Get your copy of “Messiah: Biblical Retellings” here, or download a free chapter here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
Today’s meditation comes from the story of Hannah’s miraculous conception of Samuel, from 1 Samuel 1-2.
This is the text of my retelling:
I had come to hate the yearly trek to Shiloh. Which was terrible! We were going to sacrifice and worship the Lord, and I knew it was wrong to do anything but rejoice—that was what the Lord called us to do, after all. And yet it was the worst time of the year for me.
The rest of the year, I could avoid my husband Elkanah’s other wife Peninnah and her children. At home her family and I lived in different tents, and I managed to fix my daily routine such that I almost never interacted with her at all. I did this because Peninnah was horrible to me at every opportunity. Even if she hadn’t been horrible, seeing her was like an arrow in my heart, as it seemed she was perpetually pregnant or nursing. She now had six children–and I none. As if that weren’t enough, she took every opportunity to taunt me for my barrenness. Elkanah tried to tell me this was because she was jealous of his love for me, and seemed to expect this would comfort me. It didn’t. I valued my husband’s love greatly, but it in no way compensated me for the children I lacked, and I was not compassionate enough to empathize with my rival’s motives. My own pain was too acute.
During the yearly trek to Shiloh, though, we all traveled together as a family—Elkanah, his two wives, and Peninnah’s children. I couldn’t get away from her. After Elkanah’s sacrifice, when it came time to eat the sacrificial meat, he distributed portions to his wives and children. As if to compensate me for my barrenness, he gave me a double portion. He meant well, but even this wrung tears from my eyes. Peninnah taunted me even about this: what a sorry exchange this was, how glad she was that she had children rather than extra meat. I shoved my plate away and ran out of the tent so that I might cry alone, my appetite spoiled.
Elkanah, a gentle man, followed me into the night and put his arms around me. “Hannah, why do you weep?” he asked me softly, though of course he knew the answer. And I could not reply to him anyway. “And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
I let him hold me, but there was no satisfactory reply to this. The answer was a decided no, but he would not understand this, and would be hurt by it. After all, he had no need of more sons—he had them already, by Peninnah. Also, he was not only mine. I would always, always have to share him, not only with her but also with her children. I felt like an interloper on a family tableau, the one person who did not belong.
After a reasonable amount of time had elapsed such that Elkanah would not feel slighted, I tightened and then released my embrace.
“Give me leave to visit the Temple,” I murmured, wiping the tears from my eyes.
Elkanah looked slightly puzzled, but nodded. “Of course, if you wish to seek the Lord alone.”
I nodded and hurried off, scarcely noticing Eli the priest sitting beside the doorpost of the Temple as I entered. The Temple was otherwise empty, as the sacrifices had taken place earlier that day, and all the priests, like my husband, had taken their portions back to their families to feast and celebrate. This was precisely what I wanted—to be alone. When I reached the Court of Women, the Outer Court, I fell to my knees and released all the tears I had held back throughout the day and the journey. Between sobs, I poured out my heart in my spirit–and though my lips moved, my voice remained silent.
“O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.” I meant by this last addition that he would be a Nazirite, holy and set apart to the Lord. It was desperation that made me say all this. Once it was out of my mouth, it occurred to me that I was attempting to bargain with God. Was that okay? I knew the scriptures reasonably well, as my husband was a priest, but the only example I could think of where anyone said to God, ‘if you do this for me, I’ll do that for you’ was the Judge Jephthah, who said that if God helped him win the battle against the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first thing that greeted him when he returned home from battle. It turned out to be his daughter. Not exactly an example I wished to follow, and yet—that’s what desperation does. A few years ago, I would never have made such a vow as to part with my firstborn son, not for anything in the world. Now I would do it with all my heart, if the Lord would only listen and remember me…
I did not see Eli the priest approach as I prayed on my knees until he spoke. His tone and his words were harsh.
“How long will you go on being drunk?” he demanded, and when I looked up at him I saw the scowl on his face. “Put your wine away from you.”
“No, my lord,” I gasped, understanding that he thought I had overindulged at the feast. “I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.”
The priest’s face softened, and he rested a hand on my shoulder as he answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.”
I bowed my head, closing my eyes against the answering flood of tears that threatened yet again—only this time they were tears of gratitude. The High Priest himself had just blessed me! Scriptural precedent or not, that meant I had my petition of the Lord!
“Let your servant find favor in your eyes,” I managed, as I stood and dried my eyes, beaming at the priest. Then I hurried back to our tent, suddenly ravenous. I had a double portion of sacrificial meat still waiting for me, and I could stand anything now, even the taunts from Peninnah. I was as good as pregnant!
Peninnah’s children and she had finished their portions when I returned to eat alone. But Peninnah watched my radiant face closely, frowning.
“What got into you?” she sneered, but I could see that she was troubled by my uplifted mood.
I simply smiled at her, and said, “The Lord is good and gracious!”
She blinked, put off by this response. She rose and left the table without saying a word.
The next morning, we rose, worshiped at the Temple one last time, and returned to our home at Ramah. Elkanah hardly left my side on the return journey, which nettled Peninnah. When we arrived home, he shared my bed. I was not surprised, both because of his concern for me and also because of Eli’s prophecy.
