The calling of Eli: a reflection on the churches and gender
Preacher: Revd Dr Janet Foggie, Celebrant and Author
Readings: 1 Samuel 1:1-20; Galatians 3:22-29
I don’t know how many of us gathered here today have seen the Barbie movie? It’s an entertaining romp in pink technicolour. As a movie, it isn’t perfect, and neither, we learn, is Barbie herself. The movie challenges what is termed ‘the patriarchy’ a system of government which works through male primogeniture
– that is that sons inherit property and with it public responsibilities and women do not.
In the film, Barbie and Ken work out together what it means to identify as female and male, though there is disappointingly no place for the non-binary, and they do poke some humour at the multi-million pound plastic empire that is Mattel (but that’s a whole other sermon).
In Barbie-land women can be anything, follow careers and still have perfect bubblegum pink cars, perfect homes and, of course, perfect figures.
It isn’t until Barbie and Ken find themselves in our world that their views of their roles, and the assumptions they made about themselves, begin to change.
“Why didn’t Barbie tell me about patriarchy?” – Ken asks the camera – he has discovered the ‘secret’ fact about our world. Here ‘real life’ is governed by men, who inherit their power from men, and who like motorcars and horses (by the by).
My question for this morning is what does Ken mean by ‘the patriarchy’ and how have our social assumptions about patriarchal society changed?
In the USA the Christian movement for ‘biblical patriarchy’ still has some purchase, but nothing to what it had – since way back in 2010 – even Sarah Palin, the Former Republican Governor of Alaska, who stepped down because of the inconvenience that an ethics committee had discovered she had taken her family on holiday at the Alaskan State taxpayers’ expense. A politician so Republican she was too right wing for George Bush, and a believer so Christian she avows to believe in the creation story and that God created the world in seven days. But, even Sarah Palin when she was criticised repeatedly by the ‘Christian Patriarchs’ for being a woman in public life, she called them out as ‘Neanderthals’ and despite being a creationist herself suggested they should ‘evolve’!
So even in the far-right wing of our Christian faith we have some discussion about what the patriarchy itself might be and what it might mean for modern women, whether they look like Barbie or not.
It’s a radical suggestion, but I wondered if we might turn our attention to this bronze age story of the patriarchy in action so to speak and look at the calling of Eli.
So, here’s my question: How did Eli get the job?
Why does the story start with him already in position?
That’s the patriarchy, the really patriarchal structure in a patriarchy bronze age society. The story starts with the bloke already in the job. We don’t need to know his qualifications, he is Eli, and he’s the priest and he’s the senior man in the role and his sons are ‘scoundrels’ who do not honour the Lord – of this more later.
Hannah comes to the temple and prays with the fervour of a broken heart for a son – and it is a son she wants, to give her status as a mother, to live the life she as a bronze age second wife – cannot aspire to. Eli hears her, and as we know, accuses her of being drunk.
This is entitlement and how it works Hannah – suffers both abuse and gossip – this is a part of the patriarchy we are still dismantling today, the social perception that women must be better than good – and there’s good social evidence of how women in vocational roles are treated. Hannah is unfairly criticised as being drunk, unwell, unreliable – a snowflake. And even when she bears a son she does not get to raise him – there’s no way Eli would pass a PVG test – this man is not a good bet on safeguarding criteria yet because he can light a few candles and mumble the right prayers he is seen as a better custodian for Hannah’s child than the poetic, prophetic and tragically abused Hannah is herself.
And here’s a key, if killer point, the real abuser of Hannah was a woman! Peninnah – the successful number one wife, the bully, the nasty mean undermining reality of Hannah’s daily experience. Is Peninnah the Barbie? To quote Sasha from the Barbie movie, Peninnah, or Barbie, has in fact ‘been making women feel bad about themselves since you were invented.’
The model of perfection for women is one no woman can fulfil Hannah is punished her whole life for having done nothing wrong. What was Hannah’s crime – she came to God and she spoke out loud her needs?
