Hannah: Articulate, Unwavering Faith.

One thing I’ve really benefited from in the past couple of years is looking at specific women in Scripture to see what kind of lessons I can glean from their lives.  I haven’t done this purposefully before now—I “just happened” across the Shunammite woman who helped Elisha and the woman from Abel who promised Joab Sheba’s head—but I want to spend some time looking long at the examples held before us (new category: women in the Bible).

The stunning example of Hannah fell in my lap this week as I studied the so-familiar tale once more for our church’s women’s Bible study.  Hannah’s story is the earliest Bible story I have recollection of as a child—I’m pretty sure we had one of those Christian versions of a Little Golden Book about her and the little robes she made for her son, and I must have read it often, because I can still see the illustrations in my mind.  Nevertheless, I am ashamed to admit that I thought a bit dubiously of Hannah. Why was she breaking her heart about this whole having a baby thing? She seemed like “a Martha” to me, with her mind set on the wrong things.

Well, six children, some years, and a study of Judges later, and Hannah has emerged from the shadows where I’d stupidly left her.

The woman from the hill country.

Hannah lived in an oppressively miserable situation.  Her story opens in the time of the judges—a profoundly horrible time in Israel’s history. So many unthinkable things were happening.  So much idolatry and godlessness.  So much cruelty, oppression, impulsiveness, and unfaithfulness.  The book of Judges ends on such a sour note, and it is there that 1 Samuel picks up the story.

Hannah’s personal situation is also oppressively miserable—first, her husband has another wife.  While provision for this is made in the Law (Exodus 21:10, Deuteronomy 21:15, etc.), God obviously didn’t make Adam two wives, and we’ve already seen this practice making trouble stretching from Abraham to Gideon (Judges 8:30, and the massive fratricide that follows in chapter 9).  Worse, her sister-wife is abusive.  1 Samuel 1:6-7 says that “her rival would taunt her severely just to provoke her… whenever she went up to the Lord’s house, her rival taunted her in this way.”  (We find out later in the chapter that Hannah’s faith is strong, making it even worse that she experiences these taunts in the middle of what was surely one of her favorite pastimes—visiting the Lord’s house to worship and pray.)  Further complicating the situation, her husband is apparently oblivious (v. 8) and makes the situation worse by showing her blatant favoritism (v. 5).  And this not even to say anything about the root of all the taunting and misery—that “the Lord had kept Hannah from conceiving” (v. 6).

Lastly, even what should have been a haven to her, the Lord’s house, is perverted because Eli’s “sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them” (1 Samuel 3:13)—these two men who we see right away in 1:3 were “the Lord’s priests” at Shiloh where Hannah could come to worship.

In short, Hannah’s world is all screwed up.  This isn’t a story about some baby-crazy fanatic.  This is a righteous woman who loves God stuck in the middle of a world that hates Him, with family that hates Him, and even priests who hated Him.

In the middle of all this, she finds herself “deeply hurt” (1 Samuel 1:10) and she pleads with God.  She is sad, weeping “with many tears,” afflicted (v. 11), broken-hearted (v. 15), anguished and grieved (v. 16), and despondent (v. 18).  But her response is not to lash out at her surroundings, to drink, to rail at God, to blame her husband, to return evil for evil… no, Hannah’s response is to pray.

Hannah’s vow.

One thing that’s very relevant is that any vow Hannah made was meaningless if her husband didn’t confirm it:

If a woman in her husband’s house has made a vow or put herself under an obligation with an oath, and her husband hears about it, says nothing to her, and does not prohibit her, all her vows are binding, and every obligation she put herself under is binding. But if her husband cancels them on the day he hears about it, nothing that came from her lips, whether her vows or her obligation, is binding. Her husband has canceled them, and the LORD will absolve her.  Her husband may confirm or cancel any vow or any sworn obligation to deny herself.
[Numbers 30:11-13]

This is important context because Hannah wasn’t being unsubmissive or making a promise she couldn’t keep.

Secondly, the vow itself (v. 11):

LORD of Hosts, if You will take notice of Your servant’s affliction, remember and not forget me, and give Your servant a son, I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and his hair will never be cut.

