The Wisdom of Hannah


I wrote this for a ward RS board meeting, just after finishing my third semester of Hebrew. And I was sooooo proud of what I could do! Now, it looks naive and sentimental to me.

On one level I cringe as I read it, but on another I smile as I remember what it was like in those wonderful, happy, first days of being able to actually deal with scripture. I was free of the constraints of English and of the enforced interpretation of another’s translation — free forever.

Read and smile with me, won’t you?

–Dissy-writing Mogget

The Wisdom of Hannah

Like many of the Bible’s great stories, the tale of the childless Hannah’s petition for her son Samuel is very short. Hannah’s husband is Elkanah. He has a second wife named Peninnah, by whom he has a number of children. The family makes a yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh. Shiloh is under the care of the over-tolerant Eli and his two thuggish sons, Hophni and Phineas. Each year during their stay at Shiloh, Peninnah torments Hannah over her barren condition, causing her to weep and to refuse participation in the ritual meal. Finally, Hannah takes the matter to the Lord and Samuel is born – Elkanah being something of an afterthought in the whole process.

Readings of this story traditionally focus on Hannah’s distress, seeing it solely in terms of a lack of fulfillment of her maternal instincts and perhaps a desire for relief from her co-wife Peninnah’s provocations. But this is too simple an analysis. It seems to me that there is a difference between Rachel’s lament to Jacob: “Give me children or I’ll die,” (Gen 30:1) and Hannah’s petition: “Lord of Host, if you really will look on your servants’ woe…and give your servant male seed, I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life…” (1Sam 1:11) Rachel’s lament is focused strictly inward, on herself. But Hannah’s petition has both an inward and an outward component. Hannah seems to think that the boy baby she’s asking for might also be something the Lord could use as well. In fact, she’s so sure of it that she makes it the centerpiece of her petition!

Now if this is the case, and I think it may be, then it has some significant consequences for our understanding of Hannah. Among other things, Hannah goes from being a simple country girl sunk in her own misery and waiting in a sort of mindless faith and humility to an alert, intelligent woman with the initiative to attempt a partnership with the Lord. So as we read the story together, I am going to point out more reasons why I think these things to be the case and to suggest a broader appraisal both of Hannah’s virtues and of how an appreciation for them might influence us.

Background Violence

We have already mentioned the violence within Hannah’s immediate family. At this particular time in Israel’s history, extraordinary conflict and violence were also playing out on the national scene. The book of First Samuel comes right after Judges and Judges relates a dark and bitter tale of Israelite decline after entering their Promised Land. Six judges rule Israel and none leave a legacy of lasting peace and justice. In fact, the cycle of oppression and deliverance enacted under each judge is actually a descending spiral so that by the time the last judge, the morally and eventually physically blind Samson is born, the people do not even seem to know to ask for deliverance!

With the death of Samson, the violence escalates into anarchy. The all-night gang-rape of the Levite’s concubine coupled with his scurrilous and self-serving report of the affair sets off a civil war. At the conclusion, tens of thousands of Israelites on both sides are dead and only 600 men remain in the tribe of Benjamin. This situation is further aggravated by the oaths taken by the other tribes to prohibit the intermarriage required to rebuild the decimated tribe (Judges 19-20).

When the last chapter of Judges opens, the tribal leaders have softened enough to regret the loss of a complete tribe, but their remedy is seriously flawed. Rather than relenting enough to allow intermarriage, they opt to destroy the town of Jabesh-gilead for its refusal to participate in the initial civil war while saving alive its 400 virgin-daughters, whom they present to the remaining men of Benjamin. Then, to meet the need for an additional 200 virgins, they conspire with the Benjamites to capture and rape-marry 200 of the daughters of Shiloh when they leave the safety of it walls to dance in the annual festival to the Lord. The author of Judges sums up this godless anarchy beautifully with his final statement, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Jdg 21:26)

But the violence didn’t stop at the end of Judges and it wasn’t limited to the political leadership in Israel. The sanctuary at Shiloh, which still housed the Ark of the Covenant, fully reflected the larger decline in Israel. Hophni and Phineas, sons of Eli the current priest, are described as base fellows (lit., sons of Belial), as abusing those who came to worship, and as treating the offering of the Lord with contempt (1 Sam 2:12-18), and are elsewhere accused of engaging in sexual relationships with the women who came to the sanctuary (1 Sam 2:22). When this behavior is reported to Eli, he rebukes his sons but it seems that he has waited too long (1 Sam 2:22-25). His sons to do not listen to him; their inattention to Lord will culminate in loss of the Ark to the Philistines (1 Sam 4-6).

