God Never Forgets His Own
There is this great passage in the Haftarah section of the synagogue service for Rosh Hashanah. It is the one about Hannah and her prophetic prayer in 1Samuel 1 & 2.
Rabbis have chosen this passage because they relate to how God remembered Hannah in 1:19 and they connected it with the remembrance in this feast of Yom Terouah (Feast of Trumpets) also known as Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance). Indeed, God never forgets His own. For the rabbis, this choice of passage was to emphasize the importance of preparing themselves for the Day of Judgment which falls on the Day of Atonement.
As for all believers, when one considers the life and faith of Hannah, especially in a world of injustices and of personal crisis, one has so much to learn from her. What brought this young woman to rise so high and to have such an elevated place in the Scriptures? Although she is spoken of only in the first two chapters, we see how her actions have had an influence on Israel’s storyline.
The Book of Samuel begins at a time when the nation of Israel was at its lowest spiritual condition. The history leading up to the first chapter of Samuel is found in the Book of Judges, one of the saddest of the Scriptures. Israel, it seemed, was at the end of her rope. Through these 13 judges we meet in the Book of Judges, we learn that man could not reform himself and even less so, their own nation of Israel and the world around.
Enthusiasm Leading to Despair
The beginning of Judges started with much enthusiasm as the people began occupying the land God gave them. Since there were many enemies in the land, this book begins with the question, “Who shall be first to go up for us against the Canaanites to fight against them?” (Judges 1:1) which is then answered by the Lord, And the LORD said, “Judah shall go up. Indeed, I have delivered the land into his hand.” (1:2) This answer was given according to Jacob’s prophecy (Genesis 49:10) which speaks of the One, Shiloh, the Messiah who will rise from Judah and save Israel. This was the one who was expected to come, however, no one from Judah rose up. Not only at the beginning, but throughout the entire book. In fact, the phrase In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes is repeated 4 times (17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25) with these final words at the end of the last chapter, everyone did what was right in his own eyes (21:25).
And what is particular about Hannah’s story is that hers looks so much like that of her own nation Israel at the time. Both were surrounded and oppressed by shepherds who did not know how to lead. While some of them tried, they themselves were submerged, even bullied by these evil, more powerful individuals (Eli’s sons) who fully gave themselves to do what seemed good in their own eyes. No one seemed to restrain them.
From Despair to Deliverance
But this is when God found a devout woman named Hannah. We learn that she was barren but because of her faith and her prayers, the LORD miraculously touched her. She gave birth to a son, Samuel. Coming from the priestly line, he would later anoint David as King. The Davidic line would then continue until the last King of Judah – Yeshua the Messiah, who came to save the world.
One Too Many
Let us now look at the way the Scriptures bring us into the story. We begin with Hannah’s husband, Elkanah and read from vs.2 He had two wives: the name of one was Hannah and the name of the other Peninnah; and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. Here we are told that her husband Elkanah loved Hannah, but see how the verse begins, And he had two wives. Every time there is more than one wife in the Bible, you can expect a lot of trouble. Here, Elkanah’s heart was divided between grace and beauty. The name Hannah means grace and Peninnah means beauty, typically external beauty. We also learn that Peninnah had many children. And so, Elkanah was perhaps too busy to love Hannah. Not only was she lonely but as we read, she was also barren. And adding to that despair, Peninnah constantly persecuted her, as we read in vs.6 Her rival, moreover, would provoke her bitterly to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.
The word rival is Zarah from zar, meaning enemy. So, it was not a happy family as Hannah was suffering and Elkanah could not bring order into the house. He also made matters even worse. We read in vs.5 that he loved his wife Hannah more than the other one and he gave her a double portion. But that was not a wise move for surely it contributed to Peninnah’s increased hatred for Hannah.
And take note that the word translated double is, strangely enough, in the Hebrew, the same word for anger, one which describes a burning face. Only here in this passage is it translated as double. What then is the message here? One translation, (the Douay Bible) translated it as a portion of sorrow. Translating the word this way makes it more contextual. It is as if the Spirit inspired the right words to describe such a sad situation.
Hannah Takes to Praying
But, this is really the beginning of Hannah’s great story, for despite this ongoing misery and chaos, she arose and went directly to God. This is what the next verse tells us. And see what she promises to God in vs.11 “O LORD of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head.”
Hannah had not much to give except her most cherished hope, a child she so desired. But let us pause for a moment and try to figure all this out. What drove Hannah to make such a promise to God? Why give away her utmost desire even before she has it? Wouldn’t she want to keep the son she longed for so many years to have? What is behind this vow which seems to have changed so many things, including the Israel’s own dilemma?
Hannah’s True Motive
Reading the text for the first time, one would have concluded that Hannah’s prayer sought a way out from the constant bickering of her husband’s other wife. Hannah’s petition might also have come because she wanted to save her reputation in the community, for a childless woman was not well esteemed at the time. If this was the case, why would she stand out from any other woman who was in a similar situation, and why would she be given such inspired prophecy in her prayer of thanks, one that remained embedded in the scriptures forever?
What we can ascertain is that this extraordinary woman was in distress and wept, not so much because of her personal condition, but because of the spiritual state Israel was in. She was very sensitive to the sin and chaos in the Tabernacle and in the religious leadership of Israel. God found a partner in her.
We can understand this underlying motive from the song which we read in chapter 2. It is a prophetic song which covers the whole history of Israel and even alludes to the Messiah. This woman had indeed a great influence on the history of Israel.