Her son is to be a Nazarite from birth.  Just like Samson in Judges 13.  The parallel Hannah is offering to God is exact.  Surely Hannah knew her recent history!  So—the text doesn’t say what all was going on in her head, but I think it’s a reasonable inference, at least a consideration, that a righteous woman in the midst of such sinfulness would find herself wishing for a Gideon, a Samson, a Barak, a Jephthah, to again rise up from the people of Israel.  Whether she wished specifically for her son to be that or not, that was what she was holding out to God—a son dedicated to the Lord from birth.  And that is what God ultimately delivered to her: not merely a son whom she could dedicate to outward temple service, but a son who was indeed the Lord’s, and who did go on to be a judge over Israel, and a tremendous influence for righteousness.

And Hannah believed.  Verse 18, her despondence is gone.

God answered, giving her Samuel, whose very name recognizes the circumstances of his conception and of his mother’s vow.  She tells her husband Elkanah of her vow, and he confirms it.  And so she takes Samuel to Eli, “though the boy was still young” (v. 24).  She needs no reminders and displays no hesitation.  Samuel is gone from her and dedicated to her Lord.

Hannah’s prayer.

1 Samuel 2 is where we really find out what makes Hannah tick.  We’ve already seen that she’s a woman devoted to worshipping God (1 Samuel 1:7, 1:10, 1:12, 1:16, 1:19, 1:24), but now we find out her theology.  And, wow, it turns out to be really deep.  A pastor could preach many sermons from Hannah’s little prayer!  A few of the things that really stood out to me:

  • She just gave up her son, but she’s rejoicing in the Lord (ch. 2 v. 1).
  • She’s not overcome by her enemies (how the magnitude of her suffering must have been to refer to them as “enemies” with no military context!) because she rejoices in God’s salvation (v. 1).
  • She’s got an amazing and exactly correct view of God and His sovereignty (v. 2-3, 5, 6, 7, 8) and the accompanying compulsion for us to be holy.
  • She knows truth strength is in God, not human strength, echoing David’s not-yet-written words in Psalm 18:29 (v. 4).
  • She knows happiness isn’t found in children but in the Lord (v. 5).
  • She knows the end of the righteous and the wicked (v. 9-10).
  • She anticipates Jesus Himself (v. 10).

So much there.  So much faith and so much understanding!  So much encouragement.

Then she left her only son and went home with empty arms but a joyful heart.  She proceeds to visit him once a year, with a little robe (v. 19), when they go up for the yearly sacrifice.

The end of the story.

Each year Eli prays that God may give her another child (v. 20), and God “pays attention,” v. 21, and Hannah has five more children.

The story quickly turns to Samuel and his life as it impacts Eli, Saul, David—and we never find out the end of Hannah’s story.  Did she keep meeting with him once a year?  Did she know and weep for her grandchildren who fell right back into the sin that surrounded her (1 Samuel 8:3)?  Were her other children faithful?  We don’t know.  Hannah doesn’t “make it” into the lineage of Christ or the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11.  She’s not mentioned by Jesus, any of the gospel writers, or in any of the epistles; all we know of her is contained right here in these two simple chapters.

Yet, what chapters and encouragement they are!  Hannah is a model of perseverance, faith, and sound theology even under great duress.  And God’s response to her pleas is a wonderful demonstration of His faithfulness and remembrance, blessing her far beyond what she asked of Him.

A Woman of Boldness

As I continue to think about the definition of biblical womanhood, the very-familiar story of the Shunammite woman who helped Elisha in 2 Kings 4 seemed worth looking into.  I’ve always read the story with puzzlement over the somewhat odd miracle-working of the resurrection of her son, and never paid that much attention to what it has to say about the woman herself, and the consider amounts of initiative and planning she undertakes.

While our historical culture has often seen boldness as an unfeminine trait, Scripture has much positive to say about boldness, and this is a good illustration of how it can be a positive quality in women.

I had never noticed how incredibly similar Elisha’s story here is to Elijah’s story in 1 Kings 17.  Mostly minor differences, but at least one significant one—I always thought the woman in Elijah’s story took so much action personally because she had no husband, but in 2 Kings 4, there is a husband in the story, and yet the wife is still very much the central figure.

