This new book begins by introducing us to Elkanah, a man from the tribe of Ephraim. We’re given a little of his genealogy, and learn about his family. “And he had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah and the name of the second was Penina; and Penina had children, but Hannah had no children (Samuel I 1:2).” This is a regular theme in Tanakh that is coming up again, that of one wife who is blessed with children and the other who is barren. As we’ve seen in previous examples (Abraham/Sarah/Hagar, Jacob/Rachel/Leah), when the barren wife is eventually blessed, the child is usually pretty extraordinary. But in this case, we’re not there yet. Elkanah loves Hannah more than Penina, in spite of her being barren, so every year, when he goes to make sacrifices to God in Shiloh, he brings back a portion for Penina and her children, and a choice portion for Hannah. “And her rival would frequently anger her, in order to make her complain, for the Lord had shut up her womb (Samuel I 1:6).” Rivalry between wives is also a theme, and it seems like the husbands augment this by showing blatant favoritism.
Hannah is depressed. “And Elkanah her husband said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons (Samuel I 1:8)?'” This is such a sad and touching moment. There’s clearly love between this couple, and Elkanah wants his wife to be happy, yet she can’t be without a child. I feel for both of them, and am eager for their sadness to be resolved. Hannah does the only thing she can: she begins to pray to God. She prays deeply and fervently, begging God to bless her. Eli, the high priest, sees her, and she’s so caught up in her prayer that she is mouthing the words and doesn’t notice him. “And Eli said to her: Until when will you be drunk? Throw off your wine from upon yourself (Samuel I 1:14).” Of course, he’s misjudged her, because Hannah isn’t drunk. She’s heartbroken and passionate in her genuine, authentic prayer.
I’m guessing Eli is embarrassed by his mistake, and he promises her that God will listen to her prayer. His promise comes true, as God remembers Hannah, and she has a son, Samuel. However, in her prayers, Hannah had promised God that if He gave her a son, she would dedicate her son to Him, giving the baby to Eli the priest. Hannah decides to keep Samuel with her until he is weaned, and then to turn him over to the priests. I can’t imagine how hard that would be for a mother. She wanted this baby so desperately, and now that she finally has him, she has to give him up. She only gets a little time with him, and then she’s destined to be separated from her baby. But Hannah is a devout woman, and she is committed to her vow. She brings Samuel to Eli, and offers him to the priests and to God.