Hannah was a woman in an ugly situation in terrible times. Her nation, Israel, had degenerated morally and politically and was now held under the terror of the Philistines. The temple at Shiloh had been desecrated and the priesthood had become corrupt and immoral.
The people had no just leadership unless God broke in and raised up a judge. And for many years after Joshua passed, God did just that. Always working sovereignly throughout history, in Hannah’s day He was found paving the path for the emergence of the one Seed that would crush the serpent’s head for eternity. Little did Hannah know that that road would find passage through her very finite female desires transforming them into one desire for more than she could have ever imagined.
Married to the sweetheart of her youth, mountain-man, Elkanah, Hannah set up house and the couple began to work towards building their family. Month after month, two years into the marriage they waited. He, building and extending their allotment; she, using her skills at weaving and stitchery to fill a basket with items of clothing and linen for the baby…that refused to come.
One morning, after watching his wife shake the dust once again from the carefully woven garments and refold them, Elkanah gathered her in his arms.
“My dearest, our inheritance languishes; I can get only so much help from others to clear and work our land here in this our mountain territory of Ramah. I…we, must start having offspring…”
He said this latter tenderly as he felt her stiffen, but patiently continued.
“I have approached one of our Ephraimite families which has several unmarried daughters, of age…”
Hannah gasped and pulled away from his embrace. “No, no, not that! Not yet!”, she whispered tearfully. “Let us try one more year! I will beseech the Lord at Shiloh…when we go up to the tent of meeting…!” She broke into sobs.
“My love, yes. We all must keep beseeching the Lord. But we are under judgement as a people, for our sins have made us a stench in the nostrils of our God. Until He turns His face towards us again, we must do what we can to survive. The Philistines plague and plunder those who try to farm on the plains. Our only hope, till the Almighty delivers us of our enemies, is to do our best among these hills; and for that… we need sons.” He paused, allowing the consequence of his words to sink in…
“Her name is Penninah…and she comes at the waning of the next moon.” His own heart breaking, he slipped quietly from the room as she slumped in sobs over the basket.”
The rest of the story is told in the book of Samuel (1 Sam. 1-2), of how Penninah did join the family and in short order produced several offspring, sons and daughters, for Elkanah. She was a mean and spiteful woman and delighted to make the childless Hannah miserable with her words. It was one of the ugly consequences of polygamy, whatever the justification.
Jealous of Elkanah’s obvious love for the lovely but barren Hannah, Penninah twisted every one of Elkanah’s efforts to console his wife into a searing knife to Hannah’s heart:
Observing that Elkanah had again given to Hannah a double portion of the meat after the offering required in the book of Deuteronomy, she sidled up to her, with a child on each hip; “Why Hannah dear, what will you do with all that meat? Does our dear husband think it will store for that day that never comes? Mind you, (Feigning concern), becoming heavy and fat does not help with the bearing of children, though it can be a joyful consequence! I should know; before I lose the girth of one pregnancy here comes another!” She cackled meanly, setting down the wriggling children, and moved along as she saw Elkanah returning.
As Hannah rested that night in the comfort of her husband’s arms she asked, for the millionth time, “Why does the Almighty not answer my requests?”
Wisely, Elkanah replied, “Well, He has answered your prayers, my love, just not the one you most desire right now.”
“I know… I pray He does not think me ungrateful.” she answered quietly.
He continued, “Indeed, we have received much help with putting in the crop this year, and the harvest is looking sufficient if not plentiful; the livestock have not fallen sick nor stumbled on this rocky terrain, and they have given birth to young…”
At the last, Hannah turned away, “Yes, even the animals bear young, and Penninah’s children thrive; but I languish, tending a house with no little feet running through it, nor stopping to eat the food I prepare, nor covered in the clothing my skills have woven.”
Elkanah massaged the muscles of her tense shoulders, curved in on herself. “Is it all about you my love? “He whispered gently. “At least we have each other.”
She remained motionless.
Snuggling closer, he playfully whispered in her ear, “Besides, am I not more to you than seven sons!” A quick nibble made her turn over and playfully swat him with a cushion. And soon they were caught up in a tumble of love and laughter.
