Summary: The Biblical woman of Hannah has much to teach us about prayer and trust in God. We learn to pound on the doors of heaven and that we can trust God to hear and answer us.
There was something fundamentally wrong with her. There had to be. It was the only explanation for Hannah’s inability to carry a child. Her husband, Elkanah’s second wife was able to conceive and bear children, a fact that she made sure to rub in every chance she got. Therefore, it had to be Hannah’s fault that she couldn’t become pregnant. There must have been some secret sin she had committed or some way she had offended God.
Today, we know that there are many explanations for infertility and that none of those reasons include a moral failing on the part of either partner. But that was not the case in Old Testament times. Back then, for a woman to be barren meant that she was useless, worthless, and unloved by God. Little wonder than that our reading opens with Hannah in the temple praying, pleading, begging God for a child. She is desperate for God to acknowledge her faithfulness and for a sign that God loves her.
As is often the case with God, God answers her prayer, giving her more than she had dreamed of asking for. God gives her a beautiful baby boy, Samuel, who will go on to do great things to the Lord.
You see, things were not going that well for the people of Israel. After the death of Moses who had led the people through the wilderness to the edge of the promised land and after the death of Moses’ successor Joshua who had conquered and driven out most of the inhabitants of the promised land so that God’s people could settle there, things began to go south. In subsequent generations, the people would forget God and go about doing whatever it was that they wanted. In turn, God would allow their enemies to defeat them. Then the people would cry out to God, Yahweh in Hebrew, who would then raise up a judge as the military and moral leader of the people. Through God’s power, this judge would deliver the people and restore them to right relationship with God. But after that judge would die, the people would again forget God and stop living in God’s ways. It was a vicious cycle that you can read about in the book of Judges if you are interested. Interestingly, one of the Judges God raised up was a woman by the name of Deborah. She is the first woman leader of God’s people and one that I think serves as proof that God can and does approve of and work through women leaders in the church. But that is a whole other topic for discussion so we will move on.
At the end of the book of Judges we hear that “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The people of God have once again sinned and rejected God, choosing instead to do what they wanted. And so, the book of 1st Samuel finds God’s people in a tenuous position. They are a loose federation of tribes of God’s people with no central government. They are always at risk of being attacked by their enemies. And worse, the official church, the temple in Jerusalem is filled with corruption. Eli the priest is a weak leader and his sons commit all kinds of sins despite the fact that they too belong to the priestly class of God’s people.
Something needed to change. The cycle from the book of Judges simply could not continue; people could not just do what was right in their own eyes. God had gifted them commandments and had made them a promise, that God would forever and always be their God and they would be God’s people. So God had to do something.
God saw Hannah and her faithfulness. God heard her prayer and the incredible promise that she was willing to make: The promise that if God would gift her with a son, she would return that child to the Lord. And so, as the Message translation of today’s reads, “God began making the necessary arrangements in response to what she had asked.”
Hannah named her son Samuel, a name that meant that God had heard and answered her prayer. When her son Samuel was old enough, Hannah did as she had promised. She took him to Eli the high priest and gave him to him to raise in the temple, teaching him to serve and obey God. Later, God would call the boy Samuel raising him up to be both the last judge of Israel and the first prophet (or spokesperson) for God. Samuel would be the one to anoint the first two kings of Israel, kings who were able to bring the lose federation of the tribes of the people of Israel together and make a great nation, strong and secure, of them. All this was accomplished because of the powerful faith of one woman who trusted God to turn her fortunes around and to answer her prayer.