Today, we are going to turn our attention to a passage about a mom, a mom many of us know very little about. We’re going to focus on Hannah, who was the mother of Samuel—and who, before she became the mother of Samuel, was a wife to Elkanah, and before she was a wife, was someone’s daughter, but before she was a daughter, was God’s beloved. We are going to take a closer look into Hannah’s story to see her. Hannah was unseen, she was unknown, she was taunted, and I believe, even depressed. She lived under the societal pressure to fit into this role of motherhood, something she had little or no control over. As we walk with Hannah, we are going to see how she encounters and discovers who God says she is. This is a message not just for moms or women, but for all of us. Every single day of our lives, we are asked to fit into a certain shape, but we don’t always fit the mold. If we listen closely, we will be able to identify with Hannah in her struggle to figure out who she is.
In 1 Sam 1:1–2, we encounter three individuals: Elkanah, Hannah, and Peninnah. Elkanah was an Ephraimite who had two wives. Hannah, more than likely the first wife because she is listed first, had no children, but Peninnah, likely the second wife, had many children. These women were also Ephraimites, a group of people who had received a special blessing from their ancestor Israel right before he died. Genesis 48 says:
“I pray that they will grow to become great families and nations on earth. . . . But his younger brother will be greater than he is. And the younger brother’s family will be much larger.” So Israel blessed them that day. He said, “The Israelites will use your names whenever they bless someone. They will say, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” In this way Israel made Ephraim greater than Manasseh. (Gen 48:16b, 19b–20 ERV)
Under this blessing, these three individuals grew up knowing and hearing over and over that part of what it meant to be blessed was to be great in numbers. In order to be great in numbers, the family had to produce children. Not only was this the idea in all of Israel, but it was emphasized among Ephraim’s descendants. For Hannah not to have children and to be in this clan was hard for her because to be a member of the model family was to have children. The burden of having children placed pressure not only on the women but also on the men, who had to be able to provide for every member in their household. Hannah grew up hearing the expectation that, in order to be a good wife, she must be able to produce children. And if not, in Jewish custom, a man could divorce his wife if she did not have children after ten years.1 It must have seemed harsh for Hannah as it became a central part of her identity when she indeed could not have children. This was a commonly occurring theme for women in the OT: women would pray to God because their womb had been closed, and they felt like they had been cursed. The world instantly judged that there was something wrong with Hannah and assumed she must have sinned. And so this is what Hannah lived with on a daily basis.
Moving on, 1 Sam 1:3–8 reads as follows:
3Now 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. 4On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7So it went on year by 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. 8Her 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?” (NRSV)
Every year, this family went on a trip to Shiloh, to sacrifice and to worship God. And every year, Elkanah gave Hannah a double portion because he loved her. He loved her in spite of the fact that her womb was closed. We learn that Elkanah did indeed love his wife and was trying his best to care for her. We also learn of the rivalry between Hannah and Peninnah. During this annual trip, the taunting and provoking severely irritated Hannah and caused her hurt and bitterness. This was probably an ongoing bullying of sorts that intensified during the annual trip. Perhaps Hannah felt like the bootless man Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about: “It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”2 The same type of jest is evident here; Peninnah was behaving with cruelty toward Hannah. Because of the societal pressure that Hannah was feeling due to her barrenness, everywhere she went she felt like she was cursed. In this context, having an heir was her future and livelihood. If her husband were to die, she would be left with nothing. Without a son, she would eventually have no one to care for her in the event that her husband passed away, because she could not own land. The rejection and mocking happening both inside and outside of Hannah’s home had a drastic impact on her, socially, spiritually, mentally, and physically. She was irritated; she couldn’t eat, so she was crying and suffering in silence while surrounded by a sea of people. She was unseen, and she was unknown.
Beloved, I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that way—felt like you were constantly being chastised and irritated by what different people say you should be. But I know that I have. I do not wish to be too harsh on Peninnah, because I want to think about her context, pause for a brief minute, and say that I do think that when people taunt and hurt others it usually comes from a place of pain. I can only imagine the impact it had on her—not to feel loved, to watch her husband be generous to his other wife but not acknowledge her in that same way. Peninnah had fulfilled her obligation; she had given herself, her body, her womb. Yet she did not receive the love and affection her heart had longed for. So we can understand that she would taunt Hannah day after day and year after year, because she was in pain herself. Although it doesn’t make this behavior right, pain makes us do destructive things.
When we look at her husband, I believe he was doing the best he knew how. I think he was well intentioned, but what he says demonstrates he did not understand his wife at all. He asks her why she weeps and does not eat. She is socially isolated and depressed, yet he cannot see that. He asks in v. 8, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat?” He cannot see her pain at all. He asks, “Why is your heart sad?” She doesn’t respond, but then he treats her sorrow as if it’s about him. He says, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” But it’s not about him; he should instead listen more, trying to understand what’s going on with her. It’s not about him, even though he feels that he’s done enough—that he’s done his duty, provided for Hannah, given her an extra portion, demonstrated love, and not divorced her. Elkanah needed to get to a place where he could understand the pain his wife was going through, but he could not.