“I too long for a child born of our love.”, he finally whispered. “But perhaps the Almighty desires a child born of our love… for Him.”
Though her husband could not recall having spoken those words in the morning, they replayed and burned themselves deep into Hannah’s mind as she drifted off to sleep.
A few months later, as the family packed to travel to the tent of meeting at Shiloh, Hannah lovingly tied a selection of the perfectly crafted baby clothing into a bundle, with coloured flax cording she had dyed herself. Walking over to Penninah’s tent, she handed them to her. “For your new little one”, she said, holding her adversary’s distrustful gaze with her honest one. With that she mounted the animal Elkanah held steady for her and falling in line behind his wagon in the caravan, she set her face towards Shiloh1.
With each turn of the wagon wheels over the rocky terrain, Hannah’s mind turned over, wondering what life resigned to childlessness would be like. To her world it was a fate worse than death. What more could the Lord have for a woman? His promise to our mother Eve was that her seed would one day crush the head of evil itself. And so would woman’s purpose be fulfilled in the undoing of the dreadful deed committed in the garden. So, we wait for the turning of the seasons of our life from infancy to girlhood, to womanhood, to marriage. In hope we receive the seed of our husband with each cycle, and we wait…for Shiloh2 to come.
Descending from the hills, they passed by villages plundered by their oppressors, and skirted fields burned and trampled. The caravan became as a funeral procession as sobs of mourning and cries of longing could be heard along the trail. “Where now is the good and beautiful land of promise, for which we were led forth from Egypt?” The unspoken question dogged their way.
“Forgive us oh Lord, for truly our sins have separated between us and You, our God. Each does as seems good in his own eyes, and Your testimony among the nations, which you drove out before us, is belied”.
Remembering her husband’s words Hannah gave herself to prayer for the remainder of the journey.
“Oh Lord, forgive; oh Lord, cleanse; our Lord, purge Your inheritance…”
Hannah’s intercession continued as she bowed in prayer in the women’s quarter, at the tabernacle in Shiloh. Her prayers were disjointed now, and she struggled to maintain focus. She was torn between her own petitions and another scene she had witnessed, as Elkanah had waited in line to present his sacrifice to the priests, the Levites, Eli’s sons. The meat was first to be boiled— the fatty portion belonging to the Lord. Afterwards, the priests were allowed to stick a three-pronged fork in, to retrieve portions for their allotment; for the priests had no allotment of land, that they may serve the Lord whole-heartedly in the tabernacle.
But as they waited, there had been a struggle involving an old farmer from the hills, in front of Elkanah. A brash young son of Eli was demanding that he be given the meat before it was placed in the pot of boiling. He wanted it raw, for roasting. Threatened by the youth’s braun, and even more so by his position, the elderly man was forced to yield, and watched as his holy sacrifice was hefted away by hands anointed to be holy, but which were wholly corrupt.
Hannah’s heart broke. “Oh Lord, heal us. Oh, Lord purge your inheritance”, she groaned. Her mother’s heart wept for the one who had given birth to such, as she observed another of Eli’s sons openly flirting by the tabernacle curtains with brazen women of uncovered heads. As she mourned, her desire for a son of their own suddenly morphed into passionate pleas for one son that she could dedicate to love the Lord, the house of the Lord and the people of God. “For how could the nations of the earth be blessed by a people who have forgotten their God? How would the nations hear?! How would the people know?!” Suppressed sobs wracked Hannah as she writhed internally. Despite the intensity, she dared not pray aloud in the close confines of the women’s quarter. Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Are you not well, daughter.”
Through a veil of tears Hannah looked up into the face of Eli, the priest.
“It is well, my lord,” she whispered hoarsely.
Drawing back, he scolded, “Well then, how long will you give yourself to drunkenness! Get rid of your wine!”
Realizing the miscommunication, Hannah straightened up, “No my Lord, I am a woman with a broken heart. I haven’t had any wine or beer; I’ve been pouring out my heart before the Lord.
Don’t think of me as a wicked woman; I’ve been praying from the depth of my anguish and resentment.”
With a pause and a grunt Eli replied, “Go in peace then, and…may the Lord God of Israel grant the petition you’ve requested from Him.”
