I have always been fascinated by the accounts of offerings in the ancient world compared with modern day understandings of offering. When I was a child, we had a seminarian student at our church teaching the fifth and sixth grade class, I remember asking her if Jewish people still offered up burnt offerings to God? And if not why have they stopped and why, if it was specifically mentioned in the Bible, don’t we offer up burnt offerings today? I always searched the Bible before class to try to ask the hardest questions I could come up with. I was looking to stump the seminarian, which I was quite successful at. But I never got the answers to these specific questions and yet every so often they creep up on me and I begin to search for answers myself.
These questions though originally intended to just be a pain in the rear, have followed me. A desire to find the answer brought me into a study of other polytheistic religions such as the Aztecs, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians who were known for their acts of sacrifice. It brought me into a study of the proto-Israelites seen in the scriptures of Abraham. Biblical historians have found evidence of sacrifices, burnt offerings of all types being made to God. Many of the whys though still remain unanswered and for the times when I have come across answers there are more questions that arise. But this time, as I searched, I also looked into many studies about today’s religions and societies and what their offerings might look like.
Instead of researching burnt offerings, I researched giving, offerings, and dedications of our selves. We no longer believe that God needs to consume the first fruits of our harvests, fields, and livestock or in some cases our children. But we do offer up to God our talents, our skills, our hearts, and our dedication. At times of great desperation, we promise to be better worshippers, to pray more, to attend church more, to raise our families as more faithful peoples. We promise to give up they fun things in our lives in dedication to God if only he will assist us in some way. We have all said these prayers and will continue to say these prayers. It is part of the human condition.
As a high schooler, I was good friends with another young woman. She and I had been friends for five years and spent most of our free time talking, learning all the words to the music we were into at the time, dying our hair and having sleepovers. One Friday night, I invited her to spend the night. Her parents dropped her off after synagogue. Later that evening, she just started crying and told me in great detail how she planning to kill herself. I remember sitting there holding her and petting her head until she fell asleep. I sat vigil that night praying harder than I had ever prayed before in my life. I wasn’t sure what God could do. But I tried anyway because I didn’t know how to handle what had just been dropped in my lap. Here is the prayer I prayed that night, I will never forget it: Dear God, help her. Help me. Tell me what I need to do. I will do anything if you will tell me what to do right now. If you help her I will never miss Sunday worship again for as long as Iive. I will never question you again. Just please help her. Amen.
Though this was a simple child’s prayer, this is very similar to that of our scriptures this morning. Hannah was desperate and in need of God’s intervention too though for very different reasons. She was a wife who struggled with fertility issues. These fertility struggles permeated every part of her life. Her status at home in her house and her status socially as well. In my research of ancient Israelite laws and customs, I have found that a woman was essentially still considered a child until she produced an heir. Many men in the ancient world could not afford to have more than one wife, and many women did not come to a marriage with a servant to act as a surrogate, so divorce was a high risk for women with fertility issues. Once divorced, the woman went back to her family and many were never able to remarry. Having a child meant everything to a woman in the ancient world.
But what is interesting is that Hannah asks for God’s intervention and in return she would dedicate the child to God’s work. This meant that after the child was old enough to be weaned, he was then given over to the priests where he would be raised. Samuel became an offering to the Lord. Hannah offered up her first born child, the first of her fruits to the Lord in hopes that this would please the Lord and God would grant her more children, which he did. To most people this sounds horrific. The child you spent years trying to have, you then so easily give up just because you made what sounded like an empty promise in the heat of desperation. For many people, something like this would make them question why people still follow these faiths.
But what is so important from these passages is not that Hannah actually gave up her first born son. But rather that she received God’s grace with Samuel and that she did not let that grace go unnoticed but rather she gave back that grace to God by giving to the Lord something that was most precious to her. We are not being asked to give back to God by sacrificing our children. We are not being asked to cause ourselves great suffering and pain for the Lord. But we are being asked to contemplate how we show our thanks, our gratitude for the grace that the Lord has placed into our lives. How do we give back grace?
I am not going to lie. I have not always lived up to my end of the bargain I entered into with God by asking him for guidance that night in my bedroom. I have missed Sundays of worship. And I have asked more questions of God than I can count. But God did lead me to the right decision. God did give me the guidance I needed and God did help her through her struggles. Our scriptures this morning said, “Oh, my Lord! As you live, my Lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me the petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” This was her offering of gratitude. So I asked myself: where was my offering of gratitude? And still how am I offering my gratitude for his grace?
Studies have shown when people give, whether it is to one another or to an organization, it helps to define relationships and strengthen bonds. When we give to one another it helps to strengthen our bond to each other and allows for us to show one another just how important they are to us. So when we give of ourselves to God either through our talents, donations, or time then we are giving the gift of grace back to God. I may have skipped church a few times since high school but I have tried to find other ways to continue to give grace back to God through my dedication to his works in this world. So as you go forth today, ask yourself have you given back grace to God recently? If not perhaps this is a good time to find a way to give to God through your care for others.
 1 Samuel 1: 26-28, NRSV.
 Parker-Pope, Tara. “A Gift That Gives Right Back? The Giving Itself.” The New York Times, December 11, 2007, Health sec. Accessed November 9, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/11/health/11well.html.
(Based on 1 Samuel 1: 4-20 and 2: 1-10)