Samuel, lesson 1

I Samuel 1:1-20 – Desperate Wife

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast February 3, 2008

Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it has been a good week where you live. Today is Super Bowl Sunday, and I know folks all over the country are excited about the big game, the commercials, and the half-time show, but I think we should take a moment to reflect on the fact that one of the teams in the Super Bowl was found guilty of egregious cheating earlier in the season. Cheating has become rampant throughout all levels of our society, including college campuses. Cheating, whether in sports, business, or politics, undermines the entire system and makes us lose faith in all our institutions. This is why call cheating a form of corruption.

Today we are beginning our study of I Samuel, which describes the transition of Israel from a tribal confederacy to a nation governed by a king. One of the major themes discussed in this book is that of corruption and cheating.

Overview        Originally the books of Samuel and Kings were one long narrative written on two scrolls. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek in Alexandria in the 2nd century BCE, the narrative was divided between four scrolls of a more manageable size. The scrolls were titled the four Books of the Kingdoms because they tell the story of the two Israelite kingdoms, Judah and Israel, from their founding in the days of Samuel to their destruction by the empires of Assyria and Babylon. 


If we were naming these books, we would probably name them after King David, who is the dominant figure, but they are named for Samuel the prophet. When the rabbis were decided which Jewish books were sacred Scripture after the destruction of the Temple, one of the criteria was that only books written by prophets should be considered sacred. This led to the mistaken notion that I & II Samuel were written by the prophet Samuel even though he dies half-way through the narrative.

The main reason the scroll was named after Samuel originally was because he is the central figure of the narrative. He was the one who established both Saul and David as kings of Israel and who spoke for God. With the advent of printing in the 16th century, Protestants adopted the Jewish practice of naming the first two books after Samuel and the last two after the book of the kings, but this is really confusing since Samuel does not even appear in the book of II Samuel.


There is little doubt that the books of the kingdom were assembled in their final form during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile, and there are many indications that a single editor put the final touches on the scrolls and gave them a fairly consistent theological perspective. Thus the books tell the story of the monarchy from the perspective of someone who had witnessed the destruction of the nation, but that editor used many sources in writing his history, just the way a modern historian does. Clearly he had access to the royal archives of both the northern and southern kingdoms.

He also had a number of short narratives that were probably written down during the time of David and Solomon. No one knows how widely those earlier books circulated or who wrote them, but in the 6th century a skilled editor wove them into his story of the monarchy. This means that we can perceive several layers of literature within the books of Samuel, but it is not always easy to identify when a particular story originated.

Another important point to make about the text of the books of Samuel is that the text suffered badly in transmission through the centuries. These books were not as important to the scribes and rabbis as the books of Moses, and most scholars acknowledge that there are many places where the text has been corrupted or lost in transition.

Origin of the Monarchy         It is possible that the same editor assembled the book of Judges, which precedes Samuel. Judges functions as a prequel to the story of the monarchy. A repeated refrain in Judges is that there was no king in the land and each man did as he pleased. That image of chaos in which each man was a law unto himself does not fit well with the view of the period of judges that we saw in Ruth, but in Samuel, the monarchy is the solution to social chaos and oppression.

The books of Samuel and Kings tell the story of power men and women as they struggled to govern a small nation in difficult times, but they also tell the story of God’s people trying to live faithfully in the midst of social and political turmoil. As we delve deeper into these materials we will find much that is strange to us, but I think we will also find that these ancient people were like us in many ways. They felt threatened and sought ways to defend themselves. They longed for security and prosperity, but found that both come with a high price. Most of all, we will find that a theme that runs through these stories is that God is at work in subtle ways. It is in the midst of the messiness and compromises of real life that we find God most intimately involved.

Read   I Samuel 1:1-20 

Hannah           In the ancient world, stories of the beginning of a dynasty typically began with miraculous births. Most of the ancient kings and emperors claimed to be the descendents of gods or goddesses. In Egypt you can see pictures of Hathor with pharaoh on her lap. The kings of Troy were descended from Apollo and those of Greece were sired by Ares or Zeus. The Romans told about the birth of Romulus and Remus who were suckled by a she-wolf in a cave on the Palatine hill. Thus, it is not surprising that the story of the kings of Israel and Judah begins with a miraculous birth.

