4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
The Revised Common Lectionary takes us from the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman, who would be ancestor to King David (and by Christian extension ancestor of Jesus) to the story of Samuel, who would anoint Saul and then David as kings of Israel, after serving a lifetime as priest and judge in Israel. One story line that runs through Scripture is that God has a special concern for the one who is for whatever reason marginalized. That includes women who are unable to conceive in cultures that prize a woman’s ability to bear children. To be barren was considered cursed, or at very least a subject of shame. We see this with Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. Moving into the New Testament there is Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. In each of these stories, God intervenes, and takes away a woman’s “shame” as a child is born who will be used by God to further the biblical story. But what about those women who do not share in this relief?
Here in 1 Samuel 1, we encounter Hannah, the second wife of Elkanah (remember that there is no one biblical marriage pattern and that polygamy was common), who is beloved of her husband, but who suffers the ignominy of experiencing the reality that in the words of Scripture, “the Lord closed her womb.” Despite her husband providing her a double portion of his Temple offerings during their annual pilgrimage to the Temple at Shiloh, because he loved her, that doesn’t seem enough. This is due in part to the fact that Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, would constantly provoke her, causing Hannah great irritation, and no doubt deep pain, reminding her of her shame as one who was considered barren. While Hannah’s story might differ from many modern versions of infertility, it might resonate with those who struggle with difficulties conceiving. As Rich Voelz notes in his book Tending the Tree of Life,
a book on preaching emerging out of the struggles he and his wife had at conceiving a child, the church often struggles to provide words of comfort and encouragement in the face of infertility and reproductive loss. In his book he seeks to break up “the silences and unhelpful practices that make people like me feel as if we are the shadows of faith communities, and to begin moving individuals, families, and communities of faith toward better understanding, healing, wholeness, and faithfulness” [Voelz, p. 8.].
In our day, a couple might go to stead of going to a fertility specialist, but Hannah goes to the Temple at Shiloh to pray. We’re told that “she was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.” Note that she not only cried out to God in prayer, but her prayers were accompanied by bitterness. There is frustration inherent in this prayer. There is a feeling of injustice. She wants vindication. That vindication, in her mind, involves conceiving and bearing a son who would redeem her in the eyes of her rival and perhaps her husband (even though he professes his deepest love, she is not ready to accept this reassurance). Here is her prayer:
“O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” (1 Sam. 1:11).
If God will remember her, she will offer her son up to God as a nazirite; as one who is wholly committed to God. He will not drink intoxicating beverages and he won’t cut his hair. Paul once took a vow like this, but only for a time, not for a life. Hannah promises that her son would take such a vow over a lifetime. I know parents like to live out their dreams through their children, but this might be taking things a bit too far, but her prayers are heard and affirmed.
As she prays in the temple, Eli the priest overhears her prayers, but he thinks she’s drunk. Remember she’s crying out to God bitterly. So, what’s he to do with this hysterical woman. But she’s not hysterical, she’s in the midst of negotiating with God. She wants to make a deal with God. If God will answer her prayer, she’ll bring her son to the temple to be raised (I expect she made this promise before checking with Eli). It is a great sacrifice on her part, but in her mind her shame would be removed. As we see, her prayer is answered. Eli assures her, once he understands the situation, that she has been heard and that she will receive what she has asked for. The narrator tells us: “Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.” Yes, she went home, had a party with her husband, and she moved from sadness and bitterness to joy.
Once she returns home, we’re told that Elkanah knew his wife, which means they had sex. One thing leads to another, and she conceives. Why? Because God remembered. Yes, God kept God’s side of the bargain. As for Hannah, she names her child Samuel, which means “I have asked him of the Lord.” The lectionary reading ends there, but the lectionary writers have assumed that we know that if God kept God’s side of the bargain, Hannah would do the same, and she does.
As to what happens next, Rich Voelz notes:
The relationship between Hannah, Samuel, and Eli might be called a type of “open adoption.” Hannah is never fully out of contact with Samuel, bringing him a handmade robe every year when she returned to Shiloh to offer her yearly sacrifice (1 Samuel 2: 19). Samuel becomes the one who is the mouthpiece of God for Israel and the one who oversees the establishment of Israel’s monarchy. [Richard Voelz, Tending the Tree of Life, p. 80.]
Samuel will prove to be an important figure in the life of the people of Israel, thus the prayer of Hannah was fortuitous. While this birth will prove to be a blessing to Israel, we should not forget the challenge in life faced by Hannah, whose infertility placed a stigma on her. Having that stigma removed was important.
As we ponder this passage, it is worth noting that the stigma can still be present in our day. How might we as church break the hold of silence, so that persons, couples, families, who face infertility or reproductive loss know that God hears and responds? Eli was insensitive at first, and might not have been the greatest parent, but he does ultimately provide true pastoral care for Hannah.
Picture attribution: Malnazar and Aghap’ir. Hannah before Eli the High Priest, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56672 [retrieved November 12, 2018]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malnazar_-_Hannah_before_Eli_the_High_Priest_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.