11.20.2015

Hannah

Hannah Giving Her Son to the Priest (Jan Victors, 1645)

A while back, I became intensely interested in Hannah of Old Testament fame.  I can’t remember what initially sparked my interest… I just started thinking about her and couldn’t stop.  It seemed that everywhere I turned, I would see or hear something about Hannah.  I began specifically studying her, which led to a crazy intense study of first and second Samuel over the course of the next 2 years.  I don’t know how many times I went back and reread Hannah’s story.
Since then, the Lord showed me why He continued to guide me back to Hannah, which maybe I’ll share about sometime.  I think it’s safe to say that she’s my favorite lady in the Bible and she’ll always have a special place in my heart.  I’ve heard people say, “When I get to Heaven, after I see the Lord, I’m gonna go see so-and-so.” If that notion holds any water at all, then I’ll be going to see Hannah.  She’s my sister of long ago.

It’s a familiar story to most, but I’d like to share this piece I wrote about her sometime during the time I was spending so much time “with” her.

I hope you enjoy!

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Is there anybody who hasn’t heard of David?

It’s practically one of the first Bible stories any of us ever hear.  He was the red-faced kid who didn’t like the king’s fancy armor and, sing it with me… he hit the giant in the head and the giant came tumbling down.

But all that stuff? It’s in the middle of 1st Samuel.  It’s in the middle of the FIRST book.  And there’s more stuff in other books, too.  There’s a whole convoluted storyline before we ever meet David.  And there’s a whole, whole lot that happens after.  I’m tired just thinking about it.
Reliable Ruth reliably works in the fields of Boaz and hubba hubba makes herself comfortable sitting at his feet.  They bat their eyelashes at one another, get married, and start working on David’s immediate family tree.  But probably around the time that their grandson Jesse was just getting started good on his adult life, a few miles up the road another story was unfolding that seems totally unrelated.  It’s the story of another beginning point for David.

And it begins with the tears of a woman.

About 50 miles north of Bethlehem, there was a place which the King James Scripture calls Ramathaimzophim.  Fit that on a souvenir t-shirt.  And in this tongue-twister of a place (more commonly called Ramah, thank goodness) lived a man named Elkanah.  Specifically, he was from the “hill country of Ephraim.” Elkanah was a mountain man – we’ll call him a country boy.  He had a big, bushy beard and he wore plaid robes and he loved to eat pancakes and hunt camels probably.  Ok, out of all of that, the only part that’s likely accurate is that he had a big, bushy beard.  But I don’t think that was so unusual back then.

What do we actually know about Elkanah? Well, we know his limited family tree going back a few generations, we know that he had 2 wives, and we know that he was a pretty responsible guy when it came to the requirements of worship back then as well as when it came to loving and taking care of his family.

Once a year, as was the tradition and the requirement of Mosaic Law, Elkanah would load up the ox carts and haul the whole family to the town of Shiloh to worship and make their sacrifice in the tabernacle that was there.  Now, according to the law, making this particular kind of sacrifice includes taking portions of it and making a “solemn feast” out of it for your household for the next week (see Deuteronomy 12:5-7, 16:10-15).

Shiloh was somewhere between 7 and 12 miles from Ramah, which sounds like a fairly negligible distance to us.  If you’re going on vacation, once you’re 7-12 miles from your destination, you’re pretty much there, right? Since Elkanah’s family was likely travelling by foot or, best case scenario, riding some kind of animals or in wagons pulled by animals, it wasn’t what we would consider luxury travel.  A biblical “day’s journey” or approximately 8 hours of travel on a donkey carrying a load is thought to have covered 20-25 miles, so they might have been travelling for 3 or 4 hours, which isn’t too bad but certainly enough to make everybody tired and dirty.

The next day, maybe, after arriving, getting settled, and resting for the night, they took their critter they brought for the sacrifice (which had to be something pretty big if they were going to eat on it for a week, so maybe what the Bible calls a “bullock” – a young, male bovine of some sort), and headed to the tabernacle.  There, the priests sacrificed the animal and burned it on the altar while Elkanah and his family worshipped and prayed.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this time of prayer and worship probably didn’t look like the kind of prayers we say before we eat.  People who knew the law and understood their place under it recognized that through the burning flesh of that animal came their justification.  This yearly sacrifice not only symbolized forgiveness of sin, but was also a sign of loyalty to the one true God of Israel and was meant to call to remembrance that God is the giver of every blessing.  He gives and he takes away and blessed is His name.  This was a serious thing.  Watching their animal be killed, seeing its blood run down the side of the altar, smelling the smoke that rose from its flesh as it burned, and hoping that God was pleased by it all… well, I imagine that would cause anybody to get pretty serious.  And so they worshipped there and this was a tiring process as well, I’m sure.  So, when they finally were ready to sit down to their feast, they were likely very anxious for it.