What is surprising is that the child born did not become a king; he was a prophet. He was also not the child of a god or goddess. One thing that makes the books of Samuel so interesting is that there is almost no mythology in them. The workings of God are understood in terms of normal human life. In our lesson for today, we see that the story of the monarchy begins with the love of an ordinary man and woman.

As with many great stories, this one begins with a problem. Elkanah comes from a long line and is prosperous enough to have two wives, but he is not happy. He has a desperate tent-wife named Hannah. Her name means “attractive” or “beautiful” and Penninah, the name of Elkanah’s other wife, means “fruitful.” The names symbolize the problem. Hannah is loved by her husband, but has no children. Penninah has children, but is not loved. We might interpret this story differently if the translators had said that Elkanah had two wives named Beautiful and Fruitful.

It appears that Penninah was the younger wife and that Elkanah had married her precisely because Hannah was barren. And now Hannah was getting older and soon it would be too late to have children. You may recall from Genesis that Jacob loved the beautiful Rachel, but his wife Leah produced more children. Rachel and Leah were sisters, but that did not prevent Leah from taunting her rival and making her life difficulty. We also saw a similar story with Hagar taunting the barren Sarah. What should we make of the fact that some of the great stories of the Bible begin with jealousy and bitterness?

Elkanah had two wives, and it comes as a shock to many Christians that the Bible never condemns polygamy. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were right about that, but the stories of polygamy in the Old Testament are not very good. We’ll see that the kings of Israel found that having multiple wives was a burden rather than a blessing. An Old Testament scholar told me recently, can you imagine having more than one wife saying to you, “we need to talk about our relationship?” In Elkanah’s case, the problem was that his wives hated each other. The words used for their relationship are those used for enemies in the Bible.

Penninah made Hannah’s life miserable, and Elkanah tried in vain to make her feel better. He even honored her at the annual sacrificial feast by giving her a special portion of the meat. Our practice of the father carving the Thanksgiving turkey and giving the mother the first cut is an echo of the ancient practice of the sacrificial meal when the head of the family would divide up the meat that had been offered to the god. In the Iliad, Homer makes a point of telling which of the heroes got the preferred cuts of meat after the sacrifices.

Here we see Elkanah taking the family to the great shrine at Shiloh where they sacrificed an animal, cooked it, and divided it. Hannah got the best piece, but she couldn’t eat it. In modern terms we would say that Hannah was clinically depressed. At the big family religious celebration, she sat there and cried. Like a modern spouse, Elkanah was sympathetic and tried to reassure her that he loved her, but it was useless. Only one thing could make Hannah happy. She wanted a son. 

Hannah’s Vow            Hannah went to the shrine to pray to LORD. Hannah was not praying to just any ancient god, she was praying to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who led the Israelites out of bondage. Hannah was depressed and in need. While pouring out her soul to God, she made a sacred vow to the LORD.

A vow is a solemn promise someone makes to a deity. If God does what the person asks, then the person will do a certain thing. A vow might be “if you heal me of my acne, I will tell the world that you are the greatest and most merciful god.” We are uncomfortable with this kind of thing today. It sounds more like bargaining with God rather than genuine prayer, but vows were a major aspect of ancient religion. Many of the shrines of the ancient Near East have inscriptions that indicate that people had fulfilled the vows they had made to various gods. Some of the Psalms were written in response to vows fulfilled. For most of Christian history, the important thing about a vow is that you do what you promised.


Hannah made a very hard vow to the Lord of Hosts. What she most wanted was a male child, presumably to please her husband, but then she vowed to give the boy to God. Her son would not be raised like a normal child. Without even discussing this with Elkahan, Hannah vowed to God that her first son would be dedicated as a nazirite, like Samson had been.

He would not drink alcohol nor would he cut his hair. Over the centuries there have been many parents who have prayed and dedicated their children to God, and some have even vowed that their boy would never drink alcohol, but I’ve haven’t know of any mothers who vowed never to cut their boy’s hair. Maybe some Hippie mother did in the 60s. 

