Women of the Bible: Hannah
Guest post by Olea. Olea has just returned to Melbourne after two years in Seattle. She’s not sure what the next few months will bring, but hopes that her general awesomeness will unlock some exciting opportunities. Prayers are more than welcome.
In a culture that grants power and ascribes divine favour to mothers, Hannah is childless. Her husband, Elkanah, loves her, and does what he can to soften the hurt, rather than seeing her barrenness as a sign of the Lord’s disfavour. He has faith in Hannah’s goodness, and his love for her doesn’t depend on her ability to produce heirs. Her sister-wife, Peninnah, though, makes her worry, and sends her weeping away.
Elkanah gently questions her desires and expectations, asking “why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?” But Hannah knows the desire of her heart – and she trusts in the power of the Lord. She goes to the temple, and offers a covenant: if He will remember her, and give her a son, she will give him back to the Lord.
What does this tell us about Hannah, that she doesn’t give away her desires to comfort her husband? That she allows Peninnah’s words to hurt her, without retaliating? The child she prays for is between herself and the Lord, not for the sake of her husband, or to spite her enemy. A son will be a sign that the Lord remembers her, and the thing that she offers to Him as an expression of her devotion.
In the midst of her private moment, Eli, the temple priest, brings his opinions and preconceptions to Hannah. He sees her mouth moving silently, and her hands gesturing, and says “How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee.” Hannah doesn’t allow his judgement to send her away, and she chooses not to speak in righteous anger against him. She explains her purpose with integrity and humility, and Eli sends her away with an assurance that the Lord will grant her petition, and she is at peace.
The Lord begins granting her petition the very next day, and when she bears a son, she names him Samuel: “God has heard”. She tells Elkanah her plan to bring the child to live at the temple once he is weaned, and he trusts her decision. Hannah stays away from the yearly sacrifice at the temple, until it is time to bring Samuel. Although Elkanah offers a bullock to the Lord with Hannah, when their son is weaned, the scriptures tell us that she alone offers Samuel to the Lord. She brings her son to Eli, and tells him in tones of gratitude and worship that she was the one who had stood by him and prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted her prayer. She hands Samuel over to the Lord, and, like Miriam before her and Mary after her, she prays a song.
Her song begins with the personal – her heart rejoicing because her horn and her mouth receive strength over her enemies through the Lord – and then she praises his holiness and power. In words Mary will echo in her Magnificat, Hannah rejoices that “they that were full have hired out themselves for bread; and they that were hungry ceased”, and prophesies about the rising strength of Israel, through the coming anointed one – a reference to both the king her son will anoint when he is grown, and the Christ who will bring low and lift up on an eternal scale.
Julie M. Smith, in her Dialogue article “I Will Sing to the Lord”: Women’s Songs in the Scriptures, points out about Hannah that “[h]er victory is obviously not a military one, but neither is it physical birth; it is in the consecration of the child to the temple and the keeping of her covenant to do so”.
Hannah knows herself, and increases her agency through making and keeping covenants. She has emotions and desires, but also a deep groundedness that comes from recognising her strength through the Lord – even at a time that others would say she has no such strength. We hear no more of Peninnah, and of Elkanah only that he returned home. Hannah’s story, though it is about motherhood and marriage, deeply reaffirms her personal righteousness, and the importance of her individual desires.
Reading the story of Hannah reminds me that I have agency in my relationship with God, and that I can keep covenants of my own making. Her willingness to offer the desire of her heart to God prompts me to find what I should offer, and her song of rejoicing asks me to consider how I can express my worship. I want my life to be full of the gentle strength that Hannah displays, allowing others their own path in this life, but not letting them sway her from what she knows to be her own.