Women of the Bible - Hannah
Passage: 1 Samuel 1:1–1:20
I come from a family of storytellers. Every time my family gets together, it invariably becomes a hodgepodge of stories. Whether it is stories about the day, the week, other family members, etc. Oftentimes one story only begets another. Ultimately, the stories turn from the present to the past. The family history is passed down in story form. I gotta tell you, as much as I have just made it sound proper, even eloquent, it’s actually kind of annoying. Because it is the same stories every time! I have heard the story about my grandfather coming home from the war 400 times. The same way every time. But through it all I have learned two things: 1) my family history and 2) how to identify a good story.
You see, when you come from a family of storytellers, you easily see what makes a story good. The characters, the plot twists. The drama, the intrigue. How it all weaves together oh so wonderfully. The stories we have told so far in this sermon series on Women of the Bible have all been, in my estimation, really good stories. But if I’m honest, today’s is my favorite. It has everything: great characters, a wonderful plot. Rivals. Drama. Miracles. It is wonderfully done. And it has the perfect ending. Today we are talking Hannah.
But first let me give some context. The last two weeks we have read the stories of Deborah and then of Naomi and Ruth. Those stories occurred during the time when the Judges ruled over Israel. Deborah herself was a judge. And the judges were kind of ad hoc leaders that God would provide Israel in times of trouble and threat. In peacetime there would be judges to settle civil disputes as well. But that was how Israel was ruled. There was no king, there was no ruling council. God was their king, God had given them their law in the Torah so all that was needed was a judiciary branch to settle problems of interpreting the law.
There’s just a small problem. The book of Judges sees Israel in this endless loop of forgetting all that God had done for them, doing evil in the sight of God, being threatened by one of the people Groups in the land, being saved by God through a judge, forgetting what God had done for them, doing evil in the sight of God, etc etc etc. And the book of Judges ends by saying that “in those days Israel had no king and everyone did whatever they wanted.” Instead of ending by talking about how God ruled over the land or how judges mediated for the people, the book of Judges ends by essentially saying Israel was in anarchy. This is clearly not a sustainable solution.
Eventually the people of Israel are going to ask for a king so that they can be like all the other nations. They want consistency and they want security. They want to have someone they can look to, someone they can see, who will embody all these things. The question becomes how will this king be chosen? And that’s exactly where our story fits in.
1 Samuel 1:1-8 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none. Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
There is a wealthy man, Elkanah. He has two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. He also has some children but all of them are from Peninnah. And this is where our story begins. Elkanah is a religious man, and as a religious man he would go make sacrifices to God. He would also give portions to his family so that they might also sacrifice. And this is where our story gets a little interesting. Because we learn that he would give a double portion to his wife Hannah because Hannah could not have children. There’s the conflict. And what’s more, the other wife doesn’t let Hannah forget about this. Hannah is cast as the tragic figure. She cannot give her husband a child and is stuck having to listen to the other wife who has given many children.
This is indeed a sad place for Hannah to be. Not only is she grieving her inability to have children. But she is also dealing with a nagging, biting, mean rival. I have watched many women deal with the difficulty of wanting and trying to have children, but not having success. It is perhaps the most painful and tragic things a woman can go through. Throw on top of that daily reminders from your husband’s other wife, and it is clear that Hannah would be heartbroken. After a while, Hannah becomes inconsolable, refusing to eat.
Elkanah comes in attempts to comfort her. And he says to her something quite interesting. He asks, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Now, I must press pause on our story real quick to tell you something about myself. Underneath this tough, manly exterior, I am a hopeless romantic. I watch sports and wear football jerseys and all that. But I also watch the Bachelor. So when I hear this line “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” I really think Elkanah is being rather sweet. We hear this emotionally. However, there is a very real economic aspect of this question. You see, in the ancient world, husbands and sons were the economic safetynets for women. A good husband and a salary with benefits were one in the same. A son and a 401K were the same person. For women to survive their adult years, they needed to marry. For women to survive their elder years, they needed to bear sons. Elkanah is not just saying something romantic here. He is also saying something economic.
His comments are still sweet. He is promising to take care of her throughout her life. He is promising to be there for her. But to ignore the economics of it misses what makes Hannah’s plight urgent and real. She is not just worried that she will never be a mother. But she is also terrified about what her life will become with no son. How will she eat? Where will she live? Will growing older for her just mean growing poorer until she dies in the street? What will become of her life?
1 Samuel 1: 9-20 Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s house. In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.” “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.” Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast. Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.”
