Few narratives in the Hebrew Bible are more foreign to us than this week’s lection. We do not give away our children. In a society determined by socio-economic forces utterly beyond the control of individual citizens (e.g., globalization) we do our best to prepare ourselves for the inevitability of change. But what happens when we lose our footing?
Contemporary life changes too fast for habits and routines to have any chance to settle into a pattern. Western individuals must navigate their way through the fears and anxieties that are endemic to such an existence. Such is the pace of change, that effective life-strategies today may be obsolete tomorrow. We will do everything in our power to hold back the floods that threaten to wash away that which we hold dear—especially our children.
What was it like for parents in the Bible? Hannah, Samuel’s mother, was beset by another set of insecurities than those faced by contemporary Westerners. In the socio-economic situation of twelfth-century B.C.E., an Israelite woman’s worth was held in direct proportion to her fertility. Hannah was barren and thus her spirit was troubled to the point that she refused to eat, weeping instead on account of her “great anxiety and vexation” (1 Sam. 1:16 NRSV). In desperation, she made a vow before the LORD of hosts that if God would grant her a son, she would dedicate him to the LORD. The LORD heard Hannah’s prayer and blessed her with Samuel, whom she turned over to Eli the priest, according to her promise.
Hannah’s “song” of exultation (1 Sam. 2:1-10)—which prefigures Mary’s song following the annunciation (Lk. 1:46-55)—is surprisingly odd against its narrative backdrop. She has just relinquished control of the child that she so desperately desired. What is her “victory”? What joy does she really receive from her sacrifice? Such tragic irony grates against our modern way of thought.. How could she bear such loss? Could we endure something so harrowing?
Recent events bring this tale of life and loss into sharp relief. Christmas Day marks the release of a theatrical sensation that has captured the hearts of audiences for decades. The latest iteration of Victor Hugo’s revolutionary tale, Les Misérables, presents a star-studded cast featuring the talents of Tom Hooper (director), Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean); Russell Crowe (Inspector Javert); Anne Hathaway (Fantaine); and Amanda Seyfried (Cossette).
Individual destinies entwine in this tale, but central to the plot is the fate of Cossette, the illegitimate daughter of Fantaine. Through abandonment by her roguish lover and in the midst of extreme poverty, Fantaine is forced to relinquish care of her daughter to a pair of vile and unscrupulous innkeepers. Though afflicted by similar circumstances, Fantaine’s reaction diverges markedly from Hannah’s when she sings:
There was a time when men were kind/ When their voices were soft/ And their words inviting/ There was a time when love was blind/ And the world was a song/ And the song was exciting/ There was a time/ Then it all went wrong.
This song makes much more sense to our modern ears than Hannah’s. Given her untimely separation from her son, how can Hannah sing with such joy? Fantaine’s seems more apropos. Her song ends, “I had a dream my life would be/ So different from this hell I'm living/ So different now from what it seemed/ Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”
Unfortunately, the plight of global injustice and economic disparity makes contemporary life a veritable hell for many. In a recent story published by the New York Times, reporters discovered that roughly 80 percent of the 30,000 children in Haitian orphanages have at least one living parent. The article explains that the decision by Haitian parents to turn their children over to orphanages is motivated by “dire poverty.”
Like Fantaine these parents are forced by circumstances outside their control to handover their children to the care of others. Sadly, this is not only a Haitian problem. UNICEF reports that of the more than 132 million children classified as orphans, only 13 million have lost both parents. These numbers are staggering and they reveal the desperation that parents may have when they no longer can care for their sons and daughters.