So, they all sat down around this big slab of meat and Elkanah looks around the table at his family.  He looks to one side and sees his wife Peninnah and the shining little faces of the children she’s borne him and his heart swells with pride and affection.  He cuts off a portion of the meat and sets it aside for them.  But when he looks to his other side, his eyes fall on his wife Hannah, sitting all alone.  Sweet, sad Hannah.  And he cuts a “worthy” portion for her because he loved her, it says.

Let’s look at this multiple-wife problem.  Now, we’ve said that Elkanah was a good man and that he loved the Lord and did like he was supposed to, but we also know that God didn’t set things up to include one man having more than one wife.  God blesses us in spite of our mistakes, fortunately.  God wanted man to have a companionship sufficient to his needs; that’s what “a help meet for him” means.  A one-to-one relationship is supposed to be what fulfils that.  We’re made for monogamy.  In Elkanah’s situation (as well as in other polygamous situations in the Bible), there is a favorite.  Why is there a favorite? Because we’re hardwired to want a one-to-one kind of relationship.  So, Elkanah loves Hannah.  He does right by Peninnah and the children he’s had by her and fulfills his obligation… but he loves Hannah.

Oh dear.

Rewind to the point where Elkanah is cutting a serving for Hannah.  “Worthy portion” might mean a double portion or it might just mean he gave her a very choice cut of meat.  As in, maybe he cut off a chuck roast for Peninnah since she needed more to feed the kids, but when he got ready to cut Hannah’s part, it was a beautiful little filet mignon.  Peninnah is busy cutting up everybody’s food and cleaning up spilled water and picking macaroni and cheese out of somebody’s hair when she glances over and notices that Elkanah and Hannah are having a quiet conversation over their steak dinner.  Ouch.  Peninnah’s chuck roast starts looking a little gristly and her heart seizes up with jealousy.

And so, she does what women sometimes do out of jealousy.  She begins to work at cutting Hannah down.  Peninnah is referred to as Hannah’s adversary in the scriptures and it says that she provoked Hannah.  And Peninnah wasn’t messing around either.  She went straight for Hannah’s most tender spot.  She made Hannah fret because the LORD had shut up her womb.  In fact, Hannah was so upset that all she did was cry.  She wouldn’t even eat.  Elkanah tried to help and I have to say that he does sound like a really sweet husband with his “Don’t cry, sugar… here, eat something, honey… you’ve got me, sweetheart… remember I’m here with you… and surely I’m better than even ten sons, right, darlin’?” But to no avail.

Peninnah wanted what what Hannah had, Hannah wanted what Peninnah had… and poor Elkanah!

Hannah could find no peace, so she gave the only thing she had to the only One who could fix it.  She went to the tabernacle and gave her word to her God.

O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid,
and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid,
but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child,
then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life,
and there shall no razor come upon his head.

And she prayed.  And she prayed.  And she continued praying.  And I picture her, this lovely woman in all her draping robes and head covering, knelt on a hard stone floor with her upturned face all tear-streaked and shining, so intent in her prayer and so oblivious to anything other reaching God that she was mouthing silently and gently rocking back and forth.  This is the example of prayer that comes to mind when I catch myself wondering if those under the old law really prayed like we pray.  It’s hard for me to imagine all the rituals.  I can’t imagine the smells of the burning sacrifices and the spices they used.  But Hannah’s actions on this day are familiar to me.

I don’t know how familiar they were to the old priest, Eli, because he thought Hannah was drunk.  “How long will you be drunk? Get rid of your wine,” he said to her.  “Oh no, my lord, I’m not drunk; I’m pouring out my soul before the LORD,” she replied and, hearing this, he sent her away with his blessing.

And what does the very next verse say?

That Hannah went her way and ate and wasn’t sad anymore.

Wait a minute. 

Did I miss something?

She put her petition before the LORD.  She prayed intensely.  And she got up and left the tabernacle.  It doesn’t say that God answered her.  It doesn’t say that she got up from her prayer with the knowledge that she would indeed have a child.

Herein lies one of the great lessons we can learn from Hannah.  In fact, we can even break it down into three easy (ish) steps:

1. Hannah’s heart was troubled.
2. Hannah placed her troubles in the hands of her Lord.
3. Hannah didn’t think about it anymore.

Easy, right? Well, it would be if it weren’t for that -ish part.  That -ish refers to our human nature and our dogged tendency to try to fix things ourselves, which means that really the only easy step out of those three is the first one.  It’s really easy for our hearts to become troubled.  And it’s really easy for our hearts to stay troubled.  Like Job said, our lives are short and full of trouble.  What a bummer.

