Summary: God uses the faithfulness of a woman to begin his work of bringing to fulfilment the promise to make Israel into a great nation.
Well, the story of the birth of Samuel has everything in it doesn’t it? It’d make a decent plot for a soap opera. There’s domestic strife. Elkanah lived at a time when it was common for a man to have 2 wives, and all the problems you might imagine arising in such a scenario happened. One wife, Peninnah found she was able to bear children, while the other wife, Hannah was childless. If you know any couples who have had trouble conceiving, or if you’ve experienced it yourself, you’ll know how hard it can be. But add to that the fact that there’s a second wife who has several children, so the problem obviously lies with Hannah. Then there’s the theological belief of the time that children were a sign of God’s blessing. You can see that life would have been unbearable for Hannah. She would have been looked down on by her neighbours and most annoyingly by the other wife. In fact we’re told that the other wife used to provoke her so that she wept and wouldn’t eat.
But not only do we have the childless woman. We also have the loving husband who just doesn’t understand. There’s no doubt that Elkanah loved Hannah. We’re told that when they went up to the shrine at Shiloh to sacrifice to God, he’d give her a double portion. What used to happen in those days was that when there was a special celebration, like we’ve just had this week, they didn’t roast the turkey in the oven at home. In fact at home they’d probably have rarely eaten meat. Instead they used to go to the Temple, which at this time was at Shiloh, taking a lamb or some poultry or if they were really well off, perhaps a young ox or heifer. When they got there, the priests would kill the animal and burn part of it and the rest would be used as the basis for a great feast. They’d carve up some of it and keep it for their own meals and the rest they’d cut up into portions and give them to the person who’d brought it.
So Elkanah would receive the meat and divide it up among his wives and children, but each time he’d give Hannah a double portion as a sign of his love for her. It’s as though he’s giving her her own portion, plus the portion he would have given to her child had she been able to bear one. He’s trying to say, I love you as much as I would if you had a son sitting on your lap. Well, as you can imagine, that didn’t really help Hannah. She could see the other wife across the table smiling one of those smiles of superiority as she passed out the plates to all her children. And so she’d, again, begin to cry and refuse to eat. Elkanah of course is just a man. He doesn’t know what to do about it or how to comfort her. So he pleads with Hannah to eat. He says, "Don’t worry about being childless. Am I not more to you than ten sons?" Well, he’s missed the point of course. He is only a man after all! It’s the social stigma that goes with being barren that’s causing Hannah such distress, not whether her husband loves her or not. And even if he tells her a thousand times he loves her, how can she be sure he isn’t just saying it? After all, she knows what a huge disappointment she must be to him. She sees it in his eyes each month when, again, she finds she hasn’t become pregnant.
But Hannah is also a woman of faith. She believes in the God who made the world out of nothing. Who called out Abraham and Sarah and gave them a child when they were well past the age for bearing children. So she takes the opportunity while the family is at the temple to spend time praying fervently that God would give her a child. She’s totally absorbed in her prayer and doesn’t notice anyone around her, not even the High Priest, Eli, who’s sitting by the door watching her.
Now Eli is an interesting mix. At first he seems to be a bit judgmental. He sees the way she’s behaving and thinks she’s had a bit much to drink at the feast that’s just finished. He sees her lips moving but she’s not making any sound and he decides she must be raving on in a drunken stupor. But then when he investigates further and discovers the reason for her distress, he reveals a compassion and humanity that does him credit.
In fact he responds almost instantly with his own prayer that God would grant what she’s asking. He says; "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him."