So why this long, bloody, distasteful introduction to what should be a short, sweet story? To make the point that the political and religious climate in Israel was simply abysmal. The Philistines were always on the offensive. There were no righteous characters in any of Israel’s traditional leadership positions, either religious or political, and no sign of any in the rising generation. The Lord most certainly did need “a man to serve him all the days of his life!”

Hannah’s Story

The first character mentioned is Elkanah. His lineage is given in the traditional manner and is noteworthy only for its lack of noteworthiness. He has lead his family up to Shiloh on their annual pilgrimage and the annual bickering has commenced. In a slight interruption, however, the characters of Hophni and Phineas are introduced. Although no evil behavior is reported, the passive report of only their presence when contrasted with Elkanah’s interest in worship suggests that the larger story’s antagonists have been introduced.

The action begins with Elkanah’s response to Hannah’s distress: “Why do you weep and why do you not eat and why is your heart afflicted? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” I think that we can safely assume that Elkanah does, in fact, love Hannah. But his response is marred. At the trivial level, a more sensitive consolation might have been offered by altering the final question to something along the lines of “Are you not better to me than ten sons?”

At a higher level, note that Elkanah does not rebuke Peninnah for creating disorder and most importantly, he does not intervene with the Lord on Hannah’s behalf as Isaac did for Rebekah (Gen 25:21). Perhaps Elkanah, like the Israelites at the time of Samson, is satisfied with the current situation. After all, he has both children and a wife unmarked by childbirth! In any case, the initiative now passes from Elkanah and will not return – from here on out, Hannah dominates the story. The narrator says that Samuel’s heritage is the Lord – and he appears to have claimed that heritage through his mother rather than his father.

Hannah Goes to the Temple

Hannah makes no response to Elkanah, nor does she respond to Peninnah even to point out who is actually the preferred wife. I think this is significant. The narrator shares with us that the “Lord had closed up [Hannah’s] womb” (1Sam 1:5,7) and Hannah likewise seems to sense that Elkanah and Peninnah are neither the source of her challenges nor their solution. So when she decides to act, she’s disciplined about it and wastes neither time nor energy on either of them. Instead, once the festival is complete she gets up and goes to the temple to talk to the Lord.

Hannah’s visit to the temple begins with an interruption to mention the chief priest. Eli is said simply to be sitting in a chair by the door (1Sam 1:9). The first sign that the narrator does not think highly of him is the absence of any mention of a paternal lineage. Like the earlier introduction of his sons Hophni and Phineas, no mention of evil behavior is made. Nevertheless, there is reason to wonder about him. The first view of him is one of repose, while throughout Israel “every man [does] what is right in his own eyes.” Is the key to cleaning up Israel changing the passive behavior of its priesthood leadership? Perhaps, for it is Samuel who will eventually take Eli’s place and the mention of him in a seated or reclining posture is very rare.

The narrator takes great pains in describing the details of Hannah’s prayer. She is said to be deeply embittered, she prays soundlessly although her lips move, and she weeps the entire time. Although we do not know the precise words of her prayer, we do know the vow which seems to have been its climax:

“Lord of Hosts, if you really will look on your servant’s woe and remember me, and forget not your servant and give your servant male seed, I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, no razor shall touch his head.”

Why does Hannah want this baby? First, it should be clearly stated that these stories of barren women are to be understood in the light of the prevalent ancient Near Eastern view that a woman’s one great avenue to fulfillment in life was through the bearing of sons. And I think that that pretty much sums up Rachel’s state of mind when she said “Give me children or I’ll die” to Jacob (Gen 30:1). But I’m not sure we should blithely assume that this is all there is to every woman in every annunciation story until we have examined each of them in context and detail.

In Hannah’s case in particular, I think that while she definitely wants a child, there’s more. Notice that Hannah does not want him so that he will be Elkanah’s heir, which was very important in her culture and which would have exacted a terrible revenge on Peninnah. And she doesn’t want him for herself. In fact, she’s very careful about seeing that he does “serve the Lord all the days of his life.” She gave him up to the sanctuary at Shiloh when he was somewhere around five years old, which, if I understand what women with children say, is right after the hard part is done and just before it starts to get fun. So the traditional understanding must be re-examined.

