The woman who gave back her son
At a time when the majority of people chose to ignore God and his ways, one woman trusted him with her heart’s desire. Anne Le Tissier tells the story of Hannah
Study passage: 1 Samuel 1:1-27
This month, we revert to a dark, godless period of history in which God’s holy Covenant law had long been abandoned by the majority; even the priests were wicked men with no regard for the Lord (1 Samuel 2:12). They treated the sacrificial offerings with contempt and were sexually promiscuous with women employed to serve at the tabernacle (verses 17 and 22). Indeed, disrespect for God as well as his holy standards, was rife.
But, “there was a certain man . . . whose name was Elkanah” (1:1), who continued to revere God and who fulfilled his obligations to appear before the Lord (Exodus 23:14—17). And so, annually, he took his household with him for his mandatory pilgrimage to sacrifice and worship at God’s dwelling-place in Shiloh; consistent devotion that set him apart from surrounding scandalous behaviour.
Scripture records that Elkanah’s first wife, whom he cherished and loved, was barren; a most shameful predicament for women in that culture, dispensing a daily dose of deepest despair. Polygamy wasn’t God’s chosen ordinance for marriage in Genesis 2:24 but, neither were they condemned who adopted this tradition of the ancient world.
Nevertheless, they had to put up with the unsavoury complications that so often results from living outside of God’s ideal. If his second wife was taken in order to provide a surrogate son then the plan backfired dismally. Proud Peninah, full of her own self-esteem, used the fruit of her womb as an instrument of torture to beat Hannah’s suffering soul.
Even the generous gifts of a devoted husband failed to placate her inward grief or satisfy her craving for motherhood. On one occasion, distraught and done with her rival’s taunts, Hannah abandoned the festive throng and approached the tabernacle. Standing alone, weeping, she appealed to God’s invisible presence; inaudible prayers that vowed her intent to dedicate the gift of a son back to her Lord.
Is this how we respond when we find ourselves nursing an aggrieved heart, or are we more likely to call a friend, raid the fridge or hit the shopping mall?
Hannah’s prayer arose from years of grief and harassment, but she never gave up on God. In fact, where some might turn bitter against him or seek to nurse their longing through material means, hers was a spiritual appetite to seek the Lord and his power. Deeply troubled and distressed, she poured out her soul in private prayer - the only means for her desperate heart to find any relief.
Furthermore, she sought God not only for what she could get but also for what she could give. “ . . . give [me] a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life . . .”
Even before his conception, Samuel’s entire life was dedicated to being separated for God’s holy service, symbolised by her promise never to cut his hair. Her heartfelt desire to bless the Lord by means of the answer to her prayer is astounding. It certainly calls me to account concerning some of the things I’ve asked for - prayerful requests that have ‘me’ at their centre rather than how they may ultimately please and serve God.
Fervent with desire and sincere in her promise, she continued in prayerful supplication. Eli, the ageing priest, however, observed her from the shadows. Fed up with yet another seemingly drunken pilgrim and exasperated by the immoral state of God’s people, he called to her, “How long will you keep getting drunk? Get rid of your wine”.
“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
Eli may have been quick to rebuke the unusual practice of silent prayer, misinterpreting it for the drunken behaviour he was sadly accustomed to but, he was also quick to rectify his mistake. Observing the sincerity of her faith, he affirmed her explanation, “Go in peace . . .” Furthermore, he sealed her request with his own priestly prayer for its fulfilment, “ . . . may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
Hope was the oxygen that fanned into flame the life that was but smouldering when smothered by grief. While nothing had changed outwardly, Hannah’s inward faith was roused by her prayerful encounter. Neither was her hope unfounded, for “in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son”.
But the story doesn’t finish there, as Hannah had an obligation to fulfil. Nursing her longed-for child during the next couple of years, how tempting it might have been to conveniently forget the second part of her prayer; that she would give him back to the Lord, not just for a period as was customary for Nazirite vows, but “for all the days of his life”.
A woman was only held to her vow with her father’s or husband’s agreement (Numbers 30). Hannah could have opted out if she’d so chosen to persuade loving Elkanah to free her from her obligation, but this God-fearing woman didn’t make her vow lightly. Once Samuel was weaned (between the ages of two and three), she fulfilled it with the appropriate sacrifice and gave her son back to the Lord.
I cannot read this story without halting at these verses, for the staggering weight of emotion in this scene passes by unobserved in the writer’s recall of events. A mother; moreover, a woman who craved motherhood for many years and suffered the shame of barrenness as she waited, was willing to surrender her toddler-son to the care of the tabernacle women and two ungodly priests, trusting that the Lord, who gave her Samuel in the first place, would provide for all his needs and development.
Such trust ensured that a tiny boy’s earliest impressions of life - his provider, teacher, and first love - were steeped in the experience of ministering in God’s presence. In fact, Samuel’s only contact with his devoted mother came with her annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, bearing new robes for her growing son (1 Samuel 2:19).
“The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up . . . the Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word” (1 Samuel 3:19,21) The dedication to God and persistent prayers, the consequence of fulfilling a godly vow and the immense sacrifice it entailed, bore fruit from Hannah’s womb that far outlived the natural course of events. Indeed, before too long we continue to read about the great man Samuel - anointed priest, prophet, judge and God’s appointer of Israel’s kings.
And so, we reflect on a woman not so different from you or from me, living in a society swamped by sin. “If it feels right, do it” cries the ethos of today’s western world. A liberal culture infecting our Christian heritage with gay marriage, abortion, euthanasia, declassification of addictive drugs, violence, promiscuity and so on; in fact the only thing declined such freedom of speech nowadays appears to be the Christian voice!
“ . . . in those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). In these days, we have an eternal king – Jesus - and yet still so many pursue a lifestyle of their choosing rather than submitting to the wisdom of God’s holy code of behaviour; that which promises life, and life to the full (John 10:10).
Paul encourages us to become “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked generation, in which [we] shine like stars in the universe as [we] hold out the word of life . . .” (Philippians 2:15—16).
Hannah remained pure, devoted to Yahweh in a godless society and, as a result, her prayers were heard. Indeed, “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry; the prayer of a righteous [wo]man is powerful and effective” (Psalm 34:15; James 5:16). Moreover, the fruit of her prayers, Samuel, brought God’s transforming, guiding light into the nation.
In Romans chapter one we read, “Since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity . . .” (verses 28—29a).
Recent prophecy has encouraged the Church to make use of a window of opportunity to seek God’s mercy on Britain - and that through the repentance, integrity and voice of his people - of you and of me. I pray that Hannah’s sacrificial, devout witness and resultant fruitful prayers will inspire us all to make Jesus known in our own generation, before it gets too late.
God delivered Hannah her from disgrace and affirmed her virtuous pleas; he loved her, he heard her and answered her heart’s cry. Nevertheless, she was still willing to let go of Samuel and hand him back to the Lord. And nor did she make such a sacrifice begrudgingly, but with a tremendous prayer of praise (1 Samuel 2:11). I believe that’s because Hannah delighted more in the one who answered prayer than that which became the actual answer to her prayer. Could this be said of you and of me?
All to Jesus I surrender,
All to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him,
In his presence daily live.
I surrender all,
I surrender all,
All to Thee, my blessèd Saviour,
I surrender all.
(JW van de Venter (1855-1939))
Dear Lord and heavenly Father, in the light of Hannah’s surrender of her beloved son, I’m challenged again by the words of this hymn. Challenged, Lord - but with your loving help, determined to make them a living reality in my life too. Amen.