I believe this is a real, historical account. However, in the interests of dividing the narrative in a way that increases understanding, we will take a look at it as if it were a play unfolding on a stage right before our eyes.
Message: The size of Hannah’s sacrifice helped determine the size of Samuel’s contribution to the history of God’s people.
- Setting the stage (vs. 1-3).
Elkhanah – the husband – apparently a wealthy man, as he could afford two wives. He is the only commoner mentioned in the books of Samuel and the Kings as having more than one wife. Men of that time put a lot of emphasis on having sons to perpetuate the family name and receive their estate.
Peninnah – the other wife – the antagonist. She had birthed several children but was jealous of the extra attention Elkhanah gave his barren bride.
Hannah – the first wife – the protagonist. Having had no children felt to her like a curse so she sought to create favor with God. But her name meant “grace,” so we know God is not far from her.
Eli – the priest – hopefully a better priest than father…
The Place: The family lived in the central part of Israel, in the tribal territory of Ephraim, just south of where the tabernacle (the tent-sanctuary in which Israel worshiped) was set up in Shiloh.
The Scene: the family’s annual pilgrimage to the tabernacle to offer their sacrifice for sin.
- Act One – Hannah’s Vow (vs. 4-18).
The annual pilgrimage was a big event because of its spiritual content and ritual, but it was also one of the few meals of the year when a big quantity of meat was served. This is why vs. 4-8 go into such detail about dinner.
As the scene is acted out, it is a typical experience in the family.
– Peninnah and her children would all receive their portions of the roast.
– Elkhanah would attempt to console his barren wife with a double portion of meat. This is a great man gift!! MORE MEAT! This is like giving the little woman a chain saw for Mother’s Day.
– Peninnah saw this as an act of favoritism and jealousy provoked her to irritate Hannah to distraction. It’s possible that Elkhanah took Peninnah as a second wife because Hannah was infertile. Peninnah meant “ruby,” but this gal was no gem.
– It may seem like Hannah had no sense of humor or tolerance for teasing on this subject, as Peninnah always provoked her to the point of tears and loss of appetite.
We need to remember that childlessness in that culture was commonly – if superstitiously – understood to be a sign of God’s disfavor. It carried a big social stigma as well as the disappointment that couples in all cultures can feel when they have difficulties having children. In this case, however, vs. 5-6 make it clear that Hannah’s childless condition was the will of the LORD. This painful circumstance had greater consequence than the difficult emotions and relational strains it caused in the family.
Elkhanah again shows a man’s subtle touch when he asks, “DON’T I MEAN MORE TO YOU THAN TEN SONS?” My guess is that Elkhanah is expressing a pretty inflated opinion of himself at this moment.
One commentator said this passage is the Bible’s best argument against polygamy!
Doing this scene over and over each year had a cumulative effect on Hannah. So after the latest feast was over, she got up and excused herself and went to the tabernacle. Of course, as a woman, she was not allowed to enter the sacred grounds, and knelt in prayer at the doorpost instead.
Hannah’s emotional state was no different on this day than it had been any of the previous years: she was full of BITTERNESS & WEPT MUCH. BUT – the thing that was different was she prayed to the Lord and made a vow to Him (11). She promised to give the child to the LORD. She may have been trying to make peace with God, believing that she had done something to deserve this cursed status as barren. Her vow was not a selfish one, but an unselfish one, since it involved giving her child back to the LORD.
The mention of uncut hair referred to the consecration of an individual to the LORD – they were especially dedicated to His service. It was part of the Nazirite vow, for example. Samson’s parents had done exactly the same thing in exactly the same situation. This is how Samson ended up with long hair. (Actually, these two accounts are very similar. Samson ended up tragically, Samuel triumphantly.) Maybe that’s where Hannah got the idea.
Numbers 6 allowed for such a vow to be made by an individual for himself. Numbers 13 allowed for this kind of a vow to be made FOR an individual before birth; just as Hannah had done.
Eli is taking a breather from a busy day of animal sacrifices – imagine having to go to seminary AND butcher’s school to train for the priesthood – keeping an eye on Hannah. He has reason to be suspicious: it was customary to pray aloud, not silently. So when Eli saw Hannah’s lips moving but heard no words, he assumed the worst – that she had abused the feast day in a typical way – too much strong wine – and was drunk. Of course, it was grief and not wine that caused her anguish and Hannah told Eli so. To his credit, Eli saw Hannah’s earnestness and realized the error he had made. His condemnation turned to blessing (17). Note especially the words, “MAY THE GOD OF ISRAEL GRANT YOU WHAT YOU HAVE ASKED OF HIM.”
This next bit is to Hannah’s credit: Eli’s blessing had an immediate effect (18); Hannah was comforted. She rejoined her family and joined them in the feast AND HER FACE WAS NO LONGER DOWNCAST. This is an indicator of Hannah’s faith; the priest’s words she took as God’s and took it as an answer to her prayers. Also, she was finally able to eat something.
