Here’s a quick quiz for you. How many women in the bible can you think of who were known to be infertile (at some stage)?
And how many men?
I thought so!
Hannah is one of several bible women whose story revolves around infertility and the longing for a child. She lived in Israel at the time when Eli was the High Priest. She was married to Elkanah who had a second wife called Penninah.
It’s perhaps worth giving a bit of background into the culture of the time. In the ancient world to be married and childless was a social disgrace. There wasn’t the understanding that fertility could also be a male issue, and it was believed that the woman who didn’t conceive wasn’t living up to the Creator’s command to be ‘fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28). The expectation was that women should become the mothers of sons, who would continue the family name and provide for them in their old age. It was of course a classic patriarchal society and women unable to do what was required of them were often shunned and excluded from society. And so with that background we can understand Hannah’s story better:
Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.1 Samuel 1. 2
Elkanah was supportive and generous, even giving Hannah double portions of food during the annual sacrifice feast, ‘because he loved her’. But for Hannah, it was Penninah, the other woman, who seemed to cause her the most pain.
Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her.1 Samuel 1.6
Hannah became depressed, even getting to the stage that she couldn’t eat and spent her time in tears. Elikinah doesn’t seem to understand the depth of her sadness: of course, he already had children and so for him a child with Hannah wasn’t necessary:
Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”1 Samuel 1.8
Despite all of this sadness Hannah was a woman of deep faith and of hope, and the turning point in her story comes with two powerful words:
Hannah rose up, went to the temple to pray day after day, even though she had to suffer Peninnah’s taunts on the way. One day she was praying so earnestly and with such passion that the priest at the temple (Eli) thought she must be drunk!
No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord(1 Samuel 1.15)
She vowed that if God gave her a child then she would repay this blessing by offering him back to God to live and work in the temple. She becomes pregnant and carried out her promise to the Lord. When her child Samuel (which means God has heard) is fully weaned (probably about 3 years old), she took him to the temple where he grew up under Eli’s guidance. She to visit him every year with clothes she had lovingly made for him, and went on to have five more children.
Samuel grew to be one of the greatest prophets in Israel.
Reflection and Prayer
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair. 2 Corinthians 4: 6-8
There was a time in Hannah’s story when her longing was so great that ‘her heart was sad’. No amount of kind words or extra portions of food from her husband was going to make any difference to this. It must have been difficult for Elkanah to know how to support his beloved wife in her despair. What changed things in the end for Hannah was that she ‘rose up’ and somehow managed to find the strength to go the temple and pour out her heart to God. Sometimes even doing that seems impossible.
These are troubling days for so many people and so let us pray for all those whose hearts are sad at this time, for those who can’t even find the strength to eat or pray, and for those who stand beside them wondering how best to help.
O God, from whom to be turned is to fall,
to whom to be turned is to rise,
and in whom to stand is to abide for ever:
grant us in all our duties thy help,
in all our perplexities thy guidance,
in all our dangers thy protection,
and in all our sorrows thy peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen