1 Samuel 1:4-20
This appears to be a story only about a childless woman who brings her problem to the Lord and finds help. It is, however, much more. The birth of Samuel takes place during the time of anarchy reflected in the last chapters of the book of Judges—a time in which “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Just as God, a thousand years later, will start with a baby to redeem the world (Luke 1-2), so now God starts with a baby—Samuel—to redeem Israel. Just as the mother of Jesus will be a devout but unlikely choice to be the mother of the Savior of the world, so also Hannah and Elkanah are devout but very ordinary people—not the kind of people we would choose to play a major role in the redemption of Israel. So this story tells us of Samuel’s humble beginnings and unusual birth as a way of introducing us to one of the Old Testament’s key personages.
The first three verses of this chapter (not included in the lectionary reading) give clues to what will follow. They tell of Elkanah, “a certain man of Ramathaim Zophim, of the hill country of Ephraim… (who) had two wives”—Hannah and Peninnah (vv. 1-2a). A good story always has some sort of tension requiring resolution. The mention of two wives is the first hint of that tension.
Then we hear, “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children” (v. 2b). We know enough about life in those times to understand that people wanted children to carry on the family name and to provide care in their old age—and that women were valued in large measure for their ability to bear children. Hannah’s childless state is an accursed situation. Her barrenness gives Elkanah grounds for divorce, but he is a good man and loves Hannah. He probably married Peninnah to bear children when Hannah proved barren.
The presence of another woman in the home has to be difficult for Hannah. Seeing Peninnah’s fruitfulness and having to deal with Peninnah’s children day by day must reinforce Hannah’s misery. The situation reminds us of the tension that existed earlier between Sarai and Hagar (Genesis 16:4-5) and Rachel and Leah (Genesis 30:1-24).
Elkanah “went up out of his city from year to year to worship and to sacrifice to Yahweh of Armies in Shiloh. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, priests to Yahweh, were there” (v. 3). Shiloh has been the site of the tent of meeting since the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the Promised Land (Joshua 18:1; 19:51). The tent of meeting and the Ark of the Covenant are still located there (2:22; 3:3).
The mention of Hophni and Phinehas in verse 3 casts a shadow across the story. We will soon learn that they are scoundrels who have “no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people” (2:12-13) and that their sin “was very great before Yahweh; for the men despised the offering of Yahweh” (2:17). Because Eli tolerates their behavior, God will cut him off (2:22-36).
1 SAMUEL 1:4-8. ELKANAH GAVE HANNAH A DOUBLE PORTION
4When the day came that Elkanah sacrificed, he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions: 5but to Hannah he gave a double portion (Hebrew: ‘ap·pa·yim—two noses or two faces); for he loved Hannah, but Yahweh (Hebrew: yhwh—Yahweh) had shut up her womb. 6Her rival provoked her severely, to make her fret, because Yahweh had shut up her womb. 7As he did so year by year, when she went up to the house of Yahweh, so she provoked her; therefore she wept, and didn’t eat. 8Elkanah her husband said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why don’t you eat? Why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?”
“When the day came that Elkanah sacrificed, he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters“ (v. 4). Leviticus 1-7 outlines the requirements for sacrifices in great detail. In some cases, the sacrifice is to be burned as holy to the Lord and not consumed by humans. In other cases, parts of the sacrifice are to be burned as holy to the Lord, but other parts are to be consumed by the priests and Levites who administer the sacrificial system. But in some cases, portion of the sacrifices are to be consumed by the person offering the sacrifices and that person’s family (Leviticus 7:11-36).
People would not usually consume meat in the course of an ordinary day. In most cases, people would eat meat only in conjunction with festivals, other occasions requiring special hospitality, or sacrifices.
Each member of the family should receive one portion of the sacrifice. In this instance, Elkanah gives Peninnah and her children one portion each.
“but to Hannah he gave a double portion (‘ap·pa·yim—two noses or two faces), for he loved Hannah” (v. 5a). Poor Hannah is due only one portion of the sacrifice, because she has no children. This occasion, then—a happy time for most of the family—serves only to reinforce Hannah’s failure to bear children and her resultant misery.
We aren’t certain about the meaning of ‘ap·pa·yim in this context. It could be that the heads of the sacrificial animals are prized, and Elkanah gives Hannah the heads of two animals. It could mean that she gets two shares. But whatever the precise meaning, the context makes it clear that Elkanah loves Hannah and gives her a share of the offering beyond what she could normally expect. He clearly wants to honor her and to soften the reality that she is due only one portion. He knows that this feast is difficult for Hannah, and is trying to help her.
There might be an irony at work here. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 prescribes a double portion for the firstborn. The irony here is that Elkanah gives the double portion to Hannah, who has no firstborn.
