Where do mothers find the strength to let their children go? One of the more dynamic women in scripture shows up this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary: Hannah. Known for her great bargain with God, her story is full of emotion, pathos, and yearning. She also leaves us with a range of questions similar to ones faced by women in the 21st century.
Where is God when one is infertile? What happens when one is bullied by a rival? And where DO we find the strength to let our children go?
When her story opens in 1 Samuel, Hannah is heartsick, unable to eat, for her greatest desire—bearing a son—continues to elude her. Child after child is born to her husband’s first wife, Peninnah, who brazenly taunts Hannah. “Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb.” (1 Samuel 1:6)
Yet Hannah perseveres. Pouring out her heart at the temple in Shiloh — so much so that Eli, the priest, thinks she is drunk — she bargains with God: give her a son and she will turn him back over to the Lord’s service when he has finished nursing. Hannah conceives, bears little Samuel, and as promised, brings him back to live and serve permanently in the temple when he is weaned.
Although it must have been extraordinarily difficult, Hannah keeps her promise, trusting that God had better things in mind for him that she could even ask or imagine. And her trust is born out, for Samuel grows to be the last judge of Israel at a time when the nation is particularly violent and morally corrupt. The keeper of the faith, Samuel will be instrumental forging the nation’s future with his selection and anointing of Solomon and David as early kings of Israel.
Hannah’s words are the clearest example of a kind of prayer that many dismiss: bargaining with God. “Give me a son and I will set him free to serve you.”
Note that she goes right to the top. She does not need a mediator, although Eli steps in as one—after he chastises her—and joins her in prayer.
Prayerful souls might think it is wrong or ineffective to bargain with God—yet here we see a stunning example of a Bible woman doing just that, successfully. She asked for what she wanted most—a son. To our knowledge, she did not say, “If it be your will,” or “Whatever you want is fine with me, God.” She drew from her own power, as she envisioned it: the potential to bear a child. And she promised to give back to God her most precious treasure.
Such a move symbolizes Hannah’s love: life-giving and freeing. As such, she is a rich resource from which to draw when learning how to let go as a parent. Think of mothers who release their children for adoption, knowing it is the best move for the child. Consider parents who die while their children are still young, or the grief of parents whose children die before them. Letting go is never easy; those we love always go before we are ready, but Hannah provides a graceful example of letting her son step confidently into his future, even at an exceedingly young age. She trusted God.
But this is also the hard part of the story. For what can we say to those unable to conceive? Hannah was successful in gaining her heart’s desire: a child. What happens when that is not the case? What happens when infertility or age set in, crushing hopes for a child? What happens if despite one’s best efforts and prayers, pregnancy does not occur?
Looking to some of the other women in Scripture, particularly those whose level of giving far exceeded their obvious resources, provides a clue.
The widow who gave her last two coins in the midst of what must have been an extremely difficult life circumstance, affirmed what she believed in with her final choice. The widow of Zarephath, on the brink of death and trying to feed a dying son, still found enough bread to feed a hungry prophet Elijah as well. Naomi, arriving in Bethlehem, tired and ready to die, put what little energy she had into caring for Ruth. And Mary of Bethany, knowing Jesus was about to be murdered, found enough inner strength and finances to pour extravagantly expensive oil over his feet.
From deep levels of what should have been emotional poverty and fear, these women found the resources to keep going, to keep their faith, to keep giving despite circumstances full of sorrow. Somehow the answer to living in grief has to do with giving and caring for others, regardless of genetic relationship. The opportunity to do that is always present.
Hannah’s story pulls and pushes at us to indeed ask and seek boldly for the core relationships of our lives, whether that be in our own biological children, or in the children of life that God presents us with. Initially, Hannah’s grief overwhelms her, and it is out of that context—being totally herself with God—that she finds her future.
May we have that same unshakeable sense of self as we approach God. May we be also richly blessed—and able to both recognize and embrace our blessings when they cross our paths.
What might we learn from Hannah?
Do not be afraid to pray passionately.
Bargaining with God is a valid option.
Sometimes children leave home when they are grown; sometimes they must leave sooner.
Sometimes the answer will not be that for which we have asked, but either way, let us look for joy.
What caused Hannah so much grief? What was her response? What might we learn from her about hope and desire?
How did Hannah stay in touch with Samuel? How might her actions help those who are unable to stay in touch with their children?
Compare the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-11 with the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-56. Name the similarities and the differences.
How might we be rejecting or ignoring certain blessings in our lives?