One of the most stalwart lines any Old Testament women speaks is when Hannah tells Eli: “Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time” (NIV 1 Samuel 1:16). Hannah’s tale is one of self worth; she is not useless. Rather, she is a woman with a grave problem that she has brought before God. Hannah’s problem which results in the birth of Samuel does not take up much room in the first two chapters of First Samuel. Indeed, the evil sons of Eli become the main topic in chapter two. Nonetheless, Hannah is a great opening act. She epitomizes how a relationship with God must be a persistent one; it is abiding in His presence which engenders the authentic self one seeks.
As one of the two wives of Elkanah, Hannah has not been successful in motherhood. She is barren. For the Israelites of her time, this inability to give birth indicated something must be wrong with Hannah. Perhaps she had committed a grave sin; perhaps she was unworthy due to some inward character flaw. Obviously, her barrenness could not be contributed to Elkanah. His other wife, Peninnah, had several children by him. Further, Elkanah in the narrative is a godly man. Every year he brings his family to Shiloh, where the priests of God reside, to offer sacrifices and to worship. It is here that he also gives portions to his wives and children. You can imagine his family lining up after the sacrifices during the yearly feasting and drinking. Hannah waits at the end of the line, slightly apart from the fertile Peninnah. Elkanah goes down the line giving out the portions. When he reaches Hannah, he gives her a double portion.
Despite the love of her husband, the sanctity of Shiloh was most likely tainted for Hannah by the provocations of Peninnah. The Bible describes Peninnah as Hannah’s rival. Every year at Shiloh, she taunted Hannah for her lack of children. Was it a jarring experience to always have the worship of God laced with the verbal slaps of her fellow wife? Did Hannah feel that she had somehow failed God and was thus a failure in life? The path for women’s understanding of self was culturally through the roles of wife and mother. Elkanah certainly appreciated her as a wife, but Hannah was not a mother. At one of the yearly worships at Shiloh, the Bible notes that Hannah is sad and would not eat. Again, her husband shows his love for her by asking her what is wrong and inquiring “Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” He loves her. Isn’t that enough for Hannah to have worth?
Hannah cannot exist solely through the love her husband has for her. She wants to be a mother and there is only one who can solve that for her. In verse 9 of 1 Samuel 1, it states “Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord.” This is unusual boldness. She does not seek a priest as an intermediary. She goes herself to God. Perhaps she has asked God throughout the years why she has no children. What is important about this related instance is that she seeks God. She has faith that he will make her who she should be. More than her husband’s love is God’s relationship to her sense of self. In her prayer, she calls herself His “servant.” She asks him to “look on the misery of your servant and remember me.” I don’t think Hannah saw herself as one who was fatally flawed or censored by God for a sin she had committed. She presents herself to Him as His servant who is in misery. He alone can save her and grant her the desire of her heart. If God gifts her a male child, she will return him to God.
While Hannah is passionately putting her case before God, Eli watches her. He thinks she is drunk. He chastises Hannah for making a spectacle in the tabernacle. This is another intriguing moment of Hannah’s story. I am sure many of us have been in the position of either Eli or Hannah. How many of us have silently or not so silently judged another because we thought they were not worshipping God correctly? Eli makes a judgment, but he is also not afraid to listen to a response. He changes his mind about Hannah. Most of us need to be like Eli in these types of situations – able to admit we are wrong. We also need to be like Hannah: if someone makes a snap judgment, do not be afraid or too angry to explain.
Additionally in her explanation, she tells him not to think of her as a worthless woman. She is not drunk. She has a relationship with God such that she can pour out her soul to Him and bring to Him what makes her feel miserable and “deeply troubled.” The strength and steadfastness of faith she has comes from God. It wells within Hannah, even when she does not know how she can exist in her barren situation. Holding onto God and having faith in Him makes Hannah who she is, a persistent and strong believer. She is one who is not afraid to be in the presence of God. Her worth is God’s worth. For this faith God grants her petition.
The next time Hannah visits Shiloh, she brings her son as an offering to God. She never begrudges this part of her vow. Instead, she offers a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God. This prayer is a wonderful litany of the transformative reversals only God can make. The prayer can be divided into three parts: the praise of God’s strength and knowledge, the listing of reversals showing God’s judgment and power, and then the conclusion where He guards the faithful and punishes the wicked. One of the reversals found in verse five is “The barren has borne seven,/ but she who has many children is forlorn.” Is the fertile woman solitary because she has never established herself in God? The litany of reversals begins with in verse three the statement: “for the Lord is a God of knowledge/ and by him actions are weighed.” This can be seen as an affirmation of God’s approval of Hannah even when she had been barren. Finally, she receives an outward sign of her relationship with God. She bears a son.
Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving and praise reveals her ability to persist in faith. She holds to God and remains steadfast in his presence. She seeks Him when it looks like her sadness cannot be lifted. In the end, the “Lord took note of Hannah, she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. And the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of God.” Maybe it is not so strange that tales of Eli’s wicked sons appear in the story of Hannah. Eli was a good man, but he had terrible sons. For years Hannah had no children and was probably viewed as flawed or sinful because of this lack. In the end, God publicly showed her to be his servant all along. Her barrenness had not been his condemnation; it was a problem of her body which he solved. She and Eli were both servants of God who knew how to live in the presence of the Lord, even though they both endured trials. Hannah was blessed with more children because of her faith, and unlike the fertile woman in her prayer she will not become forlorn. The self she is and knows abides with God.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2701