Let’s continue with our study of 1st Samuel. Hannah was barren, a degrading and humiliating condition for a woman of the ancient Middle East.
Her husband Elkanah, a prosperous man, had taken two wives and the other, P’ninah, had provided Elkanah with the always needed and prized male heir (as well as other children to grow his family). As one might expect the two sara (Hebrew for “co-wives”) were rivals for Elkanah’s love and attention.
Somewhat surprisingly we find that it was the childless co-wife Hannah whom Elkanah loved more than the other, which goes a long way towards explaining why the fertile supplier of Elkanah’s offspring had an especially bitter attitude and quarrelsome relationship with Hannah.
P’ninah never missed an opportunity to rub it in that Hannah was primarily a freeloader who had not done her wifely duty of bearing children.
For Hebrews, the inability of a woman to conceive a child carried serious religious overtones with it. In other ancient societies, fertility was just as important as it was for the Israelites. However, the issue was societal, not spiritual.
Certainly having many children was as important to the pagan husband and his wife, so they would go to Ba’al and Ashtoreth (or their counterparts in whatever god system was in use by their particular culture), as they were the recognized god and goddess of fertility.
The married couple would pray and ask this god tandem for children, and if that didn’t happen, then they would sacrifice and pray to these gods to remedy the situation.
But unlike the pagan world that simply beseeched the gods for their help to have a large family (which was but a personal desire). To the Hebrew mind, it was a matter of obedience to Yehoveh and thus a religious duty that a woman brings new life into the world, as this was commanded by the God of Israel in Genesis.
CJB Genesis 1:26-28 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, in the likeness of ourselves; and let them rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the animals, and over all the earth, and over every crawling creature that crawls on the earth.” So God created humankind in his own image; in the image of God, he created him: male and female he created them. God blessed them: God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air and every living creature that crawls on the earth.”
Thus for a Hebrew wife or concubine to be barren, it was mostly viewed as disobedience to God, and the consequence was very public. Yes, it may have been suspected that the woman’s body was malfunctioning and thus it was out of her control; however that didn’t make it any less her fault.
Such a malfunction was seen as a curse from the Lord resulting from some commission of sin on the part of the childless female. It was a Catch 22 situation; the assumption was that because the woman was disobedient in some area of her life, God reacted by closing up her womb and the automatic result of that was yet another disobedience by her not bringing new life into the world.
Every year when Elkanah, P’ninah, and Hannah went up to Shiloh to the family festival it in some way amplified Hannah’s barren condition, and she became depressed. I imagine Hannah looked forward to this annual pilgrimage to the Tabernacle with dread.
So one year Hannah decided to take drastic action and to present herself before the Lord and ask Him to relieve her from her terrible burden. Let’s pick up the story at verse 9.
READ 1ST SAMUEL 1:9–19
So emotionally debilitated was Hannah that she could not bring herself to eat. But she appropriately waited for the rest of Elkanah’s family to finish their banquet that featured the meat of the sacrificial animal, and then she strolled over to the entrance to the Tabernacle and knelt down to confront the Lord in prayer in an area called the mezuzah hekal.
The Hebrew word mezuzah; by tradition, it is a small rectangular box that is attached to the doorpost of a Hebrew home. In early times when a dwelling usually only had one door of any kind (the outer, entrance door), this box was filled with a small handwritten scroll containing Scripture taken from Deuteronomy chapters 6 and 11.
In later times when homes began to have interior doors that separated rooms, it became a tradition to attach a mezuzah to every doorway in the house. This meaning of mezuzah is not what is implied here; as such a religious device was not yet invented.
At the time of Samuel and his mother Hannah, a mezuzah only referred to the entryway to a dwelling or structure. That entryway could have been as simple as a doorway, or it could have been a kind of foyer or porch.
What is equally interesting is that the place Hannah confronted God was called the mezuzah hekal, with the key word being hekal. And this is because hekal was the common word for temple.
In other words, if we took this at face value it says that there was a temple to God at Shiloh, meaning that what Solomon built a hundred years or so later was NOT the first temple.
Even in Hebrew tradition a temple and the Wilderness Tabernacle were two entirely different things; a temple is a permanent structure made of wood and stone, while a tabernacle is a portable tent.
So was there a permanent structure already built at Shiloh a century before David asked permission to build one for the Lord in Jerusalem? There’s much scholarly debate about this, but it seems to me that the answer is not so complicated, especially once one has visited Shiloh and looked closely at the clear area where the Sanctuary once dwelt.
Here in 1st Samuel is the first use in Holy Scripture of the word hekal in referring to God’s earthly dwelling place. The Hebrew language didn’t spring up out of thin air; it developed primarily from two cousin languages Ugarit and Akkadian.
Remembering what we learned a couple of lessons ago that writing using alphabet characters was developed as a means to memorialize how a word sounded when spoken.
It’s not difficult for any of us to imagine that as the world’s population that sprang from Noah spread out. And when the single common language became confused at the Tower of Babel, that people who lived in what were now hundreds of relatively isolated pockets developed minor language variations (called dialects) in their speaking and in the way they pronounced words.
We have several English dialects in existence in the modern USA; all one has to do is travel from the Deep South to New York to hear what seems to be the same language spoken quite differently.
Thus in Ugarit (that came before Hebrew), an official word in their language was “egal,” which meant “large house,” and was therefore at times used to mean a temple.
