Strong Women of Faith: Hannah
I Samuel 1 and 2 (selected verses)
Decatur Presbyterian Church
July 24, 2022
Have you ever prayed so fervently that someone might have thought that you had too much to drink? Has anyone ever walked in on you while you were kneeling in prayer and became concerned because of your obvious physical distress?
Have you ever poured out your soul before the Lord, hoping beyond hope that someone out there was hearing you, that someone out there cared even the least bit about your concerns?
Our story for today, like all biblical stories, is ultimately a story about a mysterious God who is at work in the lives of individuals and of nations, a God who hears our prayers and who provides for us and for groups of people in inscrutable ways.
In our narrative, a grieving, barren mother prays to God for help, then conceives and bears a child who becomes a wise and renowned prophet. Her son, the prophet, becomes the mediator of God’s power and the locus of God’s judgment for a loose confederation of tribes as they move toward uniting in a monarchy.
This prophet warns his nation about their desire for a human king to lead them, but ultimately he reluctantly anoints their first king of Israel, and he proceeds to watch over the nation’s ebbs and flows of faithfulness and faithlessness.
At a time when chaos reigned in the midst of a major national transition, the barren’s mother’s little boy grew up to become “the only adult in the room” for a nation in need. While the nation’s political leaders wreak havoc through their moral failure, and the people are tossed to and fro by every wind of political doctrine, one man alone, it seems, stood tall in the eyes of God.
That boy’s name was Samuel and his mother was Hannah. Here is her story.
I Samuel 1 and 2 (selected verses)
There was a certain man… from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah…
He had two wives; the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord.
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival (Penninah) used to provoke Hannah severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb.
So it went on year after 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. 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?’
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. Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 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.’
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ 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. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’
Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’ 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.
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. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’…
When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh; and the child was young.
Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. And Hannah 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.’
She left him there for the Lord…Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, while the boy remained to minister to the Lord, in the presence of the priest Eli… Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod. His mother, Hannah, used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice.
Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, ‘May the Lord repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the Lord’; and then they would return to their home. And 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 the Lord… Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
God provided for the nation in an unexpected manner. Samuel, the wise prophet, the anointer of kings, was born of a previously barren woman. The joy over his birth was not unlike that of his ancestor Isaac, who was born to Sarah some 25 years after a son was promised to Abraham. The unlikely nature of his leadership was not unlike that of David, whom Samuel would later anoint, who was the 8th son of Jesse.
Samuel would pass by seven strapping sons in order to anoint young David as the second king of Israel. Reading these Old Testament narratives remind us that God is ultimately in charge, that the best laid plans of men often come to naught, while God provides for the people in unexpected ways, often only recognized years later, as we look back on what God has done.
Hannah’s story is not meant to teach us that if we just pray hard enough, that our deepest wishes will be granted. The broader biblical story, along with our own personal stories, have taught us that sometimes the answer to prayer is “yes”, sometimes it is “no”, and other times it is “wait”.
Hannah’s fervent prayer is a model, no doubt, of bringing our heartfelt desires before God. We are encouraged in God’s presence to share our deepest hopes and fears and dreams and doubts. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” as the psalm says, but the psalm also reminds us that “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways.”
Hannah could not have imagined the leadership role her firstborn son would hold, nor that we would still be telling her story over 3,000 years later.
Hannah’s faithfulness to her promise is also a model of sorts to us. Hannah promised God that if she had a male child, she would dedicate him to the Lord. He would become a nazrite, a child raised in the temple to become a priest for life. How many of us have made what we call “foxhole prayers”?
Lord, if you just get me through this difficult time, then I will do whatever you ask. Lord, if you just provide this one big thing, I will never ask you for anything again… Lord, if you just heal my loved one, or just mend this relationship, or just give me this promotion, then I will go to church every Sunday.
Hannah made such a promise to God and then she kept it, and her son dedicated to the Lord became the shepherd of a nation in crisis. God still acts in human history just as God did in biblical times.
God is still working out God’s purposes, though we do not always see them at the time. Sometimes it takes years, or decades, or generations even to look back and recognize the hand of God at work.
Where we tend to notice God’s hand at work is in those significant times of transition, in times of leadership change, in times when the pendulum begins to swing in a different direction. We have not yet spoken about the need for Samuel’s leadership. Eli was a wise and faithful old priest, but he had two scoundrels for sons. His sons, who seemed to be priests in name only, not only corruptly misused the sacrificial offerings that were given, they also had a habit of laying with the young women at the gate.
They were an embarrassment to Eli and to their nation, and God would allow them to lead the nation after Eli’s death. In Scripture, God often passed by the human creation of primogeniture – the passing of a kingship or a priesthood from father to the eldest child.
Because Eli’s sons were unfaithful scoundrels whom God was not going to allow to serve as high priests, God provided leadership for the temple from an unlikely source – a barren woman from the hill country of the tribe of Ephraim.
We have also not spoken about how difficult it must have been for Hannah to offer her child to the Lord. Can you imagine taking your weaned child, your beloved firstborn, to the temple and then leaving him child there with an old priest, an old priest with two scoundrel sons? What suffering Hannah must have endured!
And though she was able to bear her first child, there was no assurance other children would come. The shame of her barrenness may have been overcome, but would she remain without children in her home forever?
And what of Elkanah?
What did Elkanah think about giving up this son of Hannah to the nazrite priesthood? Male children were of great importance to one’s own livelihood and future. Did the family pride of having a nazrite son make up for the personal and economic loss?
I remember well when Melanie and I were a young married couple. We were participating in a Sunday School class of young couples and enjoying a monthly dinner group. Though we were not ready for a family at the time, we became keenly aware that we knew more couples at the time who were having trouble bearing children than we did those who were not having trouble at all.
As so many of you know so well, conception and the birth of a healthy child are not to be taken for granted. All of us know someone for whom bearing children was not possible, or was even dangerous.
How many women can relate well to the travails of Hannah? How many know what it feels like to be married and ready to have a child, but then no child comes, at least not for a long and difficult time?
The image of Hannah appearing to be drunk as she prayed fervently before the Lord for a child is an image that has remained ingrained in the hearts and minds of the faithful for thousands of years. Hannah’s name in Hebrew means “grace”, or “favored by God”.
For many years, Hannah had not experienced grace and certainly had not felt favored. Yet after Samuel was born, Hannah was able to sing a song of grace, a song of gratitude to God. The song attributed to Hannah in I Samuel 2 became the literary model for the much later song of Mary, the song attributed to another grateful mother, Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she and Elizabeth celebrated the upcoming birth of the Messiah.
I will close with Hannah’s song, a song about the primary character of these narratives, the inscrutable God who and is and ever shall be at work in our lives and in the transitions of nations.
I Samuel 2: Hannah prayed and said, ‘My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. ‘There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. ‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
July 24, 2022