The significance of Hannah’s vow is that the son God gives her will not be her husband’s child. Her son would belong to God from birth. There are two quite different ways to read Hannah’s vow. On the one hand, this is a very selfish action by a jealous and depressed woman. She wants to have a son simply to shut Penninah up and show her that she is a woman, too. I imagine that Elkanah was more than a little confused at Hannah’s vow.

Or we could read this as a selfless act by Hannah. Her dearest longing is to have a baby of her own, especially to have a son who will provide for her in her old age, but she vows that the boy will not belong to her. She prays that God will give her what she most wants in life and then vows that she will give that same thing back to God.

She, more than most parents today, recognizes that all children are a gift from God and belong to God. She is the opposite of the helicopter mom who is going to micromanage her children’s life and career and live vicariously through them.


There is an important message in this for all people of faith. Sometimes our prayers are answered only when we recognize that gifts are given, not demanded, and gifts granted should be shared with others. As Hannah poured out her longings to God, she recognized that she had to give up in order to receive.

Which interpretation of Hannah is correct? Was she selfless or selfish? Perhaps both. Hannah, like all of us, was filled with contradictions, but unlike most of us, she followed through on her vow.

Eli        Hannah was so distressed by her situation that she could not even say her prayer out loud. Her lips were moving but she was not making articulate speech. We have been taught to pray silently at home or in church, but in the ancient world words did not exist unless they were said out loud. Prayers were given while standing up with your face looking up to God in heaven and words were spoken loud enough for God to hear.

So, when the priest at Shiloh saw Hannah mumbling and weeping at the shrine, he did not know what she was doing. She looked drunk or crazy. The priest was named Eli, and he intervened the way any pastor would in that situation: he told her that he didn’t like drunks hanging around after the festival.

Over the years, Eli had seen a lot of people who had confused excessive wine with religious experience, and he was in no mood to deal with another one. He reprimanded Hannah. If they had had Bible tracts in those days, he probably would have given her one on the dangers of drinking, but Hannah was not drunk. She was not put off by the priest and she told him the distress in her soul.


Eli blessed her and reassured her that God would answer her prayers. It is not clear if he was just trying to get rid of her with pious words or if this was a genuine answer to her prayers, but the effect on her was immediate. Once Hannah believed that she could get pregnant, her depression lifted. She and drank with her husband and was sad no longer. If only ever pastoral intervention worked so well.

There is a curious thing in this story. Hannah did not tell the priest her vow. There was no one to hold her accountable for a promise made in desperation, but Hannah knew that the LORD does hear the secret prayers of our hearts, and she was not going to cheat the LORD or try to get out of her promises the way too many of us do today.

Birth                In some ways Hannah’s story is not that unusual. I’ve known of many couples who tried desperately to have children and failed, but shortly after adopting a baby the wife conceives. For some reason, once they stopped trying to have children, they were able to have children. This doesn’t work for everyone, obviously, but it does happen, and we should not be too surprised that once Hannah was assured that she could have children, she was able to relax and conceive.

For the author of Samuel, it is God who opened Hannah’s womb. God had closed her womb and God opened it. In the Bible, God is the author of life and death, but the story makes it clear that Elkanah played a role, too. There is no question of virgin births in the Old Testament. Elkanah knew his wife, which is one of the great euphemisms, and she conceived.


She named the boy Samuel, which means “name of God.” Samuel will belong to God not to Elkanah or even Hannah. There is an odd thing to note about the naming in verse 20, though. The explanation given for Samuel’s name is that Hannah “asked of God,” which in Hebrew is Sa’al. As we shall see, that is the name of the first king of Israel, Saul. In other words, the explanation of the name here in verse 20 seems to fits King Saul better than Samuel.

Could this be a corruption in the text where the naming of Saul was dislocated and placed in a story about Samuel? Or is there something more significant here? Could it be that the author is telling us that the lives of Samuel and Saul will be intertwined, but it is the prophet not the king who is the rightful representative of God on earth?

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