Imagine a different set of steps:

1. Hannah’s heart was troubled.
2. Hannah continued to worry and be miserable.

That seems pretty familiar to me.  How about this one:

1. Hannah’s heart was troubled.
2. Hannah said she had placed her troubles in the hands of her Lord.  And she sort of did… a little bit.  Maybe…
3. Hannah continued to worry and be miserable.

Yeah, that one sounds way familiar.  Because I know with my brain that I can’t fix my own troubles and I know with my brain that I’m supposed to hand those things over to God so He can fix them, since He’s the only one who can.  So, I make a feeble attempt to pray and I say with my mouth that I’m just going to let God handle it.  “Here you go, Lord.  Take this thing, please, and make it work right,” as if He’s my assistant or something.  And then, because I haven’t really done a thing besides mouth some words into the rug on my bedroom floor, I haul myself up from kneeling still heavy, still bearing that trouble, and I’m still worried and miserable and trying to fix it myself.  The only thing that’s different is that my feet are asleep.

There’s a big difference in what I usually end up doing with my problems and what Hannah did.  Hannah poured out her soul.  She lost all sense of everything that was going on around her because she was so invested in that prayer.  It was all her and all God.  She lost herself.  She died to herself.  She disappeared.  She decreased so that God could increase.  There was no -ish.  She was all in.

Maybe God did give her an answer that day and it’s just not recorded, but regardless of whether she got a “yes” or a “not just yet” or a “wait a little while longer,” we do know that God increased her faith that day.  Hannah came to the tabernacle that day knowing that God could, but she left believing that He would.  And really… I don’t think it would have mattered what the outcome of her fertility was.  She didn’t have to know that God would raise us a faithful priest from the child of her womb.  She didn’t have to know that her son would one day pour the anointing oil on the head of God’s chosen king of Israel.  I think the peace she took away from that prayer was the fix.

What happened next?

Elkanah’s family’s pilgrimage to Shiloh had reached at end.  They got up early the next morning to worship at the tabernacle a final time and then they returned to Ramah.  And in the very same verse it says, “the LORD remembered her.”

What a blessed thing to be remembered by God! He remembered Hannah and she had a son and named him Samuel because it means “asked of God.” Samuel… the embodiment of an answered prayer.

Can you even imagine how happy Hannah must have been? I mean, she must have invented that pregnant-lady happy glow.  There was a time when I thought that she must have been at least a little sad knowing that she would have to keep her promise and give Samuel up, but now I can see how it must have filled her with even more joy to keep her end of the bargain when she considered what it meant for her son. 

You see, vows go two ways.  When my husband and I were married, we said our vows to each other and, being that we’re just humans, we are fully capable of breaking those vows.  He might keep his promise to me, but I could break mine and vice versa.  When we make a vow or a promise to God, we are fully capable of breaking our end, but when God makes a promise, He keeps it.  Period.

But God didn’t make a vow to Hannah, you say.  Well, here’s the way I see it.  Hannah made a promise to God and was comforted.  When Hannah found herself with child, it was as good as God’s signature on a contract.  He was pleased with her vow and fulfilled her prayer, thereby signifying that He would take her child into His service as she had promised.  Hannah’s child was to be God’s and, thereby she knew, never really lost to her at all.

Over the years, I’ve heard parents speak of God letting them know that their children would be saved.  I liken Hannah’s experience to that.  Having full assurance that you and your child have an eternity of glory awaiting them would make the trials of this life much easier to bear.  Knowing that they had a life of serving God ahead of them wouldn’t hurt either.  It’s not an easy life, but it’s blessed one.

And so, Hannah’s brief but oh-so-important part of this story comes to a close.  Hannah takes a break from going up to Shiloh each year while Samuel is a baby and how precious those times must have been in her heart for many years to come.  All the rest of the family would leave for several days and it was just she and her little answered prayer there together.  After he had been weaned, she took Samuel to Eli, the same priest she had spoken with before.  And then she went home, returning each year to worship and to bring Samuel a little coat that she had made for him.

Here’s one of my favorite things about this whole story.  The very last thing we ever hear about Hannah is this: “The LORD visited Hannah, so that she conceived, and bare three sons and two daughters.”

Samuel answered Hannah’s prayer, but He gave her so much more.  Good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over.

My heart rejoiceth in the LORD…
There is none holy as the LORD: for there is none beside thee:
neither is there any rock like our God.
He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill,
to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory:
for the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
and he hath set the world upon them.

- from Hannah’s song of thanks, 1 Samuel 2

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