Glennon Doyle writes of her former role in counselling and advising Christian women in the ideals of Christian marriage as she then saw it. She discovered she was queer and talks of how her heterosexual marriage ended. She is now married to a woman. She describes her escape in the book ‘Untamed’ – and she describes the inability of the churches to accept her free self, which she likens to the Tree of Life. Here’s Glennon’s song:
‘I’ve spent much of my life lost in the woods of pain, relationships, religion, career, service, success,and failure. Looking back on those times, I can trace my lostness back to a decision to make something
outside myself my Touch Tree. An identity. A set of beliefs. An institution. Aspirational ideals. A job. Another person. A list of rules. Approval. An old version of myself. Now when I feel lost, I remember that I am not the woods. I am my own tree. So I return to myself and reinhabit myself. As I do, I feel my chin rise and my body straighten.
I reach deeply into the rich soil beneath me, made up of every girl and woman I’ve ever been, every face l’ve loved, every love l’ve lost, every place l’ve been, every conversation l’ve had, every book I’ve
read and song l’ve sung, everything, everything, crumbling and mixing and decomposing under-neath. Nothing wasted. My entire past there, holding me up and feeding me now. All of this too low for anyone else to see, just there for me to draw from. Then up and up all the way to my branches, my imagination, too high for anyone else to see-reaching beyond, growing toward the light and warmth. Then the middle, the trunk, the only part of me entirely visible to the world. Pulpy and soft inside, just tough enough on the outside to protect and hold me. Exposed and safe. I am as ancient as the earth l’m planted in and as new as my tiniest bloom. I am my own Touch Tree: strong, singular, alive. Still growing.” [Doyle, Glennon, ‘Untamed’, 2020].
What is Hannah’s ministry? – Hannah’s song is of the strength of God and the weakness of ‘strong men’.
Hannah’s song, like Glennon’s, is a song of triumph.
Where is Eli’s song? Well of course he doesn’t have one, the young Samuel passes to him the prophecy of the Lord, which we know he has heard before – in this beautifully touching little story of the child-prophet (who we will remember in the days before Getting It Right For Every Child or social services) is sleeping behind the communion table.
“Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening. And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. At that time, I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against
his family–from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore, I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or
NO forgiveness – that’s the verdict of the Lord. From the bronze age to the present day we have to read and learn from God’s criticism of the patriarchy and in particular, God’s lack of forgiveness for abuse of power.
We have to be careful not to back the Elis, not to call the Elis, not to forgive the Elis without real behaviour change – and even now in 2023 we can go to watch a movie about how we continue to deny the Hannahs keep them down and force them to sing their songs of prophecy from the side-lines.
Research shows that while women in the workplace are less likely to be criticised for their gender in 2023 than they were in 2003. However, they will be criticised more than men at a similar stage in their career for their age, their appearance, especially their weight, their experience, too much or too little, their parenting status, and so forth.
Galatians gives us a roadmap to dismantle the patriarchy and that road map is over 2000 years old! Yet we are still recruiting Elis – we need to constantly open our ears to hear Hannah’s song and we need to change how we speak about people, especially behind their backs or in private with relation to our conceptions of their gender. We must not bolster the Elis in their poor practice – nor criticise the Hannahs if the way in which they offer their service is not conforming to the temple norms.
So, what’s changed since I was ordained in 2003? I wonder. But it is still not too late to embrace the message of Hannah’s song, of Zechariah’s song, of Mary’s song: the message of Jesus, which is the power of redemption for the misguided and a raising up of the weak.
We hear these songs in the message contained in Galatians, a call to be free of the patriarchy and we all have a role in making that happen. In Christ, Abraham’s seed and heirs become the anti-patriarchy, we become free in Christ, we ought to be turning the patriarchy on its head. We welcome all, male, female, trans people, non-binary people. And we ought have been doing so since the bronze age when GOD told Eli there is NO FORGIVENESS for not taking one’s responsibilities seriously, not raising people in an ethical framework, not caring when all is going to rack and ruin. We weren’t told how Eli got the job, but we are left in no doubt as to how he lost it.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor
is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Or perhaps, to leave the last word to one who knew best, Ken, ‘To be honest, when I found out the patriarchy wasn’t about horses I lost interest.’