“though the Lord (yhwh—Yahweh) had closed her womb” (v. 5b). It is no accident that Hannah is childless. Yahweh has stopped her from conceiving.
“Her rival provoked her severely, to make her fret, because Yahweh had shut up her womb“ (v. 6). Peninnah is Hannah’s rival—the other woman in the household—the other woman in Elkanah’s life. Elkanah has most likely taken a second wife to provide him with children when Hannah proved to be barren. Peninnah has several children—verse 4 says that she has both sons and daughters. She has succeeded where Hannah failed. She has been blessed where Hannah has been barren.
It would be difficult enough for Hannah if Peninnah were a gracious woman, but Peninnah is anything but gracious. Having children gives her power, and she uses her privileged position to make life miserable for Hannah. The narrator doesn’t tell us the exact details, but a woman in Peninnah’s situation can easily convey contempt for a woman’s in Hannah’s position—it takes only a few words or a careless gesture. Peninnah is a bad winner, and Hannah doesn’t have it in her to be a good loser.
On the other hand, it is also possible to sympathize with Peninnah. She knows that Hannah is Elkanah’s first love. Since Peninnah is doomed to take second place to Hannah in Elkanah’s affections, it is no wonder that she resents Hannah—and that she uses the power at her disposal to make Hannah miserable.
“As he did so year by year, when she went up to the house of Yahweh, so she provoked her“ (v. 7a). Every year, Elkanah is obligated to give Peninnah’s brood a portion for each person. Every year, he does what he can to placate Hannah—but Peninnah makes certain that Hannah feels the pain of her childlessness. Her well-placed words and subtle gestures are as effective as a dagger to Hannah’s heart.
“the house of Yahweh“ (v. 7b). As far as we know, this house is not a permanent building but a tent—although verse 9 mentions a doorpost.
“so she provoked her; therefore she wept, and didn’t eat“ (v. 7c). As noted above, ordinary people would consume meat only on special occasions. This would be one of those occasions. For most people, this would be a joyous time—a time of celebration. They would enjoy this rare opportunity to enjoy meat. However, this occasion has become such a painful experience for Hannah year by year that she refuses to eat anything at all.
“Elkanah her husband said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why don’t you eat? Why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?‘” (v. 8). Nice try, Elkanah! If you really want to do something for Hannah, put Peninnah in her place! But Elkanah is a gentle man—too gentle to do what he needs to do—to gentle to force Peninnah to put an end to her cruel behavior.
But even if Peninnah stopped provoking Hannah, the fact of Hannah’s barrenness remains. That is an emptiness in Hannah’s heart that cannot be filled by anything but a child.
The reference to ten sons might be an allusion to the situation that Rachel (Jacob’s wife) faced. She was barren for the longest time, while Leah bore Jacob six sons and one daughter—and Bilhah (Rachel’s maid) bore two sons—and Zilpah (Leah’s maid) bore two more (a total of ten sons and one daughter). Finally, at long last, God opened Rachel’s womb and she bore Joseph (Genesis 30:22-24)—and later died bearing Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-18).
1 SAMUEL 1:9-11. I WILL GIVE MY SON TO YAHWEH
9So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his seat by the doorpost of the temple of Yahweh (Hebrew: yhwh—Yahweh). 10She was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to Yahweh, and wept bitterly. 11She vowed a vow, and said, “Yahweh of Armies (Hebrew: yhwh seba·ot), if you will indeed look on the affliction of your handmaid, and remember me, and not forget your handmaid, but will give to your handmaid a boy, then I will give him to Yahweh all the days of his life, and no razor shall come on his head.”
“So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk“ (v. 9a). Elkanah, Peninnah, and their children have eaten and drunk, but Hannah has abstained (v. 7c).
“Now Eli the priest was sitting on his seat by the doorpost of the temple of Yahweh“ (yhwh—Yahweh) (v. 9b). Sitting on a seat is a mark of authority. Teachers sit to teach, while ordinary people stand or sit on the ground. It seems likely that Eli is sitting at the doorpost of the temple to monitor people’s comings and goings—and to insure that they act appropriately while in the temple.
This reference to “the doorpost of the temple” makes this sound as if it is a permanent building. However, later God will say, “For I have not lived in a house since the day that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt, even to this day, but have moved around in a tent and in a tabernacle” (2 Samuel 7:6).
We should remember that the tabernacle is not just a piece of cloth stretched over a lightweight frame. It has upright frames of acacia wood held in place by bases made of silver. Each frame is ten cubits (15 feet or 4.5 meters) long and a cubit and a half (27 inches or 70 cm) wide. The north and south sides of the tabernacle each have twenty frames, and each frame is held in place by two silver bases. The other two sides each have eight frames. These frames are reinforced by bars of acacia wood overlaid with gold (Exodus 26:15-30). So it is reasonable to assume that the tabernacle would have a doorpost and that this is a tabernacle rather than a permanent building.
