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Expectant Tears: Hannah in the Temple (1 Samuel 1) - March 20, 2014

By: Katey Zeh

1 Samuel 1:4-20:

On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 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. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
 

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
 

They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

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Hannah is in despair. Year after year, she longs for a child, but according to the scripture, “the Lord had closed her womb.” (vs.6) Tormented by her infertility, Hannah falls into a deep state of depression. She is inconsolable and unable even to eat. We learn earlier in the chapter that her husband’s other wife Peninnah has mothered numerous children, which only exacerbates Hannah’s agony over her own childlessness. Rather than providing compassion and support, Penninah taunts Hannah for being infertile.

Her husband Elkanah tries to comfort Hannah, assuring her that their marriage is more important than having offspring. “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad?” Elkanah asks. But she lacks the energy even to respond to her husband’s heartfelt questions. Somehow she musters the strength to enter the Lord’s temple. Hannah brings her tears, her brokenness, and her hopelessness before God in prayer. The intensity of her raw emotion pours through her voice as she pleads to be blessed with a child.

Hannah’s pain calls me to compassion. Her desperate prayer to God reminds me of the many times when I have felt deep emotional distress. How many of us have cried out to God something like, “If you answer this prayer, I will never ask for anything again”? Hannah promises that if her prayer is answered, she will set her child before God as a nazirite.  But according to Misheh Torah (Jewish law), only a father could dedicate a child as a nazirite, not a mother. Out of desperation, Hannah makes a promise she does not know if she can keep.

Her behavior in the temple must have been a stark contrast to the standards of acceptability at the time. Eli the priest, who observes her waves of grief as she cycles between wailing and silence, assumes that Hannah’s erratic behavior must be from drunkenness. He scolds her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?”  She assures him that she is not drunk but in despair: “I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” (vs.16)

Hannah does not hold back; the feelings are too strong for her to hide them. But in her moment of great vulnerability before God, Hannah is not met with compassion but instead is looked upon with suspicion and stigma by her faith leader. Like Eli, I have been guilty of perceiving others as dramatic or overreacting without first taking time to listen to their struggles. How often are we all distracted by our snap judgments of one another or blinded by our discomfort with difference that we are unable to see the suffering of a child of God in our midst? 

Hannah is extraordinary. For a woman living in ancient Israel, she is uncharacteristically assertive. From the uncensored display of her raw emotionality to her usurping of paternal power, Hannah disrupts the social order she inhabits to preserve her own dignity.  When wrongly accused, she does not hesitate to stand up for herself. “Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman,” she tells the priest.

I wonder, though, how was much of that is directed at Eli? Could she also be saying it to herself, to convince herself that she is not worthless? What fuels Hannah’s boldness in prayer and action is her desire to have a child because to be a “real woman” means to be a mother. Even with her husband’s reassurance of love, Hannah cannot move past the notion that unless she conceives and births a son, she is incomplete, inadequate. This expectation of motherhood is one far from her control, and yet it still causes immeasurable grief and suffering.

How many of us struggle like Hannah to feel like we are enough when we fall short of what is expected of us as women? The unfair expectations from our cultures, communities, families, and ourselves of what it means to be a “real woman” cause all of us suffer in our own ways. Some of us may harbor that hurt inwardly while we try to convince others that we are “ok.” Others of us may find ourselves weeping and praying before God that we might feel whole, worthy, and enough. 

The truth is that all of us are children of God with sacred worth. No judgment from another or feeling of inadequacy can diminish that. As the body of Christ, I believe it is central to our call that we claim this truth. How can we transform our communities to better reflect it? How can we become spaces of comfort and reassurance when the “Hannah”s amongst us forget that they have been made whole by God’s grace?

Throughout this year, we are asking all of you to journey with us in answering the question: What would the church look like if women and girls were seen as children of God with sacred worth? We invite you to share your hopes, visions, and realities with us.

*Thanks to Healthy Families, Healthy Planet Ambassador Amanda Rohrs-Dodge for her suggestions and biblical insight that helped shape this reflection.*

Discussion questions:

1. Has there been a time in your life when you have felt distress like Hannah? What did your prayer life look like during that time?
2. How do you perceive Eli’s initial response to Hannah in the temple? What motivates the way that he speaks to her?
3. In some ways, Hannah resists her culture while in other ways, she abides by its standards. How do women today experience this struggle between fulfilling societal expectations and embracing who they are as children of God?
4. What would the Church look like if women and girls were seen as children of God with sacred worth? Where do you see this happening now?