“Do you see all these great buildings,” Jesus replied. “not one stone here will be left on another. Every one will be thrown down.”
There seems little point in denying it but Jesus’ words in the temple precincts were strange and disturbing. They were occasioned by an innocent remark, a perfectly understandable statement from one of his disciples. Who among us has not been impressed by magnificent buildings, skilfully built from the finest materials? The temple, recently restored at that time, was indeed a most impressive place, built from massive stones and richly decorated with sheets of pure gold which caught and reflected the sunlight. Though they had seen it many times, it had not lost its power to awe the disciples. Yet Jesus predicted its destruction, not its weathering, not its decay, but its absolute and total destruction.
Of course, he was right to do so. We know from other sources that in AD 70, the temple and all the rest of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman occupiers. It was a systematic demolition of the whole city and not one stone was left in place. So on one level, Jesus was perfectly correct. Within thirty-five to forty years of his own death, the city would be laid to waste. But this was not all he was talking about – a little glimpse into the near future. He had a much deeper meaning.
I would like to try to approach that meaning through another quite different story, the story of Hannah longing for a child.
Like so many of the great stories of the Bible, the story of Samuel has a very inauspicious beginning. We have a man, Elkanah. Elkanah is so noteworthy that he only appears in the Bible, at the beginning of this book named after his son. He was descended from a man called Tohu, which means ‘waste’, as in a waste of space. Not a highly thought of person, one might imagine. Not a great line to come from. We also have two women, co-wives of Elkanah. Hannah’s name means ‘grace’ and, as we shall find, she lives up to her name. Peninnah’s name is untranslatable but, as we shall see, her character is anything but gracious. Despite this, Peninnah is an abundantly fertile woman who has borne many children. Hannah is, as the story begins, still childless, and this weighs very heavily on her. She desperately wants a child. It is the one thing she wants more than anything in the world. Nothing can make up for the fact that she has not had a child. Peninnah clearly has a really nasty streak in her, because she taunts her co-wife constantly for her childlessness, flaunting her own fecundity at any opportunity.
We hear of how Elkanah and his wives and children would go each year to Shiloh to make a sacrifice. Part of the ritual was to share out the meat of the slaughtered animal among the family for a celebratory feast. It was an utterly miserable occasion for Hannah, because each year Peninnah would taunt her, pointing out as the meat was given out how much was coming to her children. The double portion which Elkanah gave to Hannah was no substitute for the child she longed for so desperately. In fact, this probably only made her pain even greater as she had no child with whom to share her portion.
One year, Hannah reached the end of her tether. Weeping and unable to eat from misery, she fled from the feast and went straight to the Temple by herself. Significantly, she marched straight past Eli, the priest. She was going to talk directly to God.
Remember, here was a woman suffering in bitter agony. Sobbing convulsed her body as she wept and prayed. But Eli, seeing and hearing her, leapt quickly to the wrong conclusion, mistaking her for a drunk. “How long will you keep on getting drunk?” he asks her, making a crass and degrading accusation. But Hannah, this woman of grace, did not turn on him in anger for his insensitivity, nor did she storm out as she had every right to do, but instead, through her deep sadness, gently explained why it was that she had been praying with such intensity.
Without a word of regret or apology, Eli absentmindedly says – may God grant you what you have asked of him.
The rest, in a way, is history. Next time Elkanah and Hannah slept together, she conceived and the son she bore she called Samuel. From his very earliest years, his life was dedicated to God and he grew up to become one of the greatest of Israel’s prophets, the one who was to anoint the first two of Israel’s kings, Saul and his successor, David.
In so many ways, this is an archetypal Biblical story. So often, when there is infertility, it is a sign that the longed for child will be particularly significant in the history of God’s chosen people. So often when there are two or more wives, it is the second wife who is preferred and who goes on to bear the significant child. So often where there is adversity, where there is simplicity, where there is ordinariness, God is at work. The human story of the Bible begins with a man and a woman, in a garden. The choosing of a nation begins with an old man and his old wife who miraculously conceives in her old age, long after she had given up hope of bearing a child. The saving of that nation from slavery begins with a murderer reluctantly called to leadership by a voice from a bush. The entry into the promised land begins with a couple of spies and a prostitute. And most importantly of all, the Christian story begins with a humiliated man and his much-too-young, pregnant girlfriend, far from home and then forced to flee still further. So this story of prophecy and kingship, of Samuel, Saul, David and Solomon begins with an insensitive husband, a foolish priest, an arrogant co-wife and an despairing woman who dared to demand from God that which would give her dignity and respect. From the strangest of beginnings do great things happen.
The destruction of the Temple is a strange sort of beginning. It sounds more like an ending, as do the other signs Jesus predicted – deception, wars, earthquakes and famines. Yet Jesus talked about beginnings. He talked about birth, something pure, natural, desirable, life giving. To hold these concepts together – destruction and birth – must mean that he was implying that something good would be coming from these terrible things.
Let’s go back for a moment to the personal anguish and ultimate joy and fulfilment of Hannah. She was in a bad situation. One might say she was surrounded by evil – a wicked co-wife taunting her for her childlessness, a husband who was weak and insensitive, a priest who made false allegations against her. Yet it was in her that God chose to work, giving her the gift of bearing a son who was to become pivotal in Israel’s history, a man who was to move through the wars and wickedness of Saul’s reign, still witnessing to the truth, still witnessing to the justice and the grace of God, a man who was to keep the light of the Lord shining both literally and spiritually through very dark times.
In this story we have a window on the greater story Jesus was telling his disciples. Through this understandable, human story, we can find a way of comprehending what he was saying.
For Christ was teaching that the world was and is in the grip of evil, that, while the current system lasts, there will always be wicked deeds and senseless disasters and suffering and pain. Yet in these things, God will be found working, working as he did through Hannah, through Abraham and Sarah, through Moses, through Mary and Joseph. He will be found working to bring into life a new system, a new order, bringing to birth the time when all will acknowledge the reign of Christ and be gathered joyfully into the kingdom of God.
It disturbs me when so-called Christians relish wars and rumours of wars and claim them as signs of the imminent coming of the Kingdom. It angers me when ultra-rightwing neo-conservatives delight in war in the Middle East, seeing it as the beginning of Armageddon. St. Peter wrote: Look forward to the coming day of God, and work to hasten it on. He did not mean to encourage people to violence. He did not mean that we are to work to hasten the coming day of God by encouraging war, or by spreading rumours of it, or by rejoicing in earthquakes or famines. He was encouraging people to be like himself and James and John and Andrew, to be like Hannah, seeking to be channels of God’s saving grace. Work to hasten the day of God by giving yourself to God, that he might work through you.