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“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?’” — 1 Samuel 1:20
Have you ever wanted something so badly that you would sacrifice anything to obtain it – even the thing itself? That sort of bargain may sound crazy, but there could be a time and a place for it. One of those times was the early 11th century, BCE. The place was Shiloh, a temple town in the hill country of Judah, about 20 miles north of Jerusalem. The object of desire was a baby boy. His name was Samuel.
One man and two women(vv. 1-8)
The text begins like a typical folk story: “There once was a man . . .” The story, however, is about a woman. The man’s name was Elkanah (v. 1). He is important only as the husband of Hannah. Unfortunately, the picture includes another wife, too.
Hannah’s name means “Grace,” so we might expect her to be a kind and happy woman, but she lived in misery. Hannah was Elkanah’s first and favorite wife, but as the years of their marriage passed she had produced no children. Seeking to preserve both his lineage and his property, Elkanah had followed custom and married a second wife, named Peninnah (v. 2).
Elkanah apparently thought it seemed simple enough that Penninah could be a utilitarian wife who supplied him with sons, while Hannah provided him with love and companionship. You might think that it was Elkanah who was simple.
The complicated marriage was no fairer to Penninah than it was to Hannah. She successfully produced offspring, including sons, but could see that her children did not win Elkanah’s love: she would always be in second place. Not surprisingly, Peninnah dealt with her wounded self-esteem by taunting her childless rival.
Hannah could not escape Penninah’s insults, even on the normally happy days when they went up to Shiloh for the harvest feast, when Hebrews from the surrounding area came to pay their tithes, offer sacrifices, and enjoy a “dinner on the grounds” that lasted for several days. For most people, it was a joyous time of year, but not for Hannah, whose infertility had left her feeling alienated and isolated, an island of grief in the midst of a party.
Elkanah tried to help. When carving meat for the sacrificial meal, he would give portions to Peninnah for herself and each of her children. To show his favor, he always gave Hannah twice the normal portion for one, but it still paled beside Peninnah’s platter (vv. 3-5), and Hannah’s prolific rival never let her forget it: Her constant and bitter provocations “went on year after year.” Peninnah’s gloating was so upsetting that Hannah could not eat, despite the choice cuts Elkanah gave to her.
Even the obtuse Elkanah eventually took note of Hannah’s sorrow, and he would ask: “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you so downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” (v. 8). It is just as well that Hannah’s reply to Elkanah was not recorded.
One woman and a priest(vv. 9-17)
Hannah knew that her ultimate business was not with Elkanah, but with God. The Hebrews believed that Yahweh was responsible for opening or closing the womb. In her misery, Hannah left the feasting behind and went tearfully to the very door of the temple, where she fell prostrate to the earth and cried out to God “in bitterness of soul” (v. 10).
Weary of waiting and weeping, Hannah turned her wounded soul to God and committed herself to a last, desperate act: She made a sacred vow to Yahweh. Hannah pleaded with God to give her a son, and promised with all her heart that if her prayer was granted, she would give to God the most precious thing she could imagine: that same longed-for child.
Reading Hannah’s tearful, face-to-the-ground prayer in v. 11, we can imagine that she may have repeated her vow again and again, with eyes dripping tears and her nose running so that her face would have become smudged with dirt when she wiped it. Is it any wonder that Eli thought she was drunk?
Did Hannah even realize that the old priest was sitting in the shadows of the doorway? Eli’s hearing and eyesight were both fading, so he probably had not understood the choked words of her prayer. When he looked at the disheveled woman lying in the dirt with her mouth moving but her voice inaudible, he concluded that she had drunk to excess, as others commonly did during the feast (vv. 12-13).
“How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” he charged. “Put away your wine!” (v. 14). Perhaps he hoped that she would also put herself out of the temple precincts, but Hannah remained. She spoke plainly to Eli, insisting that if she was drunk, it was from sorrow, not wine or beer. The excess she had experienced was of anguish and vexation as she poured out her soul before God (vv. 15-16).