“She was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to Yahweh, and wept bitterly“ (v. 10). In her deep distress, Hannah turns to the only one who can redeem her otherwise hopeless situation—Yahweh, the giver of life. Adversity often drives people to their knees before the Lord.
“She vowed a vow, and said, “Yahweh of Armies (yhwh seba·ot), if you will indeed look on the affliction of your handmaid, and remember me, and not forget your handmaid, but will give to your handmaid a boy, then I will give him to Yahweh all the days of his life, and no razor shall come on his head‘” (v. 11). This phrase, “Lord of Armies” or “Yahweh of Armies” gives us an image of God surrounded by all the heavenly hosts.
Hannah not only asks for something from God, but also promises something to God. She makes a vow that, if God will bless her with a son, she will in turn give that son back to God as a Nazirite. A vow is a binding contract. If God gives Hannah a son, she has obligated herself to giving the son back to God. However, a husband has the right to nullify a vow made by his wife—but if he fails to act, the vow stands.
We might note that people still make vows to God in extremity. “God, if you will just get me through this crisis, I will (fill in the blank).” We tend not to take our vows very seriously. It would be interesting to see how our lives would be different if we would take them seriously.
Hannah’s willingness to give her son to God is reminiscent of Abraham, and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. However, there are key differences. In Abraham’s case, he was following God’s orders when he took Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him. Here, Hannah initiates the idea of giving her son back to God. Nor does Hannah offer to slay her son. She offers him to God as a living sacrifice.
Numbers 6:1-21 spells out the requirements of the Nazirite vow. Both men and women are permitted to take this vow, which separate them to the Lord and make them holy to the Lord (Numbers 6:2, 8). They are not to cut their hair or eat or drink the produce of a grapevine (even the skin or seeds) or go near a corpse. The purpose of the vow is uncertain, but apparently has to do with forging an especially close relationship to God for the period during which the person is under the Nazirite vow.
There is no obligation for people taking a Nazirite vow to obligate themselves for a lifetime. In this case, however, Hannah vows that her son will be a Nazirite for life.
It might be that Hannah gets her inspiration for this vow from the story of Samson’s mother. The wife of Zorah was barren, and the Lord appeared before her and told her that she would bear a son. The Lord told her to ” please beware and drink no wine nor strong drink, and don’t eat any unclean thing: for, behold, you shall conceive, and bear a son” (Judges 13:4-5a). God further instructed her, “no razor shall come on his head; for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb: and he shall begin to save Israel out of the hand of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5b). While Samson’s sin caused that story to end badly (Judges 14-16), it gave Hannah an idea of something she might do to please the Lord.
1 SAMUEL 1:12-18. MAY THE GOD OF ISRAEL GRANT YOUR PETITION
12As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13Now Hannah spoke in her heart. Only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli thought she had been drunken. 14Eli said to her, “How long will you be drunken? Put away your wine from you.” 15Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I poured out my soul before Yahweh. 16Don’t count your handmaid for a wicked woman (Hebrew: bat-be·liy·ya·’al—a daughter of wickedness); for I have been speaking out of the abundance of my complaint and my provocation.” 17Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; and may the God of Israel grant your petition that you have asked of him.” 18She said, “Let your handmaid find favor in your sight.” So the woman went her way, and ate; and her facial expression wasn’t sad any more.
“As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth” (v. 12). The sense here is that Hannah is fully absorbed in her prayer and is unaware of Eli’s presence. Eli appears to be checking to see that all is well inside the sanctuary.
“Now Hannah spoke in her heart. Only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli thought she had been drunken“ (v. 13). Eli observes Hannah’s behavior and draws an incorrect conclusion—that she is moving her lips silently because she is drunk. Drunkenness would be inappropriate anywhere, but especially inside the tabernacle.
“Eli said to her, ‘How long will you be drunken? Put away your wine from you‘” (v. 14). In challenging Hannah, Eli is only doing his duty. As a priest, he has a responsibility for moral behavior in the community. More to the point, he has a responsibility to insure that people treat the tabernacle of the Lord with reverence.
“Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I poured out my soul before Yahweh‘” (v. 15). Hannah’s response to Eli’s accusation shows that she has more strength than we might have imagined. In that patriarchal culture, women are near the bottom of the pecking order, and priests are solidly ensconced at the top. Many women, challenged by a priest, however incorrectly, would be deferential. Hannah, however, does not let Eli’s rebuke pass without comment.
Hannah’s response is perfect. She is respectful of Eli’s authority, but tells him exactly what is going on. She tells him that she has not had any strong drink. Her words, “sorrowful spirit” and “poured out my soul” convey the reality of her pain. The fact that she “poured out (her) soul before Yahweh” shows spiritual sensitivity and purpose.