Hannah was holding multiple layers of pain and weight. She was taunted by Peninnah. Her husband did not understand the words people were saying to her, the ways they stared at her, or the way she had to dress on a daily basis. He did not see her; he did not see her pain. He did not understand how broken Hannah felt, or that she felt cursed, like she failed and there was nothing she could do to fix it.
Have you ever felt that way? I know I have. I know there have been so many times in my life where I didn’t think I measured up. And that there was nothing I could do to catch up to an elusive goal or reality.
The story continues; let’s listen to 1 Sam 1:9–11.
9After 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. 10She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11She 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.” (NRSV)
Something was different about this year that made Hannah enter inside the temple alone. Maybe she had heard the stories about Eli’s two sons who were stealing from the offerings and decided to take matters into her own hands. Maybe Peninnah said something that tipped her over the edge. Maybe it was that last look of pity without compassion that she got from her husband or from someone on the street. Maybe it was at the moment she sat down with everyone, eating and drinking, that she just reached her breaking point. But whatever it was, it made her rise and present herself before the Lord. There was a physical transition from her sitting down and being alone though surrounded by people to being able to move from her current place and see the face of God. Whatever it was that tipped her, it caused her to seek the face of God.
Listen again to v. 10: “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly” (NRSV). It is in the holy place that Hannah found a way to pour out her heart before God. She laid everything before the Lord.
Verse 11 is also worth hearing again: “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’” (NRSV). Hannah asked God to look at her, she asked God to look at who she was, and she asked God never to forget. She felt overwhelmed by too many people not seeing who she was. She was unknown even though she was surrounded by so many. And I think, even in this moment, she also felt forgotten by God. So she reminds God who she is. She says, “It’s me, your servant,” not “a barren woman” or “the wife of Elkanah.” This is the first time we hear Hannah speak, and she shifts her identity away from being a barren woman to being God’s servant—her truest identity. Yes, she prayed for a son, but it wasn’t only about the son. It was not about trying to get into this role of motherhood, but about her being seen and known for who she was. She could have stopped her prayer after asking for a son, but she continued by saying she would give her son back to the Lord. In this moment, Hannah seeks God because she has a desperate need to be known.
Let’s go back to the Bible for the rest of the story:
12As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15But 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. 16Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18And 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. (1 Sam 1:12–18 NRSV)
I don’t know how you cry, but however Hannah’s cry sounded, it got Eli’s attention, to the extent that he got up from his chair and looked over at her. He assumed Hannah was a drunken woman, called her out, and told her to leave. So even when he sees her, he doesn’t actually perceive who she really is. Here it is again: Hannah is still unseen and unknown. Yet, this time, something is different. She doesn’t merely sit in silence; she responds to his comment. Hannah takes the opportunity to tell her story. She’s not drunk; remember, she was too distressed to eat or drink anything. She was so deeply troubled that she had been pouring out her heart and soul to God, the only one who would listen. Hannah moves from telling her story to declaring that she is not a worthless woman. Eli does not call her a worthless woman, but in this moment she makes a declaration and defends herself anyway by saying, “No, I am not a worthless woman.”
I don’t know what it is that you need to declare about yourself to defend who God says you are, but just because there have been certain situations in your past, those things do not define who you are. God knows your name, and before the foundations of the earth were laid he had a plan in mind. And when he created you, he said it was very good (Gen 1:31). If he says that, we need to position ourselves to know it is true, regardless of what the world and others may say about us. After hearing all of this, Eli tells Hannah to go in peace and sends her with a blessing: “May the God of Israel grant you the petitions that you asked for.” He has no idea what she prayed for, and he has no idea what it might mean for him. Hannah responds by saying, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.”
It is interesting that Hannah, whose name means “favor” or “grace,” asks for favor in the sight of the priest. I believe that in this moment, Hannah is also saying, “I need you to see me.” She is not just another woman who comes to the feast; she is more than what people said she could be. And after all of this, she went home, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. Something shifted in God’s presence. She was no longer downcast and her depression was gone, even though her son had not come and she was not yet pregnant. She was able to move from being a woman who felt worthless in the eyes of others and even in the eyes of herself, to being one who could see herself as a servant of God. When she returned home, she was not the same person. She could now be a part of the community. She had spent so much time being isolated and separated from the community, but now in her new identity—as God’s servant—she could actually engage the community. She can eat and drink and enjoy her husband’s company, something she could not do before. A shift had happened, in her mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being, and a different Hannah was formed. That weight had been lifted from her. She was not a mom, yet the weight was lifted. That’s why it’s not about the promise or the prayer of a son. Because she understood in that moment that she was more than: more than barren, more than worthless, more than ridiculed.
