"Holiness and Practice"
University of Cambridge
I Samuel 1:1-2:11 may be read as an exploration of holiness in the human sphere. We might expect the temple at Shiloh to be the locus of holiness in this narrative, with the priests its appointed guardians and managers. Instead, the priests are shown to be at worst corrupt and at best insensitive, while cultic ritual is revealed as ineffective. God responds rather to a barren woman functioning outside the religious system and even outside her own family. Hannah's child, given to her by God as a result of prayer so apparently informal that it was mistaken by Eli for drunkenness, becomes the successor of Eli, the very priest who was unable to meet her needs through the channels of formal ritual. Hannah's behaviour before and during her visit to the temple becomes, along with Daniel's thrice daily prayers, the Babylonian Talmud's model for appropriate and effective prayer (Berachot 31a). We are accustomed to contemplating the interrelation of holiness and separateness. We think less often about the significance of the unexpected. Is Hannah's multiply attested marginality, with its implicit polemic against power, tradition and institutionalised religion, intended to direct us to the very heart of the human experience of holiness.