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The woman who brought forth the prophet

The first Book of Samuel begins by presenting the history of one of the most fascinating women of the Old Testament, Hannah, the mother of the future prophet who gave his name to the entire book. She occupies only the first two chapters, yet the narrator sketches a vivid portrait of her and, through her vicissitudes, delineates a way of active but non-violent response to a complex and anguishing situation from which there appears to be no way out. The reader who is familiar with the history of the patriarchs recognizes certain characteristics from the narratives about the ancient forebears of Israel which Hannah adopts; from this viewpoint too this woman seems an interesting figure, since she does not merely take up these features but reinterprets them in a new way.

The wives of Elkanah (c. 1250, miniature from the Maciejowski Bible, f. 19)

The story begins by presenting Elkanah, an inhabitant of Ramathaim-zophim whose ancestors are listed as if he were an important person. However, his history is suddenly interrupted because the narrator makes room for the situation of his family and, in particular, of his two wives, Hannah and Peninnah; the former has no children because she is barren and the latter is very fertile. This is not an unheard of situation for the reader who is acquainted with other couples of women thus characterized: Sarah and Hagar (Gen 16:21, 1-14), Leah and Rachel (Gen 29:30; 30:2).

Hannah’s barrenness is underlined with the repetition, twice, of the words “The Lord had closed her womb” (1 Sam 1:5, 6). Her condition is reminiscent of that of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, who succeeded in conceiving only with God’s intervention (Gen 18:10-12; 25:21; 30:22); the narrator probably wished to recall these stories, permitting a similar result to be predicted, but the manner in which this happens constitutes the original aspect of this event.

Motherhood moreover is an important subject in the Bible: children are seen as a gift of God, a sign of his blessing, the hope of a future that succeeds in overcoming the limits of death: it is they who can bring to completion what was begun by their fathers, and it is in their lives that the parents live on. For these reasons being barren was perceived as a disgrace, the consequence of divine disfavour; the word “barren” forcefully indicates all this, because it stems from a root which means uprooting: the woman who does not conceive is uprooted and uprooting, and as such suffers shame and is considered insignificant and worthless. Although Hannah was loved by her husband, she lives this situation and the narrator makes its drama understood. The strong tension that passes in the relations between the two wives is presented in the context of the annual pilgrimage which Elkanah makes to the shrine of Shiloh. Indeed Hannah is the object of continuous humiliations by Peninnah, the prolific wife towards whom the husband shows neither affection nor generosity: he shows himself just to her (he assigns the portions of the sacrifice due to her and to her children), but his true benevolence is directed to the barren woman to whom he gives a special part (verses 4-5). On a first reading Hannah seems only a victim, but the narrator outlines the sorrowful condition of Peninnah too, who is useful only because she is fertile but lacks real value in the eyes of her husband; the jealousy and mortification aimed at Hannah are the ways in which she reacts, projecting on to her rival the situation that she herself suffers.

Hannah prays for a son (c. 1250, miniature from the Maciejowski Bible, f. 19)

Instead, Hannah chooses a different way and does not respond to the offences, although she feels a deep inner affliction which leads her to stop eating (v. 6). Reacting to the insults or holding not being loved against her rival would have triggered a chain of evils; thus she puts no violent acts into effect in response to Penninah’s humiliation and contempt, nor does she compete, distinguishing herself in this from both Sarah and Rachel. Rather this woman chooses to let the offence go no further than herself, to “suffer it”, in order not to redouble it and increase her suffering without finding an authentic solution. Hannah assumes the same approach with regard to Elkanah, who tries to comfort his beloved wife with words that show how blind he is to a situation that he himself has contributed to creating, and how he fails to understand the suffering of a wife whom he actually loves, transforming her suffering into something that concerns himself (v. 8).

Hannah seems to shut herself into his sorrow in a form of weakness, but her renunciation of any reaction becomes her strength. In fact, she chooses to speak and to address her complaint, her bitterness and her sorrow to God, the only One who does not misunderstand it. In the face of her failure in life the only thing that she feels is left to her is to take refuge in the cry of prayer (vv. 9-10).

Hannah goes to the heart of her poverty, she accepts it without suffering from it, without attributing to others responsibility for her situation, and shows that she nourishes hopes and desires which, being impossible, require the Lord’s intervention. She is not content, she does not seek intermediary solutions to solve her problem (as Sarah did with Hagar). She opens her eyes and her heart, letting herself express her longing for fertility, for a future and for meaning and permits this desire to be satisfied by a God who fills beyond any expectation.

For this reason Hannah goes to the temple, where she not only asks for a son but makes the vow to consecrate him to the Lord. She turns her gaze in a different direction and seeks a solution outside her family, she asks for a son who would enable her to assume a different social role, to have a power which she has not so far enjoyed, but she does not keep the gift for herself. This very decision was to have crucial implications, not only for her but for all her people: the child who will be born will become the hope of Israel in an epoch of great confusion and political and social uncertainty, he will restore the word of the Lord to Israel, he will be the prophet who will anoint King Saul and later David. The way that Hannah chooses, the words that she says, the look she turns on reality assume prophetic tones: in her history she convokes the Lord and sees him present in the events open to the future.

