, is unable to trust the God of freedom to speak.  If permitted to speak, this emancipatory God might visit the same fate of Egypt upon the faithless covenant community.  Thus, God is muted and immobilized, drowned out by the barren voices of Shiloh’s theo-political institutions.

Although writing about Babylonian Exile, Walter Brueggemann’s Hopeful Imagination offers a cutting analysis: “The empire, Babylonian or any other, wants to establish itself as absolute, wants the present arrangement to appear eternal in the past as in the future, so that after a while, one cannot remember when it was different from this, which means having available to our imagination no real alternative.”[16]  Of course, the language of faith is employed to sustain this seemingly inevitable reality of Empire.  Talk of God is not always abolished, rather it is re-oriented to claim our allegiance for the Empire, sometimes from the pulpit.

In subtle ways, the line between God and Empire is blurred beyond distinction.  Our language, and thus our vision, is diverted from God.  The appearance of religious orthodoxy is sustained, yet subverted.  When God is co-opted as a mouthpiece for status quo, God is substituted for an idol unable to speak, see, or hear.  Eli is unable to see, hear or speak with potency because the god he worships is not living.  We resemble that which we worship.  Preaching is unable to bear life if it is disconnected from the Giver of life.

Fred Craddock notes:

’In the community of Christianity, where the situation is qualified by Christendom, there is no direct or straightforward relationship, inasmuch as a vain conceit has first to be disposed of.’  That vain conceit lies in the illusion that ‘knowing about’ is knowing.  To break that illusion, one does not add quantities of more information; rather, one stirs up and elicits what is there, taking away in order that what has been so often heard can truly be heard.[17]


There is an abundance of religious talk, but a scarcity of prayerful, discerning, theological reflection.  Preaching that fails to name the illusions only reinforce those illusions, which is the greatest travesty.

First Samuel 1-3 draws a significant parallel between God’s silence and the silenced voices of the marginalized.  Perhaps God refuses to speak because those in power refuse to hear the voice of the oppressed.  Ignoring the cries and pleas of the desperate, Israel’s leadership turns a deaf ear to Yahweh.  Yet, it is the cry of desperate hearts which seemingly awakens God from the deep slumber of silence to speak a life-giving word.  It is not, finally, the powerful that rouse God to speak.  Instead, God speaks new life into those deeply aware of their barrenness.

John Chrysostom draws the deeper connection with Hannah’s seeing her barrenness and God’s extension of grace to her:

Instead of saying anything at first, she began with wailing and shed warm floods of tears.  And just as, when rain storms fall, even the harder ground is moistened… and easily bestirs itself to produce crops, so too did this happen in the case of this woman: as though softened by the flood of tears and warmed with the pangs, the womb began to stir in that wonderful fertility.[18]


Hannah, as model for those delivered from barrenness, does not remain silent but is given voice.  Lamenting her barrenness enables new vision and new utterance.  Hannah’s poetic proclamation announces the dethronement of regimes built on fear and domination.[19]  A decentering, destabilizing word comes from the margins, undercutting the certitude of hegemonic power and the accompanying pride that assumes divine blessing.  Hannah envisions, through her own barrenness and deliverance, Israel’s barrenness, which must be purged and engulfed by God’s life-giving, life-blessing, life-sustaining word.  Lament tills the hardened soil of the heart, preparing it for God’s world-creating word.

Hannah’s prophetic announcement sheds light on the preaching task at hand.  Fred Craddock frames it this way:

in a context of long tradition, common assumptions, and high predictability in messages, there is much room for the illusion of participation where little or none exists… We are up against an illusion that breeds in the dark, unswept corners of institutions well furnished by custom, repetition, and assumption.  And the task of any communicator who would seek to shatter this illusion is made doubly difficult by the fact that victims of an illusion do not realize they are victims.  Such is the nature of an illusion: it caresses; there is no pain.  It is the communicator who succeeds in breaking the illusion who brings pain, who is the troubler in Israel.[20]


Prayer for Hannah is the womb from which new life emerges, from which new sight is given.  “Ludwig Wittgenstein spoke of language being understood only within a certain form of life… In other words, in the final analysis listening is a quality of character.”[21]

Hannah’s prayer leads to poetic, praise-filled proclamation, which breaks open the closed womb of illusion to birth, in painful ways, a new available world previously hidden.  Her speech finally enables others to also speak out.  A surprising word comes from an unidentified “man of God” to Eli and his house.[22]  It is a word of judgment destabilizing the current regime and its attendant religious sanctioning.  This word is possible because it is rooted in the living, although nearly forgotten, memory of Israel’s story with God.