A “g” was pronounced with a very guttural sound, so it’s easy to see the transition from the Ugarit egal to the Hebrew hekal particularly when we understand that in biblical Hebrew the “h” sound is barely audible, almost silent.
Thus in this very early use of the Hebrew word hekal in the book of 1st Samuel, it is that hekal carried a meaning of “large house” or “large structure” as opposed to what it eventually came to mean in Hebrew society: Temple.
So what we have is Hannah praying at a kind of porch or foyer that had been constructed at the entrance to the Tabernacle. In fact, when one goes to Shiloh today you can find old postholes bored into rock that only makes sense if they were used to hold large posts meant to be permanent.
Very probably there was some amount of more permanent stone and wood structure added to the Tent as the Tent wore out, and as anterooms to be used for various purposes such as a place for worshippers and Levites to eat sacred meals.
As the High Priest Eli looked on seated in his chair of honor, he saw Hannah’s lips moving and facial expressions changing, and her tears flowing, but no sound was coming from her mouth.
Her prayer (that included the vow that she would return her hoped-for son to God as a lifelong Nazarite if he would allow her to conceive) was made silently.
For reasons we’re not told Eli assumed she was drunk! I wonder why he thought that? I believe that it’s very likely it’s because he had to regularly deal with worshippers who drank lots of ritual wine before they came before the Sanctuary Tent to commune with God.
Now, this was a very dark age of confusion and apostasy for Israel, and I imagine we know little of all the depravities and nonsense that substituted for a genuine spirit filled Yehoveh worship.
But Hannah shot back to Eli that she wasn’t drunk; rather she was merely a woman with a troubled soul, and she was pouring out the longings of her heart to the Father.
She says, “I have not drunk wine or other strong liquor.” Let’s pause here and examine this statement for a moment. In Hebrew, Hannah says that she has drunk neither yayin nor shekar.
Yayin is the common word used throughout the Old Testament for wine, and shekar gets translated variously as strong drink, or liquor, or intoxicating beverage.
Here’s the point: while it’s not ever Tom Bradford’s purpose to demean any Christian denominational doctrine, at the same time he doesn’t feel right about letting what amounts to nonsense stand as truth.
Several familiar evangelical denominations say that in the bible wine doesn’t contain alcohol. And that the wine used for the ritual by the priests, and drunk by Jesus and His disciples at Passover, and the wine that was mystically converted from plain water by Yeshua at the request of his mother at the wedding ceremony at Kana were all grape juice.
And thus the Bible speaks against drinking alcoholic beverages under any circumstance and makes it a sin. Now, this is simply not so; wine at all times meant a rather modest to low alcohol content drink made from grapes.
One absolutely could get drunk from drinking wine, and it is the getting drunk that is the issue, not the modest and appropriate drinking of the wine.
But also notice here how Eli and Hannah both refer to wine as an intoxicating drink that was the cause of Hannah’s seemingly unusual actions (even though that wasn’t so). So let’s get by this silliness that wine wasn’t REAL wine when spoken of in the Bible.
In verses 12 and 13 we’re introduced to a new expression: “praying before the Lord” (actually it is, “praying before YHWH”); this is followed by “Hannah was speaking in her heart.”
And this is referring to a person praying in a manner of total absorption into God’s presence. It is worship of spirit-to-spirit. Hannah was utterly oblivious to what was going on around her or that Eli was looking on suspiciously and critically, so deeply connected was she to her Creator.
“Praying before the Lord” is very different than, “praying to the Lord.” “Praying to” indicates a direction. God is above and distant. The former indicates intimacy and unity; the latter indicates separateness.
Therefore in verse 16, Hannah asks the High Priest to believe her that not only is she not drunk, but she has also been communing with the Lord in proper worship.
So she respectfully asks Eli not to see her as a “worthless woman.” In Hebrew, she asks Eli not to see her as a bath-Belial, a daughter of Belial.
And this is another of those old Hebrew expressions that we know is a very negative one, but what exactly it meant to convey isn’t so clear. Thus we’ll get various translations such as the daughter of worthlessness, worthless woman, or base woman.
The idea is to describe the character of a person (in this case a woman) as immoral, destructive, harmful, or evil. It’s the sort of character that would be destined to have his or her existence cease upon their death, or be permanently separated from God.
Eli responds by recognizing that he has misjudged her and so not only validates but also offers his blessing upon her requests of the Lord. The term “go in peace” is just a rather regular Middle Eastern expression of farewell.
Notice in verse 18 that the act of pouring out herself to the Lord in complete honesty brought peace and comfort to her. It’s not that she became sure that now she would conceive, it’s that the intimacy with God, done humbly and sincerely, gave her that “peace that passes understanding” that so many of God’s people receive from time to time when we are in dire straits.
It’s not that our circumstances necessarily change, it’s that somehow God gives us an unspoken assurance that He hears, is with us, loves us, and that whatever happens, it will be OK. Hannah’s state of mind was so elevated that her appetite returned.
The next morning Elkanah’s family packed up and returned to their home in Ramah. Back in Ramah Hannah became pregnant; it is said that the Lord “remembered” Hannah. “Remembering” does not have anything to do with memory; rather it is that the one who remembers (Yehoveh in this case) brought about what He determined he would engage in connection with this person, in His time and in His way.
Biblically God remembering is always in a positive sense; that is when the Lord remembers someone it is to bring about blessing, not calamity.
In my next blog post, we will continue with 1 Samuel 1:19-28 on the birth of Samuel and his dedication.