The institution of Marriage – a Sermon on 1 Samuel 1


‘Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like horse and carriage’. So we’re told, but not in my book they don’t, and by ‘my book’ I mean the Bible.

That’s a warm and inviting way to start a sermon, isn’t it? But the tone is set for us today by our reading from the Old Testament – the story about the family of Elkanah. It’s a story that functions primarily to set the scene for the emergence of the Samuel, the last of the great judges and the first of the king-makers, but it’s also a story that gives us a fruitful basis, I believe, to begin to think Biblically about the institution of marriage.

Now I recognise that I’m not likely to make any friends by focusing upon this topic today. If you’re not married (and about half of us at Holy Trinity are not) you probably didn’t turn up here this morning so that you could be reminded of what you’re missing out on in life. And if you are married with a family, I recognise that it is quite possible that you come to church (in part at least) to escape, in a little way, the daily pressures of marriage and family, and therefore that it’s the last thing you want to be forced to focus upon, in this your period of spiritual respite.

And after all, which one of us married men really wants to undergo the scrutiny of being compared to a good man like Elkanah – a loving husband and, no doubt, a good father. Elkanah and Hannah make a lovely couple, though of course they’re not really a couple? They’re a triple! Hannah is married to Elkanah, who is also married to the fruitful Penninah!

I don’t know if they used to use language like that in those days – “don’t they make a lovely triple”. My wife is of the opinion that there’s no such thing as a lovely triple – that while the men might have enjoyed it, the women would undoubtedly have had a hard time.

The case in point would certainly seem to bear out this analysis, as the two women of Elkanah’s household do not appear to get on too well at all. As Ange depicted it, you have the one woman saying to the other ‘ha, ha, you don’t have any children’ and the other one responding with ‘ha, ha, Elkanah doesn’t really love you.’

Scripture is indeed filled with sad stories associated with multi-partner marriages.

Go back in Scripture a little way and you’ll find the unhappy story of Jacob, and all the drama associated with his marriage to the two daughters of Laban – Rachel and Leah. Jacob of course also had children to both his wives’ maidservants, resulting in such a tension between the children of the different mothers that, in the end, the sons of the various mothers gang up and try to lynch the only son of Rachel – Joseph.

Go back further still and you’ll find the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah and her maidservant Hagar, who becomes Abraham’s mistress of sorts, and ends up being sent off into the desert by Sarah to die, along with the son that Hagar bore to Abraham.

Move forward from this story in the first book of Samuel and you’ll hit all the problems that King David had with his multiple partners and their children who raped, murdered and went to war with each other!

And then you have Solomon and his multiple partnerships, which were generally recognised as being the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom of Israel!

The Biblical record of success in multi-partner marriages is not terrific. And the relationship that we have on view this morning is indeed another case in point. It is a sad opening scene, and Hannah is the saddest of the three key figures. She is teased by Penninah, gets the smaller portions of food from her husband Elkanah, and then finally gets picked upon by Eli the priest who accuses her of drunkenness – all problems, we might like to suggest, that arise out of Elkanah’s decision to have two wives!

Mind you, the traditional Arab solution to this sort of dilemma was to have four wives. They agreed that two partners would always be at each other’s throats. Introduce a third and the situation gets worse, as two gang up against one. But with four wives, they pair up in friendship and support each other and everybody gets on just fine. So says traditional Middle Eastern wisdom (and I take no responsibility for the development of this theory whatsoever).

‘Bloody men’ I hear some of you quietly say under your breath (and some not so quietly). And this is always the reaction I hear when I reflect on passages such as this in the presence of women. The assumption of course is that the whole concept of the multi-partner marriage was a male idea, aimed at satisfying the wanton cravings of men. We are looking at a patriarchal society where men call all the shots, and so they institutionalise a form of marriage that satisfies their own wants and need at the expense of their women folk – so the dialogue goes.

And there is bound to be some truth in this analysis, though it is surely not the whole story. I’m sure that many a man in our society would find the concept of the multi-partner marriage quite alluring, at least at a distance, but a little reflection would suggest to us what the Biblical record seems to confirm – that at a relationship level, polygamy is basically unworkable. One suspects that Elkanah, in 1 Samuel chapter 1, could have lived quite happily without Penninah, expect that she was the one who bore him lots of children. And the attitude towards children is another reminder of the fact that we are not dealing with contemporary Australians.