The “man of God” begins his oracle, “Thus the Lord has said, ‘I revealed myself to the family of your ancestor in Egypt when they were slaves to the house of Pharaoh.’”[23]  The first word God utters identifies God’s self with the vulnerable – slaves in Egypt.  The community is to recall the cries of the enslaved prodding God to act against Pharaoh and Egypt.  The powerless are unearthed as blessed for the living God acts on their behalf.

Now, through the tradition and memory of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, we are empowered to hear and see anew Israel’s current circumstance as barren.  Israel’s leadership resembles Pharaoh more than the freed slaves of Exodus lore.  God warned Israel to resist becoming another Egypt when they entered the Promise Land, yet that is Israel’s social embodiment under Elidic leadership.[24]

Amnesia of God’s past work creates an environment where current arrangements of power are beyond reproach.  The Shema cautions against this loss of memory when Israel enters the Land of Promise: “…take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”[25]  Forsaking the covenantal memory has devolved into abusive spiritual and political leadership.

Eli’s house has re-purposed Israel’s narrative to sustain the current social order.  However, the Exodus is a dangerous memory revealing the God of wild and unyielding concern for the compromised persons of this world.  It is a frightening memory for those benefiting from oppressive power.  Yahweh undermines politics as usual and erodes the bulwark of privileged power.  Such a God of freedom is exactly what empires cannot imagine, for to do so imagines their own finitude and accountability.  It is easier to control a God of silent acquiescence than to entertain a God of relational freedom.

Israel’s narrative memory, as with Christian tradition, is always intended to be a living memory.  The memory is imaginatively recited so that the faithful might view the world anew.  This recital enables the story to be a personal and social experience in the present, not simply the past.  However, the community of faith is always in danger of forgetting or misunderstanding the memory.  This presents a unique challenge for preaching, especially when the community believes it is living faithfully to the memory.

Craddock highlights the challenge: “Not only are chances very good that they will say even of good sermons that they have heard it all before, but if what they hear is different from what they have been accustomed to hearing, in manner or in matter, they will suspect that it was not a sermon or not Christian.”[26]  As such, our task as communicators will include disorienting our hearers in order that they might be reoriented to the living memory.

The man of God’s sermon to Eli shifts the Exodus story from God delivering Israel to God judging Israel for their Egypt-like behavior.  This is a radical interpretive shift, opening up new hermeneutical perspectives for those “who have ears to hear.”  Bear in mind that this is not twisting the story to fit our agenda.  The “old story” speaks in new ways by shifting the community’s identification to a new character within that story.  No longer are they the freed slaves, but Eli’s house must identify with the Egyptian task-masters.  Stories that have become stale are possibly stale because we only allow ourselves to identify with the heroes or the receivers of grace in the text.  We avoid the discomfort of judgment by assuming roles which end in our favor.  Preaching should at times bring comfort.  However, when comfort no longer comes as grace-filled surprise, we are preaching cheap grace.

Prophets emerge in moments of deep spiritual blindness.  We find Samuel and Eli sleeping in the temple.  Visions are not widespread and God’s word, as mentioned previously, is rare.  To complicate matters, Eli, as spiritual leader, has diminishing eyesight so that he no longer sees, despite the light from the lamp of God.[27]  Although serving before the Lord, Samuel does not yet know (yada) the Lord.  There is no intimacy with God.  Eli and Samuel are surrounded by the things of worship and yet they are shrouded in darkness.

In the midst of their slumber, God calls the young boy.  Three times Samuel goes to Eli, asking him why he called.  Finally, Eli realizes God is calling Samuel and instructs him to answer.  “Learning to discern the difference between human words and God’s word is basic to [Samuel’s] prophetic and priestly life.”[28]  This does not happen immediately, but is a learned practice.  As with Hannah, Samuel’s prophetic vocation begins by learning to listen.

