Commentary on 1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10
The title for this narrative lectionary is apt: from a place of deep sadness Hannah prays to God, vowing that if God will give her a son, she will dedicate that son to God. And God answers!1
She has her son, Samuel, whose name commemorates her request. Obviously, this is not always the case: there is no simple formula that if we want something enough and pray for it hard enough, God will give it. But God answers Hannah, and she responds with a prayer extolling God’s power to reverse people’s situations.
The narrative lectionary, however, is not the same as the canonical text, and the verses not included tell a fuller story. Verses 1-8 explain that Hannah is barren (1 Samuel 1:2). Hannah, whose name means “favored” or “gracious,” is only one of Elkanah’s two wives. The other wife, Peninnah, whose name means “fertile” or “prolific” has children, but she is also cruel to Hannah. Described as a “rival” to Hannah, Peninnah provokes Hannah over her childlessness (1 Samuel 1:6). The text tells us that the reason Peninnah provokes Hannah is “because the LORD had closed [Hannah’s] womb” (1 Samuel 1:6), but we might wonder if Peninnah is in part motivated by jealousy of Elkanah’s affections toward Hannah. For, Elkanah loves Hannah regardless of her barrenness and gives her twice as much to eat as he does Peninnah and her children (1 Samuel 1:4). Hannah refuses to eat, however, and only weeps. Elkanah asks her four questions: “Why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1:8). All of this leads up to where the narrative lectionary starts, with Hannah not answering Elkanah’s questions. Instead, she prays to the LORD. Her husband who loves her cannot provide the answer, but God can.
As Hannah prays, she is, according to 1 Samuel 1:10, “bitter of soul … and wept profusely.” Her vow to dedicate her son to God includes the detail that the child will be a Nazirite (1:11); among other things, he will abstain from alcohol. Then the narrative lectionary jumps to verse 19, when Hannah and Elkanah leave the temple, return home, and she conceives in due time. What it misses is the interaction between Hannah and Eli in verses 12-18. Ironically, as Hannah is vowing that her son will never drink alcohol, the priest Eli thinks she is drunk and commands her to put away her wine (1 Samuel 1:14). Hannah tells Eli she is not drunk, but “deeply troubled” (1:15) and does not want to be counted as “worthless” (1:16). Eli then tells Hannah to go in peace, saying, “the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him” (1 Samuel 1:17). To this Hannah responds, “Let your servant find favor in your sight” (1:18). The word translated as “favor” is related to Hannah’s own name, and we are not likely to be surprised when the favored woman will indeed find favor not only with Eli, but with God. Additionally, Hannah’s “favor” has resonance with Mary the mother of Jesus, who is greeted by the angel Gabriel with the title “favored one” (Luke 1:28).
Again, as the title for this pericope indicates, God does answer Hannah’s prayer, and she conceives and bears Samuel. The end of chapter 1 narrates how Hannah makes good on her vow to dedicate Samuel to God after Samuel is weaned. Both Hannah and Elkanah bring him to Shiloh, where they make offerings to God and give Samuel to Eli. Hannah reminds the priest that she was the one who prayed to God for the child, and since God answered her petition she is therefore presenting Samuel to God. Hannah will return, as 2:18-21 tells us, to see her son yearly.
Hannah responds to everything in a prayer that begins and ends with the affirmation that human strength comes from and is exalted in God. God is incomparable; there is no other like this God, who knows and also weighs actions (1 Samuel 2:2-3). The heart of Hannah’s prayer (1 Samuel 2:4-8) affirms that God makes surprising reversals: the strong become weak and the weak become strong. In fact, God does both negative and positive things: On the negative side, God “kills,” “brings down to Sheol,” “makes poor,” and “brings low.” The positive list, however, is longer: God “brings to life,” “raises up,” “makes rich,” “exalts,” “raises up the poor from the dust,” and “lifts the needy from the ash heap” to “sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”2 1 Samuel 2:9 contains the statement, “not by might does one prevail.” Indeed, all human ways to exert power fall short in comparison with God, who can reverse human circumstances of status and power. Therefore, the explicit reference to a king in 2:10 falls into proper perspective, as the king — the anointed one — only has strength given by God.
Hannah’s prayer has connections with three other texts. First is 2 Samuel 22, a victory song of David that also celebrates God’s power and strength to save those who trust in God. Second is Psalm 113, a hymn of praise that also describes how God “raises the poor [and] needy […] to make them sit with princes” and gives children to “the barren woman” (Psalm 113:7–9). Third, Hannah’s song is similar to Mary’s song in Luke 1:46–55. After Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she will be the one to bear the Messiah, she responds by praising the God who brings down and lifts up, who sends the rich away empty and fills those who are hungry — the same theme of reversal we see in Hannah’s prayer. This passage in Luke containing the annunciation of the ultimate King echoes the passage that foretells Israel receiving its first king.
- Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 16, 2016.
- Cf. Bruce C. Birch, 1 Samuel, New Interpreter’s Bible Volume II (Abingdon, 1998), 983.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God who answers prayer,
We are blessed and humbled that you hear us when we call to you in our time of deepest longing. Receive our gratitude for your listening ear. Amen.
King of glory, king of peace, Bob Chilcott (Oxford University Press)