We see in v. 8 that she is “a prominent woman,” and she not merely offers Elisha some food, she persuades him to eat.  Regularly.  She appeals to her husband to set aside an entire room (with great details like a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp) for Elisha to stay in whenever he comes through Shunem.  And they do it.  And why?  Because, she says, “I know that [Elisha] is a holy man of God” (2 Kings 4:9).

She’s a woman with ideas.  She’s a woman who apparently boldly entreats a prophet to stop and rest a while, and who boldly entreats her husband to do something quite inconvenient on his behalf.  Presumably her husband is going along with all of this, but it’s interesting that she, and not he, is the one driving it.

Elisha takes her up on the offer.  And then—again, bypassing the woman’s husband, who I would have expected him to deal with—he calls for her and thanks her for going to the trouble, and asks her what they can do for her in exchange.

She asks for nothing.

Gehazi points out that she has no son, and Elisha promises her one.  She is disbelieving, but his word proves true (v. 17).

Here, finally, the woman’s husband comes into the story a little bit—the child goes out with his father to the harvest, gets sick in the head, and the father sends him back to his mother with a servant.

The child dies.  She picks him up, puts him on Elisha’s bed, and leaves.  She doesn’t tell anyone what happened, and when her husband asks why she wants to go see Elisha, who is now at Mount Carmel, she doesn’t tell him.  He’s confused (v. 23) but she just affirms that everything is okay and leaves in a rush.

I can’t imagine what is going through her head.  Her only son, her little son, has died, and she’s keeping it all locked inside and not even telling his father.  So much single-mindedness is evident here.

She gets to Mount Caramel, and Elisha sees her in the distance (v.25) and sends Gehazi out to see if everything is all right.

She says yes, everything is all right—so much faith here!—and waits until she gets to Elisha’s feet to be overcome with anguish at last.  Elisha, for his part, has no idea what’s going on (“the Lord has hidden it from me, He hasn’t told me”, v. 27), but is compassionate.

She reminds him that she hadn’t asked for the son, but did ask to not be deceived—and now her son is dead.  Elisha sends Gehazi off in a rush with his staff, which turns out not to work (v. 31), but the mother won’t be dissuaded until Elisha comes himself (v. 30).

Elisha prays and the boy comes back to life.

The same Shunammite woman re-enters the story in 2 Kings 8, where Elisha has prophesied of a famine, and here thoughtfully tells the woman to pack up her household and get away.

Again, I am struck by the reality that he told her, and not her husband; that it was the woman who “got ready and did what the man of God said” (v. 2), and then it was the woman even who went to appeal to the king at the end of the famine to have her land restored (v. 3).  And God worked it out perfectly for her by having Gehazi “happen” to be at court the same time that the woman appeared, telling the king in fact about the woman herself, and her son, and the help they had given to and received from Elisha.

(On a sidenote, it is also awesome that God worked it out so that while Gehazi is telling this awesome, logic-defying story about a kid being raised from the dead, the woman herself comes in and confirms the story to the king.)

The king responds by restoring not only the woman’s house and lands, but also all the income she might have missed.

Nothing really is said about the husband in this story.  He could have been like some minor version of Nabal, and that been why it was left to his wife to do all these things, why it was his wife who helped Elisha and who was addressed by Elisha.  Certainly he doesn’t seem to have stopped her in any of her endeavors, although the only words he speaks in the entire story are questioning her actions (4:23).  Gehazi also says the man is old (4:14), and perhaps that is why he is so inactive—although he was working in the harvest (4:18).

There’s also the submissive aspect present in at least some degree when, rather than summoning the servants herself to fetch the donkey to go to Mount Carmel, she summons her husband and asks him to summon the servants to fetch the donkey, and tells him where she’s going.  She gives him a reassuring and honest but vague answer to his inquiry, and nowhere in any of these three main parts of her story (making a room for Elisha, fetching Elisha to raise her son, or packing up and moving to Philistia) is there any indication at all that her husband is anything other than a completely willing participant in her actions.  She consistently runs her plans by him—if vaguely at times—and then acts.

She reminds me of the Proverbs 31 woman, who “considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.”  There’s a lot of action going on in Proverbs 31, too, a lot of decisions: which vineyard? which clothes? where shall I buy my wool? how much shall I sell these garments for? how do I deal with the merchants? how much shall I dispense to the poor? what kind of food shall we eat?