Samuel receives a word from God which again calls Eli’s house and Israel to account.  God is going to act in ways that surprise all.  God says, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (emphasis mine).  Some messages, we know beforehand, will burn.  It will cause discomfort.  After receiving this painful, if not dangerous, word to proclaim, Samuel just “lays there.”[29]

“Laying there” is an imperative for preaching.  When God speaks, the word must simmer in us.  It is a gestastional space in time where God germinates new life in us first.  Birth is possible when an infant experiences discomfort in the womb.  Wrestling with God and the text should discomfort us to the point we are pushed out of our safe spaces.  Samuel is afraid to tell Eli the vision.  Fear of rejection can paralyze our voice.  But, if God’s word has done its work on us, we cannot help but proclaim it.

After the incubation is complete, Samuel bursts out of the “doors of the house of the Lord.”[30]  It is birthing language.[31]  As Hannah’s womb was opened, now the doors burst open and God’s word is brought forth into the community.  The temple, the place of worship, serves as deathly tomb for Eli and as fertile womb for Samuel.  The defining difference is an imagination enlivened and set free by an encounter with the living God.

This new birth imagination in Samuel does not end with Samuel.  Instead, as Samuel grows with God, he learns to see God at work and hear God’s voice.  The word comes to Samuel and through Samuel to “all of Israel.”  An inspired imagination breaks loose in the community.  New worlds are now possible, although the temptation always remains to fall back into old patterns.  But, at least for the moment, new life bursts forth as God’s word is proclaimed.

The Church’s prophetic and priestly ministry requires an imagination re-formed by a divine encounter.  Imagination requires the gestational practices of prayer; listening to God and others, especially the vulnerable; lamenting our barrenness; naming the broken systems of abusive power; and helping the scriptures to speak in new ways to communities that have become overly familiar with the old, old story.  The task appears overwhelmingly impossible.  Yet, when God speaks, death no longer has the final word.





Brueggemann, Walter. Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Craddock, Fred B. Overhearing the Gospel. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2002.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Janzen, J. Gerald. “‘Samuel Opened the Doors of the House of Yahweh’ (1 Samuel 3.15).” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 8, no. 26 (1983): 89-96.

Murphy, Francesca Aran. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 Samuel. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010.

Peterson, Eugene H. Westminster Bible Companion: First and Second Samuel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Spina, Frank A. “Eli’s Seat: The Transition from Priest to Prophet in I Samuel 1-4.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 19, no. 62 (June 01, 1994): 67-75.


[1] Judges 21:25

[2] Exodus 19:6

[3] 1 Samuel 1:6-7

[4] 1 Samuel 1:7-13

[5] Deuteronomy 8:3

[6] 1 Samuel 1:13-14

[7] 1 Samuel 1:17

[8] Frank A. Spina, “Eli’s Seat: The Transition from Priest to Prophet in 1 Samuel 1-4,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 19, no. 62 (1994): 67.

[9] 1 Samuel 4:13

[10] Spina, 68.

[11] Spina, 67-69.

[12] 1 Samuel 2:22

[13] 1 Samuel 2:12-14

[14] 1 Samuel 2:16-17

[15] 1 Samuel 2:23-25

[16] Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 112.

[17] Fred B. Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002), 77-78.

[18] Francesca Aran Murphy, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 Samuel (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010), 14.

[19] 1 Samuel 2:1-10

[20] Craddock, 18.

[21] Craddock, 26.

[22] 1 Samuel 2:27-36

[23] 1 Samuel 2:27

[24] Not living as another Egypt is a major theme in Deuteronomy. Israel is reminded of their deliverance from Egypt so they will live in covenant fidelity to the God of deliverance, rather than in the deathly ways of Empire.

[25] Deuteronomy 6:12

[26] Craddock, 17.

[27] 1 Samuel 3:2

[28] Eugene Peterson, Westminster Bible Companion: First and Second Samuel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 38.

[29] 1 Samuel 3:15

[30] 1 Samuel 3:15

[31] J. Gerald Janzen, “Samuel Opened the Doors of the House of Yahweh (1 Samuel 3:15),” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 8, no. 26 (1983): 91-92.

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