- Act Two – Hannah’s Vindication (vs. 19-28).
The LORD vindicated Hannah’s faith by giving her kids!
See 1:19-21 = He gave her Samuel. He REMEMBERED her. This does not mean God had ever forgotten Hannah, only that her own words are being used. Samuel means “heard by God” and is her explanation of the child’s birth. Hannah’s choice of words in vs. 27-28 give away her understanding of the situation. Since Samuel was born as a result of her vow, she understood Samuel was “on loan” to her. Therefore, as the original language makes clear, her bringing Samuel to the tabernacle and leaving him there is simply returning to God what truly belongs to Him.
It took two books of the Bible to relate the influence Samuel had on the history of Israel.
– He was a transitional figure from the rule of the judges to the rule of kings. He was the last of the Judges. When Samuel began his leadership, the twelve tribes were only loosely affiliated and scarcely able to keep enemy nations at bay. By the end of his days, Israel was organized under King David, their borders secured by a powerful army and the greater power of the true God.
– Raised by a priest at the tabernacle, Samuel could not serve as a priest because he was not born into the priestly tribe of Levi. Still, he lead Israel in worship and reformed the priesthood that had become corrupt under Eli’s mismanagement and his sons’ outright blasphemy.
– He also acted as a prophet and is regarded as the first of the OT prophets.
– Samuel was a great man whom God used mightily at a pivotal time in the history of His people. Part of the explanation for that is this account of the unusual and divine aspects of his birth.
See 2:1-10 = God gave Hannah a song of prophecy. The passage we read previous to the message is one of three songs God gave to special women – Miriam (Moses’ sister), Hannah, and Mary (mother of Jesus). All of them are prophetic in the sense that they praise God for miraculous works He has done in the history of His people and the works He will do in the future to bring human destiny in line with His will.
See 2:21 = God gave Hannah three more sons and two daughters. The text identifies this as an act of grace on God’s part, a sign of His blessing, the vindication of Hannah’s faith, the LORD’s “seal of approval.” It is the “happily ever after” ending to Hannah’s story. Biblically, having children is usually seen as a blessing:
– PSS 113:9 = HE SETTLES THE BARREN WOMAN IN HER HOME AS A HAPPY MOTHER OF CHILDREN. PRAISE THE LORD.
– PSS 127:3 = SONS ARE A HERITAGE FROM THE LORD, CHILDREN A REWARD FROM HIM.
Additionally, Hannah vindicated her own faith by keeping her vow.
See 1:21-22 = It was customary for a mother to abstain from ceremonial worship until the child was weaned. But notice that even here, from the beginning, Hannah’s intent was to follow through on her vow. In that culture, it was customary to nurse a child for 2-3 years after birth, but it was acceptable to continue to nurse until he was 12 years old! Hannah could have really cheated on this vow, but v. 24 tells us that the boy Samuel was YOUNG when she left him with Eli. Its not hard to imagine that there were moments when Hannah held her son and regretted her vow. That she wanted to change her mind and keep him. Part of the reason this account has been recorded in Scripture is to testify to the great faith Hannah had.
See 1:26-28 = Hannah’s testimony, in her own words, to the extreme devotion and obedience she showed by committing her firstborn son to the LORD’s service.
In my study Bible’s list of “Notable Women,” Hannah is listed as “The Ideal Mother.” It’s quite a paradox to accept that the woman who gave up her son, who left him to be raised by a priest, is the “Ideal Mother.”
Hannah’s story is an example of Jesus’ teaching; “ANYONE WHO LOVES HIS FATHER OR MOTHER MORE THAN ME IS NOT WORTHY OF ME; ANYONE WHO LOVES HIS SON OR DAUGHTER MORE THAN ME IS NOT WORTHY OF ME” (MTW 10:37). This is a difficult teaching. Out of selfishness and sentimentality, we’ve come to accept the notion that service to family is the highest form of service.
That is clearly contradictory to Jesus’ teaching. Our first love must always be our love for God. We do our family no good service if we forget that and mix up our priorities. Truth be told, love for God and love for our brothers and sisters in the church both take priority over love for family. Think about it; our relationship with God and relationships among His people are the only ones that will survive into eternity. Marriage and family are interim institutions that abide only until death.
I realize this is an especially “hard sell” on Mother’s Day, but the point is that Hannah is primarily an example of godly priorities. She is the “Ideal Mother” not because she doted on her children but because she counted her vow to God more important than her motherly instincts and her love for her child. The size of Hannah’s sacrifice helped determine the size of Samuel’s contribution to the history of God’s people. That is the message we need as much on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and Grandparent’s Day as we do every other day of the year.
This does not in any way reduce the status of family as a blessing from God, as the relationships in which we must strive to invest as much love as we possibly can. The Bible sets a very high standard for family relationships. It has a high place, not first place.
What this means is that God must always be first priority. If anything – or anyone – else takes first place, that is idolatry. The very best thing we can do for our families is to keep God first. We do that by obeying His commands to love our families, following the great example Hannah has set for us.