Sunday, August 29, 2010

The rite of Confession and Absolution in I Samuel 1

An infertile woman and an adversary at home? Not a happy combination. But we're given the story of such a problem relationship in I Samuel 1, in the story of Hannah and Eli's interaction in the Temple. And what's even more interesting is the picture this story gives to us of an event in the Temple that goes on now in the church: that of Confession.

I Samuel 1.9-17 (AV): "So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk. Now Eli the priest sat upon a seat by a post of the temple of the LORD. And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head. And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli marked her mouth. Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken. And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee. 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. Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial: for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto. Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him."

In the larger context, the story's fairly simple. Hannah's unable to conceive, and she goes up to Jerusalem with her husband to worship and pray. Contextually, we can guess that she's praying for a child, and more specifically (from I Sam. 1.8) for a son. The Temple was likely a fairly busy place, and we can guess that there were others there praying as well. What's interesting is that Eli the priest was also there, and we're told he was sitting on a seat by a post there in the Temple.

What was Eli doing there? Given that he was sitting, we can probably assume that he wasn't simply passing through the Temple precincts. He might have been praying himself, but that seems odd, given that he notices Hannah's behavior, and if he'd been praying, one would guess he'd be more wrapped up in his prayers than in her behavior. (Given that Eli notices Hannah's mouth moving -- and leads him to question her being drunk -- shows that she wasn't praying out loud). But from his later statement to Hannah ("Go in peace") I would suggest that Eli was there to hear Confession.

In certain circles (especially Roman, and some Lutheran), Confession is confined to a very specific set of behaviors, of confessing sin, and being absolved from that sin. However, I would argue that in the scriptures, Confession is a much larger set of actions, encompassing not only confessing sin, but godly counsel, spiritual direction, teaching, correction, and guidance. None of these preclude confession of sin or absolution from that sin. But there are numerous occurrences in the scriptures that make sense when we realize a larger, more encompassing meaning of private Confession. Most of these behaviors (i.e., godly counsel, spiritual direction, teaching, correction, and guidance) occur in other contexts, but I'd argue that what sets Confession apart is that is directed at one individual, and is set in a context where that individual Christian can especially be given to realize that these are directed specifically at themselves. Given this definition, I believe that Eli was hearing Confession in the Temple, and Hannah was the recipient of that Sacrament.

Hannah is probably not there to specifically confess her sins, per se. She's in distress, upset over her inability to conceive, and upset by her adversary (the adversary possibly being Elkanah's other wife Peninnah, a demonic adversary, depression, or simple grief over her condition). In such a situation, Hannah would be in need of pastoral care, loving reminders of God's care for her, encouragement to continue praying. I argue that Eli gave her precisely that care, in the context of what we would now call Confession -- and that that is precisely what he was there doing in the Temple that day.

The lesson from this? Some things change in the course of the biblical revelation. The incarnation is the most obvious example: some things were very different after that event. But much remains the same. God's people -- then and now -- needed pastoral care directed to themselves as individuals. Eli -- and likely other priestly colleagues -- were there to provide that care, as are priests in our time. We can take comfort for the godly continuity found through the scriptures. Things are different, but much is the same, and we are given hope through the scriptures (cf. Romans 15.4) for our walk in God.

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