Gradually, Eli came to understand Hannah’s sorrow, and he wanted to comfort her. He had no certain word from God and thus could make no promises, but he offered her a wish and a blessing: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him” (v. 17).
Those simple words, in the aftermath of her vow, changed Hannah’s life. She might have understood his ambiguous words to mean “God will grant your wish,” or she may simply have been consoled by the knowledge that the priest had given his blessing. In any event, Hannah felt hopeful for the first time in years. Perhaps God finally had something good in store for her.
A promise and a fulfillment(vv. 19-28)
Hannah’s newly hopeful outlook revived her appetite as well as her spirits: “Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast” (v. 18). Hannah’s prayer had not yet been answered and she had no certainty that it would be answered, but she had hope, and hope was enough.
The family worshiped again the next morning before returning home. Perhaps Hannah was able to ignore Peninnah’s jibes by drawing closer to Elkanah. God had heard Hannah’s prayer and granted her request. Soon she conceived and gave birth to a son. Not surprisingly, she named him Samuel, which means “heard of God.”
Hannah remembered that Samuel was a gift from God, and she remembered her promise. When Samuel had been fully weaned – probably at about three years old in those days – she took him to the temple. Whether old Eli remembered the promise she had made, and how he felt about taking on the care of a child, is not stated. He could hardly refuse, however, when she reminded him of her promise, and said: “So now I give him to the LORD, for his whole life will be given over to the LORD” (see vv. 26-28).
Through her vow of faith and its fulfillment, Hannah became a heroine of Israel, a model of both hope and faithfulness.
But what if her vow had not resulted in a child? We cannot know, for the scripture doesn’t address it, but I suspect she would have remained faithful and at peace. Through her vow, Hannah came to an understanding with the God she believed was responsible for children, and surrendered her will to the divine will. If God answered her prayer and granted a son, she would accept the cost of surrendering him to God’s service at the temple and be satisfied to visit him there, as she did.
If God had not granted her prayer, it is likely that she would have accepted this fate with the peace of knowing that she had done all she could. Hannah and her husband Elkanah had a history of being faithful to God in their worship and their tithes, and no doubt would have continued their practice.
In some ways, the cost of having her prayer answered with a child was greater than if she had remained barren: She gained the joy of motherhood, but also the pain of giving Samuel up. Still Hannah did so, because she had promised. She recognized Samuel as a gift, cherished the time she had with him, and then lovingly gave him up. It was the right thing to do.
Hannah’s story challenges us on several levels. First, it offers a lesson in hope. We may also have known the misery of lacking what we want most, being taunted by others because of our shortcomings, or berating ourselves for not accomplishing all we had hoped to do. Both hope and peace grow from doing what we can do and then trusting to God what we cannot do.
The example of Hannah and Elkanah also speaks to us of giving. Some may find it a struggle to write a check to the church every week or month. We can easily think of other things to do with the money, and may not believe we can afford to tithe or give a generous offering. Today’s text reminds us that our giving to God grows from understanding that all blessings come from God. We are stewards of God’s gifts, and returning to God a meaningful portion of our income is an appropriate expression of worship.
Finally, Hannah’s experience summons us to consider what promises we have made to God, and whether we have kept them. For those of us who read the Bible from the perspective of the New Testament, it also reminds us to consider the gospel story of how God also gave up a son in order to save us from our sins and ourselves. It was the right thing to do. What is the right thing for us? BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for November 15, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: 1 Samuel 1:1-28
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Our students want things and they want them now. For some of the things they want they are willing to do some pretty outrageous things; they’ll work long hours, give up time with their friends, or even sell some of the things they have in their room. Students have even told me that they have made promises to God that if they do x, then they hope God will give them y. We’ve got to remind our students that sacrifice is not a bad thing for the right reasons. Help your students realize the important of sacrifice by taking time to practice fasting. Our students will have a better understanding of sacrifice and might even learn about patience and hope along the way.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Genie and the Three Wishes” from Aladdin via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: 1 Samuel 1:1-28