Why is Hannah’s infertility such a problem? Is it the ‘bloody men’ again, not valuing their women unless they bear them children? Not in this case. It is Hannah and not Elkanah who struggles to accept her infertility. “Am I not worth more to you than ten sons?” says Elkanah, quite happy to accept Hannah as she is – childless. It is Hannah who cannot accept this.

Why is this so? If it’s not just Patriachalism, could it just be Hannah’s biological clock ticking, telling her that it’s time to have a child. Again, this might be part of the answer, but it’s surely not the whole answer, for it would appear that Hannah is not simply determined to have a child, but that she is determined to have a son!

Oh, if only she were a contemporary Australian girl, she would realise that:

  1. A baby daughter is just as valuable as a baby son.
  2. That she was just as valuable a human being, with or without children.
  3. That she shouldn’t have to share Elkanah with anyone! That she should be able to say to him, ‘either Penny goes or I go!’
  4. That she should be able to say to the priest who starts having a go at her, ‘look buddy, I’ll drink what I like, when I like, where I like!’

But she’s not a modern girl. This is not contemporary Australia. This is an ancient society that embraces polygamy as an acceptable form of marriage. It is a society that devalues women who cannot produce children. It is also a society that places greater value on the birth of male children than it does on female children. Why is this so? Were they just ignorant compared to us enlightened 21st century folk?

Before we get too carried away with congratulating ourselves, I would like to suggest that there is something more to it than that. Indeed, I’d like to suggest that we’re never going to understand any institutions of any society unless we can grasp something of the role that those institutions play within their respective societies.

Marriage is a social institution. In its various forms, the institution of marriage has been instituted and upheld by a vast number of societies, and for a very specific social purpose – namely, for creating social stability and for providing a stable environment for the birthing and nurturing of children.

Let us be clear about this. Our society did not come up with the idea of marriage. It is an ancient institution. And let’s be equally clear about this. This ancient institution of marriage was not created in order to make two people happy!

Marriage can make two people happy. It can be the most fulfilling relationship that two people can ever enter into. But this is not what marriage was ever fundamentally designed to do. Marriage is a social institution, instituted by society for the benefit of society at large, not for the benefit of two individual members. Once we realise this, it changes everything.

The ancients understood this. They understood faithfulness in marriage to be a duty, and the birthing of children to be their fundamental contribution to the community. Any joy they found in either marriage or parenthood would have been considered by them to be a bonus! The ancients understood marriage and family to be social necessities, and once we understand this, we understand them!

Why was it so important that every woman have as many children as possible? Because their society was radically underpopulated, and their survival depended on strength in numbers.
Why were baby boys considered more valuable than baby girls? Because they were a society constantly at war, and so the males were regularly being killed off, which put the entire community at risk!

Why was polygamy encouraged? Because there were more women than men, and you couldn’t afford to have these valuable child-bearing machines sitting on the side-lines when each and every one of these women might have the potential to create half a regiment!

It’s easy for us to be cynical about this in 21st century Australia. We don’t live in a subsistence economy. We are not constantly at war with our neighbours in the way in which the ancient Israelites were. When we read the Psalmist saying ‘let not my enemies triumph over me, O God’,we think of enemies such as ‘depression’, or ‘mortgage’. For the Israelites, their enemies were generally large men with weapons who were besieging their city, waiting for the chance to lop off heads, rape your women, and put your children into life-long slavery!

And keep in mind that in those days, losing a war could sometimes also result in every man, woman and child being put to the sword. The Israelites took this bloody approach themselves in their victory over the people of Jericho, and it was possible that, at any time, the tables could be turned.

So baby boys would be valued, women who failed to have children would be looked down upon just as people in our community might look down upon ‘dole bludgers’, because these were women who were not doing their bit for their community as women! And no woman was left single. To leave a fertile woman without a partner and without a stable home for the birthing and nurturing of her children would have been a crime against society!

I think in those days that if you had said ‘well, we’ve decided that we just don’t want to have any children’, I suspect that such a statement might have been taken as an act of treason! It was a different world and a different society with different social needs. And the only point of commonality really that we share with them is a concept of the institution of marriage – an institution propagated by society for the benefit of the community at large.

Yes, our institution of marriage was also designed to serve a social purpose. We live in a very different society with very different social needs, but the rationale of the institution of marriage is basically the same. The institution of marriage is designed to build social cohesiveness and to provide a stable environment for the birthing and nurturing of children.

This rationale was not lost on those who designed our marriage service. Every time I’ve taken a wedding, one of the first things I’ve said is:

“In marriage a new family is established in accordance with God’s purpose, so that children may be born and nurtured in secure and loving care, for their well-being and instruction, and for the good order of society, to the glory of God.”

