By Joey Royal
Today’s Old Testament text is about a great woman of faith. If you think the Bible is mostly about men, think again. There are great women in there too, and today we’re going to look at Hannah, a strong woman of faith who gives us a powerful witness that God shows up in people’s lives in unexpected ways and at unexpected times.
The story is told in the first chapter of Samuel, and it unfolds in four scenes. So I want you to imagine it as a movie with four acts. As in all good stories, there is a problem in someone’s life, and then there is a resolution to that problem. I’m mostly interested in what happens between the problem and the resolution.
Scene number one is like a prologue — it introduces the characters and sets out the problem. We’re introduced to a man named Elkanah who lives in Israel during a troubled time in its history. Elkanah comes from an important family, which is why the story starts out by listing all his ancestors. Elkanah has a proud past.
As was common in the Old Testament, he has two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah has children, but Hannah does not. And when it says Hannah does not, it means Hannah cannot. She is barren. That’s the problem in the story — Hannah can’t have children. In these days, being barren was a major crisis for a woman. Barrenness ultimately wasn’t just about not having a baby, it was about not having a future. Without descendants, the family would not continue.
Scene number two is a conversation between Elkanah and Hannah. Every year, Elkanah would take his family to another town called Shiloh to worship God — they would offer sacrifices and pray. It was like a pilgrimage.
It is very clear in the story that Elkanah truly loves Hannah. But Hannah’s barrenness overrides everything else in her life. Hannah cries a lot and has no appetite.— Today we would call this clinical depression. This is the big problem in Hannah’s life, and it’s made worse because Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, taunts Hannah about her barrenness. Life is not easy for poor Hannah. Elkanah tries to help Hannah but, like many husbands, he is clueless about how to help his wife.
I should mention another curious thing about this story: The Bible is clear that Hannah is barren because God has closed her womb. This painful reality is actually something God has brought into Hannah’s life.
Scene number three occurs at the place of worship in Shiloh, and it’s an exchange between Hannah and Eli the priest. Hannah makes a vow to God. She knows that her barrenness has come from God, and so she asks to fix this problem in her life. She does this by bargaining with God — “if you give me a son, I will dedicate him to your service for his entire life.” Nowhere does the story indicate that bargaining with God is a problem — apparently this is fair game (by the way, complaining to God and bargaining is very common in the Bible. Not so common these days, which may mean we’ve neglected an important aspect of prayer).
As Hannah is passionately praying and making this vow, Eli walks by and notices her mouth is moving but no sound is coming out. Hannah was praying in her heart, but Eli assumed she was drunk. So Eli scolds her for showing up for worship drunk.
Hannah responds by telling Eli that she’s not drunk, she’s pouring out her heart to God. Hannah’s prayers are passionate and urgent because Hannah actually believes her prayers can make a difference. She believes God actually responds to prayers by acting in people’s lives. Prayer can cause God to do something he might not otherwise have done.
This scene closes with Eli blessing Hannah: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” What an amazing thing to say. Hannah has a problem, so she takes that problem to the creator and heaven and earth — and a completely new possibility is opened up. Once, there was only barrenness. Now there is the possibility of new life. This scene ends with Hannah finally eating something and then it says “her face was no longer downcast.” A weight is lifted off she shoulders because she trusts that God will respond to her request.
Scene number four is Hannah and Elkanah. They get up early the next morning and travel home. They go to bed together and, it says, “the Lord remembered her.” Then it says: “in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying ‘Because I asked the LORD for him.’”
The story reaches a resolution. The problem was Hannah’s barrenness, no future — which came from God. The resolution is a son — a future — which also came from God. How did she get from problem to resolution? Prayer. Fervent, passionate prayer. Nothing automatic. We can’t control God.
Notice Hannah’s response after giving birth to Samuel. She gives him to God. She knows who to thank. She knows that without God there would be no baby. Her response is consistent with how she lived her life — in faithfulness to God.
There are a few lessons for us from this story.
The first is what I’ve been saying all along: Prayer accomplishes things. Prayer is powerful because God is powerful, and through prayer God responds to us. God always responds to prayer — sometimes the answer is Yes, sometimes its N, sometimes it’s Not yet. But God always responds. And when God responds it creates new possibilities in our lives.
And we shouldn’t assume our prayers should be polished. Come to God with rough and ready prayers. Come as you are. Ask God for what you want — beg and plead and complain and bargain. God can handle it all. But when he responds to that prayer, don’t forget who answered it. Be thankful.
The second is the fact that both Hannah’s problem and the solution to her problem came from God’s hand. The story is clear that Hannah was barren because God made her barren. Hannah is faithful to God, and yet she suffers. Peninnah is proud and miserable, and things go well for her. That’s not fair, right? No it isn’t. But there’s a lesson here for us: When difficult circumstances enter our life, let’s not assume it doesn’t come from God. God may want to teach us something through hard times. People who go through challenges often find they learn a lot from those experiences. So to be a Christian doesn’t mean we don’t suffer — it means that when we suffer we try to understand what God is teaching us. Don’t waste your suffering.
And lastly, this story reminds us very simply that God can always change your life for the better. If you’re going through a hard time now, and you can’t see any end in sight, don’t despair. God can bring new life from barrenness, light from darkness, joy from despair. He does this over and over and over again. With God, nobody — and I mean nobody — is beyond hope. God can always change you and your life’s circumstances. Ask him to do it. And when he doesn’t seem to be answering, ask him again.
Above all this story reminds us that God is the main actor in our life. He is the driving force that makes things happen. I hope that as we approach this Advent season we get a renewed vision of a God who is active, the God who is always doing things in the world to help us and to rescue us from the trouble we’re in. We believe in a God who is in the salvation business; and God’s act of salvation involves another baby boy born to another woman in another little town in Israel. That woman’s name is Mary. But that’s a story for another day.
The Rt. Rev. Joseph (Joey) Royal is suffragan bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of the Arctic.