Most of us know how it feels to desperately want something that we know is good but that we simply can’t have: good health for ourselves or a loved one, perhaps, or justice for a wrong, or mastery of a bad habit.
The biblical heroine Hannah felt like this, too. And despite the fact that she lived in ancient Israel, in a world very different from our own, her pain transcends the centuries and moves our hearts: She longs to be a mother but is unable to bear a child.
If Hannah had given up hope or had given in to self-pity, we would not be reading about her today. If she had wrapped herself in the comfortable sort of faith that never grows because it is never exercised, she would have nothing to teach us about praying and believing in times of personal crisis.
But after years of suffering and despair, Hannah turned to God with the steely, insistent faith that Jesus would later praise whenever he found it. She stood expectantly before the Lord when she had nothing to give but her anguish. And God, who is rich in mercy, did not disappoint her.
Favored? The name “Hannah” calls to mind the Hebrew verb that means “to show favor.” Is this a cruel irony? As the story opens (1 Samuel 1), Hannah seems far from favored, for she is childless in a society where infertility was a public disgrace. She feels her shame deeply, and it is underscored by the fact that her husband, Elkanah, has a second wife who has borne him many children—and who never lets Hannah forget it.
For his part, Elkanah has nothing but love for Hannah. Undoubtedly, he too wants his wife to bear a child. But instead of saying this, he simply affirms his love. “Hannah, why do you weep, and why do you refuse to eat?,” he asks her tenderly. “Why do you grieve? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”(1 Samuel 1:8).
His reaction to her infertility is not typical for men of that culture. When Sarah was unable to conceive, for example, Abraham complained to God that he wanted an heir (Genesis 15). Clearly, Elkanah and Hannah have a unique relationship. Theirs is a love story. Still, Hannah wants to be a mother and cannot be consoled.
Hannah’s anguish peaks every year, when the whole family makes a pilgrimage to the shrine of Shiloh, about twenty miles north of Jerusalem (there was as yet no Temple in Jerusalem). During the festivities, everyone feasts on portions of the sacrificed animals, which each husband distributes to his wives according to the number of their children.
Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife, receives many portions because of her large brood, and she uses the opportunity to ridicule her rival. Hannah should probably not receive anything at all, but Elkanah doubles her portion, “because he loved her” (1 Samuel 1:5). But she cannot eat a bite. All she can do is weep.
Finally, after years of humiliation, Hannah leaves one of these festive meals and walks alone to the shrine. She is determined to present her case to the Lord, her last refuge. Her grief overwhelms her. We can imagine that years of pent-up tears stream down her cheeks as she begins to pray.
Hannah’s Prayer. Hannah brings no animal or food offering for sacrifice. All she has to offer God is her pain. “Lord, look at my misery,” she begins (1 Samuel 1:11). These are words that many of us have said at some point in our lives. Keenly conscious of our helplessness, we beg God to look upon our anguish: “Where are you, O Lord, in this suffering?”
Like the psalmist, Hannah lays out her misery before God, insisting that he listen and do something: “Listen to my prayer, Lord, hear my cry” (Psalm 39:13). Her determination and faith recall the Syrophoenician woman who, centuries later, asks Jesus to heal her daughter and counters his first reaction with, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps” (Mark 7:28). Hannah even promises that if she bears a son, she will dedicate him to the Lord from birth.
This intense time of prayer is interrupted by Eli the priest, who cannot hear Hannah’s words but catches sight of her quivering lips and assumes that she is drunk. “Put away your wine!” he tells her. Distraught but not cowed, Hannah retorts that she is praying “out of exasperation” and is not “some worthless woman.” She tells Eli, “I have poured my life out before the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:16; my translation).
A life “poured out” is a dramatic, evocative image. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, it conveys deep emptiness and desolation. When Job, a man of intense suffering and loss, prays to God, he likens his anguish to “a life poured out” (Job 30:16). In Lamentations 2:11-12, the children dying in Jerusalem, victims of the Babylonian invasion in 586 b.c., “fumble like the slain in the town squares, their life is poured out.” This childless woman feels like she is dying, too.
In her prayer, Hannah joins every person through the centuries who comes before God with “a life poured out.” She is the mother praying for her daughter or son in Afghanistan and Sudan. She is the husband panicked by the doctors’ vague answers about his sick wife. She is the lonely, the grieving, the troubled—all the suffering who recognize that they have reached the end of their own resources and who know that only God can answer their needs.
God “Remembers.” Eli changes his attitude as soon as he hears Hannah’s response. He now prays with the woman he has just accused. Without knowing what Hannah is praying for, Eli even anticipates the meaning of the name of the son she will bear: “May the God of Israel grant the request you have requested” (1 Samuel 1:17, translated literally).
Hannah returns to participate in the sacrificial meal, confident that God has heard her prayer. And sure enough, soon after returning home, she becomes pregnant.
The narrator tells us that the Lord “remembered” Hannah (1 Samuel 1:19). There are no throwaway words in the Bible, but this expression is especially significant. Whenever the Lord “remembers” someone, the course of human history is altered. When God remembers Noah, the punishing floodwaters begin to subside (Genesis 8:1). When God remembers Rachel, she gives birth to Joseph (30:22). And when God remembers his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses is astounded by the burning bush (Exodus 2:24; 3:2).
So the news that God “remembered” Hannah jumps off the page. It’s not that God had ever forgotten her as human beings forget. But her prayer has played a part in moving him to intervene. Not just her life but Israel’s entire history will be changed. The first evidence of it is the son to whom Hannah gives birth. She calls him Samuel, a name whose meaning recalls that “she requested him from the Lord” (1 Samuel 1:20). It will forever remind Hannah of how God answered her tearful cry for help.
“My Heart Exults!” Hannah returns to Shiloh only after Samuel has been weaned and is able to stay at the shrine with Eli. Now we expect tears—a mother saying good-bye to her only son, whom she will see but once a year! But instead, she sings about her faith in God (1 Samuel 2:1-10,19).
With ancient imagery that can seem a bit strange to modern ears, Hannah recasts her story within God’s plan for human history. She had prayed for a son, asking God to look upon her misery. Now her heart exults in God, who, as she has experienced, is not indifferent to the plight of the weak. While the mighty are shattered, she who was once feeble has been strengthened by God, who reverses fortunes: “A childless woman bears seven children”—and indeed, Hannah will bear more children after Samuel (1 Samuel 2:5,21). Finally, this “favored one” has come to enjoy the happiness that her name portends.
In her song of joy, Hannah claims her place in salvation history. But her faith in God will have consequences beyond anything she can imagine. It is her son who will anoint both Israel’s first king, Saul, and its greatest king, David. And it is David who will establish Jerusalem, propose the building of the temple, and establish the “house” into which Jesus, the Savior of the world, will be born.
At the Cross. In a letter to a friend, the American writer Flannery O’Connor reflected on her Catholic faith: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”
Seen in the light of Christ, the story of Hannah encourages us to bring our anguish to the cross, where faith meets the mystery of suffering. This heroine of ancient Israel foreshadows each of us who stands before the cross in faith—perplexed and sorrowing, yet certain that God sees and hears and will come to our aid. There, we will discover that God “remembers” and “favors” us, too. n
Craig Morrison is a Carmelite priest on the faculty of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.