Hannah’s Prayers: The God of Hosts, The God of Minds
What is God?
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Hannah was the wife of Elkanah, a righteous man. Elkanah had a second wife named Penina who had blessed him with many children. Not satisfied with her own blessing, she tormented Hannah over her lack of children. On an annual trip to the Mishkan, Hannah, in a state of particular bitterness over her cruel lot in life found herself whispering a prayer to Hashem while weeping. In the course of this tearful prayer she made a vow: ‘Hashem of Hosts, if You see the affliction of Your maid, and You remember me and do not forget Your maid, and give Your maid male seed, then I will give him back to Hashem for all of his life; a razor shall not go on his head’ (Samuel I 1:11). The High Priest, Eli, mistook her for a drunk as she seemed to be just mumbling words right in the middle of the Mishkan. She vouched for her actions, saying that she was not drunk at all, but bitter and angry over her circumstance. Eli blessed her that her request should be granted and she left with all of her bitterness removed.
Sure enough, when she got home, Hashem remembered her and she conceived and bore a son. She called him Samuel (Shmuel), for she had asked him of Hashem. The next year when Elkanah went up to the Mishkan, Hannah did not accompany him. She explained that when she weaned the boy, she would bring him to the presence of Hashem and he would remain there for the rest of his life. When this day finally came, she brought her son to Eli and explained to him that she was the woman who had prayed so earnestly and that the boy with her was none other than the son that she had prayed for. She told him that she was ready to ‘lend him to Hashem’ for all of his days since he was ‘borrowed from Hashem’ (1:28) to begin with.
At this point, Hannah then prays again. Her prayer has become the epitome of what genuine prayer is supposed to be – the spirit of holiness combined with personal feelings. ‘There is nothing as holy as Hashem, for there is nothing aside from Him, and there is no rock like our God. Do not continue to speak haughtily, nor have arrogance come out of your mouth, for Hashem is a God of minds, and their plots do not count (work out as planned)’ (2:2-3).
The phrase ‘Lord of Hosts’, or YHWH Tz’vaot, is about the most Biblical phrase imaginable. It is used here, in this story and in Hannah’s prayer, for the first time. The Talmudic rabbis say that Hannah introduced this phrase to the world. Before we get into explaining this phrase and the image that it portrays, we have to ask our obligatory round of questions. Her initial praises of Hashem sound pretty traditional – nothing as holy as Hashem, there is nothing aside from Him, there is no rock like our God. But then she throws in this other image, ‘Hashem is a God of minds’. What could that mean? How does this image relate to the Lord of Hosts?
‘Hashem is a God of minds’. Not everyone translates the phrase this way. There is one key word that everything hinges upon. It is the word deot in Hebrew. This word describes a unique ability of Hashem. ‘Deot’ can mean opinions, knowledge, or minds. Those three meanings are not as different in the Bible as they may seem to us.
We have already seen with the ‘God of Spirits’ image the first indication that Hashem knows emotions and inclinations which are usually relegated to the domain of people. But the God of minds goes beyond that image. What Hannah experienced was God entering her mind and manipulating it. When she prayed the first time, God sensed her bitterness. Eli blessed her, and her bitterness was removed. God can plant feelings in the mind.
God knows what’s cooking in the murky chambers of the mind. God understands them even better than we do. God may even subtly manipulate our feelings. This verse would then be saying the following: ‘Don’t get too into yourself; God knows what’s going on inside your mind and only God can make things happen.’ The comparison of God to people is stark. People are fickle and arrogant and don’t even know what is going on in their own minds, while God knows what’s up with us and makes things happen accordingly.
This is a fascinating idea that is usually ignored in the austere Biblical framework of God. This image of God gets into our heads and pokes around a little bit. This image is just as holy, just as solid a rock, as any other image of God. It just focuses on a completely different thing. The ‘God of minds’ knows what we need and what we don’t need. This God understands our deepest motivations and our most devious inclinations. There is no pulling the wool over God’s eyes. The God of Minds is that voice that speaks to us silently each time we try to fool ourselves with some other rationalization or allow ourselves to be swayed by some selfish urge. It whispers words of wisdom and soft rebuke, so silently that they are hardly heard and easily ignored. But they are spoken in some deep recess of the mind. This is the voice of the God of minds.
How does Hashem of Hosts fit into all this? Hannah used the expression ‘Hashem of Hosts’ to introduce her prayer of desperation. She didn’t use it when voicing her prayer of gratitude. In a prayer of desperation, a person grasps for any straw to get what they need. They may have nothing to justify their request, but that inconvenient fact does not stop them from asking away.