Indeed her prayer, which is also born from an embittered heart and accompanied by many tears, is formulated with great lucidity: “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your maidservant, and remember me, and not forget your maidservant, but will give to your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head” (v. 11).

Her prayer is a supplication that invokes the “Lord of hosts”, a title that celebrates God’s victorious action since he takes the part of the faithful woman who says of herself that she is a maidservant, an appellation that evokes adoration and the confession of divine grandeur and which alludes to the relationship of dependence which Hannah acknowledges as her own. The supplicant asks God to remember her, to look at her unhappy plight and to give her a son. It is at this point that the woman in her turn promises to make a gift to God of the child that will be granted to her. Her words are not intended to constrain the Lord but rather to express that her wish will have effective fulfilment only at the moment when she will be able to act like the divine donor. Her gaze does not stop at the realization of what she longs for more than anything else, but succeeds in discerning in its fulfilment the sign of a greater generosity, the affirmation of God’s fidelity to the life of his faithful.

Hannah’s prayer has a witness, the priest Eli who, seeing the woman’s lips moving silently, misunderstands her behaviour and harshly accuses her of drunkenness (vv. 13-14). Once again Hannah is the object of an offence, but this time, after she has already found out, in prayer, the truth about herself and her desire in the presence of the One who is the only One to understand her, she does not remain silent but has the courage to answer the priest, claiming the justice of her action and her own worth. Her words sound genuine and receive Eli’s blessing.

The narrator does not immediately say that the Lord grants Hannah’s prayer, but indicates that Hannah is transformed, that she is starting to eat again and that her countenance is no longer as it was, it changes from tears to joy, from bitterness to serenity and peace. This change is produced by the certitude of being heard. Just as the remembrance of God’s promise urged Hannah to turn her whole self to the Lord, so her trust that God will make her his gift suffices to transform her expression and her expectations.

Hannah’s impossible wish is fulfilled: the Lord visits the barren woman, making her relations with her husband fertile. The son is born whom the mother calls Samuel, “For”, she said, “I have asked him of the Lord” (v. 20) and, after she has weaned him, she takes him to the temple to fulfil her vow. Once again Hannah speaks to the priest, revealing that her desire to give her son to the Lord corresponds to the gift she has received and is in conformity with the promise.

On this occasion Hannah once again addresses the Lord, this time in a prayer of praise, a canticle to exalt the Lord and his work; it is a famous text which is echoed in the New Testament in the words of the Magnificat.

Her hymn celebrates the God who turns destinies upside down, reverses situations from which it seems there is no way out and offers special protection to those who are the most vulnerable; her gaze extends to the whole of history and contemplates the entire work of salvation, recognizing and exalting the manner in which the Lord always acts (2:1).

In her prayer Hannah bears the suffering and shame that surround her, interpreting all her personal anguish and oppression without an explicit reference to her own situation. The prayer thus opens with an overall intercession, while she recalls God’s action. It is not only thanksgiving for what she has received but praise. Rejoicing in the good which is for all and which others too can enjoy, she brings into being a true communion.

Praise is moulded by supplication. It is as if Hannah has accepted her barrenness and that of all the people in her prayer, as if she has made her cry the cry of all those who feel that life is ebbing away, who suffer because of an existence devoid of what truly gives meaning. Precisely because she is strengthened by her previous prayer, in which she offered her whole life to the Lord, she is able to proclaim that goodness, life and salvation are God’s and last for ever because they are everywhere.

Like a prophet, Hannah sings of the way chosen by the Lord, which is constant throughout the history of salvation. The Lord turns to those who are lowly, to those who have no pretensions, to those who recognize their poverty, their limitations and their shortcomings, not because he is a God who is gratified by his power, who wants to exercise his dominion over those who are weak and defenceless, but rather to be able to fill them with his gifts and his fullness, to fulfil impossible desires. Hannah recognizes that this is the meaning of divine wisdom: it this that grants victory to those who, at the outset, are defeated, to those who have not the fortitude to confront the enemy, it is this that confuses pride and the arrogance of those who do not regard the hungry and the barren as brothers or sisters. The Lord, to whom the earth belongs, who makes us live and makes us die, does not choose the powerful or the rich but chooses for himself the lowly and the poor and transforms their lives, watching over their footsteps to ensure that they keep themselves faithful.

Hannah celebrates this and then experiences it tangibly in her life; her story ends with a last annotation: she becomes fertile again and the gift she has made to the Lord, instead of provoking a new lack, gives rise to renewed fecundity: “And the Lord visited Hannah and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters” (2:21).

Grazia Papola

The author

Sr Grazia Papola is a member of the Ursuline Sisters of St Charles. She is a biblicist and teaches Pentateuch at the Istituto Superiore di Scienze Religiose and the Studio Theologico in Verona. She lives at Desenzano del Garda.

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