Commentary on 1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10
A mother’s prayer results in an unlikely beginning to kingship.
The monarchy of Israel begins with a narrative of despair and humility. Hannah, from Ephraimite country, is a childless wife, thereby making her one of the more excluded figures of ancient Israel. Unlike today, when the average child costs about $227,000 to raise, in a patriarchal, agrarian society, parents considered children as major financial assets to the families. They provided future labor from an early age, ensured the continuation of the family name, and guaranteed possession of the patriarchal estate. Children symbolized hope for the future well-being of the family.
So one can easily emphasize with Hannah’s sadness, particularly as she had to share her husband with another wife, who already bore multiple sons and daughters. Hannah wept publically and plentifully. She cried so much that her husband gave her double portions to comfort her, and even pleaded with 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) Although Hannah does not reply, the fact that she continued weeping suggests a disappointing answer to her husband’s seemingly rhetorical question.
Hannah’s only option is to pray to God, but she does not merely pray. In 1 Samuel 1:11, she articulates one of the more tenacious and bold prayers in all of Scripture, “O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” Initially, Hannah’s prayer results in scorn from the priest, but eventually, the “LORD remembered her” (1 Samuel 1:19). Hannah had her son and named him Samuel because “God heard.” And she kept her vow and brought the young child to the presence of the Lord during the period of temple offerings.
The desperate prayer, God’s answer, and Hannah’s response of obedience create a whirlwind of activity in 1 Samuel 1. Fittingly, Chapter 2 pauses this frenetic activity with a doxology of praise. The reader may expect that this response of Hannah would center around the concrete miracle of the miraculous birth of her child. But interestingly, Hannah does not even mention the boy. Instead, she focuses her praise on the sovereignty of God, “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God” (1 Samuel 2:2).
The miraculous events of 1 Samuel 1 inspire this response of praise. But as recorded in scripture, Hannah’s song becomes the anthem for everyone who finds themselves in despair and hopelessness. She sings on behalf of the following kinds of people:
- “feeble” (1 Samuel 2:4)
- “hungry” (verse 5)
- “barren” (verse 5)
- “poor” (verses 7-8)
- “low” (verse 7)
- “needy” (verse 8)
Her song reaches a culmination with the bold proclamation in 1 Samuel 2:8:
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.
The poor, barren, and desperate can hope exclusively in the power of God. For Hannah, divine sovereignty triumphs over the social circumstances of pre-monarchic Israel that marginalize the barren women. For Israel, the shaky conglomeration of tribes faced a mounting pressure from encroaching Philistines.
But both Hannah and Israel saw hope in God through a prayer, which following generations would continue to contextualize and apply (see Psalm 113, Luke 1:47-55). Not only does God reach out to the powerless, but God elevates them under his great strength. This is God’s business since he is the creator. Barrenness turns to fruitfulness. Hopelessness transforms into hopefulness. Regret from the past moves to joy over the future. By singing this prayer, we join a community of people throughout history who have seen despair, only to be lifted by God.
In the ensuing chapters, Samuel grows up to emerge as Israel’s unquestionable leader. This is quite a feat considering the chaos and fractures among tribes in the final chapters of the book of Judges. Samuel then prepares the way for institution of monarchy in Saul, and thus begins the narrative of the kings of Israel.
This is not the sort of beginning that fits the ancient Near East. Royal origins of Mesopotamia and Egypt typically begin with kings descending from the heavenly deities, placed on the thrones of earth to steward the will of the gods. But for ancient Israel, the beginnings of monarchy emerge with the earnest, desperate prayer of a powerless second wife. But of course, this will not be the last time when greatness begins with a birth narrative of humility.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of potential and promise,
You gave Hannah the one thing she desired, and the one thing she needed to be complete in you. We trust that you know what we desire and what we need, and that you provide with generosity what we need to make your promises reality in this kingdom. With gratitude and awe we lift our prayer to you, in the name of the one who is himself the fulfillment of all desire, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
My soul proclaims your greatness, O Lord from Holden Evening Prayer, Marty Haugen (GIA)
For all the faithful women ELW 419
Ye who claim the faith of Jesus H82 268
Canticle of the Turning ELW 723
My soul gives glory to my God UMH 198, NCH 119
In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful (Taizé)
Magnificat, Any one of 8,000 settings