I suspected right then, but I knew for certain within a month that I was with child. I knew before his birth that he would be a son, because that had been my petition of the Lord. Elkanah suggested family names, but I said no—he should be called Samuel, “because I had asked for him from the Lord.”
The following year, when the time came for the family sacrifice, I begged Elkanah’s leave to remain behind with Samuel. He was only three months old and still nursing; much too young to leave at the Temple with Eli. At first Elkanah did not understand why I could not travel with Samuel and return home with him again, until I explained, “I made a vow to the Lord, and I intend to keep it when the time comes. As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, so that he may appear in the presence of the Lord and dwell there forever.” What I did not tell him was that I didn’t want to make a habit of going to the Temple with Samuel and then returning home with him again. That would make it so much easier for me to tell myself, ‘I’ll leave him with Eli next year,’ and when next year came, to say the same again. I did not want to tempt myself not to keep my vow to the Lord.
Five years later, Samuel was fully weaned, and the time had come. I made the yearly journey once again to the Temple to worship, and reminded myself that this was a time for joy and not for mourning. The Lord had granted my request! Yet my heart ached at the idea of leaving behind my only son forever. Samuel was a serious, reserved child, well suited for service to the Lord—and yet still, he was so young. Would he be frightened? Of course he would be frightened to be left among strangers. Was I doing the right thing? Perhaps I should take him home again and return again next year, when he was a bit older—
“Why are you sad, Mama?” Samuel had crept into our traveling tent beside me. I had explained to him already that he would remain in the house of the Lord, while his father and I would return home to Ramah without him. He had not seemed disturbed by this, but I had assumed that was because he didn’t really understand what I’d said.
I looked at my little boy, so peaceful and trusting, and my anguish began to ebb away. “Do you understand that you will remain at Shiloh, while I and your father and all that you know will return home to Ramah?” I asked him.
He nodded. “Yes. You told me so already.”
“And you are not afraid?”
He blinked at me, frowned, and shook his head. “I will be with the Lord, will I not?”
“Yes, my darling. You will dwell with the Lord forever.”
“Then why would I be afraid?”
A little sob of gratitude rose up in my throat, but I swallowed it down, and hugged my son close. It was as if the Lord himself had whispered, peace to my soul.
When we arrived at Shiloh, Elkanah and I brought Samuel to the Temple, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine as a sacrifice. Elkanah slaughtered the bull, and when he had finished offering the sacrifice, together we brought Samuel to Eli. Samuel, fearless little man he was, stepped forward to meet Eli boldly. Eli looked down at the boy quizzically, and then up at me.
“Oh, my lord!” I said, “As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted me my petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”
Samuel looked at me. “Is the Lord in this place, Mama?”
“Yes, my darling.” I stifled the sob that rose in my throat, and tucked his hair behind his ear.
And then, as if he knew exactly what to do, Samuel fell to his knees, and raised his little hands in worship. Eli’s face lit with delight, and something moved me to kneel beside him. The words that came to my lips were not my words—they flowed far too well, as if I were reading something written long ago. I spoke aloud, in the presence of the high priest.
“My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.” I thought of Peninnah’s face as I said these words, and felt a fierce swell of satisfaction. She did not taunt me anymore. “There is none holy like the Lord: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength.” I had a sense that I was now prophesying, speaking of something broader than just of Peninnah and myself. Was the Lord reminding me of His goodness, to give me strength to leave Samuel behind? “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.” Oh, let that be a prophesy for me! I thought. “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. 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. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail. The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” Now I knew I was prophesying, for Israel had no king—our King was the Lord. We had only judges. Who was to be the king? I looked at Samuel, and wondered—would he be one of the judges? Or would he have anything to do with future kings of Israel?
When my psalm had finished, Elkanah put an arm around my shoulders and led me from the Temple, leaving Samuel behind. We had discussed that it would be best to go quickly, and not look back.
I was surprised, pleasantly so, that a balm of peace spread over my soul as I went. Though now ostensibly all was as it was before, and I was effectively childless, Peninnah never taunted me again. In my secret moments of sorrow, I clung to the prophesy that had sprung from my own lips: “the barren has borne seven.” I knew seven was a number of perfection and completion and perhaps not literal, but surely one was not a number of perfection and completion, was it?
Yet for the next few years, when we returned for the sacrifice and I brought Samuel a new and slightly larger little robe I had made for him, he remained my only son. He was happy and at peace each time I saw him, and this was consolation to me.
When Samuel was seven, before we left, Eli the priest approached us, placing a hand on each of our shoulders. With a fond look at Samuel, he said to Elkanah, “May the Lord give you children by this woman for the petition she asked of the Lord.”
Oh, what a joy those words were! Spoken by the high priest, just as the first blessing had been, I knew they carried with them the same seeds of promise.
In the succeeding years, as Elkanah and I returned for the yearly sacrifice, I introduced Samuel to his brothers and sisters: five of them in all, six including him. As many as Peninnah had.
And yet, each year as Samuel grew strong in the presence of the Lord, I became more certain that he would be the greatest of them all. The hand of the Lord was upon his life, and he had been born for a purpose. My vow had been no coincidence. I watched eagerly for glimmers of what he was to become.
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