She lived in an era when infertility was regarded as a curse from God.
What's worse, while it was thought that the male's contribution to a pregnancy was all one needed to make a baby, it was also deemed to be the woman's fault if she didn't conceive.
Her name was Hannah. She lived during the 11th.-century BC, in what would turn out to be the waning days of that era of Old Testament Israel's history when judges ruled the nation. Forbidden to have any ruler but God, God would periodically call leaders referred to as judges. They led Israel into battle against its enemies when wars arose and arbitrated internal disputes that came about. After they fulfilled their responsibilities to God and people, the judges returned to their former lives.
(The judges were somewhat akin to Cincinnatus, the Fifth-century BC Roman leader whose life is shrouded in myth, but who is thought to have willingly walked away from political and military power in order to return to his plow. George Washington is rightly thought of as a real-life American Cincinnatus and it was in honor of him that a city on the Ohio River, Cincinnati, was named.)
Hannah was one of two wives to an Israelite named Elkanah. (Monogamy had not yet been established as the proscribed norm for God's people.) If Hannah's barrenness weren't a difficult enough burden for her to bear, her husband's other wife made matters worse. The other wife, Penninah, was seen as a rival for Elkanah's affections and the Bible says:
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.Perhaps typically for a man, Elkanah was clueless. He observed Hannah's weeping and wondered:
“Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”It was true that Elkanah cared deeply for Hannah. We're told:
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...But his love for her wasn't the issue: Hannah wanted a child!
And, as a practical matter, whatever consolation Hannah might take from the devotion of her husband and whatever provisions he might make for her upon his death, the fact is that, in that that world, sons were valued for their power not only to continue the family line, but also to provide for their mothers when they grew old. On Elkanah's death, Hannah would be without a family and, likelier than not, without property, too.
No wonder then that Hannah went to pray earnestly for a child. “O Lord of hosts," she prayed:
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.”(A Nazirite was a person who took vows of devotion to God, vows that included the stipulations in Hannah's prayer.)
Hannah prayed so earnestly, so desperately, that the priest, a man named Eli, thought that she was drunk. He told her to sober up! But she explained:
“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.”Eli, who would spend a lifetime struggling with being faithful to God, was impressed when he observed genuine piety, real-life submission to God. This is the quality that he saw in Hannah. Moved by Hannah's faith, Eli told her:
“Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”Hannah had her child, a boy named Samuel. True to her word, she took Samuel to be raised by Eli, where he would begin a lifetime of devoted service to God. The priest, an indulgent father to his own three worthless sons, turned out to be a positive influence on Samuel, in whom he saw the same sort of faith in God he'd observed in Hannah.
In Samuel, the answer to her prayers, Hannah saw something of the nature of God. The Song of Hannah, recorded in First Samuel, chapter 2, was obviously a portion of the Bible with which Mary, the earthly mother of Jesus, was familiar. Her own Magnificat would be patterned after Hannah's song:
“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 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. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”Why do I love this story so? Several reasons:
(1) It assures us that there are no hopeless cases for those willing to put themselves in God's hands. Centuries later, Jesus would teach His disciples that "with God, all things are possible." However big the problems that daunt us, God is bigger!
Of course, Hannah knew that when she asked God for a son, His answer to that prayer may have been, "No." That's the chance all who bring their cases before God take.
But having concluded that trying to get whatever they want on their own steam and not getting it doesn't work, they submit to God.
The hardest prayer any Christian ever has to utter is, "Your will be done." We say those word almost every time we worship, when we recite the Lord's Prayer. But merely reciting the words of that petition and truly meaning them are often two different things.
I've seen God give too many affirmative answers to prayer...and seen the wisdom of His other answers: "No," "Maybe," and "Wait," to doubt that there simply are no hopeless situations. Hannah would agree!
(2) It underscores the essential link between desperation and prayer. Until we're desperate enough to admit our need of God and surrender unstintingly to His will, we may engage in religious talk, but it's doubtful that we've really prayed. Hannah prayed.
(3) It affirms that we all yearn for an authentic connection to God. Eli was a priest all his life. He handled the things of God with regularity. But his faith seems not to have really penetrated into his will or life. He couldn't get up close and personal with God. His was an institutional religion. He and his nation had grown so far from God that, in spite of how things apparently should be for people of faith, "The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread" (First Samuel 3:1).
But when Eli saw the faith of Hannah, as we've seen, he wished her well.
When he later saw that God had His hand on Samuel, he encouraged the boy and respected his place in God's plans.
I've found that often, the most hardened atheists respect people of authentic faith. "I wish I had what you have," they tell the humble pious with whom they cross paths.
God is our Father, after all, and we all want to feel connected to our Father.
(4) It tells us that God specializes in bringing down the arrogant and lifting up the humble. Hannah felt that she, derided by others, misunderstood even by her loving husband, had, in the birth of her son, been blessed by God. Whether in this life or most assuredly, in the next, God always honors those who entrust themselves and their cause to Him.