“Don’t count your handmaid for a wicked woman (bat-be·liy·ya·’al—a daughter of wickedness); for I have been speaking out of the abundance of my complaint and my provocation“ (v. 16). While scholars debate the meaning of bat-be·liy·ya·’al, it clearly has to do with some sort of evil. References to be·liy·ya·’al (rendered Belial in the KJV) occur frequently in the Old Testament and once in the New Testament (Judges 19:22; 20:13; 1 Samuel 2:12; 10:27; 25:17, 25; 30:22; 2 Samuel 16:7; 20:1; 23:6; 1 Kings 21:10, 13; 2 Chronicles 13:7; 2 Corinthians 6:15). They always refer to some sort of wickedness or demonic influence.
Hannah asks Eli to reconsider his initial impression that she is a drunken woman acting irreverently in the Lord’s sanctuary. She explains her situation. Her behavior is not prompted by strong drink, but by anxiety and vexation. She is well within her rights to bring her deepest anxieties to the Lord.
“Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; and may the God of Israel grant your petition that you have asked of him‘” (v. 17). Hannah’s impassioned plea rings true to Eli. He can see from her clear speech and thought patterns that she is not under the influence of alcohol. To his credit, once he realizes that he has made a mistake, he quickly reverses himself. He offers her his peace and a prayer that God will grant her petition.
“She said, ‘Let your handmaid find favor in your sight.’ So the woman went her way, and ate; and her facial expression wasn’t sad any more“ (v. 18). Hannah finds great solace in Eli’s words. She seems to regard his blessing as a promise. Where she earlier had no appetite and refused to eat (v. 7c), now she eats and drinks with Elkanah. Where she was depressed, now she is sad no longer.
1 SAMUEL 1:19-20: SHE BORE A SON AND NAMED HIM SAMUEL
19They rose up in the morning early, and worshiped before Yahweh, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah: and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and Yahweh remembered her (Hebrew: way·yiz·kere·ha). 20It happened, when the time had come, that Hannah conceived, and bore a son; and she named him Samuel (Hebrew: semu·’el), saying, “Because I have asked him of Yahweh.”
“They rose up in the morning early, and worshiped before Yahweh“ (v. 19a). It seems likely that Hannah has told Elkanah what took place in the tabernacle—how she prayed fervently—how Eli misjudged her—and the blessing that she received once Eli understood her true purpose. Hannah and Elkanah make it a priority early the next morning to worship together.
“and returned, and came to their house to Ramah“ (v. 19b). Verse 1 said that Elkanah was an Ephraimite from Ramathaim. Now we learn that Elkanah and Hannah return from Shiloh to their house at Ramah.
Shiloh is about 20 miles (32 km) north of Jerusalem. There are several Ramahs. Scholars tend to assume that this is Ramah of Benjamin, 5 miles (8 km) north of Jerusalem. The 15 mile (24 km) distance from Shiloh to Ramah would be about a day’s journey.
“and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and Yahweh remembered her“ (way·yiz·kere·ha) (v. 19c). We have been told that Elkanah loves Hannah, so presumably he has been having sexual relations with her all along. This time, however, is different. This time, the Lord remembers her, just as she asked in her prayer (v. 11). In this context, way·yiz·kere·ha (remembered) obviously means something more than bringing someone to mind. Remember is an action verb. It suggests that God answers Hannah’s deeply felt need.
“It happened, when the time had come, that Hannah conceived, and bore a son“ (v. 20a). This is what “remembered” means in this instance. We were told earlier that “Yahweh had shut up her (Hannah’s) womb” (vv. 5-6). Now the Lord opens her womb so that she might conceive.
“and she named him Samuel (semu·’el), saying, ‘Because I have asked him of Yahweh‘” (v. 20b). The privilege of naming a son would usually be reserved for the father, but here the one who prayed for a son and vowed to give him to God also names him.
The connection between Samuel’s name and the phrase, “Because I have asked him of the Yahweh” is confusing, because Samuel’s name in Hebrew has nothing to do with asking. The last two letters of Samuel’s name correspond to El, a generic name for any god. Samuel could mean “name of God.” Whatever the meaning, it is clear that Hannah intends Samuel’s name to remind people of her prayer and God’s positive response.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Baldwin, Joyce G., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries:1 & 2 Samuel, Vol. 8 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988)
Bergin, Robert D., The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Samuel, Vol. 7 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)
Birch, Bruce C., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Numbers- Samuel, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: I and II Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1973)
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Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
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Gehrke, Ralph David, Concordia Commentary: 1 and 2 Samuel (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968)
Holbert, John C., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Klein, Ralph W., Word Biblical Commentary: 1 Samuel, Vol. 10 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)
Newsome, James, in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Peterson, Eugene H., Westminster Bible Companion: First and Second Samuel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999)
Tsumura, David Toshio, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The First Book of Samuel (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan