Hannah Wants a Child, Part 1

When trying to understand and apply Biblical narrative, some of our usual Bible study techniques can fall short. Diagramming sentences, for instance, doesn’t always give us the kind of insight into a story as it does for a poem in the Psalms or one of the apostles’ letters. So in the seminar I taught this summer, I explained several study principles for reading Biblical narrative, with a particular emphasis on how those principles can help us understand some of the more difficult stories of women. In this three part blog series, I want to share just some of the ways that God has opened up the story of Hannah for me as I’ve applied these methods. My hope is that it might inspire your own time in the Bible, especially for those of you (like me!) who have shied away from narrative before.

The story of Hannah is found in 1 Samuel 1-2. At the beginning of this book, we read about a man named Elkanah who has two wives. His first wife, Hannah, has no children, but the second wife, Peninnah has several. Hannah is greatly distressed by her barrenness, which is only compounded by Peninnah’s relentless mocking. On a particular pilgrimage to the temple, Hannah is so grieved that she refuses to eat. In a state of near hysteria (that is actually mistaken for drunkenness by the priest), she pleads before the Lord that he would give her a child. If God would only grant her a son, Hannah vows to dedicate him to formal, lifelong service to the Lord. After hearing her explanation, the priest, Eli, recognizes Hannah’s great faith and sends her home with a blessing of hope.

At this point in the narrative, a little cultural context (our first study tool) is useful. Why does Hannah want a child so badly? For some readers, a deep desire to conceive and bear children makes Hannah’s story easily relatable. Yet, even though this desire is a powerful driving force in the lives of many, we miss some key details of Hannah’s story if we assume to understand exactly what she is going through. Or—depending on our own disposition—we may instead wonder why she can’t just get over it and find some other passion to pursue. However, in Hannah’s culture, bearing children was more than a life goal or personal dream; it was the basic human expectation for women.

Hannah lived during the early Iron Age, a time when the Israelites were dispersed throughout the promised land in small agricultural villages. A typical village household would include the patriarch’s wife or wives, maybe a brother and his wife, an elderly widowed aunt or mother, and any unmarried children. This collection of several family members all worked together as a small community, following the seasons of agricultural life.

Once married, a woman of this era would join her new husband’s household and contribute to sustaining the home and farm. Children were additional hands for work as well as a hope for the family legacy and a widow’s well-being in years to come. Monogamous marriages were actually the ideal, but if the first wife was unable to have children, it was common for the husband to take a second wife to continue his family line. And, while motherhood was a general expectation for women of most cultures in this period, bearing children was especially important for Israelites, who viewed God’s charge to Adam to “be fruitful and multiply” as a command for their nation.

Given these typical practices, there’s a good chance that Penninah’s existence in the family is a direct result of Hannah’s barrenness. Since Hannah cannot have children, it would have been culturally expected for Elkanah to take a second wife. When I read in the text that Penninah would “provoke her grievously,” I cannot imagine what Hannah must have endured—sadness over expectations dashed, shame in not contributing to God’s call for Israel to fill the earth, bitterness in imagining what life could have been like as sole matriarch. Around the home, Hannah would still need to train Penninah’s daughters in household tasks, as all the women worked together to prepare meals, weave rugs and baskets, and help with the harvest. Did those young girls pick up on the provocation of their mother and emulate it? Did Hannah find herself the subject of off-hand jokes around the grinding stone? Did she seek out solitary tasks to get away from it all?

Archaeologists suggest that a prevalent response to barrenness was sacrificing to fertility goddesses. Small altars were common in these agricultural homes, where women regularly gave offerings in hopes to conceive children, to sustain pregnancies, and to survive birth. In Hannah’s culture, we might expect her to turn to these superstitions, yet the text does not go there. So what do we make of Hannah given these cultural details? And more importantly, what does her story teach us about God and His relationship with humanity?

In part two of this series, we will look at what Hannah says about her theology, and part three will consider the narrative details and structure that provide further insight as we study Hannah’s story. But for now, I will leave you with one final detail: Hebrew naming is considered particularly significant. Unlike our modern practice of picking a color or a food craving, Hebrew names are chosen carefully and are often considered prophetic—a key to the soul of the one named. For this reason, the meaning of a character’s name can be a narrative device used to foreshadow events to come. And Hannah’s name? It means “favored.”

Read Part 2 >>

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