I then follow this with a prayer for the blessing of children and for wisdom in parenting.

When you see things from a social perspective, the whole of the law and commandments and the institutions of ancient Israel make sense. If you try to grasp them from an individual point of view, they are not always so obvious.

‘Why shouldn’t I commit adultery? Is it just out of consideration for my partner’s feelings?’ No. It’s fundamentally because adultery destroys social cohesiveness and results in unwanted children who lack a secure and nurturing environment.

Why is the concept of a gay relationship so repugnant to Old Testament society? Because it contributes nothing to the community in terms of children.

Why is it wrong to divorce one wife and marry another? Because it destroys community and damages children!

Nowadays we say – ‘well, you shouldn’t stay together just for the sake of the children’. Why not? OK, there may be reasons for not staying together if a relationship is downright abusive, but if marriage was instituted fundamentally for the sake of providing a stable environment for children, why shouldn’t that be a good reason for keeping a marriage together.

You see, somewhere along the line we lost the plot as to what it is all about. Somehow, somewhere along the line we came to believe that the purpose of marriage was to make us continually happy as individuals. Therefore, when all of a sudden we’re not feeling happy in our marriages, we start to question whether we married the right person. We don’t question our expectations of the relationship. We question the inadequacies of our partner in his or her failure to fulfil those expectations.

Not that it’s my place to judge of course. I am a veteran of one failed marriage myself. I judge no one. Relationships will fail and children will suffer. That’s always going to happen, and I judge no one. But perhaps if more of us went into marriage with a clearer concept of what it was supposed to be about, a few less marriages would fall apart?

The institutions of marriage and family have been designed, and indeed ordained by God, to fulfil a social purpose. Personally I find that realisation quite liberating, for it means that I don’t have to feel guilty if sometimes I feel frustrated with my marriage and family.

I am privileged to be in a very happy marriage, but sometimes I don’t like having to be a good husband. I have wonderful children, but sometimes I don’t like being a parent. That’s OK! Sometimes I don’t like paying taxes either! At a fundamental societal level, these are all forms of social service!

Look at it from a positive angle. When I fulfil my role as a faithful husband well, I serve not only my own interests and those of my partner, but I contribute something to the building of a more stable society. When I parent well, I help to shape my children so that they might become contributing members of my community, which is quite possibly the most significant service that I will ever offer my nation! Through being strong in my marriage and in my parenting, I help to build a better world.

Of course there are lots of other ways of serving too! In our society today (very different from the society of ancient Israel) there are lots of ways in which you can serve God and the community without even having to think about marriage and children. Indeed, as St Paul recognised even in his own day, there are wonderful possibilities of service open to the not-married person that are closed off to married persons because of their chosen form of service.

Not-married people (you’ll note that I’m avoiding the word ‘single’, as I feel the word suggests that the only alternative to the institution of marriage is one of being alone, which is surely just not true) can find other creative ways of serving your God and your community. Go on! Find other ways of building community cohesiveness, and find other ways of contributing to the nurturing of children.

Parenting is far from being the only way of contributing to the needs of children in our society. Indeed, I believe that teenagers in this society in particular are in desperate need of mature adult men and women who will play a constructive role in standing alongside them as they develop as persons – adult men and women who are outside of the teenager’s immediate family structure. Not-married people – recognise that you have opportunities for service, even in this very area of bringing up children, that are just not available to most of us married persons.

Married people – recognise that your marriage and family were never simply intended to be ends in themselves, but are a part of your service to God and to the broader community.

For in the end, all of what we have and all of who we are must be put into the service of God and neighbour. I and my partner and my children and my church and the other people that I work with are all together called into the service of God and of the community. Each of us individually and all of us together are to make our contribution to the bigger picture.

And that ultimately is where we are at one with Elkanah and Hannah and with this group of ancient Israelites that we meet in 1 Samuel 1. We are a very different people living at a very different point of human history within different sorts of social institutions. And yet these people, living within the parameters of their own world, gave themselves to God in service, and so became God’s instruments in the bigger picture of what God was doing – specifically, in that case, what God was going to do through the ministry of Hannah’s son, Samuel. We, for our part, living with integrity within the social institutions of our own day and age, must likewise give ourselves to God in service, and so likewise become the instruments of His work in our own day and age.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, November 16th 2003. 

Rev. David B. SmithParish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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