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No. 129: Not Drunk As You Suppose

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 129
Copyright (c) 2000 Biblical Horizons
May, 2000

While Samuel’s mother Hannah prays at the tabernacle, the high priest Eli sees her lips moving silently and concludes that she is drunk (1 Samuel 1:13-14). Hannah protests that she has poured nothing into her, but is "pouring out" her soul before Yahweh; far from being giddy with wine, she has been fasting and is suffering severe distress (v. 15). Within the early chapters of 1 Samuel, this incident echoes in several directions. Eli’s sons, we learn later, are "sons of Belial" (2:12), who abuse the sacrificial procedures to make themselves fat and fornicate with the women who serve at the sanctuary. Yet, instead of firmly rebuking his sons, Eli reserves his sternest words for a pious woman who, like her namesake in Luke 2:36-38, is looking for the consolation of Israel. At this early point in the narrative, Eli’s eyesight has not yet begun to dim (see 1 Samuel 3:2); but he is already blind.

Eli charges Hannah with drunkenness, and Hannah’s response has a close verbal parallel to the disciples’ response to a similar charge on the Day of Pentecost. When the Jews and proselytes in Jerusalem see and hear various tongues from the lips of the apostles, they conclude that the apostles are drunk. Peter assures them that "these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day," and goes on to claim that the apostles are instead inebriated with the Spirit (Acts 2:13-21). Are Peter’s words any more than a verbal echo of Hannah? Or is there perhaps some stronger connection between the two incidents?

Several considerations will help to show that there is a profound connection between the two. Hannah’s prayer at the tabernacle is not only a prayer that she will become fruitful, nor even a prayer that she will be vindicated against her rival, Peninnah (1 Samuel 1:4-7). Her distress also has to do with the condition of Israel, which, like Hannah herself, has become barren and fruitless during the judgeship of Eli (cf. 1 Samuel 4:18). She promises to dedicate her child to Yahweh as a permanent Nazirite (1:11), for she envisions that he will have a priestly and military role in Israel. In the chiastic structure of the passage, Hannah’s initial prayer and vow are parallel to the prayer of triumph in 2:1-10:

A. Introduction of situation and characters, 1:1-2

B. Annual sacrifice at Shiloh, 1:3-8

B1. Hannah’s prayer, 1:9-11

B2. Eli and Hannah, 1:12-18

A’ Return to Ramah and birth of Samuel, 1:19-20

B’ Annual sacrifice at Shiloh, 1:21-23

B2′ Eli and Hannah, 1:24-28

B1′ Hannah’s prayer, 2:1-10

A" Return to Ramah and growth of Samuel, 2:11

Hannah’s song celebrates the answer to her earlier prayer for a child. Significantly, Hannah’s song sets her own reversal of fortune (2:5b) in a setting of large-scale social and political revolution: The mighty and feeble change places, the hungry are filled while the full seek bread, the dead are made alive, the poor exalted, and the needy lifted to sit with the nobles, the "pillars of the earth" (2:4-8). This is what Hannah was praying for when she asked for a child, and the Yahweh’s miraculous resurrection of her womb is a sign that he is beginning to raise Israel. Her "drunken" prayer is fulfilled in a great reversal.

Hannah’s song is closely linked with subsequent events in 1 Samuel. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, are the "full" ones at Shiloh (2:12-17, 29), but the man of God prophesies that they will beg for bread (2:36). Eli is seen on a "seat" at the doorway of the temple (1:9), but he dies when he falls off and breaks his neck (4:18). When 1 Samuel begins, the Philistines are mighty and Israel feeble, but under the leadership of Samuel, Israel drives out the Philistines (7:13). Part of this reversal is the devastation of Yahweh’s own dwelling and the exile of the ark (2:32). Again, this is what Hannah was praying for in her drunken prayer — that Yahweh would judge by toppling the wicked leaders of Israel and redeeming Israel from the Philistines.

Against this background, the parallel between Hannah’s prayer and Pentecost is considerably sharpened. As the drunken prayer of Hannah asked for a reversal within Israel and between Israel and Philistia, so the drunken sermons of Pentecost were a sign of a global reversal in the fortunes of Israel. The priests of Jerusalem, a community full of Elis and Hophnis and Phineases, will see the vineyard taken from them and given to others. Pentecost is a sign that the "great and glorious day of Yahweh" shall come (Acts 2:20), and Paul says that tongues are a sign of judgment to Israel (1 Corinthians 14:21-22), as faithless Jews are cut off and Gentiles grafted in.

Pentecost is a warning to Israel that the devastation of Shiloh is going to recur (cf. Jeremiah 7:12-15).

Drunkenness is an appropriate prophetic sign of the coming judgment. In a number of prophetic passages, Yahweh pours out the cup of His wine-wrath, which causes the wicked to stumble and fall (Isaiah 51:17-22; Jeremiah 25:15-29; Ezekiel 23:31-34; Zechariah 12:2). Drunk with the judgment on his sons and the ark, Eli falls backward off his seat, and Samuel takes his place as the leader of Israel. Drunken prayers and drunken preaching are prophetic theater; inspired by the Spirit, Hannah and the apostles pre-enact the coming judgment.