Hannah is not to be deterred. She brings her sacrifice to God and prays that God would give her a son. Now I am sure this is not the first time she has prayed to God that God would give her a child. I imagine that this was a yearly, monthly, weekly, perhaps daily ritual for her. But the story tells us that she makes a vow to God. If God would give her a son, she would give the child back to God. Now once again I have to press pause because I was always told growing up that God doesn’t make bargains. That was like youth group 101. God doesn’t make deals. I mean, I still tried it. But even though I promised to pray every day for a month, I never did get a date with Kelly. But in this instance it appears God was interested in playing let’s make a deal. Because God listens. God sees that Hannah is at the end of her rope. God sees that Hannah is at a loss. God sees and has compassion.
The priest on the other hand, not so much. The priest things she’s drunk. But Hannah pours her heart to him as well. She assures him that she was praying to God. She assures him that she is truly anguished and is bringing her problems to God. And the priest blesses her.
Hannah returns home with a new heart. She eats again. She lives again. And in time, she gets pregnant. God gives her a child. She names the child to commemorate what God had done. And that’s where our lectionary text ends.
And it ends well, doesn’t it? The conflict, Hannah not having a child, is resolved. God showed up and did a great thing. Everyone is happy, right? Hannah knows she will be taken care of, if not by her husband than by her son. But yet, there is one thing still left out there. One pesky little loose end not dealt with. That agreement Hannah had made with God.
But I’m not really convinced that we want to be reminded about that part of the story. Wouldn’t it just be easier for us to not have to deal with that? Wouldn’t it just be easier for it to end with Hannah getting what she wants, with God doing something great, and then get on with our lives? Oh sure, Hannah remembers what God has done. She is grateful and gives God credit. We are ok with that. Yeah, we can admit that God is a part of the good things that happen to us. And we’ll even be thankful. But that’s where we like our stories to end. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just imagine the story ended here? That way we can live our lives without the Bible or Christianity stepping on our toes. Without it demanding anything of us.
Unfortunately today we are just going to have to get uncomfortable. Because the story does have more to go. We are just going to have to deal with the Bible asking us to go a little further. Because Hannah went a little farther. We are just going to have to deal with God making claims on our life. Because Hannah realizes that God has a claim on her life. Or more specifically, on her son’s life.
1 Samuel 1:21-28 When her husband Elkanah went up with all his family to offer the annual sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vow, Hannah did not go. She said to her husband, “After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the Lord, and he will live there always.” “Do what seems best to you,” her husband Elkanah told her. “Stay here until you have weaned him; only may the Lord make good his word.” So the woman stayed at home and nursed her son until she had weaned him. After he was weaned, she took the boy with her, young as he was, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour and a skin of wine, and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. When the bull had been sacrificed, they brought the boy to Eli, and she said to him, “Pardon me, my lord. As surely as you live, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” And he worshiped the Lord there.
You see, after the child is born, Hannah remembers that she has her end of the deal to uphold. So she nurtures the child until he was old enough to survive outside her care and takes the child back to the priest. She says to the priest, “Remember me? I am that woman who prayed to the Lord for a child. God gave me a child and I am here to give the child to God. As long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” Then the story truly ends with these words, “She left him there for the Lord.”
Now THAT is an ending. Anything else does not do justice to what has been built so far. While we might like to forget about the deal Hannah made with God, Hannah certainly cannot. That’s not who she is. A true servant of God, she knows that God’s work requires a response from her. It is not enough to be happy. It is not enough to give God credit and be thankful. No, being a true servant of God requires one more step. It means fulfilling our end of the deal. It means stepping up.
But this takes faith. For Hannah this meant being right back in the same position of economic uncertainty. It takes faith to believe that everything will be ok. To believe in Elkanah. But even more, to believe in God. It takes faith to hold up our end of the deal because it leaves us vulnerable. It leaves Hannah vulnerable, without a retirement plan. But throughout the story, Hannah had to have faith. Hannah had to have trust. It took faith and trust to bear her heart to God. It took faith and trust to leave it up to God. And it is that same faith and trust that allows her to respond to God. To keep up her end of the deal.
Hannah had faith. Hannah had trust. Do we?
You see, at one time or another all of us have been in a situation similar to Hannah’s. Economic, emotional, relational. We’ve all had times of tragedy. We have needed God to work in our lives. And God has worked in our lives. We are all where we are, richly blessed, because of God’s work in our lives. And by the virtue of our being here, we have made promises. In Baptism, in becoming members of the church, in the liturgy for Holy Communion, we have made promises to God. We have made promises and God has shown up, keeping up His end of the bargain. The only question is where does our story end?
Where does the story end? Does it end with God doing His part and us here, in church, saying thank you? Or does it continue? Does it continue with us giving back to God all we have? Giving our money. Giving our time. Being in ministry and mission in the world. Working at a food bank. Doing disaster recovery. Going to an impoverished country. Raising your children in a Christian home. Raising another person’s child so they don’t grow up in an orphanage. The possible endings are limitless. The only question is which one is yours.
At this point I want you to get with those around you and I want you to talk about these two questions:
- When has God helped you through a time of trouble?
- How did you/have you/will you respond to God’s work in your life?