There’s a boldness to the Shunammite’s actions—and the Proverbs 31 woman—in knowing the good thing to do, and doing it.  Knowing when to explain, and when to just act; when to ask permission (e.g. to set aside a room in their house permanently) and when to just stride on without any real explanation (e.g. when her son died).  There’s a lot of wisdom needed, but the examples are encouraging.  Doing good things unflinchingly, unquestioningly is one of the things that leads King Lemuel’s mother to declare, “the heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.  She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life” (Proverbs 31:11-12).

Thanks to the Shunammite’s boldness in doing good, her husband gained a son, then had that son resurrected, then survived a great famine, then profited upon their return to their home.  It also led to Gehazi being able to testify of the goodness of the Lord to the king, and surely encouraged and  helped God’s prophet to have a welcome home in Shunem and to see the faith she displayed by declaring “everything is all right” although her little son lay at home dead.  There was much good done by her concern for doing right and seeking the Lord!

A Woman with Initiative

On the one hand, I am staunchly complementarian.  I don’t believe women should teach or have authority over men, or even speak in church.  I believe women should consider themselves positionally beneath (i.e. “submissive”) to their husbands.  I believe those four things are very clear in Scripture.

But I also think there are some nuances in Scripture that get confused with our cultural traditions of patriarchy—in short, that the patriarchy of 16th century France and the patriarchy of Scripture may not be the same thing, but it can be hard for us to sort out.

In particular, I find it hard to understand Deborah being a judge, and hard to understand Abigail blatantly going against what she knew would have been the wishes of her husband, if he had had the chance to contradict her.  But she knew he would be displeased.

Today I read and noticed another such story, one I had read but not really thought about: 2 Samuel 20.  This man named Sheba has decided to rebel against David, and Joab is sent to quench the rebellion and destroy, apparently, the entire town of Abel.

Now—first of all, David is clearly in the right here.  Sheba was evil and wicked and it was entirely correct to destroy him.  Secondly, there’s a whole town involved, with plenty of elders and men to step up and do the right thing.  The “leadership,” apparently, made the executive decision to twiddle their thumbs.

But, enter this unnamed woman, who we only know as “a wise woman.” (v. 16).  While Joab is trying to break down the walls of the city, she—and she alone—calls out.  “Listen! Listen! Please tell Joab to come here and let me speak with him.”

And Joab listened.  And she made an argument, a very neat, concise, persuasive argument.  She let him know that there were faithful people in the city, and reminded him of the importance of the city, both presently and historically, and theologically.  Her words are rebuking and even harsh: “Why would you devour YHWH’s inheritance?”

She got Joab’s attention, and he protested: “Never! I do not want to destroy!”  And he offers her a solution—deliver Sheba, and the city will be spared.

This is a woman he’s bargaining with.  A woman who responds by promising him Sheba’s head.

So what does she do?  Does she go to her husband and say, hey, tell the elders about this, get them to make a decision so we can abide by it?

Nope.  This woman, who the Bible declares to be wise, goes straight to “all the people” and offers “her wise counsel” (v. 22).  They listen to her, cut off Sheba’s head, and throw it over the wall to Joab, who promptly retreats and goes back to David.  Disaster averted.

There are many things here that are both encouraging and perplexing.  Scripture seems quite clear that the woman was wise and correct, both in her character and in her actions here.  And yet she is very avidly arguing with men: first Joab, then the men of her city.  She is contradicting authority, both Joab (in his authority to destroy the city), and the city rulers (by not waiting on them to approach Joab, and not going to them first to ask them to give up Sheba).  She makes arguments and gives counsel—to men!—not suggestions and obeisance.  She is single-handedly responsible for pushing them to cut off Sheba’s head.

Now, what she doesn’t do is try to usurp authority.  She doesn’t remind one of Jezebel.  Like Abigail, and Deborah, when the men are willing to do what ought to be done, she fades into the background and we never hear tell of her again.  She works by persuasion and arguments, not force or unjust threats.

She’s an excellent example of bold biblical womanhood, womanhood that takes initiative, makes persuasive arguments, is not daunted, and whose wisdom is not hidden under a bushel, but ably helps all those around her, even a whole town and a king, for the glory of God.