I think that the title, “Lord of Hosts,” by which Hannah addresses God is a key to understanding her thoughts. It is very unusual for several reasons. This is the first time this title is used in direct address to God and its only use by a woman. (Later it will become a very popular title in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah, among others.) The word “hosts” in this title is a reference to a military host and the entire title addresses God in his role as a warrior who defeats the wicked to bring justice and peace to the land. It is certainly an odd title for a woman to use when she’s asking for a baby! In fact, I can think of only two broad categories in which to understand this usage:

1) Hannah wants a baby who will take on evil and bring peace and justice.

2) Hannah wants to bring it gently to God’s attention that he needs to devote some effort to dealing with evil and establishing peace and justice.

In either case, there is evidence that Hannah’s petition is more than a request for fulfillment of her maternal instincts. And that title, that very, very unusual title on the lips of a woman, must be given its full weight. Hannah wants a baby, so she offers the Lord a man; one who will confront wickedness. God’s not bargaining in babies or indulging a maudlin woman, he’s accepting a proffered partnership in his own work. It’s an offer he can’t refuse!

One other important item for understanding Hannah’s state of mind is her triumph-song (1Sam 2:1-10). Two other women in the OT sing triumph-songs: Miriam, the sister of Moses sings one at the Red Sea (Ex 16) and Deborah the prophet, judge, general and mother in Israel also sings one after defeating the Philistines (Judges 5). Hannah’s song is every bit the equal of theirs. Significantly, it is delivered at Samuel’s dedication, not his birth. So while Hannah certainly must have been happy when Samuel was born, her joy culminated when he entered the service of the Lord. I am sure that the ensuing separation was painful, but I think it possible that Hannah envisioned Samuel’s end from his very beginning.

The End of the Story

How does the story end? Hannah comes up to Shiloh every year and brings Samuel a new cloak. She seems to have done this until she died because these cloaks become somewhat a “signature item” for him. When the Witch of Endor summons him back from the dead at Saul’s request, Samuel is recognized by his cloak.

Samuel himself ascends first to Eli’s position and from there to national leadership, serving in the offices of prophet, priest, and (de facto) judge. Under his leadership there was a powerful movement to national repentance and a reversal of Philistine depredations. When Israel shifted into a monarchy, Samuel surrendered some elements of his national role and, in fact, anointed both Saul and David for their positions. At Samuel’s death, a national assembly was called to mourn his passing (1 Sam 25:1). A good synopsis of Samuel’s effect on Israel is found at 1 Sam 3:19-21:

“And Samuel grew up and the Lord was with him, and He let not fall to the ground any of his words. And all Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel was stalwart as a prophet to the Lord. And the Lord continued to appear in Shiloh…. and Samuel’s word was upon all Israel.”

While it must be said that everything didn’t go perfectly under Samuel, there was no more talk about “every man [doing] what was right in his own eyes!” Thus it would seem that the hand that rocked the cradle of Samuel also steadied the Israelite world for several generations.

Mogget Musings

Having kind of dissed the traditional RS reading, I actually do think that we should retain our understanding of Hannah as a woman of faith and humility. But I also think that we should also consider how these virtues are modulated by intelligence and initiative.

I think that there may be a time for crying; I think that there is definitely a time for dealing with what makes us cry. I think the absence of a vindictive reaction is worth noting; I think we should ponder how an even temper affects those around us.

I think we should support the men with whom we share our lives and who lead us, but I think that complacency is complicity when it comes to misfortune and evil. (And when we must distinguish between support and complacency, the single solution is to talk to the Lord in his temple.)

But beyond all that, I think that Hannah’s basic insight is perhaps the most valuable part of her legacy: the Lord needed a man to serve him all the days of his life and she became a partner in meeting that need.

And I guess that this idea of partnership speaks strongly to me on many levels and in many circumstances. What’s needed? What can you contribute? Can you make your contribution without disrupting the entire organization? Can you look around and see what needs to be done, then do it intelligently?

Can you be a partner in someone else’s endeavor, meeting the needs of others while working for your own needs? If so, that’s what I call wisdom, the wisdom of Hannah.

2 Replies to “The Wisdom of Hannah”

  1. I agree with Kurt, Mogget. I thought it was fine.

    Particularly insightful was the commentary on Elkanah’s motivations–how he was probably happy with the status quo.

    On Saturday I saw Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” It was interesting that during the long period it took to produce a child, everyone was on her case and blaming her, even though she was perfectly hot and perfectly willing, and the lack of sexual intimacy between them was her husband’s failing.

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