Even though the authorship of the book of Samuel is debated, there is no doubt that it records the most significant political change in Israel’s history, one that would end up separating God’s people from their true King. For all the accounts of great wars and conquests recorded in the book of Samuel, it still starts with the story of humble beginnings in a lowly town in the hill country of Ephraim.
A Divided Family
Elkanah belonged to the priestly clan of Levi and was well-versed with the laws and traditions of Israel. Every year, he would take his family to the holy city of Shiloh to worship and offer sacrifices to the Lord Almighty. However, this ‘righteous’ man had two life partners causing immense friction in his family. Throughout the first chapter of Samuel, we find instances that suggest that Elkanah and his family knew what was required of the law and always tried to obey God. However, they missed one basic law that God taught Adam and Eve. In the book of Genesis, we read that God instructed man and woman to be united and be one body. God never said a man and his wives together be one body. But men took for themselves several wives on the pretext of having sons to continue the family name. It’s quite possible that the barrenness of Hannah caused Elkanah to marry Peninnah to continue his lineage. Another factor was societal pressure to procreate which made the ancient men take up many wives, a practice still prevalent today in many communities. In both aspects, people ignore God’s will and try to accomplish their own will. Abraham is the prime example of someone who knew God’s heart but still chose to go his own way.
Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and she would not eat. Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? …… Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”1 Samuel 1:6-8
We cannot begin to imagine the heartache Hannah would have felt seeing her rival conceive and give Elkanah descendants, while the Lord had closed her womb (1 Samuel 1:6). Hannah would be comforted by Elkanah who would remind her that he still loved her. But the Jewish laws clearly stated that the firstborn regardless of the husband’s preferred wife is still the rightful heir (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Hannah had all these pent-up emotions inside her, and on one of her visits to Shiloh, spilt her guts before the altar of the Lord. She made a vow of separation for her unborn son and that he would be dedicated to the service of the Lord for all his life.
All the days of the vow of his separation, no razor shall come upon his head; until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the Lord, he shall be holy.Numbers 6:5
In ancient cultures, people dedicated their newborn and even unborn children to the service of the Lord. The vow that Hannah is making is a Nazarite vow given in the book of Numbers. Parents can dedicate their children and some even try and force them to attend Sunday mass but these parents are forgetting that God does not look at the outward acts but only at a person’s heart. No one can be a proxy for someone else’s faith. Rather than imposing our will on someone, we must let God’s will work in our lives.
Eli, who was observing her from a distance, mistook her for a drunkard, babbling before the altar of the Lord. He rebuked her without knowing the real reason she was weeping before the altar. During the annual celebrations, it is quite possible that Eli had to deal with drunk and disorderly behaviour with no help from his sons. Maybe he mistook Hannah for one of the over-celebrators and wanted to maintain the sanctity of the house of God. Oftentimes, when we are in our most intimate moments with God, we are distracted by the ones around us intentionally or unintentionally. Anyone can act as a distraction and here we find the great Priest of Israel interrupting the time Hannah was spending with the Lord. But our God loves when we come to Him in our most desperate hour.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted And saves those who are crushed in spirit.Psalms 34:18
After receiving the answer to her prayers from God and the confirmation from Eli, Hannah had peace in her heart. She did not doubt this peace and believed that the Lord will deliver her from her problems.
So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.”1 Samuel 1:20
Hannah Stays Back
During the family’s annual trip to Shiloh, Hannah decided to stay back as she wanted to wait till the boy was grown up before she dedicated him to the Lord. Was Hannah wavering on her promise to the Lord? Or did she think that what use will be there for a toddler in the house of the Lord? Is the Lord not capable of taking care of a toddler? Elkanah was going to Shiloh to fulfil his vow (verse 21). It could have been the vow his wife made or something not mentioned. The whole story revolves around Samuel so it must be the vow to give Samuel to the Lord. Hannah made a vow saying that she will give Samuel to the Lord all the days of his life. Even if Hannah wanted to give Samuel to the Lord after a few years, why was she not going with her family for the annual trip to Shiloh? Why did she want to wait till the boy was weaned to even offer annual sacrifices to the Lord? Did Penninah not go with Elkanah year after year even as she had young off-springs to wean (Verse 7)?
There were laws concerning vows married women made to the Lord, for which the ‘release clause’ was that the husband must forbid his wife from fulfilling the vow (Numbers 30). But Elkanah gave Hannah the full freedom to make her decisions and reminded her that may the Lord make good your word. (Dead Sea Scrolls, Septuagint and Syriac replaces his with your in verse 23. )
There is no way we can say for sure whether or not Hannah had doubts in her mind about dedicating Samuel to the Lord. But she was human, and surely the thought would have crossed her mind. We will start remembering all the worries of the world, financial dependence, family responsibilities our careers, satan will use all of these and more to somehow derail us from fulfilling our commitment to God. But God helps us to have the courage to follow through on our commitments that we have made to Him if we only ask this of our Father.
After Hannah had weaned the boy she did present him to Eli along with the offerings that were required for a special vow (Numbers 15:8-10). Eli would bless the couple and Hannah would go on to have further five children after she dedicated Samuel to the Lord. In our spiritual lives, we also look for loopholes to get out of the commitments we have made. We should understand that even if we have made a promise to God, it is still He who helps us follow through on them. Elkanah knew that, as he told Hannah may God make good your word. We need God to help us keep our promises to Him.
Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, but the boy ministered before the LORD under Eli the priest.1 Samuel 2:11
- V2: Why would a righteous man break God’s commandments?
- V11: Can a mother make a vow on behalf of her son? Can anyone?
- V14: Why did Eli think that Hannah was drunk?
- V22: Did Hannah have second thoughts about giving up her son?
- Summary: Do we have second thoughts about fulfilling our promise to God?