Rich characters, a universal plot, and an unexpected resolution makes the Biblical story of one family among my favorites. Elkanah and Hannah live in the hill country of Ephraim. Hannah is married to Elkanah, but so is Peninnah. That means in this story, Elkanah has two wives. Then their family tree adds children. For Peninnah and Elkanah, there are children. For Hannah and Elkanah, there are no children.
Elkanah is a religious man, devout enough that the story tells us that he went up every year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to God. Furthermore, the story tells us that when he did go and make the customary sacrifice, he gave portions to his wives. Specifically, he gave portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters, but to Hannah he gave a double portion. The passage tells us her husband did this because he loved her, but with the caveat that “the Lord had closed her womb.”
Then the passage tells us, “Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her,” (1 Samuel 1:6-7a NRSV).
What a terrible description of Peninnah. She is called Hannah’s rival. It says that she irritated her and provoked Hannah. Maybe when they were doing laundry Peninnah would purposefully pass Hannah the basket with the children’s clothes. Maybe she’d say terrible things like, “Well, I’ve got to go and help little Elkanah Jr. with his homework, you know…oh wait, that’s right, you don’t know.” Either way, it was a terrible situation.
The story continues, “Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat,” (1 Samuel 1:7b NRSV). She wept and she would not eat. The pain was so great, the statements of her husband’s other wife so unbearable, the shame of not producing an heir for her husband crushed her until she could not even eat.
The story makes the reader want her husband to really make the situation right, maybe take Peninnah to the side and tell her to straighten up and quit being so nasty. But instead, he opens up his mouth and well, he says, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad?” (1 Samuel 1:8 NRSV) Which isn’t so bad, until he follows that up with, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
Good intentions. Bad choice of words.
Biblical women, as often is still the case, struggled with the expectations of others for them to become a mother. When motherhood was delayed or did not happen at all, it was a source of shame and guilt. Hannah’s story gives me strength. I find strength in the words that come next.
Verse nine says, “After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord.”
Hannah arose. Hannah arose.
There, in the midst of insurmountable circumstances, with even those in her own family taunting her and questioning her tears, she arose. She stood up.
Hannah goes to the temple. She prays and cries, actually it says she “wept bitterly,” and she makes a vow to God. While she is praying, the priest Eli is watching her and he decides that maybe she was drunk. He could see her moving her lips, but he didn’t hear any words come out.
I don’t mean to point out what is pretty obvious, but the men in Hannah’s life were really struggling to understand her. First her husband wants to know why she is crying and says he is better than her having kids, then the priest accuses her of drinking too much when in fact she is praying to God.
But Hannah arose. And Hannah said, “No.”
“No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled,” (1 Samuel 1:15a NRSV).”
I don’t hear Hannah’s voice here as a whisper. I hear it as a voice filled with pain but determination. She doesn’t say, “No,” she says, “NO!”
Eli sends her away in peace. She goes away and conceives a child, whom she names Samuel, the priest who will later crown more than one king of the Israelite people. A quick look at Hannah and her family makes us wonder if the phrase “Biblical Family Values” means what we thought it did.
Two wives? One a real snarky, spiteful woman? A husband who loves one wife more than the other? Favoritism? In a family?
Hannah’s situation was bad. Her family was not exactly supportive. Her husband failed to help make her feel better, try as he might. She felt so upset, so desperate, that she stopped eating and just cried.
This feels familiar. I have found myself in hopeless circumstances, just plain bad. In the midst of that situation, it felt like even those people closest to me, my own family, did not understand. They even made it worse…like Peninnah, irritating an already bad situation with unnecessary remarks.
Is Hannah just a Bible character? Or is she someone much like me, much like you, who has struggles, pain, and disappointment? We see her do three things.
Hannah arose. Hannah prayed. Hannah said No!
She begins by doing what a pastor friend of mine told me to do when I find myself feeling completely lost. She said, “Abbi, just do the next right thing.” It may feel impossible to see any farther than that, but just do that one next right thing. For Hannah, it was standing up. She had been crying and not eating and feeling miserable, until she arose. Then, she prayed to God. I like to think of Hannah as praying so intensely from her pain that she was overcome by the emotions and desires of her heart until she didn’t even speak words out loud but just mouthed to God her prayer. Prayers of the heart that do not require words, just the groaning of the heart.
What do those prayers look like for us? Are they the kind where we just cry or shout or moan and tell God, “I’m ready for you to come down and fix this now. It is your turn, reach into this situation.”I think that is exactly how Hannah prayed.
Finally, when her prayers were mistaken for drunkenness, she responded NO.
Thankfully, when we reach that rock bottom point in life so much so that our prayers look like hysteria before God, we don’t have to worry about God not understanding. We may have to worry about the people around us misunderstanding our cries to God for help, but we have total assurance that God hears wordless prayers.
People are often the answer to my wordless prayers. When I could only see to do the one next right thing, when those around me, even my own family and closest friends did not understand or even spoke words that caused pain…God gave me others who recognized my pain and were willing to sit beside me in it. And because of that, I feel like the story of Hannah is my story. And because of that, I feel like the story of Hannah, might be some other people’s story, too.
Just as Hannah arose, and prayed, and declared that she was not beyond soberness of mind, so can we arise, mouth our wordless prayers before God, and know that God hears them and is always with us through them.
This story doesn’t exactly end with a nice big red bow all tied up and pretty. In the end, Hannah gives her son, Samuel, to God. But, she does write words, beautiful words, words that can soothe our souls when we too feel hopeless.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor. (1 Samuel 2:8 NRSV)
When the hopelessness of life’s circumstances bears down, may we find in Hannah a faithful response. May we arise from our weeping, offer wordless prayers to the Holy One, and refuse to hear the voices of critics. May we be people who say as Hannah said, “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God,” (1 Samuel 2:2 NRSV).