Hannah Wants a Child, Part 3

In parts one and two, we looked into Hannah’s culture as well as the words in her song to earn some insight into what God is showing us through her story. In this final post of the series, I want to consider some of the narrative details and structure that blew me away as I studied Hannah’s experience.

The book of 1 Samuel comes on the tail of Judges, one of the bloodiest, most violent books in the Bible. So to say that behavior is on the decline in Israel during this time is an understatement. In fact, later in chapter 2, we learn that the priesthood is in severe disarray. The narrator describes Eli’s sons as “worthless men,” and in great detail, describes their conniving exploits to steal the choice parts of sacrifices meant for God.

In setting the stage for Hannah’s plea, the narrator accentuates her plight through the repetition of references to Hannah’s closed womb and Peninnah’s provocation. “So it went on year by year,” he writes, “As often as she went up to the house of the Lord.” We get the sense from these first several verses of just how weighty this experience was for Hannah. Although I’m tempted to surmise what may have transpired year to year—Did Hannah respond in quiet, saintly suffering? Were insults slung back and forth?—the narrator focuses our attention on Hannah’s culminating action. After all these years, when she’s finally at the end of herself, she turns to God with a desperate request.

Now, making a vow in Biblical times was no small deal. Much different than, “God please give me a Tesla, and I promise I’ll use it for ministry,” Levitical law is strict on the importance of keeping the vows that you make: “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin...Be careful to do what has passed your lips” (Deuteronomy 23:21, 23).

The vow Hannah makes has major consequences. She is offering to send her tiny toddler into the care and keeping of a seriously imperfect priesthood, all so that she might participate in the calling of her people. If she had simply wanted extra hands in the field or a baby to snuggle or a reason to shut Peninnah up, I don't think she would have made such a high stakes vow. To help us understand the sensitivity of the situation, the narrator offers several small details designed to prick our hearts. “As soon as” Samuel is weaned (likely around age three), Hannah brings him to the temple. Twice the narrator comments on the immediacy with which she fulfills her vow, emphasizing not only her adherence to the law, but also Samuel’s youth. And to make sure he really drives the point home, the narrator explicitly concludes: “And the child was young.

Year by year, Hannah sews her growing boy a new little ephod. Can you imagine these cute little priestly garments, like a display at Baby Gap? Can you imagine delivering such a gift only once a year, once every 12 months when you get to see your son? In such a lawless time, what faith must Hannah have needed to leave her small boy in the care of a priesthood like that? But Hannah has seen the miraculous provision of God in her own life, and she trusts in Him for the life and wellbeing of her son.

As we zoom out a bit from these small narrative details, we can also see structural comparisons that the narrator is making throughout the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. Hannah’s story sets the stage for the rise and fall of the monarchy. Within these two books, we see several sets of contrasting characters—Hannah and Eli, Eli’s sons and Samuel, and ultimately, proud King Saul and humble David. These characters remind us again and again that God favors humility.

In Proverbs 3:34, we read, “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.” This proverb is referenced in both 1 Peter 5:5 and James 4:6, translated to “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” James draws the same connection for us as we see in Hannah’s story: “humble yourself before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).

Hannah models this sacrificial humility in the way that she pursues God’s calling for Israel to bless the nations. She should remind us of another humble child of God, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:5-9).

Hannah’s humble submission of her son to the priesthood would bless the nation of Israel. And in that way, she also reminds us of the Father, willing to send His Son into danger, to be the sacrifice for us.

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