Over the past month we have met several women who are matriarchs in the faith. Carl Jung said, “Every Mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother and every mother extends backwards into her mother and forwards into her daughter.” If that is true then we have parts of these faithful women in our DNA. We carry the strength of Eve, the hopefulness of Naamah, the fulfillment of Sarah, the love of Leah, and the inclusivity of Ruth.
Today, we’ll meet Hannah, a woman who knew the power of prayer. In 1 Samuel, we learn that Hannah and her husband Elkanah lived in “the hill country of Ephraim” in Ramathaim. This is the area of Israel, north of Jerusalem. It included the famous holy site of Bethel, where Jacob saw the ladder to heaven. By the time of Christ, this same area was known as Samaria.
Elkanah had two wives, and we learn in 1 Samuel 1:2 that “the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.” We have seen before, in Sarah’s story, how the lack of children was devastating in a culture that considered sons a gift from God, and having no sons a form of curse. We are told that Peninnah often cruelly “used to provoke [Hannah] severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb.” (1 Samuel 1:6) Let's see how Hannah coped with this...
It was always hard to go up to Shiloh. It wasn’t just the length of the journey, although it took two days over the hills and through the wadis. We walked, and walked to make the annual pilgrimage. My husband, Elkabah was very proud of his heritage. He was descended from the line of Ephraim, one of the patriarch Joseph’s sons.
He insisted, “We must make the required sacrifice at Shiloh. For that is where the Lord of hosts meets his people.”
Eli was the aged priest of the Holy One of Israel at Shiloh. His two sons now accepted the sacrifices and prayers. They were not nearly as holy. In fact, it was whispered that Hophni and Phinehas were disreputable and even stole from the offerings. Eli didn’t seem to notice their evil.
I avoided them when I offered my sacrifice. Elkanah always gave me a double portion for the offering even though I had no children. It didn’t make me feel any better. Every year at Shiloh I prayed for a child, even a daughter. Every year we returned home. Every year I remained childless. I tried to hide my distress, but my husband knew I was sad.
Elkanah tried to comfort me, in the way of men, by asking, “Why do you weep and not eat? Why are you so sad? Am I not more to you than 10 sons?”
Even though he held me close when he tried to comfort me, my empty womb always stood in accusation of my uselessness and even sinfulness.
Then one year it all changed. I took my offering. As I had for years, I prayed. This time I added a desperate promise, “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and will give to your servant a male child, then I will dedicate him to you until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
I didn’t know that Eli was sitting nearby as I wept and prayed. When I rose to go, he spoke.
“How long will you be drunken? Put away the strong wine.”
Normally I would not have responded to such an important man. Stung by his accusation and not caring what happened to me, I snapped, “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 I turned to go. The old man stood up, blocking my path. I cringed, fearing his anger.
Instead, he laid a hand gently on my head, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”
I burst into tears, and blubbered, “Let your servant find favor in your sight,” before rushing out of the room.
Somehow the old priest’s reassurance calmed my soul. Even Peninah’s nagging didn’t bother me that evening. I welcomed my husband into my arms without reservation, feeling that perhaps at last God would indeed answer my prayer.
And the Holy One of Israel did! I conceived! My son was born not long before the annual pilgrimage. We named him Samuel.
“I have asked this child from the Lord,” I explained. “I promised to lend him back to the service of God.”
The boy was my delight.
“Let me stay home,” I urged. “I have dedicated him to the service of the Living God, and when he is weaned, I will take him to Eli at Shiloh to be raised there.
“Do what seems right,” Elkanah agreed. I watched him tramp away with Peninah for three years before I went with them again.
That year, my husband gave me special offerings. There was a three-year old bull who had been just a calf when Samuel was born. I also had an measure of finely ground flour and a skin of wine.
After the sacrifice of the bull, I led my son to the ancient priest. Bowing low, I told him, “My lord, I am the woman who stood in your presence praying to the Lord for a son. The Lord God has granted my desire, Now I return him to the service of the Lord for as long as he shall live.”
Eli surprised me by bowing in return. “He shall be as one of my own sons. May the favor of the Lord God rest on him. May the Lord’s favor return to you, my daughter.”
I left the holy place surprisingly exalted.
I found myself praying, “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.”
As a reward for my offering of my son, the Lord God blessed me with three more sons and two daughters. Each year, I took a new tunic to Samuel when we went to Shiloh. I loved watching how each year he was taller and wiser.
Truly I have been blessed.
Hannah’s prayers were answered. Even though she had to wait many years to see the result, she persisted. Hannah waited on God’s timing. It can be hard to remain faithful over many years.
Do you persist in prayer for your heart’s desire, or do you give up when it looks like nothing is happening?
Hannah offered Samuel back to the Lord's service under the tutelage of Eli. The image is a statue by Tom White studios that depicts this moment.
Would you have been as brave as Hannah to offer her son to God's service at only 3 years old?
Do you feel like you have the ‘faith DNA’ of some of these matriarchs of faith that we have met during Eastertide?
Next week, is Pentecost. We’ll hear from some of the women who were present in the Upper Room that day.