Have you ever noticed how some parts of the Bible seem to raise as many questions as they provide answers? One such account that has often raised questions for me is the story of Hannah and the birth of the prophet Samuel. I don’t just mean Samuel’s conception itself. Given the fact that God created the universe, I’m not all that surprised by His ability to cause a barren woman to fall pregnant.
It’s all the niggly little details in the account that have most puzzled me. Perhaps my questions are not too dissimilar from the questions Hannah had about her own predicament.
Why did Elkanah have two wives? (v.2)
Bigamy was never part of God’s plan. Wherever bigamy shows up in the Bible, there is grief and strife. Most likely, Elkanah took Peninnah as a second wife in order to have children, because Hannah was barren. Barrenness was culturally abhorrent in Hannah’s day, often resulting in social alienation. In his attempt to console Hannah’s grief, Elkanah said to her:
“Hannah, why do you weep, and why do you not eat, and why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8).
What an ironic question for Elkanah to ask! Why wasn’t Hannah enough for him? More to the point, why didn’t Elkanah trust God to provide him with children through Hannah? He made the same mistake Abraham made when he took Hagar as a concubine. When we get ahead of God and take matters into our own hands, life can become unnecessarily complicated and messy. It’s always best to wait patiently on the Lord’s timing.
Why did God close Hannah’s womb in the first place? (v.5)
If I were Hannah, this would be my #1 question for God. This is a derivative of the common question asked by sceptics “Why do bad things happen to good people?” We don’t have time or space for a thorough answer to this question, but the short answer is, who said anyone was good? The reality is good and bad things happen to all people (Ecc. 9:2; Matt. 5:45) and all people are sinful (Rom. 3:10-12, 23). No one deserves special treatment. Apart from the grace of God (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8-9), we all deserve condemnation.
The real question is why did God allow Hannah to experience this particular trial? The Bible provides the answer in multiple places, all of which basically say the same thing. God sends trials our way to get our attention, build our character, align us to His good plans, grow our faith and strengthen our resolve (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-7). All of which came true for Hannah. On top of that, much like Job (Jas. 5:10-11), God ultimately blessed Hannah beyond her expectations. After she dedicated Samuel to the Lord’s service, God gave Hannah five more children (1 Sam. 2:21). If my math is correct, that works out to a total of six children for the previously barren Hannah. I wonder how many children Peninnah had? I’ll bet it was less than six.
Why did Elkanah allow Peninnah to persecute Hannah? (vs.6-7)
Despite his love for Hannah (v.5) and his annual pilgrimage to the temple (v.3), I’m not terribly impressed with Elkanah. As noted above, when we dig under the surface we find some serious character flaws. Instead of showing godly leadership by keeping peace and harmony in his household, Elkanah looks the other way when Peninnah bullies Hannah. He then tries to mollify the situation by giving extra portions of food to Hannah, seemingly to ease his guilty conscience. An extra lamb chop doesn’t make up for marital discord. Perhaps I’m being too tough, but I don’t think Elkanah is showing up as a very a good role model of spiritual leadership.
We have a responsibility to be peacemakers and to make every effort to build healthy, godly relationships with one another (Matt. 5:8; Jas. 3:13-4:3), especially in our families (1 Tim. 3:12). Allowing strife to fester only provides Satan a foothold (Eph. 4:25-27).
Why was Hannah praying alone? (v.10)
Should not Hannah’s barrenness have been as much Elkanah’s problem as it was hers? Why wasn’t Elkanah joining, even leading Hannah in heartfelt prayer at the temple? Why was she praying alone?
When we’re struggling in life, we need the support of those closest to us. Patterned after the Trinity (Gen. 1:26-27), we were designed to be in relationship. We should never suffer alone (Gal. 6:2; Phil. 2:3-4). If others fail to notice our needs, we should reach out and ask for help in our times of trouble.
Why did Hannah refer to God as “the Lord of Armies”? (v.11)
There are over 100 names or titles for God in the Bible. Hannah chose to address God as the ‘Lord of Armies’ for a reason.
In the Old Testament times, a name was not only identification, but an identity as well. Many times a special meaning was attached to the name. Throughout Scripture God reveals Himself to us through His names. When we study these names that He reveals to us in the Bible, we will better understand who God really is. The meanings behind God’s names reveal the central personality and nature of the One who bears them…
The name ‘Lord of Armies’ (or ‘Lord of Hosts’) is used about 260 times in the Old Testament. As David Guzik commented, “Hannah felt attacked by her rival, so she called on the LORD of Mighty Armies to be her protector”.
The name ‘Lord of Armies’ captures God’s sovereign power and His ability to conquer all obstacles. Nothing is too difficult for God (cf. Jer. 32:27). Hannah was demonstrating humble faith in God’s ability to answer her heartfelt prayer by calling on Him as the ‘Lord of Hosts’. We don’t serve a small God. We serve and call upon the Creator and Lord of all!
Why did Hannah promise to dedicate Samuel to God for his entire life? (v.11)
The Nazarite vow of dedicated consecration and service to God was intended to be for a limited period of time (Num. 6:1-21). Hannah’s promise to God was extravagant. Hannah knew her request was also extravagant and felt a commensurate offering of thanksgiving was in order.
We serve an extravagant God who loves to bless His children beyond our wildest dreams (e.g. prayer of Jabez in 1 Chron. 4:10). Do our prayers reflect that belief?
Why was Hannah no longer in mourning after her encounter with Eli the priest? (v.18)
As flawed as he was, Eli was God’s anointed and Hannah rightfully saw him as God’s mouthpiece, speaking into her dilemma. The moment she received a positive confirmation from God’s anointed about her prayer, Hannah considered the answer to be guaranteed. Her prayers turned from supplication to thanksgiving.
How often do we neglect to recognise that God hears us the first time, and at that very second His answer to our prayer is dispatched? (e.g. Dan. 9:20-23) Sure, we may not see the fulfilment immediately, but it’s as good as done from God’s point of view. All that’s left to do is to thank God for the answer that is on the way, confirming our faith in His ability to do far more abundantly than all that we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).
God’s response to our prayers is not dependent on the extent to which we pester Him. That was the whole point of Jesus’ parable about the unjust Judge and the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). God loves to answer our prayers! Like Hannah, we need simply to bring our humble requests before Him, and then thank Him for taking matters in hand.
Why did the Lord finally answer Hannah’s prayer when He did? (v.19)
God knows our hearts better than we do (Rom. 8:26-27), but it brings Him glory and joy to respond to our spoken requests. That’s how loving healthy relationships work. We communicate in an attitude of vulnerability and sincerity with those whom we love and trust. We don’t expect people to read our minds. Even though God can read our minds, He wants to hear from us… every day. God withheld from Hannah the awareness of His answer to her prayer until she reached the point of complete surrender to Him.
It’s good to ask questions. God didn’t create us to be mindless robots, incapable or unwilling to think for ourselves. Where’s the joy in that? God wants us to come to Him with our doubts, heartaches, fears, discouragement and even our anger. The key is to do so with a humble and teachable heart, genuinely seeking His guidance and grace, like Hannah.
“But Hannah answered and said, “No, my lord, I am a woman despairing in spirit... I have poured out my soul before the Lord... I have spoken until now out of my great concern and provocation.” (1 Sam.1:15-16).
Then, having asked our questions and laid our burdens at His feet, we can trust Him for the answers and go on our way rejoicing in the power of the God of Armies.
“She said, 'Let your bond-servant find favor in your sight.' So the woman went on her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad. Then they got up early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord, and returned again to their house in Ramah.“ (1 Sam. 1:18-19a)