She calls Hashem ‘Hashem of Hosts’. To her, Hashem is more than a solitary God dwelling alone in the heavens. To this desperate woman, Hashem dwells among countless ‘Hosts’ – the heavenly angels and the physical earthly creations all exist surrounding Hashem. Hashem can call on any one of them to do His bidding under any situation. Hannah is one of those ‘hosts’. She is one among the myriad of creations existing in Hashem’s great domain. She awaits her fate like any one of them, but she has the ability to ask it to be altered. Hashem knows her situation and knows her state of mind. Hashem can sense her bitterness and taste the salt of her tears. Hashem knows what she desperately desires and needs in order to make her life fulfilled, and whether or not she is worthy. She may not have the merit to deserve this son, but Hashem alone can provide it nevertheless.
Hannah’s request was granted, perhaps through no merit of her own. But it was granted. This has become the classic paradigm for monotheistic prayer throughout history. Stage one of prayer is when a person begs God for something they need. They may not deserve that need but they ask anyway. If they are denied they may ask again. Eventually, one of two things happens: either they give up in frustration, acceptance, or indifference, or the request is granted. In Hannah’s case, it was granted and she was eternally grateful. She fulfilled her sacrificial vow, difficult as it was, and then prayed again. She prayed out of gratitude. This is stage two. She prayed to the same image of God, of course. It would make no sense to express her gratitude to a different image of God after her prayer was answered. But in gratitude she found a slightly different nuance to voice to God.
She called Hashem the God of minds. The God of Hosts is the God of minds. God knows her mind better than she does. God knew her bitterness and removed some of it, enabling her to find joy and gratitude. God facilitated a change that she herself was unable to elicit internally. She couldn’t do it but Hashem could. Hannah saw that it was Hashem, the God of Hosts, who was able to notice one of His countless hosts desperately in need of something and change her state of mind from desperation and bitterness to fulfillment and gratitude. Are there any miracles greater than this?
Perceiving the Image
We believe that we are at the helm of our own ship. We may be battling unseen forces or uncontrollable genetic or chemical conditions, but we still steer the wheel. To admit that this isn’t so is to throw in the towel in the most important of personal struggles. This confidence is vital to self-esteem, motivation, and coping with life. But is this confidence really true? Do we truly have the ability to control our own minds, to change what we want to change and to maintain what we want to maintain? We may think that we have complete control of our minds, but we only have to look at our experience in life to know that this is the greatest of self-deceptions. How many times must we experience the helplessness of some rogue emotion wreaking havoc on our entire life, while we can only watch from the sidelines and hope that something stops it, before we recognize that there are forces beyond our control? This is among the most common of human experiences. It is life itself. We may have some control, but we are not in complete control. There are other forces at work.
This realization is vitally important to a healthy outlook on life. Otherwise, one is living in an egotistical dream world, a bubble of self-deception that refuses to recognize the reality within. These forces are strong and they mean business. But there is another factor at work. That factor is God. God enters the mind and notices things that we may not. God has the ability to change things that we cannot, no matter how much we believe otherwise and how hard we try. The God of minds enters the mind and sees those struggles as they play out. The God of Hosts, if asked in the right way, may alleviate some of those struggles. The two images work together. They are a tandem force, one working inside and one working outside. There is nothing wrong with asking this force to help in your struggles. You do what you can, and God helps you along with the things that are too tough. It’s a pretty good system.
These two images are always around us, though we may not want to notice them. The God of minds image floats inside in such a subtle manner that it is easy to miss or to ignore. It is like a ghost in the mind that is usually invisible but occasionally haunts us. But it is really there to help us notice things that we may overlook. The God of Hosts exists all around us. We are one of the hosts. We perceive the image of the God of Hosts when we recognize that we are one of those countless creations and God is in control of them all. It may be a little threatening to see this image, a little ego-deflating and religious sounding, but it does straighten things out a great deal. It may even get us out of an emotional or spiritual jam every once in a while. These two images form the backbone of prayer. They constitute the image that prayer is directed towards. It is the act of the very personal mind calling for outside help.
The God of Hosts is the classic God of monotheistic religion. It invokes many unfavorable images due to its admission of an external invincible power. The God of minds is equally unsavory to those who cannot abide by the thought of God invading their privacy. They are difficult images to live with, but can we live without them?
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