It happens so often these days that when I read a narrative in the Old Testament or the Gospels or Acts, some detail or dynamic I had never considered before jumps right off the page. This time it happened in the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1.
Usually we only focus on Hannah’s grief, her prayer, and God’s answer. But this time, I saw Hannah in the context of her primary support system—her husband and her priest. What part did these two men play in Hannah’s faith and ultimate victory?
In this story, familiar and especially poignant for women struggling with infertility, Hannah is in grief and torment because of her inability to have a child. She has a sister wife named Peninnah who has children, who cruelly mocks Hannah for her childlessness and flaunts her own status as a mother. This is so unbearable that Hannah becomes severely depressed and stops eating.
When Hannah’s husband Elkanah notices that Hannah is downcast and has lost all appetite, he approaches her, and when he realizes the cause of her deep distress says, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8).
At first reading, Elkanah’s response may seem rather clueless–especially to women! It seems at best unhelpful, at worst insensitive and hurtful. Even the most devoted husband can’t remove the ache of barrenness in a woman who desperately wants to be a mother.
But I’d like to give Elkanah a little bit of credit. It appears this husband understood something about love languages.
Each year at the time of the sacrifice, he always gave Hannah an extra portion of the offering because he loved her so much. He favored her over his other wife who had given him children. It seems to me that he spoke these words of affirmation to let Hannah know that he loved her for herself, as a woman, as a wife, as a person. He saw and valued her and wanted her to feel secure in his unconditional love.
This response matters to a wife, even if she can’t receive it at a very vulnerable moment of aching need. These husbandly words and the emotional bond they represent form a safety net for a wife who is grieving.
In the story, the family travels to Shiloh to worship at the Tabernacle. Hannah takes this opportunity to bring her desperate prayer to Yahweh. The priest of the Tabernacle, Eli, notices Hannah silently moving her lips, and confronts her for being drunk. She corrects his perception, crying, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord.”
This elicits the pastoral heart of Eli. He simply replies, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him” (v. 17). He saw in his Spirit that she had faith to receive from the LORD. He affirmed her own private relationship with the Lord, and the powerful and effective nature of her prayer. He understood as a man of God that hers was the kind of prayer that “avails much” (James 5:16). Eli was available as a priest and pastor to Hannah, confirming the legitimacy of her plea before the God of Israel, and assuring her that He would hear and respond to her cry.
This was enough for Hannah. She wiped away her tears. She went back to the feast, to worship with her husband. She ate dinner, her faith bolstered. And we know from the rest of the narrative that Elkanah made love to her and, lo and behold, she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel, one of the most powerful and influential prophets and judges throughout all of Israel.
Hannah is the central, admirable hero of this story no doubt, second only to the God who answered her prayer. Her praise to the Lord provides some of the most beautiful poetic tribute to the God who hears and heals in all of Scripture.
But there is also room to recognize that Hannah had a husband who loved and supported her unconditionally. She also had a pastor who stood in his rightful place at the right moment to confirm the righteous cause of this handmaiden of the Lord.
There are times when I need the security of my husband who loves me in good times and bad times. Sometimes I need the fellowship and counsel of the beautiful, Spirit-filled friends who walk this walk of faith with me. And sometimes I need the discernment of a pastor, a shepherd who watches over my life, and comes into agreement with my prayers.
This is a divinely appointed support system. Hannah had one. We all need one. I trust that when this is lacking, if we have the courage to ask and seek, and we will find the support we need.