Barren: The Story of Hannah

When I was in the 6th grade, I began a journal filled with prayers and letters for my future husband.  I filled the pages with my hopes and expectations. I naively believed I was going to be wedded no later than 21 years of age, after that your eggs begin to rot.  He was going to sweep me off my feet and I was going to enchant him with my grace and beauty.  He would give me my first kiss at the altar and we would spend the rest of our lives working together in ministry and building the kingdom of God.  Twelve years later and I was a disgrace to my naïve hopes and dreams.  Every holiday break when I was in college was a cringe fest. “Anybody special in your life?” “Are you dating someone?” “Are you a lesbian?” I was a twenty-two-year-old graduate with no fiancé, boyfriend, or even prospects.  I had plenty of interest in other guys, but the right one never pursued me.  How it’s even possible to attend a Christian liberal arts college for four years without a single date is baffling.  Twenty-two and my eggs were beginning to pickle in my uterus.  My childhood friends were dating, married, and mothers. This is not what I expected when I was twelve years old.  What was wrong with me?

From a young age, I knew that I was called to ministry and missions.  In college I found myself drawn to trauma therapy as a vehicle to ministering to refugees.  I wanted to be a wife and a mother someday, but my passion for missions and pursuing a professional career as a behavioral therapist gave me this single-minded focus and drive.  If it didn’t help me achieve my goal, I had no space for it in my life. Too many that seemed to include dating.  And I was completely fine with that.  Because it didn’t hurt as much to be ignored, if I was ignoring you first.  But in the backstage of my mind, and in the dressing room of my heart, there was this question: what is wrong with me?

In 1 Samuel chapter 1 we find Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, asking herself the same question, “What is wrong with me?”  After years of wedded bliss, Hannah was still unable to give her husband a child, an heir.  We read in verse 2 “He had two wives.  The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah.  And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.”  Elkanah loved his wife Hannah and she had his favor (1:5).  Because Hannah is named first in the text, it is likely that Hannah was Elkanah’s first wife but because of her bareness he took a second wife and married Peninnah.

Not only does Hannah have to deal with the disappointment of her bareness but she also has to deal with her husband’s second wife Peninnah.  1 Samuel 1:6 we read, “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb.” From the text we read Peninnah vexes Hannah, therefore Hannah was distressed.  It appears that Hannah’s bareness wasn’t an issue until she began to listen to her rival.  She had the favor and love of her husband.  And her husband had difficulty understanding her discontent. “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” He asks her (verse 8).  Elkanah valued his relationship with Hannah as his wife more than her role as a mother to his children.  But Hannah had gotten her identity twisted because she was listening to the wrong person, her rival Peninnah. The problem is, there is no problem.  Hannah wasn’t unable to bear children; God had closed her womb, the womb just needed to be opened. Again, we read in verse 6 “…because the Lord had closed her womb.”  But because Hannah allowed herself to listen to the wrong voice, Peninnah had her convinced that she wasn’t enough, she was a failure, and she had failed as a woman, tormenting her.

Every year Elkanah would take his family to Shiloh to worship the “Lord of Hosts.  Shiloh was the city where the tabernacle and ark resided.  This is the first time this name “Lord of hosts” appears in the Bible, which is the plural of an abstract noun meaning “plentifulness” or “numberlessness”.  In the very beginning of the narrative we see Hannah’s bareness, but also how God is the Lord of plentifulness and numberlessness. In verse 4, we read that Elkanah would give portions of the sacrifice to his wives and because of his love and preference for Hannah, he would give Hannah a double portion.  Because he is sharing the sacrifice with them we know that this is the Peace Offering, which was a covenant meal that affirmed Israel’s relationship between God, the worshiper, and each other. But  Hannah is in such anguish that she is unable to eat. This is significant to note because her family is in Shiloh to participate in a covenant meal, the Peace Offering.  Hannah has no peace in her life; she needs to participate in God’s peace.

Burdened by her distress, Hannah makes a vow before God.  “And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of Hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head” (vs. 11).  This is not a prayer of faith that Hannah prays, rather a prayer of unbelief.  This is the way pagans prayed to their gods.  They would vow a vow in exchange for the favor of a god.  If you give me what I ask, I will do such and such.  Their prayers are about manipulating the gods, rather than their faith in the gods.  In the scriptures, God permitted vows, but He never instituted vows as a part of the prayer life.  Rather He disapproves of them.

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’  But I say to you, do not swear at all…let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”  (Matthew 5:33 )

 “It is a snare to say rashly, it is holy, and to reflect only after making vows.” (Proverbs 20:25)

And again, in Deuteronomy 23:21-23,

“If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not postpone fulfilling it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you would incur guilt. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not incur guilt.  Whatever your lips utter you must diligently perform, just as you have freely vowed to the LORD your God with your own mouth.”

God permitted vows, because we must be held accountable to what we say.

In verse 19 God “remembers” Hannah and answers her prayer. This doesn’t mean that God had forgotten Hannah, and because she prayed, she came to His mind and His attention. It means He is thinking kindly of Hannah.  When we see this idiomatic expression concerning God, it never involves anything the person has done, but always involves His faithfulness to His covenant or His love and kindness towards His people.  When we see that God “remembers” someone it indicates His unmerited favor, for example in Genesis 9:15 and Exodus 2:24 and numerous times in Leviticus and Numbers.  Hannah’s name comes from the Hebrew word chanan which means “to show favor, be gracious”, “to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior” (Strong’s Exhaustive Dictionary and Concordance).  God doesn’t answer Hannah’s prayer because of her vow but because of His favor and graciousness towards her, because of His faithfulness and goodness!  I love the image of God stooping down in kindness towards Hannah.  Despite her doubts, God shows Hannah His great mercy and love for her. The story of Hannah isn’t about her faith; it’s about God’s grace.

Hannah’s suffering was needless.  God’s purpose concerning Samuel had already been decided before time began.  Hannah just needed to wait for the fullness of that appointed time.  Sometimes we misappropriate what we think to be “problems” in our lives, like Hannah.  I allowed myself to listen to the wrong voice, causing me to doubt my identity and to harm my self-esteem.  There wasn’t anything wrong with me, I just needed to wait for God’s timing.  Instead of worrying and beating myself, I should have looked to God in faith.

So there I was a twenty-two year old single working at a middle school as a paraprofessional.  And there he was, a psychotherapist contracted with the same middle school.  He met all the requirements on my list I wrote as a naive twelve year old and then some.  Five years and two kids later, I look back and see God’s wisdom in hiding me and keeping me those twenty-two years.  There was never anything wrong with me.  But everything right with His will and His purpose for good in my life.

Be encouraged, dear brother and sister!  God is faithful concerning all His promises to you! Sometimes the issue is there is no issue.  He is just asking us to wait.

To view the other posts in this series click HERE.

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