Bowing she replied, “May your servant find favour with you…” He was gone before she finished. But Hannah felt a lightness settle over her. The burden had lifted. Her request had been received on high. The next morning, she and Elkanah rose early to bow in worship before the Lord before returning home to Ramah.
The rest of the story is told in Scripture of how, back home, Elkanah was intimate with his wife Hannah and how the Lord re-membered her. Elkanah knew that this opener of Hannah’s womb was no ordinary child. This was the child born of their love for God. He agreed with Hannah that she not make the annual trip to Shiloh till the child was weaned. And even further, Elkanah accepted as best, the intention Hannah shared with him to take the child to the Lord’s house at Shiloh when he was three; and there present him for the Lord’s service in the temple. At the appointed time, as they stood before Eli with the child, Hannah spoke from a fully satisfied heart, “Please, my Lord, I am the woman who prayed here…when you came beside me. I prayed for this boy, and since the Lord gave me what I asked for I now give him back for God’s service, as long as he lives”.
“My heart rejoices in the LORD;
My horn is exalted in the LORD.
I smile at my enemies,
Because I rejoice in Your salvation.
“No one is holy like the LORD,
For there is none besides You,
Nor is there any rock like our God.
“Talk no more so very proudly;
Let no arrogance come from your mouth,
For the LORD is the God of knowledge;
And by Him actions are weighed.
“The bows of the mighty men are broken,
And those who stumbled are girded with strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
And the hungry have ceased to hunger.
Even the barren has borne seven,
And she who has many children has become feeble.
“The LORD kills and makes alive;
He brings down to the grave and brings up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
He brings low and lifts up.
He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the beggar from the ash heap,
To set them among princes
And make them inherit the throne of glory.
“For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
And He has set the world upon them.
He will guard the feet of His saints,
But the wicked shall be silent in darkness.
“For by strength no man shall prevail.
The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken in pieces;
From heaven He will thunder against them.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth.
“He will give strength to His king,
And exalt the horn of His anointed.”
I Samuel 2:1-11 NKJV
Then Elkanah went to his house at Ramah. But the child ministered to the LORD, serving there before Eli— covered in his mother’s prayers and the ephods of her weaving, year after year.
Hannah went on to have other children, but in this moment, she knew contentment and walked in fulfillment. This child was to become Israel’s greatest judge, Samuel. He would be used of God to escort in ‘Shiloh’3, the Messianic line— anointing David, through whom God would send His son, the Saviour of the world, Jesus.
The featured image is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
I am Denise Stair Armstrong; born and raised Jamaican. I received all my formal academic education in the land of my birth at Shortwood Teachers’ College and the University of the West Indies, specializing in English Language & Literatures in English. The remainder I’ve gained home educating our three wonderful children – Joseph, Charis and Timothy, parenting them with my husband Claude, and in caring for my wheel-chair bound mother. I enjoy reading, cooking, gardening, theatre and ballroom dancing with Claude (only!) and digging into the Word of God.
My passion is worship expressed primarily through writing inspirational pieces that urge readers not to miss how much the Lord has “cramm’d earth with heaven”. My heart is to encourage them to traverse the gap between all our hearts and the cultures that shape them, via the Bridge that is Calvary’s cross.
This is such a blessing. Thanks for sharing.
Such a beautiful telling of this story. I am lingering over the woman’s fulfillment in the work of caring for her family, and her understanding of the fullness of purpose in having children who crush the head of the serpent. I’m also seeing her giving Samuel to the temple in a new way…I always pictured tears and grieving at leaving a sweet 3 year boy in a far away place, but I see more now about Samuel’s purpose and Hannah’s purpose and how focusing on our purpose changes our perspective. Even as we step back and watch the purposes of our own children take flight, this applies. Thank you, Denise, for your insightful writing, it has given me much to ponder.
I was held captive to the final word. Exquisite writing, Denise. You are a gifted writer. Hurry up with the book!!!
Oh my. We have a few things in common: my father was born in Jamaica. I love the story of Hannah and have used it in personal meditation as well as teaching. And my favorite poem is indeed EBB’s “Earth’s crammed with Heaven…” Thank you for the gift of your writing. Your presentation of Hannah will stay with me, enriching my walk. Of that I am certain.
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