Fill in your own blank; you’re more than whatever people have said about you. Hannah finally understood this and believed it. We have to be able to believe and know that we are God’s beloved. The weight of trying to fit in and be perfect can be overwhelming, exhausting. But you need to enjoy the moment and acknowledge that God has answered your prayers. Stop, think, and be thankful.
The end of the passage says that Hannah returns to the holy place the next day, and she and her husband are able to worship God there. We see that she understands things in a different way, and there is a difference now in her relationship with God. It is not about whether God will answer her prayer the way she wants, but that she knows that the God she serves is able to see her and is also the God who is able to give her the space just to be her.
I want to share a little bit about my journey and a very difficult season of motherhood, because sometimes we paint motherhood as though it is easy or perfect. When I became pregnant with my daughter, I was excited in anticipating her birth. What I wasn’t prepared for was my entire identity to shift. I knew that I was going to be a mom, but I didn’t know that everybody else would suddenly start to refer to me as “Mom.” I didn’t expect that strangers would start rubbing my belly either! I wasn’t prepared for that change of identity from “Tracey” to “Mom.” And that was how most people started to see me. I love being mom to my two children, but I also love being Tracey.
When I became pregnant again, the pregnancy itself was high risk. I had what is called placenta previa, and the doctors did not want me to go into labor yet. In the midst of that, I went through a very difficult season. My husband and I were between jobs. It was not a healthy time in our marriage. So here I was, nine and a half months pregnant, on bed rest, I could not go into labor, facing financial troubles, as I was about to have a baby. I had a C-section, but then the pain made nursing very difficult. Because we had two children, my husband had gone home to be with our daughter. So I was in the hospital by myself (which was not the greatest hospital in the world). It was dark, cold, dreary, small, and the nurses were all being very short with me. And I was all alone. I tried to nurse, but I couldn’t. The one thing I was trying to do, and needed to do, I couldn’t. I was feeling like a complete and total failure, because the one thing I should be able to do naturally, I couldn’t. I started walking the halls, feeling depressed, and a nurse came up to me, asking if I was going to be okay, because I was struggling with post-partum depression, along with everything else.
I honestly don’t recall much of the first couple weeks after I was discharged from the hospital. And our son is probably the happiest, most care-free child, and I thank God for that. But with all the stuff that was going on around my life, I felt like I had lost my identity because, first, I had put my identity into a job, which I no longer had. And then I felt like I was failing at motherhood. But that’s only because the way that we define motherhood is so messed up!
How I act as a mother is different from how someone else may act. But I get to be me, love my kids how I am able to, and do the best that I can. The problem is that too often, we try to fit in and do things the way someone else does it, and when we try to do that, it makes us feel worthless. I don’t know what it is for you.
If we were to keep reading the passage, we would discover that Hannah does indeed have a son. She names him Samuel, and she will eventually take him to be dedicated to God and live with Eli. And she will leave him there after he is weaned, about a three to five-year period. And we know how formative the first five years of any individual’s life is, and while we don’t know specifically what happened in those years, we do know that they shaped Samuel to be the highly-influential prophet we read about in this part of the Bible.
During those years, when he was living in the house of Eli, Eli’s sons were not the best role models. It had to be something different about Hannah in those years that allowed Samuel to grow up to be the person that he was. And when she dedicated him to the Lord, she didn’t just leave him there, but every year, she visited him and gave him a homemade ephod, a priest’s garment. Why does that even matter? It matters because when we see ourselves the way God sees us, it begins to impact everyone around us. When we are able to walk as who God created us to be, we can enable other people to do the same. I am a much better Tracey when I seek the face of God. I can be much kinder, but not only that, I am also able to see the goodness in other people, and I want to help them to live into that as well. And there’s something contagious about when we are able to live in the freedom that God has called us to live in, and this can empower others. Someone once said,
We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.3
Beloved, God wants us to be free from the shackles of all of the roles that we think we ought to play. When we are able to embrace that, see that, and live in that, we liberate others as well. What is it that you, today, need to declare that you are more than? In the presence of God, we are able to see the truth of who he says we are—God calls us his beloved sons and daughters. Hannah cried out in a way that wasn’t audible to anyone. Let us cry out to him, in any way we need to. You are more than what people have said about you, you are more than conquerors4 in God, you are more because you belong to God.
1. Judith R. Baskin, “Rabbinic Reflections on the Barren Wife,” HTR 82, no. 1 (1989): 101-14.
2. This quotation can be read and heard at http://www.wlrn.org/post/mlk-bootless-man-cannot-lift-himself-his-bootst….
3. Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).
4. A reference to Rom 8:37.